The Struggle against Aggressive Tax Avoidance
Experts estimate that a fifth of world wealth is hidden from the tax authorities of states and considerable parts of international corporate profits are not taxed. According to the Real World Economic Review, corporations in 2018 bought back $214 billion of their own stock. Google and Amazon parked billions in shadow financial centers. Aggressive tax avoidance makes a functioning state impossible.
THE STRUGGLE AGAINST AGGRESSIVE TAX AVOIDANCE
After the Panama Papers and BEPS
By Karl-Martin Hentschel
[This study #13 from July 2016 edited by the Tax Justice Network is translated abridged from the German on the Internet, http://www.taxjustice.net.]
Experts estimate that a fifth of world wealth is hidden from the tax authorities of states and considerable parts of the profits of international corporations are not taxed (see James S. Henry, TJN 2012). Events like the HSBC scandal, the Luxemburg Leaks, and the Panama Papers have created a public consciousness for the problematic of tax avoidance and evasion.
Many experts expected a clear concept for drying up corporate tax havens after the G20 commission to the OECD in 2013. Unfortunately, this expectation was disappointed in many respects (see Sol Picciotto, coordinator of the BEPS - Base Erosion and Profit Shifting - Monitoring Group 2015). Many proposals remain non-committal and often half-hearted. Realizing the proposals is delayed in the European Union. The initial hope that the EU could concretize the proposals of the OECD has not proven true.
The EU works on the further development of the money-laundering guideline and other instruments to check the tax avoidance and tax fraud of private persons - parallel to work on the OECD proposals on business taxation. The results are still unsatisfactory. The fundamental problem is that the owners of mammoth assets hardly finance the community and the increasing concentration of wealth rarely arises in political discussion.
Essential reasons for this sluggish political discussion include:
All states compete for capital investments.
The interests of the participating states are very different.
The US likes to enforce its interests and shows little readiness for sharing in international agreements.
Europe blocks itself.
As an export nation, Germany fears German companies will be subject to high taxes abroad.
For these reasons, fundamental changes of business tax law - like a transition to a unitary corporate tax or introduction of minimum tax rates - are consciously factor4ed out.
The following advances are manifest:
The theme tax avoidance is prominent. No one minimizes this anymore.
There are clear advances in specific country reporting, the introduction of business registers and data exchange. While this is gratifying, the OECD proposals, unfortunately, are full of holes and the planned conversion by the EU and other states is often inadequate.
A series of OECD proposals (on patent boxes, Internet trade, interests, licenses and so forth) are mostly without obligation. Their realization depends exclusively on the nation-states.
Illegal aggregations of trillions in personal fortunes and tax havens have pressed into public consciousness through the Panama Papers.
The necessary conclusions are only drawn very slowly. Germany still plays a chief role as the main export country of the OECD in alliance with tax havens like Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium as a brakeman in international tax transparency. Other European states like France are beginning to support a more progressive policy for more international tax justice. Exerting pressure on the governments is vital for changing the past praxis.
Whoever grapples with tax avoidance must distinguish three different complex problems:
Tax avoidance by companies: The systematic and aggressive avoidance of tax payments by international companies like IKEA, Bayer, Amazon, Apple and many others must be confronted. These use all the worldwide possibilities and gaps in the tax law to the limit of legality and partly even beyond to minimize their tax payments. They are supported by mammoth consulting firms, the Big Four (Deloitte, Price Waterhouse Cooper PWC, Ernst & Young and KPMG (with 700,000 employees and over $120 billion in sales).
Tax avoidance by rich individuals: Aggressive tax avoidance by individuals and corruption monies. Rich persons from the global North do not want their wealth to be taxed. Billionaires from threshold countries like China, corrupt politicians, and criminal organizations from all over the world launder and hide the money from businesses like the weapons-, drugs- and slave-trade. Banks and tax consultants offer both legal and illegal methods for avoiding taxes and laundering illegal funds.
Tax privileges of the super-rich: The praxis of far-reaching tax exemption of mammoth wealth has gradually expanded worldwide since the 1980s. This is the main cause of the increasing accumulation of wealth and the growing inequality worldwide. Nevertheless, this theme hardly occurs in the public debate today presumably because this is legal.
