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Category: Tax

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Tall Latte with a Double Shot of Tax Avoidance

StarbucksLogoIntellectual property has become a major tax-avoidance vehicle for multinationals. Front-page articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have detailed how IP-heavy companies like Apple, Google, and Big Pharma play games with their IP to avoid taxes on a massive scale. For example, Apple uses IP-based tax-avoidance strategies to reduce its effective tax rate to approximately 8%, well below the statutory 35% corporate tax rate (and well below most middle-class Americans’ tax rates).

Two characteristics of IP make it the ideal tax-avoidance vehicle. First, the uniqueness of every piece of IP makes its fair market value extremely hard to establish, allowing taxpayers to choose whatever valuations result in the least tax. Second, unlike workers or physical assets like factories or stores, IP can easily be moved to tax havens via mere paperwork.

But Starbucks is a bricks-and-mortar retailer dependent upon physical presence in high-tax countries. It wouldn’t seem to be in a position to use these IP-based tax tricks. Yet in an excellent, eye-opening paper, Edward Kleinbard (USC) delves into the strategies that Starbucks uses to substantially reduce its worldwide tax burden. Most interestingly, Starbucks puts IP like trademarks, proprietary roasting methods, operational expertise, and store trade dress into low-tax jurisdictions. Kleinbard cogently observes that the ability of a bricks-and-mortar retailer like Starbucks to play such games demonstrates how deep the flaws run in current U.S. and international tax policy.

 

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The IRS Scandal, Property Rules, and Liability Rules

IRS LogoRegardless of your take on the IRS targeting conservative groups applying for 501(c)(4) status, the episode demonstrates once again that Congress, the Administration, and the media have multiple avenues to pressure the IRS to act or to reconsider earlier actions. This susceptibility to political pressure has broad, counterintuitive implications for how to best deter violations of requirements throughout tax law.

In their path-breaking law & economics article, Calabresi & Melamed observed that every entitlement can be protected by either a property rule (e.g. injunctions, disgorgement of profits) or a liability rule (e.g. compensatory damages). The same is true in tax law. When a taxpayer violates a requirement for a favorable tax status, the tax code either imposes additional tax proportionate to the harm (a liability rule) or imposes the draconian penalty of taking away the tax status entirely (a property rule).

Which rule is most likely to deter a well-connected organization from violating a requirement imposed on it by tax law? At first glance, property rules (i.e. yanking the organization’s favorable tax status) appear to be the most effective deterrent. But the IRS routinely hesitates to take this draconian step, which would result in complaints to Congress, the Administration, the media, and other organizations. Even if the tax code, as written, imposes this property-rule remedy, the IRS can and often does decline to impose it in practice.

Examples of this problem abound throughout tax law. My favorite example is a real estate investment trust (or “REIT”) that had its IPO in 2007 and revealed in its SEC filing that it was in clear violation of one of the requirements (I.R.C. § 856(a)(2)) to qualify as a REIT for tax purposes. How brazen! But what was the IRS to do? The requirement is protected by a property rule: the only remedy available to the IRS was to take away the REIT’s favorable tax status entirely. This would have been draconian. All the REIT’s shareholders would have complained to their congresspersons, the financial press would have run stories, and the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts would have raised a ruckus. The IRS didn’t dare impose this property-rule remedy. The IRS did nothing, and the REIT suffered no consequences for the violation.

Would this REIT have been so brazen if the requirement had, instead, been protected by a liability rule, which would merely have imposed additional tax proportional to the violation? Almost certainly not. And that is the counterintuitive result: liability rules are often more effective in practice than draconian property rules in deterring taxpayers from violating tax-law requirements.

The relative merits of property rules and liability rules in tax law are explored in depth by this forthcoming Virginia Law Review article.

 

Money Laundries

I was recently reading a Money Laundering Threat Assessment (from 2005), and the following lines came up on p. 49:

[T]he trust laws of some jurisdictions have aided money launderers in their use of trusts to conceal identity and to perpetrate fraud. In certain jurisdictions, such as the Cook Islands, Nevis, and Niue, the trust laws no longer require the names of the settlor and the beneficiaries to be placed in the trust deed, permit settlors to retain control over the trust, and allow trusts to be revocable and of unlimited duration.

My question is: why is this even called a trust? Shouldn’t it bear some other name? At least Liechtenstein has the decency to call its creepy money-hiding methods “Anstalts.”

