Fighting the corporate tax tricks that lead to inequality

There's a multibillion-dollar global business in fixing it so multinational corporations pay as little tax as possible, but Pascal Saint-Amans from the OECD is on a mission to change that.

OECD expert says powerful political will behind international plan to conquer global tax avoidance

Tax avoidance is a multibillion-dollar industry, but the OECD is hoping there is the political will to stomp it out. (Shutterstock)

Being a willing taxpayer sometimes feels like being the only chump at the table who didn't forget his wallet. But the official charged with making sure giant corporations actually pay the taxes they are supposed to pay says that's all going to change in two years.

It's about time. When the banks started collapsing, who stepped in? When the car companies went broke, who bailed them out? Well it was the humble wage slaves like you paying their taxes, that's who.

Of course, now that the crisis is over and companies like Apple, Google, Starbucks and Canada's Cameco are doing well, they are pouring money back into the kitty. Right? Well of course they aren't.

That's because there's a multibillion-dollar global business in fixing it so the ones making out like bandits pay as little tax as possible. Many as little as zero. As my colleagues at CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition have pointed out, it's not a secret. And it's completely legal. But that may be about to change.

With inequality the new watchword, it is important to note that failing to pay your share of tax, whether you are a corporation or an individual, is making the problem worse.

There was a marvellous graph in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week in an article titled "How to Solve Inequality and Restore the American Dream." It shows that until the 1970s, workers' wages rose with productivity. But since then, while productivity per worker continued to rise sharply, the amount going to the average employee stayed flat.

The question is, where is the money going instead?

Looked at from 10,000 feet, as they say, it shouldn't really matter whether corporations pay taxes. If you grew up in an era or culture when giant companies were fingered as evil and grasping, that may seem odd to say. But the fact is that corporations are ultimately owned by people. 

Pascal Saint-Amans, OECD tax director, is confident most of the world is willing to sign on with a plan to reduce tax shifting and tax avoidance. (CBC)
So long as the people who own the companies pay a fair amount of taxes as their investment in those companies grow, everything will work out fine. There will be plenty of money to pay for roads and hospitals and education and a little to set aside for the next crisis.

But as the Harper government discovered when it was forced to crack down on all the Canadian companies turning themselves into income trusts back in 2006, how you pay your taxes matters. It can end up so that neither the companies nor the people who own them are paying taxes.

National tax laws are a complex mess. International tax laws are even worse, as overlapping national rules create a labyrinthine trove of tax tricks to be mined by well-paid tax professionals. To a company watching nothing but its bottom line, a dollar saved in taxes is the same as a dollar earned. Which is why some of our smartest people go into tax law instead of doing something useful. 

Up against that phalanx of tax professionals is Pascal Saint-Amans from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, charged by the G20 countries with the job of fixing the fixes. Interviewing him on this weekend's Sunday Edition,  host Michael Enright asks the key question. 

"I don't know what the budget is for your office, but corporations pay hundreds of millions of dollars to tax lawyers to save their clients billions in tax bills. How do you cope with that?" Enright demands. 
Because it's political. When you have political support you find the technical solutions.— Pascal Saint-Amans, OECD tax director

Saint-Amans insists he has the money and the clout to push his reforms through in two years. "Why?" asks Saint-Amans. "Because it's political. When you have political support you find the technical solutions."

All of the OECD and G20 countries are on side, he says.

Tax tricks

The story Saint-Amans tells is one of governments that feel cheated as they watch their tax base erode. Governments have encouraged investment with low corporate taxes, but then those same corporations played tricks to avoid paying even that. "Effective tax rates are very low, much lower than the [official] corporate tax rates," Saint-Amans tells Enright.

The schemes he describes, with the benign name "tax planning," are varied and imaginative. The tricks include transferring ownership of "intangibles" like brands and lucrative patents to low-tax jurisdictions, allowing companies to shift profits from higher tax countries ostensibly to pay the rent due on those brands and patents.

Another scheme takes advantage of national laws meant to protect companies from "double taxation" where the same profit is taxed twice. Clever tax experts have devised ways to turn that into what Saint-Amans calls "double non-taxation" where tax isn't paid anywhere.

Saint-Amans says he is confident his initiative, called the BEPS (base erosion and profit shifting) plan, will work. His plan involves "fundamental changes to the international tax standards … based on three core principles: coherence, substance, and transparency," and is already making a difference. He says companies are paying attention.

"They know that this is happening. There is no way out for them," Saint-Amans says. "Therefore they try to participate, to contribute, so that we do the right thing."  

"Do the right thing?" Is this part of a new corporate morality? The "integrity [that] can't be bought and … can't be regulated" that Bank of England governor Mark Carney talked about last week?

Maybe. But morality doesn't happen without moral suasion. And we should never forget the power of money. Money talks. If the BEPS plan succeeds we will know something important has changed.

But in the meantime, we should all be reminded that the celebration of corporate freedom and untrammelled wealth has gone a couple of steps too far.

Instead, maybe governments should realize that it is better that the little guys get a bigger slice of the pie. At least they pay their taxes.


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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