For the time being, the European commission has lost its battle with the EU’s tax havens for greater visibility on how much tax multinational companies pay and where they pay it.
A proposed rule would have forced multinationals to reveal the revenues and profits they make, and how little corporate tax they pay, in each of the 28 member states.
The directive, which demands country-by-country reporting by companies with an annual turnover of more than €750m (£640m), was designed to shine a light on the way firms avoid paying an estimated £390bn a year in taxes globally by shifting their profits to low-tax jurisdictions.
The plan put forward by the commission – the EU’s executive arm – failed after 12 of the jurisdictions in question voted against, including Luxembourg, Malta, Cyprus and Ireland. Larger countries that either dislike any moves towards further integration (step forward, Hungary) or commonly offer discounted rates of tax to foreign investors (among them the Czech Republic, Austria and Sweden) also joined the opposition.
This battle is being played out alongside a bloody skirmish over an EU-wide digital services tax, which has very similar international companies in its sights and has generated a backlash from the same club of nations (let’s call them the tax discounters).
On both tax reporting and a digital tax, right is on the commission’s side. It knows the EU is being played by a powerful group of US tech companies, from Google and Facebook to Microsoft and Oracle, that have grown quickly to be among the largest companies in the world without making much of a contribution towards the upkeep of the nations they sell to.
Ireland’s economy is at the extreme end of a spectrum of tax discounters, as the government’s independent tax budget oversight body admitted last week. The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (Ifac) said it was concerned that the country’s economy had become so reliant on duties paid by multinationals that half of all the country’s corporate taxes come from just 10 global companies.
So important is corporation tax to Dublin that it now accounts for one in every five euros of tax collected by the Irish government. Tellingly, Ifac warned Ireland’s treasury that between €2bn and €6bn of the €10bn total corporate tax take could be considered “excess”. This money would be vulnerable to moves by the EU and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – a thinktank backed by developed economies – to prevent profit-shifting to low-tax countries. It defined excess as “beyond what would be expected based on the economy’s underlying performance and historical and international norms”.
Without its offer of a corporation tax rate of 12.5%, which is reduced to 6.25% for profits linked to a company’s patent or intellectual property, Ireland’s politicians believe the government’s finances would be much diminished. That’s why it signed a sweetheart tax deal several years ago with Apple worth €14bn that an EU court ruling found to be unlawful. And it is also why Dublin and Apple appealed against that ruling.
There needs to be common agreement to tackle abuses by multinational companies, which increasingly become titans in their sector without ever paying much corporate tax. But what Ireland’s story tells us is that too many influential countries are now utterly dependent on being tax discounters.
They need to be compensated in some way to ease them through a transition period, otherwise they are never going to vote for a common rulebook. That’s the next step for Germany and France: to come up with a roadmap and not just a change in the rules.
If the commission is correct and its plan would generate billions more in tax, then much of this revenue needs to be recycled, at least in the early years, back to the likes of Malta, Cyprus and Ireland.
These countries need a carrot and not just a stick, because beating them up with arguments about fairness isn’t working.
Strikes and fare rises herald the start of a turbulent period for rail
If nothing else, rail unions may have focused busy commuters’ minds on Christmas Day: that’s the next time the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on South Western Railway can expect a normal timetable. And, of course, no trains run on that day.
From Monday, another excruciating chapter opens in that most opaque of industrial disputes spreading around Britain’s railways: the row over the role and responsibilities of guards on trains, and whether their jobs and status will really be preserved. Now the dispute with the RMT union is entering a full month of strikes on a vital commuter network that runs into London Waterloo.
Sympathy for unions is likely to be in short supply among those squeezing on to an even more crowded rush-hour train – if available – heading through the blue belt of Tory shires.
Rail workers are generally well remunerated – thanks in no small part to the efforts of the unions. The RMT is vigilant in guarding its flank against any incursions: in this case the implications of driver-only operation. However sincere the words of train operators may be in promising a future for their guards, the broader context is a rail industry desperately seeking cost savings.
As confirmation of January fare rises landed on Saturday, again zooming merrily ahead of inflation, the bottom line hove firmly back into view – not just for train operators, but punters footing the bill. Season ticket sales on South Western have plummeted – testament to changing working habits, but perhaps also to increased public reluctance to commit to a daily ride on a network which does not repay that trust.
The bitter words suggests this latest battle may not be resolved soon. But it is difficult to see how the RMT can win the war by demanding that nothing change in a world where everything else is rapidly doing so.
Mini-bonds can mean maxi losses. The FCA must get tough
Financial regulators are often criticised for closing doors long after investors’ money has bolted. But in the case of the ban on mini-bond sales imposed by the Financial Conduct Authority last week, it really is a case of too little, too late.
It is now eight months since it emerged that more than 11,000 investors might have lost up to 80% of their money in a £236m bond failure at London Capital & Finance. Since then more mini-bonds have been sold to a gullible public, and more money will be lost.
The problem is that mini-bonds are too damn seductive. Promotional literature for these products is littered with phrases such as “Isa-able” and “guaranteed”, giving the impression that the money is safe, and that if it can go into an Isa, it must have the stamp of approval from the government.
No such approval exists, and there is no financial compensation scheme to pick up the pieces when these highly speculative investments collapse, which they do with unnerving frequency.
As long ago as September 2015, the Observer’s sister paper, the Guardian, warned its readers: “If you see something promoted as a ‘mini-bond’, bin it!”. It was evident even then that the overenthusiastic promises and, in some cases, bogus “security” guarantees were ensnaring small investors and leading to hefty losses.
Even today the “ban” is not quite as it seems. The FCA, despite facing a serious rebuke from an independent investigator for its handling of LC&F, has been excessively timid in its response. Each mini-bond will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The outright ban will apply only to more complex mini-bonds (those investing in properties or other companies), and not to bonds used to raise money for the investment company’s own activities.
The inevitable result is that mini-bonds will continue to offer unlikely interest rates – and to appear at the top of internet searches for high returns on savings.