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.

What is the UN tax committee for, anyway?

In January, the UN tax committee sent out a call for submissions [pdf] to the update of its transfer pricing manual. The subgroup working on this update will be drafting additional chapters on intra-group services, management fees and intangibles, all topics that greatly interest developing countries and civil society organisations grouped around initiatives such as the BEPS monitoring group.

So who made submissions to the UN consultation? Four private sector organisations, two academics, the World Bank and the Chinese government. Not a single NGO. Meanwhile, considerable effort has been expended by civil society groups in drafting submissions to and reports about the OECD’s BEPS process, lamenting how issues of concern to developing countries are likely to be left by the wayside.

I think this is a pretty strange prioritisation. Why focus all your energies on a process that you suspect is not going to deliver results for developing countries, and ignore entirely a process with a specific mandate to do so? I debated this a bit on twitter earlier this week with, among others Alex Cobham of the Centre for Global Development, who told me he considered it “self-evident that BEPS is relevant to developing countries’ tax base in a way that UN Transfer Pricing Manual may not be.” (We were also discussing automatic information exchange, which I’ve discussed before).

I don’t agree with Alex on the detail. But let’s consider this from first principles. How do (or should) NGOs prioritise their campaigning resources? I suppose the equation is something like:

Importance = 1. Magnitude of potential impact x 2. Likelihood of success + 3. Effect on long term balance of power

In the short-to-medium term it’s important to take into account both the size of what is at stake and the capacity of civil society groups to influence it. But there’s a long term dynamic too that means it may be strategic (unstrategic) to work on something that is unlikely (likely) to succeed in itself but will contribute towards (undermine) a long term strategy.

When I ask them, NGO folks often suggest that they don’t want to prioritise the UN because it scores low on all three counts. That is:

  1. It’s just a talking shop, without the same influence as the OECD
  2. In any event, the UN’s track record shows that the OECD countries have got all the decisions sewn up
  3. And in the long term the UN would be too unwieldy and bureaucratic a forum to be a viable home for international tax politics

I’m going to try to explain why I think this calculation is wrong.

1. It’s just a talking shop, without the same influence as the OECD

Both the OECD and the UN are soft law bodies when it comes to tax treaties and transfer pricing. They set standards in the form of model treaties and guidelines, but these have no binding effect on countries unless they choose to use them in treaty negotiations and in their domestic transfer pricing rules. This applies to the outcomes of OECD deliberations just as much to those of the UN. (Nothwithstanding the OECD’s proposal for a mutlilateral convention to implement the treaty aspects of BEPS, which will presumably be offered as a fait accompli to developing countries, including negative as well as positive aspects for them).

To influence the distribution of the international tax base, then, you need to influence bilateral treaty negotiations and national lawmaking. When it comes to treaty negotiations, at the level of standard-setting you can do two things: influence the developed country position (the OECD model) and influence the developing country position (the UN and regional models). The former will be harder, but will it have a bigger potential impact than the latter?

As I mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago, a recent IBFD study shows that, where the model treaties diverge, the OECD model seems to be used more often than the UN model, which seems like a logical outcome of differentials in negotiating strength. So before even looking at how the model treaties might be changed, the best outcome for developing countries is surely to increase the prevalence of UN model provisions in negotiated treaties. In any event, the UN model is by no means ignored. Some of its most distinctive provisions, such as the services permanent establishment and source state taxation of royalties, have been adopted quite widely..

Turning to transfer pricing, you might remember that the first edition of the transfer pricing manual created some waves. This was mainly because of its inclusion of a annex on the ‘country practices’ of China, Brazil, India and South Africa, which emphasised their points of dissatisfaction with the OECD’s predominant transfer pricing guidelines. It is perhaps too early to see how influential the UN manual will be.

Accept for a moment the view, propounded by NGOs and sketched out in Chapter 10 of the UN manual, that OECD transfer pricing rules deprive developing countries of tax revenue because of enforcement troubles and an inherent bias towards countries that can capture the intangibles and high-value services. In that case an official document written by government officials discussing these issues and articulating alternatives is clearly very useful. Some people have suggested to me that the authors of Chapter 10 might be using it mainly as a tool to influence the OECD, but on the other hand there’s definite interest in its content from developing countries. South Africa indicates in its contribution that it is considering some aspects of the Indian and Chinese approaches.

2. In any event, the UN’s track record shows that the OECD countries have got all the decisions sewn up

I realised last October that although OECD members are in a minority on the UN committee, once you include the G20 members who are full partners in the BEPS process, the figure rises to 16 out of 25. And many of the individuals in key positions on the UN committee are the same people who represent their countries in the relevant OECD committees. So it would appear that for the UN to articulate any kind of alternative to the OECD, some of these people would need to set aside narrow national interest. Cynics feel that this is unlikely.

