The European Commission Have Sparked a Revolution Against Corporate Tax Avoidance

The European Commission made a decision yesterday that is likely to revolutionise corporate tax law. To understand this, it’s important to step outside the narrow lens (and self interest) of ‘Ireland Inc’ and consider the global political background, from the EU perspective.

Globalization has made it much easier for footloose capital and international firms to move across borders, and avoid paying tax. This means it’s increasingly difficult to apply the principle that tax should be paid in the country where profits are made. It’s estimated that more than half of the foreign profits made by US firms are booked in tax havens.

In response to this, scholars in international political economy have long argued that to manage the worst effects of globalization, whilst retaining the democratic legitimacy of the state (tax and spend capacity), governments should shift governance up a level, beyond the nation-state.

The EU is perhaps the most successful example of this type of supranational governance in the world. It has an executive arm (the EU Commission) with legislative agenda-setting powers, and a supranational Court. In effect, European integration can be conceptualized as a political response to market globalization. But it has no tax and spend capacity.

The core actor driving the process of integration is the Commission. This was most obvious during and after the Eurozone crisis, where member-states, including Ireland, agreed to delegate more economic governance powers to Europe. This included the two-pack; the six-pack; the macroeconomic imbalance scorecard and the European semester. Lest we forget, the Commission was part of the Troika, who actively intervened in fiscal policies of the state, not least in terms of water charges.

All member-states of the EU have actively delegated sovereignty to the Commission to manage a whole raft of policy areas: agriculture, trade, fisheries, competition, the single market, regulation, health and safety. For members of the Eurozone, this pooling of sovereignty is even deeper, and explicitly includes monetary and fiscal policy competences.

Hence, to suggest the Commission has suddenly started intervening and undermining Irish sovereignty is somewhat disingenuous.

Social democratic oriented economies, such as France, Sweden or Denmark, have always tended to view the Commission as an agent of “neoliberalism“. It is perceived as having a narrow commitment to market liberalization, with no capacity to tax and spend. The implication is that the EU cannot build those social institutions that are necessary to compensate for the negative effects of increased market liberalization.

Liberal market oriented economies, such as Ireland and the UK (and parts of the German polity), have tended to view the European Commission as an agent of bureaucratic interference. It is perceived as a political actor that tries to expand it’s executive powers in those policy areas that should remain at the level of the nation-state: employment, social protection, welfare and taxation. The EU is a single market, and should be designed to reduce the transaction costs of trade, nothing more.

These two competing visions of the EU came to a head yesterday.

But for anyone who spends time in Brussels, it’s been a long time coming. In a world of global capital flows, the argument across European capitals has been that, at a minimum, the EU Commission must ensure tax coordination, to ensure that MNCs pay their taxes where profits are made.

Those governments, such as Ireland, that turn a blind eye, and facilitate corporate tax avoidance, have been increasingly viewed with hostility, as they are effectively robbing European citizens of scare taxable resources. This has often been missed in Ireland, as there has not been a public debate on corproate tax avoidance, and therefore it’s not a salient issue.

The EU response to this growing demand in Europe to stop corporate tax avoidance has always been, well, how? It’s a massive collective action problem that requires an assertive Commission, willing to confront rogue member-states, challenge capital interests, and be open to legal challenge. This is exactly what happened yesterday. The Commission concluded that those tax benefits that enable multinationals to avoid tax is a form of illegal state aid, and falls directly under competition law.

The fight is on.

More precisely, the Commission found that Ireland enabled Apple to avoid taxation on almost all of the profits generated by the sale of Apple products in the EU single market. In effect, Ireland facilitated Apple’s ability to build a colossal stock pile of cash that amount to hundreds of billions of dollars. As the Guardian editorial noted today, this is nothing more than “a rainy day fund for the super-rich“. If the Irish government challenge the Commission’s ruling, they are effectively legitimising this, even though they have closed off the tax loophole that made it possible.

All of the focus within Ireland has been whether the government should take the 15 billion. But again this totally misses the point. It’s not Irelands money. It’s tax that should have been paid in Portugal, Greece, Spain, Germany, France and other member-states of the EU, who, like most European countries implementing austerity, are pretty cash strapped.

This is why Ireland has been rightly called out.

In essence, it’s a distributional conflict. Ireland has facilitated one of the richest companies in the world to engage in corporate tax avoidance (money that should have been paid to other governments in the EU). In ordinary language use, this would be called theft.

In responding to the Commission, a clever strategy by the government would have been to accept the ruling; highlight that they have closed off the tax loophole; admit they are in a bit of a legal bind now; and then focus on what really matters in the long run for high-tech FDI: the human capital externalities of thick labour markets, which has been made possible by the process of European integration.

