Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Canada Revenue Agency accidentally sent a database full of confidential taxpayer info to the CBC

From the Toronto Star: CRA blames human error for disclosing confidential tax data to CBC
The Canada Revenue Agency confirmed late Tuesday that it has accidentally disclosed confidential taxpayer information to the CBC. 
The agency said the document was “accidentally released” through human error and acknowledges this “constitutes a serious breach of privacy.” 
CBC reported that the tax information contains data about hundreds of Canadians — many of them rich and famous — including their home addresses. 
...The CRA said in a release late Tuesday that when it became aware of the breach, officials immediately contacted the CBC to retrieve the documents. 
The agency said the CBC ”regrettably” chose to disclose names and a response from the network was not immediately available. 
However, in its story on the breach, CBC News made clear it was not disclosing much of the information it had. The network said it was "withholding most details from the list, apart from the names of some of the people cited, out of respect for privacy."
Oops, presumably.

Questions on the Canada-US FATCA Agreement

MP Ted Hsu has presented an order paper question (OPQ 816) on the topic of the unusual process surrounding Canada's adoption of an intergovernmental agreement on FATCA. I have noted many times the anomalies surrounding the US approach to these agreements, and in Canada's case these anomalies appear to have been compounded by odd and unexplained internal procedural decisions. I am working on a paper on this topic but it is slow going, not least because it is tremendously difficult to study Canadian treaty policy--it is vague, features unwritten rules that are apparently made to be broken, and written policies that lack any semblance of meaningful procedural limitations or parameters. If there is a rule of law here, I have yet to find it.

Mr. Hsu's inquiry follows on a statement made by Peter Van Loan, Government House Leader, in the House on Monday, April 28, 2014, that the government, "actually did" comply with its own treaty tabling policy, in response to a point of order raised by MP Marc Garneau back in April regarding the failure of the Government to table the IGA prior to ratification. Mr. Hsu seeks a number of details from the Government; I take it that answers are due on January 26, 2015. Some of the questions clearly illustrate that treaty-making in Canada is really quite a mysterious process. Here are a few of the OPQ highlights--just a small selection of the many detailed aspects of the question:

  • was an exemption to the government’s Policy granted with respect to the Agreement;
  • on what date was the Agreement ratified; 
  • what steps and measures are in place to ensure that Parliament is informed of exceptions being granted to the Policy; 
  • what does “urgent” mean in the context of the Policy; 
  • did the Minister of Foreign Affairs “inform the House of Commons that Canada has agreed to be bound by the instrument at the earliest opportunity following the ratification” per the Policy; 
  • is the Government House Leader always informed of exceptions and exemptions under the Policy and, if so, how; 
  • is the House always informed of exceptions or exemptions under the Policy and, if so, how;
  • if the Agreement could have been tabled earlier in Parliament [than it was], (i) why was it not, (ii) what decisions were made in this regard, (iii) who made these decisions, (iv) how, (v) on what basis?
All good questions and I, for one, would like to know the answers, not just for better understanding the meaning and implications of the IGA in terms of both its legal status and its substance, but also for understanding the treaty process in Canada more generally. It is a maddeningly opaque regime.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Today at McGill: Dietsch on Catching Capital

Peter Dietsch, Professor of Philosophy at the Université de Montreal, joins us today as the final speaker in the Spiegel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium at McGill. His presentation will focus on the opening chapters of his forthcoming book, entitled "Catching Capital." Here is the abstract:
 When individuals stash away their wealth in offshore bank accounts and multinational corporations shift their profits or their actual production to low-tax jurisdictions, this undermines the fiscal autonomy of political communities and contributes to rising inequalities in income and wealth. These practices are fuelled by tax competition, with countries strategically designing fiscal policy to attract capital from abroad. 
Building on a careful analysis of the ethical challenges raised by a world of tax competition, the book puts forward a normative and institutional framework to regulate the practice. In short, individuals and corporations should pay tax in the jurisdictions of which they are members, where this membership can come in degrees. Moreover, the strategic tax setting of states should be limited in important ways. An International Tax Organisation (ITO) should be created to enforce the principles of tax justice. 
The author defends this call for reform against two important objections. First, Dietsch refutes the suggestion that regulating tax competition will harm economic efficiency. Second, he argues that regulation of this sort, rather than representing a constraint on national sovereignty, in fact turns out to be a requirement of sovereignty in a global economy. The book closes with a series of reflections on the obligations that the beneficiaries of tax competition have towards the losers both prior to any institutional reform and in its aftermath.
The presentation will again take place in the Seminar Room of the Institute for Health and Social Policy, Charles Meredith House, 1130 Pine Ave., Montreal, beginning at 2:35 pm. As always, the colloquium is open to all: students, faculty and the general public are welcome.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Today at McGill Law: Martin O'Neill on Corporations, Tax, and Social Justice

Martin O'Neill, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of York, joins us as today's speaker in the Spiegel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium at McGill. He'll present a work in progress that he has entitled "Corporations, Conventionalism, Taxation and Social Justice." Here is an abstract:
A failure to take seriously the conventionality of corporations has led to an unimaginative view of corporate taxation as being structurally analogous to the taxation of individuals. There are, in fact, many disanalogies between the two: corporate profit should not be treated as analogous to individual income; low-profit corporations should not be treated advantageously by a tax system in the same way as it should treat low-income individuals; and, most significantly, corporations are not owed the same level of care and determinacy as individuals with regard to the tax rules that they face. Breaking the perceived link between individual taxation and corporate taxation makes room for a reassessment of the structure and purpose of corporate taxation. 
Taking a step back from issues focussed narrowly on taxation, as such, there is a general need to integrate normative issues regarding corporations into our understanding of the proper configuration of the basic structure of a democratic society. In our current non-ideal circumstances, the corporations we actually have are corrosive of the possibility of social justice. In part, this is because we’ve been blinded by a certain picture of corporations as ‘natural’ economic entities, and have been too timid and unimaginative in the ways in which we subject corporations to political regulation and constraint. A robust conventionalism would allow us to reverse the usual order of justification: from seeing corporations as placing constraints on government policy, to seeing corporations as conventional economic units that should be embedded in an institutional and regulatory structure that delivers social justice. 
This gestalt switch opens up wide vistas for public policy innovation. Thus, this is an area in which applied political philosophy has an important home. First, conceptually, it opens up policy spaces which are easy to ignore when one is in the grip of an earlier picture. Secondly, in order to make sense of theories of liberal egalitarian justice, we need a better idea of their institutional setting, and this means moving beyond (or at least supplementing) overly schematic debates about the relative significance of government agencies and individual behaviour. We also need to think about how the basic structure of society should be organized so as to marshal its most significant economic institutions in directions which are conducive to the pursuit of social justice within a democratic society.
The presentation will again take place in the Seminar Room of the Institute for Health and Social Policy, Charles Meredith House, 1130 Pine Ave., Montreal, beginning at 2:35 pm. As always, the colloquium is open to all: students, faculty and the general public are welcome.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

On Paperwork and Punishment: It's Time to Fix FBAR

I published this last month but neglected to post it: my latest column in Tax Notes International takes a look at the foreign bank account report, or FBAR. Feel free to download it, early and often, right here. Here is the abstract:
The Foreign Bank Account Report, or FBAR, is part of a regime designed to stop terrorists, money-launderers, and tax evaders. Unfortunately, its increasingly draconian requirements and consequences now apply to millions of innocent bystanders who are collateral damage in the ongoing battle against financial crime. Their inclusion in the FBAR regime is a massive waste of both government and taxpayer resources, effectively criminalizing activities that are wholly unconnected to financial crime, and perversely discouraging compliance. All of this is unnecessary because as the administrator of FBAR, Treasury can immediately fix the problems. The difficulty is that FBAR is still relatively obscure to those not caught in its grasp, and the extent of the damage it is doing to U.S. taxpayers and to the integrity of the tax system is thus under-appreciated. This damage is real, but it can be reversed by re-focusing FBAR where Congress intended: on likely criminal activity. In short, this Essay demonstrates that the FBAR regime is broken and it is time for Treasury to fix it.
As always, I welcome comments.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Canadian government unveils Re-election Tax Credit

The Canadian government announced a new package of "family" tax cuts/credits last week, with an income splitting scheme and modifications to child care benefits and expense deductions. These are, of course, really just re-election tax credits--announced at what the CBC describes as a "campaign-style event." Earlier this year, at the Tax Justice & Human Rights Symposium I hosted at McGill, Jonathan Rhys Kesselman explained the distributional impacts of the type of cuts announced by the government. He had to embargo his presentation so it's unfortunately not among those now viewable at the McGill Tax channel, but fortunately his paper is now available [pdf here], and the Vancouver Sun has a story: Detailed analysis exposes more income-splitting flaws.