The larger consequences here are terrifying. The wealth defense industry has created an environment where all manner of swindlers, thieves, and terrorists can hide ill-gotten gains. As a forthcoming University of Pennsylvania piece by Shima Baradaran, Michael Findley, Daniel Nelson, and J.C. Sharman puts it:

On the whole, forming an anonymous shell company is as easy as ever, despite increased regulations following 9/11. The results are disconcerting and demonstrate that we are much too far from a world that is safe from terror.

I nevertheless expect that most of the centomillionaire and billionaire class will continue to fight efforts to crack down on shell companies and trusts, and will find ample “help” to argue their case. Perhaps someone will even pen an ode to financial privacy. Meanwhile, we have no idea what taxes may be due from trillions of dollars in offshore wealth, or to what purposes it is directed.

Expect to hear many more stories on this issue. The stakes could not be higher. As Liu Xiaobo has stated, corruption is the “officialization of the criminal and the criminalization of the official.” Persisting even in a world of brutal want and austerity-induced suffering, tax havenry epitomizes that sinister merger.

Carried Interest Loophole: Is Anyone Still Defending It (for Free)?

The New York Times ran an excellent opinion piece yesterday on the bizarre carried interest loophole, tailor-made to nearly halve the tax rate for a tiny sliver of financiers:

Millions of general partners in investment funds receive carried-interest income when they earn profits for their clients. Since these partners do not have to risk any of their own capital, carried interest is really a taxpayer-subsidized fee for managing their clients’ money . . . . No other affluent Americans enjoy this benefit. A brain surgeon, stockbroker, corporate lawyer or actor will have to pay the new top marginal rate percent, while a general partner who manages other people’s money pays, on carried-interest income, only the 20 percent rate on long-term capital gains. . . . The difference in revenue to the United States government when this combined income is taxed at 20 percent rather than at 39.6 percent is about $11 billion annually.

I imagine there are plenty of think tanks happy to characterize this discrepancy as a reflection of (their donors’) wisdom and free enterprise at work. I vaguely recall some academics defending it years ago. But is anyone still doing so, given that we now know how lavishly the finance sector is subsidized, and how tax policy exacerbates inequality in so many other ways?

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Volume 60, Issue 2 (December 2012)

Volume 60, Issue 2 (December 2012)


Articles

The Battle Over Taxing Offshore Accounts Itai Grinberg 304
The Structural Exceptionalism of Bankruptcy Administration Rafael I. Pardo & Kathryn A. Watts 384
Patients’ Racial Preferences and the Medical Culture of Accommodation Kimani Paul-Emile 462


Comments

“Not Susceptible to the Logic of Turner”: Johnson v. California and the Future of Gender Equal Protection Claims From Prisons Grace DiLaura 506
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The Boy Scouts and Discrimination

Imagine the Boys Scouts of America discriminated on the basis of race. In this hypothetical, no black parents are allowed to lead troops, and no black children are even allowed to join them. If your child were eligible, would you let him become a Boy Scout? My guess is that the answer would be no. There are plenty of alternative extracurricular activities available, including other scouting clubs, so why belong to a racist one whose policies stigmatize innocent children and perpetuate hostility towards a group based on a completely irrelevant characteristic? In fact, you might not want to support them in any way. The federal government certainly does not: groups that discriminate on the basis of race are ineligible for government funding and cannot qualify as a tax exempt organization. In short, no government money would flow to them, not even in the form of tax breaks. As an expressive association, the Boy Scouts might have a constitutional right to discriminate, but that doesn’t mean that our tax dollars should help them.

In recognition of National Coming Out Day on October 11, let’s tweak the hypothetical and substitute sexual orientation for race. Shouldn’t the results be the same?

 

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Escrow of Capital Gains Taxes on Stocks and Bonds

Here’s a question for tax experts out there.  Why don’t brokerages escrow capital gains taxes in a manner similar to a bank escrow of property taxes on a mortgage?  It would seem to make sense from the perspective of the customer (you wouldn’t have to pay capital gains as a lump sum every quarter or every year), and from the perspective of the IRS (they could more efficiently collect taxes from a small group of brokerage firms and could, in theory, collect them in real time)?  Is there any reason why this practice is not used?

