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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

New OECD tax agreement improves transparency -- but the US doesn't sign and the US press won't tell you UPDATED

Last week 31 countries signed a new Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) agreement providing for country-by-country corporate information reporting and the automatic exchange of tax info between countries under the Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement (MCAA).

Country-by-country reporting, the brainchild of noted tax reformer Richard Murphy,* is a principle that makes it possible to detect tax avoidance by requiring companies to list their activities in each country (nature of business, number of employees, assets, sales, profit, etc.) and how much tax they pay in each country. A company with few employees yet large profits is probably using abusive transfer pricing to make the profits show up in that country rather than another one, to give one obvious example of how the idea works. In the OECD agreement, the procedure is that beginning in 2016 each company will file a report to every country where it does business, then all the countries receiving such reports will automatically exchange them with each other, meaning each of these countries will then have a full view of how much business Google, for example, does in every jurisdiction. The shortcoming to this is that while governments will have this data, the public will not have it (a fact criticized by the Tax Justice Network) due to alleged concerns about confidentiality. However, the European Commission, including its Luxembourgian president Jean-Claude Juncker, is now talking about requiring publication of the country-by-country data for each EU Member State.

Which highlights an important aspect of this agreement: Many major tax havens, including Luxembourg, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria have all signed on. But the United States did not sign it. Surprisingly, you can't find this out in any U.S. publication, as far as I can tell. I'm a subscriber to the New York Times, and a search for "OECD tax deal" or "OECD tax" for the past week (it was signed six days ago) yields no results. "OECD" yields one result unrelated to the MCAA. Ditto for the Wall Street Journal. Ditto for my premium Nexis subscription: No U.S. stories on the agreement. You'd almost think they're trying to keep us from finding out. But no, not exactly: The Financial Times was able to get Treasury Secretary Jack Lew himself to comment in its story on the MCAA. He said, “From a US perspective, there are elements of this that don’t require legislation and we’re looking to getting to work right away.”

That's certainly a clue: Some of the changes do require legislation, and getting that from the Republican Congress is not going to happen. In fact, Republicans have always been willing to step up to keep the United States a tax haven for foreigners, and the Bush Administration went out of its way to undermine previous OECD attacks on tax havens offshore, as Australian political scientist Jason Sharman masterfully showed in his book Havens in a Storm.

Republicans have done such a good job at helping out domestic tax havens that the United States is now "The World's Favorite New Tax Haven," according to Bloomberg Businessweek which, in an ironic coincidence, published the story at 12:01AM the day the MCAA was signed (so it didn't report on the signing either). According to the article, foreigners' money is pouring out of Swiss banks into the United States, and Rothschild has set up shop in Reno, Nevada.

A little too ironic...

* As regular readers know, Murphy is someone I frequently cite in these pages.

UPDATE: @AlexParkerDC from Bloomberg BNA was kind enough to send me to a couple of his posts on the OECD's Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) negotiations. These suggest that the Obama Administration believes it can implement country-by-country reporting through regulation alone, and had already committed to it in the BEPS process. However, the IRS has proposed not to implement country-by-country until 2017, while the new OECD agreement begins with this year's tax information, as noted above.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Champion Tax Avoider GE Gets Subsidized Relocation to Boston

On Wednesday, General Electric announced that it was going to relocate its headquarters from Fairfield, Connecticut, to Boston beginning in 2016. Even without the headline, you probably already guessed that the relocation was subsidized -- in this case, by both the state of Massachusetts ($120 million) and the city of Boston ($25 million). 800 jobs will move as a result of the deal, but no new jobs will be created.

Massachusetts has been historically a low-subsidy state, helped in large part by its highly trained workforce along with the Boston area's 55 universities and colleges, the latter factor noted prominently in GE's announcement of the move. Yet this is the largest subsidy package ever assembled in the state according to the Good Jobs First Megadeals database (download the December 2015 spreadsheet version here). In fact, the database shows that it is only the fourth package over $50 million in Massachusetts, and the very first above $100 million.

I asked Greg LeRoy, the founder and Executive Director of Good Jobs First, for his thoughts on the deal. His response:
GE’s press release is almost worth bronzing and mounting: the company clearly chose Boston because of its executive talent pool and research assets. Why on earth the state and city felt they had to throw $181,000 per job at the company is beyond me; that’s unconstrained federalism at its worst.        
 This dynamic is one I have discussed often: a company threatens to move to another state and suddenly you have an auction with numerous other states trying to pay a relocation subsidy, while the home is doomed to pay a retention subsidy as a best-case scenario. Frequently, as with GE, the company moves. Either way, collectively the states receive less tax revenue from the company which threatened to flee. Thus, the common question, "Was this a good deal for Massachusetts?" completely misses the point, which is that the country as a whole is worse off, due to the decreased tax revenue for no new jobs.