Kesselman's main arguments are:

  • restricting the measure to couples with children is inconsistent with the purported fairness rationale of taxing couples at the same rates as singles
  • families with the greatest need will get no benefits at all
  • families don't have to demonstrate or undertake any actual child care obligations in order to get the benefits
  • the policy will decrease the after-tax value of a family's second earner (because earnings are effectively taxed at the higher-earner's marginal rate) 

He ends by suggesting a number of alternative ways the government could spend money to support families in need without introducing these distortions.

It does feel frustrating that everywhere one looks, politicians just seem have no shame about trying to buy their next elections, and populations seem all too willing to be bought so long as you tell them it's for the "hard working" among us. The question is, whom does the Harper government define as hard-working? With this announcement, the message is: you are only a hard-working family, and therefore deserving of tax cuts, if you
  • have a child under 18;
  • with two parents;
  • one of whom earns a lot;
  • and who earns a lot more than the other.
If this doesn't describe your family, then it seems you are not working hard enough.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Litigation over new US citizenship renunciation fee

The grassroots group that is challenging the validity of Canada's implementation of FATCA with respect to Canadian citizens and residents has released a letter to the U.S. State Department regarding the recent decision to increase the fee for renouncing U.S. citizenship--which is now $2,350. In 2009 the fee was zero. It was introduced in February 2010 (just before FATCA was enacted) and went into effect 6 months later, following Administrative Procedure Act requirements.

You can read the full letter here. In brief, the right to leave a country is not only a universally accepted human right, it is also enshrined in U.S. law. The letter challenges the fee in substance as an unlawful infringement of that right, and in process as a violation of the APA, as the State Department did not observe the procedural requirements for increasing the fee 500% even though it had done so in initially introducing it. Presumably, the group will commence litigation to enjoin the State Department from both legal violations.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Today at McGill Law: Patrick Turmel on The Reasons for Taxation

We continue the Spiegel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium at McGill Law today with a presentation by Patrick Turmel, Professor of Philosophy, Université de Laval, who will be discussing a paper he is co-authoring with David Robichaud, Professor of Philosophy, University of Ottawa.  The paper is called "The Reasons of Taxation. Efficiency, Freedom, Equality." Here is the abstract:
In Capital in the XXI century, Thomas Piketty argues for a series of controversial policy recommendations, such as a substantial increase in tax rates on higher incomes and a global tax on capital whose explicit aim is to halt the current spiral of inequality. Piketty’s main argument for these recommendations is not moral, but economic. Indeed, higher tax rates on top revenues and a progressive global tax on capital have not much to do with social justice or equality per se. According to Piketty, they are mostly needed in order to correct the market and maximize efficiency. But Piketty also put forth democratic reasons in favour of fighting inequalities, since they not only threaten the market, but also the very foundations of political freedom. These two types of reasons – reasons of efficiency and reasons of freedom - certainly go a long way to justify fighting the current dynamics of inequality and thus resisting the return of the Belle Époque’s patrimonial capitalism. But they remain somehow weak, when looked at from the perspective of most theories of social justice. They certainly don’t have much normative force when it comes to justifying important redistribution of wealth, as social justice seems to call for. At the very least, they fall short of creating a complete argument. The aim of this paper is to contribute to filling this gap by showing that alongside reasons of efficiency and freedom, a third type of reasons should play a central role in our understanding and justification of taxation, namely: reasons of equality. 
The presentation will again take place in the Seminar Room of the Institute for Health and Social Policy, Charles Meredith House, 1130 Pine Ave., Montreal, beginning at 2:35 pm. As always, the colloquium is open to all: students, faculty and the general public are welcome.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Daurer and Krever on Tax Treaties; one line summary: Them that's got shall have, them that's not shall lose

Veronika Daurer and Rick Krever recently posted Choosing between the UN and OECD Tax Policy Models: An African Case Study on SSRN, of interest. Here is the abstract:
This paper reports on a study of the tax treaty policy of a group of eleven East African countries. African tax treaties tend to follow one of two model treaties, an OECD model treaty that favours the interests of capital exporting nations and a United Nations model treaty that allows capital importing countries to retain more taxing rights. The study compares the policy outcomes in treaties signed by these countries with African nations, with relatively wealthy OECD countries, and with non-African countries that are not members of the OECD. It also compares selected outcomes in African–OECD treaties with those results in treaties between a group of Asian countries and OECD members to see whether African countries have been more or less successful at wringing preferences from wealthier nations. The study suggests the African countries studied have not been as successful in retaining taxing rights in treaties with OECD countries as have Asian countries. On the other hand, OECD countries are often more generous to African countries than are other African countries.
The paper notes that the data on the connection between tax treaties and foreign investment is still inconclusive, so we can't say that what countries lose in tax revenue given up in the treaty they gain somewhere else. The data being inconclusive is consistent with my research on this some years ago, and what I've kept up with since. Although the authors are very careful in their claims, the overall message is pretty clear: powerful nations systematically use their economic clout to gain advantage over less powerful nations in tax deals. Countries share the global tax base through tax treaties. The OECD model treaty overwhelmingly designs how they do so. So this is international tax relations as the OECD has crafted it, very carefully and deliberately, over the span of decades.

Here is Daurer & Krever's conclusion:
The jurisdictions reviewed in this study are found in the same part of Africa and have histories that share many features. The similarities in their backgrounds are not reflected in their networks of tax treaties with wide variations in the features of their treaties and sometimes significant differences in the extent to which they rely on OECD model treaty or UN model treaty precedents. 
The extent to which jurisdictions choose to forgo taxing rights may depend on relative bargaining powers vis-à-vis treaty partners or domestic ideology regarding possible direct economic benefits from increased investment or indirect consequential benefits from enhanced relationships that might follow a retreat from taxing rights. As a general rule, larger and more economically advanced economies tend to retain more taxing rights in treaties than smaller, less advanced economies. Considered as a group, these African countries appear not to have been as successful as Asian countries in retaining taxing rights. Regional countries may find it beneficial to review each other’s treaty policies and consider whether the revenue costs of less reliance on the UN model and more reliance on the OECD model might outweigh the perceived investment or ancillary benefits that they hope will flow from the transfer of taxing rights to capital exporting nations. 
Regional countries might also wish to look at why OECD countries are often more generous in agreeing to greater retention of taxing rights by African countries than neighbouring African nations. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Importance of Corporation Tax Policy in the Location Choices of Multinational Firms

The Irish Department of Finance released this report yesterday in connection with its 2015 budget. The report considers data on newly established multinational subsidiaries across 26 European countries from 2005 to 2012. Here are a few key points from the executive summary:
  • We find a consistent negative effect of the corporate tax rate on the probability of a country being chosen as a location by multinationals. 
  • We find a highly significant, albeit modest sized, effect of allowing for non-linearity in the effect of the tax structure. In other words, a change in the tax rate will have a larger effect if the starting point is a low rate of tax compared to if the same size change is applied to a higher tax rate.
  • We find large variations in the sensitivity to tax rates across sectors. For manufacturing firms, the effect is similar to the baseline but for service firms the effect is noticeably smaller. Services firms may be more likely to make location decisions based on the need to be close to their identified customer base and this reduces their sensitivity to tax rates. 
  • When comparing the effect of taxation to other important factors, we find that taxation is the largest single determinant of the location decision. 
  • Financial sector firms are most sensitive to changes in corporation tax rates, with an estimated marginal effect more than double those of the other sectors. This is likely to be a reflection of the more footloose nature of these firms, and has important implications for the potential effect of a tax change in Ireland, given the weight of the financial sector in foreign investment in this country. Firms with higher assets sizes appear more responsive to corporation taxation in their location decision. 
  • Combining all effects of tax and country characteristics, Ireland had a 3.1% probability of being chosen as a location for the newly established subsidiaries over the period investigated. For context, Irish GDP is 1.4% of the EU-26 total, so this demonstrates the attractiveness of the country as a destination for foreign investment well in excess of its size. 
  • If the Irish tax rate had been 15% over the period in our sample, the number of new foreign affiliates entering the country would have been 22 % lower. 
  • If the tax rate had been 22.5% (the sample average), the number of new foreign affiliates would have been 50 % lower. 
The idea that Ireland will really give up its favorable tax regimes under external pressure just seems implausible as a result. I know, Ireland is going to repeal the residence rule that gave rise to the double Irish. But there's always the double dutch not to mention an alarming proliferating of patent boxes so that means Ireland will have to come up with something else. If the US, the UK, the Netherlands, etc. aren't going to give up their goodie bags, it is difficult to see Ireland doing so.

