Some political questions for Unitary Taxation

It sometimes feels like, when discussing unitary taxation [pdf], one is expected to self-identify as either a UT advocate, interested in how it could be made a reality, or a sceptic, determined to defend the status quo. I’m neither. As a political scientist, I want to understand (among other things) how our international tax instruments came about, how they affect what individual countries do, and how different actors influence national and international policymaking. These are empirical questions that I think are relevant to the UT debate.

Unitary tax is certainly a case in point for each of these questions. If it really is a better system than transfer pricing, then a political economist would want to explain the persistence of the latter. It seems clear enough that developing countries, when they decide to get serious about taxing multinational companies, head almost automatically down the transfer pricing route. Yet the people making these decisions are often, in my experience, very sharp, with a healthy scepticism of the international tax institutions from which transfer pricing standards have emerged. So have they considered other options? Are their decisions based on legal or economic preference, political calculation, or the hegemonic power of the OECD guidelines? I’d like to know.

There is a tremendous body of legal literature arguing that unitary taxation would be a more effective way to administer corporation tax than transfer pricing. I find this more convincing than the argument for the status quo, as made for example in the OECD guidelines. This seems to boil down a political impossibility theorem: to prevent double taxation there would need to be global agreement on a formula, but this would be impossible, so we should stick to the status quo.

What I find odd about it is that the same surely applies to transfer pricing, and yet there has never been a global agreement on those standards: just an agreement between OECD countries. Everyone should do what the OECD countries do, it seems, not because of its technical merits, but because it would be too difficult to do anything else.

I’ve argued elsewhere that moves in some of the BRICS countries are specifically undermining any notion that there’s an international consensus on the arm’s length principle. What India and China are doing is not, like Brazil, just based on the idea that they have found a better way to approximate the arm’s length price: they seem to argue instead that they are entitled to a larger-than-arm’s length share of taxing rights, because that’s what they consider fair.

If there has been a breakdown in the transfer pricing consensus, and one that leads to double taxation, that substantially lowers the bar for UT: it no longer needs a tight global consensus in order to match transfer pricing. Furthermore, if a debate is opening up over the fair distribution of taxing rights, that’s comfortable territory for unitary taxation, where the debate is articulated clearly over the choice of formula.

In making a judgement about which international tax system is best, we need to ask ‘best in what way?’ I think we can look at it through the classic three-way lens of tax policy valuation:

  • Equity: does it produce a fair (we might say ‘progressive’) result?
  • Efficiency: does it minimise the role of tax factors in shaping economic decisions?
  • Administrability: can it be administered and enforced effectively without imposing too large a burden on taxpayers and revenue authorities?

Looking at one of Sol Picciotto’s recent papers, it seems that his main argument in favour of unitary taxation is an administrability one: under UT there would be less avoidance and evasion than under transfer pricing. (He also touches on the impact of tax planning on economic efficiency, and we could discuss how it affects equity as well). Efficiency is interesting, but I am certainly not able to do the kind of economic modelling that we’d need to predict behaviour change under UT.

But what if we start from equity? There is the question of equity between taxpayers, and in particular how the tax treatment of multinationals compares to domestic firms – a matter of vertical equity. But I am interested in ‘inter-nation equity’. How would (or indeed could) unitary taxation affect the distribution of taxing rights between countries, and in particular between developed and developing countries? Sol’s paper ends on this point:

Some might also wish to see even more ambitious projects for global taxes, which might be used for international redistribution to assist development. Those, however, are topics for another occasion.

To me, this is a political question. Considering how different formulae would change the distribution of taxing rights is the starting point, but you can’t end there: you have to ask what a politically viable settlement would look like. If global consensus is needed, is it possible to imagine one in which developing countries have a bigger share of taxing rights than under transfer pricing? If global consensus is not needed, how are developing countries likely to act? One hypothesis might be that larger, more powerful economies would adopt formulae that maximise their tax revenues, just as they are doing with their transfer pricing standards, while the choice of formula could become a matter of tax competition for smaller countries.

Of course it may not be a zero sum game. If avoidance and evasion are reduced under UT, the overall cake to be divided up would be bigger. In that case, it may just be a question of working out how to divide up the spoils.

My view is that these questions can’t be asked through only thinking about unitary taxation in the hypothetical. Key to determining if unitary taxation produces a more equitable outcome is developing a model of how countries behave in international tax. To do this, we need to study how countries act under the current international tax system – both unilaterally and in international negotiations. Coincidentally, that is what I am trying to do!

