The European Union’s tax treaties with developing countries: leading by example?

Yesterday a report I wrote for the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group in the European Parliament was published. It was used as input for a hearing of the Parliament’s TAX3 committee, at which Hannah Tranberg from ActionAid, Eric Mensah from the Ghana Revenue Authority and UN Tax Committee, and Sandra Gallina of DG Trade spoke. (This link is to a video of the hearing, which begins with Margaret Hodge and Tove Ryding discussing Brexit, then moves on to the tax treaties discussion at around 16:30).

When the GUE/NGL approached me about working with them on this report, I jumped at the chance. It uses the Tax Treaties Dataset, a project funded by ActionAid and launched in 2016. Earlier this year I had used much of the same analysis in a European Commission workshop for treaty negotiators, and the comparative element certainly caught some of their attention. Just last week I used the dataset at a workshop of African treaty negotiators organised by the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, at which it helped them to begin the process of analysing their treaty networks and developing renegotiation strategies.

But the EU is partiuclarly important. Most of the world’s tax treaties – and 40% of those with developing countries – have an EU member as signatory. Combined with its commitment to policy coherence for development, this makes the EU uniquely placed to ‘lead by example’. Indeed, the European Parliament has already called for “Member States to properly ensure the fair treatment of developing countries when negotiating tax treaties, taking into account their particular situation and ensuring a fair distribution of taxation rights between source and residence.”

 

The report has two main messages, from my perspective. The first is that, while the recent attention paid to treaty shopping is most welcome, the basic balance between ‘source’ taxing rights – which allow countries to tax inward investment from the treaty partner – and ‘residence’ taxation in tax treaties with developing countries is also a problem.

The dataset, which includes over 500 tax treaties signed by developing countries, includes a measure how much of a developing country’s source taxing rights each treaty leaves intact. It turns out that EU treaties remove more source taxing rights than average, even when compared with other OECD members.

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What’s more, the difference is growing.

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Source/residence has been the elephant in the room in the debate over international tax rules in recent years, as we saw when it was dropped from the BEPS process at an early stage, only to re-emerge in the context of digital taxation. Countries conducting ‘spillover analysis’ or otherwise analysing their treaty networks need to take this into account.

The second message is that there’s a great deal of variety within and between countries’ treaty networks. There’s loads of variation within each EU Member’s treaties, and between the average values for EU members. The same is true when drilling down to individual provisions. So there is plenty of potential to ‘level up’ based on precedent

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The report echoes the European Parliament in arguing that, if the EU wants to be a leader on policy coherence for development, Member States need to level up the source taxing rights across the different provisions of their treaties with developing countries. Simply saying that on balance their treaties are no worse than anyone else’s – a point the report questions when looking at the EU as a whole – is not enough. The four summary recommendations are for Member States to:

  1. Conduct spillover analyses incorporating reviews of their double taxation treaties, based on the principle of policy coherence for development and taking into account guidance from the European Commission and other bodies.
  2. Undertake a rolling plan of renegotiations with a focus on progressively increasing the source taxation rights permitted by EU members’ treaties.
  3. Reconsider their opposition to a stronger UN tax committee, as the Parliament has previously requested.
  4. Formulate and publish an EU Model Tax Convention for Development Policy Coherence, setting out source-based provisions that EU member states are willing to offer to developing countries as a starting point for negotiations, not in return for sacrifices on their part.

Certainty in the tax treaty regime

Here’s the text and slides of a talk I gave yesterday at an event called Harnessing the Commonwealth Advantage in International Trade.

I want to talk today about issues related to tax treaties in developing countries, and their impact on tax certainty for multinational investors. To do this I think we have to consider two aspects of the tax treaty regime: the multilateral norm-setting processes at the OECD and United Nations, and the individual bilateral treaties negotiated by pairs of countries. The key point I want to make is that, at both these levels, the elaboration of a regime that constrains developing countries’ source taxation rights in ways that risk being seen as excessive is not sustainable in the long term.