The EU Commission has acted in the general interest of European citizens and business. Hence, it’s decision is being welcomed almost everywhere outside Ireland. The EU Commission has shown that it can act as a supranational counterweight to the untrammelled forces of globalization.



Apple ruling announced

€13 billion. Wow! Nothing to do with transfer pricing. All do with the relationship between the parent companies and their Irish branches. The EC position is that as the ‘stateless’ companies have no substance ALL of the profit is allocated to the Irish branches.  We really are at the races now.

The press release is here.


DEW Annual Conference – programme and tickets

Following on from an earlier post, below are more details about the Dublin Economics Workshop’s Annual Conference (formerly known as “Kenmare”). The theme for this year’s conference is Policymaking for an Uncertain Future and the conference takes place on September 23rd and 24th in White’s of Wexford. Tickets can be bought from the DEW’s website, with a special package of €250 covering two nights at the hotel, both breakfasts and dinners, and the conference fee itself.

The current draft programme is below, with more details to be added as they are confirmed. Hopefully, we will see many of you down there, to enjoy the conference’s unique interaction of public, private and academic economists, discussing a range of important policy issues.

Friday, 23rd of September

  • 1.00-2.30pm: Keynote [TBC]
  • 3.00-4.30pm: High-Level Panel, “Beyond the M50: What Economic Future is there for Rural Ireland?
  • 5.00-6.30pm: Expert Session, “Why are Construction Costs in Ireland So High?
    • Three speakers, including David Dumigan (Hines) and Jason Cronin (Virtus)
  • 7.00pm: Conference Dinner

Saturday, 24th of September

  • 10.00-11.30am: First Parallel Session:
    • The Economics of Healthcare in Ireland.  Details to come.
    • Infrastructure: the Key to Regional Development? Three speakers, including Sean O’Riordain and Laura Watts (DPER).
    • Mortgage Rules and Household Credit: Informing the Future. Three speakers, including Loretta O’Sullivan (BOI).
  • 12.00-1.30pm: Second Parallel Session:
    • Higher Education in Ireland after Brexit. Details to come.
    • Empirical Research on the Irish Banking Sector. Full details to come; speakers include Central Bank of Ireland researchers
    • Can we trust Ireland’s National Accounts? Speakers include Frank Barry (TCD), Conall MacCoille (Davy) and Chris Sibley (CSO).
  • 3.00-4.30pm: Third Parallel Session:
    • Ireland’s Fiscal & Financial Stability. Speakers include Dermot O’Leary (Goodbody).
    • Reforming Social Welfare. Speakers include Micheál Collins and Niamh Holton (NERI).
    • Informing Policy With Behavioural Economics. Full details to come.
  • 5.00-6pm Keynote: Sharon Donnery, Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland
  • 6.30pm: Conference Dinner, including an After-Dinner Speech [TBC]

Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

The Apple state-aid journey rumbles on.  The scene was enlivened somewhat last week with the publication of a white paper by the US Treasury criticising the approach of the European Commission.  The paper dishes out a good kicking and provides a useful template for a company or country considering an appeal to an adverse ruling.

We know most of the key points the US are making.  They are concerned that the US taxpayer could end up footing the bill (as Robert Stack repeats here) but if the tax payments are legitimately due elsewhere then this doesn’t amount to much.  But the risks, functions and assets that generated Apple’s profits were in the US so, under the current system, the tax on those customers is due in the US.  Of course, a company may decide to move those assets but that is an issue that the country of departure has oversight of.  For the period under investigation in the Apple case it is clear that the main drivers of its profitability were controlled and located in the US.

The US Treasury paper looks at the substance of the EC position – that some transfer pricing arrangements put in place (for mainly US MNCs) were “wrong”.  For the EC is this is a competence they do not have nor one that they should be seeking. If you are intent on saying that something is “wrong” you must be able to state what is “right” – but in transfer pricing there are ranges not precise outcomes.

Economic history European economy European politics

If you think this anti-globalization backlash is new, you haven’t been paying attention

I have a post on this subject at VoxEU, available here.


Honohan on Ireland and Brexit

Vox EU carry an interview with Patrick here. You should be able to listen to it by clicking the bar below.


How Does Ireland’s Income Tax Compare?

A great deal of political debate in Ireland rests on the assumption that Ireland’s rates of taxation are prohibitive. This is generally taken to mean that Irish taxes on income, specifically, are particularly onerous. This perception is rarely, however, assessed with reference to available statistics.

A new NERI Research inBrief by Paul Goldrick-Kelly uses the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) data concerning estimates of the effective direct taxes paid by households of varying income and marital status in 2014 to assess Ireland’s rates of taxation on income relative to those observed in other comparable nations.


The NERI Research inBrief series are short four page research notes on various topics of socio-economic interest. Other contributions in the series are available here.

