Transferring capital offshore without taxation
Javier Garcia-Bernardo, Eelke Heems-kerk, Frank Takes and Jan Fitchtner
TAX HAVENS are a popular, legal and often secret instrument for multinational corporations to move capital across borders. By taking advantage of loopholes in various national legislations and placing operations in countries with low taxes, companies can reduce their tax rate from around 35 percent to 25 percent to 15 percent or even lower.
American companies use clever (and legal) tactics to offshore profits and reduce their tax burden. Silicon Valley companies have become expert at this tactic. Using a combination of subsidiaries in Ireland, the Netherlands and Bermuda to reduce its tax burden, Apple paid just 0.005 percent tax on its European profits in 2014, the European Commission reported.
If multinationals’ profits were accounted for where the economic activity takes place, they would pay a combined $500 billion (R6.5 trillion) to $650bn more on taxes each year, according to estimates by the Tax Justice Network and the International Monetary Fund. Of this, around $200bn a year would go to developing countries, which is more than they receive annually in development aid ($142.6bn).
Findings like this have put tax havens on the radar of US and European regulators, but there’s no broadly accepted definition of what makes a country an offshore financial centre (OFC).
Lists published by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Monetary Fund use different criteria to define tax shelters, and their outcomes are highly politicised.
The Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index, Oxfam’s list of the worst corporate tax havens and Jan Fichtner’s 2015 Offshore-Intensity Ratio have proved to be more useful.
Fichtner (a co-author of this article) provides a rough yardstick for judging OFC jurisdictions by examining the proportion between foreign capital, such as FDI, and the size of the domestic economy.
What none of these measures can tell us, though, is the origin of the foreign investment reported by these tax havens. How does Apple’s money get from California to Bermuda anyway?
By bringing together political economists and computer scientists in the CORPNET research group at the University of Amsterdam, it became possible to study how corporations make use of particular countries and jurisdictions in their international ownership structures.
The novel, data-driven network approach of our study shed light on how offshore finance flows across the globe.
We looked not at country-level statistics, but at detailed company data. By asking which countries and jurisdictions play a role in corporate ownership chains that is incommensurate with the size of their domestic economies, we were able to identify, for the first time, a complex global web of offshore financial centres.
We analysed the entire massive global network of ownership relations, with information of more than 98 million firms and 71 million ownership relations.
This granular firm-level network data helped us to distinguish two kinds of tax havens: sinks and conduits.
Sinks and conduits
“Sink OFCs” attract and retain foreign capital. We identified 24 sink OFCs, including well-known tax havens such as Luxembourg, Hong Kong, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, but also Taiwan, a heretofore unnoticed tax haven.
Using our method, we can now investigate which jurisdictions are used by corporations en route to sinks.
These “conduit OFCs” are attractive intermediate destinations because their numerous tax treaties, low or zero withholding taxes, strong legal systems and good reputations for enabling the quiet transfer of capital, without taxation.
We found that a handful of big countries – the Netherlands, the UK, Switzerland, Singapore and Ireland – serve as the world’s conduit OFCs.
Together, these five conduits channel 47 percent of corporate offshore investment from tax havens, according to the data analysed.
The Netherlands leads the pack with 23 percent, followed by the UK (14 percent), Switzerland (6 percent), Singapore (2 percent) and Ireland (1 percent).
Each conduit jurisdiction is specialised both geographically and in industrial sectors. The Netherlands excels in holding companies, for example, while Luxembourg favours “administrative services”. Hong Kong’s geographic speciality lies in connecting to the British Virgin Islands and Taiwan. Our findings debunk the myth of tax shelters as exotic far-flung islands that are difficult, if not impossible, to regulate. Many offshore financial centres are highly developed countries with strong regulatory environments.
That means that targeting conduit OFCs rather than sinks could prove more effective in stemming tax avoidance. Originally published in The Conversation.
US companies use clever tactics to move their profits offshore.