Monday, October 20, 2014

BEPS Monitoring Group Scorecard

The BEPS Monitoring Group, a consortium of tax justice folks who are watching the OECD as it works through its ambitious reconfiguration of the global tax consensus, released a report today, of interest. The indefatigable Sol Picciotto is the lead author. From the announcement:
Our overall evaluation is that while significant progress has been made, there have been some unhappy compromises, some obstacles encountered, and much remains to be done. Also, fundamental problems still remain. The OECD alone is not the appropriate body to revise global rules, and its approach has been to patch up the existing rules. Effective reforms will not be possible without reconsidering some of the foundations of the system designed 80 years ago. Today’s globalized economy requires a more global approach to apportionment of the tax base of multinationals. Changes in the rules should be geared towards treating multinationals as unitary enterprises which would reflect their economic reality.
I agree with Sol that the OECD is not the appropriate body to revise global rules, and this is because revising the global rules really requires revisiting the basic framework. If the framework is fundamentally flawed, which I believe it is, then going back to the same architect again and again for yet another renovation project appears to be folly. But the OECD has worked hard to make itself into a tax policy monopoly, so this is a predictable result. On this point, Sol says:
A project led by the OECD even with participation of other G20 countries is still an unsatisfactory way to agree global tax rules, and the underlying problem still remains that the Action Plan aims to patch up existing rules rather than re-examine their foundation. 
The views of states not directly involved in the process, especially the poorer developing countries which are more dependent on corporate tax revenues, need to be taken into account much more directly, and we will carefully scrutinize the OECD proposals to address this which are promised.
He observes that so far, the OECD appears unwilling to consider any revisit of the underlying international tax principles, namely, the residence-source split, even though we can clearly see that this split isn't doing the work it needs to do to allocate the global tax base (especially when it comes to the corporate income tax).

My view is that everyone who will be affected by the global tax consensus has a right to be involved in the conversation, while the OECD's basic exclusionary nature ensures that only those who happen to live in rich countries will have any representation. The UN Tax Committee is an obvious alternative policy space. Sol says: "Instead of trying to usurp the UN, the OECD should support an
upgrading of the UN Tax Committee. All states should have full rights of participation in the negotiation of the proposed multilateral convention, which should  not be limited to rubber-stamping the outputs of the OECD BEPS project." That sounds right to me.

But it's hard, messy, probably dreary and frustrating work that will involve a lot of time and effort, and in the meantime...what? As I said in my talk last week, we all know that in international tax, as in most other regulatory areas, powerful states don't have to wait, they can simply do what they want.  But can is not ought.  I think the OECD should keep working on BEPS but everyone ought to be working equally diligently toward comprehensive multilateralism even as the OECD puts together this latest patch, so that the next step in international tax relations is not another recall of the same architect, with the same blueprint.

Sol's report has a clear mission: get the OECD to take formulary apportionment seriously, as the "clear lodestar" to all the BEPS efforts. Maybe so; the naysayers have their points. But for me the strongest part of this scorecard is its observation that the process matters, that we need to keep talking about participation in governance and thinking about who is making the decisions about which voices will be heard.

Today at McGill Law: Joseph Heath on Taxation as Collective Consumption

Professor Joseph Heath, Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto, joins us today as the second speaker in the McGill University Speigel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium. Professor Heath is drawing from his book, Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism, (released in the US as "Economics without Illusions: Debunking the Myths of Modern Capitalism"), where he writes about viewing taxation as a "club good":
Individuals express a surprisingly pervasive error that I refer to as the “government as consumer” fallacy. The picture underlying this fallacy is relatively straightforward. Government services, such as health care, education, national defense, and so on, “cost” us as a society. We are able to pay for them only because of all the wealth that we generate in the private sector, which we transfer to the government in the form of taxes. A government that taxes the economy too heavily stands accused of “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs” by disrupting the mechanism that generates the wealth that it itself relies upon in order to provides its services. Thus the government gets treated as a consumer of wealth, while the private sector is regarded as a producer. This is totally confused. The state in fact produces exactly the same amount of wealth as the market, which is to say, it produces none at all. People produce wealth, and people consume wealth. Institutions, such as the state or the market, neither produce nor consume anything. They simply constitute mechanisms through which people coordinate their production and consumption of wealth.
Heath has also pointed us to Todd Sandler's work on "Buchanan clubs."

 The presentation will take place in the Seminar Room of the Institute for Health and Social Policy, Charles Meredith House, 1130 Pine Ave., Montreal, beginning at 2:35 pm.

As always, the colloquium is open to all: students, faculty and the general public are welcome.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Peers complain banks treat them 'like pariahs'

From the BBC: "Members of the House of Lords have complained they are treated like "deposed dictators or political pariahs" when they try to open bank accounts."

Peers said they were falling foul of money-laundering regulations because banks classed them as high-risk "politically exposed persons". 
This makes them, and their relatives, subject to extra due diligence checks. 
Treasury Minister Lord Deighton said banks were acting "disproportionately". 
He said UK parliamentarians were not currently classed as politically dependent persons, which are restricted to members of foreign governments, but added that new global standards "will require that they are treated as such".
 I know a few people who can relate to this feeling.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fixing Global Tax Disorder: Multilateralism vs. U.S.-Led Effort

Tax Analysts has a write-up [gated] of the international panel from last week's conference on Reforming Entity Taxation, in Boston. Excerpts:
"What we have now is a mess," Robert Peroni, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said October 10, referring to the international tax system. 
... A discussion of how to go about cleaning up that mess pitted multilateralism against a U.S.-first approach. Panelists appeared to share the realpolitik view that whatever course is followed, dominant actors have called the shots for decades and will probably continue to do so. 
According to Allison Christians of McGill University Faculty of Law, the problems addressed by the conference's panel on international taxation are not much different from those faced by four academics more than 90 years ago when asked by the League of Nations to study the question of how to share the world's income tax base. Christians said the crucial issue now is the failure to tax income as opposed to double taxation, which worried policymakers then. 
"If you gave international tax a grade over 90 years, it would be an F," Christians said. 
"We will not take fairness seriously on the international stage." 
Christians said that powerful countries too often end up calling the shots, much to the detriment of a fair and orderly international tax system. "When we turn to power, we sacrifice both efficiency and equity . . . and administrability as well," she said. 
Christians was especially critical of the U.S. for using the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act to expose underpayment of U.S. personal income taxes while cautioning that the OECD's base erosion and profit-shifting initiative could negatively affect U.S. multinationals. 
"FATCA leverages U.S. control over the global financial system, thereby forcing the populations and governments of poorer countries to direct precious tax administration and regulatory compliance resources toward the enforcement of the U.S. tax system over their own," Christians said. "Yet the U.S. has not used this same leverage to respond to base erosion. U.S. lawmakers have not seen as great a good in stopping tax avoidance by U.S.-based corporations as they have in stopping tax evasion by U.S. individuals." 
...While advocating multilateralism, Christians admitted that there is a significant risk in changing course that could prove detrimental to U.S. interests. She said that it might be in the best interest of the U.S. to act while it still has policy flexibility to shape a future international tax regime in which it might not play as dominant a role.
"Someday there might be a global power shift," Christians said. "We might wish we built a structure when we had a chance." [I believe i said an "appropriate" governance structure"] 
Christians' co-panelists placed less emphasis on multilateralism. ... Peroni said that what the world needs now is a "real worldwide" income tax regime rather than a territorial system. "Territorial undermines fair allocation of burden, and should only be enacted if its efficiency and simplification benefits outweigh its costs in terms of fairness," he said. 
Peroni said competitiveness should be defined not in terms of improving the after-tax profits of already successful U.S. multinationals, but in terms of citizens' living standards. He stressed the importance of fairness -- both actual and perceived -- in any reforms to the federal income tax and warned that simplification would probably be given short shrift. 
"Significant simplification in the international corporate tax area may be difficult to achieve because the transactions involved are often inherently quite complex and, therefore, the tax rules dealing with such transactions are likely to have a certain degree of unavoidable complexity," Peroni said. 
Peroni said that calls for formulary apportionment of international income could result in U.S. multinationals moving operations and jobs to low-tax foreign countries.

