In praise of Standard Chartered and their advice on African tax avoidance

The perenially enraged over at Action Aid are today enraged about the way in which Standard Chartered bank gave advice on how to avoid (legally, of course) certain corporate taxes upon investments in poorer African countries. We, in contrast, would like to congratulate Standard Chartered on their public spiritedness in advising people on how to avoid certain corporate taxes in poorer African countries. And we do so on the basis of a point made by Joe Stiglitz.

The outrage is here:

One of Africa’s most high-profile banks – Standard Chartered – publicised the advice of a Mauritius-based financial company on how to avoid tax in some of the poorest countries in the world, a new ActionAid report states.

The FTSE-100 bank which operates in 15 African countries published the advice in its Standard Chartered Insights 2013/2014. The publication is aimed at company treasury departments.

The tax avoidance advice – which is entirely legal – can be used to avoid potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in tax in some of the poorest countries in Africa. It suggests structuring investments through Mauritius in order to avoid capital gains tax and withholding tax.

You can hear the frothing at the mouth as they shout in rage at this, can’t you? However, this outrage is entirely misplaced, presumably as a result of their ignorance of how corporate taxation works.

The most essential thing to grasp about it is that the company itself is never bearing the economic burden of such a tax. It is always some combination of shareholders and workers. In an entirely autarkic economy it will be the shareholders, capital if you like, which will carry 100% of that burden. In a more open economy the workers pick up some of that burden. For taxing capital in an economy where capital can leave, capital decide not to enter, means that there will be less capital in that economy. Capital plus labour is what raises productivity and thus wages, meaning that less capital means lower wages. As the economy becomes ever more open, and smaller relative to the size of the global economy, then the burden on the workers increases.

It never quite reaches zero on capital as Adam Smith pointed out in his one Wealth of Nations use of “invisible hand”. Even if people can invest abroad without penalty some will still prefer to invest at home and thus led, as if by that invisible hand, benefit their fellows. For us, here, this means that the impact of corporate taxation on capital will never be zero.

Which brings us to Joe Stiglitz’s point. Which is that the burden of a tax can be over 100%. What people lose from the tax being levied can be greater than the amount raised from that tax. That’s one of the failures of the Robin Hood Tax of course.

But now to the case at hand. As an economy becomes smaller relative to the global economy the workers carry more of the tax burden. Poor African countries have economies the size of a modest English town: they’re small therefore. And given that we are talking about foreign investment here they are entirely open to the global economy. So, the burden of any capital taxation is largely going to fall upon the workers in those poor African economies. And that burden can be (and we would estimate will be) higher than the tax collected.

Meaning that, if you’ve advised people to dodge that corporate taxation and the investment thus goes ahead, that you’ve just raised the wages of some of the poorest people in the world. For note that the effect isn’t upon just those workers in the investments made. It’s upon all of the workers in the economy where the investment is made.

Advising people to invest in sub-Saharan Africa through Mauritius thus raises wages in sub-Saharan Africa by whatever effect on investment happens now it’s free of those corporate taxes. All of which strikes us as a bloody good idea.

So why is Action Aid so spittle flecked at the very thought of it? We assume it’s just because they’re ignorant of how corporate taxation works. Which leaves us with only one last question. Why do they expend so much effort telling us how the tax system should work when they’ve no clue about how it does?

President Obama: the ultimate poverty hypocrite

Americans are experiencing buyer’s remorse. Last summer CNN found that 53% of those polled would choose Mitt Romney to be president today, over the 44% who chose Barack Obama. And with Obama’s approval ratings fixed these days below 50%, I suppose it’s only human to get a bit testy with those you’re compared to:

President Obama poked fun at former rival Mitt Romney and leading Republicans on Thursday, saying the GOP’s rhetoric on the economy was “starting to sound pretty Democratic.”

At the House Democratic Caucus retreat in Philadelphia, Obama noted that a “former Republican presidential candidate” was “suddenly, deeply concerned about poverty.”

“That’s great! Let’s go do something about it!” Obama added in a not-so-veiled jab at Romney.

What’s not particularly smart, however, is to frivolously attack someone’s track record on poverty when your own record looks abysmal:

A few ugly facts about the Obama Presidency:

  • Median household income has slumped from $53,285 in 2009 to $51,017 in 2012 just up to $51,939 in 2013.

