Transnational expertise and the expansion of the international tax regime

Hearson, M, 2018. Transnational expertise and the expansion of the international tax regime: imposing ‘acceptable’ standards. Review of International Political Economy 25(5):647-671.

We are living through a period of instability and change in the international tax regime, perhaps unprecedented in its depth and duration. It’s driven by economic and political changes, such as austerity politics, the digitisation of the economy, and the rise of China and other emerging powers. To understand the impact of these pressures on the institutions of tax cooperation, we need to know how the politics at international level works, and we have two complementary lenses to do so. One focuses on conflicts and alliances between states with different preferences: developed versus developing, offshore versus onshore, US versus Europe, and so on. The other takes a sociological approach, studying the transnational policy community that makes international tax rules and its interactions with other actors such as politicians and campaigners. To explain why the OECD, G20, EU or UN have reached a particular conclusion, we probably need to use both of these lenses.

But how do states arrive at their national positions? Those positions set the parameters for subsequent transnational discussions, but they also determine if and how states will implement international agreements. For example, with whom will they negotiate bilateral tax treaties, and on what terms? The same sociological lens is important here, because national tax policy is made by a community of people, many of whom are also involved in tax standard-setting at the OECD and elsewhere. At both national and international levels, international tax has historically been an obscure topic, the preserve of this small community of experts. Every so often – as in recent years – the community faces a conflict with others who aren’t steeped in the principles underlying the tax system, nor its technical details. Such conflicts can play out at the national level, as well as in the transnational sphere.

In an article published over the Christmas break, I explore this using archival documents that show how the UK formed its policy towards bilateral tax treaty negotiations with developing countries. I reach two important conclusions:

  1. Often it was the UK, rather than its developing country negotiating partner, that initiated and drove forward negotiations. The UK’s aim was to reduce the tax paid by British businesses abroad, making them more competitive in comparison to firms from other countries. So we can’t explain the expansion of the international tax regime into developing countries solely through a focus on developing countries’ actions.
  2. Tax experts, from the Inland Revenue and the business community, dominated policy formulation. They saw tax treaties as a means to lock developing countries into ‘acceptable’ OECD tax standards, a long game designed to protect British businesses from anything unconventional. Meanwhile, their non-expert counterparts in other government departments and businesses had different priorities derived from a focus on short-term tax gains. They were mostly unable to influence policy, however, indicating that business power over tax policy depends a lot on expertise.

I’ve uploaded all my photographs from the archive files that I cited into a zip file (warning: it’s very large: 660 pages and 273MB). Below is a selection to illustrate the argument.

First, Alan Lord, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue, sets out the tax expert view in 1976:

Here is an extract from the minutes of a typical meeting between the Inland Revenue and tax professionals from British businesses. As can be seen, businesses are being consulted not just about which countries to negotiate with, but also about the sticking points in individual negotiations – in this case Malaysia.

Below is one of my favourite exchanges, from a few months later. In contrast to the open attitude to the CBI tax committee, the same Inland Revenue civil servant (Ann McNicol, now Ann Smallwood) refuses to share even a list of current negotiations with other departments.

Extract from a letter from Smallwood, Inland Revenue, to Harris, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1973. Click to see the whole document.

Smallwood’s letter provokes a round of very angry memos within those departments, of which this is a good example.

Extract from a memo by Kerr, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1973. Click to see the whole document.

A particular bone of contention between the two groups (Inland Revenue and the CBI tax committee on the one hand, Foreign Office, Departments of Trade and Industry, and their business interlocutors on the other) was the stalemate in negotiations with Brazil. In the paper I show how the tax experts in business and the Inland Revenue did not want to set what they saw as a bad precedent by caving in to Brazilian demands to sign a treaty that contravened OECD standards. They came under strong pressure to sign a treaty “at any price” from business lobbyists who thought UK firms were losing out to German and Japanese competitors that did benefit from treaties with Brazil. The consequence, as Smallwood put it in 1975, was that business “spoke with two voices”.

Extract from a memo by Smallwood, Inland Revenue, 1975. Click to see the whole document.

