Evidence of widespread tax avoidance has featured heavily in the news recently. Furthermore, recent developments also suggest that avoiding taxes has become an important motivation for merger and acquisition (M&A) activity. For example, Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical giant that producers Viagra, has for a while been looking to expand through M&A. Following a failed attempt to merge with the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in 2014, it instead agreed late last year to merge with a company called Allergan. This was set to be the largest healthcare merger ever, worth over £100bn.
What is key about Allergan is that, whilst it is run from the USA, it is legally registered as being based in Ireland. It has been strongly argued that the key motivation for the merger was tax avoidance with Pfizer’s strategy described in this way:
They look for a likely partner based in a country with a lower corporate tax regime and suggest a merger. When the merger goes through, the company based in the US moves its HQ – but not the bulk of its operations – to the low-tax jurisdiction, where it books the bulk of its profits. At a stroke, the company’s tax bill is cut.
This practice is sometimes referred to as an inversion. It has been suggested that over the past five years around 40 completed mergers have been motivated by similar objectives.
However, policy makers, in particular in the USA, where corporation tax is high, have increasingly become aware of the practice. President Obama recently made clear that:
If corporations are paying less tax, only one of two things can happen. The US will have less to spend on schools, roads and public health, or taxes will have to be raised on the country’s middle class.
In 2014 some tightening of the tax rules took place, but with limited effect. Then, earlier this month President Obama implemented a series of new rules to attempt to prevent the practice. He stressed that these new rules would help to deter companies from taking advantage of:
one of the most insidious tax loopholes out there, fleeing the country just to get out of paying their taxes.
Almost immediately the Pfizer-Allegan merger was abandoned and Pfizer was required to pay a break-up fee of $150m to Allegran. The parties involved were far from happy and the chief executive of Allegran stated that:
For the rules to be changed after the game has been played is a bit un-American.
However, a spokesman for the White House responded that:
I think it is difficult to have a lot of patience for an American C.E.O. trying to execute a complicated financial transaction to avoid paying taxes in America, talking about what it means to be a good citizen of the United States.
As has been highlighted, the decision to immediately abandon the merger provides a clear indication that the business case and potential synergies arising from combining the two companies were far less important than the benefits from tax avoidance.
Where does the abandoned merger leave Pfizer? One option will be to consider alternative mergers. Perhaps reflecting this possibility, the share prices of foreign rivals such as AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline increased following the announcement that the Allegran deal had been abandoned. However, an alternative under serious consideration appears to be the opposite strategy of shrinking Pfizer’s operations. It has been argued that this would allow the company to be become more focused.
It remains to be seen in which direction Pfizer will go. However, what this example clearly illustrates is the impact changes in regulatory policy can have on firms’ strategic decisions.
Collapse of $160bn Pfizer and Allergan merger shocks corporate US Financial Times, Barney Jopson, David Crow, James Fontanella-Khan and Arash Massoudi (6/4/16)
It’s off: the end of Pfizer’s $160 billion Allergan merger The Atlantic, Krishnadev Calamur (6/4/16)
Pfizer and Allergan terminate $160bn merger following US tax crack-down The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (6/4/16)
- Who do you think will be the big winners and losers from the merger being abandoned?
- Why do you think break-up fees are used in merger deals?
- What are the pros and cons for Pfizer of continuing to pursue M&As rather than downsizing?
- Are there any alternative strategies it might consider?
Tax avoidance has been in the news since the publication of the Panama papers, which show the use of offshore tax havens by rich individuals and companies, partly for tax avoidance, partly for money laundering and other criminal activities – some by corrupt politicians and their associates – and partly to take advantage of lower regulation of financial dealing.
There are many tax havens around the world, including Switzerland, Hong Kong, British overseas territories (such as the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda), Jersey, Singapore and certain US states (such as Arizona, Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming).
Here we focus on tax avoidance. This is the management of tax affairs by individuals or firms so as to avoid or minimise the payment of taxes. Tax avoidance is legal, unlike tax evasion, which is the practice of not declaring taxable income.
In a statement from the White House, directly after the publication of the Panama papers, President Obama spoke about the huge international scale of tax evasion and tax avoidance:
“A lot of it is legal, but that’s exactly the problem. It’s not that [people are] breaking the laws, it’s that the laws are so poorly designed that they allow people, if they’ve got enough lawyers and enough accountants, to wiggle out of responsibilities that ordinary citizens are having to abide by.
