Bottom of the canal: Pfizer’s billion-dollar tax ploy



File 20170803 28984 16qhxo6
The Netherlands is where nearly $1 billion from Australia was sunk into two companies liquidated three years later.
Alex de Haas/flickr, CC BY-NC

Michael West, University of Sydney

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has engaged in a series of paper transactions to create a A$936 million loss in Australia. It is, for all intents and purposes, a billion-dollar exercise in tax avoidance.

Pfizer and its auditor KPMG, the “Big Four” global accounting firm, refused to comment on the transactions or to defend them when presented with questions by this columnist. Pfizer was contacted on numerous occasions and refused. Both parties refused to return emails and phone calls.

These are transactions housed within a byzantine corporate structure. We will outline, in brief, the series of transactions with Pfizer associates in the Netherlands which led to this “bottom of the canal” tax scheme, then provide the background to the company’s activities.

The sequence of transactions

2011: Pfizer Australia Investments Pty Ltd issues $728 million in shares to Pfizer companies in the Netherlands, the US and Luxembourg.

Pfizer Australia Investments (PAI) then uses the cash from this share issue to buy two subsidiaries incorporated in the Netherlands. These are called Pfizer Australia Investments B.V. and Pfizer Pacific Cooperatief U.A.

There is no record of these two companies in Pfizer’s global accounts before December 31 2010.

2014: PAI issues more shares and invests another $208 million in the two Dutch companies. This brings the total investment in these companies to $936 million.

By the end of 2014, the Dutch subsidiaries have been liquidated with zero return for PAI. The financial effect of this round-robin transaction is that share capital of $936 million has been created in Pfizer’s Australian entity and losses of $936 million are recorded in Australia.


Michael West/Rachell Li, Sydney Democracy Network

This ring-a-ring-a-rosy has all the hallmarks of a transaction designed to create almost a billion dollars in losses which can be used for tax purposes in Australia. The Australian company has “invested” almost a billion dollars into two overseas companies which were suddenly liquidated – with no value left for shareholders. Nothing is heard of them since.

It brings to mind the infamous Bottom of the Harbour tax schemes of the 1970s and ’80s where the financial engineers – aided by the top end of the accounting community – made investments in companies, stripped those companies of their assets and left nothing for the taxman.

In Pfizer’s case, almost $1 billion of cash was “invested” in two companies in the Netherlands which went belly up within three years. That left the Australian entity – indeed Australian taxpayers – carrying the can for its losses as the freshly created $1 billion in share capital is now sitting pretty for tax-effective distribution to Pfizer overseas.

A company with form

Pfizer has form on such transactions.

Back in 2011, another Pfizer entity, Pfizer Australia Holdings, created new share capital of $733 million after it bought two subsidiaries from Pfizer Inc. The two subsidiaries were acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Pfizer issued shares, rather than paid cash, to buy these assets from themselves. So, new shares were created at a value of $733 million. This enormous price relied on a fancy asset valuation for the intangible assets held by these subsidiaries, notably “product development rights” of $461 million. These were the main assets acquired.

By 2014, share capital of $408 million of this new share capital had been returned in cash, repatriated to Pfizer companies overseas. And the product development rights had already evaporated (amortised) by $161 million.

Share capital created, assets written off, again. This is the Pfizer pattern. Share capital is created and its assets vanish.

On December 1 2014, yet another Pfizer entity here, Pfizer PFE Pty Ltd, acquired the Innovative Products Oncology and Consumer business from Pfizer Australia Holdings for nil consideration. This included the mysterious product development rights. Nil consideration. These are the rights valued three years earlier at $461 million.

Traditionally, when one company acquires a business from another company, one company is the buyer and the other company is the seller. This immutable principle of commerce does not necessarily pertain to Pfizer.

Pfizer Australia Holdings describes the transfer of this Innovative Products business as a “distribution”, a “transaction with owners in their capacity as owners”, according to its statutory financial statements.

In reality it is no such thing. Pfizer PFE is not an owner of Pfizer Australia Holdings. It holds no shares. It is merely a related party with a common ultimate parent in the US, Pfizer Inc.

Behind this narrative of a “distribution to owners” is tax. When you make profits of hundreds of millions of dollars, avoiding the 30% corporate income tax rate is big business.

Then and now

In 2007, Pfizer Australia Holdings was at the helm of Pfizer’s tax consolidated group in Australia and prepared “General Purpose” financial statements, full financial statements and full disclosures.

In 2008, it switched to preparing “Special Purpose” financial statements with far less disclosure, especially about income tax. KPMG’s 2008 audit report gave this special purpose report a clean bill of health even though required disclosures of changes in accounting policies were not made.

From 2009 to 2012, Pfizer Australia Holdings paid franked dividends to shareholders of $576 million; that is more than half-a-billion dollars going overseas. This is the good stuff, though, the above-board stuff, dividends paid out of profits already taxed in Australia.

After 2012, Pfizer ran out of Australian profits to distribute. It had hit the “patents cliff”. The blockbuster drugs Lipitor and Viagra were coming off patent and being challenged by generic competitors. Pfizer’s sales peaked at $2.2 billion in 2012. This used to be the biggest pharmaceutical company in the country.

Yet Pfizer had hit another cliff. The company was running out of Australian profits to distribute as dividends. It needed another way to rake the money offshore. And it came in the guise of return of share capital – better than dividends as there are far lighter tax obligations.

