Monthly Archives: April 2016

Sådan bekæmper vi skattely

I lørdags bragte Information en kronik af undertegnede, som gengives her (med tilladelse fra Information).

Kronikken indeholder en diskussion af nogle af de væsentligste udfordringer ved at regulere ‘skattely’, og hvilken retning, man kan kigge i, hvis man vil imødekomme disse.

Sådan bekæmper vi skattely

I kampens hede er det belejligt at skyde skylden på Nordea og Mossack Fonseca, men skal vi skattely til livs, kræver det en mere omfattende reformation af det internationale skattesystem. Her er de tre største udfordringer.


Panama-papirerne har skabt alvorligt røre i andedammen. Lækagen af 11,5 millioner dokumenter, der viser skattesnyd af verdensledere og berømtheder, har væltet Islands statsminister og sat både Maltas og Storbritanniens regeringsledere under voldsomt pres. Og i den politiske orkans øje skyder man skylden på Nordea, Mossack Fonseca, den rige elite eller korrupte lovgivere i Panama. Det er politisk og retorisk belejligt.

Men desværre er det ikke helt så simpelt. Panama-papirerne og andre lækager over de seneste år viser nemlig, at verden i dag står over for store udfordringer med at reformere det komplekse internationale skattesystem.

Men hvorfor er det egentlig så svært? Vi vil her pege på tre fundamentale udfordringer, som skal løses, hvis vi vil gøre op med den systematiske unddragelse af skat og hemmeligholdelse af formuer.

Der er ingen snuptagsløsninger. I stedet bør vi sigte efter et forpligtende internationalt samarbejde, som kan bidrage til at skabe en sund og retfærdig økonomi – det er faktisk slet ikke så utopisk endda.

1. Vi skal vide, hvad vi taler om

Når der tales om ’skattesnyd’ og ’skattely’, er det sjældent ligetil, hvad der egentlig sigtes efter. Er det ulovlig skatteunddragelse eller lovlig, men ildeset skatteplanlægning? Er det enkeltpersoner eller multinationale selskabers ageren? Og i hvilke lande finder man problemerne?

Denne manglende klarhed om mål og midler mindsker effekten af de regler, der bliver vedtaget i kampens hede.

Eksempelvis er det stort set umuligt at skabe enighed om, hvad et ’skattelyland’ overhovedet er. I 2015 offentliggjorde Europa-Kommissionen en fælles EU-liste, der dog hurtigt måtte trækkes tilbage på grund af grundlæggende uenigheder landene imellem. Og igen i denne uge har Kommissionen fremlagt et nyt forsøg, som formentlig vil støde ind i de samme problemer.

De fleste lande peger på små østater og finansielle centre som skattely. Men hvis man konsulterer Financial Secrecy Index, udgivet af Tax Justice Network, finder man både USA, Schweiz og Storbritannien i top-15 over verdens vigtigste skattelylande.

Selv i Danmark ved vi, at der er skattely-muligheder via eksempelvis kommanditselskaber. Hvis man lukker for ilten i Panama, står udbydere klar til at gemme penge væk i USA, Schweiz og andetsteds.

I stedet for en sort/hvid opdeling, er der altså snarere tale om et kontinuum, hvor landes lovgivningsmæssige strukturer giver flere eller færre muligheder for skattemæssig udnyttelse. I den politiske verden er det bare mere acceptabelt at true Panama med sanktioner end at anklage verdens største økonomier for urent trav.

2. Hvem vil afgive suverænitet?

En anden grund til, at skattely-aktiviteter er svære at regulere, er modsætningsforholdet mellem fri kapital og bundne stater. I en verden med suveræne stater har lande ret til vedtage love, som de ønsker – også hvis det giver mulighed for at skærme formuer og ejerskab. Derfor kan vi ikke bestemme over Panamas lovgivning.

Men lovene i skattelylandene undergraver suveræniteten for andre lande. Når danske borgere unddrager dansk skat via Panama, reduceres de danske skatteindtægter og dermed vores politiske og økonomiske råderum.

Det er forbundet med, hvad forskerne Philipp Genschel og Thomas Rixen kalder ‘trilemmaet’ inden for international skat: Lande vil gerne både bevare deres nationale suverænitet, begrænse skattekonkurrencen med andre lande samt sikre sig at deres virksomheder og privatpersoner ikke dobbeltbesattes (samme indkomst beskattes af to lande).

Men man kan kun opnå to af de tre på samme tid. Hvis Danmark vil begrænse sin konkurrence med andre lande om skatteindtægter og samtidig undgå dobbeltbeskatning, så er vi nødt til at opgive suverænitet.

Man skal dog ikke forvente, at Danmark, Panama eller andre lande uden videre opgiver suverænitet på skatteområdet. Mange lande bruger skattepolitikken aktivt til at tiltrække virksomheder og investeringer fra naboerne. Den gennemsnitlige selskabsskatteprocent for de nuværende EU-lande er således faldet fra 35 procent i 1995 til 22,8 procent i 2015. Og det er i de flestes øjne ganske accepteret skattekonkurrence – i modsætning til det, skattelylande gør.

3. Indflydelsesrige eksperter

Det tredje element er de faglige eksperter, der til daglig sidder i banker, advokatselskaber, rådgivningsvirksomheder og andetsteds. De spiller en aktiv rolle i udviklingen såvel som brugen af og forsøg på at regulere skattely.