Here in the United States, there are loopholes that only wealthy individuals and powerful corporations have access to. They have access to offshore accounts, and they are gaming the system. Middle-class families are not in the same position to do this. In fact, a lot of these loopholes come at the expense of middle-class families, because that lost revenue has to be made up somewhere. Alternatively, it means that we’re not investing as much as we should in schools, in making college more affordable, in putting people back to work rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our infrastructure, creating more opportunities for our children.”
Tax avoidance, whether in tax havens, or through exploiting loopholes in the tax system may be legal. But is it fair?
Various principles of a tax system can be identified. These include:
||People in the same situation should be treated equally. For example, people earning the same level of income and with the same personal circumstances (e.g. number and type of dependants, size of mortgage, etc.) should pay the same level of income tax.
||Taxes should be ‘fairly’ apportioned between rich and poor. The rich should pay proportionately more taxes than the poor.
||Equity between recipients of government services
||Under the ‘benefit principle’, it is argued that those who receive the most benefits from government expenditure ought to pay the most in taxes. For example, it can be argued that roads should be paid for from fuel tax.
||Difficulty of evasion and possibly of avoidance
||If it is desirable to have a given tax, people should not be able to escape paying.
||Taxes alter market signals: taxes on goods and services alter market prices; taxes on income alter wages. They should not do this in an undesirable direction.
||Convenience to the taxpayer
||Taxes should be certain and clearly understood by taxpayers so that they can calculate their tax liabilities. The method of payment should be straightforward.
||Convenience to the government
||Tax rates should be simple to adjust and as cheap to collect as possible.
||Minimal disincentive effects
||Taxes may discourage people from working longer or harder, from saving, from investing or from taking initiative. It is desirable that these disincentives should be kept to a minimum.
Of course, not all these requirements can be met at the same time. One of the most serious conflicts is between vertical equity and the need to keep disincentives to a minimum. The more steeply the rich are taxed, it is argued, the more serious are the disincentive effects on them likely to be (see the blog post from 2012, The 50p income tax rate and the Laffer curve). Another is between vertical equity and equity between recipients of services. Some of the people most in need of government support are the poorest and hence pay the least taxes.
The crucial question is what is regarded as ‘fair’. What is vertically equitable? According to the second article below, people’s preferred tax rates depend on how information is presented. If information is presented on how much tax is paid by the rich, people generally feel that the rich pay too much. If, however, information is presented on how much income people are left with after paying tax, people feel that the rich still have too much and ought to pay more tax.
The majority of people in the UK feel that tax avoidance, although legal, is morally wrong. According to the results of an HMRC survey in 2015, “the majority (63%) of respondents felt that the use of tax avoidance schemes was widespread. However, the majority (61%) also responded that it was never acceptable to use a tax avoidance scheme. The most frequent reason given as to why it was unacceptable was that ‘it is unfair on others who pay their taxes’.”
In making judgements about the fairness of tax, people generally have inaccurate knowledge about the distribution of income, believing that it is more equal than it really is, and about the progressiveness of the tax system, believing that it is more progressive than it really is. Despite this, they want post-tax income distribution to be more equal.
What is more, although people generally disapprove of tax avoidance, it is the system that allows the avoidance of taxes that they want changing. As long as it is possible to avoid taxes, such as giving gifts to children to avoid inheritance tax (as long as the gift is made more than seven years before the person’s death), most people see no reason why they should not do so themselves.
The following articles look at tax avoidance and people’s attitudes towards it. They are all drawn from The Conversation, “an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.”.
Explainer: what are ‘tax havens’? The Conversation, Tommaso Faccio (5/4/16)
When it comes to tax, how do we decide what’s fair? The Conversation, Stian Reimers (8/4/16)
Six things a tax haven expert learned from the Panama Papers The Conversation, Ronen Palan (6/4/16)
The Panama Papers The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
Exploring public attitudes to tax avoidance in 2015: HM Revenue and Customs Research Report 401 HMRC, Preena Shah (February 2016)
2010 to 2015 government policy: tax evasion and avoidance HMRC/HM Treasury (8/5/15)
- Distinguish between tax avoidance and tax evasion.
- Give some examples of tax avoidance.
- Look through the various principles of a tax system and identify any conflicts.