Ultimately, as the absence of a UK-Brazil treaty today underlines, it was the tax experts who won the day. This illustrates that, while businesses have certainly helped shape the design of the international tax regime, the corporate lobby is far from monolithic in its preferences and its ability to influence. A lobbying position stands more chance of success if it is coherent with the underlying design principles of the international tax regime, and articulated by members of the community of tax professionals at its heart. Whether this conclusion still holds in an era of politicisation and rapid change perhaps merits some further investigation…

The Colombia UK tax treaty: 80 years in the making

Hearson, M, 2017. The UK-Colombia Tax Treaty: 80 Years in the Making. British Tax Review (4):375-384.

Today at 2.30pm, the UK parliament’s Third Delegated Legislation Committee will debate tax treaties with Lesotho and Colombia. It will be interesting to see how much debate really takes place, a matter on which I’ve commented before once or twice.

The hearing gives me a chance to plug my article in the British Tax Review last year [pdf], which traced the UK’s attempts to obtain a tax treaty with Colombia over 80 years. Its overtures were frequently rejected, at first because Colombia was not interested in tax treaties, then because it was bound by the terms of the Andean pact, and finally because it could not agree on terms with the UK, especially over technical service fees, an area where the UK position has changed. Since the article was published I had the chance to speak with a Colombian tax official, who told me that Colombia’s change of heart on technical service fees is a change of view about tax policy, rather than a concession forced by OECD membership, as I speculated in the article. Of course, the two developments might not be totally independent.

Here is how the article concludes:

The demands of OECD membership, combined with the unusually liberal use of MFN clauses during an era of less-than-strategic negotiation, seem to have backed a country once insistent on a “red line” over technical service fees, and before that sceptical of accepting the limitations on its taxing rights that come with a tax treaty, into a corner. Having been constrained in its negotiating position by the pro-source taxation stance of the Andean community, Colombia now finds itself pulled in the other direction by the OECD. Is this further proof that the world is moving inexorably towards an OECD-type tax system? The gradual but steady expansion of the OECD, given a fillip most recently by the announcement that Brazil would begin accession talks, might lead us to such a conclusion. In contrast, however, the continued expansion in the use of the technical service fees Article by developing countries, together with its imminent introduction into the UN Model Treaty, point towards a growing divide between states on this topic.

The long history of negotiations between the UK and Colombia perhaps demonstrates more than anything the extent to which the tax treatment of international transactions today is a product of historically specific events. Each side’s positions changed radically over time, from a refusal to accept each other’s terms to a willingness to concede them outright. The UK’s constant enthusiasm for a treaty with Colombia stands in contrast with the latter’s oscillation between hot and cold. If Colombia turns cold again, however, it will be left with a fossilised relic of its negotiating position in 2016. Given the rarity with which tax treaties are terminated or their terms substantially renegotiated, treaty networks are collections of these fossils. Hence Colombia is stuck with its MFN [most favoured nation] clauses, regrettable outcomes of its negotiating spree in the 2000s. The biggest irony, however, is reserved for the UK. Despite its apparent willingness in the 2000s to forgo a treaty with Colombia over withholding taxes on technical service fees, Britain retains, as a legacy of its negotiations from 1973 until the turn of the century, the largest number of treaties of any OECD Member containing just such a clause

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.

Visualising Uganda’s (and others’) tax treaties

Interesting news from Uganda, where the government announced in its latest budget that it has finished formulating its new tax treaty policy, and will be renegotiating treaties that don’t comply. Seatini and ActionAid Uganda will no doubt chalk this up as a success! The news report linked to above also states that the the government plans to amend the awkwardly-worded anti-treaty-shopping clause in its Income Tax Act, although there are clearly still doubts about its application. According to a report in Tax Notes International, there’s an ongoing mutual agreement procedure between the Netherlands and Uganda to try to settle the ongoing Zain capital gains case, which turns on the applicability of that clause. 105_screen_shot_2016_04_29_at_6_11_10_am

So this is good timing for my working paper with Jalia Kangave, based on a submission we made to the Ugandan government’s review, to have been published by the International Centre for Tax and Development.

Here’s a link to that paper on Researchgate

When writing that paper, I thought that Uganda had a pretty good record of tax treaty negotiations, but some new visualisations of the ActionAid Tax Treaties Dataset suggest otherwise. For these I am indebted to Zack Korman, and to tax twitter for introducing me to him. Below are some maps Zach has made using the ‘source index’ I developed for the dataset (read more about that here). Red means a residence-based treaty that gives fewer taxing rights to the developing country, while green means a source-based treaty that gives it more taxing rights.

