Starbux redux

October 19, 2012

So the original Reuters investigation into Starbucks’ tax position reported that

There is no suggestion Starbucks has broken any laws. Indeed, the group’s overall tax rate – including deferred taxes which may or may not be paid in the future – was 31 percent last year, much higher than the 18.5 percent average rate that campaign group Citizens for Tax Justice says large U.S. corporations paid in recent years.

But on overseas income, Starbucks paid an average tax rate of 13 percent, one of the lowest in the consumer goods sector.

After the press furore earlier in the week there was also, as you would expect these days, a bit of a twitter flurry about the circumstances around the whole position.  The point I hadn’t picked up on earlier was that the 31% tax figure in the US consolidated accounts may not represent tax actually paid.  It might simply be a provision for the tax that they would have to pay if they eventually distributed the profits back to the US.

Which is the same as paying it, right?  Just paying it next year rather than this?

Well no, actually, or at least not necessarily.

In 2004 there was a weaselly-named piece of US legislation called the the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004.  The premise was that, if US-based multinationals repatriated the profits they were keeping offshore they would use the money to create jobs, no, honest, guv.  So wouldn’t it be a good idea to offer them a tax break to do so?  Instead of charging them, say, 35% tax, just charge them 5 and a quarter per cent.  Because, you know, half a loaf is better than none, so 5.25% of a squillion is a lot better than 35% of nothing, and look at the jobs that would follow!

Yes, look.  Apparently – and I’m shocked, shocked! to read it – the companies took the money AND cut jobs at the same time.  Stellar!  As the Congressional Research Service politely puts it,

While empirical evidence is clear that this provision resulted in a significant increase in repatriated earnings, empirical evidence is unable to show a corresponding increase in domestic investment or employment.

I don’t know much about US politics except what I see on the news or read online, but I gather that there is lobbying afoot to introduce a similar tax break again…

But I stress, this isn’t about Starbucks or any other multinational.  It’s about regulatory capture of nation states by multinationals, so that tax arbitrage – finding the jurisdiction with the lowest effective tax rate and putting your profitable operations there – becomes a legitimate way of structuring your business.  And for governments it becomes routine to be offering a ludicrously low tax rate in the hope that multinationals who relocate will at least let you have crumbs from their table in sales taxes (VAT)  and the personal taxes you can levy on their employees (PAYE).

But as Richard Murphy points out, this is privileging large multinationals over indigenous small businesses.

Hmm… has anyone else noticed the disappearance of the Small Firms Impact Test from the BIS website since Michael Fallon took over from Mark Prisk?  (Was it something I said?)  I put in an FoI request a while ago to see the minutes of the cross Whitehall Better Regulation, consultation and economist networks’ meetings and am being fobbed off that they need time to think about it, because it may be exempt under the “formulation of government policy” exclusion, apparently.

What policy could they possibly be formulating?

Well, the coalition have already thrown away the rules about consultation, quietly slipping a new set of guidelines onto the Cabinet Office website.  And, if you look very, very closely at the last line (item 9) of this very boring and obscure document about Changes to Impact Assessment and Regulatory Policy Scrutiny, you’ll see that

A full update to the IA Guidance will be issued in the autumn, following the conclusions from the Better Regulation Framework Review.

Google “Better Regulation Framework Review” and you’ll find one hit, the link above (actually you may now get two, one being this blog)   But my point is you won’t find a public announcement of any such review.  Who’s conducting it?  What external input are they having into it?  And who will lay me a tenner on the Small Firms Impact Test making it into the next version?  Interesting times!

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