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On September 16, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the first part of its recommendations to implement its 2013 “Action Plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting.” Base erosion and profit shifting, or BEPS as it’s known among international tax experts, is the fancy way of describing tax dodging by corporations that use offshore tax havens. CTJ criticized the action plan in 2013 for not going far enough, and it remains to be seen how much good can be accomplished with the reforms that OECD now recommends.
At the same time, the OECD recommendations are surely a step in the right direction. This is important because many members of Congress, including the top Republicans on the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over taxes, consider even the OECD’s mild reforms to be asking too much of corporations. Rep. Dave Camp and Senator Orrin Hatch issued a statement in June making clear that they would likely oppose enacting OECD’s recommendations into law. Neither has issued any further statement on the matter.
According to one international law expert, it will likely be five to ten years before many countries enact the recommendations into law. But some countries, like the U.K., France and Australia are expected to be early adopters of the changes, and corporations would need to change their reporting methods in order to comply at least in those countries. This could make it easier for other governments to follow.
Some of the significant recommended changes include the following:
—End the ability of corporations to take advantage of loopholes like the U.S.’s “check-the-box,” which essentially allows a company to characterize a tax haven subsidiary in different ways to different governments so that the profits funneled there are taxed by no government at all. (Such tax haven entities are often euphemistically called “hybrid instruments.”)
For example, right now an American corporation can have an Irish subsidiary that pays royalties to its own subsidiary in Bermuda, which it characterizes as a separate corporation for Irish tax purposes so that it can deduct the interest payments from its Irish taxable income. But the American parent company can tell the U.S. government that the Bermuda subsidiary is just a branch of the Irish company and the payment was a payment internal to the company, meaning there is no profit to be taxed.
—End the shifting of corporate profits through certain countries to take advantage of tax treaties in schemes like the “Dutch sandwich.” In the example above, the Irish government might apply a withholding tax to payments made to Bermuda, but not if they are first routed through a country like Netherlands that has a tax treaty with Ireland precluding such withholding taxes. In theory, developed countries have negotiated such treaties with countries they trust to not facilitate tax avoidance. But the system has obviously broken down, as parties to such treaties including Ireland and the Netherlands are now facilitating tax avoidance by huge corporations like Google and Apple.
—Require country-by-country reporting of sales, profits and taxes paid by corporations to tax authorities, who would then have a better handle on when and how these tax avoidance schemes are being carried out. While it would be helpful to have this information made available to tax authorities who do not currently have it, a much stronger reform would make this information public for all to see. In the U.S., the I.R.S. already collects this type of information (which is necessary for certain purposes like the calculation of foreign tax credits in the American system). Providing information to the government makes a difference only to the extent that corporations are doing something that is actually illegal, but the entire point of the BEPS project is that corporations are able to abuse the system legally, thanks to various tax loopholes. The success or failure of the OECD’s attempts to close those loopholes will be known only to the extent that tax reformers, lawmakers and the public can actually see where profits are booked and what taxes are paid by multinational corporations in different countries.
—Implement new rules determining how intangible assets (like patents and royalties) are valued for transfer pricing. This is intended to address one of the thorniest questions and one that the OECD may not be able to solve without more dramatic reforms. When the OECD’s action plan was first released in 2013, CTJ was skeptical that it could work because
“…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.”
Transfer pricing rules require multinational corporations to deal with their offshore subsidiaries at “arm’s length.” This means that, for example, a corporation based in New York that transfers a patent to its offshore subsidiary should, in theory, charge that subsidiary the same price that it would charge to an unrelated company. And if the New York-based corporation pays royalties to the offshore subsidiary for the use of that patent, those royalties should be comparable to what would be paid to an unrelated company.
But this system has broken down. As we have argued before, when a company like Apple or Microsoft transfers a patent for a completely new invention to one of its offshore subsidiaries, how can the IRS even know what the market value of that patent would be? And tech companies are not the only problem. The IRS apparently found the arm’s length standard unenforceable against Caterpillar when that company transferred the rights to 85 percent of its profits from selling spare parts to a Swiss subsidiary that had almost nothing to do with the actual business.
A more dramatic reform could eliminate the problems associated with transfer pricing. For example, CTJ’s tax reform plan would end the rule allowing American corporations to defer U.S. profits on its offshore subsidiaries’ profits. With deferral repealed, an American corporation would pay the same tax rate no matter where its profits were earned and would therefore have no incentive to make profits appear as if they were earned in a zero-tax country.