Archives For VAT

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By Jason Piper, tax and business law manager, ACCA

Among the themes covered in the ongoing debates around BEPS and international tax, there’s been a strand of discussion around “tax competition” – the practice by governments of attempting to make their jurisdiction look more attractive than others by reducing the tax burden on businesses.

The argument runs that by encouraging a move away from taxation of business, tax havens and rich countries are imperilling developing countries who need tax revenues.

But if making your tax system “competitive” costs you money, why would anyone bother? Perhaps because the indirect consequence is that you make more out of the VAT, PAYE and simple GDP effects of inward investment than you lose by reducing the tax due on any profits that the company may book in your jurisdiction.

For that to work though, you need a number of conditions to be true. In particular, you need to have effective collection mechanisms for VAT, and a secure taxpaying base of employees. You need to be comfortable that you have the economic capacity to service the increased production and demand for the GDP growth to have value.

For most developed countries that is very much the case. They typically collect 30-40% of GDP in taxes, and less than 10% of that comes from corporation tax – so 3-4% of GDP is collected as corporation taxes. But in developing countries, the level of GDP collected as tax falls to 10-20%, while the proportion of overall taxes attributable to corporation tax rises to nearer 20%. So we’re still looking at around 2-4% of GDP collected as corporation tax.

And that means that the economics of “tax competition” doesn’t work for a developing country; it would need to have twice the GDP impact per pound of corporate profit untaxed to get in the same level of VAT or employee income tax as recompense – yet proportionally the amount of tax that developing countries should typically be able to extract from the international businesses who might invest in them should be far higher. The reason that big business goes to developing countries is typically natural resources – and those resources are not typically mobile. If business wants them, there’s only the one jurisdiction they’ll be coming from, so the local government should have business in a firm grip when it comes to extracting tax revenues.

And there’s another twist. Remember those percentages of GDP collected as tax? Well, it’s generally reckoned that a nation needs to devote around 15% of its GDP to government in order for government to be stable. Or in other words, if you as a business are looking at investing into a market where less than 15% of GDP gets collected as tax, then you’ve got more to worry about than just business rates and form filling; there’s a good chance that the whole infrastructure will be unstable. Whether that’s political instability, or a lack of roads on which to transport your produce, there’s going to be additional risk factors to play into your analysis of whether the investment is sound.

And therein lies the challenge for a business decision maker. In a developed country, with a high level of maintained infrastructure and political stability, corporate tax is a pure cost to be managed down. The net marginal benefits accruing from payment are nil, while the government may even be prepared to forego those taxes in order to attract your business; official resistance to corporate tax minimisation is likely to be low.

In a developing country, taxes paid to central government may have a very real benefit to business, for the simple reason that without them the whole investment may become worthless in very short order. Tax is not so much a deduction from profits as a cost of sales; it’s an essential element in allowing those profits to be earned in the first place.

To be fair, this probably isn’t something that big business needs to be told. They know full well that however valuable the resource in a mine might be on paper, it’s worthless if they can’t safely extract and process it. Political stability is a key element of their risk analysis. If the people at the top of multinationals weren’t smart enough to have worked this stuff out for themselves, they wouldn’t be there.

But there’s a lot of other people who haven’t spent a lifetime making difficult decisions based on complex yet incomplete information. And if they end up running tax administrations, then there’s a risk that they might consider tax holidays for big business to be a good way forward to attract international investment – when in fact, it may be the very last thing they need, and the very last thing that a rational business would ask for. What’s sauce for the goose may not be sauce for the gander, or indeed the value burger of your choice. When it comes to domestic tax policies in respect of international investment, it most definitely is horses for courses.

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Chas Roy-Chowdhury-14

By Chas Roy-Chowdhury, head of taxation, ACCA

I gave evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs recently about corporation tax and how revenue is now being secured from companies through other means.

The bigger picture needs to be looked at when it comes to how corporations are taxed in the UK. There are other and additional ways by which companies in the UK are taxed, for example through VAT and through National Insurance Contributions (NICs).

A publication produced by the Office of National Statistics back in March, shows VAT numbers have held up remarkably well since the economic downturn because, the VAT rate has gone up to 20 per cent. That is probably what we need to look at in terms of the basket of taxes that we have moved towards—those companies that we know are going to be tied into the UK rather than those that can look at different locations to do business that are more favourable for them, taking tax as one of the factors and one of the components that they look at.

The fundamental problem is that large companies are by nature multinational – their shareholders, activities and customers are spread across the world – whilst national governments are not.

There is a tax chasm between what governments seek to capture by way of corporation tax and what companies, many of which are global in terms of their shareholders, activities and customers, generate in terms of global profits.

In practice, existing rules are highly complex and differences between countries can be exploited well within the law. HMRC has adapted to this and is not sitting on its laurels as some other Parliamentary committees have suggested. They are quick and effective and have developed a greater understanding of how companies work. The majority of corporations go through the tax process with ease. HMRC has achieved this despite declining resources.

ACCA wants to see tax simplicity. But that’s a big ask. Adam Smith’s four principles of what makes a good tax system – proportionality, transparency, convenience, and efficiency – still stand centuries later. I don’t think we’re near this and I also think we are in danger of losing trust in the tax system.

The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee also raised the issue of naming and shaming those who have promoted aggressive tax avoidance or tax evasion schemes.

ACCA believes if naming and shaming is going to be introduced for tax avoidance, which is legal, the bar needs to be set very high. The complexity of the tax system means there is a risk that mis-interpretation could result in naming and shaming of a tax adviser; this could result in severe reputational damage.

We have long been calling for greater regulation of tax advice. While ACCA and other accountancy bodies have strict regulation and standards, anyone can set up and offer tax advice without those safeguards in place.

There’s no denying that all this is a very tricky and complex situation. But it is heartening to see that the issue is being discussed at international level, from the EU, to the US; and of course the G8 will be looking at the avoidance/evasion debate in June when it meets in Ireland.