British tax treaties with developing countries, 1970-1981

It’s been quiet on here because of a field trip in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, of which more anon. In the meantime, I’ve been given the opportunity to present a paper based on a chapter of my thesis several times this autumn. It’s a historical study of the politics of Britain’s tax treaty negotiations. I presented it at the excellent African Tax Research Network conference earlier this month, where a few treaty negotiators told me it was interesting to see what goes (well, went) on behind the scenes on the other side. I’ll be giving it again at the Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation’s doctoral workshop, and as the papers there are posted online, I thought it might be time to post it here, too.

Here’s the abstract:

Why have developing countries concluded so many double taxation treaties with developed countries? Much existing research assumes that this diffusion results from the active pursuit of such treaties by developing countries, which have been willing to give up considerable taxing rights through them, in order to attract inward investment. This paper uses archival documents to examine treaty negotiations between the UK and developing countries during the 1970s. It finds that in many cases negotiations were in fact driven by the UK as a means of increasing the competitiveness of British firms in developing country markets. It also reveals a divide between the tax specialist community, for whom tax treaties were a project to export ‘acceptable fiscal standards’, and generalists in business and government, for whom they were a means of securing lower effective tax rates. When these two groups’ objectives came into conflict, it was generally the experts who determined the UK’s policy objectives.

Here’s a link to the PDF.

Tax competition: Tax Justice Network and the Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation agree!

The [corporate tax] system allows countries to compete with one another in a manner that destabilises the system itself. Countries compete to attract economic activity and to favour ‘domestic’ companies…Such a goal is not easily reconciled with another goal often explicitly held by governments: ensuring that companies should pay to some country or countries a fair amount of tax on their global profits.

– Michael Devereux and John Vella

The effective tax rates on multinational corporations are being pushed steadily downwards, allowing multinationals increasingly to free-ride on the public services that everyone else pays for.

– Tax Justice Network

My term’s teaching is over, which means a return to blogging. Conveniently, several new – and related – papers popped into my inbox this week. There’s “Ten Reasons to Defend the Corporate Income Tax” from the Tax Justice Network, and two from the Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation, “Business Taxation under the Coalition Government” [pdf] and “Are we heading towards a corporate tax system fit for the 21st century?” No love lost between these two organisations, so it’s interesting to see how much common ground they share.

TJN’s paper, written by Nick Shaxson, is typically polemical, smartly designed and peppered with quotes from authoritative sources in support of its case, which is of course that corporation tax is good, and under threat. Shaxson marshals an impressive battery of sources in support of his argument, although the polemical tone, natural from a campaigning organisation, often left me suspecting that the other side of the argument had not been done justice. For example, a lengthy footnote convinced me that “numerous independent bodies have concluded after exhaustive studies that the burden [of corporation tax] largely falls on the owners of capital — that is, predominantly wealthy people”, with a split between capital and labour of something like 75/25. The claim is that numerous, not all, studies find this, and numerous papers are indeed cited, but I still wish that the studies finding a different result had been included, too, even if only to debunk them.

This point came up at the launch event for “Business Taxation under the Coalition Government”, a collective publication of the OUCBT. Chris Wales from PWC, who was a special adviser to Gordon Brown and now advises Labour on corporation tax, was there to suggest what Labour might do in government. When the Treasury minister David Gauke asserted that the incidence of corporation tax falls predominantly on (small-L) labour, Wales retorted that the cut in UK corporation tax rates over the past five years does not appear to have been passed on to workers, given the stagnation in wages over the same period.

Tax cuts in the UK

“The UK’s tax-cutting corporate model since 2010 is a terrible model for anyone to copy – for all the evidence so far suggests that the experiment has been a disaster,” says TJN, citing Reuters research suggesting the creation of just 50 jobs. Because TJN’s argument is about growth, it doesn’t rely on the absence of a link between taxation and investment, and indeed Shaxson is happy to concede the existence of such evidence. His case is as follows:

Many of these studies focus on gross benefits stemming from a tax cut (i.e. they measure investment levels), without also considering all the tax and other costs as outlined in the rest of this document: lost revenue, damage to other parts of the tax system, steeper inequality, greater rent-seeking and externalities, and so on. From the perspective of those designing national tax policies – which is the perspective that matters most – it’s the benefits net of these costs that matter.

The OUCBT report agrees with TJN that it’s near impossible to isolate the effect of the UK reforms on investment, and seems to accept TJN’s point in a footnote to its discussion on the effects of different tax rate measures:

Such measures help in comparing the UK to other countries, but only relative to the costs associated to the corporate tax system: they tell us whether the UK corporate tax burden is low enough to attract and foster investment in competition with other countries, ceteris paribus. They are not suitable to derive conclusions on the broader welfare implications of tax policy measures or on the broader economic performance of the UK.