Først og fremmest medvirker eksperterne til, at der overhovedet findes skattelylande og -strukturer i dag. De spiller en væsentlig rolle i udviklingen af skattelovgivning i Panama og Jersey, men også i USA og City of London. Det skaber finansielle knudepunkter, som faciliterer hemmeligholdelse og skatteminimering.

Skatteeksperterne rådgiver desuden kunder, der ønsker skattely og fortrolighed. Der findes en utrolig bred palette af services: alt fra skuffeselskaber, til offshoretrusts og brug af Double Dutch Irish Sandwiches.

Bag de farverige navne ligger større eller mindre grad af skatteminimering og hemmeligholdelse, som kan skræddersys til at opnå den ønskede effekt – med den rette rådgivning, selvsagt.

Og endeligt har eksperterne en afgørende indflydelse på internationale indsatser. Når EU og OECD formulerer nye international standarder for gennemsigtighed, så er velansete eksperter de oplagte sparringspartnere. De har den største viden på området og de bedste netværk af kontakter. Men denne tekniske kompetence modererer de politiske muligheder ved at sætte rammerne for, hvilke løsninger, der kan diskuteres og accepteres.

En radikal løsning

Men vi må ikke glemme, at der faktisk findes brugbare politiske målsætninger. Hvis man vil adressere de grundlæggende mekanismer bag skattely og skabe effektive, vedvarende løsninger, så er man nødt til at kigge på radikalt, bindende, harmoniserende, internationalt samarbejde.

Hvis en gruppe af lande forpligter sig til fælles regler for deres skattesystemer, baseret på gennemsigtighed og ligebehandling, så kan man gøre væsentligt indhug i de problemer, der er forbundet med at regulere skattely. Ved at fastlægge fælles regler kan man sikre en level playing field og dermed gøre op med den selektivitet, skattely-initiativer ellers udviser.

Samarbejde kan også bidrage til at overkomme det såkaldte collective action-problem, hvor lande alene har et lille incitament til at gå forrest, mens en gruppe af lande, der bærer byrden fælles, kan sikre, at alle får gavn af indsatsen.

I EU har man i årevis arbejdet med skatteharmonisering via eksempelvis en fælleseuropæisk selskabsskattebase og momsharmonisering. EU er det oplagte sted at begynde, men der er intet til hinder for andre eller bredere konstellationer. Der findes ikke i dag en Verdensskatteorganisation på lige fod med eksempelvis Verdenshandelsorganisationen (WTO), men hvorfor egentlig ikke?

Med et sådant internationalt samarbejde kan man komme langt mod at sikre fair konkurrence mellem virksomheder inden for og på tværs af landegrænser samt enklere skatteregler og færre omkostninger for såvel virksomheder, borgere og myndigheder på skatteområdet.

Det handler med andre ord ikke bare om effektiv problemløsning på skattely. Et radikalt, forpligtende, harmoniserende, internationalt samarbejde kan også bidrage til skabe en sund, velstående økonomi.

Af Rasmus Christensen og Mikkel Mondrup Pedersen

Beyond the numbers: Tax haven issues outside the tax gap

Building on this write-up from last week (in Danish) on the issues posed by tax havens for Denmark, I wanted to put the main points up in English as well, as I feel they are pertinent to the wider debate on tax havens, tax evasion and so forth ongoing right now.

The question that always pops up in these debates is: How big is the problem for us? Now, if you look purely at the economic question of tax lost (the tax gap) from tax evasion in tax havens, the correct answer is: We don’t really know. Due to the nature of the activity in question, it is difficult to impossible to estimate with any precision the assets located ‘offshore’/in tax havens and the tax lost ‘onshore’. As the PanamaPapers show, tax havens and offshore tax constructions are fundamentally about secrecy. That is one reason we keep seeing examples of corrupt politicians and criminals involved in these schemes – they wanted to hide activites from sunlight. Secrecy obscures our ability to view the activities in tax havens, and this is made even more difficult by the breadth and depth of the issue. Tax evasion and associated activities using tax havens and offshore vehicles is very complex; there are many different techniques and schemes, used by many different actors, each of which is difficult to map. There are blind spots everywhere.

So we can’t really say exactly how much money is lost. The estimates available are all, more or less, based on insufficient data. That said, there is certainly good work on the topic. Probably the most recognised estimate is from Gabriel Zucman, who has argued that offshore wealth amounts to $5.9tr (roughly 8% of the gross world product). Zucman estimates that at least two-thirds (and probably more) of these funds are unregistrered, and that at least 3% of the unregistered funds are lost through tax evasion. This gives a total world tax gap from offshore wealth of at least $120bn/year (Zucman’s own “best guess” is around $190bn). And then we have work from OECD and IMF on the tax gap from base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) – which is of course not quite the same, but which may be part of the same issue – which also run in the triple-digit billion dollars a year. Of course, we shouldn’t forget Richard Murphy’s controversial and widely cited $1tr tax lost estimate for the European Union countries.

The key point I want to bring up here is: We don’t know. There may be indications that the numbers are big, but essentially the knowledge we have on this topic is insufficient.

So why should we care about this whole tax haven issue? We don’t even know how much money is being lost. Do we need to even talk about it?