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Stanford Law Review Online: The Dirty Little Secret of (Estate) Tax Reform

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Edward McCaffery entitled The Dirty Little Secret of (Estate) Tax Reform. Professor McCaffery argues that Congress encourages and perpetuates the cycle of special interest spending on the tax reform issue:

Spoiler alert! The dirty little secret of estate tax reform is the same as the dirty little secret about many things that transpire, or fail to transpire, inside the Beltway: it’s all about money. But no, it is not quite what you think. The secret is not that special interests give boatloads of money to politicians. Of course they do. That may well be dirty, but it is hardly secret. The dirty little secret I come to lay bare is that Congress likes it this way. Congress wants there to be special interests, small groups with high stakes in what it does or does not do. These are necessary conditions for Congress to get what it needs: money, for itself and its campaigns. Although the near certainty of getting re-elected could point to the contrary, elected officials raise more money than ever. Tax reform in general, and estate tax repeal or reform in particular, illustrate the point: Congress has shown an appetite for keeping the issue of estate tax repeal alive through a never-ending series of brinksmanship votes; it never does anything fundamental or, for that matter, principled, but rakes in cash year in and year out for just considering the matter.

He concludes:

On the estate tax, then, it is easy to predict what will happen: not much. We will not see a return to year 2000 levels, and we will not see repeal. The one cautionary note I must add is that, going back to the game, something has to happen sometime, or the parties paying Congress and lobbyists will wise up and stop paying to play. But that has not kicked in yet, decades into the story, and it may not kick in until more people read this Essay, and start to watch the watchdogs. Fat chance of that happening, too, I suppose. In the meantime, without a meaningful wealth-transfer tax (the gift and estate taxes raise a very minimal amount of revenue and may even lose money when the income tax savings of standard estate-planning techniques, such as charitable and life insurance trusts, are taken into account), one fundamental insight of the special interest model continue to obtain. Big groups with small stakes—that is, most of us—continue to pay through increasingly burdensome middle class taxes for most of what government does, including stringing along those “lucky” enough to be members of a special interest group. It’s a variant of a very old story, and it is time to stop keeping it secret.

Read the full article, The Dirty Little Secret of (Estate) Tax Reform by Edward McCaffery, at the Stanford Law Review Online.

Is Harry Reid Engaging in Libel by Implication?

Harry Reid has sparked an uproar by suggesting that Mitt Romney paid no taxes. On the floor of the Senate, Reid stated, “The word’s out that he [Romney] hasn’t paid any taxes for 10 years.” Glenn Kessler summarizes Reid’s follow-up on the claim:

He originally told the Huffington Post that a person who had invested with Bain Capital had called his office and told him this. Then, he told reporters in Nevada that “I have had a number of people tell me that.” Reid has refused to identify his source (or sources).

Kessler notes that, “Without seeing Romney’s taxes, we cannot definitively prove Reid incorrect.” He still faults Reid for making the accusation. Others praise Reid because “his allegations are easy to disprove with evidence that Mitt Romney himself has, viz., Romney’s tax returns,” and “every party nominee for 40 years” has been more forthcoming than Romney about their taxes.

The controversy reminded me of an article on “Libel by Implication,” and a decade-old defamation case, Howard v. Antilla. That case concerned a New York Times article, which asked, “Is Robert Howard really [the felon] Howard Finkelstein? A lot of investors in Mr. Howard’s Presstek Inc., would like to know. But not even the Securities and Exchange Commission can say for sure. And the lingering mystery has roiled a hot stock and left the S.E.C. blushing.” The article reported rumors that turned out to be false, though the defendant said it was based on “1500 pages of notes and documents in her investigative file.” A jury found for Antilla on the defamation claim, but awarded Howard $480,000 on a false light claim. The First Circuit eventually vacated the verdict, engaging in some fine distinctions between claims that someone “might be” and “is” some suspect identity:
Read More

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Renouncing Citizenship to Avoid Taxes

There was news in recent days that one of the co-founders of Facebook (Eduardo Savarin) has renounced his U.S. citizenship to avoid paying a hefty tax bill (approximately $600 million) when the company goes public this week.  I’m ignorant of the law on this point, but are there really no restrictions on the right to relinquish citizenship on a date of your choosing?  If there are equitable limitations, this would seem like a good time to invoke them and say that he cannot opportunistically avoid taxes in this way. If there are no such limits, I wonder if the Government will consider exercising its discretion to deny him entry into the United States from now on.