Three strategies to fight the tax avoidance revealed by the Paradise Papers



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The first strategy is to require the public disclosure of country by country reporting of company tax affairs.
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Roman Lanis, University of Technology Sydney and Brett Govendir, University of Technology Sydney

The release of more than 13 million financial and tax documents known as the “Paradise Papers” show that the Panama Papers last year and LuxLeaks in 2014 were just the tip of the tax avoidance iceberg. It also shows that governments have not learnt their lesson and taken action.

Both the OECD and G20 made recommendations several years ago that would have increased transparency of corporate taxes, and extensive research shows that this is effective in limiting corporate tax avoidance. Recently, we also recommended to a Senate committee that the government limit the use of some financial products that can be re-purposed for tax avoidance.

The Paradise Papers detail the complex offshore financial and tax activities of celebrities, politicians, world leaders, and more than 100 multinational entities. Here are three things that could help curb the problem.


Read more: Explainer: the difference between tax avoidance and evasion


1) Require public disclosure of tax affairs

The first strategy is to require the public disclosure of country by country reporting of company tax affairs (CbCR). This idea comes out of the OECD’s action plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS). It would increase tax transparency by requiring corporations to make specific disclosures on the tax paid in different countries, by project and region.

Doing so would allow any interested party to observe and understand how corporations transfer profits from high to low tax jurisdictions. With such specific information it would more difficult for companies to hide their tax affairs and provide impetus and justification for the public to pressure tax avoiders.

This idea was strongly opposed by the majority of multinational entities’ in most countries on the basis of commercial sensitivity of the information, the compliance burden, and that it might distort the view of a company’s true contribution to an economy. However, such argument is spurious as large corporations already have sophisticated systems in place that are capable of producing this information.

Nevertheless, some European countries (notably the United Kingdom and France) do require that large multinational companies publicly disclose their tax affairs, country by country.

The laws in the United Kingdom fostered a 2010 campaign that named and shamed companies who were not disclosing subsidiaries in tax havens. That campaign made the UK authorities tighten disclosure requirements, and after companies started disclosing their tax haven subsidiaries they became less tax aggressive.

Unfortunately, there is no similar mechanism in Australia for the provision of information to the public to pressure corporations that avoid taxes.

2) Create a register of who benefits

The next idea comes from the G20, and is to set up a public register of beneficial ownership (in other words, who owns the companies).

Earlier this year the Australian Treasury released a consultation paper looking at this idea. At the time, Minister for Revenue and Financial Services Kelly O’Dwyer noted that:

Improving transparency around who owns, controls, and benefits from companies will assist with preventing the misuse of companies for illicit activities including tax evasion, money laundering, bribery, corruption, and terrorism financing.

However, the policy is still at the consultation stage.

Interestingly, a recent comment by ATO Commissioner Chris Jordan seems to both support and dismiss a public register.

A register of beneficial ownership is just, you know, what someone says someone else owns so, you know, it could be good but it could be just a lot of ‘stuff’ that doesn’t really help us.

The United Kingdom has set up a beneficial ownership register, but it is too early to know what the impact has been.

3) Limit some financial products

A third strategy is one we presented to a Senate committee and might have tackled some of what the multinational conglomerate Glencore was alleged to have been doing in the Paradise Papers.

Glencore is alleged to have used cross currency interest rate swaps and is under investigation by the Australian Tax Office. These are financial instruments that may be legitimately used by companies to manage foreign currency risk, for instance when borrowing debt denominated in foreign currencies.

However, these instruments may also be used by multinationals to avoid tax, by shifting profits between subsidiaries in different countries. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to determine whether these instruments are being used for legitimate purposes or for avoiding tax. Our proposal is to prohibit or limit their use, as has been done in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a special case, as it has a very low tax rate, but some form of this policy might be adopted in Australia and elsewhere.


Read more: Four things the Paradise Papers tell us about global business and political elites


With three large leaks, spanning a number of years, Australians have a right to ask why the problem of tax avoidance seems to be stagnating, if not getting worse.

Perhaps the hackers who leak these documents are getting better. But the likely answer is that it is the result of inaction by governments around the world, and Australia in particular.

Recommendations from the OECD, G20, and even our submission to a Senate inquiry show there are ideas out there to solve some of these issues. And countries such as the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and France have made efforts to increase public transparency of corporate tax affairs and limit the use of certain financial instruments.

The research from these countries show that these proposals can be successful if enacted.

The ConversationIn the end, failure to cut down on tax avoidance is not due to a lack of proposals. The failure to enact these proposals feeds into the distrust of all governments as they don’t appear to be doing a very good job at limiting tax avoidance.

Roman Lanis, Associate Professor, Accounting, University of Technology Sydney and Brett Govendir, Lecturer, Accounting Discipline Group, University of Technology Sydney

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

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Middle income earners probably won’t be paying as much tax as the government expects



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The PBO has likely overestimated future personal income tax revenue.
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Phil Lewis, University of Canberra

The federal government’s return to a budgetary surplus by 2020/21 will mainly be due to a projected increase in personal income tax revenue, according to a report from the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO).