Earlier on, the report finds an annual tax cost for the next financial year of £7.5 billion, noting that “[b]y any standards, these represent large costs, which must be met either by other taxes raising more revenue, lower spending or a higher deficit. This represents a clear trade-off with the gains in competitiveness.”

Setting that to one side for a minute, the OUCBT discussion of the effects of different tax rate measures on investment was new to me and certainly interesting. The authors distinguish between three different tax rates:

  • the headline rate, which they say is what incentivises profit-shifting;
  • the effective average tax rate (EATR), which they say affects the number of investments (the extensive margin); and
  • the effective marginal tax rate (EMTR), which they say affects the size of investments (the intensive margin).

The UK is now very competitive in terms of the EATR, but not so much the EMTR. This should have a positive effect on investment into the UK, because,

There is strong empirical evidence that differences in the EATR across countries affect the location of investment projects. The EATR is relevant in a context where a firm needs to decide among a set of mutually exclusive projects. This is the typical decision faced by a multinational choosing to locate investment in one of the OECD countries.

In contrast, the higher EMTR might discourage investment from capital-intensive sectors:

The UK tax component of the user cost of capital (EMTR) has historically been higher than the OECD average and this has not changed under the Coalition. For large companies, the UK capital allowances regime remains one of the least generous in the OECD. This affects firms’ cost of capital negatively, especially for businesses with substantial investment in physical assets such as plant and machinery and buildings.

According to the report, the UK has actually tightened its capital allowance regime for large companies during the past five years. So pointing to headline rates alone is not enough to demonstrate the death of corporation tax. The tax base needs to be considered, and in the UK case changes here seem to have slightly mitigated the impact of the falling rate.

Effective Average tax RatesEffective Marginal Tax Rates

The nature of competition

“Tax ‘competition’ has nothing to do with competition but has more in common with currency wars or trade wars,” says TJN. “We prefer the term ‘tax wars,’ which is more economically literate and more accurately reflects the harm that the process causes.” The OUCBT is a common target for this vein of criticism from TJN (see for example this blog by Nick Shaxson on its origins), and its Business Tax report is certainly laced with the term ‘competitiveness’. But the new paper “Are we heading towards a corporate tax system fit for the 21st century?” by the Centre’s Michael Devereux and John Vella is actually much closer to TJN’s position than one might expect.

The paper examines the OECD’s BEPS process in the light of two criticisms of the current system. First, it argues that the “arbitrary compromise for the allocation of profit between countries first agreed in the 1920s is wholly inappropriate for taxing modern multinational companies.” That discussion is for another day. Its second argument, the relevant one for our discussion here, is that the international tax system is undermined by tax competition, and BEPS will only succeed if it “contain[s] the power of existing competitive forces”:

Recognising the power of this competition is key to creating a stable long-run system for taxing the profits of multinational companies. Even if existing governments were to reach an agreement to preserve the basics of the existing system, while tightening anti-avoidance rules, there will still be an incentive for future governments to undermine that system, as their predecessors have done in the past. A stable system must remove the incentives for governments to undercut each other.

Importantly, Devereux and Vella argue that tax competition is not merely about attracting foreign companies to invest into a country. It is also about giving domestic companies a competitive advantage over their foreign competitors. Both the UK’s Finance Company Partial Exemption and the US ‘Check the Box’ rules are seen in this light, as instruments that confer a competitive advantage on firms headquartered in those countries at a potential cost to the countries in which they invest. The paper even goes as far as to question the “underlying rationale for providing a competitive advantage to domestic multinationals,” since if the beneficiaries are shareholders, many or indeed most of them may be foreign citizens.

A final thought

I’ve compared here three papers, two from academics, who have academic freedom but are nonetheless funded by multinational firms, and one from campaigners who consider the behaviour of those same firms (and to some extent those same academics) to be a threat to democracy and prosperity. They all agree that corporate tax competition is a problem that should be tackled. But they all stand outside the system looking in.

What about those engaged in tax competition? At the OUCBT event to mark the launch of its Business Tax report, Michael Devereux tried and failed to identify some “clear blue water” between the British Conservative and Labour parties. The only difference – at a time when the Labour party is seeking to differentiate itself from the Conservatives as the champion of responsible capitalism and fair taxation – appeared to be a single percentage point on the corporation tax rate. No mainstream political actor in the UK is proposing to move away from the structural changes made to the UK tax system, some of which are characterised by Devereux and Vella as “state-approved base erosion.”

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.

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.