Sunday, March 3, 2013

Who is to blame for Starbucks-style tax dodging?

The answer is "government" if you believe the Telegraph, from an opinion by "Richard Emerton, Head of Board Practice at Korn/Ferry Whitehead Mann" (an executive recruiting firm). He's enthusiastic about tax competition: the kind that will keep European companies "competitive" on a "level playing field" by lowering their taxes on purpose, and he's keen to blame government alone for any failure of tax policy to date, e.g. the kind of failure that led to the public shaming of Starbucks and friends.

I agree with Emerton when he says stop blaming the companies (alone) for failing to pay taxes when this is the system that has been deliberately set up to meet them. But let us not forget that the rules have long been written collaboratively amongst government and business interests with virtually no civil society oversight. Once again, multinationals have the best tax system money can buy. Emerton does forget to mention that part, and goes too far in shifting the blame to government alone. Excerpts:
...The UK Government has done a good job in creating a tax system that encourages businesses to set up in Britain and the Chancellor has made it clear he wants international businesses to operate here. It is therefore important he does all he can to prevent European politics from perverting his well-intentioned efforts to look at the problem from an international perspective.  
What strikes me as counter-productive about the debates that have taken place over the likes of Starbucks and Google is the anti-business rhetoric from many politicians in the search for public approval. A degree of anger from the public may be understandable, but is it directed at the right targets? Korn/Ferry’s latest “Boardroom Pulse” survey of FTSE 100 chairmen suggests that business leaders think not.
Not sure what that survey asked, but let's assume it was something on the order of, "do you enjoy being publicly pilloried for doing your best to exploit every means of tax reduction your government generously makes available to you?" And the follow up question ought to have been (but probably was not) "Do you enjoy public scrutiny of your constant attempts to influence tax policy at every level of governance in order to achieve that generosity of spirit on the part of lawmakers?" To which the answer would no doubt have likewise been a resounding "business leaders think not." Emerton goes on:
While agreeing that the public has a right to be angry, many respondents felt that dissatisfaction should be directed towards the tax legislation and those in charge of it, rather than the companies observing it. Indeed, it is governments that have failed to modernise international tax legislation in decades, despite the wholesale changes that have taken place in the way businesses operate across borders. 
Oh, but Mr. Emerton, you failed to define a key term here: "those in charge of it." I mean, it's not like the companies that help write the law are shy about it. That is, after all, what organizations like the BIAC and the ICC are for, and if you don't know what the BIAC or ICC are, well, you're not trying hard enough to understand international tax. Look also for example at any number of marketing brochures by the likes of the big four. They are not hiding their influence, they are selling it as a product. Here's one by KPMG that I just happened to come across yesterday:

Our professionals have been directly involved in writing and reviewing the applicable Treasury regulations ... which govern tax-free separations."
You will come across this kind of claim all the time if you do any work at all in tax, so it is disingenuous at best to fail to mention industry influence as a major aspect of tax lawmaking at the national and international levels. But Mr. Emerton moves along quickly to make hay of the old adage that every one has a right to minimize their taxes and for company directors this has become a duty:

The chairmen we surveyed pointed out that company directors have a fiduciary duty to minimise tax bills, providing they are acting in an ethical manner and are not inviting legal risks.
That's a pretty vague provided, and a big weight to carry for fiduciary law. Emerton hammers it home:
Which raises a fundamental question stemming from the tax issue – should the primary duty of a company’s board and senior management be to its shareholders, or to the wider moral and social concerns of the public?
Notice this is assumed to be an either/or and not a both, and it's also committing the false dilemma fallacy. But having committed, we must have follow-through:
The chairmen we talked to were divided. Yes, business leaders have a duty to drive value for their shareholders. And yes, businesses also have a duty to act responsibly as members of wider society. It is the responsibility of the leaders of these businesses to strike a balance and most of them make significant efforts to do so. Inevitably, sometimes they get this balance wrong, but attacking them for trying to drive shareholder value while playing by the rules of the game will solve little. A better focus of our energies is to ensure that international tax laws are strengthened by the regulatory framework governing businesses, allowing them to focus on achieving long-term sustainable value for shareholders and for society. However, policymakers must ensure that this isn’t achieved at the expense of a level playing field for businesses across the world, not just one part of it.
The author channels every "we paid all the tax that is legally due" defense ever given in the face of public pressure against tax dodging. He also invokes the "level playing field" metaphor, which is always invoked for every destructive tax policy that was ever invented in response to every other destructive tax policy that was ever invented. So three cheers for tax industry rhetoric, bandied about in any tax policy dialogue to make sure no one thinks too hard about the systemic choices at issue here.

Score ten points to Mr. Emerton in pointing out that blame for tax dodging rests in a legal system that has been specifically designed to encourage it. But take away nine points for failing to mention the big part business plays in constantly perpetuating that kind of design. Then take away two more points for failing to mention that some things only look like dutiful tax minimization until the tax authority figures out what you are doing, and then they are clearly tax evasion. Cf Dow, Ernst & Young, and Jenkins & Gilchrist tax partners, and that's all in just one week.

That puts the column in the negative territory, which is right about where the author appears to think that the tax liabilities of fiduciary-duty-abiding corporate managers ought to keep their companies' tax burdens.

1 comment:

  1. I will be interested to see where just departed US Treasury International Tax Counsel Manal Corwin ends up. Will she land at the big 4, a big white shoe law firm, or somewhere else. Maybe she will replace that woman at GE who left to go work for Harry Reid.