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Links to high-res versions of individual images: Uganda map, Uganda bar chart, Vietnam, Mauritius, UK, Nordics

Uganda’s treaties are pretty red, meaning that most of its treaties restrict its taxing rights much more than average. Looking at the breakdown of the index shows that Uganda has some above-average withholding tax provisions, but its treaties are quite a lot worse than average in other areas. The slide show also gives some other countries for comparison. Vietnam’s treaties are mostly green, while Asian countries have got better deals from Mauritius (an offshore financial centre, not a developing country, in this context) than African ones. The UK’s treaties are pretty red, while the Nordics are very interesting: diverse in content, but consistent among themselves, giving good deals to Kenya and Sri Lanka, and worse ones to Tanzania and Bangladesh. This suggests that more source-based treaties with Nordic countries have been up for grabs for tough-negotiating developing countries.

Below I’ve posted some of Zach’s animated maps, on which it’s easier (and interesting) to follow the developments at earlier stages. There’s lots to comment on, but mostly I just keep watching them. The technical service fees map, at the bottom, is especially interesting, as it shows how countries have changed attitudes over time: watch how Pakistan suddenly changes position in the mid 1980s, for example.

World2

Above: All treaties in the dataset (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Asia

Above: Asia (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Africa2

Above: Africa (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Vietnam2

Above: Vietnam (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


UK2

Above: UK (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Nordic2

Above: Nordic countries (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Netherlands2

Above: Netherlands (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Slow WHT

Above: Management, technical service and consultancy fees WHT (green=included, red=excluded)

 

New data and working paper: measuring tax treaty negotiation outcomes

Today the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD) and ActionAid are launching a new dataset that I’ve developed over the last year. It’s the product of over a year’s work, mostly by an intrepid team of research assistants in the LSE law department, to code the content of over 500 tax treaties signed by developing countries. ActionAid, who funded the research assistants’ time, have also used the dataset to construct a league table for their campaigning work, and there’s a piece in the Guardian based on that. (I’m sure the headline, which criticises the UK, will provoke some debate.)

The aim of the dataset project is to make possible a whole lot of new research to get to the bottom of questions that have not been satisfactorily addressed in the literature to date. The jury is still out on whether tax treaties affect investment flows into developing countries, but do certain clauses matter more than others to investors? What determines the outcome of tax treaty negotiations: is it cooperation, power, or competence? What is a good outcome for a developing country from a tax treaty negotiation? Work on trade and investment agreements has already moved from a simple ‘is there a treaty?’ binary to studies based on the content of those agreements. With this dataset, we can do the same for tax treaties.

There’s also a working paper that I’ve written for ICTD, which sets out some of the initial conclusions I drew from simple descriptive work using the dataset. For example, here’s the chart showing how common treaty provisions that allow developing countries to tax foreign service providers have been over time. The difference between the two is that with a ‘service PE’, developing countries can only tax the company’s net profits, and only if it is physically present for a certain length of time; with a WHT clause, they can tax gross payments to foreign service providers, as most do in their domestic law, regardless of whether there is a physical presence.  The growth in both the provisions highlighted is quite notable.dataset1

The story for capital gains is more mixed. Article 13(4) is an anti-avoidance tool that allows a developing country to tax capital gains from the sale of a company whose value is mainly physical assets in the developing country, even if the company is located abroad. It’s becoming more common, which is not surprising since variations on it are included in both the OECD and UN model tax treaties. Article 13(5) gives a developing country the right to tax gains from the sale of any company resident in that country, even if the sale takes place abroad. Interestingly, this provision is becoming more scarce, though countries such as Vietnam have only recently begun to tax in this way in their domestic law. dataset2

I also constructed an index that evaluates the content of 24 different clauses within each tax treaty to assess how much of the developing country’s taxing rights it leaves intact (a higher value means a bigger share of taxing rights for the developing country). This chart shows that treaties between developing countries and OECD members are gradually becoming more favourable to the latter, while in contrast developing countries are starting to get better deals with countries outside the OECD.

Overall negotiated content by date of signature and type of treaty partner

dataset3

The downward trend is driven by falling withholding tax (WHT) rates, while the upward trend is primarily in permanent establishment (PE) provisions, as we can see by disaggregating the index into these different components.