...Martin Sullivan of Tax Analysts said that U.S. moves to curb tax shelters by stressing  economic substance can often have a similar effect. "It is so ingrained that deals without economic substance have to be bad," Sullivan said. Comparing the paper companies often set up in Bermuda with real operations established in low-tax Ireland, Sullivan wondered why Ireland is considered better from a U.S. point of view. "Would it be better if there were 40,000 factories in Bermuda?" he asked.  
... The panelists weren't optimistic about the prospects for international tax reform. Peroni said "no sensible president" would push for reform during his or her first term. "If a president is not reelected, this could go on forever," he said. "You might be able to do a few antiabuse provisions . . . but that's a Band-Aid on the problem," Peroni said.
Christians emphasized the central role and responsibility of the U.S. should the world opt for a multilateral approach. "With great power comes great responsibility," she said.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Will media scrutiny for tax dodging ultimately create director liability to shareholders?

It's been a busy couple of weeks in Europe for some of America's biggest multinationals.

Google’s tax setup challenged by France

European commission to probe Amazon’s tax status in Luxembourg

Europeans Accuse Ireland of Giving Apple Illegal Tax Break

I'm working on an article in which I argue that the scrutiny over tax avoidance is creating material financial risk for multinationals, such that existing national securities disclosure laws will ultimately require increased disclosure to shareholders about public companies' tax planning strategies and their associated risks. To date, share prices have not seemed to reflect any market worry about the anti-tax avoidance activity governments have proclaimed so far. But if these stories about probes turn into stories about assessed fines and other clawbacks (as opposed to Starbucks'-style faux-repentance gifts), my level of confidence in my prediction will vastly increase.

Dawn of the Delta: Taming International Derivatives Tax Abuse

I recently contributed to the Columbia Tax Journal's Tax Matters Series, on Congress' attempt to constrain a particular form of international tax avoidance. The constraint in question is a fairly technical provision found in 871(m), which was enacted as part of the 2010 HIRE Act (also the source of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act). You can find my overview at the link above, where I explain what section 871(m) was intended to achieve (it is an anti-abuse rule to stop people avoiding dividend withholding taxes) and how Treasury sought to achieve it with a test (called the delta test), and observe that this test has prompted criticism for being too broad, capturing more transactions than intended. I asked the practitioners to address the mischief of the over-breadth and what could be done to overcome this but still achieve the legislative aims. The practitioners responded as follows:

Section 871(M) and Delta: When Should a Dividend Equivalent be Treated like a Dividend?
By Mike Farber

Taxation Without Authorization: The Proposed “Dividend Equivalent” Withholding Regulations Under Section 871(m)
By Linda Z. Swartz, Shlomo Boehm, and Jason Schwartz

The Most Recent Proposed Regulations Under Section 871(M): The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good
By Andrew Walker Read DOC or PDF


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Reforming Entity Taxation

Boston College is hosting a conference on Reforming Entity Taxation this Friday; I'll be on the international panel where I'll be giving a paper I've entitled "Who's Got the Power: Dividing the Global Income Tax Base." My theme: reforming entity taxation is purely about the political will of powerful states, perhaps especially the US. It is often repeated that with great power comes great responsibility. I argue that powerful nations have fallen far short on living up to the latter. I take a look back at how the League of Nations started the inquiry into how nations ought to share the global income tax base but ended up answering the question with power instead of principles, and how today's mix of FATCA, BEPS and the Baucus plan demonstrates that we are still doing the same thing today. I'll post a draft soon. Here is the lineup for Friday:

Keynote Speaker: Lee Sheppard (Contributing Editor, Tax Analysts)                            

Reforming Entity Taxation: Corporations

Mirit Eyal-Cohen (Alabama)
Deborah Schenk (NYU)
Dan Shaviro (NYU)
Brian Galle (Boston College) Commentator
Jeremy Scott (Editor in Chief of News, Tax Analysts) Moderator

Reforming Entity Taxation: Partnerships

Karen Burke (Florida)
Andrea Monroe (Temple)
Gregg Polsky (North Carolina)
James Repetti (Boston College) Commentator
Amy Elliott (Contributing Editor, Tax Notes) Moderator

Reforming Entity Taxation: International

Allison Christians (McGill)
Robert Peroni (Texas)
Martin Sullivan (Tax Analysts)
Diane Ring (Boston College) Commentator
Sam Young (Editor Worldwide Tax Daily) Moderator

Destination: Silicon Valley North

I took part in the latest McGill Law Journal Podcast, this time to talk about tax incentives and innovation. Have a listen.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Tomorrow at McGill Law: Apple's Tax Planning, through a Philosopher's Lens

Tomorrow at McGill: Wayne Norman, Mike & Ruth Mackowski Professor of Ethics at Duke University, will be here to present the inaugural lecture of the McGill University Spiegel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium. He will be talking about how we ought to think about the social pressures coming to bear on multinational tax avoidance, with a special focus on Apple. His presentation is entitled "Corporate Tax and Beyond-Compliance Norms."

Using the media's recent coverage of Apple's tax avoidance strategies as a case study, Professor Norman will discuss how we ought to understand and rationalize corporate social responsibility and self-regulation norms emerging around the taxation of multinationals, and whether these rationalizations are, or should be, different than the rationalization of corporate tax regulation. He will draw upon his previous work on business ethics, including "Business Ethics as Self-Regulation: Why principles that ground regulations should be used to ground beyond-compliance norms as well," and he points us to a 2012 NY Times article by Louise Story, As Companies Seek Tax Deals, Governments Pay High Price.

The topic is obviously timely. If you've been watching the news, you know that it has recently been revealed that Apple and governments get along very, very well when it comes to taxes. In Europe, Apple's side deals with Ireland have come under scrutiny as a possible form of state aid, against EU law; in the United States, Apple has faced lawmakers' bark but no bite. Here is some recent media coverage, most from the Guardian:
I have been saying for some time that even after a century of study, we have yet to articulate a principled way to allocate the global income tax base, and we ought to ask philosophers for help. I am pleased that Professor Norman will engage on the topic.

The presentation will take place in the Seminar Room of the Institute for Health and Social Policy, Charles Meredith House, 1130 Pine Ave., Montreal, beginning at 2:35 pm.

As always, the colloquium is open to all: students, faculty and the general public are welcome.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Leaving money on the table to avoid extra paperwork

Economist Youssef C. Benzarti has recently posted an article on SSRN, How Taxing is Tax Filing? Leaving Money on the Table Because of Compliance Costs, in which he that "taxpayers forego $800 on average to avoid the cost of itemizing."