And now we get to the main point of this post: Even if you ignore the purely economic tax gap perspective, there are good reasons to have a public and political discussion about the issue of tax havens and offshore tax evasion. In particular, I want to highlight sovereignty and democracy, fair competition, tax morale, mistrust and financial stability.

First and foremost, tax havens can be viewed as a threat to other countries’ sovereignty. When citizens and companies from Denmark (or Germany or England, etc.) utilize Panama/Delaware/Ireland to evade taxes, the former countries’ tax bases are decreased, reducing collectible tax, which can be seen as a significant influence on the political and economic abilities of those countries. The same effect can occur because countries are forced into a race to the bottom tax competition in order to attract investment and capital. Opinions are divided on tax competition, but it is clear that it places an important constraint on national Parliaments. And this also causes a democratic issue. Legislation in tax havens is designed so that individuals and businesses can circumvent or minimize the effect of laws and regulations elsewhere. In this sense, the ability of other national Parliaments to effectively legislate within their borders is impaired. This may be seen as a democratic problem because tax havens limit the ability of publicly elected officials to do their job and decide the make-up of policies and society, including who pays for what.

Another argument is that tax havens hurt fair competition. When certain companies and individuals have more opportunities to evade or avoid national tax and rules, or to a greater extent takes advantage of such opportunities, everyone else is disadvantaged. When only certain actors in a competitive market are able or willing to effectively use tax minimisation strategies (or circumvent other national legislation), there is a risk of distorted markets and un-level playing fields. We know, for instance, that multinational companies have more opportunities for tax planning than purely national companies. And we also know that Anglo-Saxon companies are more tax aggressive than, e.g., continental European firms. This can hurt certain economic actors directly, and it can hurt fair market competition in general, thereby creating suboptimal economic outcomes.

A third and related point on why the issue of tax havens might be a worthwhile political discussion is tax morale. In short, tax morale is a public’s willingness to pay the right amount of tax in accordance with the rules. It is essentially a measure of tax evasion in a society. If tax morale is high, tax evasion is low, and so is the tax gap. One important factor in determining a society’s tax moral is social influences. (I recommend Martin Hearson’s thorough blog on this topic.) If people are of the perception that other tax payers are cheating, or that the risk of getting caught while cheating is small, or that the system advantages certain people over others, the tax morale will drop. It is fair to wonder if revelations such as the PanamaPapers have this exact effect. And when the tax morale drops, tax evasion is likely to rise as a result, decreasing the tax base and tax collected, which in turn forces politicians to compensate by raising taxes, taxing more activities, or cut down on public services.

A fourth and, again, related argument concerns mistrust. Just like the PanamaPapers and similar leaks can reduce the tax morale in a society because the revelations expose unacceptable behaviour, tax haven activity can also reduce trust in politicians, firms and (groups of) individuals implicated. The public campaigns against onshore banks, tax advisers, politicians and sports stars that we have seen in the wake of the PanamaPapers are apt examples. Whether or not the accused parties have actually done anything illegal doesn’t matter – the reputational damage is substantial. But trust is essential for our economies and our democracies. Less trust in economic and political actors can help create economic and political imbalance. In short, tax haven activity (and revelations thereof) can be unnecessarily costly to our economies and democracies. It can also create lasting societal change (which may be viewed as good or bad). See, e.g., the rise of anti establishment parties around Europe after the financial crisis.

A fifth point is about financial stability. After the financial crisis, there has been broad agreement that tax havens played a significant role in the crisis. Offshore markets and tax havens were said to have contributed to massive shadow banking activity, which was a key factor in increasing the overall level of risk in the financial system. While the recent Panama leaks mostly show individuals’ tax evasion, it also gives us insights into the exact kind of secrecy, offered in Panama and elsewhere, which helps create financial instability. If we can reduce the size of this shadow economy, we might potentially create a more healthy financial system in the process.

In short, there is a number of reasons why you might – even if you look beyond the purely economic tax lost focus – demand a serious public and political discussion on tax havens and their material impact on other countries.

Thoughts on the final EC public country-by-country reporting proposal

A week ago, I blogged on the (at the time) upcoming proposal from the European Commission on public country-by-country reporting, saying it was “in no man’s land”. With the benefit of being a week on, and the actual proposal having been presented on Tuesday, I thought it would be good to reflect on my earlier blog and the proposal itself. It is still early days, of course, and the proposal is months if not years of negotiations away from coming into effect, but still I might provide some initial comments:

Firstly, assessing my previous blog, I may have been wrong on some points. In particular, I had thought there was continued US opposition to the public nature of documentation in the proposal. However, Jonathan Hill, the EU Commissioner for financial stability and financial services, explicitly said at the press hearing that the Commission had consulted with US regulators before publishing the final proposal, indicating that they were, at the least, not opposed.

Furthermore, the accompanying impact assessment on public CBCR made it clear that the proposal is viewed as an alignment with US Dodd-Frank rules, which require certain companies to file country-by-country-like information to the SEC. Clearly, this is an important reason why the EC chose the particular reporting model it did, i.e. public EU-zone + tax haven reporting for EU-based companies (headquartered or with subsidiaries), with group turnover above €750m, of course.

