Saturday, 30 March 2013

US to OECD: target your anti-BEPS regime carefully

This is rich. The US wants the OECD to not go overboard on the BEPS thing.  From Tax Analysts [gated], Treasury International Tax Counsel Danielle Rolfes said that the Treasury wants to
"make sure that any suggested solutions are targeted at addressing the source of the problems and don't go beyond the scope of the BEPS project."

We are talking about a country that can't seem to distinguish between an au pair financing a trip to Europe and a billionaire stashing money in a series of hidden offshore accounts. Yet there's more:
...The BEPS project carries a risk of "scope creep," Rolfes said. ... "We want to stay mindful of what BEPS is and make sure that in trying to solve those problems we don't come up with solutions that are broader than necessary or that have other implications, particularly with respect to the allocation of taxing rights between two taxing jurisdictions," she said.
...While Treasury endorses the sense of urgency around the BEPS project and the feeling that the problems must be fixed, Rolfes said that U.S. officials intend to be thoughtful about how the rules should or should not be changed.  
I'm not sure what is meant by being thoughtful. Being thoughtful might mean thinking through what you need to change, how you mean to change it, how you avoid over-breadth and under-breadth at the same time, how much everyone has to spend in order to get the result you seek, and whether what you write as rules can be coherently implemented in practice.

Perhaps Rolfes is worried that if the OECD looks too closely at the allocation of taxing rights between two taxing jurisdictions, the world will see clearly that (1) the US is the most overreaching in this respect given that it taxes on the basis of citizenship and (2) the global North has long arranged the allocation to favor itself at the expense of the global South.  

Maybe it is just that Rolfes does not appreciate the finger pointing at US companies:
"It's not just U.S. companies that engage in BEPS. Moreover, all agree that the BEPS we are primarily concerned with is driven by tax planning that is perfectly legal."
Rolfes called some of the moralizing on this issue "ironic," though I think she means "hypocritical." It might not not sound right for the Treasury to use that word when talking about tax competition, so maybe this is carefully chosen rhetoric:
Rolfes [added]that while much of BEPS income lands in zero-tax jurisdictions, some of the elements of tax laws that enable BEPS are attributable to tax competition that's occurring between the same taxing jurisdictions that are trying to solve BEPS.
"This tax competition itself contributes to BEPS," she said.
She acknowledges that "many of the current international standards, such as those relating to transfer pricing and tax treaties, have been developed over many years by U.S. tax policymakers working with their counterparts in the OECD."  She says "We at Treasury are humbled ...And we want to make sure that any solutions we have are targeted to that problem and not to other problems."

Treasury economist Michael McDonald added that
The BEPS project should clearly undertake a cost-benefit analysis of the possible alternatives...clearly I think if the BEPS project is going to be successful, one has to weigh the benefits of the current [OECD] Transfer Pricing Guidelines, in addition to the costs."
Tax Analysts economist Martin A. Sullivan can't understand why the US is focused on the BEPS thing at all, since Dave Camp has a proposal for switching the U.S. to a territorial system:
"To me, that seems much more important than an OECD initiative. I don't understand how the two are going to work together. If Chairman Camp achieves his goal by the end of the year of putting the entire international tax system up for a vote, shouldn't that be our starting point?"
Rolfes responded that the BEPS project would still matter even if the US changed to territorial, since such a switch would not in any way make profit shifting less an issue. She also had some interesting things to say about participation and influence in tax policymaking via the OECD:
Treasury needs to be engaged in a significant tax policy initiative like BEPS, which would be undertaken by other countries with or without the U.S. ...Having a seat at the OECD table provides the United States the opportunity to be a part of the dialogue and to have an influence on how international tax rules are developed ... [and] other countries are not going to wait for the conclusion of the U.S. Congress's reform debate.
So the US sees the OECD as playing an important role, and one that could have negative impacts on US policymaking choices absent Treasury's involvement. And this exchange shows that at least some at the Treasury are capable of articulating at least a sense of understanding the concept of regulatory overbreadth. But you could interpret these statements as at best tepid support for the OECD's initiative, at worst a foreshadowing of resistance to come. The US torpedoed the OECD's efforts on harmful tax practices, only to come up with the much more expansive and awe-inspiring FATCA on its own. If the US torpedoes BEPS, what will be in store for the taxation of multinationals? It should be a fascinating ride.

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