The OECD’s bid to tax digital services across the world’s 34 richest nations is a step towards fairness
Tax authorities across Europe are increasingly asking themselves why, in the digital age, an ordinary citizen would pay tax if they could avoid doing so.
Amazon, Facebook, Uber, eBay and Google do all they can to avoid tax. They employ thousands of staff to check every loophole. They also retain the services of the big accounting and global law firms with the sole aim of driving down the effective rate of tax they pay wherever they operate.
So why wouldn’t everyone else do what they could to play the same game? It’s a question that has leapt up the list of pressing issues for tax authorities across Europe.
Last week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which is attempting to standardise tax rules across the world’s 34 richest nations, said that its members had agreed to consider benchmarks for taxing digital services.
“Countries and jurisdictions will step up efforts toward reaching a global solution to the growing debate over how to best tax multinational enterprises in a rapidly digitalising economy,” it said.
It might not seem like much of a victory. The 34 nations in question, ranging from the UK, US and France to Mexico, South Korea and Slovakia, look like climbers that have just reached base camp on their way to conquering Everest.
For Pascal Saint-Amans, the OECD director’s of tax policy, it is an obvious move now that digital businesses are viewed by many voters as undermining the very fabric of the tax system.
That may be true, but his scheme has become attractive because it represents the slowest route to the summit. Other proposals get there more quickly, and much more painfully for the jurisdictions that play host to tax avoiders – for example Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
To all the EU countries involved, it is a better option than the more draconian rules proposed by Brussels.
Just before Christmas, the European commission reheated plans to adopt majority voting for tax rule changes with a view to implementing a new digital tax. This tax, which would tackle corporation tax and VAT avoidance by companies based in Ireland and Luxembourg, is likely to stay tethered to its moorings all the time unanimous voting governs tax issues.
Take the case of Ireland. There are corporation tax receipts in its budget, but they are small relative to the number of wealthy companies in Dublin and Cork. The tax-to-GDP ratio in Ireland has decreased from 30.8% in 2000 to 22.8% in 2017.
The Irish have already suffered an adverse tax judgment courtesy of the European court of justice, which ruled that it had allowed Apple to avoid €13bn of tax, which must now be collected. The last thing Irish officials want is a switch to majority voting on tax that would trigger a wider clampdown.
Britain, in or out of the EU, has promised to press ahead with a modest digital tax. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, says he will join the OECD scheme when it comes to fruition but can’t wait for that moment without making a move.
It is a measure of the way digital companies have destroyed a sense of fair play on tax that a Tory government that presides over a financial centre built largely on clever wheezes to avoid tax has stepped forward with a plan in advance of Brussels and the OECD.
Hammond knows there is more to gain from righting a wrong on tax than he could lose by upsetting major digital businesses. Other countries should follow his lead.
BP’s backing for a climate resolution is only a first step BP has thrown its weight behind an initiative by its own investors to make the company spell out how corporate strategy is compatible with the goals of the Paris climate agreement .
That is welcome news. BP has been something of a laggard compared with European peers such as Shell and Total in its efforts to transition away from oil and gas, and reduce its global warming impact.
The company and investors, which include Hermes EOS, Legal & General Investment Management and the Church of England, hailed agreement on the resolution as “good news for the planet” and giving “investors better clarity”.
Action to tackle climate change is clearly a good thing. But there’s also a risk of dressing up business-as-usual fossil-fuel extraction as progressive action.
With that in mind, what exactly is BP committing to here that is new? The main requirement is a business strategy in line with the Paris agreement’s demands of holding temperatures “well below 2C” and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in the second half of the century.
BP believes its strategy is already consistent with those goals. So why will it feel moved to make any substantive changes when it publishes the new version?
The other requirements are that BP weighs how expenditure on new projects, including drilling for oil and gas, is compatible with Paris, and sets metrics and targets to keep in line with the accord’s goals.
This is all useful, but it’s debatable whether it will materially change the fact that the company’s investments in solar power and electric cars are a drop in the ocean of its hydrocarbon-dominated $15bn-$16bn spending last year. Or that it wants to be producing 25% more oil and gas by 2021 .
The growing wave of investor pressure on oil and gas majors to do more on climate change is good news – but the BP resolution also lays bare the limits to engagement.
Ashley could lose a few more coins down the back of Sofa.com
‘I didn’t think I would end up owning House of Fraser,” Mike Ashley said last year, soon after his Sports Direct paid £90m to buy the department store chain out of administration. And he surely never expected to enter the world of upholstered furniture by buying Sofa.com .
Yet the latter deal happened on Friday and is Ashley’s most baffling in his current buying spree. Sofa.com is a supplier to House of Fraser, so one can see the superficial logic, but the business wouldn’t have been up for grabs for a nominal sum if it weren’t struggling. Ashley now has one more headache to solve – this time in an alien (for him) corner of the retail market. He’s getting in deeper and deeper.
It is tempting to ascribe a grand plan to this dealmaking, in which the next arrival could be HMV.
Is Ashley on a mission to save the high street? Does he just spy cheap opportunities that others are afraid to take? The price tag for House of Fraser suggested Sports Direct got the stock at about 15p in the pound, which certainly has short-term appeal, even before one counts the opportunity to beat up landlords over rents.
There will definitely be cold commercial appraisal at work, of course. But one also suspects this is a case of one damn thing leading to another. The losses Ashley suffered on the original 11% stake in House of Fraser will have hurt. He made a bad bet, just as he did with a near-30% stake in Debenhams , on which Sports Direct took a £85m writedown last year. Maybe the motivation (or part of it) is just the gambler’s desire to get even by making bigger bets.
It would be a fine thing if Ashley succeeds in his attempt to rejuvenate so many ailing retail businesses, but chasing your losses is rarely a winning strategy.