Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sheppard: OECD report on base erosion demonstrates OECD is not serious about base erosion

Lee Sheppard has a column today on the OECD's new-found vision for reversing course on the international regime of tax base erosion it created [gated]. She's not buying it. Highlights:
...the OECD Centre for Tax Policy and Administration has been adept at sweeping huge problems under the rug. It was long in the habit of denying the multinational tax avoidance problems that OECD guidance and the international consensus enabled. 
But the problems are now blindingly obvious, as leading investigative journalists have attached corporate names and faces to tax avoidance. The person on the street now knows that some household-name companies pay no corporate income tax anywhere in the solar system. And a new group of managers has come to the OECD, ready to at least admit to the problems. So with its newly issued report, "Addressing Base Erosion and Profit Shifting," the OECD promises to do something about the income shifting problem and meet its critics. 
The report contains some astonishing admissions against interest about the causes of the zero-tax results under the current international system. Putting the best face on it, the report is a baby step toward practical proposals -- which are supposed to be ready for the G-20 meeting in a mere four months! 
The report provides little in the way of proposals, and it leaves the reader worrying that the OECD will jump in front of the parade and carry on with its useless projects
Pressure Points 
The report identifies six pressure points in the international system, without ascribing blame. Here is the list, annotated with blame: 
  • hybrid structures and instruments (U.S. check-the-box rules and European formalistic characterization rules); 
  • treaty treatment of remote commerce (OECD model treaty); 
  • tax treatment of related-party financial transactions (OECD model treaty); 
  • transfer pricing, especially separation of income from relevant activity (OECD transfer pricing guidelines); 
  • antiavoidance measures (American, British, and commonwealth courts); and 
  • harmful preferential regimes (Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties). 
Despite these admissions, the report is strangely solicitous of tender corporate feelings. The drafters appear to have inherited the OECD's long-standing fear of incurring the displeasure of the United States and its mighty multinationals. 
...The report makes the seemingly harmless statement that member countries have a common interest in stopping base erosion and establishing a level playing field. As the drafters understand, it is not at all clear that every OECD member is on board. The British are systematically dismantling their corporate tax base, and the Americans are being urged to follow. Those are the home countries of the most tax-aggressive multinationals. 
And ever mindful that its real constituency is multinational business, the OECD proposes to come up with its coordinated action plan in consultation with all the stakeholders! It was considerate of the OECD to include "civil society" among those to be consulted. The old order ignored nonbusiness groups. 
One could well ask why multinationals should be invited to this particular discussion -- not that they don't appear to have veto power over every OECD project. They have cast their votes already. They don't feel like paying corporate income taxes, thank you very much. What are they expected to do, apologize for stripping income out of every market country? 
... Maybe it's easier to blame globalization than to blame a highly discriminatory system that is a vestige of World War I. The international consensus was designed by the Europeans and Americans to minimize taxation of multinationals. 
...The report does not admit that a large part of the problem is the international consensus itself. Like a manager firing workers, the OECD blames globalization. 
...The report's suggested fixes are already being pursued by member governments: more government-to-government cooperation, more transparency, simplified transfer pricing guidelines, better documentation, antiabuse rules, and controlled foreign corporation rules. The report recognizes that some of these fixes are difficult to administer, leading only to counterproductive litigation against well-represented multinationals. 
A constructive suggestion is that intragroup financial transactions be subject to restrictions. This is a startling admission from the organization whose transfer pricing guidance has required recognition of nonsensical legal arrangements and self-serving intragroup contracts in all but the most drastic cases. 
...The report suggests that something be done about harmful preferential tax regimes. But the previous mangled effort was squelched by the United States two decades ago, and hypocritical to boot. European enablers were not included in the list of harmful regimes. The OECD gives itself credit for the Global Forum on Transparency, an effort to accommodate tax havens while signing a lot of unenforceable tax information sharing agreements. 
...The degree to which the OECD still acts like this is a real risk is shown by the report's suggestion that it should be easier for multinationals to get their money back in mutual agreement procedures. The real risk of collective action is, as always, veto by the United States, whose multinationals pioneered the techniques complained about in the report. 
...Having blessed restructuring to stripped-risk distributors and contract manufacturers as business motivated, the OECD now admits that it is a component of the base erosion problem. The restructuring nonsense recently added to chapter 9 of the transfer pricing guidelines hardly merits a mention in the base erosion report, which seriously undercuts that guidance
...If the OECD were serious, it would advise member governments to disallow deduction of payments by and to entities treated as tax nothings by the other government. Some governments treat hybrids the same way their home governments treat them. Either straightforward fix would claw back the benefits of the U.S. check-the-box rule. Essentially a check-the-box switchover clause, either approach would ensure that the income represented by the payment was taxed somewhere. 
...Several times, the report describes tax planning as reducing profits attributed to substantive operations while increasing the profits associated with legal constructs like intangibles holding companies. This is a huge admission for an organization whose own transfer pricing guidelines call for intragroup contracts to be respected except in drastic circumstances. 
...The report does not explain why affiliates with no assets and no activities should be respected in the first place -- only that the transfer pricing rules entitle them to very little income! Google had an APA approving its transfer of intangibles outside the United States. Google's Irish affiliate has 2,000 employees. The point of the arrangement was to keep intangibles income out of the United States and to siphon it out of Europe. 
What would the OECD do if it were serious about intangibles migration? It would be compelled to think about factor allocation of intangibles income to countries where they are exploited. ...
Oh so much more at the link. This is a lengthy and detailed criticism. I am with Lee that the OECD is not likely a true apostate when it comes to base erosion. I would like to be wrong but the institutional structure of tax policy norm-making being what it is, there is no reason for optimism. The OECD used to like referring to itself as the "market leader in international tax policy," as if tax policy was a commodity they were particularly adept at creating and selling. Recent developments show tax policy is a commodity all right, but the OECD understates its own market share: it holds 100%. It is a monopoly that created the regime it now professes to view as having failed to keep up with the times.

You can't call it base erosion when you've been operating the backhoe and preventing anyone from building a retaining wall for 50 years.

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