Average values of category indexes for treaties signed in a given year

dataset4

This is new information that I don’t think people have been aware of before, so I’m quite excited about it. Here’s the summary of the working paper:

Measuring Tax Treaty Negotiation Outcomes:the ActionAid Tax Treaties Dataset

This paper introduces a new dataset that codes the content of 519 tax treaties signed by low- and lower-middle- income countries in Africa and Asia. Often called Double Taxation Agreements, bilateral tax treaties divide up the right to tax cross-border economic activity between their two signatories. When one of the signatories is a developing country that is predominantly a recipient of foreign investment, the effect of the tax treaty is to impose constraints on its ability to tax inward investors, ostensibly to encourage more investment.

The merits of tax treaties for developing countries have been challenged in critical legal literature for decades, and studies of whether or not they attract new investment into developing countries give contradictory and inconclusive results. These studies have rarely disaggregated the elements of tax treaties to determine which may be most pertinent to any investment-promoting effect. Meanwhile, as developing countries continue to negotiate, renegotiate, review and terminate tax treaties, comparative data on negotiating histories and outcomes is not easily obtained.

The new dataset fills both these gaps. Using it, this paper demonstrates how tax treaties are changing over time. The restrictions they impose on the rate of withholding tax developing countries can levy on cross-border payments have intensified since 1970. In contrast, the permanent establishment threshold, which specifies when a foreign company’s profits become taxable in a developing country, has been falling, giving developing countries more opportunity to tax foreign investors. The picture with respect to capital gains tax and other provisions is mixed. As a group, OECD countries appear to be moving towards treaties with developing countries that impose more restrictions on the latter’s taxing rights, while non-OECD countries appear to be allowing developing countries to retain more taxing rights than in the past. These overall trends, however, mask some surprising differences between the positions of individual industrialised and emerging economies. These findings pose more questions than they answer, and it is hoped that this paper and the dataset it accompanies will stimulate new research on tax treaties.

Taxing the digital economy is (going to be) an African issue

This is the second of three posts in which I’m reflecting on the recent report on BEPS and developing countries [pdf] during a short stay in Africa. Today, I’m looking at the digital economy. This visit to Africa has been the first time I’ve really grasped the scale of what mobile internet is doing to Africa. It’s huge. Half of all urban-dwelling Africans have smartphones, and mobile internet use is growing at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Nairobi, Kampala and Lusaka have all been festooned with adverts promising “world class internet”.

Buying a SIM card in Kampala, I commiserated with the vendor about the recent discontinuation of Skype on our outdated Windows Phone devices. Later, I debated the merits of Facebook and Whatsapp with the boy serving breakfast at my guest house. At a music festival I found the best implementation of a Twitter wall that I’ve seen.

Here in Lusaka, I had a long chat with the manager of a hostel about Zambians’ penchant for second hand Japanese cars, only to log on to the internet and find every website plastered with adverts for exactly that. And when you ask for directions, people just say “don’t you have Google maps?”

So I thought it quite odd that the BEPS and developing countries report – unlike the BEPS project itself – pretty much skips over the digital economy. McKinsey think that by 2025 the internet could be the same or even a bigger share of African GDP than it is in the UK – as much as ten percent. It’s precisely because Africa lags behind in everything from telephone lines to bank accounts to textbooks that this might happen: the internet, and particularly the internet on mobile devices, offers the chance to leapfrog that capital-hungry stage.

There are two sides to the digital challenge when it comes to taxation, as the BEPS digital economy report [pdf] outlines. The first is the challenges it creates for getting our current international tax rules to deliver the intended outcome, which is broadly that multinational companies pay tax on their profits where they generate them through a physical presence.

Leaving aside the stratospheric “double Irish” schemes and their like, the report discusses some nuts and bolts areas where companies have gone right to the edge of the definition of a taxable permanent establishment (PE), without crossing it. For example, OECD (but not UN) model treaties exempt a delivery unit from the definition of a PE, which is how Amazon avoided a tax liability in the UK despite its huge warehouses. Zambia is not well prepared for similar developments, as most of its treaties follow the OECD provision on this, not the UN one.