And yet the UN is doing alright. In the face of stiff opposition from a number of developed countries and the private sector, it’s ploughing ahead with a new article in its model treaty giving source countries the right to tax technical service fees. Developing countries often want such an article included when they negotiate, and they’re more likely to get it if it’s in the UN model.

I noted above that the UN’s transfer pricing manual is quite critical of the OECD approach, if only in its annex. Early plans for the manual proper had included greater divergence from the OECD approach, including discussion of fixed margins and formulary apportionment. During the drafting process these points were largely eliminated or relegated to the aforementioned annex.

If NGOs feel let down by what they see as the timidity of the UN committee, they might do well to study how their own (lack of) engagement in processes like this contributes to the outcomes in which they express disappointment. Having sat in on several sessions of the committee, I’m in no doubt that when matters like this come up for debate they stand or fall on the strength of feeling among the committee’s members, who in turn listen to the views of lobby groups. Business groups certainly think so, as evidenced by their submissions to the transfer pricing manual consultation.

If UN committee members were being lobbied at committee meetings, held to account in their home countries, and barraged with written submissions, all on the basis of a coordinated and specific agenda such as NGOs have developed for BEPS, the outcomes really would be different. That more confident exploration of unorthodox approaches proposed for the UN transfer pricing manual, for example, might well have made it into the final draft.

3. And in the long term the UN would be too unwieldy and bureaucratic a forum to be a viable home for international tax politics

I have less to say about this, because my experience of the UN is limited to the tax committee we have today. Most international relations theories accord power to international organisations in their own right, not just the sum of their members. An organisation’s power might come from its technical dominance, by exerting social pressure as monitoring reports from the OECD and IMF do, and through agenda setting, which is also a power that NGOs have. How much attention NGOs show towards an international organisation most certainly affects that organisation’s capacity to set the agenda, and its authority to speak about developing country issues.

It’s only one part of a bigger picture, of course, but nonetheless, development NGOs’ propensity to engage in media battles with Pascal Saint-Amans, and to attend OECD meetings in force, even if making critical comments, reinforces the idea that the OECD is where the action is for developing countries too. Of course the OECD can make technical reforms that help developing countries, but, since international tax is also about political settlements, I think it’s a strategic error to focus the overwhelming share of NGOs’ resources there at the expense of the UN.

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.

Legislative scrutiny of tax treaties: compare and contrast the UK and US

Here’s an interesting chart. Do you notice anyone missing? Interestingly, the United States is considerably less keen on signing tax treaties with developing countries than you might expect, given the amount of investment from it to, well, most places. Its only treaty with the whole of sub-Saharan Africa is with South Africa. When I looked in the wikileaks cables (of which more another day) it’s clear that many more developing countries want tax treaties with the US than get them.

Countries with the most tax treaties with developing countries

Source: IBFD data

I can think of a number of reasons for this. Perhaps colonial ties have bumped up the number of treaties signed by countries such as France and the UK. Perhaps the US system of deferral encourages the use of intermediate jurisdictions to structure investments, which in turn reduces the demand for direct bilateral agreements. When I asked people who know about what goes inside the US Treasury, they tend to cite limited civil service capacity as the main constraint, but I don’t get the feeling that the US has a lot less capacity than anywhere else.

The other thing I’ve heard, which sounds more plausible (or at least more interesting), is that in the US, tax treaties have to be ratified by a two-thirds majority of the Senate, and that can be a rocky ride. There are currently several treaties pending, Senator Rand Paul having made an issue out of the US-Swiss treaty. The Senate has been known to reject elements of tax treaties, including for example anti-abuse clauses in treaties with Italy and Slovakia. You can see the level of detailed examination in this report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It’s not just the US, however: the French senate rejected a proposed tax treaty with Panama a few years ago. This level of control must surely drive treaty negotiators mad, and I can quite imagine it acting as a brake on negotiations (though not, it seems, in France, which is at the top of the chart above). But surely it’s in everyone’s interests for the legislature to interrogate international tax instruments before they become law, rather than afterwards, as has happened with the Public Accounts Committee in the UK?

Well, speaking of the UK, I took a quick look at what happens here. Tax treaties are first scrutinised by the House of Commons’ delegated legislation committee, before being passed without a debate in the full house. So what does that scrutiny committee do? It turns out they have a nice little chat and then everyone votes in favour. For example, how long did it spend on 29 November 2010 considering six treaties with Belgium, the Cayman Islands, Georgia, Germany, Hong Kong and Malaysia? 25 minutes. Hungary, Armenia, Brazil, Ethiopia, and China on 1 November 2011? 25 minutes. Bahrain, Barbados, Singapore, Switzerland and Liechtenstein on 5 November 2012? 28 minutes.

