Public country-by-country reporting: it’s not about costs or trade secrets

   1   0 Blog, Country by Country, Taxing corporations
Matti Ylönen

Matti Ylönen

A guest blog authored by Matti Ylonen [University of Helsinki and Aalto University Business School].

The European Parliament is currently debating a proposal for public country-by-country reporting (CBCR), and the vote was recently postponed to later in June. Under the original proposal of the European Commission, the reporting requirement would be restricted only for Multinational Enterprises (MNEs) with an annual turnover of 750 million euros or more.  This would leave out some 85–90 percent of MNEs – a major problem that would also treat MNEs differentially.

One key argument against public CBCR has been that it would endanger confidential business, industrial, commercial or trade secrets to competitors. The Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry, for one, has claimed that public CBCR “would allow foreign companies to draw conclusions on trade secrets and the potential of market exploitations of their competitors.”

This argument does not hold water. Some of the reasons for this were elaborated in a Q&A published in 2016 by the Financial Transparency coalition. Moreover, as Arthur J. Cockfield and Carl D. MacArthur have explained in their 2015 article in the Canadian Tax Journal:

“none of the financial information mandated by CBCR, in either the maximalist or the minimalist version, would constitute a trade, business or other secret as defined by the OECD in the commentary on the model [tax] treaty”.

In addition to these arguments, one often omitted fact is that financial accounts can already be purchased from most of the key countries where MNEs conduct actual business (in contrast with especially smaller tax havens that are more often used primarily for financing and holding arrangements). One problem is however that conducting these kinds of analyses is very costly. Furthermore, analysing financial accounts is time consuming and requires specialized expertise.

Together, these hindrances makes the information contained in these national accounts effectively inaccessible to most investors, politicians and the members of the public. There is one group, however, that does have the capacity for these kinds of investigations; the big MNEs themselves. They can easily hire a Big 4 tax advisory company to perform an analysis of their competitors’ business models, or conduct a similar study in-house.

Of course, this kind of analysis would still have gaps that public CBCR would ultimately address. As for example, there can be some differences between national reporting requirements and those covered by CBCR. Moreover, many developing countries would not be covered, and more crucially, financial accounts from most of the secrecy jurisdictions would be inaccessible.

However, these secrecy jurisdictions are mostly used for internal financing structures, which are well known in the industry and therefore do not qualify as a trade, business, commercial or industrial secrets. As a matter of fact, these financing arrangements are hardly secrets anyway, since the Big 4 tax advisory firms design most of these structures and market them actively to any major MNE showing interest.

Combining the arguments put forward here and by Cockfield and MacArthur, is is easy to conclude that the trade secrecy argument is severely flawed.

How about the other central argument, namely the EU-level commitment to reduce the administrative burden of MNEs? This argument does not hold either. According to the European Commission:

Administrative costs mean the costs incurred by enterprises, the voluntary sector, public authorities and citizens in meeting legal obligations to provide information on their activities (or production), either to public authorities or to private parties. They are different from compliance costs which stem from the generic requirements of the legislation, such as costs induced by the development of new products, or processes that meet new social and environmental standards.

An important distinction must be made between information that would be collected by businesses even in the absence of the legislation and information that would not be collected without the legal provisions. The former are called administrative costs; the latter administrative burdens. The Commission’s Better regulation strategy is aimed at measuring administrative costs and reducing administrative burdens.

The great majority of the information contained in CBCR reports would be collected in any case by MNEs – therefore, they are administrative costs and not administrative burdens. Hence, this argument is not valid either. To further emphasise this, whatever IT costs would incur would be negligible compared to the size and resources of the MNEs that the directive would cover. This was also highlighted by assessments quoted in the aforementioned study by the Financial Transparency Coalition.

One thought on “Public country-by-country reporting: it’s not about costs or trade secrets

  1. David Harold Chester says:

    Its not what you tax but how you do it!

    Suppose a country decides to obligatory tax smaller sums from an unwilling public. The government of this country will have less income and consequently be unable to support as much service to its communities as before. This is through national services such as national insurance and private health, public health, roads and transport, police, military defense, etc. However the population will have more to spend and will be able to replace some of these services with privately run ones.

    If on the other had more taxes were collected, then people would have less to spend but a better national supply of services. So either way the progress of a country is not directly determined by the degree to which it is being taxed. If we really are concerned about national progress we need to examine the secondary effects of the different kinds of taxation. Here is how it might be done for benefit to the majority.

    Socially Just Taxation and Its Effects (17 listed)

    Our present complicated system for taxation is unfair and has many faults. The biggest problem is to arrange it on a socially just basis. Many companies employ their workers in various ways and pay them diversely. Since these companies are registered in different countries for a number of categories, the determination the criterion for a just tax system becomes impossible, particularly if based on a fair measure of human work-activity. So why try when there is a better means available, which is really a true and socially just method?

    Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations”, 1776) says that land is one of the 3 factors of production (the other 2 being labor and durable capital goods). The usefulness of land is in the price that tenants pay as rent, for access rights to the particular site in question. Land is often considered as being a form of capital, since it is traded similarly to other durable capital goods items. However it is not actually man-made, so rightly it does not fall within this category. The land was originally a gift of nature (if not of God) for which all people should be free to share in its use. But its site-value greatly depends on location and is related to the community density in that region, as well as the natural resources such as rivers, minerals, animals or plants of specific use or beauty, when or after it is possible to reach them. Consequently, most of the land value is created by man within his society and therefore its advantage should logically and ethically be returned to the community for its general use, as explained by Martin Adams (in “LAND”, 2015).

    However, due to our existing laws, land is owned and formally registered and its value is traded, even though it can’t be moved to another place, like other kinds of capital goods. This right of ownership gives the landlord a big advantage over the rest of the community because he determines how it may be used, or if it is to be held out of use, until the city grows and the site becomes more valuable. Thus speculation in land values is encouraged by the law, in treating a site of land as personal or private property—as if it were an item of capital goods, although it is not (Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison: “The Corruption of Economics”, 2005).

    Regarding taxation and local community spending, the municipal taxes we pay are partly used for improving the infrastructure. This means that the land becomes more useful and valuable without the landlord doing anything—he/she will always benefit from our present tax regime. This also applies when the status of unused land is upgraded and it becomes fit for community development. Then when this news is leaked, after landlords and banks corruptly pay for this information, speculation in land values is rife. There are many advantages if the land values were taxed instead of the many different kinds of production-based activities such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, home and foreign company investments, etc., (with all their regulations, complications and loop-holes). The only people due to lose from this are those who exploit the growing values of the land over the past years, when “mere” land ownership confers a financial benefit, without the owner doing a scrap of work. Consequently, for a truly socially just kind of taxation to apply there can only be one method–Land-Value Taxation.

    Consider how land becomes valuable. New settlers in a region begin to specialize and this improves their efficiency in producing specific goods. The central land is the most valuable due to easy availability and least transport needed. This distribution in land values is created by the community and (after an initial start), not by the natural resources. As the city expands, speculators in land values will deliberately hold potentially useful sites out of use, until planning and development have permitted their values to grow. Meanwhile there is fierce competition for access to the most suitable sites for housing, agriculture and manufacturing industries. The limited availability of useful land means that the high rents paid by tenants make their residence more costly and the provision of goods and services more expensive. It also creates unemployment, causing wages to be lowered by the monopolists, who control the big producing organizations, and whose land was already obtained when it was cheap. Consequently this basic structure of our current macroeconomics system, works to limit opportunity and to create poverty, see above reference.

    The most basic cause of our continuing poverty is the lack of properly paid work and the reason for this is the lack of opportunity of access to the land on which the work must be done. The useful land is monopolized by a landlord who either holds it out of use (for speculation in its rising value), or charges the tenant heavily for its right of access. In the case when the landlord is also the producer, he/she has a monopolistic control of the land and of the produce too, and can charge more for this access right than what an entrepreneur, who seeks greater opportunity, normally would be able to afford.

    A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from lack of opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax system which encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing everything and everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed 136 years ago by Henry George, a (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists seem never to have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts. (I would guess that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and Poverty” 1879, Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains etc. This regime of land value tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except for landlords and banks, who/which do nothing productive and find that land dominance has its own reward.

    17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and Ethics

    Four Aspects for Government:
    1. LVT, adds to the national income as do other taxation systems, but it replaces them.
    2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all of the production-related taxes–tax avoidance becomes impossible because the sites are visible to all.
    3. Consumers pay less for their purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates greater satisfaction with the management of national affairs.
    4. The national economy stabilizes—it no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due to periodic speculation in land values (see below).

    Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:
    5. LVT is progressive–owners of the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax.
    6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. A large proportion of the ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even when it is not used).
    7. LVT stops speculation in land prices and the withholding of land from proper use is not worthwhile.
    8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, even though their rental value can still grow over a longer term. As more sites become available, the competition for them is less fierce.
    9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that come into use.
    10. With LVT, land prices will initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be introduced gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer their money to company-shares etc., and simultaneously to meet the increased demand for produce (see below).

    Three Aspects Regarding Communities:
    11. With LVT, there is an incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused.
    12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.
    13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

    Four Aspects About Ethics:
    14. The collection of taxes from productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this extortion by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from the land owner or by the banks– LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.
    15. Bribery and corruption on information about land cease. Before, this was due to the leaking of news of municipal plans for housing and industrial development, causing shock-waves in local land prices (and municipal workers’ and lawyers’ bank balances).
    16. The improved use of the more central land reduces the environmental damage due to a) unused sites being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when traveling between home and workplace.
    17. Because the LVT eliminates the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT provides a greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in a natural way– to provide more jobs. Then earnings will correspond to the value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT has been properly introduced it will eliminate poverty and improve business ethics.

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