This is an unedited version of my Sunday Times article from February 16, 2014.
Last week, Irish Government delegation to the OECD's Paris-based headquarters was all smiles and photo-ops at the front end, with lunches and joint press conferences at the back. In-between, there were speeches and statements extolling the virtues of our economic recovery and the Government leadership through the crisis.
Only one cloud obscured the otherwise sunny horizon of the trip: our corporate tax regime. Mentioned in the context of Yahoo’s decision to shift all of its European tax affairs from the ‘high tax’ Switzerland to ‘fully transparent’ Ireland, it required a high level intervention. Aptly, the Taoiseach was standing by to point that our effective corporate tax rate (the average tax rate that applies to companies here) is almost 12 percent, higher than France's 8 percent. Ireland 1: Tax Begrudgers 0.
Case closed? Not so fast.
In recent months, Irish corporate tax regime has featured prominently in international debates about European tax reforms, corporate earnings and multinational investment. G20 and G8 mentioned it, as did German, Finnish, Italian, French, the US and the UK leaders. As financial repression sweeps across the OECD member states in the wake of the sovereign debt crises, this debate is far from over.
This week, Professor James Stewart of TCD School of Business produced an insightful and well-researched analysis showing that the effective tax rate for the US MNCs in Ireland was 2.2% back in 2011. Methodologies bickering aside, Professor Stewart study challenges the core research used to support our corporate tax regime – the PWC studies that focus on domestically-trading SMEs.
The problem of course, is that the official discussions of Irish corporate tax regime are nothing more than a tactic of diffusing the issue by deflecting the real debate. Professor Stewart's research hints at this forcefully. The real issue with our corporate tax is not the headline rate, nor its transparency, but a host of loopholes that riddle the system and that allow companies here to dramatically reduce their global tax exposures well below the 12.5 percent rate.
Some of these loopholes, such as the notorious Double Irish scheme, are the subject of the EU Commission and OECD scrutiny as potentially anti-competitive, subsidy-like measures. Contrary to what public exhortations by our Ministers suggest, the threat is so real, the last Budget saw a closure of one of the more notorious features of our tax law that allowed companies to be registered here without having a tax residency anywhere on the face of Earth.
The core focus of the EU analysis, discussed by the Commissioner Almunia this week, centres on an even more worrisome feature: tax base shifting by the ICT Services MNCs. The practice basically permits MNCs to book vast revenues earned elsewhere in Europe into Ireland in order to move these revenues to tax havens. The issue is non-trivial to Ireland: tax-optimising MNCs currently underwrite virtually all growth officially registered in our economy. Not all of their activities are driven by tax optimisation alone, but our tax regime does serve as a major attractor and does generate significant uplift to our economy. Absent their activities, Irish economy would be in a recession, the Exchequer would be in an unenviable position worse than that of Portugal, and our GDP would be at least one fifth lower than it is today.
Instead of the headline rate of corporate taxation, two core questions about the entire tax regime operating in the Irish economy should be at the heart of our public debates. One: Can Irish economy afford the current tax regime in the long run? Two: Is our tax regime sustainable given the direction of European integration in fiscal, monetary and corporate policies development?
Let's deal with these questions in some details.
Current system of taxation in Ireland is directly contradictory to the core growth and development drivers in our economy. Since the collapse of the property lending and public spending bubbles of the 2000s, our sources of growth have rapidly shifted from domestic investment in real estate and infrastructure toward the skills-dependent ICT services, international financial and professional services, and specialist agrifood and manufacturing sectors.
All of these sectors share two fundamental features. They employ large number of highly skilled and internationally mobile specialists. And, they rely on new value creation via innovation. These features are based on investments in human capital, rather than traditional bricks and mortar or physical machinery. And human capital gets its returns either from entrepreneurial returns or wages. The latter dominate the former across the economy.
Faced with an option of having to pay huge direct and indirect tax rates on their labour income, while receiving virtually no services in return for these outlays, the highly skilled workers tend to run out of Ireland within 1-2 years of arriving here. Forced to compete for talent with tax optimizing MNCs, indigenous entrepreneurs are struggling to generate returns on their own investments. And both, innovation-based MNCs and indigenous producers are facing high and rising costs of recruiting key employees.
In 2013, corporation tax receipts totaled EUR4.27 billion, or 11.3 percent of total tax receipts. This compares to 15.3 percent on average in 2000-2004. Over the same period of time, the share of income tax in total tax receipts rose from 31.4 percent to 40.0 percent. VAT receipts share slipped only marginally from 29.3 percent to 28.9 percent. Thus, the rate of extraction of tax revenues from households’ incomes rose dramatically. Burden of corporate taxation befalling rapidly growing MNCs, meanwhile, declined in relative terms.
