The first time my research gained wide publicity was in 1979. In collaboration with another young academic, I explained that many large British companies paid no corporation tax. The issue resurfaces again as my co-author retires from the Bank of England.
This week’s Group of Eight meeting produced denunciations of secrecy and tax havens. But the sources of the problem are not to be found in Bermuda or the Channel Islands. The activities that escape taxation take place in the G8. The correct starting point is the flawed structure and implementation of corporation tax in the G8 itself.
Corporation tax is a levy on the profit a company earns for its shareholders. It is therefore both a tax on corporate activity and on shareholders, and it is not well designed to achieve either purpose. It is not robust administratively or economically. Complex and vulnerable to avoidance, it produces major distortions of both investment and financial decisions of companies.
It makes sense to tax the incomes of shareholders. If it is desirable to tax separately the activities of companies, the most appropriate base is free cash flow, or economic rent – the amount a business earns in excess of its cost of capital. Almost every dispassionate examination of the structure of company taxation has favoured reform on these lines. Sir Mervyn King and I advocated it in 1979; the Mirrlees Review of the UK tax structure recently undertaken by the Institute for Fiscal Studies reached the same conclusion.
There are several different ways of moving towards this result – removing interest deductibility, introducing an allowance for the cost of corporate equity or shifting the tax base towards cash flow rather than accounting profit – but all end up in broadly the same place.
These reforms attempt to treat different levels of investment and different methods of financing in the same way. Opportunities for tax avoidance are everywhere and always the consequence of rules that treat economically similar transactions differently. It follows that there is generally alignment rather than conflict between the objectives of promoting economic efficiency and establishing administrative structures robust to avoidance. The present structure of company tax achieves neither.
It would be best if these reforms could be undertaken on a co-ordinated international basis, but that is not essential: it is essential, however, to agree better rules for assigning tax revenues between jurisdictions. Since governments – even within the EU – have failed to co-ordinate rules on the principles that each taxes the worldwide income of “their” companies, there are opportunities to create revenues that are taxed nowhere and expenditures that are deductible more than once.
Such avoidance is facilitated and enhanced by corporate manipulation of the prices at which capital, goods and services are transferred across borders. The resulting accounts show profit being earned in low-tax jurisdictions in which little or no real business takes place. It is disingenuous for companies to claim they pay the tax legally due when their assessments are based on accounts that defy economic and business realities.
In the main, however, tax authorities have preferred to cut deals with big corporations rather than pursue costly legal action. They will not do the same for you and me. It makes no sense for a small company to pay an accountant to do anything but calculate the amount of tax that is properly due, or to incur legal fees resisting a challenge. The unacceptable outcome is an entirely correct perception that there is one law for the little guy and another for the big battalions. The potential effect of that perception on tax compliance is one that it is well worth spending millions of pounds to avoid.
A serious reform agenda would involve a principled reappraisal of the basis for taxing corporations both nationally and globally, and a strategy for effective enforcement of existing rules. Such a strategy would make clear that executives of companies which present accounts to tax authorities that are essentially false, and the accountants who support them, will in future run serious risks. The door they hear closing behind them might be the door of a prison cell rather than the door of 10 Downing Street.