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  • In comparison to his three previous successors, this fall in median income looks even worse:

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  • Real median household income was 8.0% lower in 2013 than in 2007.
  • Nearly 5.5 million more Americans have fallen into poverty since Obama took office.
  • Obama oversaw the first time the poverty rate remained at or above 15% three years running since 1965.
  • Home ownership fell from 67.3% in Q1 2009 to 64.8% in Q1 2014; black home ownership dropped from 46.1% to 43.3%.
  • Labour force participation rate fell from 65.7% in January 2009 to 62.7% in December 2014.
  • The federal debt owed to the public has more than doubled under Obama, rising by 103 percent.
  • 13 million Americans have been added to the food stamp roll since Obama took office.

Obama has been very successful in painting a picture of himself and the Democrats as the ‘Party of the Poor’, and did an even more sensational job convincing 2012 voters that Romney’s riches and successes put him out of touch with the middle-class America. But in reality, the president’s policies have pushed millions more people into financial stress and poverty.

And he’s still causing damage; even his latest State of the Union address called to raise taxes on university savings accounts and still cited fake unemployment numbers, as if this somehow helps the double-digit workers who have given up looking for jobs.

Perhaps the president really thinks his increased federal spending will pay off for the poor. Maybe he really believes that multi-millions more on food stamps is a saving grace instead of a tragedy. But regardless of intention, the facts speak for themselves.

Obama’s talk on poverty is cheap. And his mockery of Romney cheaper.

 

Taxes, trade, and derivatives: stabilisers for Russia and Iran?

Both Russia and Iran are in a bind due to the oil crisis. The best thing for both countries to do is to enact some easy-to-implement, partially stabilising policy. Three measures can be taken:

1. Enhance taxpayers’ autonomy by allowing entities to pay taxes in a greater variety of currencies;
2. Let citizens and businesses trade in a greater variety of currencies; and
3. Deregulate derivatives markets in particular (and financial markets more generally).

An entirely destabilised Russia and/or Iran is in no-one’s interest. Although relations with NATO are sour, other prominent nations such as China and India have offered a helping hand (albeit a limited one). However, an alternative, mutually beneficial agreement can occur between these four nations.

First: enhancing taxpayers’ and trading autonomy. Russia should allow its taxpayers to pay taxes in the rouble, the Chinese renminbi, the Indian rupee and the Iranian rial whilst legally enabling trade in all these currencies. Similarly, Iran should allow taxes to be paid in Russian rubles, Chinese renminbi and Indian rupees as well as enabling trade in them. Since only being allowed to pay taxes in one currency artificially raises the cost of doing business in other monies, the enhanced autonomy of taxpayers will make it feasible for some exporters to sell in relatively cheaper money (thereby stimulating production and exports) and importers to buy with relatively stronger money (thereby combating inflation). It would also provide access to less volatile and less vulnerable monies. Another advantage is that tax revenues paid in different monies would allow diversified foreign exchange reserves and, therefore, the Russian and Iranian governments would be in a better position to defend their own national monies’ value in future (should they so wish to). This would enable Russians and Iranians to get on with their lives in a more normal way. Furthermore, since Russian and Iranian currencies would be accepted for trade and taxes in the other country, the mutual recognition may help bolster their value. The arrangement would also benefit China and India since the renminbi and rupee would make up a greater share of foreign exchange transactions.

For tax collection, a proportional system could be implemented; that is, if an entity earned (for example) 30% in rupees, 50% in roubles, 15% in rial and 5% in renminbi, a flat tax of 30% could be imposed such that the 30% rate is levied on each of the currencies according to proportions held (meaning 9% of the 30% comes in rupees, 15% comes in roubles, 4.5% in rial and 1.5% in renminbi).

Furthermore, extensive deregulation and liberalisation of the countries’ respective derivatives markets (especially with respect to interest rates, foreign exchange, commodities and equities) will enable domestic entities to better manage current and expected risks. Although inflows from NATO member-states may not be so forthcoming, both India and China have a vested interest in a stable Russia and a stable Iran; hence, it would not be surprising if (given the increased opportunity and ensuring a supportive climate for it) increased foreign direct investment in the Russian and Iranian derivatives markets for commodities, equities, interest rates and foreign exchange helped substantially manage expected risk of the oil crisis in these countries.