PS: on the technical side, I’m also watching the International Centre for Tax and Development’s unitary tax workstream and the unitary taxation project on Andrew Jackson’s blog with interest

 

Satellites in geostationary orbit: a new tax justice issue?

Side view of Geostationary 3D of 2 satellites ...

Side view of Geostationary 3D of 2 satellites of Earth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I made an amused reference to item on satellites in the new UN tax committee’s agenda, I wasn’t really sure what it was about. Richard Murphy thought it might be a plan to create tax havens in space. But, now that the UN secretariat have released some preliminary documents for the committee meeting next month, I think it may be a very good example of the differing interests of developed and developing countries in international tax.

In the most recent update of the OECD’s model tax treaty, there’s a discussion about whether a satellite in geostationary orbit (that is, always above the same point on the earth’s surface) could be a permanent establishment (taxable entity) in the country over which it orbits, or to which it transmits signals. Here is the full quote from the OECD model treaty as given in the UN document [pdf]:

5.5 Clearly, a permanent establishment may only be considered to be situated in a Contracting State if the relevant place of business is situated in the territory of that State. The question of whether a satellite in geostationary orbit could constitute a permanent establishment for the satellite operator relates in part to how far the territory of a State extends into space. No member country would agree that the location of these satellites can be part of the territory of a Contracting State under the applicable rules of international law and could therefore be considered to be a permanent establishment situated therein. Also, the particular area over which a satellite’s signals may be received (the satellite’s “footprint”) cannot be considered to be at the disposal of the operator of the satellite so as to make that area a place of business of the satellite’s operator

The OECD position is unanimous and, so it suggests, inevitable based on other aspects of international law. But consider this: most of the world’s commercial satellites are owned by companies resident in OECD countries. Many (perhaps all) developing countries have satellites permanently orbiting over them and broadcasting signals onto their territory, while down at ground level they have no companies making profits from this industry. Under the OECD position, there is no possibility of developing countries raising corporate income tax from this sector.

There may be a philosophical discussion that is much broader than tax, as the OECD commentary suggests, about ‘how far the territory of a State extends into space’. But I imagine that the consequence of the point about the satellite’s ‘footprint’ is that a state has no right to treat a satellite as a taxable entity if it is, say, broadcasting commercial TV to its residents, or providing GPS positioning to people on its territory.

If my assumptions are correct, that makes for quite an interesting discussion. A quick hunt around online suggests, for example, that the fixed position of a satellite in geostationary orbit means that it is not considered as movable property as far as US state tax is concerned – which might imply that it is a fixed place of business for international tax purposes. What would be the positions of the BRICS, some of which have their own burgeoning space sectors? Already, an OECD consultation document [pdf] implies that there were disagreements on this issue among its members.

I would guess that smaller developing countries have not considered this matter at all. In any event, I will certainly look forward to the discussion in October!

The United Nations Practical Manual on Transfer Pricing: a bluffer’s guide

Logo of the United Nations

Logo of the United Nations (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week saw the official launch of a 495-page document by the United Nations tax committee, its new Practical Manual on Transfer Pricing for Developing Countries [pdf]. The final product has been four years in the making and is an impressive, introductory-level guide to transfer pricing. So definitely worth dipping in and out of if you’ve never quite got your head round exactly how international rules divide up the tax base of a multinational company.

Because of its length, few people outside those who follow the UN committee in depth have really understood what the manual is about, and its implications for the international politics of taxation. So here’s a crib sheet on some of its more controversial aspects.

1. The manual is hardly the product of a group of tax mavericks

The subgroup responsible for drafting the manual includes two members of the OECD’s Working Party 6, the technical group responsible for its transfer pricing guidelines – indeed the subgroup’s Norwegian chair is also a bureau member of WP6 – as well as the head of the transfer pricing unit of the OECD secretariat. The subgroup had several private sector representatives, including people from Ernst & Young and Baker & Mackenzie, who did large amounts of drafting, and Shell’s global transfer pricing manager.

This was balanced by government and private sector representatives from developing countries (many of whose countries also have the status of observing participants over at WP6). I understand that there were some quite heated exchanges at times, and the group certainly did include some considerations unlikely to have been given much airtime at the OECD.