Fundamentally separate complexes are involved that are obviously closely connected. The super-rich emerge out of criminals. The rich and super-rich are involved in companies or own them entirely.
On the question, what is legal and illegal or illegitimate: The line of demarcation is flowing...The systematic use of gaps or loopholes in the law often constructed in tax havens to avoid taxes must be decried as illegitimate - however, the court's judgment turns out in the isolated case.
II. Brief Historical Retrospect
The following phases can be identified historically:
Taxes were trifling up to the First World War. There was no social state. Consumer taxes and the land tax played the greatest role. 1914 was the year with the greatest wealth concentration in history. The First World War led to the first introduction of income taxes but these taxes were clearly reduced afterward.
Tax rates of up to 90% were established worldwide as a reaction to the 1929 worldwide economic crisis.
Tax rates over 90% were established with the Rooseveltian reforms as a reaction to the 1929 worldwide economic crisis. From 1933 to 1980, the wealth concentration decreased considerably in nearly all states and the modern middle class arose.
Since 1980, taxes were drastically lowered worldwide for businesses, wealth, and income. In 2007, the income concentration in the US reached the state of 1929.
Since the turnoff the millennium, international corporations began to devise tax avoidance strategies ever more systematically. More and more corporate and private wealth is hidden in tax havens. Many states offer targeted low taxes and secrecy to attract foreign capital. So Germany established the fiscal exemption for foreign capital investments with the "attractiveness" of the German financial center.
III. The Dimension of the Problem
The problem of tax avoidance has become constantly greater despite years of efforts of the UN, the OECD, and the EU to curb the tax havens:
Up to a fifth of the world's wealth is in so-called tax havens to evade proper taxation (see James Henry 2014), according to estimates of the Tax Justice Network.
Up to 30 billion euros are denied the German state annually through tax avoidance. Damages through money laundering alone amount to 100 billion euros annually.
The EU plays a driving role in an international tax-cutting competition.
Small and medium-size businesses (KMU) are massively disadvantaged by the tax strategies of international companies.
The concentration of private wealth and the formation of very larger corporations give them a growing political power. Governments were under pressure to consider their interests to not risk capital withdrawal and losses of investments and tax revenues.
Normal citizens increasingly doubt the justice of our society. Readiness to pay taxes is undermined.
The increasing concentration of wealth and power destabilize the world and endanger the achievements of enlightenment and democracy.
IV. Tax havens - financial secrecy index - Tax haven Germany
Tax havens are states or territories with their own economic- and tax laws so rich individuals or corporations can hide their wealth in the form of accounts, deposits or firms to avoid taxes or evade the tracing of criminal or untaxed sources of money.
The secrecy of the data, trifling bureaucratic demands, political security and special legal constructions allow keeping wealth secret and protecting wealth from foreign tax authorities. There are tax havens that specialize in corporate customers while other laws are specially tailored for private persons.
Again and again, there are attempts by the OECD and the EU to put tax havens on blacklists. But these attempts were subjected to enormous political pressure. The Financial Secrecy Index (FSI) is the best known independent list and is calculated and published every two years by independent experts of the Tax Justice Network. The latest was in 2015.
Three groups of tax havens can be distinguished: the mammoth financial centers like Switzerland, the US, England, Germany, and Japan that gain popularity with their security and secrecy. Small states offering low taxes and favorable legal constructions (Bahrain, Luxemburg, Singapore, Netherlands, Cyprus and Lebanon) and the well-known island-territories, islands mostly connected with England (ex-colonies) acting with their own jurisdiction (Canary Islands, Virgin Islands, Bermudas, Cayman Islands and so forth) that are used as tax-free locations by private parties from rich countries. In the US, there are a series of states like Delaware, Nevada, and Wyoming that are known as tax havens for foreigners. Germany is also one of the most important tax havens of the world - particularly for wealth from the global South - frequently from criminal sources like drugs or the arms trade. The foreign capital invested in Germany that is not adequately taxed is estimated at 2.5 to 3 trillion euros.
