An investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has revealed how more than 1000 businesses from 340 major companies from around the world have used Luxembourg as a base for avoiding huge amounts of tax. Many of the companies are household names, such as Ikea, FedEx, Apple, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Dyson, Amazon, Fiat, Google, Accenture, Burberry, Procter & Gamble, Heinz, JP Morgan, Caterpillar, Deutsche Bank and Starbucks. Through complicated systems of ‘advanced tax agreements’ (ATAs), negotiated with the Luxembourg authorities via accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), companies have used various methods of avoiding tax.
Although such measures are legal, they have denied other countries vast amounts of tax revenues on sales generated in their own countries. Instead, the much reduced tax bills have been paid to Luxembourg. The result is that this tiny country, with a population of just 550,000, has, according to the IMF, the highest (nominal) GDP per head in the world (estimated to be $116,752 in 2014).
So what methods do Luxembourg and these multinational companies use to reduce the companies’ tax bills? There are three main methods. All involve having a subsidiary based in Luxembourg: often little more than a small office with one employee, a telephone and a bank account. All involve varieties of transfer pricing: setting prices that the company charges itself in transactions between a subsidiary in Luxembourg and divisions in other countrries.
The first method is the use of internal loans. Companies lend money to themselves, say in the UK, from Luxembourg at high interest rates. The loan interest can be offset against profit in the UK, reducing tax liability to the UK tax authorities. But the interest earned by the Luxembourg subsidiary incurs very low taxes. Profits are thus effectively transferred from the UK to Luxembourg and a much lower tax bill is incurred.
The second involves royalty payments for the use of the company’s brands. These are owned by the Luxembourg subsidiary and the overseas divisions pay the Luxembourg subsidiary large sums for using the logos, designs and brand names. Thus, again, profits are transferred to Luxembourg, where there is a generous tax exemption.
The third involves generous allowances in Luxembourg for losses in the value of investments, even without the company having first to sell the investments. These losses can be offset against future profits, again reducing tax liability. By transferring losses made elsewhere to Luxembourg, again usually by some form of transfer pricing, these can be used to reduce the already small tax bill in Luxembourg even further.
Tax loopholes offered by tax havens, such as Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands and the Channel Islands, are denying exchequers around the world vast sums. Not surprisingly, countries, especially those with large deficits, are concerned to address the issue of tax avoidance by multinationals. This is one item on the agenda of the G20 meeting in Brisbane from the 12 to 16 November 2014.
The problem, however, is that, with countries seeking to attract multinational investment and to gain tax revenues from them, there is an incentive to reduce corporate tax rates. Getting any binding agreement on tax harmonisation, and creating an essentially global single market, is likely, therefore, to prove virtually impossible.
Webcasts and videos
Luxembourg Leaks: Tricks of the Trade ICIJ in partnership with the Pulitzer Center (5/11/14)
Luxembourg ‘abetted’ companies in avoiding taxes France 24, Siobhán Silke (6/11/14)
Tax deals with Luxembourg save companies billions, says report Deutsche Welle, Dagmar Zindel (6/11/14)
Luxembourg: the tax haven and the $870m loan company above a stamp shop The Guardian, John Domokos, Rupert Neate and Simon Bowers (5/11/14)
Luxembourg leaks: nation under spotlight over tax avoidance claims euronews (6/11/14)
Northern and Shell used west Dublin address to cut Luxembourg tax bill on €1bn The Irish Times, Colm Keena (6/11/14)
The ATO’s global tax avoidance investigation ABC News, Phillip Lasker (9/11/14)
Pepsi, IKEA Secret Luxembourg Tax Deals Exposed TheLipTV, Elliot Hill (9/11/14)
Leaked Docs Expose More Than 340 Companies’ Tax Schemes In Luxembourg Huffington Post, Leslie Wayne, Kelly Carr, Marina Walker Guevara, Mar Cabra and Michael Hudson (5/11/14)
Luxembourg tax files: how tiny state rubber-stamped tax avoidance on an industrial scale The Guardian, Simon Bowers (5/11/14)
Fact and fiction blur in tales of tax avoidance The Guardian (9/11/14)
companies engaged in tax avoidance The Guardian, Michael Safi (6/11/14)
The Guardian view on tax avoidance: Europe must take Luxembourg to task The Guardian, Editorial (6/11/14)
G20 leaders in the mood to act on tax avoidance after Luxembourg leaks Sydney Morning Herald, Tom Allard (6/11/14)
Scale of Luxembourg tax avoidance revealed economia, Oliver Griffin (6/11/14)
EU to press Luxembourg over tax breaks amid fresh allegations BBC News (6/11/14)
Luxembourg leaks: G20 alone can’t stamp out tax avoidance The Conversation, Charles Sampford (7/11/14)
‘Lux leaks’ scandal shows why tax avoidance is a bad idea European Voice, Paige Morrow (8/11/14)
EU to Probe Luxembourg’s ‘Sweetheart Tax Deal’ with Amazon International Business Times, Jerin Mathew (7/10/14)
Luxembourg Leaks: Global Companies’ Secrets Exposed The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (5/11/14)
- Distinguish between tax avoidance and tax evasion. Which of the two is being practised by companies in their arrangements with Luxembourg?