2. The main body of the manual is consistent with the OECD guidelines

To set the context, we need to understand the UN committee’s position on the OECD transfer pricing guidelines. The 2001 edition of the UN model convention explicitly endorsed the arm’s length principle, and recommended that countries implement it using the methods set out in the OECD guidelines:

the Contracting States will follow the OECD principles which are set out in the OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines. These conclusions represent internationally agreed principles and the Group of Experts recommend[s] that the Guidelines should be followed for the application of the arm’s-length principle which underlies the article.

The Manual defines the arm’s length principle as, “an international standard that compares the transfer prices charged between related entities with the price of similar transactions carried out between independent entities at arm’s length.”

The 2012 update to the UN model convention also endorses the arm’s length principle, but it is more circumspect about the OECD guidelines. This is because in 2011, when the updated model convention was agreed, the Brazilian, Indian and Chinese committee members recorded a reservation to the paragraph of the 2001 model quoted above. (The model conventions are the views of the individual members of the committee at the time they are agreed). Rather than attempting to find a consensus statement for the new model convention, the committee agreed to quote what their predecessors had said in 2001, and then add the following text:

The views expressed by the former Group of Experts have not yet been considered fully by the Committee of Experts, as indicated in the records of its annual sessions.

So we can see that the UN committee’s position on the role of the OECD’s transfer pricing guidelines has changed over the course of this session (though it continues to endorse the arm’s length principle). Depending on how this evolution continues under the new committee membership, future versions of the transfer pricing manual might have the scope to carve out a more distinctive methodology for developing countries. But that was ruled out early on for this manual. The subcommittee concluded, as its chair reported back to the full committee in 2010, that its mandate required that the Manual maintain “consistency” with the OECD guidelines, which the UN model at that time – the old version – recommended that countries follow.

3. Consistent, but not identical

The transfer pricing subcommittee’s mandate, from 2009, embodies the balancing act that anyone working on transfer pricing in developing countries faced. The subcommittee must ensure:

a) That it reflects the operation of Article 9 of the United Nations Model Convention, and the Arms Length Principle embodied in it, and is consistent with relevant Commentaries of the U.N. Model.

b) That it reflects the realities for developing countries, at their relevant stages of capacity development.

c) That special attention should be paid to the experience of other developing countries.

An earlier proposed outline for the manual had included among subheadings on transfer pricing methods ‘current’ and ‘alternatives’. Under the latter, a single bullet point says. “Global Formulary Apportionment – an introduction (alternative method for applying the ALS or alternative to the ALS?).” This was effectively ruled out by the mandate, but there was still a question about how to balance “consistency” with the OECD guidelines on the one hand with “reflecting the realities for developing countries” on the other.

The UN committee continued to discuss ‘simplifications’ to the methods included in the OECD’s transfer pricing guidelines. For example, in 2010:

The discussions of the group of experts, however, included an exchange of views at some length regarding the use of presumptive arm’s length margins, safe harbours and formulas when applying arm’s length pricing profit methods….[Monique van Herksen of Ernst & Young] explained the potential benefit to developing country tax administrations in making use of presumptive margins and safe harbours in relevant circumstances. Additionally, she mentioned as an idea to be considered that the United Nations, in an appropriate form, might issue temporary industry margins based on research and statistics to be used by taxpayers and tax administrations as arm’s length presumptive benchmarks.

The final manual outlines these kinds of simplifications (although not van Herksen’s final proposal quoted above) but it doesn’t propose them as alternatives to the OECD guidelines – instead it notes that the latter are currently being updated to endorse the use of safe harbours. In the future, as both the OECD and UN consider how developing countries can simplify the implementation of the arm’s length principle, it will be interesting to watch the interplay between their respective documents.

4. The manual sets out the contours of current transfer pricing debates, and business is not happy

As I blogged at the time, the US Council for International Business wrote a rather angry letter [pdf] to the committee ahead of its final discussion of the manual last year. One section that it was unhappy about was 9.4.2, which according to USCIB, “ought to be deleted in its entirety. In our view, the only purpose of this section is to undercut the value of the OECD [transfer pricing guidelines] as the global standard in the area of transfer pricing.”

That section is still in the final version, and it still notes that, “the interpretation provided by the OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines may not be fully consistent with the policy positions of all developing countries.” It is summed up as follows:

developing countries may wish to consider the relevance of the OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines, along with the growing body of UN guidance and other available sources, when establishing their own domestic and cross-border policies on transfer pricing.

