Taxing multinationals – after the sound and fury we need solutions that work

Multinationals like Starbucks, Amazon and Google has been on the wrong end of publicity in recent weeks here in the UK.  They don’t seem to be paying very much corporate tax, in spite of well established and successful commercial operations here.  But there is something missing from the debate: nobody seems to be offering much of a solution to the problem of taxing multinationals.  There’s a lot of sound and fury, but it all ends in a bit of a whimper.  We can do better than that – but only by adopting policies the government’s Conservative members will be deeply uncomfortable with.

The problem is easy to see.  If a multinational makes something in one place and sells it in another (to take the simplest possible description of a multinational supply chain), then it has the opportunity to apportion profits to more then one place…and to manipulate this to where tax rates are lowest.  This has always been so, but with an increasing proportion of costs being attributable to soft things like intellectual property, this is getting much easier to do.  The traditional way of fairly attributing profit is through establishing a fair “transfer price” for goods or services as they move between countries along the chain – based on open market value.  The idea of open market value has always existed more in theory than practice, and the process often ends up in endless bickering between the company and the tax authorities of the various countries it operates in.  And in the end the results are often hard to justify.  What are the alternatives?  There are two main approaches.

The first approach is to reduce corporate tax rates to make the issue irrelevant, and along the way to make your own jurisdiction very attractive to investors.  This is not as crazy as it sounds, and has quite a respectable intellectual pedigree.  Companies aren’t people, and ultimately taxation is about people.  Taxes are charged whenever people try to extract money from a company, through salaries, dividends and what have you.  Money that is left in companies is reinvested, and taxing it merely reduces the amount available for reinvestment.  This is an example of the idea that tax should be based on expenditure rather than income and capital.  It encourages saving and investment, and most of the time economists think that economies would be healthier if more resources were invested rather than consumed.

This line of reasoning was very popular in the late 20th century, but has since lost much of its appeal, except amongst the very rich.  Something has gone wrong with the savings and investment cycle.  The amount of constructive, worthwhile investment that comes out of savings is not what economists used to think.  A lot disappears into various forms of financial engineering that fatten up an overpaid finance industry and not much else, inflating selected asset values into unsustainable bubbles along the way.  Overall savings, especially by the very rich, seem to be a drag on an economy – often requiring “negative savings” from government deficits to keep the economy on track.  This process was described by Maynard Keynes in the 1930s and it is still true today.

Low capital taxes, including company taxes, simply seem to exacerbate a growing gap between the very wealthy and everybody else, without generating the needed investment. Profit taxes have a particular attraction: they are economically efficient and do no distort ordinary business decisions, outside the allocation of capital.

So what’s the alternative approach to taxing multinational businesses?  This is what we should be talking about a lot more: the top down apportionment of profits.  Under this system you establish a business’s worldwide profits, and then apportion it to national jurisdictions by a formula which measures activity: a combination of sales, employees, pay or suchlike.  Those jurisdictions can then decide what rate they want to charge.

The idea of top-down apportionment has been developed for some time by US states for allocating profits between the states of that country.  In the 1980s California tried to extend the idea to global operations, but was forced to back down, mainly after furious international lobbying from our own British government.  There is a nice irony if American companies are now runiing rings rounds us British.

But that example shows the idea’s main weakness: it needs international cooperation to get going.  It helps if all countries are doing it, and using the same formula.  There is an obvious first step for the British government though: to agree and apply such a system to the European Union.  I don’t think there would be much difficulty in mobilising the other EU countries; Ireland, a traditional advocate of tax sovereignty, is not in a particularly strong bargaining position these days, and we can let them keep their low rates.  Once the EU has an agreed system for recognising and apportioning profits, we would then need a treaty with the US.  Since that country is already a wide practitioner, there is good reason to hope for progress there too.  With the EU and US on board, a global critical mass starts to build.

But Britian’s coalition government does not seem to be thinking along these lines.  For its Conservative members, no doubt doing deals on tax with the EU is anathema.  Instead they are happy to quietly go down the first route and cutting business taxes, in spite of little evidence that this is stimulating investment.  Of the Liberal Democrats, however, I had expected better.

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