But it’s the second side of the issue that I think is big for Africa. This is the growing irrelevance of physical presence to modern business models. The OECD report talks about problems with ‘nexus’: how digital companies can make a lot of money in a country over the internet without needing any physical presence at all. It moots the idea of supplementing the physically-rooted PE concept with a new concept of “significant digital presence”, levying a withholding tax on digital transactions, or even abandoning PE altogether,

It also talks about the value attached to data: how digital companies can generate significant value in a country from user data without any money changing hands. There’s no mention of the French Colin/Collin report [pdf], which I thought was fascinating on this. Digital companies like Facebook and, I guess, WordPress, have millions of users creating value (and hence, profits) for them for free, so how does that affect a tax system that tries to allocate taxing rights based on where a company’s value is created?

It’s not just the likely size of the digital economy in Africa that makes this an important issue for the future here. It’s also the fact that digital’s exponential growth here is happening precisely because there isn’t the infrastructure to support physical presence. People will be increasingly downloading textbooks instead of buying them, Whatsapping instead of telephoning, faxing or writing, and using Facebook instead of sending out mailshots, Digital will render irrelevant some of the growth of the physical, taxable economy that already exists in more developed regions. (The exception, of course, is the mobile phone companies…but that’s for another day).

I imagine that the more radical ideas mooted in the OECD paper to deal with the challenges of nexus and data will face stiff opposition from certain countries that are big exporters of digital services. After all, this is not strictly speaking base erosion or profit shifting, because it’s about changing what the rules are intended to do, rather than making sure that they work.

Ordinarily, in this kind of situation I would suggest that developing countries band together to implement a home-grown, tailor-made solution to this problem, and add it to their domestic laws and the COMESA/EAC/SADC model treaties. But they are going to need help. The reason is that if companies are making money from their citizens without any physical presence, they don’t have any cash in the country to take the tax from. To collect tax revenue from digital companies, African governments will need the assistance of tax authorities in the home countries of those companies, which will in turn mean a treaty (either bilateral or multilateral) that supports this.

I’ve realised in my interviews here that developing countries are running just to keep up with the changes to model tax treaties. All their energy is taken up trying to understand, obtain and implement the newer treaty provisions, transfer pricing rules, and information exchange standards. What they aren’t doing so much is evaluating them. So I’d suggest that countries such as Zambia stop, take a breath, and think about what they are likely to want to tax in ten or twenty years’ time. Then they’ll be ready to throw themselves into building a future-proofed set of international tax rules that works for them.

Time we scrutinised China’s tax treaty practice, too

Democracy in action: David Gauke at Monday's delegated legislation committee session

Democracy in action: David Gauke at Monday’s delegated legislation committee session

On Monday the UK parliament took a total of 17 minutes to scrutinise new tax treaties with Zambia, Iceland, Germany, Japan and Belgium. I’ve complained before about how paltry these debates tend to be, and was all set for another blog along those lines. There was, indeed, much to grumble about. No questions from the opposition about the UK’s renegotiated treaty with Zambia at all, a week after the IMF warned that developing countries should exercise “considerable caution” when entering into tax treaties.

Instead, Labour’s Shabana Mahmood asked how the UK’s treaty making priorities were set, and why there is no treaty with Brazil. The response from the Minister David Gauke was considerably less informative than what I’m sure Mahmood could have found out by asking, say, her colleague Stephen Timms, Gauke’s predecessor.

But something interesting did come up when Gauke was introducing the Zambia treaty. He noted that the withholding tax rates have been reduced in line with Zambia’s treaty with China. And indeed they have. It seems to be China, often regarded as the champion of source state taxation at the UN tax committee, which is responsible for the lower withholding tax rates. I’m going to explain here why I think both the UK and China have questions to answer about these treaties.

The UK-Zambia renegotiation: a missed opportunity

The UK-Zambia renegotiation looks like a ‘balanced package’, meaning that Zambia will have gained and lost in roughly equal measure. Looking at the treaty, I don’t think it can be seen as a win for Zambia.

What it lost was withholding tax rates. Zambian tax on dividends to British portfolio investors will be reduced under the new treaty from 15% to 5%, and tax on royalty payments for the use of British intellectual property will drop from 10% to 5%. This matches what’s in the 2010 Zambia-China treaty [pdf], so it looks like Britain was keen to keep its investors competitive relative to their Chinese competitors.

