Wednesday, July 17, 2013

TJN on the rule of law and the forthcoming OECD report on base-erosion

The OECD is expected to release its plan to implement its anti-base-erosion project this Friday, and the Tax Justice Network has issued a pre-emptive strike as it were, predicting that the OECD will do very little by way of fundamental reform. Instead, TJN predicts a patchwork of half-hearted measures that will be delivered through the toothless mechanism of non-binding recommendations, instead of a full-throated commitment to real change, which the TJN says would require endorsement of combined reporting & formulary apportionment for multinational companies. I am still not convinced combined reporting is a panacea, but I understand TJN's perspective that arms' length reporting probably isn't capable of delivering the result they seek with respect to taxing the profits of multinationals on a global basis. You can read TJN's whole report here.

But I wanted to note something that particularly struck me in this report, an issue that I worked through at length not too long ago and that has been bothering me for quite a while, and that is the recognition that for the international tax law system to work, we desperately need more transparency regarding what lawmakers actually do when it comes to international tax compliance. Here is what I said on the subject in an article called How Nations Share:
In the case of international income, it is [tax] disputes and their resolutions, and not the law on the books, that constitute the international tax regime. Yet it is all but impossible for citizens to observe exactly how, or how well, their governments navigate this aspect of economic globalization. [Tax treaties] provide only a design for allocating international income among nation states. It is the application of these agreements that determines how revenues are allocated in practice. This application has taken place over the years through hundreds of thousands of interpretive decisions, the vast majority of which are not accessible to the public. Instead, international tax disputes are mostly delegated to institutions that resolve issues in informal, “non-law” ways with minimal public access to the decision-making process and its outcomes. As a result, international tax law in practice features little or no “law.”
In the article, I explained that when actual decisions about the taxation of multinationals are made through processes that lack judicial oversight and feature no public access whatsoever, this creates a huge knowledge gap between the law as written (in legislation and in treaties among other documents) and the law in action (after the competent authorities make their decisions).

The OECD has exploited this gap to its own institutional advantage, by making itself a norm aggregator and filtering mechanism. It thus deliberately creates a non-legal alternative to direct access to legal decision-making. This is a major, even if not well-understood, impediment to the development of law in taxation that has serious consequences precisely because it shields from public scrutiny just how much base erosion is actually going on. We (the public) simply cannot know how big the base erosion problem really is because we cannot access the competent authority decisions that in fact allocate income internationally. The OECD presumably knows the answer but suits its own political and institutional purposes by publishing a highly-processed version of events in the form of reports, guidance, etc.

Because I view this as a major problem for the rule of law which is made ever more serious by being ignored as an issue altogether, I was very gratified to see TJN pick up on the theme and call for publication of competent authority decision-making:
Currently, the MAP [competent authority dispute resolution process] is very secretive, and decisions often involving hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars are not published. The secrecy of both MAP processes and APAs greatly increases the power of frequent actors in these processes, i.e. the international tax and accounting firms – to the great detriment of the system as a whole. Publication of both would be a great step towards a system which could both provide and more importantly be seen to deliver a fair international allocation of tax.
TJN's worries about the repeat-player advantage gained by tax and accounting professionals are well-founded, but I think what is most clearly articulated here is that this is fundamentally a rule of law matter. Moreover, TJN puts this issue third in line in terms of reform priorities but I actually think it is much closer to being at the top of the heap in terms of structures that cause intractable problems for international taxation. I will be very interested to see how the continued pressure TJN has been able to place on OECD decision-making to date plays out on this particular issue.

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