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In response to public outcry in several nations that multinational corporations are using tax havens to effectively avoid paying taxes in the countries where they do business, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has released an “Action Plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting.” While the plan does offer strategies that will block some of the corporate tax avoidance that is sapping governments of the funds they need to make public investments, the plan fails to call for the sort of fundamental change that would result in a simplified, workable international tax system.
Most importantly, the OECD does not call on governments to fundamentally abandon the tax systems that have caused these problems — the “deferral” system in the U.S. and the “territorial” system that many other countries have — but only suggests modest changes around the edges. Both of these tax systems require tax enforcement authorities to accept the pretense that a web of “subsidiary corporations” in different countries are truly different companies, even when they are all completely controlled by a CEO in, say New York or Connecticut or London. This leaves tax enforcement authorities with the impossible task of divining which profits are “earned” by a subsidiary company that is nothing more than a post office box in Bermuda, and which profits are earned by the American or European corporation that controls that Bermuda subsidiary.
The OECD’s action plan does make several suggestions that would make it harder for corporations to pretend their profits are all earned in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands or other tax havens, many of which echo proposals offered by President Obama and Senator Carl Levin. For example, the plan clearly targets rules allowing corporations to immediately take deductions for expenses of doing business offshore, when they will not pay taxes on their offshore profits for years or ever. The plan seems to target rules like the U.S.’s “check-the-box,” which allow corporations to give different governments conflicting information about the nature of offshore entities so that their profits are not taxed by any government anywhere.
But we will never really end the ability of corporations to pretend their profits are all “earned” in offshore tax havens so long as developed countries continue to rely on “territorial” tax systems or a “deferral” tax system like the U.S. has.
In his comment on the OECD action plan, Professor Sol Picciotto, a Senior Adviser to the Tax Justice Network, sums it up well:
“The Action Plan contains some ambitious measures, which would produce some benefits if implemented. But its approach is like trying to plug holes in a sieve. The OECD has chosen a road that is strewn with obstacles, and leads in the wrong direction. The OECD has missed this big opportunity to crack open the door to the big reform that the world’s citizens need…”