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?
At a cost of €1 trillion to EU states, tax evasion is undoubtedly an area in need of attention. With government finances in deficit across the world, part of the gap could be plugged by preventing tax revenues from going unpaid. Well-known companies and individuals have been accused of tax evasion (and avoidance), but part of the problem is the existence of countries that make such activities possible.
Tax havens not only offer favourable tax rates, but also have in place regulations that prevent the effective exchange of information. That is, they are able to keep the identity and income information of depositors a private affair and are not required to share that information with other governments. This means that other tax authorities are unable to demand the tax revenue from income earned, when it is held in some of these countries. This can deprive the government’s coffers of substantial amounts of money.
In 2000, the OECD produced a report naming so-called ‘uncooperative tax havens’, including Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein and Liberia. Since then, all nations on this list have pledged their cooperation and been removed and in a recent step, Andorra has announced a proposal to implement its first ever income tax. This move is partly in response to pressures from EU governments to tackle tax evasion. Furthermore, talks between the finance ministers of tax havens, such as Switzerland and Liechtenstein have been agreed with the aim of improving the flow of bank account information and thus combating tax evasion. The Council of the European Union said:
The decision represents an important step in the EU’s efforts to clamp down on tax evasion and tax fraud”
Countries, such as Switzerland (a non-EU member) are likely to find requests for information difficult to ignore, if they want to have access to EU financial markets. However, any concessions on information provision will come at a significant cost for a country that has long regarded its banking secrecy as an ‘honourable policy.
Reforming policy on tax havens is essential, not only to help tackle tax evasion and thus government deficits, but also to generate investment into countries that don’t offer such favourable tax rates. Investors naturally want to invest in those countries with low tax rates and as such, could it be that countries like the UK suffer from a loss of investment and that the only way to encourage it is to offer similarly low tax rates? International agreement is certainly needed to tackle the worldwide issue of tax evasion and at the moment, it seems as though pressure is building on secretive countries. The following articles consider this controversial issue.
Clock ticks on Swiss banking secrecy BBC News, Imogen Foulkes (21/5/13)
Andorra bows to EU pressure to introduce income tax The Telegraph, Fiona Govan (2/6/13)
Andorra to introduce income tax for first time BBC News (2/6/13)
Andorra to introduce income tax for the first time Economy Watch (3/6/13)
Swiss have no choice but to bow to US ultimatum – Ackermann Reuters, Katharina Bart> (3/6/13)
Austria out front as EU zeroes in on tax evasion The Budapest Times (29/5/13)
EU to start talks with non-EU countries on tax evasion BBC News (14/5/13)
- What is tax evasion?
- Using game theory, explain why an international agreement on tax evasion might be needed?
- When an income tax is imposed in Andorra, what will be the impact on government revenues?
- How might the labour supply incentive change once an income tax is imposed?
- How do tax havens affect investment in other countries?
- Is there an argument that countries such as the UK should cut its tax rates to encourage investment?
The UK has always been an attractive place for investment, as foreign companies look to cities such as London for stable investment opportunities. This provides not only jobs and output, but also tax revenue for the government. However, one drawback is the lost tax revenue through tax avoidance schemes and big businesses say that if the UK is to remain competitive it needs to look at cutting taxes and bureaucracy.
In recent months, we have seen cases of individuals being prosecuted for tax evasion and more recently in the USA, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have been criticized by the Senate for allegedly moving an estimated £13bn to offshore accounts. (Microsoft and HP deny any wrong-doing). It is cases like this that provide an argument for governments to cut business rates and avoid losing business and jobs to other tax havens. Lord Fink, who is a Director of Firms located in a variety of tax havens said:
’I don’t see why the UK should not compete for jobs that at present are going to the Cayman Islands’
Tax havens are obviously attractive to firms, as they provide a means of retaining more of a firm’s earnings and hence their profits. By offering a much lower rate of tax than countries such as the UK, they help to ease the tax burden on wealthy individuals and investors in hedge funds, along with many others.