- Explain what is meant by transfer pricing.
- Do a search of companies to find out what parts of their operations as based in Luxembourg.
- In what sense can the setting of corporate taxes be seen as a prisoner’s dilemma game between countries?
- Discuss the merits of changing corporate taxes so that they are based on revenues earned in a country rather than on profits.
- What type of agreement on tax havens is likely to be achieved by the international community?
- Is it desirable for companies to be able to offset losses against future profits?
Finance ministers and central bank officials of the G20 countries are meeting in Sydney from 20 to 23 February. Business leaders from these countries are also attending and have separate meetings.
Amongst the usual discussions at such meetings about how to achieve greater global economic stability and faster and sustained economic growth, there are other more specific agenda issues. At the Sydney meeting these include a roundtable discussion to identify practical solutions to lift infrastructure investment. They also include discussions on how to clamp down on tax avoidance through means such as transfer pricing.
The G20 meetings of finance and business leaders take place annually. There are also annual summits of heads of government (the next being in Brisbane in November 2014).
The G20 was formed in 1999 to extend the work of the G8 developed countries to include other major developed and developing countries plus the EU. In 2008/9 it played a significant role in helping devise policies to tackle the banking crisis and combat the subsequent recession. At the time there was a common purpose, which made devising common policies easier.
Since then, the importance of the G20 has waned. Partly this is because of the divergent problems and issues between members and hence the difficulty of reaching agreements. Partly it is because, to be effective, it needs to remain small but, to be inclusive, it needs to extend beyond the current 20 members. Indeed there has been considerable resentment from many countries outside the G20 that their views are not being represented. Some representatives from non-G20 countries attend meetings on an informal basis.
The following articles discuss the role of the G20 and whether it is fit for purpose.
Janet Yellen vs. the world: The issues at the G20 finance summit Globe and Mail (Canada), Iain Marlow (20/2/14)
Turning ideas into action at the G20 Business Spectator (Australia), Mike Callaghan (21/2/14)
Boosting infrastructure investment can prove G20’s value to the world The Conversation, Andrew Elek (20/2/14)
Can the G20 ever realise its potential? The Conversation, Mark Beeson (21/2/14)
G20 has failed to fulfil its promise of collaboration amid hostility The Guardian, Larry Elliott (20/2/14)
Official G20 site
G20 Priorities G20
Australia 2014 G20
- Which countries are members of the G20? Compile a list of those countries you feel ought to be members of such an organisation.
- What are the arguments for and against increasing the membership of the G20 (or decreasing it)?
- Why is Janet Yellen, Chair of the US Federal Reserve, likely to be at odds with leaders from other G20 countries, especially those from developing countries?
- Why have the tensions between G20 members increased in recent months?
- Discuss possible reforms to the IMF and the G20’s role in promoting such reforms.
- What insights can game theory provide in understanding the difficulties in reaching binding agreements at G20 meetings? Are these difficulties greater at G20 than at G8 meetings?
- Should the G20 be scrapped?
World leaders have been meeting in Rio de Janeiro at a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The conference, dubbed ‘Rio+20’, refers back to the first UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio 20 years ago in June 1992.
The 1992 conference adopted an Agenda 21. It was “comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment.”
The 2012 conference has looked at progress, or lack of it, on sustainability and what needs to be done. It has focused on two major themes: “how to build a green economy to achieve sustainable development and lift people out of poverty, including support for developing countries that will allow them to find a green path for development; and how to improve international coordination for sustainable development.” Issues examined have included decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.
But just what is meant by sustainable development? The conference defines sustainable development as that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. “Seen as the guiding principle for long-term global development, sustainable development consists of three pillars: economic development, social development and environmental protection.”
The articles below look at prospects for national and global sustainability. They also look at a new measure of national wealth, the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI). This index has been developed under the auspices of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) and published in its Inclusive Wealth Report 2012 (see report links below).
