Friday 31 October 2014

Richard Curran: Noonan bows to US tax pressure

Published 20/10/2013 | 05:00

CONCESSIONS: Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan with the expenditure report and Budget proposal last week. Photo: Frank McGrath

WE have seen the demise of the boom-time jumbo breakfast roll. Are we about to witness the end of the double Irish Dutch sandwich? The answer seems to be not just yet.

The Irish Government blinked first in the stand-off with the United States Senate committee and various other international commentators regarding our role in helping mainly US multinationals avoid paying billions of dollars in tax.

In last week's Budget, Michael Noonan announced that the Finance Bill would contain new measures preventing multinationals from having Irish-registered subsidiaries that were not resident for tax anywhere.

The initiative marked a change of tack on Ireland's part and was a real concession. But we will be incredibly lucky if it ends there.

Apple Inc was the most famous US corporation to use a stateless Irish-registered subsidiary structure to help it reduce its global tax bill by close to $40bn (€29bn) over several years.

The Noonan remedy looks like it only affects Apple and a very small number of other corporations using that approach. The more traditional and more widely used "double Irish" structure will not be affected by this. Apple would be free to revert to the double Irish after the Finance Bill.

So it wasn't too surprising when US Senator John McCain, who has led the charge against Ireland on this issue, gave a very limited welcome to Noonan's announcement.

Government policy on this seems to be that Ireland is prepared to move forward on greater co-operation on tax avoidance measures but it doesn't want to lose a competitive advantage if others don't move at the same time.

Ireland is already the subject of an EU probe in this area (as are Luxembourg and the Netherlands). It would seem very unfair for us to make a serious change on our own and hand over a clear tax advantage to either of those countries for nothing.

The announcement by Noonan last week will not lead to companies like Apple paying more or less corporation tax in Ireland. It doesn't have a direct taxation cost or gain for us.

However, if further concessions had to be made, which undermined the existing double Irish structure, that could have a much bigger direct and indirect impact on our tax take.

The fact that many of the big US corporations involved have genuine substantial investment in Ireland and employ a lot of people makes it more difficult for them to just up sticks and leave because of a very specific tax change. But it doesn't make it impossible that over time they might see Ireland's attractiveness wane a little due to other changes to the tax system.

Our 12.5 per cent corporation tax may look reasonably secure, but this is an international debate about getting companies to pay the 12.5 per cent and not just 2 per cent as some have done. The problems arise because of mismatches in international tax codes.

But there is no doubting the scale of the contribution made by US corporations to Ireland Inc. In the decade from 1999 to 2009, American corporations paid one-third of total Irish corporation tax receipts.

Of the top 250 companies in Ireland in 2009, US corporations paid 48 per cent of all the corporation tax.

Noonan had little choice to make some concession on the stateless subsidiary phenomenon. International pressure was just too great.

It will be trickier to extract further concessions but the US Senate committee, and some a lot closer to home, will keep pushing hard.

Ryanair acts on air tax cut

Ryanair's announcement of one million extra seats into Irish airports, coming after Michael Noonan announced the scrapping of the €3 air travel tax, was a real case of putting the cart before the horse.

The Government had already given a commitment to scrap the tax if airlines were willing to increase capacity as part of a job-creation initiative for tourism. Aer Lingus is expanding North American routes next year and Ryanair clearly felt the time was right to lay on extra seats because of recovery in Europe and in Ireland.

And why wouldn't the low-cost airline expand capacity, given that its Irish routes are so profitable? According to Goodbody Stockbrokers, average fares for Ryanair on Irish routes are €70, a significant 13pc higher than its overall network average.

The zero tax will hit the Exchequer. Dublin Airport alone would have accounted for around €28m in travel tax receipts last year. If airlines bring in substantial numbers next year, it won't be because the air travel tax is gone.

At €3, the tax was incredibly low anyway. They are getting very upset north of the border where passengers flying out of Belfast pay UK air travel tax rates. A family of four flying to Europe pays about £52 (€61.40) in tax, while a trip to North America for the same family would set them back about £268 (€316.65).

This has boosted northern passenger numbers flying out of Dublin. In fact, Dublin Airport is up around one million passengers in the last 12 months.

If Ryanair can bring lots of extra people into Ireland, it will be good news for the economy and the Exchequer. Research shows that the average overseas visitor to Ireland brings in €142 for the Exchequer when Vat on their spending, etc, is included.

The added Ryanair capacity alone could bring in around €100m for the Exchequer, depending on who they are, what they spend and what the load factors are.

That would be a good result. But would it have happened anyway, if the €3 had stayed in place? We will never know.

Bord Gais sale fails to excite

WHO would have thought there would be just two final bidders for Bord Gais?

The State company, being sold off as part of the Troika bailout programme, should have been a highly sought-after asset.

Not only does it have the lion's share of the growing gas market in Ireland, but it has a whole load of other assets, such as wind farms, which were very expensive to acquire.

It also has an interest in the electricity market with a growing customer base.

We are told that international buyers are looking for steady, strong utility businesses like Bord Gais. Yet, interested parties have been dropping out and the mooted €1.4bn price tag doesn't look like being met.

Reports suggest that Centrica has bid less than €1bn while Viridian is north of the €1bn mark.

There is speculation that the process has been too inflexible in relation to what assets can be sold and when. This may have affected the price tag and level of interest. What is it about selling state assets? It never goes to script.

Sunday Independent

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