The NERI is on twitter: @NERI_research

Fiscal Policy

Understanding Ireland’s Corporate Tax Revenue

The NTMA are out with a really interesting note here (.pdf). 3 sectors–pharma, manufacturing, and finance and insurance–are responsible for 69.5% of all corporation tax.

Worth contrasting with Paul Tancred of Revenue’s earlier work trying to understand the problem here.



The real winners from Rio?

With the 2016 Summer Olympics Games upon us, much of the world’s media has descended on Rio to cover more than 300 events, across 28 sports, for the next three weeks. Early reports have already complimented the facilities in place. This should not come as a surprise. An estimated $14 billion has been spent to date and includes new stadia, sports facilities, transport and communications infrastructure, accommodation, security, etc. The scale of investment is on a par with London 2012 but comes on the back of a similar outlay during the 2014 World Cup. That’s close to $30 billion dollars in 24 months.

While the Games will probably be a sporting success, it’s hard to see how this investment can be justified. A growing list of cities, are now home to unused, dilapidated or demolished Olympic venues. Brazil is likely to encounter similar problems in the years ahead despite the promise of “legacy” effects. Even London recently reported a drop in sports participation four years on from the most recent Summer Games.

Brazil of course will be no stranger to this. Estádio Nacional in Brasília, the second most expensive stadium on the planet, was rebuilt for the 2014 World Cup. The 70,000 seat arena is now primarily used as a bus terminal.

Over the past 40 years, only the Los Angles Summer Games in 1984 generated a net surplus. This was a consequence of the weakened bargaining position of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when faced with just one finalised bid to host the Games that summer. Riots (1968), terrorism (1972), public debt (1976) and boycott (1980) had all marred the Olympics in the decade beforehand. Los Angeles negotiated a deal with the IOC that maximised the economic benefits to the city.

Since 1984 other cities have jumped on the bandwagon, in an attempt to regenerate urban areas and turn a net profit. While Barcelona and London have been notable example of ‘success’, they failed to generate any financial surplus. This should not be a surprise.

Sporting events like these should not be viewed as investments. They are primarily consumption products. In the past the Games have brought other benefits; mainly a sense of national pride and increased levels of life satisfaction and happiness. If one monetises these, research suggests the Games are worth the cost. The richer the country, the greater the gain. Citizens from wealthier countries need a much bigger increase in income, to those from poorer countries, in order to experience the same jump in happiness.

And herein lies the problem for Brazil. The country is in the unique position of probably being the first developing democracy to stage the Summer Games (the extent of Mexican democracy in 1968 is debatable). This has brought with it problems. The riots at the World Cup were a manifestation of this. The extent to which the Games will make the population ‘happier’ is questionable. With political, economic, health, environmental and housing crises all present, these Games may not be a repeat of the past.

Rio is on the brink of its biggest ever party. A $14 billion hangover is waiting. The city needs to make the most of the next three weeks. While they party, the real winners are probably the taxpayers in Illinois and Spain. Two of the failed bidders for the 2016 Games.

Brexit Fiscal Policy

Brexit Flu?

The latest exchequer returns are in, and are a bit down relative to trend and to target month-on-month. From the release:

July 2016 Outturn
July 2016 Target Excess/Shortfall (€m) Excess/Shortfall (%)
Income tax 1519 1522 -3 -0.20%
VAT 1766 1830 -61 -3.30%
Corp. Tax 116 139 -23 -16.50%
Excise 482 507 -25 -5%
Stamps 114 111 3 2.30%
Capital Gains 14 8 6 67.40%
Capital Acquisitions 19 17 2 13.80%
Customs 26 29 -4 -13%
Levies 0 0 0 0.00%
LPT 21 23 -2 -6.60%
Unallocated 9 0 9 0.00%

The two numbers everyone will focus on are the 13% drop in customs taxes and the 16% drop in corporation tax.

In terms of money in the door up to July, the State is still up 8.5% on last year, so we shouldn’t be too worried about the supply of sweeties come Budget day just yet. The other important thing to note is just how volatile these data are–they bounce around a lot, and you can read very little into one month’s data. So please, before everyone runs off saying Brexit is killing the Irish economy, it isn’t. Or perhaps more accurately, it isn’t just yet.

Another interesting piece of data shows Irish consumers are a bit put off but unlikely to develop Brexit flu from contact with their nearest neighbour.

While UK PMI data is nose-bleed inducing, the recently-released KBC consumer sentiment index shows that Irish consumer sentiment declined in July, but the scale of the drop was relatively modest when measured beside its UK equivalent, as the chart below shows.

csijul16d02So what do we see? We see a bit of concern, and bit of a wobble, but that’s all, up to now. Hold fire on the pronouncements of doom for a few more months at least.