Consider first the multilateral level. Last week I was reading a PWC document, ‘Navigating the Maze: Impact of BEPS and Other International Tax Risks on the Jersey Funds Industry [pdf].’ It notes that:

Countries are already diverging from suggested guidance from the OECD, which was meant to bring coherence and consistency.

This does not only apply to developing countries, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that in emerging markets there is a growing dissatisfaction with the OECD approach, as illustrated by the ongoing row over the status of the UN tax committee, and India’s recent financial contribution to its trust fund, which until then had been empty for over a decade.

Here are two quotes that illustrate this sentiment further:

“For developing countries the balance between source and residence taxation [is] very crucial. International tax rules with its preferences for residence based taxation [are] not in interest of developing countries.”

Eric Mensah, Ghana Revenue Authority, 2017 [pdf]

“The global tax system is stacked in favour of paying taxes in the headquarters countries of transnational companies, rather than in the countries where raw materials are produced.”

Francophone LIC Finance Ministers Network, 2014 [pdf]

It seems that, to maintain the integrity of the international tax system as emerging market voices become stronger, countries that favour residence-based taxation will need to accept greater flexibility within the instruments agreed at multilateral level.

Turning to the bilateral treaties that developing countries have negotiated, here I want to introduce you to some research I conducted at the LSE, funded by an NGO called ActionAid. ActionAid used it to inform a campaign that has targeted individual governments and treaties, calling for renegotiations.

Slide2

I took 500 tax treaties concluded by developing countries and had a group of LLM students code them for the main clauses that could vary on a source-residence axis, using an International Bureau of Fiscal Documentation analysis. We can use that data to plot each treaty along a simple axis from 0 to 1, where 0 means an overwhelmingly residence-based treaty, and 1 a more source-based treaty. Remember that 1 here represents the presence of the most source-based clauses within existing treaties, and doesn’t take into account the concerns about inherent bias in the parameters for those treaties set by the OECD and UN models. In this first slide you can see that treaties among developing countries, in light blue, are becoming marginally more source-based over time, while treaties between developing countries and OECD members are becoming more residence-based.

Slide3

The next chart shows some of the underlying drivers of those trends. You can see that permanent establishment definitions are becoming more expansive, perhaps reflecting changes to the model treaties, while withholding tax rates are trending downwards. There are diverse trends in different clauses within areas such as capital gains tax and taxation of services.

I want to talk to you about a few examples.

Slide4

Here we see Vietnam’s treaties taken from the same dataset. Vietnam has actually expressed a comprehensive set of observations on the OECD model convention, broadly following the UN model. So here a zero on the vertical axis means the treaty contains none of those positions and instead follows the OECD model, while 1 means it includes all of Vietnam’s observations. You can see that in the 1990s Vietnam signed a number of more residence-based treaties that are completely the opposite of its stated negotiating position. And of course, these are with many of its biggest sources of investment.

More recently, Vietnam has come to regret those earlier treaties, and has chosen to interpret certain provisions on PE and technical services in the way it wished it had signed them, rather than the way it did. Businesses are very unhappy, and in the words of the Vietnam Business Forum, it has:

made the application of DTA[s] of foreign enterprises impossible, effectively it obliterate[s] the legitimate benefit of enterprises.

The residence-based treaties that Vietnam signed when it was inexperienced and urgently in need of investment are creating uncertainty, rather than the stability that investors are looking for.

Slide5

You might be aware that a few years ago Mongolia tried to renegotiate a few of its treaties, and when it was unsuccessful it terminated them. They’re the treaties with the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Kuwait and the UEA, marked in black on here. But if you look on the bottom left, you see a number of treaties with OECD countries, including the UK and Germany, that have even more limited source taxing rights. Indeed, according to an IMF technical assistance report from 2012 [pdf]:

The Mongolian authorities are currently considering cancelling all DTAs and start building up a new DTA network with countries based on trade volumes and reciprocity in economic relations.

I’m told the IMF talked them out of this, but it is worth knowing that they considered it.