In 2014, a return of capital of $408 million was made offshore. And now, in 2016, Pfizer has made sure, through transactions with associates in the Netherlands, that there is another billion dollars ready to go offshore when the US overlords make the call.

Two things stand out, two takeaways from the “magic pudding” of Pfizer share capital creation and its bottom-of-the-canal tax scheme.

One, PAI’s audited financial statements claim that two Netherlands subsidiaries were incorporated in Australia. We can find no record of this.

Two, in 2014, PAI invested $208 million in the two Netherlands subsidiaries that were liquidated in the same year for no return. What is an observer to make of that?


The ConversationThis column, co-published by The Conversation with michaelwest.com.au, is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

Michael West, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Government calls for release of costings as Labor unveils trusts crackdown



File 20170730 23754 aaz4i9
Bill Shorten says Labor’s targeting of trusts is about delivering a level playing field in tax.
AAP/Sam Mooy

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Labor has taken another step to put tax and fairness at the centre of its policy agenda by proposing a crackdown on discretionary trusts, which it claims would raise A$4.1 billion over the forward estimates and $17.2 billion over a decade.

A Labor government would apply a minimum 30% rate of tax on discretionary tax distributions to beneficiaries over 18 years old. According to the Parliamentary Budget Office, the change will affect 318,000 discretionary trusts.

The policy would not apply to farm, charitable and philanthropic trusts. Also unaffected would be non-discretionary special disability trusts, deceased estates trusts, fixed trusts, cash management unit trusts, fixed unit trusts, and listed and unlisted public unit trusts.

Announcing the crackdown, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said it was about delivering a level playing field in tax, “so high-income earners can’t opt out of paying income tax”.

“Tradies and retail workers and mechanics and cleaners don’t get to choose how much tax they pay – and neither should anyone else,” he said.

With the government claiming the change would hit small business, Labor insists “small business will continue to enjoy asset protections”.

The trusts policy comes on top of Labor’s commitment to tighten negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions and to reimpose the deficit levy on high-income earners, among other measures.

The opposition has yet to announce what it will do about the already-legislated tax relief – being phased in – for businesses with turnovers of up to $50 million. It is expected a Labor government would want to retain that only for smaller businesses.

The ALP policy document points out that wealthy people are much more likely to have a trust than those with lesser incomes. The average amount in private trusts by the wealthiest 20% of households is more than $123,000, compared with $4,000 for the next quintile.

Discretionary trusts are used by individuals and businesses to reduce their tax by shifting income to those in a lower tax bracket. “This practice of ‘income splitting’ through discretionary trusts is used frequently by wealthy Australians to minimise their tax,” the policy says.

“Income splitting allows high-income Australians to avoid paying the marginal tax rate that should apply to their income level – something ordinary PAYG taxpayers can’t do,” it says.

The policy gives the example of a surgeon, “Sam”, with a non-working wife “Melissa”, and two non-working adult children. The surgeon earns $500,000 from his work income, and pays PAYG tax at the top marginal rate.

In the example, the couple has a discretionary trust which produces $54,000 from their investments. They attribute $18,000 each to the wife and children, who all pay no tax because their incomes are under the tax-free threshold. “This represents a tax saving of $14,460 had the investment income been attributed to just Sam and Melissa in equal proportions, and a tax saving of $25,380 had the investment income instead been part of Sam’s normal PAYG salary.”

The number of discretionary trusts has nearly doubled since the late 1990s to more than 642,000. The increase in non-discretionary trusts – without the same tax minimisation opportunities – has been much lower. In 2014-15, more than $590 billion of assets were in discretionary trusts.

13% of individuals in the lowest-income tax bracket receive distribution from a discretionary trust. This is much greater than for those on higher incomes.

“This indicates that a significant amount of income is being shifted from the wealthiest individuals to those earning little or no other incomes (for example, non-working members of the family such as spouses and young adults in full-time study) to reduce the amount of tax paid,” the policy says.

Labor says the proposed 30% rate “strikes the right balance between ensuring a fair amount of tax is paid on all trust distributions, while also aligning it with the rate for passive investment companies which also face a 30% rate of tax”.

Labor stresses the reforms “will not affect 98% of all individual taxpayers in Australia, with virtually all the revenue raised from people receiving trust distributions who have little or no other work income”.

Asked why farmers were being exempted, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said they had “issues when it comes to lumpy income and various issues relating to agriculture”.

Michael Sukkar, the assistant minister to the treasurer, called for Shorten to release the full Parliamentary Budget Office costing, including the assumptions Labor had used to come up with the revenue being claimed.

The Conversation“Australians know that Bill Shorten cannot be trusted. This also goes for his latest $17 billion tax-grab that will once again hit small business and their families,” Sukkar said.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/axx2w-6d8662?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Taxing empty homes: a step towards affordable housing, but much more can be done



File 20170713 9462 1n2hcla
Vacant and unlit ‘ghost’ apartments are a source of public outrage in major cities around the world.
leniners/flickr, CC BY-NC

Hal Pawson, UNSW

Vacant housing rates are rising in our major cities. Across Australia on census night, 11.2% of housing was recorded as unoccupied – a total of 1,089,165 dwellings. With housing affordability stress also intensifying, the moment for a push on empty property taxes looks to have arrived.