2015 Shadow Finance Centers - Top 10
Rank 2015 (Rank 2013)
1 (1) Switzerland
2 (3) Hong Kong
3 (6) US
4 (5) Singapore
5 (4) Cayman Islands
6 (2) Luxemburg
7 (7) Lebanon
8 (8) Germany
9 (13) Bahrain
10 (16) Dubai
V. Political Activities against Tax Avoidance
Tax avoidance becomes a political theme with the increasing wealth concentration and the increased significance of tax havens:
For years, the countries of the global South have sought more influence on the organization of international fiscal policy. In 2015, their demand was rejected by the majority of the global North. Instead, some developing- and threshold countries were involved by the OECD in the BEPS process...
The Special Consternation of the Global South
The 2015 IMF report revealed the main victims of the aggressive tax planning are countries of the global South. The loss through business tax avoidance in the global South may amount to 6-13% of their tax revenue while the loss in OECD countries is 2-3%.
Loss through Business Tax Avoidance in % of the GDP
6-13% - in countries of the global South
2-3% - in industrial countries
In 2013, the illegitimate capital outflow amounted to 1.09 trillion dollars. $7, 5 dollars are exported illegally for every US dollar from development assistance...
These countries lose considerable funds through the offshore tax flight of economic and political elites. Corruption and kleptocracy (plutocracy) play a great role and can only be fought together with the support of the rich states.
While mainly illegal, these capital outflows are uncontrollable as long as the rich states do not supply any data to developing countries and do not prosecute the criminal tax offenses of involved persons.
Another problem is the inadequate training and experience of employees in the tax authorities of these countries.
Poorer states depend on the illegally transferred money being given back to them. Unfortunately, this does not happen often. The Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (STAR) was created to solve or at least reduce this problem (see World Bank and UNODC - 2015).
The Special Role of the US
Whether and how much the US is impacted by the international tax avoidance of corporations and individuals are controversial. In any case, the tax laws of the US are fundamentally different than most OECD countries.
Taxes paid abroad can be considered as an offset. US citizens are basically taxable with their world income. With the FATCA law, the US in the future will force all tax authorities worldwide to provide data on US citizens to the US financial authorities. So there will be no banking secrecy anymore for US citizens in Switzerland and Lichtenstein. This is also true for the taxation of US corporations - when they transfer their profits back to the US. Therefore, Google and Apple parked billions in shadow financial centers that were withdrawn from taxation in Europe.
An intensely domestically-oriented thinking plays a role in the politics of the US. They are much less zealous in preventing tax dumping of other states. They emphasize more the additional revenue in taxes on foreign income when persons or firms deduct less foreign taxes from their tax and less the competitive disadvantage.
On the other side, the US is also impacted by different methods of tax avoidance, particularly by the use of manipulated transfer prices for goods, services, labels, patents and so forth. Within the OECD, the US cooperates in the concepts against tax avoidance (BEPS).
In summary, the stress level of suffering of the US in relation to tax avoidance seems less than in other states. The US tends to enforce its interests unilaterally. The nationalist moods in Congress make US participation in international regulations unlikely. Signing a multilateral agreement obligating the US to supply tax data of US businesses or US citizens to other states may not have a majority in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the EU and other states are well advised to enforce their interests unilaterally through their own laws without hoping for agreements with the US.
How does tax avoidance operate?
The system of tax avoidance operates in two stages. The first stage concerns the avoidance of business taxes by international corporations. The second stage involves owners of these corporations avoiding income and wealth taxes.
The result is the increasing concentration of wealth and the rise of multimillionaires and billionaires. The countries of the global South suffer the massive loss of wealth by capital flight.
TAX AVOIDANCE: MYRIAD PRACTICES WITH DRASTIC CONSEQUENCES FOR THE GENERAL PUBLIC
By Philipp Gerhartinger, Nov 2014, https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2017/07/02/18800601.php
"Buyback this," Real World Economic Review, March 2018, David Riccio
TAX JUSTICE IN GLOBALIZATION
By Tax Justice Network and Nicole Liebert
The Tax Justice Network champions transparency on the financial markets and rejects secrecy practices. We support fair rules of the game in the tax realm and oppose loopholes and distortions in taxation and regulation and the misuse that follows. We urge the observation of tax laws and reject tax fraud, tax avoidance and all those mechanisms enabling owners and managers of assets to steal away from responsibility toward the societies on which they and their prosperity depend. As central interests, we reject tax- and blackout havens.
HOW THE FISCAL REDISTRIBUTION FROM BOTTOM TO TOP CAN BE STOPPED
By Nicole Liebert
[Nicole Liebert is the author of the 2011 study "Tax Justice in Globalization" that unfortunately is still only available in German.]