The IWR 2012 was developed on the notion that current economic production indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP) and the Human Development Index (HDI) are insufficient, as they fail to reflect the state of natural resources or ecological conditions, and focus exclusively on the short term, without indicating whether national policies are sustainable.
The IWR 2012 features an index that measures the wealth of nations by looking into a country’s capital assets, including manufactured, human and natural capital, and its corresponding values: the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI). Results show changes in inclusive wealth from 1990 to 2008, and include a long-term comparison to GDP for an initial group of 20 countries worldwide, which represent 72% of the world GDP and 56% of the global population. (Click on chart for a larger version.)
So will growth in IWI per capita be a better measure of sustainable development than growth in GDP per capita? The articles also consider this issue.
Rio+20 deal weakens on energy and water pledges BBC News, Richard Black (17/6/12)
Rio+20: Progress on Earth issues ‘too slow’ – UN chief BBC News, Richard Black (20/6/12)
Rio+20 Earth Summit Q&A The Telegraph, Louise Gray (16/5/12)
Rio+20 Earth Summit: campaigners decry final document Guardian, Jonathan Watts and Liz Ford (23/6/12)
A catastrophe if global warming falls off the international agenda Observer, Will Hutton (24/6/12)
Analysis: Rio +20 – Epic Fail The Bureau of Investigative Journalism Brendan Montague (22/6/12)
Accounting for natural wealth gains world traction Atlanta Business NewsKaty Daigle (17/6/12) (see alternatively)
New index shows lower growth for major economies Reuters, Nina Chestney (17/6/12)
A New Balance Sheet for Nations: UNU-IHDP and UNEP Launch Sustainability Index that Looks Beyond GDP EcoSeed (20/6/12)
World’s leading economies lag behind in natural capital Firstpost (18/6/12)
Beyond GDP: Experts preview ‘Inclusive Wealth’ index at Planet under Pressure conference EurekAlert, Terry Collins (28/3/12)
New sustainability index created that looks at more than gross domestic product bits of science (17/6/12)
For Sustainability, Go Beyond Gross Domestic Product Scientific AmericanDavid Biello (17/6/12)
Inclusive Wealth Report 2012: Overview IHDP
Inclusive Wealth Report 2012: Summary for Decision-makers IHDP
Inclusive Wealth Report 2012: full report IHDP
- What progress has been made towards sustainable development over the past 20 years?
- What are the limitations of conferences such as Rio+20 in trying to achieve global action?
- With the current challenges faced by the eurozone and the global economy more generally, is this a good time to be discussing long-term issues of sustainable development?
- Explain how IWI is derived and measured?
- Looking at the chart above, explain the very different positions of countries in the three columns.
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of using growth in IWI compared with using growth in GDP as measures of (a) economic development; (b) economic wellbeing?
Ministers from around the world met in Durban in the first two weeks of December 2011 to hammer out a deal on tackling climate change. The aim was that this would replace the Kyoto Treaty, due to expire at the end of 2012.
International climate change agreements are particularly difficult to achieve, as there are several market failures involved. Also, there is considerable ‘gaming’, as each country seeks to negotiate a deal that benefits the world as a whole but which minimises the disadvantages to their own particular country.
The conference ended on the 11 December with a last-minute deal. Both developed and developing countries would for the first time work on a legally binding agreement to limit emissions. This would be drawn up by 2015 and to come into force after 2020. The following articles assess the significance of the agreement and whether it represents real progress or little more than a deal to work on a deal.
‘Modest’ gains as UN climate deal struck Independent (11/12/11)
Landmark deal saves climate talks Irish Examiner (11/12/11)
Durban climate change: the agreement explained The Telegraph, Louise Gray (11/12/11)
Durban climate conference agrees deal to do a deal – now comes the hard part Guardian, Fiona Harvey and Damian Carrington (13/12/11)
Climate deal: A guarantee our children will be worse off than us Guardian, Damian Carrington (11/12/11)
Durban climate deal: the verdict Guardian, Damian Carrington (12/12/11)
Australia hails Cop 17 agreement News 24 Australia (11/12/11)
Climate talks reach new global accord Financial Times, Andrew England and Pilita Clark (11/12/11)
Durban Climate Talks Produce Imperfect Deals Voice of America, Gabe Joselow (11/12/11)
Critics slam climate agreement t Sydney Morning Herald, Arthur Max (11/12/11)
Deal at last at UN climate change talks Euronews on YouTube (11/12/11)
World still in arrears on climate change pledges Reuters Africa, Barbara Lewis (11/12/11)
New UN climate deal struck, critics say gains modest Hindustan Times (11/12/11)
Climate change: ambition gap Guardian (12/12/11)
Canada leaves Kyoto to avoid heavy penalties Financial Times, Bernard Simon (13/12/11)
Durban Platform Leaves World Sleepwalking Towards Four Degrees Warming Middle East North Africa Financial Network, Ben Grossman-Cohen and Georgette Thomas (Oxfam) (13/12/11)
A deal in Durban The Economist (11/12/11)
Assessing the Climate Talks — Did Durban Succeed? Harvard University – Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs – An Economic View of the Environment, Robert Stavins (12/12/11)
- What was agreed at the Durban Climate Change Conference?