The 2016 Census showed empty property numbers up by 19% in Melbourne and 15% in Sydney over the past five years alone. Considering that thousands of people sleep rough – almost 7,000 on census night in 2011, more than 400 per night in Sydney in 2017 – and that hundreds of thousands face overcrowded homes or unaffordable rents, these seem like cruel and immoral revelations.

Public awareness of unused homes has been growing in Australia and globally. In London, Vancouver and elsewhere – just as in Sydney and Melbourne – the night-time spectacle of dark spaces in newly built “luxury towers” has triggered outrage.

This has struck a chord with the public not only because of its connotations of obscene wealth inequality and waste, but also because of the contended link to foreign ownership.

Early movers on vacancy tax

Against this backdrop, the Victorian state government has felt sufficiently emboldened to legislate an empty homes tax. Federally, the shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, recently backed a standard vacant dwelling tax across all the nation’s major cities.

Similar measures have come into force in Vancouver and Paris. And Ontario’s provincial government recently granted Toronto new powers to tax empty properties
.

Both Vancouver (above) and Melbourne now have a 1% capital value charge on homes left vacant.
Tim Welbourn/flickr, CC BY-NC

Emulating Vancouver, Victoria’s tax is a 1% capital value charge on homes vacant for at least six months in a year. Curiously, though, it applies only in Melbourne’s inner and middle suburbs. And there are exceptions – if the property is a grossly under-used second home you pay only if you’re a foreigner.

Also, as in Vancouver, tax liability relies on self-reporting, which is seemingly a loophole. This might be less problematic if all owners were required to confirm their properties were occupied for at least six months of the past year. But that would be administratively cumbersome.

This highlights a broader “practicability challenge” for empty property taxes. For example, how do you define acceptable reasons for a property being empty?

In principle, such a tax should probably be limited to habitable dwellings. So, if you own a speculative vacancy, what do you do? Remove the kitchen sink to declare it unliveable?

How can we be sure a home is empty?

Lack of reliable data on empty homes is a major problem in Australia. Census figures are useful mainly because they indicate trends over time, but they substantially overstate the true number of long-term vacant habitable properties because they include temporarily empty dwellings (including second homes).

Using Victorian water records, Prosper Australia estimates about half of Melbourne’s census-recorded vacant properties are long-term “speculative vacancies”. That’s 82,000 homes.

Applying a similar “conversion factor” to Sydney’s census numbers would indicate around 68,000 speculative vacancies. Australia-wide, the Prosper Australia findings imply around 300,000 speculative vacancies – 3% of all housing. That’s equivalent to two years’ house building at current rates.

According to University of Queensland real estate economics expert Cameron Murray, a national tax that entirely eliminated this glut might moderate the price of housing by 1-2%. Therefore, although worthwhile, dealing with this element of our inefficient use of land and property would provide only a small easing of Australia’s broader affordability problem.

Making better use of a scarce resource

Taxing long-term empty properties is consistent with making more efficient use of our housing stock – a scarce resource. A big-picture implication is that tackling Australia’s housing stress shouldn’t be seen as purely about boosting new housing supply – as commonly portrayed by governments.

It should also be about making more efficient and equitable use of existing housing and housing-designated land.

Penalising empty dwellings is fine if it can be practicably achieved. That’s especially if the revenue is used to enhance the trivial amount of public funding going into building affordable rental housing in most of our states and territories.

But empty homes represent just a small element of our increasingly inefficient and wasteful use of housing and the increasingly unequal distribution of our national wealth.

One aspect of this is the under-utilisation of occupied housing. Australian Bureau of Statistics survey data show that, across Australia, more than a million homes (mainly owner-occupied) have three or more spare bedrooms. A comparison of the latest statistics (for 2013-14) with those for 2007-08 suggests this body of “grossly under-utilised” properties grew by more than 250,000 in the last six years.

Our tax system does nothing to discourage this increasingly wasteful use of housing. It’s arguably encouraged by the “tax on mobility” constituted by stamp duty and the exemption of the family home from the pension assets test.

A parallel issue is the speculative land banks owned by developers. The volume of development approvals far exceeds the amount of actual building. In the past year in Sydney, for example, 56,000 development approvals were granted – but only 38,000 homes were built.

In many cases, getting an approval is just part of land speculation. The owner then hoards the site until “market conditions are right” for on-selling as approved for development at a fat profit.

Properly addressing these issues calls for something much more ambitious than an empty property tax. The federal government should be encouraging all states and territories to follow the ACT’s lead by phasing in a broad-based land tax to replace stamp duty.

Such a tax will provide a stronger financial incentive to make effective use of land and property. The Grattan Institute estimates this switch would also “add up to A$9 billion annually to gross domestic product”. How much longer can we afford to ignore this obvious policy innovation?


The ConversationAcknowledgements: Thanks to Laurence Troy for statistics and Julie Street for background research.

Hal Pawson, Associate Director – City Futures – Urban Policy and Strategy, City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rumours of the death of multinational tax avoidance are greatly exaggerated


Michael West, University of Sydney

The Australian government took out newspaper ads earlier this month boasting of unequivocal victory in the fight against multinational tax avoidance.

It is no small irony that taxpayers have forked out for this bald-faced lie. “Multinational corporations earning Australian dollars now pay their fair share of Australian tax,” decreed the ad.

The Australian government advertisement falls a long way short of telling the whole truth about multinationals’ tax.
Commonwealth of Australia

Hardly. While it is true that the Australian Tax Office (ATO) and the federal government have reaped more income tax from multinationals this year than they had earlier anticipated, this is a fight that has only just begun.