Can this really be true? It is hard to imagine given that for resident filers, at least, plenty of cheap tax help is available all around, and itemizing is merely a question of gathering receipts and punching in numbers (If the sample includes a lot of US persons permanently living abroad who don't understand their US tax filing obligations, I could understand the choice to bear higher taxes out of a fear of getting things wrong). It's not like most people are sitting around their kitchen tables calculating things out themselves; but even if they are, it's not really THAT hard, is it? In any event, here is the abstract, worth a closer read. If the analysis is correct, it bolsters the case for worrying about complexity as a second level of tax that is allocated without regard for ability to pay.
I use a quasi-experimental design to estimate the burden of complying with the tax code. Employing a sample of US income tax returns, I observe the preferences of taxpayers over itemizing deductions or claiming the standard deduction. Treated taxpayers forego $800 on average to avoid the cost of itemizing. A revealed preference argument implies that itemizing deductions is as painful as working more than 17 hours at one’s regular job. The amount of foregone benefits is larger for richer households, consistent with the fact that the value of time increases with income. I explore two explanations of the magnitude of the estimates. First, it could be due to an extreme aversion to filing taxes. Such aversion implies that itemizing deductions imposes an aggregate compliance cost of 0.24% of GDP and an extrapolation to filing federal taxes implies that the overall cost of compliance is 1.55% of GDP. Second, if taxpayers are time-inconsistent the revealed preference argument fails, introducing a wedge between foregone benefits and compliance costs. Being present-biased leads taxpayers to forego large benefits even when compliance costs are relatively small. I provide evidence of taxpayers being present-biased. Both explanations - whether driven by preferences or mistakes - suggest that the burden imposed on society by tax compliance is significantly larger than previously estimated. I discuss policy implications of the result.

Friday, September 12, 2014

This Fall at McGill: Colloquium on Tax Philosophy

I am pleased to announce that the annual McGill tax policy colloquium is now being generously supported by the law firm Spiegel Sohmer, Inc., under a grant established for the purpose of fostering an academic community in which learning and scholarship may flourish.

This fall, in its inaugural instalment, the Spiegel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium will return to tax policy fundamentals by critically examining the goals of taxation from a law and philosophy perspective.

The Colloquium will therefore be convened jointly by myself and Daniel Weinstock, who is the James McGill Professor in the Faculty of Law and Director of the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy.  His research explores the governance of certain types of liberal democracies, and the effects of religious and cultural diversity from an ethical perspective on the political and ethical philosophy of public policy.

Each talk takes place in the Seminar Room, Institute for Health and Social Policy, 1130 Pine Ave, from 14:35 to 17:35.  These events are free and open to everyone. We welcome students, faculty and the general public to attend. Here is the line-up:

Monday, October 6: Wayne Norman, Mike and Ruth Mackowski Professor of Ethics, Kenan Institute for Ethics and Department of Philosophy, Duke University. His work focuses on business ethics and his published work includes numerous books and journal articles, as well as contributions to “Ethics for Adversaries: How to Play Fair When You’re Playing to Win.”

Monday, October 20: Joseph Heath, Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto; Director of the University of Toronto Centre for Ethics. He has published work very widely including the recent book "Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives."

Monday, October 27: Patrick Turmel, Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Laval University. His work focuses on ethics and political institutions, particularly cities. His publications include co-authorship of a book titled “La Juste Part: Repenser les Inégalités, la Richesse et la Fabrication des Grille-Pains.”

Monday, November 11: Martin O’Neill, Senior Lecturer in Moral and Political Philosophy, Department of Politics, University of York, U.K. His research examines global and intergenerational justice. Among his many publications, Professor O’Neill’s most recent book is “Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond.”

Monday, November 17: Peter Dietsch, Professor, Department of Philosophy, Université de Montréal. He works on questions of distributive justice with particular emphasis on the application of philosophical theories through social instruments including the tax system. His work is widely published, including a recent article titled “Tax Competition and Global Background Justice” in The Journal of Political Philosophy. He is also working on a book on tax competition entitled “Catching Capital”.

I am looking forward to hearing what these pre-eminent philosophers can tell us about the state of contemporary tax policy theory. Over the course of the semester it is my hope that we can develop a framework for thinking about tax policy that responds to the world in which we find ourselves today, with all of its promises and challenges for democracy, economy, and identity.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The power to tax

The start of a new semester means the return to fundamentals in taxation for me, which always begins with a discussion of the power to tax. Yesterday I asked my students: could Queen Elizabeth say hey Canadians, I notice you still have my face on your dollar and you've got a nice surplus shaping up; over here in England it's all austerity and program cuts. Mind helping out a bit? General consensus: she might as a legal matter be able to tax Canadians to help the Brits out, but she won't. Hmmm. During the discussion a student informed me that Canadians pay more for monarchical services than the Brits do. Well, sharing is caring.

Relatedly and on a more scholarly note, a recent twitter conversation brought me to a chapter in a book on socio-legal tax research (thanks to Martin Hearson for starting that conversation and Judith Freedman for making this recommendation). The book is called Taxation: a Fieldwork Research Handbook, edited by Lynne Oats, and the chapter I had my eye on today is entitled Tea Parties, Tax, and Power, by Rebecca Boden. Boden writes:
History...points to a longstanding power relationship between rulers and those they rule that is articulated through tax regimes. States, whether feudal or modern, need money to operate, to pursue their various programmes, from war to welfare, As citizens may be unwilling to relinquish their money voluntarily, the state must have powers to require payment, with sanctions for non-compliance. By the same token, this power is held in balance in democracies by the principle of consent, exercised through representation. Ultimately, taxpayers give their consent to be dominated and have their money taken away from them.
This contingent nature of the state's powers in taxation - taxation by "consent"- chimes with Foucault's notion that power can never be absolute (Foucault 1977). No, Foucault argues, is power only hierarchical or structural, rather it works in a capillary fashion. As such, the analysis of such power relationships is central to the critical tax project - only by viewing tax structures, policies, and practice through the prism of power relationships that change them can we understand how and why they are constituted and what their effects are likely to be.
There is much more in the chapter to reflect upon, but I found this intro intriguing. In my view a lot of mischief takes place in the subtle--maybe you missed it--transition from the use of the word "citizen" to the use of the word "taxpayer." This is a transition all too many scholars make without even noticing it, yet it masks a world of ideology and assumption that frame and define how we think about tax today.

The power to define the taxpayer permeates contemporary tax policy discussion. The question of who can tax whom is one that could or should involve theory but while the scholars talk it over, reality plays out in economic might. In an intro to tax policy principles that I recently prepared for my tax policy course, I wrote:
Perhaps because taxation has been so connected to state-building, most scholars closely associate the act of taxation with the state. Some even go so far as to argue that taxation is a fundamental right belonging to the state as sovereign, often citing Thomas Hobbes for the proposition that “[t]hese are the rights which make the essence of sovereignty … the power of raising money”. None have offered theoretical grounds for the claim that states are in fact holders of rights, however.
We observe throughout history that states exercise powers (mostly through military and economic might), and only declare rights for themselves upon successful domination (such as in constitutions and charters). This observation leads to the likelihood that taxation is not anyone’s right but rather it is a constructed reality, coming about solely by and through human experience. This would explain why so much has to be done to both justify as a matter of theory - and entrench as a matter of custom - the state’s authority to tax.
We don't have to work too hard to think of a few examples where defining the taxpayer is an exercise in claiming authority, which fundamentally depends on power. FATCA is an obvious one; anti-inversions, BEPS, and the OECD common reporting standard are less obviously but equally so.

With FATCA, the US is using its sheer economic clout to get the whole world involved in chasing what it deems to be "US persons" for their tax tribute, without any discussion about whether the state's unilateral conferring of citizenship constitutes consent to (permanent and worldwide) taxation. Indeed, it continues to erect ever-higher barriers to shedding that status, without a single policy discussion at any level of government about the merits of this action. Those who think not can be expected to resist per Foucault, or, if it suits your taste better, Locke:
[People] therefore in society having property, they have such a right to the goods, which by the law of the community are their's, that no body hath a right to take their substance or any part of it from them, without their own consent: without this they have no property at all; for I have truly no property in that, which another can by right take from me, when he pleases, against my consent.
At the OECD, the common reporting standard, ostensibly modeled on FATCA but in fundamental principles not at all like FATCA, is all about making sure the "right" government gets the info it needs to exert its power over "its" taxpayers. Same idea: a state claims the authority to tax people that live within its territory, but other states have the power to thwart that exercise. (Different in fundamentals than FATCA for two reasons: (1) finding implied consent to tax is a given for residents of a state and (2) the OECD is not currently suggesting countries use economic sanctions to force others to cooperate).

