In his Budget on 29 October, the UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced a new type of tax. This is a ‘digital services tax’, which, after consultation, he is planning to introduce in April 2020. The target of the tax is the profits made by major companies providing social media platforms (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), internet marketplaces (e.g. Amazon and eBay) or search engines (such as Alphabet’s Google).
The proposed digital services tax is a 2% tax on the revenues earned by such companies in the UK. It would only apply to large companies, defined as those whose global revenue is at least £500m a year. It is expected to raise around £400m per year.
The EU is considering a similar tax at a rate of 3%. India, Pakistan, South Korea and several other countries are considering introducing digital taxes. Indeed, many countries are arguing for a worldwide agreement on such a tax. The OECD is studying the implications of the possible use of such a tax by its 36 members. If an international agreement on such a tax can be reached, a separate UK tax may not go ahead. As the Chancellor stated in his Budget speech:
In the meantime we will continue to work at the OECD and G20 to seek a globally agreed solution. And if one emerges, we will consider adopting it in place of the UK Digital Services Tax.
The proposed UK tax is a hybrid between direct and indirect taxes. Like corporation tax, a direct tax, its aim is to tax companies’ profits. But, unlike corporation tax, it would be harder for such companies to avoid. Like VAT, an indirect tax, it would be a tax on revenue, but, unlike VAT, it would be an ‘end-stage’ tax rather than a tax on value added at each stage of production. Also, it would not be a simple sales tax on companies as it would be confined to revenue (such as advertising revenue) earned from the use in the UK of search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces. As the Chancellor said in his speech.
It is important that I emphasise that this is not an online-sales tax on goods ordered over the internet: such a tax would fall on consumers of those goods – and that is not our intention.
There is, however, a political problem for the UK in introducing such a tax. The main companies it would affect are American. It is likely that President Trump would see such taxes as a direct assault on the USA and could well threaten retaliation. As the Accountancy Age article states, ‘Dragging the UK into an acrimonious quarrel with one of its largest trading partners is perhaps not what the Chancellor intends.’ This will be especially so as the UK seeks to build new trading relationships with the USA after Brexit. As the BBC article states, ‘The chancellor will be hoping that an international agreement rides to his rescue before the UK tax has to be imposed.’
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.
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.
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.”.
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.
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.