Thus, from the EC perspective (and, probably, the US Treasury perspective), the proposal could be marketed as creating a level playing field between EU and US companies:

I am not sure how accurate that is, given the wide discrepancies between the US rules and the EC CBCR proposal, in particular as Dodd-Frank rules only apply to extractive companies.

Next, I could have overestimated the lack of consistency of the EC proposal with the OECD/B20 BEPS consensus, reached just last year on the exact same topic. The EC would not put forth this proposal if there wasn’t significant support behind it. And it seems that those in the supporting ranks do not care about the OECD agreements from a year past. Or maybe it is exactly the agreement on the template that is underpinning the EC proposal? My intuition was, and still is, that the BEPS consensus would weigh heavily. But even OECD’s “Tax Director” Pascal Saint-Amans sounded rather resigned to the EC proposal in an interview with  TPWeek.

Still, I predicted the straightforward dismissal of the proposal from NGOs, and similarly with business criticism (although it has been rather more quiet than I expected, in particular compared to the BEPS process).

Of course, I had not predicted the inclusion of “tax havens” in the report, but this was only made possible by the PanamaPapers, although the Commissioners were not shy to frame the revision in terms of “their continued work on transparency”.

Now, on to the proposal itself: It was, all in all, as expected. There will be things here and there once people dig through the details, e.g. on definitions of subsidiaries and specific data points. But the main question people are left with is: How on earth is the EU going to agree on a tax haven blacklist? The EC tried in 2015, was heavily criticised, and then had to give it up. And they have tried before, like others before them, often with similar and predicted results. They have given themselves six months to find agreement, having previously failed for years. Tough job.

Blacklisting is fundamentally a political power game hiding behind “objective criteria”. It can be effective (in particular if you are targeting small states), but there are a host of issues associated with it. You can be sure that anyone trying to put UK overseas territories, Switzerland, EU-members Luxembourg or Ireland, or the US on the agenda for the list will find strong opposition. Even if the EU countries do find agreement, there are indications it will be along the lines of the OECD Global Forum work where, currently, only three (four, if you include the US, which the OECD doesn’t) jurisdictions do not comply with agreed standards. So it might be a very slim list, and then what’s the point of going through all the trouble?

In terms of justifying the chosen approach, the Commissioners made some very interesting remarks. Two key reasons came forward: 1. Level playing field (cf. above), and 2. Avoiding double taxation. Now, the second point was highlighted especially with regards to the scope of the reporting, i.e. 3rd country data. It was clear from Jonathan Hill’s remarks that, besides the competitiveness of EU companies, the key concern was that 3rd country tax authorities would get their hands on the data and use it for “improper purposes”. Now, this is rather astonishing. The EU and its Member States have agreed in the OECD BEPS process to provide 3rd country tax authorities with the exact same data, as long as they sign tax treaties or information exchange agreements with, e.g., EU countries. So if the EC is now saying that they are concerned the data will get to 3rd countries, is that not to undermine the entire BEPS framework for filing and sharing? Or was it the thought all along that developing countries should not easily be able to obtain the data? I could also be overinterpreting, but that was my reading of Hill’s comments.

A few other interesting tidbits from my read through the impact assessment:

  • The version made available on the EC website was marked “provisional”, and with good reason. It was based on the original, leaked proposal, where the preferred outcome did not include reporting on tax haven activity. This, to me, is a rather clear indication that the EC is adjusting its impact assessment to fit the preferred political outcome, which, again to my mind, seems somewhat problematic.
  • The OECD actually, formally lobbied the EC to follow the BEPS approach. This is highly unusual. Why would they need to? They coordinate with great frequency. Perhaps the OECD felt the need to formally express concerns over EU’s actions not being in line with BEPS.
  • One reason put forth by the EC why they did not pursue a common, voluntary EU ‘Fair Tax label’ was that the Fair Tax Mark has, so far, attracted very few large companies. EC thinks a voluntary code would not be successful. And they’re probably right, given the limited discussions of the role of tax in the corporate responsibility agenda.
  • The impact assessment also included the figure below, which provides a very good overview of the EC conceptualisation of the public CBCR proposal. It’s interesting to see how they framed the issue in terms of public scrutiny as a driver of corporate responsibility (i.e. not engaging in aggressive tax planning, etc.). They could have chosen a number of other angles, so the choice bears significance.

Cf2QO17W4AEyiBr

Finally, I will add that the impact assessment is a great read for anyone interested in tax politics, tax research, tax economics, transparency, etc. It is an extremely thorough piece of work, with detailed discussions, references and analysis throughout. It provides a useful encyclopedia for understanding many of the topics related to tax and transparency.

And it’s only 162 pages. Happy reading!

Er skattely et problem for Danmark?

Mandag aften bragte DR2 Deadline en debat om skattely og moral med Berlingske Business’ erhvervsredaktør Peter Suppli Benson, IBIS’ internationale chef Lars Koch og CEPOS’ analysechef Otto Brøns-Petersen. Der var dog i realiteten ikke meget debat om moral. I stedet kom debatten hovedsaligt til at handle om to ting: Hvor stort er det her problem egentligt? Og er skattely overhovedet et problem fra et dansk perspektiv?