The anti-inversion and BEPs issues are similarly about exerting power over a "taxpayer." Despite bemoaning their apparent helplessness in preventing corporate US persons becoming corporate non-US persons, US lawmakers clearly claim the authority to intervene and they likely have the power, too. But, this involves erecting higher and higher walls to keep the "taxpayers" inside. Internationally, discussions about the global problem of multinational tax dodging focus on the failure of the state to tax corporate persons that come in to the jurisdiction to do business. At the OECD, the BEPS project is very much about who belongs to who, so we can decide what belongs to who. Source and residence as tax concepts have always been about power and they have always been explained with ideas about authority and consent.

Globally, discussions about both corporate and personal income taxation are being forced to focus more and more on unanswered questions about the power to tax, and the issues of authority and consent that are raised when power is exerted and when it is resisted. The full Boden chapter is thus definitely recommended reading and I'm working my way through the rest of the book, which looks promising in several respects. More to come on this subject.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

FBAR e-filing: violates Taxpayer Bill of Rights, challengeable under Haar

Eric Kroh of Tax Analysts has a story today [gated] on the basic nonsense that is the FBAR (foreign bank account report) e-filing system. As he reports, in defiance of common sense, FinCEN's system does not work for normal users. It does not work on a mac at all, and it does not work on a PC if you have Adobe Acrobat installed (the user must uninstall and use adobe reader instead). So now in addition to frightening people by forcing them to register themselves for monitoring by "Financial Crimes Enforcement," making them feel like criminals just by visiting the website, the US Treasury is all about making sure the user encounters error after error, frustration without end, with no alternative because e-filing is required.

I'll make two points here. First, I think the entire FinCN experience violates the Taxpayer Bill of Rights recently adopted by the IRS, and second, I think the e-filing requirement is susceptible to legal challenge under the recent decision of the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board in Haar v Commr. Let's look at the TBOR first.

Kroh's article demonstrates that FinCEN's FBAR system pretty clearly violates provision 2 of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which guarantees taxpayers a right to quality service. Kroh describes how ridiculous it is to have a form-filing system that conflicts with one of the most ubiquitous pieces of software out there, namely, Adobe Acrobat. He notes that the FinCEN website fails to explain the known issues and offers no promises about maybe fixing this very basic problem. IRS: no blaming things on FinCEN to get out of your obligations. You're administering this mess. (FinCEN is a bureau of Treasury separate from the IRS, but IRS has responsibility for enforcing FBAR by levying penalties for non-compliance.)

The FinCEN experience also violates provision 10 in my view. Provision 10 says taxpayers have the "right to a fair and just tax system." It is neither fair or just in my view to force individuals to register and transmit sensitive personal information on a website that is built for the sole purpose of detecting money laundering, terrorist financing, and other financial crimes, where no evidence exists that the individuals have perpetuated or are planning to perpetuate any such crimes. This process constitutes an intimidation tactic. If you don't believe it, I invite you to visit the FinCEN website, register yourself, and file an FBAR form as a civics lesson.

I am not saying Treasury doesn't need the information FBAR requires (though much or most of it is egregiously duplicative with IRS forms that non-resident US persons already have to file). But I am saying there is no way that Treasury needs to extract this information by making individuals register on a website that so clearly transmits the message: "you are a suspected criminal and we are watching you."

Remember, we are talking about millions and millions of people who have "foreign" bank accounts because they live in foreign countries; most are citizens of those foreign countries where they live; and their banks are local to them. Congress treats these people as if they live in the United States, when they do not. But Congress does not similarly treat their local bank accounts as local (Congress should do so, and would fix many problems if they did, as I argued in a Tax Analysts column in 2012). This mismatch of fiction against fact does not make people money launderers or tax evaders. Many, many of these individuals are unjustly caught up in the US tax net because of the madness of citizenship taxation. Also: consider that the FBAR instructions even say that kids ought to fill out their own FBAR forms. Come on.

Taxpayer Rights, yes. But remedies? Not so Clear.

Whether violating the taxpayer bill of rights creates grounds for a lawsuit remains to be seen; I think Congress' continuous failure to codify the TBOR is precisely to prevent this possibility (I discussed the issue here). But the recent case of Haar v Commissioner suggests that a lawsuit challenging the requirement that FBAR forms be filed electronically would have merit. I note from Kroh's article:
According to a FinCEN FAQ, failure to comply with the electronic filing mandate could result in civil penalties, including a $500 fine for each negligent currency transaction. Exceptions to the mandate are allowed only in some limited circumstances, according to the agency. 
Now comes Haar:
This appeal involves the Commissioner’s assessment of a $100 penalty... because of the appellant’s failure to electronically submit [a payment in connection with an extension of time to file]...
 Mr. Haar maintained that the Commissioner’s electronic payment mandate is a “serious invasion of both [his] privacy and [his] personal business practices,” as it exposes his finances to risk of cyber attack.  On his abatement application, Mr. Haar explained, “I intentionally do no electronic banking nor direct bill paying, I have none of my credit cards linked to my bank accounts directly and I think anyone who does any of the above is exposing themselves to multiple risks of cybercrime and identity theft.”  At the hearing, Mr. Haar testified that he does not link his “bank account information in any electronic way to any other electronic medium” because he believes it is a “very foolish thing to do.” Mr. Haar further expressed doubts as to the security of the computer systems used by the Department of Revenue (“DOR”), noting that “if the Pentagon can be hacked,” he had little confidence that DOR could protect his – or any other taxpayer’s – personal data from theft. 
To which the Commissioner responded:
It was the Commissioner’s position ... that... she has the authority to mandate electronic filing and payment and to assess penalties if, after notice, a taxpayer failed to comply with the prescribed filing and payment mandates.  While ... penalties may be abated if a taxpayer can demonstrate “reasonable cause” for non-compliance, the Commissioner maintained that the appellant did not establish reasonable cause because Administrative Procedure 633 (“AP 633”) provides that “[t]he fact that a taxpayer does not own a computer or is uncomfortable with electronic data or funds transfer will not support a claim for reasonable cause.”  AP 633(II)(D). 
But the Appellate Tax Board saw things differently, noting that Treasury has steadily expanded e-filing requirements, but that there is no federal requirement that individual e-file their annual tax returns, and that reasonable cause is an objective standard that can't be eliminated by a mere declaration by Administrative Procedure. The ATB concluded:
On the facts of this appeal, particularly the appellant’s credible testimony concerning his consistent practice of avoiding the payment of his bills electronically, the Board found and ruled that the appellant exercised the degree of care that an ordinary taxpayer in his position would have exercised when he made his timely payment by check, contrary to the Commissioner’s electronic payment mandate.  The Board therefore found and ruled that the appellant met his burden of proving reasonable cause under § 33(g) for his failure to remit payment electronically in connection with his extension application for the tax year at issue. 
Accordingly, the Board issued a decision for the appellant in this appeal and granted an abatement of the $100 penalty, along with statutory additions. 
I note that Haar represented himself in that appeal. When I saw that FinCEN had made e-filing mandatory, I wondered if it would spark lawsuits. The Haar case suggests that such lawsuits might prevail if the facts and legal standards align.

Lawsuits are not the only way to protect taxpayer rights in this case, however. If the US practiced residence based taxation like the rest of the world, the universe of US taxpayers who have foreign bank accounts but who aren't rich enough to employ others to deal with complex US filing obligations will shrink to a negligible number and the issue all but goes away. Until then, Treasury can act, and act quickly to resolve the technical problems here, even if we have to wait for Congress to fix the underlying defect of citizenship taxation.

The solution is clear: Treasury should abolish FinCEN registration for FBAR purposes alone and the FBAR should be treated like other tax forms since it is administered by the IRS. The IRS should make the FBAR form available as a regular pdf on the IRS website like all the other tax forms, and have a link so people who choose to e-file can do so.

Monday, August 11, 2014

International complaint lodged against US citizenship taxation

Further to my prior post, the ADCS press release also mentions that a group of individuals has filed a complaint with the United Nations, to protest the U.S. practice of citizenship taxation. It's about time that happened. The UN sanctioned Eritrea in 2011, for extracting a comparatively tiny amount of tax on its disapora. It did so apparently at the behest of the United States. Yet three years later the whole world is engaged in the process of perfecting citizenship taxation for the US, with no discussion whatsoever, at any official level. You can get a little info abut the UN complaint here but the complaint itself has not yet been made public. As soon as it is, I will post it.