Slide6

Here is Zambia, a Commonwealth example. You can see the same pattern. Its earlier treaties were very residence-based. I did some archival and interview work on those early treaties, and you can see that when they were first signed, Zambia had a hugely under-resourced civil service, with no experience of negotiation, and other countries took advantage of this. The most egregious example is its treaty with Ireland, which had zero withholding tax rates on all types of payment. That’s in contrast to the East African community countries, which had very strong negotiating red lines, and as a result either walked away, or obtained more source-based treaties that today appear quite generous, but have stood the test of time.

Slide7

This chart shows a few renegotiations that have taken place in response to government and civil society concerns. You can see that Zambia’s renegotiations have focused more on updating treaties and closing loopholes, not dramatically shifting the balance of taxing rights. In contrast, Pakistan and Rwanda have both negotiated big overhauls.

So in conclusion, as the politicisation of the international tax regime continues, especially in developing countries, I think we’re likely to see growing demands for a rebalancing between source and residence not just in the multilateral setting, but also in individual treaties. My advice to OECD governments, and businesses who engage with them, is that tax certainty in the future depends on an enlightened approach to the tax treaty regime that leaves more developing country taxing rights intact.

Policy drift in international tax

The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of policy drift as a way to explain what might at times seem like perverse outcomes in the international tax system. This post is an attempt to road test this idea.

Policy drift seems to originate with this 2004 article by Jacob Hacker [pdf], which was then magnified by the seminal book he co-authored, Winner Take All Politics. It starts from two powerful insights. First: it is much easier for interest groups to defend the status quo than it is for them to change it. Second: if a policy does not adapt in response to changes in the economic or social world, then its effects may change. Combined, these insights show the effects of a policy may change over time because it is too difficult to make the changes needed to adapt it to changing circumstances.

Hacker discusses how economic and social changes in the US from the 1970s onwards, such as the decline in privately provided healthcare, exposed people to new risks. Efforts to adapt government social policies, which had originally been designed to protect people from such risks, were defeated in the political process, so that they no longer achieved the outcomes for which they had been created. As Hacker puts it, “formal policies have been relatively stable but outcomes have not.”

Policy drift is said to happen when it is hard to make formal and informal changes to a policy. There are two other concepts in the same literature that are worth considering. Where it is hard to make formal changes to a policy, but easy to ‘convert’ it by reinterpreting it, there can be an internal adaptation of a policy. Where it is easier to make formal changes but harder to convert existing policies, the outcome may be ‘layering’, in which a new policy is implemented on top of an existing one.

Let’s consider three taxation examples.

Property taxation

It’s 1991, and the UK government introduces a new tax to fund local council services. It is based on house prices, valuing every property in the country and putting it within eight price bands. 24 years later, all properties are still placed in a band based on an estimate of what their value would have been in 1991. There are many arguments for and against this approach, but you can make the case that it achieved a form of horizontal and vertical equity when it was introduced, especially compare with what it replaced.

But over those 24 years, the value of properties has not changed equally in different areas. People living in London, for example, where prices have risen much faster than the UK average, do very well out of a system that is based on what their property was worth in 1991. Successive governments have recognised this, but feared the electoral consequences of a reform that would increase the council tax charges of a large number of people.

It seems that an internal conversion – revaluation of properties – is a harder thing to achieve than a formal layering – the introduction of a new tax on the most valuable properties, which was proposed by some parties at the election just gone. Absent both, the policy has drifted, from a broadly progressive tax on property towards one that is flat at the higher levels.

Tax treaties

It’s 1970, and the government of a recently independent developing country wants to attract foreign investors, who will bring with them much needed capital and technical expertise. It offers them generous tax incentives, but it finds that these incentives are frustrated by the foreign tax credit system of the investors’ home country: the investor pays less tax in the developing country, but this just means they pay more tax in their home country instead. So the two countries conclude a tax treaty. The treaty requires the developed country to grant ‘matching credits’ so that firms can keep the benefits of any tax incentives, but in return the developing country must lower its withholding tax rates on dividends remitted by investors from the treaty partner. These lower rates transfer the burden of double taxation relief away from the developed country, which would otherwise have paid for it through its foreign tax credit, onto the developing country. Maybe that was a fair deal, maybe it wasn’t.