It’s hard to view this as a dramatic policy statement by the Committee. Rather, it’s an accurate description of the current state of affairs, and the concluding recommendation is made in the context of dispute avoidance, for which developing countries need to consider the actual practices of countries with which they may get into a dispute.

5. Chapter 10 is probably the manual’s biggest contribution

During 2011, as the manual developed, its outline started to include a chapter 6, on ‘The [Possible] Use of Fixed Margins’, otherwise known as ‘the Brazil chapter’. Although it existed in draft form, this chapter – a description of the Brazilian approach to transfer pricing, which is not consistent with the OECD guidelines – was never published on the UN website. By 2012, it had disappeared from the manual, replaced instead by a chapter 10, which unlike the rest of the manual “does not reflect a consistent or consensus view of the Subcommittee.”

I’ve heard that the proposed ‘Brazilian chapter’ was the subject of a lot of controversy, as well as variously that it was opposed by OECD members, lobbied against by the OECD secretariat, and even fought by other large developing countries, who didn’t see why Brazil should get a chapter all of its own. Certainly it seems inconsistent with the way the subgroup interpreted its mandate (see 2 above).

Whoever opposed the Brazilian chapter may instead have created a monster in chapter 10. It’s probably the only detailed description of Brazil, China, India and South Africa’s approach to transfer pricing, both how they follow and how they differ from the OECD methods. Significantly, these contributions are expressed not just in terms of the legal and administrative realities, but also the policy objectives underlying them.

It seems unlikely that smaller developing countries will read this chapter and try to adopt the methodologies it outlines. Rather, chapter 10 functions as a comprehensive critique of the OECD guidelines – almost a manifesto – endorsed and in most cases written by tax officials from some of the world’s most powerful economies. As a focal point in transfer pricing discussions, it is politically very significant.

The nature of this critique is the subject of a separate blog.

6. The political significance of the manual depends on what happens next

The UN manual contains a lot of very useful text that, on a technical level, will be very useful for developing countries. The current committee wants the manual to develop in the future, and it seems clear that the UN’s arrival on the transfer pricing scene is a fundamental change in international tax governance.

The UN Manual is not an alternative to the OECD Guidelines. Yet. It could evolve in that direction, creating a counterweight in the same mould as its model treaty, but that depends on what the new committee decides to do with it.

It also depends on two more things. First, on the unresolved discussion concerning the UN model convention’s position towards the OECD guidelines. Further work on the UN manual will inevitably be framed in terms of the model convention, which is the committee’s signature document, so the tension between OECD members and larger developing countries on this point is significant.

Second, it depends on the OECD, which has been working hard to reach out to developing countries [pdf]. Institutionally, it has brought many of them into its new Global Forum on Transfer Pricing, several are observers on its standards-setting committees, and there’s of course its Tax and Development Task Force. In terms of content, its project on transfer pricing ‘simplification’ has already incorporate some of the measures mentioned in the UN manual, and may even go further. So the OECD may succeed in creating a broad enough tent to regain its UN endorsement. It’s hard to see, though, how Chinese and Indian measures, which place them at odds with OECD countries, could be incorporated by the OECD itself.

Do the BRICS present a challenge to the governance of international tax?

For campaigners, journalists and academics, the more interesting answer to the title question of this post would clearly be “yes”. It’s fascinating to think that we might be living through a paradigm shift in the politics of international tax, with the OECD struggling to maintain its relevance in the face of a more and more divergent position from its most powerful non-members. But is that just wishful thinking?

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What will BEPS mean for developing countries?

English: The logo of the Organisation for Econ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Researchers at the OECD are not free to think the unthinkable. They have to take account of the interests of each and every member state.” Or at least that’s what a recent paper in the Review of International Political Economy concludes from its interviews with civil servants. Yet thinking the unthinkable, or at least “thinking out of the box” is just what the OECD secretariat promised to do in its jargon-tastic paper on “Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” yesterday. (It has clearly already had some governmental approval, judging from the extensive footnotes expressing different countries’ reservations about the legal status of Cyprus).

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Why I love the United Nations tax committee, part 1

International tax, the way countries coordinate and negotiate tax rules between themselves, is often talked about as if it’s about finding technical solutions to technical problems. But it’s not. Just as the tax system inside a country is at the absolute core of its political debate, so you can look at international tax and see right to the heart of global political economy. What I love about UN tax committee meetings, such as the one I attended this week, is that you can see this in action.

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