Filed Today: Lawsuit challenging constitutionality of FATCA in Canada

Noted Canadian constitutional lawyer Joseph Arvay filed suit today to challenge the constitutionality of Canada's implementation of FATCA. The statement of the claim is laid against the Attorney General of Canada in the Federal Court of Canada. It seeks a declaration by the Court that the relevant parts of recently enacted Bill C-31, referred to as the "Impugned Provisions," are beyond Parliament's authority and of no force and effect under the Constitution. The claim makes four claims about Canada's attempt to implement FATCA:

(1) it violates the Constitution by creating federal power over a provincial domain;
(2) it violates s. 7 of the Charter, guaranteeing individual rights to life, liberty & property;
(3) it violates s. 8 of the Charter, preventing unreasonable search & seizure; and
(4) it violates s. 15 of the Charter, prohibiting discrimination based on national origin etc.

The complaint concludes that none of these infringements can be justified by section 1 of the Charter, which provides for only "such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."

The lawsuit is the product of efforts by a small, grassroots group formed for this purpose, calling themselves the Alliance for the Defence of Canadian Sovereignty. They have issued a press release, here. The two named plaintiffs are taking a major risk in being exposed as "non-compliant US Persons" in this lawsuit. On the other hand the IRS may not wish to get in the middle of this fight and prove the plaintiff's case, which is succinctly stated here.

I look forward to following the case, which I expect to wind its way toward the Supreme Court. As I've said many times, there are massive problems with FATCA that have nothing to do with tax evasion and everything to do with the basic injustice that is citizenship taxation and all global efforts to enforce it for the US. The US Congress is reluctant to act on this antiquated and unjust regime and the IRS must plow ahead, as I explained recently. But that certainly does not mean that other countries must do the job of the IRS, most especially when doing so is inconsistent with their own laws.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Christians on Regulating Tax Preparers: A Global Problem for the IRS

I have a new column this week in Tax Analysts: Regulating Tax Preparers: A Global Problem for the IRS, in which I discuss the challenges of protecting a global taxpayer population from fraud and abuse and make (yet another) plea for sanity in the form of abandoning citizenship taxation and turning to residence-base taxation. Here is the gated published version; here is the SSRN version (ungated). And here is a brief abstract:

The IRS recently announced that its mandatory registration regime for paid tax return preparers, struck down in the Loving decision, would henceforth be offered as a voluntary program. But the authors of this program appear to have forgotten that the US system is perfectly global in reach, thanks to its permanent inclusion of citizens and others with legal residence status no matter where in the world they live. Protecting a global taxpayer population from fraud and abuse is an enormous task, with massive legal, administrative, and even diplomatic factors to consider. Citizenship taxation plagues the project of tax return preparer regulation, just as it does all aspects of US tax law. Accepting the universally practiced norm of residency-based taxation is the only viable solution. If Congress cannot do so, it will always be the case that for the IRS, thinking locally truly means acting globally.
Just as this was published, a friend sent me an email about a growing problem of FBAR fraud, in which criminals attempt to get personal & financial information from people by sending them serious looking notices. Here's an example, from Tax-Expatriation blog:

I'm sorry I didn't see this before I published my column, as I would have mentioned it as a significant issue. Capitalizing on the ignorance and fear of regular (non-rich) US persons outside the United States will be all too easy for criminals, I am afraid. I hope that the IRS and FinCEN can figure out a way to warn people--but I don't see how they can really do that on a global scale, especially since FATCA's job is to funnel information about millions of people to the IRS, and not the other way around. At minimum, every government that signs an agreement to implement FATCA should be sending out the warnings, since each is undertaking a huge responsibility in implementing US citizenship taxation on their own residents.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Sheppard on International Tax: What's Gonna Work? Teamwork.

Lee Sheppard has a nice column today on dual consolidated loss rules and BEPS (gated), in which she states:
Would-be reformers of the corporate income tax like to believe in the tax equivalent of a single game-changing player. They want an instant, simple solution -- be it a territorial system or formulary apportionment. They don't want to have to think about the grunt work of making an international system work. They don't want to have to think about the heavy lifting of rewriting the source rules. They don't want to think about detailed anti-hybrid rules. 
Of course she uses Argentina v Germany rather than the Wonder Pets, but same idea.

She goes on to explain the multiple problems posed by hybrid entities and how the BEPS hybrid draft has, and has not, addressed these. Sheppard's article demonstrates yet again that making income taxation work today means regulatory globalization that parallels the scale and scope of economic globalization.

The magnitude of the task is vividly demonstrated in FATCA: a concise statute that has rapidly expanded into thousands of pages of regulations, guidance, and agency explanations, a bilateral agreement network that dwarfs the US tax treaty network, and the spawning of a global compliance industry trucking in data collection, transfer, and analysis in both the private and public sectors. BEPS would be no different. it would require the same type of global infrastructure and the same level of sustained commitment. But it is clear that while the US has a great appetite for making FATCA work, and has directed all of its economic might to that effort, it is much, much less interested in seeing BEPS through. The ultimate outcome of BEPS is all too predictable from past OECD efforts that were not initiated by the US.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Potato Salad

If you don't immediately know what this post is about, then you are really missing out.  Here is the kickstarter campaign. I used a kickstarter question on my tax exam last year so a student sent me this. Then I found this article about the hysterical reaction. I sent it to my student, who thought if it happened to him he would appear on TV with a new rolex and carrying the potato salad in one hand, making the following entrance:

Yes, that looks just about right.

Tax Foundation has already posted an analysis concluding that the cash is taxable income. I disagree: though that is the presumption for kickstarter campaigns, presumptions are rebuttable with different facts and circumstances. In my view this campaign clearly sparked individuals to give out of detached and disinterested generosity, and therefore the full amount is excludable from income as a gift for tax purposes.

Friday, July 4, 2014

IRS claims statutory authority for FATCA agreements where no such authority exists

Over at federal tax crimes blog Jack Townsend has posted a letter from the IRS to Congressman Bill Posey, in response to an inquiry the Congressman apparently made about the intergovernmental agreements ("IGAs") to implement FATCA by other governments (instead of directly by foreign financial institutions, per the law Congress enacted in 2010). Treasury says:
“Your letter also asks about statutory authority to enter into and implement the IGAs. The United States relies, among other things, on the following authorities to enter into and implement the IGAs: 22 USC Section 2656; Internal Revenue Code Sections 1471, 1474(f), 6011, and 6103(k)(4) and Subtitle F, Chapter 61, Subchapter A, Part III, Subpart B (Information Concerning Transactions with Other Persons)."
None of these sources of law contain any authorization to enter into or implement the IGAs.  It is patently clear that no such authorization has been made by Congress, and that the IGAs are sole executive agreements entered into by the executive branch on its own under its "plenary executive authority”. As such the agreements are constitutionally suspect because they do not accord with the delineated treaty power set forth in Article II. As Michael Ramsey wrote in a 1998 article, the danger is that if the president seeks to reach agreements outside of his plenary constitutional powers, the agreement lacks domestic legal effect.

Just to be clear, the fact that a document signed by an individual might or might not bind the United States as a matter of constitutional law does not mean that the United States will not honor whatever commitments the individual makes under such an agreement. The contrary is likely the case especially given the predicament Treasury found itself in, coupled with the pitiable small promises undertaken by the US in these "agreements."

But we should be clear that the analytical terrain we should be traversing is whether the scope of the plenary executive authority can suffice to support as a matter of law the promises made in some 80 or so IGAs (many of which are currently agreements in principle only). We should not be wasting anyone's time pretending that Congress has authorized Treasury or the Secretary of State to enter into the IGAs. It has not.

So let’s take a look at what these sources actually say.

