Tax havens are more than their tropical stereotype
Why the G7 effort to end them is unlikely to succeed
Imagine a tax haven. Does a Caribbean island come to mind? Sand, surf and thousands of post office boxes housing shell corporations?
Some tax havens, like the Cayman Islands or Bermuda, do fit that description. But many others do not.
The key to a tax haven is the taxes, not the tan. Any place that allows a taxpayer – whether an individual or a company – to get a lower tax bill overseas than at home is a tax haven. Depending on the taxpayer’s jurisdiction and business, many places turn out to be tax havens, even the United States.
A recent agreement by the Group of Seven, or G7, wealthy nations seeks to eliminate corporate tax havens by imposing a global 15 per cent minimum corporate tax rate. However, as a tax expert, I find the effort hard to take seriously.
Put simply, tax havens are jurisdictions that offer low or even no taxes in a bid to attract foreign investment.
From a taxpayer’s perspective, the first sign of a good tax haven is that it’s completely legal. While there may be a perception that people who use tax havens to lower their tax bills are breaking the law, that’s rarely the case.
A taxpayer who is comfortable doing that does not need a tax haven. Instead, a dishonest accountant and a less honest banker are all that’s required.
The second sign of a good tax haven is transparency, political stability and rule of law. If it costs more in lawyers, accountants and bribes to avoid taxes overseas than it costs to pay the tax at home, there is no point to a tax haven.
The third sign is privacy. For many years, Swiss banks provided the gold standard in that regard by refusing to reveal anything about their depositors to anyone. That changed in 2008, when Swiss banks agreed to report on their depositors to 43 European countries.
The loss of the complete secrecy that Switzerland once provided has made shell companies – and the countries that make them easy to set up – much more attractive. Shell companies are basically companies without active business operations or significant assets that are stacked one on top of the other to make it harder to trace ownership.
Identifying a tax haven isn’t as simple for the governments intent on controlling them as it is for the taxpayers who seek them out. This is mainly because governments and international organisations tend to think a tax haven is somewhere other than where they live.
For example, the European Union produces an annual list of tax havens that contains no EU member countries, even though many other lists identify Ireland, Luxembourg and a host of other European countries as tax havens.
And while several groups have described the United States as a tax haven – Forbes even calls it the best in the world – the United States government would never do so, even though it fits all the key criteria, such as providing legal ways to avoid virtually all taxation and strong taxpayer privacy.
This is why the G7 global corporate minimum 15 per cent tax agreement is unlikely to work.
Of course, I applaud the effort. Without a minimum tax, countries are stuck in a never-ending race to the bottom, whereby every time one government cuts its corporate tax rates, another soon follows with even lower rates.
The problem is the G7 has to get more than 130 other countries to go along with its minimum tax rate. Many countries, including Ireland and China, seem unlikely to give up something that has brought them so much economic advantage.
Written by Beverly Moran of Vanderbilt University for ‘The Conversation’ and published via AP.