In this case, as I reported last summer, GE threatened to leave Connecticut over tax increases in the state budget. This is ironic/hypocritical/outrageous (take your pick) because, as the Hartford Courant (h/t Richard Florida) reported, General Electric pays only the minimum Connecticut corporate earnings tax of $250 per year. The Boston Globe (see first link in this post) reports that GE pays essentially no state corporate income tax in any state!

It's tiresome to report yet another egregious example of this kind of corporate blackmail. It is depressing to see Massachusetts, with only 4.7% unemployment in November 2015, give its largest subsidy package ever under such circumstances. It's past time for Congress to solve the job piracy problem once and for all.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Ireland still isn't back

Ireland remains, in some circles, a poster child for austerity's success: It paid off its bailout loan early! It regained its 2007 Gross Nation Income per capita in 2014! Unemployment is only 8.9%! Don't believe the hype.

Paul Krugman recently pointed out that Ireland's employment performance continues to be dismal, especially in comparison with currency-devaluing, banker-prosecuting Iceland. Iceland's employment now exceeds its pre-crisis peak by about 2.5% whereas Ireland is still, 8 years later, 8% below its peak. More specifically, Irish employment peaked in Q1 2008 at 2,160,681; in Q3 of 2015, the figure was still only 1,983,000.

Not only that, but in 2014-2015 (May-April), Ireland continued with net emigration, as 11,600 more people left than came to Ireland. This was a substantial improvement of 9800 over the April 2014 figure, but still the trend is that Ireland is exporting unemployment literally.

Things are obviously getting better in Ireland for those who remain behind. Jobs are being created, and the number of unemployed has fallen. The April 2016 immigration report (the data are only reported once a year) may finally see an end to net emigration. But Ireland is 80% of the way to a lost decade, and isn't out of the woods yet.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The new era for subsidy disclosure begins

Yesterday, December 15, was the first day the new Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) subsidy reporting rules came into effect. From now on, every state and local government's annual financial reports will be required to report on tax subsidies they give, or even simply lose revenue to (say, a school district losing revenue to a city-granted property tax abatement). This will be the biggest increase in subsidy transparency in the 20-odd years I have been studying the issue.

Good Jobs First's Greg LeRoy put it well: "In the history of incentive reform, it is no exaggeration to refer to Before 77 and After 77. When this new data starts flowing in 2017, we will finally have a price tag on corporate welfare like never before." As I told GASB in my comments in January, this could put me out of the business of estimating corporate subsidies, and that would be a great thing because we would have really useful data comparable across states and cities.

With good data, we could finally make inroads into important questions, starting with whether investment incentives work -- in the sense that governments which give more incentives have something concrete to show for it in terms of unemployment rates, income, or poverty reduction. This is a question Richard Florida has tried to answer using Louise Story's New York Times subsidy database, but with weak data it's hard to be confident in statistical results. But now we stand on the brink of having good data.

Of course, we will have to wait until late 2017 to get it, since most government fiscal years will end June 30, 2017. But I think we are entitled to a partial celebration now.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

New Study Finds State Subsidies Go Overwhelmingly to Large Companies

Good Jobs First has just issued a new report analyzing state investment incentive programs open to small and large businesses alike. With the financial support of the Surdna Foundation and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Shortchanging Small Business: How Big Businesses Dominate State Economic Development Incentives finds that 70% of the awards and 90% of the money goes to large companies. This is a big deal: The justification for many major incentive programs is that they benefit small business. This study is the first in a planned series of reports which show that this claim does not stand up.

If subsidy programs disproportionately benefit large businesses, they reduce market competition and thereby make the economy less efficient. As I discussed in Competing for Capital, subsidies to capital exacerbate income inequality (post-tax, post-subsidy). This effect will be magnified if the incentives are flowing primarily to large firms rather than smaller ones, as this new study suggests to be the case. The report's findings are relevant to the European Commission's ruling last week on Starbucks and Fiat, that subsidies created by tax havens harm the ability of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to compete.

Shortchanging Small Business looks at 15 incentive programs in 13 states that are well-documented in Good Jobs First's Subsidy Tracker database, plus one Missouri program that is highly transparent online (and will soon be included in Subsidy Tracker), for a total of 16 programs in 14 states. Overall, these programs account for 4228 individual awards allocating over $3.2 billion.

Note that these are not one-off deals for a large company: For example, as I showed in my special report on North Carolina incentive packages, the deal Google received from the state in 2007 was worth $140.6 million at present value to the company. This dwarfs the $26.4 million over six years given by the One NC Fund, included in this Good Jobs First report, and is only one of a number of megadeals in North Carolina.

Moreover, neither are they apparently open programs with criteria that in fact rule out small companies through the use of large job creation or investment requirements. No, the 16 programs considered in this report are all genuinely available to large and small firms alike; that is what makes this such an important study. This report excludes programs directed solely to small businesses, but Good Jobs First has promised a separate analysis of those generally poorly funded measures.