- What problems are there in having a highly progressive tax system?
- What is a ‘shell company’? How can it be used to avoid and evade taxes?
- What are bearer shares and bonds? Why were they abolished in the UK in 2015?
- What legitimate reasons may there be for a company or individual using a tax haven?
- To what extent might increased transparency in tax affairs discourage individuals and companies from engaging in aggressive tax avoidance?
- What light does/can behavioural economics shed on people’s perceptions of fairness?
- How might the use of absolute amounts or percentages influence people’s thinking about the fairness of a tax system? What implications does this have for politicians in framing tax policy?
- In the principal–agent problem, where the principals are the tax authorities and the agents are taxpayers, why does asymmetric information arise and why is it a problem? How do the tax authorities seek to reduce this problem?
During the 1970s, commentators often referred to the ‘political business cycle’. As William Nordhaus stated in a 1989 paper. “The theory of the political business cycle, which analyzes the interaction of political and economic systems, arose from the obvious facts of life that voters care about the economy while politicians care about power.”
In the past, politicians would use fiscal, and sometimes monetary, policies to manipulate aggregate demand so that the economy was growing strongly at the time of the next election. This often meant doing unpopular things in the first couple of years of office to allow for popular things, such as tax cuts and increased government transfers, as the next election approached. This tended to align the business cycle with the election cycle. The economy would slow in the early years of a parliament and expand rapidly towards the end.
To some extent, this has been the approach since 2010 of first the Coalition and now the Conservative governments. Cuts to government expenditure were made ‘in order to clear up the mess left by the previous government’. At the time it was hoped that, by the next election, the economy would be growing strongly again.
But in adopting a fiscal mandate, the current government could be doing the reverse of previous governments. George Osborne has set the target of a budget surplus by the final year of this parliament (2019–20) and has staked his reputation on achieving it.
The problem, as we saw in the blog, Hitting – or missing – the government’s self-imposed fiscal targets is that growth in the economy has slowed and this makes it more difficult to achieve the target of a budget surplus by 2019–20. Given that achieving this target is seen to be more important for his reputation for ‘sound management’ of the public finances than that the economy should be rapidly growing, it is likely that the Chancellor will be dampening aggregate demand in the run-up to the next election. Indeed, in the latest Budget, he announced that specific measures would be taken in 2019–20 to meet the target, including a further £3.5 billion of savings from departmental spending in 2019–20. In the meantime, however, taxes would be cut (such as increasing personal allowances and cutting business rates) and government spending in certain areas would be increased. As the OBR states:
Despite a weaker outlook for the economy and tax revenues, the Chancellor has announced a net tax cut and new spending commitments. But he remains on course for a £10 billion surplus in 2019–20, by rescheduling capital investment, promising other cuts in public services spending and shifting a one-off boost to corporation tax receipts into that year.
But many commentators have doubted that this will be enough to bring a surplus. Indeed Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stated on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme said that “there’s only about a 50:50 shot that he’s going to get there. If things change again, if the OBR downgrades its forecasts again, I don’t think he will be able to get away with anything like this. I think he will be forced to put some proper tax increases in or possibly find yet further proper spending cuts”.
If that is the case, he will be further dampening the economy as the next election approaches. In other words, the government may be doing the reverse of what governments did in the past. Instead of boosting the economy to increase growth at election time, the government may feel forced to make further cuts in government expenditure and/or to raise taxes to meet the fiscal target of a budget surplus.
Budget 2016: George Osborne hits back at deficit critics BBC News (17/3/16)
George Osborne will have to break his own rules to win the next election Business Insider, Ben Moshinsky (17/3/16)
Osborne Accused of Accounting Tricks to Meet Budget Surplus Goal Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell and Robert Hutton (16/3/16)
George Osborne warns more cuts may be needed to hit surplus target Financial Times, Jim Pickard (17/3/16)
6 charts that explain why George Osborne is about to make austerity even worse Independent, Hazel Sheffield (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: Osborne ‘has only 50-50 chance’ of hitting surplus target The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
How will Chancellor George Osborne reach his surplus? BBC News, Howard Mustoe (16/3/16)
Osborne’s fiscal illusion exposed as a house of credit cards The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
The Budget’s bottom line: taxes will rise and rise again The Telegraph, Allister Heath (17/3/16)
Reports, analysis and documents
Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: documents HM Treasury (16/3/16)
Budget 2016 Institute for Fiscal Studies (17/3/16)
- Explain the fiscal mandate of the Conservative government.