Were it not for increasing community awareness of multinational tax avoidance – the world’s biggest rort – and rising concern over tax fairness, things would be worse. So the positive perspective is that, yes, inroads are being made via the diverted profits tax, the ATO’s tax avoidance task force and the multinational anti-avoidance law, which was enacted late in 2015.

Tax Office people privately confide, too, that another A$2 billion may drop this year. That’s A$2 billion on top of earlier expectations – A$1 billion from tightened enforcement and another A$1 billion from “behavioural” factors: better behaviour by some multinationals, in other words.

As the swathe of December year reports have flowed through this month and last, it is evident that some companies such as Google and Facebook have been paying more tax, albeit slightly more and still well short of reasonable amounts.

Same old tricks

Others, such as oil giants Exxon, Shell and Chevron, digital players Booking.com, Airbnb, Expedia and eBay, and assorted others such as American Express are up to their same old tricks. We are presently analysing Big Pharma, a sector that is swimming in taxpayer subsidies thanks to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and then has another bite of the cherry via transfer-pricing shenanigans as well.

To a couple of serial offenders, Goldman Sachs and News Corporation. The 2016 financial statements for “Goldies”, as the Giant Vampire Squid is affectionately known in financial markets, are utterly inadequate.

For a start, they are not even consolidated, so don’t provide a true picture of the profitability of Wall Street’s famous, or infamous as many would put it, investment bank. Its head entity in Australia, Goldman Sachs Holdings ANZ Pty Ltd, discloses revenues of just US$24 million, the same as the prior year and well shy of the US$45 million booked in finance costs. Then the profit and loss statement shows an income tax “benefit”, yes benefit, of US$2.4 million, compared with last year’s benefit of US$18.5 million. There was a bottom-line loss in both years.

On this, it would appear that Goldman has paid zero tax in the past three years in Australia. Travelling along to the cash-flow statement, though, they disclose US$286 million was paid in tax last year (down from tax received of US$8.5 million). But when you get to the notes to the accounts it shows an income-tax benefit of US$2.4 million.

All of this is meaningless, of course. As the accounts are not consolidated, they don’t disclose what has been going on in the whole group. Further, tax may have been paid in Hong Kong, the domicile of the immediate parent, or elsewhere.

The usual feature of high finance charges and large related party loans are there, not to mention “service fee expenses” with related parties. Merchant banks such as Goldman Sachs, being banks, get away with a lot on the tax front.

Our very own Macquarie Bank had a keen reputation for tax structuring until it got pinged by authorities three years ago. In 2008, it even recorded a tax rate of 1.7% after a jumbo “tax arb” transaction, a currency swap so successful that it delivered a profit of A$850 million in Asia and a matching loss in Australia.

So a billion-dollar profit bore almost no tax.

At least Macquarie pays homage to financial accounting standards and doesn’t file a pitiable and arguably non-compliant set of accounts like Goldman. ASIC could issue an edict tomorrow, if it had the courage and a burst of energy, decreeing that any multinational company operating in Australia had to file proper “General Purpose” accounts.

Feeling the heat

This brings us to the entity formerly identified as the nation’s number one “tax risk”, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. That mantle has probably gone to Chevron now. After being rapped over the knuckles by the Senate Inquiry into Corporate Tax Avoidance two years ago, News has begun to pay more tax: A$110 million last year.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/kFdQN/2/

The main ruse was to create A$7 billion in “goodwill” in 2004 via a string of related party transactions and then to rip out A$4.5 billion in profits to the US.

News is still deploying this “repatriation of capital” subterfuge to this day. This practice may be legal but it is unethical. The creation of “internally generated goodwill” could be described as suspect in the least. A “magic pudding” was the way former University of NSW accounting academic Jeffrey Knapp labelled it.

Over the ten years to 2015, Rupert Murdoch’s companies paid income tax equivalent to a rate of 4.8% on A$6.8 billion in operating cash flows, or just 10% of operating profits.

The basic numbers for the past two years are: A$110.5 million tax on revenues of A$3.1 billion and profit of A$156 million. In
2015, it was A$109 million tax paid on revenues of A$2.95 billion and profit of A$287 million.

They are still aggressively debt loading, however, or giving themselves loans from overseas so they can rip out interest before paying tax. The critical numbers are A$2.6 billion in related party borrowings on which they paid A$130 million to themselves in related party interest charges offshore. Overall, debt jumped from A$2.4 billion to $4.3 billion.

A A$411 million loan to Foxtel, which News owns with Telstra, remains. The interest rate on this loan is 10.5%, more than double what the average wage earner pays on a mortgage. This is another ruse to avoid tax.

All in all, it’s a better effort from News, but the evidence on multinational tax avoiders is in. There is improvement, but still a very long way to go.


The ConversationThis column, co-published by The Conversation with michaelwest.com.au, is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

Michael West, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New tax treaty will close loopholes that allow multinationals to avoid tax


Miranda Stewart, Australian National University

Australia, with another 70 countries, has signed a multilateral treaty to create more coherence in fighting tax avoidance by large multinational corporations. The Multilateral Convention to Implement Treaty Measures to Prevent Base Erosion and Profit Shifting, or BEPS Convention, aims to close loopholes in the international tax system that result from differences in individual country tax systems.

