Don’t campaign against tax havens: they are good for us

Thanks to faulty headline-grabbing propaganda, most people think tax havens are outrageous places in which tens of billions of pounds are being stored offshore, denying UK citizens valuable tax revenue that could be used on public services like schools, health care and roads. Nice idea. But like many nice ideas, it veers far from the truth.

First off, what of the complaint that if the money stays in the private sector in tax havens then UK citizens are being robbed of vital tax revenue? To answer this, consider if the money stays in the private sector in a tax haven, who else benefits from that apart from the person with the money? On the one hand that money is invested, which generates plenty of jobs and lots of economic growth. On the other, if a British billionaire keeps £500 million in a tax haven then all the time he’s not spending it he makes everyone else in the UK better off in terms of more resources and lower prices. This is because money earned but not spent is like conferring a gift to the UK taxpayers. Moreover, it’s important to remember that the primary contribution high earners make to society is not in the taxes they pay, it is in the goods and services they produce.

When it comes to tax havens, what is also being missed by a lot of people is that tax havens actually make us better off in another way, in that they provide vital competition to tax rates in the UK. A popular view from the left is that because of tax havens governments have to increase our taxes to make up for all the tax they are not getting from money stored in places like the Cayman Islands. In actual fact, the opposite is true – tax havens keep our UK taxes lower not higher.

To see why, suppose there is just one quite expensive Bakery in town (call it Bakery A). Along comes another Bakery in competition (Bakery B), offering townsfolk lower prices for bread. The very worst thing that Bakery A could do in response would be to raise its prices even more. Their best response would be to try to out-compete Bakery B for custom. This is the nature of competition, and how it lowers prices and improves efficiency.

Similarly, tax havens are like Bakery B: their more competitive tax rates place competitive pressures on governments that might be tempted to tax us highly. Competition for prices occurs with tax just as it does with bread, laptops and cars. Governments must be competitive with their tax rates, otherwise more and more money will be stored in places with lower tax rates. Tax competition is a key driver of economic growth in the world, as this incentivises politicians to keep taxes on savings and investments low. When tax rates are excessive, there is less economic growth. Tax havens provide the necessary competition to militate against this happening.

Finally, tax havens can claim to have some of best standards of living and economic growth in the world. That’s precisely because low taxes stimulate economic growth and better standards of living, as the qualities of the free market predominate over party political interests. Instead of calling for politicians to tackle the grave injustices of tax havens, campaigners should be calling for a more fruitful tax system here, based on lower rates, reduced complexity and bureaucracy, and increased market freedom.

Multinational taxes: what do politicians know?

This election has ratcheted up the calls for Starbucks and other multinationals to pay more taxes on their British revenues.  Politicians give no indication of how they will achieve that; one suspects their silence is based on ignorance.

This blog is a brief explanation of why multinationals are fully entitled, under present laws, to push profits into lower tax regimes.  If the UK wants to change, it may need multinational legislation.

If a brand owner in one country sells to a distributor in another, they split the total profit between them.  If the companies are independent, the presumption is that the split is “arm’s length” and that is accepted by the tax authorities in both countries.  The game gets tricky when both companies are owned by the same group and the brand ownership is switched from one country to another.

The practice began with Bailey’s Irish Cream which was launched in 1972 to accept the Irish Finance Minister’s offer that any export profits for a new Irish agriculture-based brand would be free of tax for 10 years.  The brand became a huge global success and, come 1982, the ultimate brand owner, Grand Metropolitan, was about to be hit by a sharp jump in taxes.

By coincidence, the concept of “brand equity” as a marketing asset which could go on a balance sheet was also being developed in the 1980s.  Why not move the brand equity from Dublin to the Netherlands which was, then anyway, offering low taxes on Dutch earnings by foreign-owned assets? Why not indeed?

As you can imagine, the British and Irish tax authorities were less that thrilled with that and Grand Metropolitan had to justify that the Netherlands company really was marketing the brand globally.  In effect, the distributor company is renting the use of the brand equity asset from the brand owner and has to pay for that.  If the transfer price is “arm’s length” it is all perfectly legitimate so, for two companies both parts of the same group, what exactly is “arm’s length”?

The multinational can count on the support of the tax authorities in the brand owning country.  Their take decreases by the amount of profits switched to the distributor (or franchisee) country.  And if the brand owning company can show it sells, on the same terms, to (or franchises) companies which are not part of the same group, the case for “arm’s length” is strengthened.

HMRC has spent a huge amount of time and money on this issue.  Whilst it is possible they have not been tough enough, it is much more likely that the law is not on their side.  It is also likely that any unilateral action by the British government would lead to even more expensive legal costs on appeal.

With corporation tax down to 20% the UK is closing the low tax gap, but unless politicians can show they understand the game, and come up with a credible big stick, HMRC is going to have to settle for goodwill payments by the multinationals.

One tax hike I’ll be hoping for in the Budget (and some cuts as well)

Back home in Ireland, it’s said that asking for directions will often get you the reply, “I wouldn’t start from here.” We might say the same thing about the UK’s tax code. Nobody drawing up a tax system for the country would create anything like what we have right now, and when it comes to reform – well, I wouldn’t start from here.

