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The politics of country by country reporting

June 16th, 2015

Since the OECD approved a decent country-by-country reporting standard, the lobbying to undermine it in practice has really kicked on. Here’s an update on some of the politics of country-by-country, including the manoeuvring in OECD, US, EU and UN processes; and on what may follow…

OECD

First, the OECD standard for country-by-country reporting is pretty good – probably all that could have been hoped for in the context of a process designed to defend arm’s length pricing.

As I wrote last week, though, and the Financial Times (£) picked up, the standard has been strangled at birth by the changes to BEPS Action Point 13. Lobbying on implementation has very substantially eroded the potential value of the measure, because data:

  • will only be provided directly to home country tax authorities;
  • will only be shared with other tax authorities under slow and uncertain information exchange processes; and
  • will never be made public.

I miss the old days, when country-by-country reporting was a transparency measure…

These deliberately inserted weaknesses mean that most tax authorities (especially but not only those of developing countries) will not receive timely data (i.e. within the tax year under investigation) for most of the MNE affiliates in their jurisdiction; and there will be no greater possibility of civil society holding tax authorities or MNEs to account.

In addition, the erosions of the standard mean there will be no central repository or access mechanism for the data. This means that the OECD has, in effect, agreed to fail to meet its commitment under BEPS Action Point 11 – which requires the establishment of a baseline for the extent of profit-shifting, and the tracking of progress over time. The very good team working on BEPS 11, who have comprehensively shown how no existing data can do the job, appear to have been completely undermined.

US

US MNEs have been highly effective in their lobbying, but evidence of serious, remaining concerns emerged last week. In a joint letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, the chairs of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee (Republicans Orrin Hatch and Paul Ryan, respectively) set out a range of concerns about the BEPS process – and make a fairly explicit threat to take a different path from the administration:

Regardless of what the Treasury Department agrees to as part of the BEPS project, Congress will craft the tax rules that it believes work best for U.S. companies and the U.S. economy… We expect that as we move forward on U.S. tax reform, U.S. tax policy will not be constrained by any concessions to other nations in the BEPS project to which Congress has not agreed.

It is the specifics which are most revealing. While there are passing references to rules on permanent establishment and controlled foreign companies, the bulk of the text refers to concerns over country-by-country reporting.

[W]e are concerned about the country-by-country (CbC) reporting standards that will contain sensitive information related to a U.S. multinational’s group operations.  We are also concerned that Treasury has appeared to agree that foreign governments will be able to collect the so-called “master file” information directly from U.S. multinationals without any assurances of confidentiality or that the information collection is needed. The master file contains information well beyond what could be obtained in public filings and that is even more sensitive for privately-held multinational companies.  […]

Some recent press reports have indicated that the Treasury Department believes it currently has the authority under the Internal Revenue Code to require CbC reporting by certain U.S. companies and that Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidance on this reporting will be released later this year. We believe the authority to request, collect, and share this information with foreign governments is questionable. In addition, the benefits to the U.S. government from agreeing to these new reporting requirements are unclear, particularly since the IRS already has access to much of this information to administer U.S. tax laws. Therefore, we request that, before finalizing any decisions, the Treasury Department and IRS provide the tax-writing committees with a legal memorandum detailing its authority for requesting and collecting this CbC information from certain U.S. multinationals and master file information from U.S. subsidiaries of foreign multinationals.  We also request that you provide a document: (i) identifying how the CbC reporting and other transfer pricing documentation obtained by the IRS on foreign multinationals operating in the United States will be utilized, and; (ii) providing the justification for agreeing that sensitive master file information on U.S. multinationals can be collected directly by foreign governments.  In the event we do not receive such information, Congress will consider whether to take action to prevent the collection of the CbC and master file information.

The push is on to prevent even the OECD’s now limited, and probably unworkable mechanism to provide CbC information to non-US tax authorities.

EU

Meanwhile… the European Commission’s repeatedly trumpeted new package on tax avoidance has been leaked, and falls substantially this side of impressive. On CbC in particular, prevarication around public data continues – now with a proposed consultation.

Similarly, the UK government reiterated at a conference on Friday its manifesto commitment to consider the possibility of public CbC.

The European Parliament will debate the issue again on 7 July, with a possible vote to follow, and so this now becomes a major test.

UN process

Finally, it seems that public CbC has been excised from the latest draft of the draft Financing for Development text for the UN conference to be held in Addis, in July, leaving a line on CbC for tax authorities which adds nothing to the OECD position. Sigh.

Where does this leave us?

Is this the end for hopes for CbC as a meaningful international transparency and accountability measure? I don’t think so.

What has already been achieved, lest we forget, is the overcoming of what was always presented as the greatest obstacle: compliance costs. Aside from the possibility of US withdrawal, the OECD standard pretty much locks in the collation of the necessary data, by more or less all MNEs worldwide.

The claims around costs were always inflated (who remembers one of the big four accounting firms suggesting it could add 25% to their bill?), and so once the political tide turned the objection did not hold much water.

And this is why, of course, the US letter reflects a shift towards the real underlying issue: an objection to transparency itself. An interesting though unexpressed implication of the concern is that US MNEs are apparently willing to operate in multiple jurisdictions where they would not trust the authorities with even quite basic data about their global operations.

An alternative view, of course, is that US MNEs are aware of the potential for such data to lead to material changes in their effective taxation rate, in multiple jurisdictions and perhaps at the global level too.

(In fact ongoing research suggests that the US is such a big loser from the profit-shifting of its own MNEs, that BEPS success in reducing profit ‘misalignment’ would produce substantial additional revenues there – as well as in many other jurisdictions. It’s arguably a real mark of lobbying success that there hasn’t yet emerged an all-conquering coalition of countries in favour of much deeper change.)

What happens next in the politics of country-by-country?

Are we approaching that point where the anti-transparency lobbying has been so successful that supporters should give up? Or once this becomes clear in practice, might one or more host countries simply demand CbC data directly, starting the crucial leak in the dam?

Such a move might well circumvent the OECD caveat around not using the data for formulary apportionment, which would open up all sorts of interesting further possibilities.

Or will the EU resist the lobbying and go for public CbC? This would not only set a standard for others, demonstrating the absence of armageddon-level side-effects and also undermining any ‘competitive’ arguments for opacity.

It would also, on its own, provide a great deal of the globally relevant data for other tax authorities and civil society to use. Expect 3 weeks of (more) intense lobbying…

One way or another, the current period is likely to mark an important turning point in international tax transparency.

The weakening of the OECD standard in practice has been a resounding counter-strike against transparency. The question is whether that remains the story – or if it is overturned at the European level, or incrementally by individual countries.

A final thought: not too much has been heard in these moments from the private sector  advocates of transparency. Whether the likes of Paul Polman, head of Unilever, who has called explicitly for MNEs to pay tax where they do their business; or from investors and analysts who have identified the risks of tax opacity increasingly clearly; or from professional services firms including some of the big four accounting firms, who seemed to have identified the advantages of country-by-country. Now would seem like a good time…

Written by Alex Cobham

Alex is Director of Research for the Tax Justice Network, a Coordinating Committee member of the FTC.

This piece originally appeared on Uncounted.org.

Image used under Creative Commons licensing / Flickr user DaiLuo

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