In the debate over offshore tax avoidance by multinational corporations, one proposal that should not be controversial is country-by-country reporting. The U.S. government does collect information on what profits corporations claim to earn and what taxes they pay in each country, but this information is not available to lawmakers or the public. Some developing countries that suffer the most from outflows of capital into offshore tax havens do not seem to have country-by-country reporting even for the purposes of tax administration.
And so, the declaration issued by the G-8 governments in Northern Ireland last week included a plea that “Countries should change rules that let companies shift their profits across borders to avoid taxes, and multinationals should report to tax authorities what tax they pay where.”
Note that this does not even call for such information to be made public but only available to tax authorities. Given that tax authorities in the U.S. already have this information and corporations like Apple are still able to artificially shift their profits into tax havens, this seems like an awfully small step towards reform. Perhaps if this information was collected and actually made public, then ordinary citizens would find out how many other corporations engage in the same type of offshore tax avoidance and demand reform.
But even a small step in this direction seems to be too much for officials at the U.S. Treasury Department to contemplate, as they rushed this week to assure multinational corporations that their interests would take priority over stopping tax avoidance.
An article appearing Wednesday in Tax Notes Today (subscription required) tells us, “With both the G-8 and the OECD’s base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) project examining expanded country-by-country reporting by multinationals, Treasury officials say the tax information should not be made available to the public.”
The article quotes Brian Jenn, an attorney-adviser with the Treasury Office of International Tax Counsel, saying “For us it is important that that information be restricted to tax administrations and not be publicly available.”
“Jenn said,” the article informs us, “that in addition to addressing concerns about uncoordinated legislative actions, the BEPS project is meant to ward off aggressive positions by tax administrations that could be ‘disruptive to multinationals.’”
This is an alarming statement because anything that stops offshore corporate tax avoidance would be considered “disruptive” to the companies involved in it. It’s a sure bet that Apple’s CEO Tim Cook would find it “disruptive” if the company had to pay taxes on the profits that it claims are generated by a zero-employee subsidiary that allegedly has no country of residence for tax purposes. This seems to confirm the suspicion that the OECD’s latest talk of working to stop corporate tax avoidance is really an effort to throw a few symbolic bones to the principles of tax fairness in order to prevent any real reform from developing.
Arlene Fitzpatrick, attorney-adviser in the Treasury Office of International Tax Counsel, also commented on the OECD’s BEPS project, saying “We don't want to have a situation where unilateral action is taken and you wind up with a situation where we have double tax rather than double nontax [profits not taxed in any country].” This statement defies belief, as the problem of double-non-taxation (that is, corporate profits being taxed in no country at all) is the defining feature of the current international corporate system and should be the number one focus of international efforts.
Jenn stressed that any solutions would be tailored as narrowly as possible and that solutions could be found in changing the OECD’s “transfer pricing” guidelines, which some countries have adopted for their rules.
But these “transfer pricing” rules are hopeless. They are an attempt to get different parts of a corporation spanning different countries to treat each other as unrelated parties engaging in transactions when they exchange, say, a patent or charge royalties for the use of a patent.
Tax authorities are supposed to apply an “arm’s length” standard, meaning the subsidiaries of a corporate group (the different parts of a multinational corporation) must charge market prices when they engage in these transfers with each other, otherwise (for example) a subsidiary in the U.S. will tell the IRS that it has no profits because it had to pay enormous royalties to its subsidiary in Bermuda (which is probably just a post office box). But what’s the market price for a patent for a brand new invention? Neither the tax authorities nor anyone else has any idea.
As we’ve argued before, the international tax system needs a more fundamental overhaul. But, sadly, the Obama Treasury Department resists fundamental change and resists even telling the public what corporations are claiming to earn and the taxes they pay in other countries so that we can determine how much profit-shifting is taking place.