Base Erosion and Profit Shifting: Why Corporate Tax Receipts are in the Toilet Despite Rising Profits
I saw an interesting article today by the President and Publisher of Tax Analysts in which he drew attention to the role of tax professionals in the growing crisis over reduced corporate tax receipts in a time of record corporate profits. He focused his audience’s attention on a recently released study by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (“OECD”) which described the need for the international tax community to solve the problem of base erosion and profit shifting (“BEPS”). Sure, that’s a lot acronyms to the uninitiated, but at its heart this is a giant shell game of “where’s the income?”, and unfortunately for those of us living in civilized society, the offshore tax haven shell is where it’s at. Large multinationals frequently use abusive strategies, some of highly questionable legality, to minimize their worldwide tax bill. Many politicians have made hay over US based multinationals reporting billions of dollars of income in e.g. the British Virgin Islands, and hardly any here where their employees and a large portion of their sales actually are.
We agree that for the most part companies abide by, and optimize their behavior for, the rules that are set for them. However, the grey line is often crossed. In our Ferraro 500 last year we noticed that reserves for uncertain tax positions exceeded total US corporate tax collections*, and that’s just for the Fortune 500 companies. While moving the line to collect more revenue (while maintaining international competitiveness) and to make it more of a black line than a grey line should be the goal of legislators, governments need to get better at enforcing the existing rules. Utilizing valuable information obtained from knowledgeable whistleblowers should be a critical component of that enforcement. Without enforcement, a change in the rules is meaningless.
*Fiscal 2011 Fortune 500: Profits $824 billion & Reserves $187 billion; Total IRS Corporate Tax Collections $181 billion. Whereas in Fiscal 2010, Fortune 500: Profits $708 billion & Reserves $197 billion; Total IRS Corporate Tax Collections $191 billion.