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?