According to the Daily Tax Report (subscription only) a Treasury Department official said publicly on April 8 that the government’s goal in international negotiations over corporate tax dodging is to prevent dramatic change and preserve the “arm’s length” standard that has proven impossible to enforce.

Last summer, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released an “Action Plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” in response to public outcry in several nations that multinational corporations are using tax havens to effectively avoid paying taxes in the countries where they do business.

At that time, CTJ criticized the plan as too weak, arguing that:

While the plan does offer strategies that will block some of the corporate tax avoidance that is sapping governments of the funds they need to make public investments, the plan fails to call for the sort of fundamental change that would result in a simplified, workable international tax system.

Most importantly, the OECD does not call on governments to fundamentally abandon the tax systems that have caused these problems — the “deferral” system in the U.S. and the “territorial” system that many other countries have — but only suggests modest changes around the edges. Both of these tax systems require tax enforcement authorities to accept the pretense that a web of “subsidiary corporations” in different countries are truly different companies, even when they are all completely controlled by a CEO in, say New York or Connecticut or London. This leaves tax enforcement authorities with the impossible task of divining which profits are “earned” by a subsidiary company that is nothing more than a post office box in Bermuda, and which profits are earned by the American or European corporation that controls that Bermuda subsidiary.

The rules that are supposed to address this today (but that fail miserably) require multinational corporations to deal with their offshore subsidiaries at “arm’s length.” This means that, for example, a corporation based in New York that transfers a patent to its offshore subsidiary should charge that subsidiary the same price that it would charge to an unrelated company. And if the New York-based corporation pays royalties to the offshore subsidiary for the use of that patent, those royalties should be comparable to what would be paid to an unrelated company.

But when a company like Apple or Microsoft transfers a patent for a completely new invention to one of its offshore subsidiaries, how can the IRS even know what the market value of that patent would be? And tech companies are not the only problem. The IRS apparently found the arm’s length standard unenforceable against Caterpillar when that company transferred the rights to 85 percent of its profits from selling spare parts to a Swiss subsidiary that had almost nothing to do with the actual business.

It turns out that some of the OECD governments are proposing reforms that challenge the arm’s length concept at least to some degree, but the US government is pushing a line that is more favorable to the multinational corporations.

Robert Stack, the Treasury Department deputy assistant secretary for International Affairs in the Office of Policy, is quoted by the Daily Tax Report as saying that the “main challenge for the U.S. is to get this project to work back from blunt instruments and towards policies that are understandable, fair, clear, administrable, and reach the right technical tax results.”

Stack also said that the “United States feels very strongly that the 2014 deliverable should be a clear articulation of intangibles under the arm's-length principle—and should reserve on the evaluation of potential special measures to treat BEPS [base erosion and profit-shifting] that depart from the arm's-length principle.”

The international tax system needs reform that is more fundamental than anything that either the OECD or the US is contemplating. Any system that relies on the artificial boundaries between the dozens (or hundreds) of entities in a multinational group and the ways they price transactions between them is unworkable. The US’s “deferral” system and Europe’s “territorial” system, which both require transfer-pricing rules and the hopeless “arm’s length” standard, should be eliminated. CTJ has proposed its own tax reform plan that would provide fundamental solutions. 

Thank you for visiting Tax Justice Blog. CTJ and ITEP staff will soon retire this domain. But ITEP staff are still blogging! You can find the same level of insight and analysis and select Tax Justice Blog archives at our new blog, http://www.justtaxesblog.org/

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