The question is, do these lower tax rates discourage investment into the UK and thus would a relaxation of Revenue Customs’ rules mean an increase in inward investment and the other positive things that this would bring? Or would a decrease in tax rates for wealthy investors send the wrong message?
In a time of austerity, tax cuts for the rich are never going to be a popular policy – at least not amongst the ‘non-rich’ – in truth, the majority of the population. Furthermore, many simply see tax havens as morally wrong – or as George Osborne put it ‘morally repugnant’. The use of them provides the better off with a means of paying less to the taxman, whilst the worse off continue to pay their share.
The controversy surrounding tax havens is perhaps even more of an issue given the size of the public-sector deficit. With tax havens being used by those who should be paying the most, tax revenues are lower than would be the case without tax evasion and avoidance. Is this adding to the burden of basic rate tax payers?
This doesn’t help the gap between government expenditure and revenue, which has contributed to the largest amount of UK public-sector borrowing in August 2012 since records began. Net borrowing reached £14.4bn, as things like corporation tax receipts fell and benefit payments rose. Money that should go in to the government’s coffers is undoubtedly making its way into tax havens, but does that also mean that jobs are making their way out of the country? If tax rates in the UK were cut, cities such as London may become even more attractive places to invest, which could potentially create a much needed boost for the economy. But, at what cost? The following articles consider the controversy of tax havens.
Microsoft and HP rapped by US Senate over tax havens BBC News (20/9/12)
Morally repugnant tax avoiders can rest easy under David Cameron Guardian, Tanya Gold (21/9/12)
Britain could prevent the use of tax havens by ending ‘archaic’ business rules Telegraph, Rowena Mason (21/9/12)
UK public-sector borrowing hits record high of £14.4bn BBC News (21/9/12)
The top Tory who wants to make Britain a tax haven for millionaires Guardian, Martin Williams and Rajeev Syal (20/9/12)
Make UK a tax haven to attract investment from millionaires, urges Tory treasurer Mail Online, Daniel Martin (21/9/12)
Microsoft saved billions using Irish tax havens Irish Times, Genevieve Carbery (21/9/12)
Microsoft, HP skirted taxes via offshore units: U.S. Senate Panel Reuters, Kim Dixon (21/9/12)
Danny Alexander says tax avoidance ‘adds 2p in every £1 to basic tax rate’ Independent, Oliver Wright (24/6/12)
- What are the key features of tax havens?
- Briefly explain the arguments in favour of tax havens and those against. Think about them from all points of view.
- Explain the way in which a cut in UK tax rates could create jobs and how the multiplier effect may provide a boost for the UK economy.
- If tax rates were cut, how might this affect an individual’s decision to work? What about an individual’s decision to invest? Use indifference analysis to help explain your answer.
- How does tax avoidance and evasion affect public sector borrowing? Is there any way a cut in tax rates on foreign investment could improve the government’s finances?
- Do you think there is any truth in the argument that the UK is losing out to other countries because of its higher tax rates? Is a reduction in tax rates necessary to help us compete?
Transfer pricing is a technique used by multinational companies to avoid tax liabilities in countries they regard as having high levels of taxation. The articles below from the Guardian give the results of an investigation by Guardian journalists into the elaborate structures that have been created by multinational companies in the banana industry to funnel their profits through tax havens like the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands. In some cases they have paid an effective tax rate as low as 8% when the tax rate in their home country is 35%.
Revealed: how multinational companies avoid the taxman Guardian (6/11/07)
Bananas to UK via the Channel islands? It pays for tax reasons Guardian (6/11/07)
‘I get up at 4am, work to 6-7pm – it doesn’t feel like a life’ Guardian (6/11/07)
||Define the term ‘transfer pricing’.
||Explain how multinational banana companies use transfer pricing to reduce their tax liabilities.
||“The trend in the last 30 years has been to shift the burden of tax away from companies on to the consumer and labour. Capital is increasingly going untaxed.” Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this shift in the method of taxation.