The state lacks money, indebtedness increases - but the taxes for businesspersons and owners of capital are lowered more and more. States in the European Union and all over the world are engaged in a ruinous tax competition with the argument that capital is a timid deer and must not be driven away by high tax rates. Dozens of tax havens offer back up. The governments hold themselves unscathed among those who cannot easily run away. Employees and consumers are asked to pay higher social fees and sales taxes while the social is cut. The consequence of this tax policy is a gigantic redistribution from bottom to top - in the North and the South. However, the claim that we simply cannot afford tax justice in a globalized world is false. Tax flight and tax avoidance need not be simply accepted or tolerated. Nicole Liebert's book shows what must happen so capital contributes again to financing the community and guaranteeing the financial base of a social state. This is more necessary than ever in a globalized economy.
TAX JUSTICE AT THE 2008 MOMENTUM CONGRESS
By Christopher Berker
[This article published on Sept 28, 2008, is translated abridged from the German on the Internet, http://momentum-congress.org.]
The question about "justice" has intensified in the 21st century although the elites from politics and the economy assumed this problem would solve itself with further liberalization of the world markets. From the neoliberal perspective, a best-possible allocation and an "optimal" result would occur through the freedom of the production factors. The neoclassical growth models assume the disparities in incomes between industrial- and developing- and threshold countries would actually disappear if only all trade barriers and institutional barriers (labor market rigidity, employee protection) fell away.
Orthodox theory in economics does not need to raise the question about a just tax state. A free trade regime with near-perfect factor mobility is assumed.
The problematic in theory is not that the goods-, financial-, and capital markets show a constant tendency to a balance point. Politics cannot do anything anymore to improve the human situation. The connection to tax policy is obvious when we want to explain the relative tax burdens of labor and capital. The factor labor was burdened ever more strongly while capital and profit incomes enjoyed constantly lower taxation in the last decades. The argument brought by neoliberal think tanks to unsuspecting politicians seems obvious at first. Capital in the 21st century is more mobile than ever. Therefore, every form of taxation of capital income could lead to potential flight. Labor as a production factor cannot keep up here. The (negative) developments directly connected with globalization are sold to the population as "natural" through a general acknowledgment of the orthodox economy (of neoclassicism).by large (even leftist!!!) national parties in Europe. An example beyond the theme of just taxation may be illuminating here. Labor market policy in Germany (Hartz IV) promotes extremely precarious employment conditions that actually contradict neoclassical economic reason. The state enables businesses to pay wages that are not living wages. However, this is the original function of the capitalist system (cf. Marx). The introduction of a minimum wage is demanded by "marginal leftist groups" as they are disparagingly called by the large leftist national parties.
The great cry was almost immediate: "minimum wages destroy jobs." This message was constantly brought to the people. This information was brought to the man or woman in every public discussion, every interview, and every television confrontation and in the large daily newspapers. When an Austrian social-democratic finance minister now brings this message again and again to the population in Germany, it becomes "common sense" and all persons thinking differently are stamped as "leftist visionaries." The economic reality with minimum wage looks somewhat different. Basically, there are two kinds of minimum wages. A minimum wage of low enough is high enough to offer a positive incentive. In Austria, there is actually a minimum wage in (nearly) all branches set by collective agreements. The collective agreement and the minimum wage fulfill an important economic function, the so-called cartel function. All businesses can function, trust that businesses of the same branch must keep certain minimum standards (industrial safety, working hours, minimum wage) and not only gain an advantage in competition through special "inventive" employment conditions.
The other minimum wage (and this is the minimum wage of neoliberal think tanks to politics and from politics as an ever-recurring message to the population) is only a mere tautology. If we had a legal minimum wage of 100 euros an hour, for example, jobs will be lost. With this absolutely crude tautological argument, the debate around introducing a legal minimum wage in Germany was successfully strangled again and again in the last years. Through the strong gains of the Left Party in Germany, the SPD had to slowly admit the Agenda policy had fundamental mistakes. Now the debate over a minimum wage is increasingly conducted on a more tolerable level.
