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OECD Proposes Plan to Curb International Tax Avoidance

WASHINGTON, Jul 19 2013 (IPS) - Finance ministers from the Group of 20 (G20) countries on Friday received a previously requested strategy under which the world’s largest economies could crack down on international tax avoidance, particularly on the part of multinational corporations.

The 15-point action plan was created by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based think tank funded by the world’s richest countries. The G20 requested the study in February, as tax avoidance has moved to the top of the global agenda, particularly in the context of governments struggling to fill state coffers in the aftermath of the global economic downturn.

"When multinational corporations game the system – and the evidence shows that they are – everyone else loses." -- Nicole Tichon of the Tax Justice Network USA

Yet some analysts have also suggested that, against the backdrop of countries such as Brazil, China, India and Russia quickly becoming some of the world’s most powerful economies, the current exercise could be developed countries’ last attempt to steer the conversation on international tax policy.

“The joint challenges of tax evasion and tax base erosion lie at the heart of the social contract,” Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the OECD, said Friday in Moscow, where he handed over the new blueprint to government officials gathered ahead of the G20 summit in September, which Russia is hosting.

“Our citizens are demanding that we tackle offshore tax evasion by wealthy individuals and re-vamp the international tax system to prevent multinational enterprises from artificially shifting profits, resulting in very low taxes or even double non-taxation and thereby eroding our tax base.”

The OECD strategy would now seek to strengthen coherence among its members’ tax systems, aimed at filling the gaps between those systems – through which multinational corporations, in particular, have become adept at slipping.

A major thrust of the new strategy deals with ways to corral the new powerhouses of the digital economy, which in recent years have become adept at extremely complex – some say only marginally legal – tax strategies. Such companies, making use of extensive offshore subsidiaries, have recently been the focus of a strengthened tax-avoidance discussion here in the United States and in Europe.

The action plan, which the OECD says it will roll out over a two-year rulemaking process, also tries to increase transparency. It would require companies to engage in country-by-country reporting of profits, for instance, in order to make it more difficult for phony “shell” offices to quietly shift profits made in one country to another that offers lower or nonexistent tax rates.

On Friday, Gurria noted that these 15 actions would “result in the most fundamental change to the international tax rules since the 1920s!”

Built on an earlier general report, the plan received widespread initial plaudits from government officials. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov “commended” the report for hewing to “the basic tenets of fairness – that it allows multinational corporations to prosper without loading a higher tax burden on domestic companies and individual taxpayers.”

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew also “welcomed” the action plan, which he said was created in part with U.S. participation.

“This is a major step toward addressing tax avoidance by multinational firms in the global economy and represents a concerted effort to raise standards around the world,” Lew noted in a statement sent to IPS. “We must address the persistent issue of ‘stateless income’, which undermines confidence in our tax system at all levels.”

Entrenching global inequality?

Yet the plan received a more cautious appraisal from certain civil society organisations, with some warning that the OECD’s membership has led it to overlook the importance of developing countries in combating tax avoidance in today’s context. Indeed, it is in these countries where illicit outflows of capital are having major, damaging impacts on already strapped governments’ abilities to fund their public sectors.

“We are encouraged to see this unequivocal acknowledgement that when multinational corporations game the system – and the evidence shows that they are – everyone else loses: governments, citizens and other businesses,” Nicole Tichon, executive director of the Tax Justice Network USA, an advocacy group here, told IPS.

“We agree that this is a global problem and will require a global solution, but this plan needs to more carefully consider the additional plight of developing countries.”

One of Tichon’s colleagues in Africa expanded on this point.

“In poor nations we are largely failing to capture tax revenue from major international corporations which should be harnessed to ensure better social and economic opportunities for citizens,” Alvin Mosioma, the director of Tax Justice Network Africa, says.

“This is why the current OECD reform process needs to include at its heart serious representation from developing nations rather than keeping them to the margins. That developing countries are kept out of this key process runs the real risk of further entrenching global inequality.”

Others are taking issue with the new plan’s failure to recommend that country-by-country reporting of corporate profits – seen as a critical tool in halting the currently rampant shifting of earnings among multinational companies – be made public.

According to the OECD’s top tax official, the action plan does recommend such reporting, but he admits that those reports would not be publicised.

“This country-by-country reporting will be for tax administrations and not [the] public,” Pascal Saint-Amans, director of the OECD’s Centre for Tax Policy and Administration, told IPS.

“What matters is that tax inspectors have the information. Confidentiality issues [could stop] countries from agreeing to public country-by-country reporting.”

Indeed, a similar fight is currently taking place here in the United States, which last year instituted a landmark regulation requiring multinational companies to publicly report all payments made to foreign governments. Yet earlier this month a court overturned that rule in part because of the requirement that these reports be made public.

Some anti-poverty groups are going so far as to suggest that the OECD’s tax fixes are already obsolete, having been far outstripped by the decentralised model that the most aggressive modern corporations have been able to follow.

“This plan is papering over the cracks in a broken system, rooted in an outdated and irrelevant model of corporate taxation,” Murray Worthy, a tax campaigner at War on Want, an advocacy group, said in a statement. “It might be able to tackle the worst of corporate tax dodging, but it won’t fix the system.”

 
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