By way of context, Zambia’s non-treaty rates are much higher, 15% and 20% respectively. We can argue about the economic case for this level of withholding tax, but treaties are not just about rates, they’re about the right to raise rates. It will be five years before Zambia can re-examine these low withholding rates in its treaty with the UK.

What Zambia got in return for the reduced withholding tax rates was the UN concept of services permanent establishment, which will allow it to tax services provided within Zambia by British businesses or individuals. To do so, Zambia won’t need them to have a physical fixed base in Zambia, as it would have done before, but it will need them to be physically in Zambia, furnishing services, for at least 183 days in a given year.

(There are also some modernising changes, which may in practice benefit Zambia more than the UK. This includes simple anti-abuse wording such as the “beneficial owner” clause in the withholding tax articles and a “property rich companies” clause into the capital gains article. It also includes information exchange and assistance in recovery articles. These should be good for Zambia, if it takes advantage of them. The information exchange clause could, for example, allow Zambia to get hold of country-by-country reporting on British companies if that proposal is implemented by the OECD.)

But the overall picture, taking into account the lower withholding taxes, is of a treaty that is still much more disadvantageous to Zambia than one based on the UN model would have been. I’m not even sure it’s a better position than the OECD model. Since Zambia was not nearly as aggressive at negotiating after independence as, say, Kenya, it started this renegotiation from a lower base: already low withholding taxes, no taxing rights over British airlines, limited capital gains tax rights, and no right to tax management fees, to name a few examples.

In a context in which some countries are re-examining their tax treaties with developing countries, and organisations such as the IMF are calling into question the benefit of tax treaties on current terms, there would have been a strong case for the UK to seek not a balanced negotiation, but a reapportionment of taxing rights towards Zambia, in line with the UN model. It’s a real shame that the treaty slipped through parliament on Monday without anyone at least asking about this.

China is driving the falling withholding tax rates

This argument for a more pro-source taxation treaty between the UK and Zambia would be easier to make if the 2010 China-Zambia treaty had been more generous. But in fact the terms of the two treaties are near identical. On the face of it, it seems quite likely that Zambia has been bounced into this renegotiation to help keep British mining, agriculture and manufacturing companies more competitive in the face of competition from China. These companies will benefit from the lower withholding tax rates but are unlikely to be affected by the services permanent establishment quid pro quo.

The IMF report talked about “strategic spillovers” from tax policy, in which one country’s policy pushes other countries towards a response. I’m now starting to wonder if China’s negotiating stance might be having just such a strategic spillover, contributing to the decline in withholding tax rates in treaties also picked up by the IMF. Below you’ll see that China’s treaties with sub-Saharan countries have the lowest withholding taxes in a sample of countries investing into Africa.

Withholding taxes in treaties with sub-Saharan countries, 1973-2012

Withholding taxes in treaties with sub-Saharan countries, 1973-2012

China’s treaties are newer than other countries’, so what if this trend is just an artefact of the general decline? Not so if we look at just the last 20 years, where the story is much the same, with only Mauritius (which has several zero withholding tax treaties) having a more advantageous treaty network.

Withholding taxes in treaties with sub-Saharan countries, 1993-2012

Withholding taxes in treaties with sub-Saharan countries, 1993-2012

Let’s now test whether those three Chinese treaties in Africa are typical of China’s treaties more generally. This time we’re looking at all low-income countries. Not only is China the largest signatory of treaties with this group among my sample, it also emerges as one of the most demanding negotiators.

Withholding tax rates in treaties with low-income countries, 1993-2012

Withholding tax rates in treaties with low-income countries, 1993-2012

Withholding taxes are of course only one part of the source-residence balance in a tax treaty. I took a quick look at the China-Africa treaties, and – aside from the services permanent establishment.- there is no sign that they include pro-source provisions such as withholding taxes on management fees, or a “limited force of attraction”. It’s been well-documented that China favours expansive source taxation in its treaties with outward investors, while denying them to capital-importing developing countries.

The UK-Zambia treaty seems to be an example of a strategic interaction between two countries, one (the UK) with a longstanding investment base in Zambia, and the other (China) posing a threat to that investment. It’s all very well to criticise countries like the UK for not being more generous in negotiations with developing countries, but in doing so, critics should be careful not turn a blind eye to countries outside the OECD, who may even be the ones leading the race to the bottom.