Alex Malley: Multinational tax under the microscope

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Alex Malley, chief executive of CPA, talks about the Panama papers scandal specifically looking at the situation in NZ and Australia.
Panama City. Photo / Getty Images
Panama City. Photo / Getty Images

The Panama papers, all 11.5 million of them, continue to create headlines around the world. While the revelations have claimed some high profile scalps, like the Prime Minster of Iceland, they've also focused yet more attention on the scale and complexity of international tax arrangements.

The Australian Tax Office is looking at the cases of 800 Australian taxpayers and has linked 120 of them to an associate offshore service provider in Hong Kong, while in New Zealand the Government has announced an independent review of foreign trust disclosure rules.

While it makes for a great story to talk about companies or individuals that have been "implicated" in the leaks, the reality is that it is not illegal to deal with any of these countries and it is not illegal to have a bank account in these jurisdictions.

The real issue is what did the individual or entity do with them, or use them for, and did they disclose information to relevant authorities?

The New Zealand Herald has recently reported on the revenues of multinationals including Facebook and Google contrasting the amount of tax they have paid in New Zealand.

While the numbers can seem stunning - both for the magnitude of the revenues and the insignificance of the tax paid - it is entirely possible that these multinational companies are operating completely in accordance with the law.

We must remember that all countries have tax sovereignty.

That is they all have the ability to develop and enforce tax laws as they see fit. Countries compete with each other to attract business and investment.

These differences create opportunities for a multinational to establish its operations and "profit shift" to a lower taxing jurisdiction.

Case in point, New Zealand's corporate tax rate of 28 per cent compares to Australia's 30 per cent. Both compare, unfavourably, to the UK's soon to be 17 per cent and Ireland's 12.5 per cent.

Whether you're an individual, small business, large company or an even larger multinational corporation you are absolutely going to search for value for money in everything you do. Companies with operations in multiple jurisdictions will seek to maximise their opportunities to reduce their tax bill.

This is the reality of competitiveness in a global, interconnected marketplace where capital and labour are increasingly free to move around.

There has been a lot of talk about "fairness" in the last fortnight, and demands for new rules to ensure entities pay their 'fair share'. While this seems instinctively right, what is "fair" and what is "legal" is not necessarily the same thing.

Legislation and regulation has always struggled to keep pace with evolving business practices and new technologies. In the late 1800s, John D. Rockefeller led governments and tax officials on a merry chase as his Standard Oil Company broke new ground in trading across state and international boundaries, and in the process becoming one of the first truly multinational corporations.

The chase for Standard Oil gave the world the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Bureau of Corporations with powers to inspect the books of companies trading across state lines. Today's global effort to tackle Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) has given us the OECD/G20 BEPS project.

Given the global nature of the challenge, it makes sense to work on multilateral solutions.

The OECD estimates as much as 10 per cent of global corporate income tax revenues - up to US$240 billion annually - is lost through BEPS activities. This is a very large number, big enough to focus the minds of the world's finance ministers who would like to have their share in their budgets.

Their effort to re-write international tax rules to address BEPS began in 2009.

It's making real progress.

In November last year they committed to implementing 15 action items for governments to address. Almost 100 jurisdictions, including New Zealand, have joined the OECD's Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters.

Given the global nature of the challenge, it makes sense to work on multilateral solutions.

Australian and the UK, also part of the multilateral convention, have both unilaterally introduced legislative changes in their own jurisdictions. It will be interesting to see how many other countries respond to budgetary and political pressures and seek to go it alone.

When it comes to transparency, it should be noted that New Zealand has a strong, clean reputation as demonstrated in the consistently high rankings achieved in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. Rated in the top five this year, and number one in previous years.

As befitting a country committed to disclosure, when it comes to foreign trusts there have been numerous changes to the law around disclosure provisions, anti-money laundering rules and requirements for a shell company to have a New Zealand trustee.

With the independent review lead by John Shewan expected to report by the end of June, we would expect any recommendation for further change would be adopted.

- NZ Herald

Alex Malley is chief executive of CPA Australia.

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