22 USC 2656 is about the power of the secretary of state. It says:
The Secretary of State shall perform such duties as shall from time to time be enjoined on or intrusted to him by the President relative to correspondences, commissions, or instructions to or with public ministers or consuls from the United States, or to negotiations with public ministers from foreign states or princes, or to memorials or other applications from foreign public ministers or other foreigners, or to such other matters respecting foreign affairs as the President of the United States shall assign to the Department, and he shall conduct the business of the Department in such manner as the President shall direct.
If that is an authorization for the IGAs, it is a vague one at best. Does an IGA constitute “correspondences, commissions, or instructions,” “negotiations”, “memorials or other applications,” or “such other matters respecting foreign affairs”? Under what interpretation of such relevant provisions? Also there is nothing here about the content or scope of the treaty power hereby implicitly authorized. Is IRS saying that with this power the Secretary of State can bind the nation at will on any matter, without the need for the President to seek advice and consent from the Senate prior to ratification? If so this is an extraordinary claim that does not scan with either historical practice or constitutional theory. 

26 U.S. Code § 1471 is, of course, part of FATCA. It is entitled “Withholdable payments to foreign financial institutions”.  It sets out the reporting obligations imposed on foreign financial institutions and states that the Secretary is authorized to treat a foreign financial institution as “meeting the requirements” of 1471 if the institutions complies with procedures or requirements set forth by the Secretary or is “a member of a class of institutions” identified by the Secretary. 

There is explicit authorization in 1471 for the Secretary to engage in agreements with FFIs to implement FATCA. However where is the authorization in 1471 for the Secretary to engage in agreements with other countries to implement FATCA? It is not in the text, certainly.

Therefore to what specific provision of 1471 could IRS possibly refer when it suggests this statute authorizes individuals to sign agreements altering the reach of FATCA on behalf of the United States? There is clearly no explicit authority. Is it implied? If so, by what?

Moreover, many or most of the IGAs have been signed by officers of the Secretary of State, ambassadors, consulates general and others, and not by Treasury. Does s1471 also impliedly delegate its implied treaty power authority to those outside of Treasury who have signed on behalf of the United States? Certainly there is no explicit delegation here.

26 U.S. Code §1474(f), also part of FATCA, is the statutory authorization for the Secretary of the Treasury to 
“prescribe such regulations or other guidance as may be necessary or appropriate to carry out the purposes of, and prevent the avoidance of, this chapter.” 
There is no authority expressed in this provision for the Secretary to enter into agreements with other governments. Does IRS suggest that an IGA constitutes “regulations” or “other guidance”? Under what interpretation of that characterization does the Treasury interpret the promulgation of either regulations or other guidance as an authorization to negotiate an agreement with a foreign government?

26 U.S. Code § 6011 is entitled “General requirement of return, statement, or list,” and it states the parameters under which a person must make a return “[w]hen required by regulations prescribed by the Secretary.” There is authorization in 6011 for the Secretary to require taxpayers to fulfill various reporting requirements, including electronic reporting. There is no authorization in 6011 for the Secretary to engage in agreements with other countries to implement 6011. 

What provision of 6011 is IRS suggesting confers the authority to negotiate agreements with other governments without Senate advice and consent?  Does IRS mean to imply that each and every authorization that Congress gives Treasury for the prescription of regulations is an implicit authorization for Treasury (or its implied designees in other departments) to conclude agreements with other governments? If so, this is a surprising claim of executive power that is inconsistent with the treaty power described in Article II of the constitution. I would think Congress would like to know under what interpretation of Congressional direction to the Secretary to issue guidance, IRS or Treasury would conclude that it now holds the power to make treaties on behalf of the United States.  

In other words, if IRS stands by this authorization it is suggesting that any tax code section that authorizes Treasury to regulate implicitly contains both a treaty making power as well as the power to delegate authority to departments other than that specifically charged with implementing the statute. That is not a plausible claim.

26 U.S. Code § 6103 is entitled “Confidentiality and disclosure of returns and return information” and it provides that “returns and return information shall be confidential,” with exceptions provided by statute. There is authorization in 6103 for the Secretary to engage in agreements with taxpayers to implement 6103 (for example in the case of advance pricing agreements). There is no authorization in 6103 for the Secretary to engage in agreements with other countries to implement 6103. Therefore, as with 1471 and 6011, to what specific provision of 6103 does IRS refer, and under what interpretation of the authority given by Congress in 6103 to enter into agreements with taxpayers does IRS find the authority for anyone to enter into agreements with other countries?

26 U.S. Code Part III, Subpart B is entitled “Information Concerning Transactions With Other Persons” and it contains 26 US Code §§ 6041 through 6050W—a very broad set of statutes involving information reporting, none of which explicitly grant anyone the power to bind the nation to anything. Certainly nowhere in the subpart appears any express authorization for Treasury to enter into agreements with other governments in respect of s1471 or otherwise. Therefore the same questions I have raised with respect to 1471, 1474, 6011, and 6103 would seem to arise here.

In short I see no express authorization anywhere in any of these authorities for the Treasury to enter into the intergovernmental agreements. Moreover there is no precedent for such agreements, and they are being signed by US officials who are not members of the Treasury. Does it not seem at least noteworthy that an enormous network of bilateral tax agreements has been established, a network that dwarfs the existing tax treaty network in size and scope, all without any explicit Congressional authorization, and without any regard to the Treaty power clearly laid out in Article II of the Constitution? 

And why not cite the TIEA power?

I would add that is not at all clear why any list of authorizations for an individual to enter into agreements with other governments on behalf of the United States would not include 26 US Code § 274(h)(6)(C)(f), which has long been relied upon to by Treasury to find the authority to enter into tax information exchange agreements ("TIEAs") that were not expressly authorized by the statute (because they are not listed in Section 274 as beneficiary Caribbean Basin countries).  This statute has clearly been abused by Treasury in extending it way beyond what Congress intended. However, the fact that Congress has not complained suggests that it has acquiesced to the overreach. 

That makes the TIEAs good precedent for those who want to defend the IGAs as a matter of law. In omitting this, the only plausible source of support for the authority to bind the nation without the advice and consent of Senate, does IRS suggest that Treasury now backs away from this authority? If so, why would they do that? The answer is of course that IRS believes that if necessary the TIEAs can also be considered sole executive agreements, and as such a TIEA "does not need Senate or other congressional approval." This is an official claim that the IRS doesn't think Treasury or anyone needs even s.274 as a cover: the executive can simply act alone to achieve its tax goals through international agreements.

At the end of the day, it is clear that Treasury saw a real and serious need to work with other governments to make FATCA work. There is no disputing that fact, and indeed it is a step toward multilateral cooperation which should be celebrated if only it weren’t so lopsided, and if only it weren't being accomplished via the threat of economic sanctions for all the world’s tax havens except the United States itself. But no amount of need or want can sidestep the constitutional delegation of powers among the branches, and the treaty power is no exception: nor should it be. At least one Treasury official has already conceded that the explanation for the IGAs is that they are "executive agreements”, not Article II treaties. 

IRS and Treasury should therefore just admit that the IGAs are simply “sole” executive agreements—not authorized by Congress but entered into by the executive branch under its sole discretion. 

This is a tenuous position and it ought to fail constitutional scrutiny but for the fact that in the past, Congress has acquiesced to this exercise of power by the executive and it is likely to do so again, especially given how little has been undertaken by the United States in these IGAs. As Lee Sheppard pointed out in a Tax Notes article two years ago, "An executive agreement depends on the good will of the parties to enforce it.” And as Susie Morse also pointed out in Tax Notes last year, Treasury is very likely to try to enforce their part of the IGAs. 

Since the US side of the IGAs is to deliver very modest undertakings that Treasury also believes can be done without congressional approval (namely, extending the longstanding s. 6049-based information exchange with Canada to other countries), this is probably true; all IGA promises to alter the law in the future should be seen as what they are, unenforceable promises that are beyond Treasury’s control and so won’t be delivered. 

Therefore honesty is still the best policy for Treasury. Instead of citing non-existent statutory authority that is easily refuted by simple reading, Treasury should own what it is doing outright. These are sole executive agreements, they lack statutory approval, they undertake very little on the part of the United States, but they are an effective way of pretending to be cooperative so that other countries can save face as they submit to the threat of economic sanctions that is FATCA. There isn’t really any reason why Treasury shouldn’t acknowledge this reality, since it is, strictly speaking, of Congress’ own making.