Countries are fiercely protective of their own tax sovereignty and claim the right to set their own company tax rate and base. But this can result in lower company tax around the globe, as multinational enterprises can move capital investment to lower tax jurisdictions and take advantage of tax havens to reduce their global tax bill. This latest treaty will help to overcome this problem.

Since the global financial crisis, nearly a decade ago, the G20 countries have tried to reform international tax with a Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project. Australia has been a strong supporter of the BEPS project since it started, including as chair of the G20 in 2014.

This project resulted in 15 actions that were endorsed by the G20 in 2015. The signing of this tax treaty implements action number 15 to amend existing tax treaties to limit international tax planning.

The other BEPS actions aim to strengthen enforcement, remove inconsistencies in national tax rules, enforce disclosure of corporate tax profits in havens and encourage sharing of tax information between country revenue agencies.

Australia can’t go it alone on international tax

International tax cooperation remains critical and this BEPS Convention enables an anti-abuse framework to be embedded in Australia’s treaty network.

In the last century, countries around the world have negotiated bilateral tax treaties, producing a network of thousands of treaties. Australia alone has about 45 bilateral income tax treaties.

The main goal of bilateral tax treaties has been to prevent double taxation of international business where it operates in more than one country. But the terms of tax treaties can also be used to minimise tax. For example, a company may have significant business sales in a country – like Google in Australia – but under a treaty rule, it may not be treated as having a business presence there.

How does the BEPS Convention amend tax treaties?

Without this multilateral convention, it could take decades for countries to renegotiate these bilateral tax treaties. Where countries sign up, the new rules will take effect as soon as each country has ratified the convention.

The BEPS Convention is the first ever multilateral tax treaty that modifies substantive tax rules. Even the speed of signing the BEPS Convention is unprecedented: from treaty mandate to signature has been only 18 months. Most multilateral treaties take much longer, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been in negotiation for more than nine years (and may not ever be agreed).

A leading British tax lawyer observed that the BEPS Convention is “not tax peace in our time”. But it is still significant.

The convention inserts a new anti-abuse rule which states that tax treaties are not to be used to abuse national tax laws, if a taxpayer uses a treaty rule for the principal purpose of reducing its tax liability in a country. The convention will also make changes to prevent mismatches in treaty tax rules and to end the artificial avoidance of a business tax presence in a country, for example by using a separate company to do its operations under a contract.

To push governments to resolve tax disputes, the convention inserts an arbitration clause into treaties. If two countries cannot resolve a treaty dispute, then after two years (and if no court case is on foot), it will go automatically to an independent arbitrator who can make a decision that binds the governments and taxpayer. Its controversial and many countries may not agree to arbitration but Australia has signed up to it.

Australia has adopted most of the BEPS Convention measures, as being consistent with its current tax treaty policy. But many countries, including Australia, will need to enact domestic legislation to bring the convention into law.

Once countries sign up, the treaty changes will take place immediately – this could amend as many as 30 of Australia’s treaties.

The future international tax architecture – but without the US?

The BEPS Convention was signed by more than 70 countries. This includes leading signatories such as China, Germany (the current G20 Chair), the United Kingdom, France and Japan and also several low tax financial centres like Singapore and Ireland. But the United States did not sign.

The US failure to sign is hardly surprising. It comes one week after President Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s another example of the US retreating from multilateral cooperation on issues affecting all nations.

The US also did not sign the Tax Administrative Convention, now with 111 country members, which provides the legal basis for the country by country exchanges of information about global profits for billion dollar companies, including with the Australian Tax Office. Instead the US insisted on “going it alone” with its Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA regime, which demands foreign countries provide data on US citizens.

Many US tax treaty provisions are in line with the BEPS Convention. But surely that misses the point of multilateralism in tax or any other field of global concern. Instead, we see China is taking a leading role in multilateralism. It is unclear what the US stance will mean for international tax in the longer term. However, this treaty will give some help to other countries aiming to tax global profits of US multinationals, including Google, Apple and Uber, while those companies lobby for the US to reform its own company tax laws.

The ConversationThe pace of international tax change is usually glacial and most country co-operative efforts go nowhere. The BEPS Convention provides, for the first time, an international legal architecture for future multilateral tax reform.

Miranda Stewart, Professor and Director, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Full response from the AiGroup for a FactCheck on how Australia’s top tax rates compare internationally



File 20170516 11956 1dw3xht
original.

Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

In relation to this FactCheck on the AiGroup’s Innes Willox’s statement that Australia has “one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world”, a spokesman for the AiGroup sent the following sources and comment: The Conversation

Innes was referring to top marginal tax rates. Data for 2016 show that Australia has a relatively high top marginal tax rate (49%) but not the highest among OECD countries (Sweden is top, at 60%). The rub is that our top marginal rate cuts in at a relatively lower level of income than most other OECD countries (2.2 times our average wage).

Chart created by AiGroup using OECD data.
AiGroup/OECD
Chart created by AiGroup using OECD data.
AiGroup/OECD

The spokesman also sent a screenshot from an OECD report titled Revenue Statistics 2014 – Australia:

A screen shot from the OECD report Revenue Statistics 2014 – Australia.
OECD

Sunanda Creagh, Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

FactCheck Q&A: does Australia have one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world?



File 20170517 24341 1851nin
The AiGroup’s Innes Willox, speaking on Q&A.
Q&A

Kathrin Bain, UNSW

The Conversation fact-checks claims made on Q&A, broadcast Mondays on the ABC at 9:35pm. Thank you to everyone who sent us quotes for checking via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email. The Conversation


Excerpt from Q&A, May 15, 2017. Quote begins at 0.50.