In all cases, the treaties are passed with cross party consensus, perhaps in part because many were negotiated when Labour were in power. To be fair, there is a small amount of probing. When the treaty with Switzerland is discussed, a couple of backbenchers raise tax avoidance issues, while not at any point appearing to question the treaty itself. And there is this exchange during the 2011 session:

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): […] The hon. Gentleman raises a number of detailed questions. Let me try to address them as best I can. His first question is part of the tradition of these debates, which is to ask how much will be saved and what the financial benefit is of these agreements. It is part of the tradition, because it is a question that I asked on several occasions, and, whoever has been standing in the Minister’s position, the answer has consistently been the same: it is not possible to give a precise number for the revenue effects of these agreements—or indeed of other double taxation agreements. The overall cost or benefit of an agreement is a function of the income flows between the two countries, and the agreement itself is likely to change both the volume and nature of those flows by encouraging cross-border investment. It can be somewhat difficult to make any predictions about the impact of any one agreement.

Clearly, there is consensus on the point that it is in the UK’s interest to have an extended number of double taxation agreements, and the fact that we have such an advanced set of agreements is one of the advantages that the UK offers to international—multinational—businesses, but, as I say, it is not possible to identify particular sums.

Owen Smith: I fully accept the Minister’s point about the difficulty of prospectively projecting precise revenues, but does he feel that taken together these agreements—the Chinese one in particular—are revenue-positive for the UK?

Mr Gauke: I can go so far as to say that, in the round, these agreements are beneficial to the UK as a place to do business, and that that in itself has revenue advantages, but it is difficult to say whether each individual agreement works out revenue-positive or negative. In truth, it is not a zero-sum game. As with all international trade, there are advantages to being an open, outward-looking economy and to trading with other countries. The UK will benefit from being able to do that, and our advanced set of double taxation agreements will play a role in it.

And that’s the end of the matter. From this brief survey, I can’t tell whether this rather lacklustre scrutiny in parliament is a temporary blip, whether the Labour party are being a particularly compliant opposition, or whether this is how it has always been.

It is, however, more than occurs in many developing countries, where tax treaties can often be ratified by the executive without any legislative approval. That includes India, whose parliament has been powerless to change the controversial treaty with Mauritius. And even in countries where there is a vote, the tax officials I’ve spoken to say it usually descends into mud-slinging about all kinds of tax issues. After all, this is technical stuff that would require MPs to do a lot of homework, and is unlikely to catch the public imagination.

Getting the right balance is tricky. But tax treaties are not just arcane bits of bureaucracy, they’re actual tax policy, setting the tax rates paid by taxpayers and thus affecting the amount of public revenue available, as well as tax equity issues. And that deserves a proper scrutiny.

Thoughts on Deloitte and the China-Mauritius-Mozambique route

Sunday’s Observer carried a story, prompted by ActionAid, based on a presentation given by Deloitte to a group of Chinese investors. The presentation explained how to avoid withholding tax and capital gains tax in Mozambique by routing the investment through Mauritius. It’s great to see this kind of common or garden tax arbitrage highlighted and controversialised.

What caught my eye was Deloitte’s response. The company said:

It is wrong to describe applying double tax treaties, such as the treaty between Mauritius and Mozambique, as tax avoidance. Such treaties are freely negotiated between the Governments of the countries involved.

Double tax treaties exist to enable the countries concerned to strike a balance between the need to encourage investment, including cross-border investment, to raise tax revenue, and to work together with other countries who have the same legitimate concerns to raise revenue and promote business.

The absence of such treaties could result in a reduction of investment, and less profit subject to normal business taxes in the countries concerned.

Any discussion of tax treaties by tax professionals would typically be around the technical and administrative aspects of the treaties and not an expression of favour of any particular country at the expense of any other country.

Leaving aside the questionable empirical basis of the tax treaties-investment link, what interests me is the way the statement completely glosses over the difference between “applying double tax treaties”, and treaty shopping, i.e. structuring investments through an intermediate jurisdiction like Mauritius in order to obtain more preferential treaty benefits. It raises a couple of questions for me.

First, is that obfuscation just a good PR strategy, or is it the case that tax advisers don’t see this distinction as valid? Is advice on tax treaties always aimed at getting the best treaty rates available, with no conceptual (or ethical) difference between a direct investment and one via a tax treaty conduit?

Second, how can we say whether this is tax avoidance or not? At first sight, I’d argue that the intention of the Mozambique-Mauritius treaty is to provide benefits to Mauritian investors in Mozambique, and vice versa, while the absence of a Mozambique-China treaty reflects those governments’ intention that a Chinese firm investing in Mozambique should incur taxes at the non-treaty rates. In that interpretation, tax treaty shopping contravenes the intention of the treaties and is tax avoidance.

