Opinion Brendan Keenan

Sunday 29 November 2015

Brendan Keenan: Fancy a tax break? Try an Irish coffee and a Dutch sandwich

Ireland's 'tax haven' status is becoming uncomfortable but there's little sign of any real political will for reform

Published 18/11/2012 | 05:00

IT could have been worse. As well as the 'double Irish', we might have had 'Irish coffee' as a way of describing multinational tax avoidance schemes.

In this case it turned out to be Dutch coffee. I presume such a thing would be made with gin instead of whiskey, which sounds awful. It might be going too far to say the same of Dutch attitudes to corporation tax, but it's tempting.

The case in question was the hearings by a British parliamentary committee into schemes by MNCs to reduce their corporation tax. All legal, of course, but I liked the comment by the committee chairwoman: "We are not talking about illegal, we are talking about immoral."

Ah now, there is one for the philosophers. As I'm sure you know, one of the most famous questions in history is whether it was moral to pay taxes to Caesar. (As it happens, the tax in question was a household charge. For the answer, see Mark 12: 13-17).

Whatever about the question, the UK Public Accounts Committee was asking the right people. Ranged before it on Monday were Amazon, Google and Starbucks; with HQs in, respectively, Luxembourg, Ireland and the Netherlands.

Corporate tax avoidance is nothing new. Several decades ago, there was a huge fuss when it emerged that a property firm headed by the Duke of Westminster (then said to be Britain's richest man) had effectively never paid tax.

Thanks to a 17th-Century dowry of a farm called Mayfair, the duke has the ground rent on much of central London (including, probably, where MPs sit). The Palace of Westminster is not going anywhere – so, if the duke could legally eliminate his tax bills, it is a doddle for the kind of companies up before the committee last week.

That is because, unlike the palace, their properties are not anywhere. They are essentially intellectual properties – brilliant algorithms in the case of Google; brilliant marketing in the case of Starbucks; brilliant organisation with Amazon.

The latter two at least have tangible coffee and books, but it is what they do with them that makes all the money.

Starbucks actually buys its coffee from a Swiss subsidiary, for some obscure tax reason, and funnels its profits via a complex tax arrangements with the Netherlands known as a "Dutch sandwich". Amazon employs thousands of people in UK warehouses, but records hardly any taxable profits there.

A typically incisive column by John Kay in the Financial Times last week pointed out that intellectual property is the basis of modern, advanced rich economies. No one gets rich selling coffee: Starbucks got rich franchising people to sell Starbucks coffee.

Such companies are perfectly entitled to charge fancy prices for their ideas and knowledge. As Mr Kay pointed out, it is not merely smoke and mirrors. Apple may pay manufacturers in China $200 for the things inside an iPhone, but the finished article costs $700.

The problem for tax authorities is that the gains from this intangible wealth can be assigned anywhere, and are assigned where taxes are lowest. Ireland is a beneficiary, but its position is becoming more uncomfortable.

A traditional defence for its low profits tax rate was the lack of reliefs and offsets, which meant the tax actually paid was close to the 12.5 per cent rate. If it ever was, this is no longer the case. Schemes such as the 'double Irish', where the intellectual rights are located in some tropical tax haven and the royalties paid to an Irish subsidiary, lets the effective tax rate to fall well below 12.5 per cent.

The other defence, which still holds, is that everyone is at it. Governments want to both collect tax and also attract investors seeking to avoid paying it. In the same week as the hearings, EU courts ruled that UK taxes on dividends paid by foreign subsidiaries were unlawful and must be repaid – perhaps €5bn in all.

These competing interests give grounds for optimism that, if serious proposals for change emerge, in Europe or the USA, little will come of them.

Optimism on its own may not be enough. One of the best ways of capturing more of MNC profits may be the common tax base proposed by the Commission. This would seek to have more tax paid where sales are made, rather than where company treasurers land the profits.

The Irish Government has said it would look at this, but it seems more threatening than a modest increase in the tax rate. Even if nothing comes of it – as the Government hopes – Ireland, as a recipient of rescue funds, could be picked off separately.

It is a curious, but perhaps a valid reason to stop borrowing to pay our bills as soon as possible. A tune may be the ultimate in intellectual property, but he who pays the piper calls it.

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