Great Recession only partially explains this trend. Instead, the Government policy consciously shifted tax base away from activities with low economic value added, such as property and transfer pricing-driven corporate profits, and onto the shoulders of the households. Given the changes in 2010-2013 in the composition of our exports of goods and services, Ireland-based MNCs are now paying less in taxes per unit of exports than in the 1990s.
With the tax extraction hitting hard the professional and higher skilled workers earnings, our tax regime is damaging our core source of competitiveness. You don't have to troll the depths of datasets to spot this one. Every Budget since 2009 attracted numerous proposals for attempting to address the problem of income tax costs across ICT services, international financial services and R&D intensive activities. These proposals come from both the indigenous sectors and exporters and MNCs, highlighting the breadth of the problem.
In the longer run, Irish economy's reliance on tax arbitrage is similar to the 'curse of oil'. Low effective corporate tax rate accompanied by a very high upper marginal income tax and sky-high indirect levies are driving investment, as well as financial and human capital, away from well-anchored indigenous sectors and toward foot-loose MNCs.
This, in turn, exposes us to cyclical changes in MNCs global production patterns. We have already experienced such events in the late 1990s - early 2000s when ICT manufacturing and dot.com sectors evaporated from this country virtually overnight. And today we are witnessing global re-allocation and re-shaping of pharmaceutical industry. We got lucky in the 2000s when domestic economy bubble replaced deflating MNCs presence. We also got lucky this time around, with pharma patent cliff being compensated for by growing exports of ICT services. With every iteration of these risks, levels of employment in the MNCs per euro of export revenues have been falling. Next time around, things might not turn out to be as easy to manage.
Double-Irish and other loopholes are also costing us in terms of reputational and institutional capital - two major contributors to making Ireland an attractive location for international business and key environmental factors supporting indigenous entrepreneurship. While many MNCs for now have little problem dealing with tax havens, they tend to locate little but shell presence in these jurisdictions. Ireland, not being an official tax haven, offers an attractive alternative for them to both create tax optimising structures and put some real activity on the ground. However, should our reputation continue to suffer from the publicity our tax regime receives around the world as of late, this acceptability of Ireland as a real platform for doing business can change. Reputations, not made overnight, can fall in an instant, and Ireland has plenty competitors in Europe hoping for such an outrun.
Which brings us to the question of whether our tax regime is sustainable in the long run given the current policy climate in the EU and across the Atlantic. The answer to it is a ‘no’.
As this week’s comments by Commissioner Almunia and the numerous previous statements from G20, G8 and the OECD clearly indicate, governments across the advanced economies are moving to curb excessive tax optimisation strategies by the multinationals. In doing so, they are not about to sacrifice their own long-established economic systems. The main driver for this global resurgence of interest in tax avoidance and optimisation is the ongoing process of long-term structural deleveraging of public debts. Another key driver is a long-term restructuring of unfunded pensions and social welfare liabilities accumulated by the advanced economies now staring into the prospect of rapid onset of demographic ageing. Put simply, over the next 16 years, through 2030, advanced economies around the world will be facing a need to fund fiscal and retirement systems gaps of between 9 and 25 percent of current GDP. This funding is unlikely to materialise from growth in GDP alone, and will require significant restructuring of tax revenues.
One way or the other, Irish tax system will have to be reformed. The longer we resist an open and constructive debate about the entire tax system, the more likely that these reforms will be imposed onto us by the EU dictate. To enhance our reputational and institutional capital, we need to aggressively curb tax optimisation schemes. To develop a domestically-anchored innovation-based economy, we need to shift some burden of income-related tax measures onto corporates. The best way to achieve these objectives is to protect our low corporate tax rate and close the egregious loopholes.
Earlier this month, the EU Commission published a report into public perceptions of corruption across the EU. The findings were described by the EU Home Affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem as exposing a "breathtaking" spread of corruption across the everyday lives of the European citizens. For starters, total annual cost of corruption to the European economy was estimated at EUR120 billion or roughly 10 percent of the EU GDP. According to Ms Malmstroem, the true costs are "probably much higher".
Ireland fared relatively well in the report findings, compared to the worst offenders – the member states of Eastern and Central Europe and the Mediterranean. Still, one third of Irish respondents expressed concern that officials awarding public tenders and building permits are corrupt. More than one fifth of Irish people surveyed thought that various inspectors serving the state are on the take – hardly a solid vote of confidence in our systems.
Spain and the Netherlands were the only two countries where a majority of respondents thought that corruption is widespread among banks and financial institutions, but Ireland was a close third with 48 percent.
The good news is that 13 percent (a relatively high proportion by European standards) of Irish respondents felt that corruption has decreased in the past 3 years. Bad news is that the vast majority believes that there was no improvement at all.