- Why is it difficult to get agreement on measures to tackle climate change? How is game theory relevant to explaining the difficulties in reaching an agreement?
- How would you set about establishing the ‘optimal’ amount of emissions reductions?
- Why will the market fail to provide the optimal amount of emissions reductions?
- Why was it felt not possible for a legally binding international agreement to come into force before 2020?
A two-week international climate change summit opened in Cancún, Mexico, on 29 November. But will the talks make any progress in tackling global warming? Will mechanisms be put in place to ensure that the previously agreed ceiling of 2°C warming is met?
After the largely unsuccessfuly talks in Copenhagen a year ago, hopes are not high. But a likely rise in global temperatures of considerably more than 2°C could have disasterous global consequences. Indeed, new evidence suggests that even a ceiling of 2°C may be too high and that, as temperatures rise towards that level, domino effects will start that may become virtually unstoppable. As Andrew Sims in the Guardian article notes:
This is the problem. Once the planet warms to the point where environmental changes that further add to warming feed off each other, it becomes almost meaningless to specify just how much warmer the planet may get. You’ve toppled the first domino and it becomes virtually impossible to stop the following chain of events. Honestly, nobody really knows exactly where that will end, but they do know it will end very, very badly.
The following podcasts and articles look at the importance of reaching international agreement but the difficulties of doing so.
Podcasts and webcasts
Post-Copenhagen, a Cancun compromise? Reuters (30/11/10)
Climate change ‘Dragons’ Den’: What are the options? BBC News, Roger Harrabin (29/11/10)
Cancun climate change summit seeks new emissions deal BBC News, David Shukman (3/12/10)
Can nudge theory change our habits? BBC News, Claudia Hammond (29/11/10)
Cancún climate change conference 2010 Guardian, (portal)
Q&A: Cancún COP16 climate talks Guardian, Shiona Tregaskis (8/10/10)
72 months and counting … Guardian, Andrew Simms (1/12/10)
Cancún climate talks: In search of the holy grail of climate change policy Guardian, Michael Jacobs (29/11/10)
Cancún and the new economics of climate change Guardian, Kevin Gallagher and Frank Ackerman (30/11/10)
Facing the consequences The Economist (25/11/10)
UN climate talks low on expectation BBC News, Richard Black (29/11/10)
Expect little from Cancun talks The Star (Malaysia), Martin Khor (29/11/10)
Don’t let us down: UN climate change talks in Cancun Independent, Jonathan Owen and Matt Chorley (28/11/10)
Cancun and Climate: Government Won’t Act, But Business Will Time Magazine: The Curious Capitalist, Zachary Karabell (28/11/10)
At Global Climate Change Talks, an Answer Grows Right Outside Huffington Post, Luis Ubiñas (29/11/10)
Cancun climate change talks: ‘last chance’ in the snakepit The Telegraph, Geoffrey Lean (29/11/10)
Climate Change Talks Must Deliver After Record Weather Year Scoop (New Zealand), Oxfam (29/11/10)
World climate talks kick off in Cancun DW-World, Amanda Price and Axel Rowohlt (29/11/10)
On international equity weights and national decision making on climate change Vox, David Anthoff and Richard S J Tol (29/11/10)
Climate treaties all bluster, no bite The Age, Dan Cass (10/12/10)
UNFCCC COP16/CMP6: Mexico 2010 Official site
- What would count as a ‘successful’ outcome of the climate change talks? Why might politicians interpret this differently from economists?
- What can governments do to internalise the externalities of greenhouse gas emissions?
- What insights can game theory provide into the difficulties of reaching binding climate change agreements?
- What are likely to be the most effective mechanisms for getting people to adapt their behaviour?
- Can nudge theory be used to change our habits towards the environment?
- Explain the use of equity weights in judging the effects of climate change. Are they a practical way forward in devising environmental policy?