Desværre nåede debatten ikke langt, før næste indslag rullede over skærmen. Så lad mig tage fat på de to spørgsmål og kigge den viden, vi har:

Først: Hvor stort er problemet med skattely egentligt? Hvor stort er det økonomiske omfang af den finansielle gemmeleg? Her er det rigtige svar: “Vi ved det faktisk ikke“. Det er grundlæggende uhyre svært at estimere, hvor mange penge, der residerer i “skattely”, og hvor mange skattekroner, Danmark og andre lande går glip af. Hele idéen med mange skattely-konstruktioner er hemmeligholdelse og fortrolighed, hvilket Panama-papirerne også viser. Derfor ser man, at mange af de eksempler, der kommer frem, handler om korrupte statsledere og lyssky kriminelle. Man vil gemme pengestrømme og aktiver fra myndighederne og offentligheden. Men problemet er meget bredt i sin natur. Vi har at gøre med et utroligt komplekst emne, der består af mange forskellige skatteplanlægningsteknikker, som bruges af mange forskellige aktører, og som hver især er svære at kortlægge. Der er blinde pletter i stor stil.

Derfor er det umuligt at opgøre omfanget præcist, og vi kan derfor kun forsøge at estimere det på baggrund af tilgængelig data, som nødvendigvis er utilstrækkeligt. Når det er sagt, så findes der anerkendte overslag på globalt plan. Ifølge det mest citerede af slagsen, fra den amerikanske økonom Gabriel Zucman, så løber verdens samlede offshore wealth op i $5,9 billioner (ca. 8% af bruttoverdensproduktet, klodens samlede økonomi), hvoraf mindst to-tredjedele er uregistreret. Zucman har senere anslået, at en værdi svarende til ca. 3% af de uregistrerede midler årligt tabes til decideret skatteunddragelse (primært i form af udeklarerede kapitalindtægter), hvilket giver et samlet skattegab (forskellen mellem de skatter og afgifter, der burde være betalt efter reglerne, og de, der bliver betalt) for disse offshore-midler på mindst $120 mia. (Zucmans eget bud er mere præcist $190 mia.).

Og så er der bredere opgørelser fra internationale organisationer som OECD og IMF, som ikke har forsøgt at estimere skattegabet for skattely specifikt, men eksempelvis har undersøgt skattetab fra såkaldt base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS), der dækker selskabers skatteundgåelse og aggressive skatteplanlægning, hvilket kan være en del af det samlede skattely-omfang. OECD har estimeret, at BEPS giver et globalt skattegab for selskabsskat på $100-240 mia./år, mens IMFs bud, der dog kun gælder udviklingslande, indikerer et tab på $200 mia./år.

Hvis man ser bort fra de store tal på globalt plan og kun kigger på Danmark, så er der også begrænset viden. SKAT har netop afsat godt 4 mio. kr. til et forskningsprojekt, som skal definere hvad skattely er. Det siger lidt om, hvor spæd forskningen er på det her område i Danmark. SKAT har ej heller estimeret skattegabet på skattely-området for Danmark, så vi har ikke en officiel opgørelse fra vores skattemyndigheder. Det samme gælder i øvrigt skattegabet for så vidt angår store multinationale selskaber, og for en praksis som transfer pricing er gabet kun delvist opgjort.

Men der er dog også på dansk niveau estimater. På baggrund af data fra Zucman og hans kollega fra Københavns Universitet, Niels Johannesen, kan det anslås, at danske borgere har mellem 100-150 mia. kr. i skattely-lande. Også ifølge Nationalbanken er vi på den dyre side af 100 mia. kr. Det siger ikke nødvendigvis noget om, hvor mange skattekroner, Danmark går glip af, men det giver en idé om aktivernes størrelsesordenen. Og så er der mere spekulative – og udskældte – rapporter. Den engelske skatteforkæmper Richard Murphy har eksempelvis estimeret, at Danmark går glip af 150 mia. kr. årligt til både skatteunddragelse og –undgåelse. Der er mange spørgsmålstegn ved hans metodetilgang, men det er dog hans tal, der lægger til grund, når EU-Kommissionen proklamerer, at Europa går glip af 7.500 mia. kr. i skatteindtægter om året. Konservativt kan man sige, at der formentlig som minimum er tale om et årligt skattegab på et to-cifret milliardbeløb.

(Man kan man i øvrigt stille spørgsmålstegn ved, om disse opgørelser dækker tilstrækkeligt. Både Zucman/Johannesen, Nationalbanken og de fleste andre opgørelser kigger således primært på værdier i udvalgte små-stater. Men man kunne lige så vel have kigget på aktiver i lande som USA, Holland, Irland og flere andre større lande, som giver adgang til lignende, eller bedre, vilkår for udefrakommende pengestrømme.)

Hvad så med lækager som PanamaPapers – hjælper de os? Lækagerne er brugbare til at give offentligheden et indblik i en verden, som normalt er omgæret af bevidst hemmeligholdelse og fortrolighed. Desværre giver de meget lidt i forhold til at belyse det økonomiske omfang. Panama-papirerne dækker ét advokatselskab i ét land. Det er, kort sagt, kun en dråbe i havet. Og så er det i øvrigt notorisk svært for skattemyndigheder at påvise ulovligheder på baggrund af denne type lækkede data. (Det betyder dog ikke – og dette er en vigtig pointé- at der ikke rent faktisk er tale om ulovligheder.)

