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Starbucks pays not a bean in corporation tax, thanks to transfer pricing

Original post
Starbucks’ UK sales in 2011 were worth £398m. Costa’s UK sales were worth £377m. But while Costa paid £15m in corporation tax in 2011/12, Starbucks paid nothing! In fact since opening its first coffee shop in the UK in 1998 it has paid just £8.6m in taxes on UK sales of £3bn.

How is this possible? Let’s look at Starbuck’s 2011 UK sales. Even though these were worth £398 million, its costs were recorded as £426.2m, giving a loss of £28.2m. Costa, by contrast, reported a taxable profit of £49.7m.

So is Starbucks a commercial failure in the UK, recording year after year of losses? Not at all. Starbucks regards the UK as a highly profitable part of its business. As the Independent article below states:

…in its briefings to stock market investors and analysts during the past 12 years, Seattle-based Starbucks has consistently stated that its UK unit is “profitable” and three years ago even promoted its UK head, Cliff Burrows, to run its vastly larger US operation.

So how can reported UK losses be reconciled with a profitable UK operation? The answer lies in transfer pricing.

Transfer pricing refers to the prices a company charges itself when goods or services are transferred within the company but from one country to another. By varying the transfer prices, a company can choose where to make its profits. Thus if Starbucks’ US operation charges high prices to its UK operation for various services, such as royalties for the use of branding or for management services, or lends money to its UK operation at high interest rates, Starbucks’ profits will rise in the USA and fall in the UK.

Companies employ tax advisers (see for example) and ‘transfer pricing managers’ to help them move their profits from high tax countries to low tax countries. In Starbuck’s case, by charging its UK operation high prices for such things as ‘use of its logo’ it has chosen to move all its profits out of the UK and thus avoid UK corporation tax.

Apart from denying the UK government tax revenues, the practice by Starbucks distorts competition as competing UK companies, such as Costa, AMT, Caffè Ritazza and the many small independents, do not have the same opportunity for transfer pricing and do pay UK corporation tax. As the Guardian article by Richard Murphy below states:

We do have homegrown coffee shops in the UK. A lot of them. And they have to pay their taxes in full here in the UK. They can’t make payments to offshore entities for the use of their logos or advice on how to add hot water to coffee just to avoid tax: they have to pay in full on what they earn in this country. What Starbucks is doing may be legal, but what it also shows is that business does not operate on a level playing field in the UK.

And, as some of the articles below demonstrate, it’s not just Starbucks. Amazon, Facebook and Google have also been accused of avoiding taxes in the UK by engaging in forms of transfer pricing.

Update
On 12 November senior executives from Starbucks, Google and Amazon appeared before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee to give evidence on their non-payment of corporation tax and their apparent lack of profits in the UK. As you will see from the videos, the MPs were unimpressed by the answers they received.

At the G20 finance ministers meeting in Mexico the previous week, George Osborne, the UK Chancellor, and Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Finance Minister, called for “concerted international co-operation to strengthen international tax standards that at the minute may mean international companies can pay less tax than they would otherwise owe”.

There seems to be mounting international pressure on multinationals to cease using transfer pricing as a means of avoiding paying taxes. Whether it will be successful remains to be seen.

Further Update (June 2013)
In June 2013, After continuing criticism of its tax avoidance policies, Starbucks agreed to pay £10m in corporation tax tin 2013/14 and a further £10m in 2014/15.

Articles for original post
Starbucks UK tax bill comes under scrutiny The Telegraph, Helia Ebrahimi (15/10/12)
Good bean counters? Starbucks has paid no tax in UK since 2009 Independent, Martin Hickman (16/10/12)
Special Report: How Starbucks avoids UK taxes Reuters, Tom Bergin (15/10/12)
Business Starbucks ‘paid no UK income tax’ since 2009 Channel 4 News (16/10/12)
Starbucks ‘paid just £8.6m UK tax in 14 years’ BBC News, Vicki Young (16/10/12)
Starbucks’ tax payment is ‘unfair’ say independent cafes BBC News, Joe Lynam (16/10/12)
Starbucks ‘paid just £8.6m UK tax in 14 years’ BBC News (16/10/12)
What the Starbucks tax expose means for ordinary companies Tax Research UK, Richard Murphy (16/10/12)
Starbucks ‘pays £8.6m tax on £3bn sales’ The Guardian, Simon Neville (15/10/12)
How much tax do Starbucks, Facebook and the biggest US companies pay in the UK The Guardian Datablog (16/10/12)
Amazon: £7bn sales, no UK corporation tax The Guardian, Ian Griffiths (4/4/12)
Facebook criticised for £238,000 UK tax bill last year BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat, Dan Cairns (11/10/12)
U.S. Companies Dodge $60 Billion in Taxes With Global Odyssey Bloomberg, Jesse Drucker (13/5/10)
EBay ‘pays £1.2m in UK tax’ on sales of £800m BBC News (21/10/12)

Articles for update
Starbucks, Google and Amazon grilled over tax avoidance BBC News (12/11/12)
Companies have ‘social responsibility’ to pay tax BBC Today Programme (12/11/12)
MPs slam Starbucks, Amazon and Google on tax Reuters, Tom Bergin (12/11/12)
A highly taxing session for the men from Amazon, Google and Starbucks The Guardian, Simon Hoggart (12/11/12)
Starbucks is leeching tax revenue from UK The Telegraph, Lord Myners (12/11/12)
UK and Germany agree crackdown on tax loopholes for multinationals The Guardian, Patrick Wintour and Dan Milmo (5/11/12)
Britain, Germany target tax from multinationals Deutsche Welle (5/11/12)
HMRC unable to stop multinational tax avoidance accountancylive, Sharon Khin (6/11/12)
Starbucks ‘planning changes to tax policy’ BBC News (3/12/12)

Articles for further update
Starbucks pays UK corporation tax for first time since 2009 BBC News (22/6/13)
Starbucks pays corporation tax, promising the Exchequer £20m over two years IndependentHeather Saul (2/6/13)
Starbucks pays first tax since 2008 The Telegraph, Kamal Ahmed (22/6/13)

Report of Public Accounts Committee
Tax avoidance by multinational companies UK Parliament (3/12/12)

Questions

  1. Explain how a multinational company can use transfer pricing as a means of reducing its overall tax liability.
  2. Why may transfer pricing lead to an inefficient allocation of resources?
  3. What policies can governments adopt to clamp down on the use of transfer pricing to limit their tax liability in their country?
  4. What insights are shed by game theory in explaining why it may be very difficult to reach international agreement to clamp down on tax avoidance?
  5. Is it immoral for companies to seek to minimise their tax liability? What are the limits of economics as a discipline in establishing an answer to this question?
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