What, then, is a small company? For the purposes of this study, it has to have fewer than 100 employees, it has to be an independently owned local firm, and it must have fewer than 10 establishments. If a company does not meet all three criteria, it is classified as a large company. Note that this cutoff is considerably below that of the U.S. Small Business Administration, which for most industries is 500 employees. On the other hand it is larger than the European Union definition of a small enterprise (50 workers) but smaller than the EU definition of a medium-sized enterprise (250 workers).

Despite the fact that small companies are theoretically eligible for the 16 programs analyzed, they receive only 30% of the awards and 10% of the money available through them. As I pointed out earlier, combined with one-off megadeals, programs that only appear to be open to small firms, and tiny programs specifically for small business, this adds up to a large bias in favor of big business, with all the consequences noted above.

What should be done? The report notes that many small businesses cannot benefit from the tax credit or tax abatement involved in the programs analyzed and, in a separate survey, many small business leaders said they would benefit more from public goods like job training, education, and transportation. Therefore, Good Jobs First proposes a reduction in incentive spending going to large companies, to be effected by using hard caps on each program's spending, on cost per job, and on the total amount any one company can receive under a given subsidy policy. While such caps are unusual in the United States, they are the main basis for the European Union's successful control over incentive spending there, elaborated further to have higher caps in poorer regions and a cap of 0 in the richest EU regions. In addition, the caps proposed by Good Jobs First could be augmented by using an EU metric known as aid intensity, which is simply the subsidy divided by the investment. While a cost per job cap is useful at resisting excessive capital intensity, an aid intensity cap is a valuable metric when substantial jobs are created but the government is paying for virtually the entire cost of the project (for example, Electrolux in Memphis).

I'm looking forward to further extensions of this research, and you should, too.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

EU slams Starbucks and Fiat advance tax rulings as state aid; Is Apple next?

The European Commission decided two of its major tax subsidy cases on Wednesday, October 21, and the rulings could not have been worse for Starbucks and Fiat (h/t Chillin' Competition). These cases can be seen as a barometer of what is to come in the legally similar but much larger case of Apple, where potentially billions of euros could be at stake.

The gist of the three cases is that tax haven subsidiaries of each company (Starbucks in the Netherlands, Fiat in Luxembourg, and Apple in Ireland) were given advance tax rulings by each country that were so removed from economic reality as to constitute illegal subsidies ("state aid" in Euro-speak) under EU competition law. In the Commission's decision, it was emphasized that the artificially low tax bills created by the rulings gave them an unfair competitive advantage over competitors, especially small business ("small and medium-sized enterprises" or "SMEs" in Euro-terminology).

Since the alleged subsidies were not notified to the European Commission in advance as required by EU law, the Commission has ruled that Starbucks and Fiat have to repay the illegal aid to the granting countries, with interest. The decision states that each company will owe 20-30 million in aid repayments.

 Of course, both of these cases will be appealed to the European court system, all the way to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), the highest court in the EU. Tax haven shenanigans are built into the economic structure of both Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and the two countries will do everything they can to maintain the status quo. The Apple case is much bigger, because it goes back all the way to 1991, and some estimates have put its tax savings at billions per year. If Apple loses, and I think it will, we can again be assured that the case will be appealed to the CJEU.

If the Commission makes these decisions stand up on appeal, it will dramatically change the shape of tax havens in Europe (including Switzerland, which the EU holds as being subject to the state aid rules through its free trade agreement). It won't put them out of business, because the decisions pertain to corporate income tax rather than personal income tax, but the amount of revenue lost on the corporate tax alone is a very big deal.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Time for a new incentives estimate!

It's been over four years since I last published an estimate of U.S. state and local government subsidies in Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital, and the data there represented the situation circa 2005. So I think it's time to begin a new estimate, don't you?

We have a great place to begin. As you may recall, in December 2012 Louise Story of the New York Times published a series of articles, "The United States of Subsidies," which was accompanied by two searchable databases, one of individual deals and one on subsidy programs. The latter was far more comprehensive than anything previously published.

Unfortunately, the program database was flawed because $52 billion of the reported $80 billion in annual subsidies were for sales tax breaks that were for the most part not subsidies at all, but ways to prevent sales tax from being charged for inputs into goods that would pay full sales tax on their final sale. Upjohn Institute economist Timothy Bartik documented that $4.80 billion of the $4.83 billion in sales tax "subsidies" in Michigan fell into this category. There were smaller errors in the program database as well, such as wrongly including net operating loss provisions and omitting the cost of single sales factor apportionment (h/t Timothy Bartik).

Now, dear reader, I'd like to solicit your help. The first step is to review the sales tax breaks in the database, so as to include those relatively few that are genuinely subsidies, such as exemptions for capital goods, which by nature are targeted at investment. If you have insights on this for any of the sales tax programs, I would be extremely grateful if you would share them with me. I would also appreciate any assistance on step 2, which is updating from the 2011 data Story used. If you have the numbers or know the sources, please send them to me. Finally, the same is true for step 3, gathering information on local subsidies, which is much sparser than state-level program data. I will, of course, acknowledge your help in any publications based on this work.

For this project, you can email me at kpthomas@umsl.edu

Thanks in advance!