This paragraph from German labor market policy illustrates how hegemonial structures can arise. "Wealth cannot be taxed. When it is taxed, it immediately disappears" (Kurier interview). The connection to the tax debate in Austria is clear according to this quotation by Wilhelm Molterer, Austrian finance minister.
The Austrian tax system has moved to the center of public interest with the abolition of the inheritance tax and the minimization of the gift tax. This interest was strengthened by a published OECD study that focused on the different tax systems of OECD member states. The OECD comparison shows clearly that taxes on profits and wealth in Austria contribute less to the total income than in the OECD average. While the tax on business profits in the average of OECD countries is 10% of the total revenue, Austria's businesses contributed half with 5.4%... The taxes on wealth in Austria at 1.3% are a quarter of the average contribution in OECD countries (5.6% of total revenue).
Wealth speaks all languages
What goals do nation-states pursue and why are certain classes taxed high or low? Tow production factors labor and capital (and wealth) are marked in a political economy. In their reflections on organizing tax or fee systems, neoclassical economists insist on the efficacy of the self-healing powers of the market. They may be guided by the idea that a perfect allocation of resources occurs in a completely deregulated economy. Thus, every factor is used at every place where its marginal utility is maximized. In the neoclassical model world, the famous balance position is attained when "welfare" is maximized. An important prerequisite for this optimal result is perfect factor mobility! However, the two factors labor and capital are fundamentally different. The factor labor has a relatively high immobility while the high mobility of capital is uncontested. A strong asymmetry between the production factors appears or is strengthened by the liberalization of capital transactions. This is immediately reflected in the numbers: the share of the wealth or property tax fell from 3.2% in 1980 to 1.5% in 2006. The current OECD numbers show that the share of profit taxes in the total revenue declined even though the profits of businesses rose strongly in the last years in Austria...
In 1993, a wealth or property tax was abolished in Austria... Labor is increasingly saddled since the mobility of labor is far less. The threatened "capital flight" is often brought into play in the wealth or property taxation. An essential question is raised for Austria: where will the wealth flow? Austria is a true tax paradise for the wealthy. In the whole OECD, there are hardly any countries where wealth's contribution to financing the (welfare) state is as trifling as in Austria. The share of these fees has drastically declined through the cancellation of the inheritance- and gift taxes...
Down with taxes! At any price?
The growing dominance of liberal economic policy in the last decades - relying on the beginning of the neoclassical synthesis in the economy - led broad sectors of the population to see the state's withdrawal from economic interactions and reduction of the so-called state share as positive. That opportunity costs arise with every tax cut that are then reflected either in lower state output or in welfare shifts between different population groups and income segments are forgotten. When the population supports a social welfare state, its financing must be accepted. It is a fact though it seems a paradox: a large part of the population usually profits from high spending since the redistribution effects of the tax system in Austria only appear on the spending side. When this money is lacking and no brilliant redistribution mechanisms are developed on the revenue side, cuts occur where the welfare state takes over important functions for many people...
The population can only be relieved through efficiency gains (increased productivity of state services, for example, e-government). Only those tasks come to the state in a progressive market economy that are not or cannot be rendered by the private side. It should not be surprising that such productivity gains are hard if not impossible to reach on the state level since these services are not provided by the private sector. Obviously, inefficiencies in state authorities creep in over the years.
These inefficiencies could be stamped out again because of public pressure and the watchful eyes of different institutions. If this possibility is utilized, the state can only create possibilities for tax cuts through limiting services as in healthcare. Thus, the 140 million euros that stay in the pockets of heirs through the abolition of the inheritance tax is missing in other areas. These funds could be invested alternatively in combating youth unemployment, guaranteeing nursing or in the health system in Austria. The factor labor has a relatively high immobility and thus a lower likelihood of "flight."
A moderate "wealth tax" would hardly lead to capital flight. The WiFO Austrian economist Stephan Schulmeister proposes a wealth tax of 0.5% with a generous exemption of 100,000 euros. So "normal citizens" would not be affected... A double taxation would be avoided. Financial resources (2.7 billion euros) could be invested in relieving the factor labor, in wage tax relief or lower non-wage labor costs...
The numbers show that "average citizens" finance our welfare state, not the rich ("the efficient"). Contributions to social security have a nominal upper limit... But the Austrian social democracy does not carry on this debate in public. Political opponents refer to the poor "homebuilders" who are so greatly burdened.
