THE BLOG

Global Tax Reform Needs Sense and Sensibility

01/04/2014 13:14 BST | Updated 31/05/2014 10:59 BST

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a large multinational enterprise in possession of large global earnings, must be in want of a 'Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich' tax arrangement.

This variation on novelist Jane Austen's immortal line is increasingly occupying the minds of law makers, governments and regulators around the world, their focus sharpened by news of minimal tax returns for certain companies with billion dollar global earnings.

The likes of Apple, Microsoft and IBM are frequently mentioned, their profit shifting practices the subject of discussions at the recent meeting of G20 Finance Ministers in Australia, and in the US, at a Senate homeland security and governmental affairs investigations subcommittee hearing.

No one is suggesting that Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) is not an issue, in fact G20 finance ministers, central bankers and the Australian Government deserve credit for putting these issues on the international agenda. However, outside G20 and Senate committee rooms, the reality is that right around the world, big multinationals are doing what legendary Australian businessman Kerry Packer said we need our heads read if we're not - trying to reduce their tax bill.

It's worth noting that at the same time Apple revealed it only paid A$36 million in tax in Australia in the 2013 financial year from revenue of around A$6.1 billion, another US firm Alexion Pharmaceuticals announced to Wall Street that it had acquired a plant in Ireland, and with it a more efficient global tax structure.

In order to reduce income tax, increase profits and boost jobs, they'd embraced the so-called 'Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich' tax arrangement so popular with companies transacting business around the world.

The key point here is that investors in Alexion loved what they heard. The stock shot up 21 per cent.

More recently, we learned that the world's biggest banana company, Chiquita based in North Carolina, was merging with Dublin-based tropical fruit importer Fyffes, with the new entity to be based in Ireland.

The Irish corporate tax rate is 12.5 per cent; the US rate is 35 per cent. Australia's is 30 per cent.

If you're running a global business - and you have a legal obligation to act in the best interests of your company and your shareholders - there's not much to think about here. As Paul Jacobs, the outgoing chief executive of US computer chip maker Qualcomm, recently said, "if you can choose between San Antonio and Shanghai, and you pay no taxes one place and 25 to 35 percent at home, you're encouraged to move jobs overseas."

And who can blame Ireland for positioning itself as an attractive place to invest. If they're able to sustain an overall taxation mix with a low company tax rate which attracts investment and creates jobs, then their aggressiveness is to be applauded.

It's a bold approach being replicated across the Irish Sea. In 2012, the corporate tax rate in the UK sat at 26 per cent; this week it drops to 21 percent, and will fall a further one per cent next year.

Australian states too play this game, offering payroll tax concessions and other goodies to lure big companies - and jobs - to their states.

In a similar vein, the Australian and New South Wales governments gave multi-million dollar subsidies to the makers of the Great Gatsby in an effort to ensure the film production juggernaut landed on our shores, not in Canada, Mexico or even the United States.

This is the reality of competitiveness in a global, interconnected marketplace. It is the intersection of government policy and corporate imperatives, with directors delivering efficiencies and profitability and complying with their legal obligations to act in the best interests of their companies, and shareholders.

Legislation and regulation forged in a different era will always struggle to keep pace. 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. Today's global effort to tackle base erosion and profit shifting has given us the OECD/G20 BEPS project.

The challenge for governments, particularly the G20 nations which meet in Australia in November this year, is to find the acceptable middle ground between companies who on the one hand have an obligation to pay their share of tax, but an understandable interest in making that share as small as possible, and governments who want a bigger slice.

So while the sport of multi-national bashing grows in popularity, action - not rhetoric - is the path to a solution. Or as Jane Austen also observed, "it isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do."

Alex Malley is chief executive of CPA Australia