Now it’s 2014, and most developed countries have moved from a foreign tax credit system to a dividend exemption. The tax sparing credits are no longer necessary, because the developed country doesn’t tax its outward investors’ foreign profits. Meanwhile the lower dividend withholding tax rates no longer shift the burden of double tax relief from the devloped to the developing country, since the developed country has foregone the revenue either way. So now the agreement serves a very different function: it makes it cheaper for the investor to repatriate profits from the developing country, an effect that is paid for by the developing country. It distorts the market for inward investment by treating investors from this one country differently, and it might have become a conduit through which investors from third countries divert their investments to obtain the more generous treaty.

Maybe these present day effects are good for the developing country, or maybe they aren’t. But the policy has drifted, because the treaty certainly has very different effects from those intended when it was signed; furthemore, the original bargain between the two countries is no longer relevant, and the distribution of the costs and benefits between the two partners may have changed dramatically. There could perhaps be an internal conversion, by chosing to interpet the treaty in certain ways, but this would be difficult; formal change is tricky too, because it requires cancellation or renegotiation of the treaty, which might scare investors, and because if one country loses out from the shift in costs and benefits, the other country generally has no incentive to renegotiate!

International tax rules

For much of the 20th century, government representatives and technical experts sat in rooms developing the component parts of the international tax system. Let’s simplify and say that the purpose of this exercise was to reach a situation in which multinational companies’ tax bases were distributed among the countries in which they operated according to the contribution their operations in each country made to their overall profits. The deal was reached at a time when, broadly speaking, you needed a physical presence in a country to do that. (The arguments made for a withholding tax on management fees in the 1970s tended to be about preventing tax avoidance, not fair distribution of taxing rights). So the concepts and tools developed in the past all require some kind of physical presence.

In the 21st century, it’s become apparent that a physical presence is no longer a prerequisite for significant value-added in a country. So the system does not achieve this original purpose. Instead, it gives an advantage to those countries that are home to the physical establishments of businesses that generate a lot of value in other countries without one. Arguably, the source/residence balance has shifted in favour of residence countries. Certainly, the policy has drifted.

The OECD’s desire not to open up the source/residence discussion during its BEPS process illustrates the difficulty in achieving any formal change in these existing policies. That China and India have been attempting to re-interpret the core concepts that they’ve already signed up to, including through changes in the commentary to the UN model treaty, suggests that there may be some internal conversion afoot.

In any event, I think these concepts of drift, conversion and layering – and especially drift – are quite helpful in understanding the path-dependent development of national and international tax systems. There are, of course, proposals to rebuild both from the ground up. But such proposals need to take into account the political constraints and the economic and social developments that have moulded the status quo.

Dobbeltbeskatningsoverenskomster!

The Folketinget (Danish parliament) chamber

The Folketinget (Danish parliament) chamber

At the risk of turning this into a travel blog, here I am in Denmark’s parliament building, the Borgen, a treat for aficionados of the TV programme. I spoke yesterday at a hearing organised by the parliament’s fiscal affairs committee on Denmark’s tax treaties with developing countries. The hearing was provoked by ActionAid Denmark’s questioning of the Denmark-Ghana tax treaty, which was ratified recently by the Danish parliament.

The British Public Accounts Committee this was not, and there was some good natured discussion between the different sides. Everyone agreed that businesses prefer there to be more tax treaties in place. The MPs, business and NGO representatives all agreed that there should be more transparency in the negotiation process.

We all agreed that having a treaty might improve the prospect of Danish investment into a developing country. Denmark’s tax minister and the industry representatives all said that a key consideration – perhaps the main consideration – for Danish treaty policy was to help make Danish companies competitive in the markets in which they invest. All of these arguments fell short, in my view, of establishing a clear cut, generalisable and evidence-based case that this is to the benefit of developing countries themselves.

