A global revolution in corporate tax is taking place but it will not be televised
Published 18/02/2016 | 02:30
A quiet revolution is taking place across Europe. It isn't playing out on the streets of capital cities or in the debating chambers of national parliaments. It has been slowly happening with every newspaper headline about how little corporation tax some companies pay relative to their size.
It is also being played out at the OECD in Paris and now more recently at the European Commission in Brussels.
It is a revolution because moves are on the way which will fundamentally alter how much information major corporations provide to tax authorities about where they do business and how much tax they pay in different countries.
On budget day last October, so many of us were focused on how much Finance Minister Michael Noonan was going to shave off the USC, few noticed one of the measures introduced which could dramatically affect the presence of multinational companies in Ireland and how much they pay in Corporation Tax.
The budget included legislation on country-by-country reporting. This means multi-nationals, will provide every year aggregate information relating to how they allocate income and taxes. They will also include in the disclosure certain indicators of their economic activity and which parts of their group do how much business in which countries.
Ireland was on the "bold step" at the time. We were and still are, under investigation in Brussels in relation to Apple Inc's tax treatment. Irish tax professionals had flogged the "double Irish" around the world, and the country had been name checked by senior US politicians as a sort of tax haven, including by President Obama.
It was time to repent - but not too much. Repentance is all well and good but there is no point being the only good boy in the class.
If others were not going to behave themselves either, then we could just end up throwing away any competitive advantage we had.
We have had several changes in recent years aimed at removing the tax haven stereotype and show a willingness to introduce new measures first.
Now the EU is preparing legislation or a new directive on country-by-country disclosure across the European Union. Ireland has already signed up and announced legislation. One problem is that we may not have gone far enough.
It is easy to see the value of such a measure for tax authorities. As it stands, corporations have got better and better at using certain international tax structures to minimise their tax bills.
They can effectively decide where they pay tax and tweak how much of it goes where.
This has led to some very high profile cases, particularly in the UK, where some corporations are doing a lot of business but appear able to pay relatively little corporation tax.
British MPs have launched an inquiry into the UK's tax system after the government was accused of allowing Google to pay too little in a £130m deal.
The House of Commons Treasury committee announced that it would examine whether a radical shake-up of corporation tax was needed, amid concern that Google has been allowed to get away with an effective rate of 3pc.
But corporate taxes are a tricky business. In the past, if a country required too much disclosure or simply had too high a tax rate, corporations could locate somewhere else, despite doing a lot of business in that country.
If all EU countries have a similar disclosure level and they share the information with tax authorities around Europe, it is a lot more difficult for corporations to ignore or work around. This information does not disclose any illegal activity but simply shows how much business these corporations are doing in what jurisdictions. It won't be a template for tax authorities to suddenly charge them more corporation tax.
It will however, highlight where transfer pricing is taking place and allow the tax authority in each country to target audits more effectively. It could also highlight to certain countries where they should tweak their own tax laws and how much additional revenue they might receive if they did.
There could be another sting in the tail of this change.
The European Commission is considering full public disclosure of this information as opposed to just submitting it to tax authorities. This would be a game changer.
Corporations would have to publicly defend themselves from media and political criticism about where they pay their taxes.
The British chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, came out recently saying he would be in favour of full public disclosure. Reputations could be affected. Brands could be damaged.
But what would it all mean for Ireland? The new Irish legislation covers corporations with group revenues of more than €750m. There are around 75-100 of those in Ireland.
The EU legislation could go further by reducing that figure and drawing more firms into the disclosure net.
Right now across Europe and the US, major global multinationals are reviewing their corporate structures, how much business goes where and assessing where their taxes are paid.
These reviews will in many cases lead to more Corporation Tax being paid. The question is where.
We have already benefited from this gradual process as Corporation Taxes rocketed up last year. Ireland could actually see its Corporation Tax take increase into the future as companies fork out more in general. However, they will have to make sure their investment and resources in a particular country have the substance to match their profits. Equally, some companies could withdraw activity from Ireland. This is where other factors come into play. If Ireland can remain an attractive place to do business, and that may mean more lower income taxes to attract executives, we could do very well. Tax experts are divided about exactly what these changes will mean for Ireland. Cora O'Brien, tax policy director with the Irish Tax Institute, said there is still a lot to play for as companies conduct their reviews.
She links Ireland's chances of doing well out of this new regime with the overall attractiveness of doing business in Ireland which includes things like income tax levels.
The Irish Tax Institute is hosting a major international conference in Dublin next month on all of this. It is called 'Global Tax - new rules for a new era'. Some of the leading experts worldwide will be there to look at where all of these changes are going and to spell out what they might mean.