- Does sticking to targets for public-sector deficits and debt necessarily involve dampening aggregate demand as an election approaches? Explain.
- For what reasons may the Chancellor not hit his target of a public-sector surplus by 2019–20?
- Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a rules-based fiscal policy and one based on discretion.
Some of the largest companies around the world operate in multiple locations. This allows them to take advantage of wider markets, cheaper transport and of course, lower taxes. In many cases, we see companies selling in one country, but locating their Headquarters in another, where tax rates are cheaper and hence their tax bills are lower. Much criticism has been levelled at such companies, who are accused of not paying their fair share in tax. There has been a crackdown on these companies and the UK is playing a leading role in this tightening of tax laws. Google is the latest company to face a large payment in backdated taxes.
This is a company with a complex structure, which has involved Bermuda as a key location, with its zero rate of corporation tax and a Irish European base. Though locating its business in different countries is legal, it has now agreed to pay HMRC £130 million in back taxes from 2005, following a 6 year investigation. Google will also change its accounting system such that it pays more tax in Britain for sales in this country.
Google may be the first in a line of companies making such changes to its accounting practices following a global drive to tackle the low levels of taxes paid by these large companies. This change in tax rules may bring welcome relief to government coffers, though criticisms remain about the ‘real’ figure that Google owes. As an example of this: in 2013, Google’s UK revenues were $5.6bn. Yet it only paid £20.5m in tax on its UK profits. The Head of Google Europe, Matt Brittin said:
“The rules are changing internationally and the UK government is taking the lead in applying those rules so we’ll be changing what we are doing here. We want to ensure that we pay the right amount of tax.”
Mr Brittin was clear in saying that these back dated taxes are not evidence that they had been paying too little tax in previous years. He confirmed that they were abiding by tax laws at the time and that tax laws are now changing and hence so will the amount of tax they pay. He continued:
“I think there was concern that international companies were paying only in respect of profits that they make and those were the rules and the pressure was to see us pay in respect of the sales we make to UK customers – and the same for other companies…So, we are making a change because we want to continue to comply with the rules and the rules are changing.”
As the push to tighten tax laws changes, with firms paying more tax on sales as well as profits, we may observe more companies changing their accounting structures. The OECD has taken a big step in simplifying international tax laws and the coming years will tell us just how big an impact this will have and whether companies such as Google will face tax bills in other European countries as well. The following articles consider this taxing matter.
Google agrees £130m UK tax deal with HMRC BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (23/01/16)
Google strikes £130m back tax deal Financial Times, John Gapper (22/01/16)
Google strikes deal with UK tax authority Wall Street Journal, Sam Schechner and Stephen Fidler (23/01/16)
Google agrees to pay HMRC £130m in back taxes The Guardian, Kevin Rawlinson (23/01/16)
Google tax labelled ‘derisory’ by Labour’s John McDonnell BBC News (23/01/16)
Google to pay £130 million UK back taxes, critics want more Reuters, Tom Bergin (23/01/16)
Google to pay UK £130m in back taxes The Telegraph (22/01/16)
Google says it will pay £130m in back taxes Independent, Adam Barnett (23/01/16)
Google ‘agrees’ to pay £130m in extra UK tax after outrage when it coughed up just £20m on UK sales of nearly £4bn Mail Online, Imogen Calderwood (22/01/16)
Google agrees to pay $185 million in UK tax settlement Bloomberg, Brian Womack (23/01/16)
- What is the difference between a tax on sales and a tax on profits?
- How can companies legally avoid tax? Do you think they have a moral duty to pay tax?
- If firms face higher rates of taxation, how will this affect their costs and profits?
- Why are the larger multinationals, such as Google more able to engage in tax avoidance schemes?
- Do you think the problem of tax avoidance is one of the negative consequences of globalisation?
- Is the criticism about the ‘low’ amount of taxes paid to HMRC justified?
- The OECD has taken a leading role in tightening international tax policy. Do you think this will negatively impact the competitiveness of the global market place?
- What are the costs and benefits to a country of having a low rate of corporation tax?
The World Economic Forum has been holding its annual meeting in the up-market Swiss ski resort of Davos. Many of the world’s richest and most powerful people attend these meetings, including political leaders, business leaders and representatives of various interest groups.