Who still pays taxes?
For Austria, the income- and wealth distribution has not changed on the income side. There is only a redistribution effect from top to bottom on the spending side through the state transfer system and the provision of public goods.
The undifferentiated consideration in the taxation of capital or wealth leads to a blockade of all discussion. Capital- or wealth income should not be taxed intensely when used for investments that create jobs or flow into research-intensive industries where positive external effects are expected. However, assets or wealth parked in private foundations is unproductive. Not taxing or hardly taxing this wealth is not sensible in allocation or distribution policy.
Three problem areas that were successfully ignored by social democracy in the past should be considered in the income- and wealth development and tax system in Austria.
Despite all problems with empirical data (the increase of part-time etc.), the declining wage rate indicates a large majority of employees are clear losers of globalization. This trend seems to be continuing in the near future. Although businesses and the wealthy are manifest winners of this process, they are always strongly favored by the nation-states. While business- and wealth-taxation drastically decrease, the problematic of the disparity of primary income is intensified and not reduced through "state intervention" with the introduction of new fees (prescription fees etc) and non-relief of the factor labor.
Short-term tax cuts for businesses and tax gifts for the well-to-do seem advantageous for individual nation states in a static consideration. Capital is enticed to the country and people hope for a multiplier effect. This is carried out ad absurdum from a dynamic way of looking at things. In the short-term, a tax competition can lead to convergence and help threshold countries in "catching up." However, in the long-term, this can lead to a complete erosion of the contributions of businesses and the wealthy to the wealthy state. Austria is a negative example here and an absolute forerunner within Europe. A fundamental leftist criticism of this development must still be awaited today. Several steps that must be taken politically could counteract these developments. On the global plane, all the tax havens must be blotted out. On the European plane, taxes must be harmonized (at least within certain groups of countries). Lower limits should be established to prevent a total "race to the bottom." Business taxes should directly benefit the EU budget. Today this is only the case with the sales tax and unfavorable distribution effects are manifest. On the national plane, politicians cannot be seduced anymore to actively promote tax competition (People cannot be surprised when the population draws the wrong conclusion when an Austrian chancellor from social democracy praises low taxes for businesses and the wealthy in a large German daily newspaper and urges German citizens to tax fraud).
The structural components must be moved into the foreground in the debate around tax reform. All means must be mobilized for that. The current tax cut discussion aims at a one-sided tax cut. We should proceed very cautiously with the income tax. This tax as the only tax in Austria achieves real redistribution effects. A cut of the top tax rate or expansion of the basis for assessment from 50,000 to 70,000 would only benefit 7% of income recipients. Carrying out great tax relief without a corresponding counter-financing (genuine structural reform) will be increasingly impossible given the ever-smaller synergy possibilities (so-called "savings measures") on the state plane. This is a fact and must be made clear to the broad public.
The gap within labor income also steadily widens. This may not be forgotten with all the disparity of capital- and labor income. While the lower quarter (lowest 25%) of dependent employees increased their net income a fantastic 2.7% from 1997-2007, the top quarter (top 25%) raised its net income 32.3% in the same period. The increase of part-time in the lower income strata also plays a role here. Nevertheless, the trend is clear and cannot be denied. Fewer and fewer persons earn more and more while nothing is left for a large part of the population (this is also true in economic "dream times"). The cold progression in an initial tax rate of 38.3%, the high social security contributions and the regressive sales taxes and fees make important contributions to (the stronger) unequal distribution of income.
There are considerable empirical problems in promoting wealth distribution. Even if the absolute numbers are hard to quantify, the data (EU-SILC) indicates wealth is distributed far more unequally than income. Besides, the two realities seem positively correlated. The wealthy realize very high incomes and vice versa.
The social democracy that always claims to be "the social conscience of society" has strengthened this trend for years. This situation can refer back that decision-makers do not have the necessary knowledge or the right arguments to fight the neoliberal dogmas. The present situation must be declared absolutely untenable from a leftist perspective. A broad conscientization in the public is necessary to at least partly repair the damage arising in the last years from the neoliberal propaganda.
Thus, the struggle for just taxation must be waged on global, European, and national planes. After years of idleness, an intensive institutional campaign is necessary to bring the problematic to the population. This struggle can first have a prospect for success when the people understand taxes need not be "bad."
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