Det leder os hen til spørgsmål nr. 2: Er skattely overhovedet et problem fra et dansk perspektiv? Vi ved jo ikke engang helt præcist, hvor mange penge, den danske statskasse går glip af. Og det er ikke entydigt i hvilken udstrækning, der er tale om ulovligheder. Behøver vi så overhovedet beskæftige os med det?

Selv hvis man ser bort fra det rent skatteinddrivelsesmæssige perspektiv, hvor vi ikke ved, men har indikationer på, at størrelsesorden er væsentlig, og kigger alene på det nationale niveau, så er der en række andre elementer ved skattely-fænomenet, som gør, at det kan være en politisk diskussion værdig: Suverænitet og demokrati, fair konkurrence, skattemoral, mistillid og finansiel stabilitet.

Først og fremmest kan man anse skattely som en suverænitetstrusselNår danske borgere og selskaber anvender Panama eller andre steder til at slippe for dansk skat (lovligt eller ulovligt), så reduceres de danske skatteindtægter og man kan dermed sige, at der udøves en markant indflydelse på vores politiske såvel som økonomiske råderum. Den samme effekt kan opstå, fordi Danmark i nogen udstrækning tvinges til at indgå i en stigende aggressiv konkurrence med andre lande, herunder fx. Panama, om at tiltrække investeringer og kapital. Der er forskellige holdninger til denne konkurrence, men det er klart, at Folketingets politiske muligheder påvirkes heraf. Truslen af vores suverænitet er også et demokratisk problem. Lovgivningen i skattelylande er designet, så virksomheder og privatpersoner kan undgå love og regulering i lande som Danmark. På denne måde mister det danske folkestyre en del af sin evne til at styre effektivt inden for egne grænser, især på skatteområdet. Det kan være problematisk for det danske demokrati, fordi det kan ses som at begrænse vores evne til at bestemme, dels hvordan samfundet skal se ud, men især hvem der skal betale for det.

Et andet argument, der kan fremføres, er, at skattely skader fair konkurrence. Når visse selskaber og enkeltpersoner har bedre muligheder for, eller i videre udstrækning benytter sig af muligheder for, at undgå og/eller unddrage national skat, hemmeligholde aktiver og skjule ejerskabstråde, så kommer det, så at sige, “resten” til last. Når kun dele af aktørerne på et konkurrencepræget marked benytter sig af denne type metoder til at sænke sine omkostninger, så er der risiko for en skævvredet konkurrence – der er ikke længere en “level playing field”. Multinationale selskaber har eksempelvis flere muligheder for skatteplanlægning end nationale virksomheder. Det har for nylig har fået de lokale butikker i en lille walisisk landsby til at “flytte offshore” i et forsøg på at konkurrere. Og vi ved, at amerikanske selskaber eksempelvis er mere aggressive med deres skatteplanlægning end fx. danske. Det kan være med til at skade enkeltvirksomheder såvel som den fair markedskonkurrence generelt, og dermed skabe suboptimale økonomiske resultater, også i Danmark.

Et tredje og relateret punkt, hvor skattely kan siges at have indflydelse på Danmark, er skattemoralen. Skattemoralen er vores vilje til at betale den rigtige skat efter gældende regler. Det er en målestok for skatteunddragelsen i et samfund. Hvis skattemoralen er høj, så er unddragelsen og skattegabet lavt. En væsentlig faktor i skattemoralen er social indflydelse. Hvis folk opfatter, at andre skatteydere snyder, eller at chancen for at blive fanget i snyd er lille, eller at systemet behandler folk forskelligt, så falder skattemoralen. Det er ganske nærliggende, at afsløringer som PanamaPapers har denne effekt. Og når skattemoralen falder, så stiger skatteunddragelsen som helhed, hvilket tvinger politikerne til at kompensere ved at hæve skatterne, beskatte flere aktiviteter, eller skære ned på de offentlige ydelser.

En fjerde, og igen relateret pointé, er mistillid. Ligesom at skandaler som PanamaPapers kan reducere skattemoralen fordi den afslørede praksis anses for uacceptabel, kan de også reducere tilliden til politikere, selskaber og de persongrupper, der er impliceret. De offentlige kampagner mod Nordea og Jyske Bank i Danmark og mod politikere i Island, Malta og Storbritannien er højaktuelle eksempler. Uanset om de anklagede parter rent faktisk har ageret ulovligt, så er skaden til deres ry substantiel. Men tillid er helt essentiel for vores økonomi og vores demokrati. Mindre tillid til økonomiske og politiske aktører kan være med til at skabe økonomisk og politisk ubalance. Det kan kort sagt blive unødvendigt dyrt for økonomien og for demokratiet, og det kan skabe vedvarende forandringer i vores samfund, som vi eksempelvis har set med den voksende politiske anti-establishment-bevægelse rundt i Europa efter krisen. Det bør her indskydes, at afsløringerne i sig selv selvfølgelig kan ses som en stor demokratisk gevinst. Det er ikke afsløringerne som sådan, der nødvendigvis er skadelige, men den aktivitet, der lægger bag.