Another point that I took from the discussion was the need to untangle the main things that tax treaties achieve, in a world where the most significant forms of double taxation are generally relieved unilaterally in the absence of an agreement:

  1. Clarifying definitions, providing dispute resolution, and other technical matters that make double taxation less likely.
  2. Giving tax authorities the legal basis for cooperation in enforcement matters.
  3. Offering businesses the reassurance of a credible commitment to fair and ‘civilised’ (not my word) tax treatment in the future.
  4. Reducing the taxing rights of the developing (ie source) country.

The case that treaties are necessary to provide items 1, 2 and perhaps 3 is strong. There is a (debatable) economic case for reducing source taxation to attract investment, made well by Clive Baxter from Maersk yesterday. But why respond to that case through bilateral treaties, which are harder to alter if the facts change, and which distort the inward investment market by treating investors from different countries differently? Why should the quid pro quo for items 1-3 be item 4? The fallacy, it seems to me, is to conflate the case for cooperation through treaties with the case for lower source taxation.

Here is my presentation. I’ll update this post when the others are all online, but they will only be of use to Danish speakers!

Oxfam goes for the full Tanzi…but is that far enough?

“Revenue is the chief preoccupation of the state. Nay more it is the state”
– Edmund Burke

I spent the weekend with some old friends from the development sector. One of them, it now turns out, is working for a public relations consultancy. There was an awkward moment when I explained that I was working on international tax and my friend asked, with a sheepish grin, whether I was following BEPS. We were both following it from, well, different angles.

The most interesting moment in our conversation came when my friend mentioned clients’ fear of the ‘Margaret Hodge effect’. I can understand that, I thought. No company wants to see its executives thrown to the wolves in the Public Accounts Committee. But I had misunderstood.

“What my clients are concerned about,” said my friend, “is political interference in corporate tax policymaking.” I found this quite startling. Is it possible that businesses consider corporate tax policy to be a matter for private negotiations between them and the government, rather than the subject of public (and even parliamentary) debate as part of the government’s budgeting process?

The UK’s corporate tax regime has been dramatically overhauled over the last ten years, with a plummeting corporation tax rate and vast swathes of the multinational tax base exempted. This is a serious structural change in our tax system, yet there’s been barely a peep about it in public debate. And we continue to sign tax treaties, with only a cursory discussion in parliament each time. The public attention is only ever caught by the ex post impact of policy decisions in the tax returns of multinational firms. Hence why Pfizer’s bid for Astrazenica, and not the policy reforms that encouraged it, has been front page news.

I had this in mind as I read Oxfam’s new briefing paper on “Why corporate tax dodgers are not yet losing sleep over global tax reform” and Duncan Green’s blog post discussing it. Oxfam’s entry into the tax justice campaign has brought some fresh and interesting perspectives, and this is no exception. The paper argues that developing countries are unlikely to benefit from BEPS, for two main reasons:

Firstly, the business lobby currently has a disproportionate influence on the process, which it uses to protect its interests. Correcting the rules that allow the tax dodging practices of global giants like Google, Starbucks and others that lead to tax revenue losses in OECD countries will be difficult, given the size of the corporate lobby. But worse, perhaps, is that the interests of non-OECD/G20 countries are not represented at all in these negotiations.

It goes on to analyse the contributions to OECD consultations to demonstrate the overwhelming contribution from wealthy countries and business organisations. The paper calls for a three-pronged solution:

  1. Fully engaging non-G20/non-OECD countries in BEPS decision making
  2. Working towards a World Tax Authority to improve governance of international tax, along the lines proposed many years ago by Victor Tanzi.
  3. Widening the scope of the BEPS Action Plan to incorporate tax competition concerns, the redistribution of taxing rights, and reconsideration of the arm’s length principle

Oxfam, like other development NGOs, is keen to fix the problems it has observed with the OECD’s way of doing things. It is looking to change international institutional arrangements as a way of achieving this. The paper’s only real discussion about what happens at national level concerns “helping developing countries strengthen their fiscal administrations.”

This is all important stuff, but it’s missing something: a strategy to increase political engagement with corporate tax policymaking. International institutions can shape countries’ preferences and strategies, but the decisions they take (and maybe even the ways they work) are still products of the different positions taken by their member states. National politics matters.