But it’s more tricky than that. It’s technically fairly easy to include an anti-abuse clause in a treaty, to spell out this intention. If there isn’t one, it might be because of poor negotiation by Mozambique, or Mauritian unwillingness to renegotiate, but it might also be that Mozambique intends investors from other jurisdictions to use Mauritius as a route to invest, since this reduces the perceived need to negotiate treaties with every potential source of investment. After all, Mozambique only has a handful of treaties, and its Mauritius treaty was signed just after Mauritius adopted the offshore regime that creates the problem. Meanwhile, China is a pretty aggressive negotiator, and those African countries that have signed treaties with China seem to have ended up with less taxing rights than Mozambique has from its treaty with Mauritius. So Mozambique may actually be better off letting Chinese investors exploit its treaty with Mauritius, rather than negotiating a treaty with China. Though it would be better off still in terms of taxing rights if it had neither!

And what about China? It only has a few treaties with African countries, but it does have a treaty with Mauritius. China has foreign tax credits, so the less its multinationals pay abroad, the more revenue it gains (of course a lot of its overseas investment is by state-owned enterprises, and there again, tax savings abroad go straight into government coffers). So maybe China doesn’t see any urgent need to change the status quo. That said, at least half of the African countries with which it has signed tax treaties also have treaties with Mauritius, which suggests a preference for its multinationals investing directly.

One of the main issues in all this is that we don’t know what developing countries intend when they negotiate treaties. To make matters worse, in many developing countries, including (I think) Mozambique, the executive has historically had the power to ratify treaties. So there’s no ‘will of parliament’ to look for, and no public record of any debate among decision-makers. Mozambique’s treaty was signed almost 20 years ago. If my experience talking to officials in other countries is anything to go by, it will be hard to find anyone who can remember how and why this treaty came about. The tax landscape has changed in the meantime, as has the economy, not least with the growth of cross-border services. This would be a good time for Mozambique to review its treaty network.

Is tax treaty arbitration really a bad thing for developing countries?

I’m at the United Nations tax committee annual session this week, where I’ve learnt that I have to be careful what I write here, after a couple of posts from this blog were included in an input document [pdf]. Erk!

I’ve been taking the opportunity to discuss with delegates the recent article [£] by the chief of the UN committee’s secretariat, Michael Lennard, on the inclusion of arbitration in tax treaties with developing countries. Lennard begins from the concern that I’ve raised here too, which is that the BEPS Action Plan implies the use of a multilateral treaty to introduce mandatory arbitration clauses into existing tax treaties.

There are a number of potential problems with arbitration from a developing country perspective, which Lennard outlines, drawing on the experience of investment treaty arbitration. Briefly:

  • the cost of a full blown arbitration could be prohibitive for developing countries, forcing them to capitulate on some occasions, or alternatively stacking the process in favour of more wealthy countries who can afford the most skilled and experienced legal representatives.
  • Because transfer pricing expertise is limited in developing countries, it’s likely that most arbitrators themselves will come from developed countries, in which case their neutrality – or at least their sensitivity to the realities of developing country tax administration – might be questioned.
  • There is a range of concerns about the lack of transparency in arbitration outcomes, which is a problem for scrutiny (I’ve shared before a paper by Alison Christians on this topic), but could also mean that countries and lawyers only have their own experience to learn from, further biasing the arbitration process against developing countries to whom arbitration would be new.

Lennard also talks about a range of ways that arbitration might work better for developing countries. I’m just going to focus on one aspect of this, which is the ‘simplified procedure’ that is used in the UN model’s optional clause. (It’s also known as ‘baseball arbitration’, because it’s used in pay negotiations in the US baseball league).

Under the simplified procedure, the arbitrator doesn’t have to produce her own solution that tries to synthesise the concerns of the two sides. Instead she just chooses between one side’s position or the other.

Delegates I spoke to here said that the analogy with investment arbitration doesn’t hold when the simplified procedure is applied:

  • The costs are much lower, because there’s no need for lengthy meetings, the process demands much less time from the arbitrator, and – so one committee member said to me – you don’t need a lawyer to prepare written submissions.
  • The arbitration tends to move countries’ positions closer together, because it’s an all or nothing outcome, and a more conservative position might be more likely to succeed.
  • The democratic scrutiny point notwithstanding, transparency isn’t such a concern because the arbitrator is only permitted to choose one side, not to explain her reasoning – so there is very little to learn from past experience.

These discussions have certainly changed my thinking a bit, but I’m not sure that it is as clear-cut as those who favour arbitration suggest. In a judgement-based process, as opposed to a purely rules-based one, the quality of submissions is sure to affect the outcome. And it’s inevitable that an imbalance between countries in resources, expertise and experience will translate into an imbalanced outcome. Isn’t it?