Et femte punkt, hvor skattely kan siges at have indflydelse på Danmark, vedrører den finansielle stabilitet. I kølvandet på den seneste globale finansielle krise var der bred enighed om, at skattely spillede en væsentlig rolle i krisen. Offshore-markeder og skattely-konstruktioner siges at have bidraget til massiv shadow banking aktivitet, og dermed været en afgørende faktor i at øge det samlede risiko-niveau i det finansielle system. De afsløringer, vi ser i PanamaPapers, handler primært om individer, men lækagen viser lige præcis den form for hemmeligholdelse og fortrolighed, som skattely-lande tilbyder person- såvel som selskabskunder, og som er med til at øge den finansielle ustabilitet. Hvis man kan nedbringe størrelsen af denne skyggeøkonomi, så kan man potentielt også være med til at skabe et sundere nationalt og især internationalt finansielt system.

Der er kort sagt en lang række grunde til, at man som dansker og dansk politiker kan retfærdigøre et fokus på PanamaPapers, skattely og de relaterede aktiviteter og problemer – også selvom man ser bort fra det rene økonomiske skattegab (som vi altså ikke har klare tal for).

(Skrevet med bidrag fra Mikkel Mondrup Pedersen)

The EU public country-by-country reporting proposal: In no man’s land?

On Tuesday, the European Commission will present its final proposal for public country-by-country reporting, alongside its impact assessment. We know quite a lot about this proposal, given that it was leaked a few weeks back. It is based on the OECD BEPS template for country-by-country reporting, but has key differences from the rest of the recommendations. In particular:

  • The CBCR report is to be made public. (BEPS recommendation is only to file with tax authorities, who can then exchange the report.)
  • 3rd country (non-EU) data is to be aggregated, rather than broken down country-by-country. (BEPS recommendation is for data broken down country-by-country).
  • Other smaller changes

Tons of reactions have ensued, covering every range of the positive-to-negative spectrum. Here, I will try to formulate my own thoughts on the leaked proposal, from the perspective of someone who has closely studied the evolution of country-by-country reporting and its policy processes over the past few years:

My overarching impression is that the proposal is in somewhat of a no man’s land.

I will explain what I mean below, but first I should note that the leaked EC proposal is exactly that, a proposal. And an unfinished one at that. It’s a draft. That means there is still scope for changes before the publication. In fact, the leak might be purposeful on side of policy-makers, in order to manage expectations and get a better grasp of the reactions of stakeholders, as a basis for potential changes before or after publication. The Commission may also have used the opportunity to flag a real or carefully constructed position in order to guide the direction of the policy debate going forward. (This was a tool used, for instance, by OECD policy-makers in the BEPS process).

But back to the no man’s land:

In terms of political support, we know there is backing from some EU Member States and certainly from EU institutions (EC and EP in particular) for the type of transparency proposed in the draft. However, we also know there are reservations among key EU Member States for publication of the data contained in the country-by-country report.

And we know that this proposal is directly opposed to the hard-fought OECD/G20 BEPS Action 13 consensus, agreed and endorsed by OECD members and G20 countries – many of which are EU states – just one year ago. It also sticks in the opposite direction, in terms of publicatioon, from the EU non-public country-by-country reporting Directive, which was presented just two months ago(!).

And we know the Treasury of the US, the EU’s largest trading partner and key partner in the OECD BEPS project and other international tax reform efforts, is strongly against publication of the country-by-country report.

We also know that NGOs and tax justice campaigners, are wildly unhappy with public country-by-country reporting, a priority campaign point for years, being restricted to the EU zone (they’d want to see activity broken down for countries deemed tax havens, etc.).

And we might say that developing countries would not have much use for a report that aggregates 3rd country numbers (which includes, of course, both developing countries, smaller financial centres and large economies), as it would not reveal much detail on the activities pertinent to developing countries. (Although you might also argue that developing countries care less about public CBCR than, e.g., tax administration capacity-building and other issues.)

Businesses, meanwhile, largely favour (relatively) narrower reporting requirements and certainly not public reporting, as the OECD BEPS Action 13 process and recent years’ EU-level debates have shown. So the proposal does not seem to come close to their interests either.

And I think it is fair to say that, generally, tax lawyers and other tax professionals have not been particularly positive towards public reporting.

Now, the European Commission is, of course, not in the business of legislating based on US or OECD interests, developing country interests, NGO interests, business interests nor tax lawyer claims as such. First and foremost, it is tasked with proposing legislation by and for the group of EU Member States. However, it would be wrong to assume that businesses, NGOs, developing countries, key trading partners and tax experts are considered EU rule-making.

This is, I concede, to simplify things greatly. The actors concerned with public country-by-country reporting are not inherently cut into neat categories – there are shades of grey all along the spectrum. But I it is a fair conclusion to say many of the actors involved in the country-by-country reporting debate would find the EC proposal unsatisfactory.

So is it all just a big compromise – hitting the middle ground, so to say? Maybe. Or maybe hard, perceived, material interests are not all that matter in EU rule-making. Ideas might matter too, in the tax arena. As Martin Hearson discussed recently, the power of rhetoric should not be underestimated in international tax. And neither should the expertise and networks of professionals involved in the technical policy process. Could these explain the EC public CBCR proposal? Is the European Commission on the right track in the ideational battleground of international tax transparency? Maybe. It can certainly ride along on the transparency wave, most recently boosted by the #PanamaPapers. It may work, although there’s not a strong connection between the Panama leak and CBCR. And has the EC public CBCR proposal been brokered successfully by well-connected and knowledge experts? Maybe, but my impression is “probably not”. The EC usually do their groundwork well, but this time it doesn’t seem to align with the BEPS Action 13 consensus, which I would argue was successfully negotiated in the technical community.