Ideas can mean the difference between wealth and poverty

Adam Smith never said that “The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations”, as some people who have never read him think. It is hard to think of a less Smithian view – he was the opposite of that quote’s patrician and patronising voice, and had a deep compassion for people who had been unlucky in life.

But there is some evidence that disadvantaged people underinvest their savings at a huge cost to themselves. This seems to be true even when there are no social constraints or market failures that might cause this to happen.

One reason for this may simply be that poor people do not realise that the investment opportunities exist, or do not really consider that they might benefit from them. Consider those bright young students from deprived backgrounds who have never even considered applying to university, just because nobody in their families ever has either. Your experience of the world shapes how you react to various opportunities that you get.

To test this hypothesis, a group of researchers at Oxford performed a controlled trial in remote Ethiopian villages, where they showed one of several one-hour documentaries about poor Ethiopian farmers who had expanded a business, improved their farming practices or broken cultural norms by, say, marrying for love. “Individuals succeeded largely through their own efforts and by drawing on assistance from community members and available resources, not through outside government or NGO intervention.”

The trial involved a placebo group (shown a comedy movie) and a control group (shown nothing at all) and it seems to have been a success. Six months after the screenings, the documentary group’s savings rate had risen significantly above the control group’s and had also begun to access credit at a higher rate. (These are some of the poorest people in the world, so the absolute amounts – a few pounds – may seem very small to our eyes.)

School enrolment was up by 15 percent in the documentary group, although it was also up by 10 percent in the placebo group so the effect is unclear, and spending on school expenses was up by 17% (compared to no change in the placebo group).

Overall, the results seem to show that showing extremely poor people examples of people like them who had made something of themselves inspired them to invest in themselves and their families.

It’s just one study, but it hints at something bigger. Incentives matter, of course, but you have to be aware of the existence of an incentive for it to work on you. Even if you’re aware of it, you might discount (or exaggerate) its significance according to your experiences. In a complex world, each of us uses a different pair of glasses to focus on what matters and filter out what doesn’t. And no pair is perfect.

There is no obvious public policy lesson from any of this, except perhaps that people don’t always react predictably to incentives. Incentives matter – but so do ideas.

Russia, China, and the perils of economic warfare

Many Russians may believe that Putin’s invasion of Crimea was legitimate and justified, many may also believe that Putin’s domestic and foreign policies are at odds with their national interests. However, we shouldn’t be surprised if, in future, many Russians also remember the nations that refused to lift their economic sanctions whilst they suffered from a crippling crisis and that it was the Chinese government that offered help in those dire straits. Of course, this is limited help and there are a lot of other problems to sort out but the gesture is a strong signal of China’s stance and indicative of the possibility of further assistance in future.

Warfare via economic sanctions leads to the division of the world into inefficient trading blocs and provides a natural basis from which governments can form convenient, logical military alliances. The wonder then, is whether economic sanctions are really worth risking any chance at long-term peace and stability we may have? Though sanctions are designed to put pressure on governments, regular citizens suffer immensely from them and, in future, when young Russians remember this crisis, that suffering won’t easily be forgotten.

Iran, like Russia, is also in a vulnerable situation and it is quite easy to see how these sanctions that artificially and inefficiently divide the world could also encourage the proliferation of worrying military alliances between those states that feel ‘cornered’ and this garners a sort of legitimate solidarity against their ‘oppressors’.

In the long-run, with alliance systems that lead to increased military posturing (as we had already witnessed from Russia in the Ukraine and in the EU, we are witnessing from China in the Asia-Pacific and we might conceivably further witness from Iran and North Korea) there will be increased uncertainty and genuine fear amongst peaceful peoples and, in the end, global social welfare and economic growth will be stunted in the name of ‘humanitarian’ intervention.

Of course, the wider problem is that the global system of trade restrictions are essentially sugar coated economic sanctions and, therefore, a form of subtle economic warfare that we are conditioned to ignore. Free trade is necessary in order to ensure that there is no unnecessary, state-induced hatred fostered between peoples. Perhaps we could add to the Geneva conventions by suggesting that economic sanctions be ruled out of the question? In this way, instead of providing fertile ground for fostering the animosity necessary for armed conflict, people who truly want peace would be free to go about their own business. The peaceful sentiment that free trade encourages may also help discourage these governments from acting violently in the first place!