One example, which I talked about on the Today Programme this morning, is VAT. VAT is usually considered to be one of the least bad taxes around: in theory, it doesn’t discourage production, it isn’t very regressive, and it doesn’t distort the economy.

I say “in theory” because in practice the UK’s VAT system is a mess. It is riddled with exemptions (I am including zero-rated and reduced-rated goods in this) that distort people’s spending, which means that resources are being wasted, because people are buying relatively more of the untaxed goods and less of the taxed ones than they would be if the playing field was level.

The usual argument for these exemptions is that they are needed to reduce the burden on the poor. This is a powerful argument but it is wrong.

Many of the exempted items are unlikely to benefit the poor anyway – financial services, the construction of new dwellings, domestic passenger transport – but even for things like children’s clothes and food the argument is wrong. Although poor people spend a greater fraction of their budgets on exempted items like these, total spending on these goods rises with income, so most of the forgone revenue is actually from the rich.

The extra money raised could easily offset the extra cost to the poor by reducing income taxes on them (including national insurance contributions) or by raising the Universal Credit payment level. We could actually offset the extra cost to almost everyone, but except for people on low pay I think there are better taxes we could cut with the money left over.

The IFS estimated in 2010 that scrapping all VAT exemptions would raise an extra £26-28bn, based on 2010-11 numbers. Conservatively, rounding that up to £30bn to account for the larger economy, and spending half on boosting the incomes of the poor, we have £15bn left to play with. We’ve suggested scrapping capital gains tax to boost investment and using the rest to reduce the deficit.

In simplifying VAT we can make one important tax much less destructive without hurting the poor and use the money left over to cut taxes that are even worse.

Politically, this might not deliver good headlines, but if it was done at the start of the next Parliament the boost to people’s living standards by the next election could, improbably, make raising taxes on food and children’s clothes a real winner.

We might not want to start from here to get our sensible tax system, but this is one reform that could be a good step in the right direction.

Economic Nonsense: 21. Inheritance tax is needed to prevent some having an unfair start in life

This question carries the assumption that life is some sort of race in which we are all struggling to outdo everyone else. Life is not like that. We are not racing against others because we all have different characters and different goals. There is a different finish line for each of us. Even the pace at which we choose to pursue our goals varies with the character of individuals.

One widely-held aim of parents is to give their children a decent life, even a better life than they had themselves. Many put effort into achieving this; it seems to be a natural and widespread aim. When society prevents them from passing on their assets to their children after death, they often find other ways of achieving that aim. This can take the form of using influence to place their children in comfortable jobs. It can be done by transferring the assets while they are still alive. It can lead people to set up complex trust schemes beyond the reach of the taxman.

Inheritance Tax is taxing money that has already been taxed when it was earned. The provision parents worked to make for their children, paying tax as they did so, is now taxed again, removing part of their incentive to create wealth in the process. For many recipients, the bequest comes as a lump sum when they are already established and probably own their home. It is thus available for investment or to start a business. Taxing it greatly reduces these possibilities. The capital pools built up by a family business such as a shop, for example, can be dissipated on death by Inheritance Tax, with a consequent economic loss to society, a loss that impacts employees and customers.

People are not equal and cannot be made so. They are differently talented. Some are genetically equipped to develop athletic prowess if they work at it. For others it might be music or mathematics. The notion that ‘fairness’ requires they should all have equal chances sits ill with what life is actually like. We should not be trying to impose an equality that does not fit, but on extending to everyone the opportunity to better their lives.

Economic Nonsense: 19. Corporation tax is paid by businesses

It is always attractive to the political classes to impose taxes on business so that people can benefit from the spending this makes possible. Corporation Tax is one of these whose name suggests that it is paid by corporations. Many people suppose that this involves taking money from companies and transferring it via government into services for ordinary people. They suppose that corporations just shrug and accept the loss in profits this involves.

This is a naïve myth. The tax levied by government is part of the price that people, not companies, pay. When you buy beer the price of your pint includes the tax the brewer has to pay to government. When you buy whisky it is even more, about 80% of the nominal price. The same is true for petrol and other fuels. VAT is included in what you are charged for goods and services.

The point is that Corporation Tax is paid by people, not by corporations. The tax that companies are charged forms part of their costs, and is reflected in the costs of producing their goods and services. Studies show that about three-fifths of the impact of Corporation Tax falls on the workers, reducing the wages they could otherwise be paid. Of the remainder, some falls on shareholders by way of reduced dividends, making it harder for the firm to attract capital to create more jobs. Some falls on customers, passed on to them in the form of higher prices, which lower demand for the firm’s products.

Corporation tax thus acts to curb economic activity, hits growth, and makes people poorer than they would otherwise have been.

If firms tried to absorb the tax without passing it on in lower wages and increased prices, as some critics suggest they could, they would become less profitable and less attractive to investors, who would in turn respond by investing somewhere else instead.