Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Lobbyists are Winning: Corporate Tax Transparency edition

The activist-led movement to increase multinational tax disclosure is proving to be a full-employment program for natural resource industry lobbyists.  The money and energy available for fighting against transparency seems limitless.  We have seen the effects of this in the US, where Dodd-Frank's section on extractive industry transparency has been completely undermined and consistently sidelined as a result of lobbyists.  We have seen the effects in Canada, where the industry managed to kill transparency legislation all together by means of a tidal wave of lobbying by the energy industry there.  Today the FT tells a similar tale unfolding in the EU.

There is a perhaps not obvious but very pernicious undercurrent in this transparency contest.  It is that in each country, lobbyists are using the success of the lobbyists in the other countries to bolster the cause for their own success.  No matter we may like to think about the nature of tax policy as somehow a sacred and protected space for purely national politics, that hallowed chamber of sovereign entitlement, it's clear that lobbying is fully globalized and therefore tax policy is, too.

Today's FT story provides a case in point.  First, the FT notes that the EU's work on transparency was prompted by the inclusion of new corporate tax information disclosure standards for resource extractors (think oil, gas, etc):

The European Commission last year proposed a scheme that allowed for payments for specific projects to be tracked, with reporting requirements that broadly matched the US approach enacted in the Dodd-Frank Act.
Just by putting the possibility of corporate tax transparency into legislation, even though it could not and still cannot be implemented without further action through federal regulations, Dodd-Frank put extractive industries transparency on the map of legislative possibilities, and therefore cleared some space for the policy to spread to other nations (I analyze this more thoroughly in my forthcoming book chapter on global tax activism).

The FT reports that industry in the EU responded by protesting the new rules as unnecessary, onerous, etc.--in other words, a set of self-serving arguments with which those of us who have been following this issue in the US and Canada have become all too familiar and most of which do not hold up under scrutiny.  But lobbying works very well, and so the EU is considering a much less transformative version of the proposal, one that would not require very much disclosure if any at all.

The FT closes the circle by concluding that:

If the compromise passes in Brussels, it will bolster industry arguments that the US rules being drawn up to implement Dodd-Frank should be watered down to match the EU approach and ensure a level playing field.
The idea that tax policy is in any sense a purely national project could not be more clearly debunked.  The EU's imminent adoption of a more lax standard arms lobbyists in the US with a fresh round of anti-transparency ammunition.  Their ability to use this to further the anti-transparency cause in the US will in turn re-invigorate lobbying in Europe and elsewhere.  This will continue until transparency is uniformly killed, unless the pro-transparency lobby gains a similarly viral foothold from which to reinvigorate the campaign for transparency.  It is an international game with fascinating network aspects and effects.  Too bad then that in the meantime, a policy that really ought to be implemented, not least because it is in fact written into the rule of law here in the US at least, will be stalled indefinitely.

On a related note, it is worth recognizing that a new euphemism is emerging in international tax policy that is steadily gaining ground through casual and unexamined use.  That is the idea that this or that tax policy is necessary to "ensure a level playing field." Both sides of the transparency issue have used the term to support completely opposing goals in the past, so it would seem that the term means very little.  That means a translation is in order when people use the term to score political points.

Let us be clear then that when used by opponents of transparency, "ensuring a level playing field" is what people say when they mean that the lobbyists are winning.  That is because a level playing field would quite obviously exist when the market has full information--that is, when all multinational companies engage in full disclosure of their tax payments in all countries, and all stakeholders--shareholders, taxpayers, governments, and watchdog groups--have the same information about how generous tax policies support industry all over the world (this is how the pro-transparency crown use the term).  When what is sought is a market with little or preferably no publicity of this kind of information, "the level playing field" means something very close to the current status quo--the product of all that successful lobbying to date.

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