Look, we just need to keep in mind that we have one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world at the moment. – Innes Willox, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, speaking on Q&A, May 15, 2017.

When Q&A host Tony Jones asked if wealthy people should pay more tax, the AiGroup’s Innes Willox said that Australia already has one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world.

Is that true?

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Checking the source

When asked for sources to support Innes Willox’s statement, a spokesman for the AiGroup clarified that Willox was referring to top marginal tax rates.

The spokesman referred The Conversation to OECD tax statistics, and two charts built using that data, saying that:

This shows that Australia has a relatively high top marginal tax rate (49%) but not the highest among OECD countries (Sweden is top, at 60%). The rub is that our top marginal rate cuts in at a relatively lower level of income than most other OECD countries (2.2 times our average wage).

You can read his full response and see those charts here.

Is it true? Not exactly

Looking at OECD data, Australia’s highest marginal tax rate is higher than the OECD median. Out of the 34 OECD member countries in this data set, Australia ranks 13th for the top marginal rate of tax, meaning 12 countries have a higher top marginal rate, and 21 countries have a lower top marginal rate.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/Wbqcx/1/

However, a straight comparison like this can be misleading. More than half (19) of the OECD countries impose “social security contributions”. The OECD defines social security contributions as “compulsory payments that confer an entitlement to receive a (contingent) future social benefit”. It notes that they “clearly resemble taxes” and “better comparability between countries is obtained by treating social security contributions as taxes”.

When social security contributions are taken into account, Australia’s “ranking” in terms of top marginal rate of tax drops to 16 out of the 34 OECD member countries – making it still higher than the OECD median top marginal rate, but not by much.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/sXsW3/3/

The other point noted by the AiGroup spokesman was that Australia’s top marginal tax rate applies at a relatively low level of income compared to most other OECD countries.

Australia’s highest marginal tax rate applies to taxable income above A$180,000, approximately 2.2 times Australia’s average wage. The AiGroup spokesman was right to say this is relatively low, with the majority of OECD countries (20 out of 34) applying their highest marginal tax rate at income levels higher than Australia (that is, at income levels higher than 2.2 times the average wage).

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/45Et0/1/

However, it is worth noting that based on the latest Australian Taxation Office statistics, for the 2014-15 tax year, only 3% of individual taxpayers fell into the highest tax bracket.

Where Australia does rank amongst the highest in the OECD is the percentage of total tax revenue that is derived from individual income taxation.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/te6MN/1/

In 2014, 41% of Australia’s taxation revenue came from income taxation on individuals. This is the second highest in the OECD (the highest being Denmark at 54%) and significantly higher than the OECD average of 24%.

Verdict

The statement made by Innes Willox that “Australia has one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world at the moment” is an exaggeration.

Australia ranks 13th in the OECD for the top marginal rate of tax, and 16th if social security contributions are taken into account.

However, Australia does rely more heavily on personal income tax (when compared to other taxes) than all but one other OECD country. – Kathrin Bain


Review

I agree that the statement is an exaggeration. 13th out of 34 is higher than the median, but it would be equally true to say that more than one-third of the OECD countries have a higher personal marginal tax rate than Australia.

It is always problematic to try to compare tax data across different countries. Although the OECD does try to make the data comparable the differences between tax and welfare systems can lead to misleading comparisons.

It is generally well known that certain Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, have a very high marginal tax rate. However those countries also tend to have a different approach to social and welfare spending. Australia does not have a dedicated social security tax: pensions and income support are paid from general revenue. This structural difference in the tax-transfer systems does limit the comparison.

Australia does have a high reliance on personal income tax, and the top marginal rate is higher than the median OECD level. Although the top marginal rate is relatively low at 2.2 times the median wage, the fact that only 3% of the population are in the top bracket says that we, in fact, have a relatively flat tax structure, with most taxpayers in lower tax brackets. – Helen Hodgson


The Conversation FactCheck is accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network.

The Conversation’s FactCheck unit is the first fact-checking team in Australia and one of of the first worldwide to be accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US. Read more here.

Have you seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

Kathrin Bain, Lecturer, School of Taxation & Business Law, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Shifting the tax burden to middle-income earners will undermine jobs and growth


Patricia Apps, University of Sydney

The government’s idea of raising the Medicare levy, while also removing the 2% budget deficit levy on incomes above A$180,000, is less “transformational” and more signature Liberal policy. It shifts the tax burden towards middle income earners, as opposed to Labor’s plan to direct higher tax rates towards higher income earners. The Conversation

Rather than introducing a simple flat rate rise of 0.5% in the marginal tax rate across all taxpayers, the government has chosen to increase the Medicare levy. The reason lies in the fact that the levy contains the equivalent of a low-income tax offset due to the phasing out of the low-income exemption.

For example, in the current financial year, the thresholds for the phasing out of the Medicare levy exemption is A$21,665 for singles and A$36,541 (plus A$3,356 for each dependent child/student) for families. At these thresholds, tax rates rise by the rate of the withdrawal of the exemption, which works out to be 8% (calculated as 10% less the 2% Medicare levy rate).

In the case of a two-child family, this means an 8% rise in the marginal tax rate at an income from A$43,253, to an upper income limit of A$51,803. If a Medicare levy increase of 0.5% were introduced in the current tax year, the upper income limit for the higher marginal tax rate would rise to A$54,066.