If, as Oxfam argues, the business lobby has a disproportionate influence at the OECD, that influence won’t only be exerted at international level: it must also be applied inside the member states, who ultimately make the decisions at the OECD council. Is it wise to open up the source/residence debate within the BEPS process, as Oxfam proposes, when businesses favour reduced source state taxation? There is certainly a case for re-examining the political settlement at the heart of international tax institutions, but the outcome of such a process will surely follow the distribution of power among its participants.

If, as Oxfam also argues, developing countries are not participating in the decisionmaking, that isn’t just because the space for them is limited. It is also because they aren’t making the most of the opportunities available to them. Many of the UN tax committee’s most developing country-friendly initiatives in recent years have been led not by its developing country members but by members from OECD countries putting themselves in developing countries’ shoes, or by members from emerging economies whose interests do not always coincide with developing countries. That’s fine so long as international tax is a technical exercise, but an inclusive political process would cast these conflicts of interest in sharp relief.

Developing countries’ failure to take advantage of the opportunities that are already available to them can be seen in the tax treaties they have negotiated, comprehensively studied in an IBFD report for the UN tax committee [pdf]. Many significant clauses from the UN model treaty, which would confer on developing countries greater taxing rights, are absent from most of the tax treaties signed by developing countries. There are some examples in the chart below. I don’t know (yet) why developing countries often get such poor outcomes, but what happens in bilateral negotiations would surely occur in international negotiations too.

Use of UN model provisions in tax treaties between OECD and non-OECD countries

Source: IBFD for UN tax committee

Duncan Green situates the BEPS process in the later stages of the “Policy Funnel” (below), when “the technical content gets greater, and the chance to mobilize the public declines.” But corporate tax policy has been at that end of the funnel since the 1920s. The aim should be to drag it back towards a public debate.

The Policy Funnel (Source: From Poverty to Power)

The Policy Funnel (Source: From Poverty to Power)

What Oxfam is proposing would lead to an even larger technocratic tax community at international and national levels (a world tax organisation, and more tax authority capacity in developing countries). That may well be necessary. But what we need even more is for politicans and the public in each country to hold the technocrats to account. It seems to me that this can be done more effectively by beginning at the national level, looking at domestic tax rates, tax incentives, and tax treaties. Until that happens, I don’t think that the politicians of developing countries will pay enough attention to BEPS or anything of its ilk to get stuck into the politics and shift the centre of gravity of international corporate tax policy.

Have the source and residence principles become redundant?

How typical. You only just get your head round a concept that you learn it’s no longer useful. So it seems to be with the principles of source and residence, based on a thought-provoking conference at the Oxford Centre for Business Taxation last week.

To recap. The fundamental problem of international tax is to allocate between countries the right to tax income earned in one country by a company or person who is a resident of another. Under the source principle, the income is taxed where it arises, for example the country in which a road is built; under the residence principle, it’s taxed where the person earning the income resides, for example the home country of the road building company. This is lecture 1 in any international tax course, and it’s still the basis on which tax treaties divide up taxing rights. I’m interested in it because, in general, developing countries are “source countries” – investees – and developed countries are “residence countries” – investors.

I would already have said that tax havens confound this categorisation, because they’re often neither the country of source nor residence, but rather somewhere off to the side that allowing exploits the definitions of source and residence while actually being neither. But it seems there are at least two more ways in which the source/residence distinction doesn’t work any more, according to some of the speakers.

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Where should tax fit into the post-2015 development settlement?

Millennium Development Goals Postcards

Millennium Development Goals Postcards (Photo credit: US Mission Geneva)

As readers from development agencies will know, a huge and complex process is currently underway to develop a new set of global ordering principles for international development, to replace the Millenium Development Goals, which expire in 2015. Over the weekend I was happy to be able to attend a conference organised by the United Nations Development Programme, which brought together mostly African activists and academics to discuss the thorny question of financing this agenda. It was held at the Pan-African Parliament, a strange place that looks like a high security warehouse just outside of Johannesburg.

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