So, can a proposal seemingly in such a political no man’s land succeed? Or could the analysis above be wrong on key points, and the proposal will smoothly sail to implementation? The proposal is still to be formally presented, negotiated, amended, agreed, enacted and implemented, so there is a long way to go. I am looking particularly forward to following its route.

 

What change, if any, might the #PanamaPapers bring?

A day and a half has gone by with the #PanamaPapers. A virtual media storm has ensued, and we are still in the eye of the hurricane. Eventually, the dust will settle and our gazes will go to the future. The public, the media and politicians will be looking to settle accounts and take action.

We might expect significant change to come about. You might say previous leaks have led to real change in the international tax landscape, in particular as sources of new transparency rules.

Indeed, fast moving crises, such as this, cause calls for rapid political action, potentially sidestepping the often meticulous policy-making process. The #PanamaPapers, with so many wealthy and powerful people implicated, are guaranteed to drive public outrage.

In the stories that I have read, the prevalent tax planning mechanism in the stories is individual’s utilisation of Panama companies, funds, etc. to avoid/evade tax liability by conceding control of assets on paper whilst maintaining actual control through power of attorney, which are kept secret in Panama. (The legality may be difficult to ascertain based on the leaked data, but it is significant nonetheless). These and other techniques revealed are not new and should not surprise. The burning platform for change, in my view, comes from the fame and scale of revelations.

Based on the information that has come forward thus far, I imagine several potential non-exclusive policy avenues that are likely to be discussed in the coming days and weeks:

Further transparency rules

Given the secretive nature of the tax planning techniques revealed, cries for transparency will come (and have come already, in force). Building on existing streams in international tax law, public global and national beneficial ownership registries will be demanded to ensure public knowledge of who ultimately controls companies, as will (automatic) information exchange of tax information from Panama and other tax havens to provide tax authorities will the necessary information for risk assessments and audits. In short, people and politicians will want to be able to see the money and ownership trails across the globe. As Alex Cobham highlighted, public transparency (rather than, say, transparency for the authorities) will be particularly sought after given that the #PanamaPapers implicate so many world leaders.

One transparency initiative favoured by tax justice campaigners, which I do not think will get a bump from the #PanamaPapers, however, is public country-by-country reporting. I was surprised to see campaigners use the opportunity to reaffirm their stance on public CBCR, rather than focusing on other policy avenues. In my view, public coutry-by-country reporting would not go very far in addressing the issues revealed by the leaks.

Power pressure for tax haven reform

When international policy communities first started paying attention to tax havens, the most popular policy was to power pressure certain tax havens, coercing small (not large) countries to converge to international standards. And it was fairly successful. Even Panama, one of the remaining eyesores from a transparency perspective, has moved significantly towards OECD standards, although, as the #PanamaPapers show, issues remain. Already, I have seen cries for the global power players, in particular the EU and the US, to blacklist (a favourite pressure tool) tax havens that do not comply, with trade sanctions the seemingly favoured rhetoric (for now). Blacklisting has been sort of a forgotten tool over the past few years, given that smaller countries have largely complied with previously demands. However, the EU revamped its blacklisting work last year, although there is still no EU-wide agreement on the approach. Might there be a comeback for the bark?

More resources to tax authorities

A theme I have tweeted much about, which is sure to surface again, is the resources available to tax authorities. In particular, number of employees. It seems likely that politicians and advocates will argue that to combat tax evasion of the kind (probably) visible in the #PanamaPapers, tax authorities need entirely new more resources. To uncover complex webs and chains of financial and ownership flows requires significant time and effort. Many tax authorities across the world are, by their own admission, struggling for resources to keep up with control activities (the UK HMRC and Danish SKAT are good examples). Post-Panama Papers, I think it is likely we will see more demands for extra tax authority resources to reserve the global trend of cutdowns.

Stricter responsibility on middle men

Banks, tax advisers and others involved in the intermediation of tax planning might also see public and political anger directed at them. As the Panama Papers show, banks and law firms in particular (I’m sure there will be others implicated in due time) play a key role in facilitating tax planning activity in Panama. Questions are now being asked of the ethics and morality of local, onshore advisers when promoting offshore activity that may reduce onshore taxes. In response to previous scandals, the Danish government, for instance, in 2014 demanded a new code of conduct for tax advisers. In light of the Panama revelations, we might see similar calls for a greater responsibility on the part of intermediaries.

Lower taxes

Finally, it is likely that we will see calls for lower taxes in general from certain economists. From an economics perspective, some would argue that tax evasion and avoidance can be dulled by lowering taxes, so as to reduce the incentive to and value of tax planning (legal or illegal). Whether and to what extent that is the case is up for the debate, but I think it will be a popular response given the complexity and scale of the Panama leaks, the likelihood of similar activity in other tax havens, and the simplicity of the proposed solution.

 

These are my initial impressions. There is no way to predict the future, of course, but I think these provide a good guideline for assessing likely policy debates in the coming time.

As always, comments, questions and input, including other potential policy responses, are welcome!