In combining a rise in the Medicare levy with the removal of the budget deficit levy, the government is therefore proposing a rise in marginal tax rates across a wide band of middle incomes and a marginal tax rate cut for the top.

This direction of tax reform is a continuation of the incremental shift in the overall tax burden towards middle income earners over recent decades. And because the threshold for the Medicare levy exemption is based on family income, the reform will reinforce the move towards higher effective tax rates on low income second earners in a family.

This shift in the tax burden from top to middle income earners, and to middle income families, will undermine aggregate demand and, in turn, “jobs and growth” in the future.

In contrast to the government’s policy, Labor’s policy limits the rise in the Medicare levy to incomes above the top two bracket points and retains the budget deficit levy. Raising taxes on top incomes is not only a fairer policy, but a more efficient one in the conventional economic sense.

The impact of taxes on hours worked declines as earnings get higher, and has close to no effect on the hours worked by those with top incomes. And by avoiding higher taxes on second family earners, Labor’s policy should have a less negative effect on second earner hours of work and therefore the tax base.

The government’s and Labor’s tax reforms therefore represent very different policies.

Patricia Apps, Professor of Public Economics, Faculty of Law, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Google, Facebook fall into line on tax, but eBay remains defiant


Michael West, University of Sydney

Under pressure from the Australian Tax Office, Google and Facebook have begun to bring their revenue onshore to be taxed. eBay remains recalcitrant, still deeming its Australian business to be a Swiss business and thereby avoiding millions in income tax and GST. The Conversation

It is multinational reporting season once again and the early signs are the government’s multinational tax avoidance laws are starting to work. But the world’s largest corporations are still paying a fraction of their fair share of tax in this country.

Until this year, Google and Facebook entertained a corporate structure that booked the billions of dollars of revenue they made in Australia directly offshore. However, eBay is still blithely pretending it doesn’t have an Australian business and that the billion dollars a year it makes from operating its online auction house in this country – through which Australians buy and sell things with other Australians in Australia – is really the business of an entity residing at 15 Helvetiastrasse, Bern, Switzerland.

According to its accounts, the latest for the year to December 2016, eBay Australia is still masquerading as being in the business of “the recommendation of market penetration strategies” on behalf of eBay International AG.

So it is that every cent of the $59 million that eBay disclosed as its cash-flow statement for 2016 came from related parties, mostly for “rendering of services”. On this, eBay paid $1.9 million in tax after ratcheting up its costs by $13 million to wipe out most of the $20 million uplift in cashflow. The average salary at eBay, if the accounts can be believed, is $312,553 – 109 employees, according to the directors’ report, getting $34.1 million.

Mind you, according to the directors’ report, these 109 people are engaged in carrying out the principal activities of the company, which are “the recommendation of market penetration strategies, advertising and promotion activities”.

Gobbledygook, but the numbers are irrelevant anyway. The estimated billion dollars or more which eBay is said to make in Australia is not even included in its financial statements, just the revenue from its secretive associates. Moreover the accounts are not consolidated, according to the notes, rendering the entire disclosure a farce. Auditor is PwC.

Funnily, though, the cover page Form 388, authenticated by EY, talks about “consolidated revenue” and “consolidated gross assets” – despite the fact that PwC says the accounts are not consolidated.

So eBay is the quintessence of the undisclosed agency, a puppet regime designed to whisk Australian profits offshore to a tax haven. The shadow directors are in Bern and the ultimate parent eBay Inc is in the US.

Over the past 15 years, eBay has dodged GST and paid income tax of just $8 million (almost one-fifth of its bill for “professional fees” at $38 million), despite its billions of dollars in cash-flow.

Positive signs of change

Focusing on more positive developments on the multinational tax scene, arch-tax avoider Google Australia and New Zealand is now recognising that a portion of the profits it makes in Australia are in fact Australian rather than Singaporean.

Industry observers believe Google makes about $3 billion in sales from its advertising business here. Until this year, its only revenue has come from three related parties via service arrangements. Now, with the introduction of the multinational anti-avoidance legislation, Google has recognised roughly one-third of its Australian revenue as Australian.

In the broader context it is worth considering the effect of the digital revolution on Australia’s tax base.

Where the TV networks, News Ltd (though belligerent on the tax front) and Fairfax Media once paid hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax collectively, they are now struggling to make a profit. In their place, it is estimated Facebook and Google now pick up 80% of the advertising dollar in this country but they pay negligible tax.

Globalisation and the internet are similarly challenging Australia’s revenue base in retail, financial services and other sectors. Paypal, for instance, eBay’s corporate cousin, paid more than $1 billion of its $1.2 billion in revenues to its parent and associates in Singapore over the nine years to 2014 thanks to a “service agreement”.

Looking at the accounts, thanks to the new tax law, revenue rose from $498 million to $1.14 billion. Sales and marketing expenses, however, recognised for the first time at $324 million, knocked profits about. Profit rose from $50 million to $121 million on which tax expense was $16 million, up from $3 million.

Actual tax paid as per the cash-flow statement was $41 million, up from $16 million. So, like Apple, Google is beginning to pay significant amounts of tax, although still way short of the mark, and it appears to have bloated its cost base here as much as humanly possible. Assuming group sales are heading towards $3 billion (Google booked $882 million in advertising revenue), the real income tax number ought to have nine digits.