This year, one of the major topics has been the growth in inequality across the globe and how to reverse it. According to a report by Oxfam, Wealth: Having it all and wanting more:
The richest 1 per cent have seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 per cent in 2009 to 48 per cent in 2014 and at this rate will be more than 50 per cent in 2016. Members of this global elite had an average wealth of $2.7m per adult in 2014.
Of the remaining 52 per cent of global wealth, almost all (46 per cent) is owned by the rest of the richest fifth of the world’s population. The other 80 per cent share just 5.5 per cent and had an average wealth of $3851 per adult – that’s 1/700th of the average wealth of the 1 per cent.
Currently, the richest 85 people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50% of the world’s population. It might seem odd that those with the wealth are talking about the problem of inequality. Indeed, some of those 85 richest people were at the conference: a conference that boasts extremely luxurious conditions. What is more, many delegates flew into the conference in private jets (at least 850 jets) to discuss not just poverty but also climate change!
Yet if the problem of global inequality is to be tackled, much of the power to do so lies in the hands of these rich and powerful people. They are largely the ones who will have to implement policies that will help to raise living standards of the poor.
But why should they want to? Part of the reason is a genuine concern to address the issues of increasingly divided societies. But part is the growing evidence that greater inequality reduces economic growth by reducing the development of skills of the lower income groups and reducing social mobility. We discussed this topic in the blog, Inequality and economic growth.
So what policies could be adopted to tackle the problem. Oxfam identifies a seven-point plan:
||Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals;
||Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education;
||Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards capital and wealth;
||Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers;
||Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee;
||Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal;
||Agree a global goal to tackle inequality.
But how realistic are these policies? Is it really in the interests of governments to reduce inequality? Indeed, some of the policies that have been adopted since 2008, such as bailing out the banks and quantitative easing, have had the effect of worsening inequality. QE drives up asset prices, particularly bond, share and property prices. This has provided a windfall to the rich: the more of such assets you own, the greater the absolute gain.
The following videos and articles look at the problem of growing inequality and how realistic it is to expect leaders to do anything significant about it.
Videos and podcasts
Income inequality is ‘brake on growth’, Oxfam chief warns Davos France 24, Winnie Byanyima (22/1/15)
Davos dilemma: Can the 1% cure income inequality? Yahoo Finance, Lizzie O’Leary and Shawna Ohm (21/1/15)
Richest 1% ‘Will Own Half The World’s Wealth By 2016’ ITN on YouTube, Sarah Kerr (19/1/15)
The Price of Inequality BBC Radio 4, Robert Peston (3/2/15 and 10/2/15)
Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016 Oxfam blogs, Jon Slater (19/1/15)
Global tax system can cut inequality The Scotsman, Jamie Livingstone (23/1/15)
A new framework for a new age Financial Times, Tony Elumelu (23/1/15)
The global elite in Davos must give the world a pay rise New Statesman, Frances O’Grady (22/1/15)
New Oxfam report says half of global wealth held by the 1% The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Ed Pilkington (19/1/15)
Davos is starting to get it – inequality is the root cause of stagnation The Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/1/15)
Inequality isn’t inevitable, it’s engineered. That’s how the 1% have taken over The Guardian, Suzanne Moore (19/1/15)
Why extreme inequality hurts the rich BBC News, Robert Peston (19/1/15)
Eurozone stimulus ‘reinforces inequality’, warns Soros BBC News, Joe Miller (22/1/15)
Hot topic for the 1 percent at Davos: Inequality CNBC, Lawrence Delevingne (21/1/15)
Global inequality: The wrong yardstick The Economist (24/1/15)
A Richer World (a compendium of articles) BBC News (27/1/15)
OECD Income Distribution Database: Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS
- Why has inequality increased in most countries in recent years?
- For what reasons might it be difficult to measure the distribution of wealth?
- Which gives a better indication of differences in living standards: the distribution of wealth or the distribution of income?
- Discuss the benefits and costs of using the tax system to redistribute (a) income and (b) wealth from rich to poor
- Go through each of the seven policies advocated by Oxfam and consider how practical they are and what possible objections to them might be raised by political leaders.
- Why is tax avoidance/tax evasion by multinational companies difficult to tackle?
- Does universal access to education provide the key to reducing income inequality within and between countries?