The PBO modelling shows that people in the middle of the income spectrum will bear the brunt of this, due to bracket creep. This occurs when tax thresholds (including the tax free threshold) stay constant while income grows due to inflation.

But the PBO modelling includes assumptions about inflation and wages growth that do not bear a resemblance to what is happening in the economy. Both inflation and wages growth have been depressed for some time, and there’s little reason to believe there will be a sudden increase.


Read more: How market forces and weakened institutions are keeping our wages low


The fundamental assumption driving the PBO projections is nominal (not adjusted for inflation) income growth of between 4% and 5%. This consistutes 2% to 2.5% annual inflation and 2.5% to 3% percent annual increase in real income.

The difference between nominal and real incomes is important as it is increases in real income (adjusted for inflation) that result in higher standards of living. But taxes are levied on our nominal incomes, regardless of inflation. Because of this difference, bracket creep means that real incomes after tax (otherwise known as disposable income) will actually fall.

What the PBO report projects

To calculate how much tax we will be paying in the future, the PBO first makes assumptions about inflation and real earnings growth and uses these to project individual incomes. Current income tax rates are then applied to these projected incomes, and the increased amount paid by each individual is added together.

According to the PBO’s modelling, the average individual tax rate will increase by 2.3% from 2017–18 to 2021–22. And every income group will see their tax rates increase over this period.

The largest tax increase is expected for individuals in the middle incomes, who have an average taxable of A$46,000 in 2017/18. This group are projected to face an increase in their average tax rate of 3.2% by 2021–22. Their average tax rate is expected to increase from 14.9% to 18.2%.

Meanwhile, those in the second lowest and two highest income quintiles are expected to see their average tax rate rise between 1.9% and 2.5%. The average tax rate for individuals in the lowest income group is projected to rise by only 0.2%, as most of their income remains below the tax free threshold.

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The increases in average tax rates are even greater if a comparison is made with 2016/17, the latest year for which individuals have been paying tax. As you can see in the previous chart, when compared to 2016/17, individuals in the middle income quintile will see their average tax rate rise by 3.8%.

As you can see, the largest burden of the tax brack creep will fall on “average Australians”. This is because they will see their nominal (before adjusting for inflation) incomes rise. Typically, the lowest income earners do not earn enough to get above the tax free threshold and the highest income earners already pay a large portion of their tax at the top marginal rates.

Because of increasing inflation and wage growth, the Parliamentary Budget Office projects that even the lowest income earners will be liable to pay income tax by 2019/20.

Heroic assumptions?

The 2% to 2.5% inflation assumed in PBO’s forecast is in the mid-point of the Reserve Bank’s target range of 2% to 3%, so this is not entirely unreasonable assumption.

But both PBO’s inflation and wage growth (2.5% to 3%) assumptions are currently way above the levels seen in the economy. According to the ABS annual inflation currently stands at just 1.8%, and the earnings of all Australian employees is growing at 1.6% per annum.

The reasons for persistent low inflation, not just in Australia but in most other industrialised countries, are not well understood or agreed upon.

And a number of theories have been put forward to explain low real wage growth including, the degree of underemployment, reduced job security, declining bargaining power of unions and increased potential competition, either from advances in technology or from international competition.

But regardless of the reasons for the persistently laggard growth in wages and inflation, there are also no signs that these rates will rise significantly any time soon, let alone to the levels assumed by the PBO.


Read more: Budget explainer: why is Australia’s wage growth so sluggish?


Given the information contained in the PBO report we can’t calculate exactly what the impact of these tax increases will be for individuals.

However, it is clear that if the current wage and price conditions persist the actual tax revenue will fall way short of the projected figures for all years up to and including 2021/22 and make a Budget balance even further off.

We can also make some extrapolations based on averages. As a simple example, consider someone on an annual income of A$84,000 in 2017/18 (which is around the current average earnings in Australia). Under the assumption that nominal incomes increase by only 2% per year, the tax paid (including Medicare levy) in 2020/21 would be A$23,158.

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However, if you compare this to nominal income growth of 5% (which is what the PBO assumes) the tax paid would be A$26,357 in 2020/21.

That is, tax collected from this individual would be 12% less under a low growth scenario than under the PBO’s more optimistic scenario. In the years 2018/19 and 2019/20 the tax collected would be respectively 4% and 8% less. This illustrates how precarious the projection of a balanced Budget in 2020/21 is.

The ConversationWhatever the outcome, it is for certain that income earners will see any nominal increases eroded not just by inflation, but also through bracket creep.

Phil Lewis, Professor of Economics, University of Canberra

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

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



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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



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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.

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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



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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
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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.

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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



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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?



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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?

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.