For its part, Facebook booked revenue of $327 million, ten times the $33.5 million recorded in the the previous year. After forking out $271 million to related parties for the “purchase of advertising inventory”, it made a profit of just $6.3 million on which it paid $3.4 million in tax.

Under its previous structure, Facebook sales were booked to an associate in Ireland. For the purposes of reporting as little as possible, the company even won an exemption from the corporate regulator when it claimed to be a “Small Pty Company Controlled By a Foreign Coy Which is Not Part of Large Group”. That its foreign parent was valued at more than $170 billion on Wall Street didn’t seem to matter.

Now, Facebook has declared itself to be a reseller of local advertising inventory. Both Google and Facebook are audited by EY.

None of these companies operate to maximise profits for the benefit of their Australian entities. All have small, token boards of directors. All operate in the interests of their foreign overlords and should be taxed as agencies.

It is a good thing the authorities are catching up with multinational tax lurks. This would not have occurred without public outrage and dissent. Nor would it have occurred without the Senate Inquiry into Corporate Tax Avoidance in 2015, which thrust the issues into public view. They should keep this Senate committee rolling with biannual investigations where corporate leaders are held to account and subject to full public scrutiny. After all, directors have a fiduciary duty to perform in the interests of their companies, not some tax officer in California.

Further, the architects of multinational tax avoidance – EY, Deloitte, PwC and KPMG – ought to be subject to greater disclosure requirements rather than operating as murky partnerships whose partners pontificate to government on tax policy while advising their big clients how best not to pay tax, or “leakage” as they call it in the trade.

Michael West, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

GST carve-up to be examined by the Productivity Commission


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has ordered the Productivity Commission to review how the GST revenue is sliced up, setting the scene for a new round of hostilities between states over what they get from the tax. The Conversation

The review, to report by the end of January, follows long-standing pressure from Liberals in Western Australia, which currently loses out heavily from the present formula. There is now deep concern, after the Barnett government’s wipeout, that a number of federal seats in that state could be lost at the next election.

Under the Grants Commission’s formula, WA in 2017-18 will get only 34% of the average national per capita distribution of the GST.

The new WA Labor premier, Mark McGowan, welcomed the review, saying he had pressed for it. He said action was needed as soon as the report was received.

But South Australian Labor Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis said that after the WA rout of the Liberals, the federal government wanted “to take GST away from South Australians and give it to Western Australians”.

Expert sources said potential winners and losers from the PC review could not be predicted.

The outcome of the review would be taken to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).

Treasurer Scott Morrison said the commission had been asked to inquire into the impact on the national economy of the current system of horizontal fiscal equalisation (HFE) which underpins the present distribution.

Under this system, the Grants Commission recommends a carve up to give each state the capacity to provide its citizens with a comparable level of government services.

“In recent years, views have been put to the government that the current approach to HFE creates disincentives for reform, including reforms to enhance revenue raising capacities or drive efficiencies in spending, arguing that any gains from reform are effectively redistributed to other states,” Morrison said.

“It is important for Australia’s future prosperity that our system underpinning Commonwealth-state financial relations supports productivity, efficiency and economic growth across the country.”

The federal government has been topping up WA’s money and confirmed that it will continue to do so in next week’s budget, by providing it with some A$226 million for infrastructure.

One closely watched area in the budget will be health, with the government expected to announce a staged lifting of the freeze on Medicate rebates, probably over three years and starting with GP consultations for those covered by concession cards.

Labor is pre-emptively seeking to raise the bar higher than the government will meet. Bill Shorten and health spokeswoman Catherine King said in a statement that if the government “doesn’t drop every single health cut in full”, including the entire Medicare freeze from July 1, it would be “more proof that they can’t be trusted on health”.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Simon Birmingham is setting the scene for the imminent announcement of the university funding policy by releasing a study on the cost of delivery of higher education, commissioned by the government and undertaken by Deloitte.

It showed revenue rose faster than costs – between 2010 and 2015 the average costs of delivery per student increased by 9.5%, while per student funding growth was 15%.

“This independent analysis speaks for itself: funding for our universities is at record levels, but it has grown above and beyond the costs of their operations,” Birmingham said.

“Australian taxpayers gave universities around $16.7 billion in 2016 alone or around $19,000 per student, which is more than ever before. In the context of a tight national budget, the Turnbull government is focused on getting the best return for every taxpayer dollar invested,” Birmingham said.

Birmingham has a meeting with university leaders and business and student representatives on Monday.

With housing affordability a key item in the budget, there is speculation one measure could be a tax break for first home buyers’ savings.

In its pre-budget monitor on the economy Deloitte Access Economics says the economic news is getting better – reinforcing the point Morrison made last week.

“National income is jumping by $100 billion this year, equalling the gains of the previous two-and-a-half years in one gulp,” it says, adding that the good news is mostly in profits. But wages growth remains low, restraining the growth in revenue.

Deloitte projects a deficit of $38.3 billion this financial year, $1.8 billion worse than in the official mid-year budget update, and (on the assumption of no further policy changes) the deficit falling to $27.5 billion next financial year. That would be $1.2 billion better than projected in the mid-year update.

Deloitte doesn’t expect Australia to lose its AAA credit rating in the near term. “Were it to happen, the initial trigger may actually be the debt of families rather than that of government,” it says. “In recent months Australian families passed those of Denmark to move into second place as the world’s most indebted [behind the Swiss].”

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/r88ra-6a1eda?from=yiiadmin

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.