June 7, 2019
They’re talking about a revolution in the tax world.
At a Tokyo summit this weekend, G20 finance ministers are expected to give a thumbs-up to a “road map” proposing various ways to upend the system that lets many of the world’s corporate giants get away with paying little-to-no tax.
“They’re extraordinarily radical,” Reuven Avi-Yonah, a tax law professor at the University of Michigan, said of the proposals. “Even the most conservative ones would have seemed almost inconceivable, I would say, as short as five years ago.”
Five years ago, the world’s powers were also discussing reforms to the global tax system. After two years of debate between 2013 and 2015 at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, they passed some useful changes—for example, a system to force multinationals to tell authorities how much they earn in each country and one to tackle tax evasion by the super rich. But reformists were left frustrated that the OECD, often dubbed a “club of rich countries,” failed to tackle loopholes that allow behemoths like Apple and Microsoft to avoid shelling out billions by booking their profits in tax havens. “They refused to countenance such radical change,” Avi-Yonah said of previous discussions.
Today, however, none of the proposals submitted to the G20 aim to keep the profit-shifting status quo. One of the main reasons that has changed is India.
India is “fed up”
The world’s largest democracy is leading dozens of developing nations, which feel digital giants and others should pay taxes in countries where they have hundreds of millions of users. After years of the OECD asking it to play along with international negotiations, New Delhi has made a number of unilateral moves that indicate it is “fed up with the OECD and that it cannot wait any longer,” said Ajitesh Kir, a doctoral candidate at Michigan and co-author with Avi-Yonah of an upcoming paper on India’s tax proposals.
Its most bombastic move came this April. India offered up an 84-page “public consultation” paper, which explored ways to forgo the tortuous international process and simply forcing multinationals to pay some taxes there. It proposes taxing companies partly on where they have economic activity, rather than just where they locate their headquarters or intellectual property. Kir thinks prime minister Narendra Modi’s newly re-elected government may well pass these changes in a matter of months.
The paper amounts to a loaded weapon that New Delhi can place gently in front of them at future negotiations, implicitly demanding: “Send more tax revenue to developing countries, or we’ll simply pass this law on our own.” Many analysts expect that would inspire other developing countries—which rely much more heavily on corporate taxation than Western ones—to adopt similar plans, rupturing the international tax system from a current state where most countries are aligned on how they tax multinationals.
It would be an unhappy outcome for corporate giants, who enjoy the profit-shifting status quo, but would prefer that any changes result in a one-size-fits-all system. Having every country put in place a different unilateral measure would “be distortive of trade. It would increase tax disputes. It would negatively affect multinationals,” said Tommaso Faccio, head of secretariat at ICRICT, a commission pushing for tax reform, who supports India’s efforts.
OECD tax chief Pascal Saint-Amans told Quartz that “the threat of unilateral measures is all around,” but insisted it is just one factor in the negotiations. He warned developing countries about playing with fire: “If you’re a very big country like the United States, you can protect yourself. But if you’re a midsized or developing country, you get screwed by unilateral measures—you lose business or don’t protect yourself because companies have ways of using other routes [to avoid taxes],” he said.
India is leading a global charge to make corporate giants pay fair tax