Tuesday, October 14, 2014

14/10/2014: Budget 2015: Of Double Irish and Tax Non-Reforms

This Budget was supposed to be about giving working families something back. In the end, it was not.

The core asymmetry in Irish tax system has been, since the onset of the crisis, increasing burden of State on ordinary incomes. This remains.

2014 projected income tax take is EUR17.18 billion out of total tax take of EUR41.04 billion. 2015 projected income tax at EUR17.98 billion against total tax take of EUR42.3 billion.

Corporation tax: 2014 projection for EUR4.525 billion and 2015 at EUR4.575 billion.

So as a share of total tax take, income tax continues to rise, corporation tax continues to fall.

There is no re-balancing of tax system. Households pay. Full stop.

Of core measures, announced, corporate tax reforms are the biggest. As predicted, 12.5% headline rate is here to stay. Minister Noonan sounded like a politician cornered by someone with a bit more power (Germany? US? EU? UK? all of the above?) on the topic. And he stayed his ground (absent visible opponents).

But the 'non-tax-haven' tax loophole of the Double Irish was abolished, as predicted. For new companies coming into Ireland - starting with 2015 - all companies resident here will be resident here for tax purposes too. For existent companies, the new provision comes into force at the end of 2020. Transition period will see more tax optimised activity being booked through Ireland as corporates embark on building up cash reserves. This firmly puts any risk of economic activity falloff after the full abolition of the Double Irish out into next Government, so should FF or SF or both win next elections, they will bear the weight of any disruptions. Before then, however, more will flow through Ireland on the way to real tax havens.

It is worth reminding that in October 2012, Minister Noonan steadfastly claimed that abolishing Double Irish provision was not within his remit.

Minister Noonan also set out some sketch of the forthcoming tax reforms. These will:

1) Remove completely any base year consideration in application of R&D tax credits. The measure will take hold from January 1, 2015 and will create more incentives to book R&D spending into Ireland. Whether this will tangibly increase actual R&D activity here remains to be seen, since R&D investment is even harder to price than transfer pricing in the services sector. Suppose a lab located in, say, New Hampshire develops a formula for new drug. But final preparation is registered into Ireland. All R&D investment, save minor expenditure on lab operations, can be billed into Ireland, in exchange for having a 'token' small lab of formula preparation team here. make a key scientist fly into Dublin for a couple of meetings and you have magic R&D activity here that can easily exceed activity in the actual lab. The “knowledge box” will, presumably, tax corporate profits generated as a result of patented innovations in a way similar to so-called 'patent box' structures already in place in the Netherlands and the UK. UK 'box' has a tax of 10% , Netherlands' one has 5%, and Minister Noonan promised Irish equivalent will be 'the best in class', so it will need to undercut the already existent ones. Which means that the above-mentioned example of an 'investment' will book profits into Ireland as payments on R&D-generated IP and these will be taxed at a reduced rate.

2) Aim to deliver even more 'competitive' environment for 'intangible assets' domiciling in Ireland. In other words, the fabled IP pushed through the fabled 'Knowledge Development Box', aka black box tax system that leaves IP outside tax net. This should sweeten the removal of the Double Irish for MNCs, especially in the IP-intensive ICT services sector. But it will also mean preciously little in terms of incentivising real activity on the ground here. Instead of shifting profits to Bahamas to get them off the tax hook, MNCs can just book payments into Ireland as payments on IP, making them basically tax free too.

3) To facilitate internationally trading sector, Budget 2015 enhances Special Assignee Relief Programme

4) To address future criticisms of the new system as being unfair to our trading partners, the Revenue will get additional resources to act as a 'competent authority' in enforcement and monitoring of corporation tax matters.

Gas bit is: the EU Commission is already investigating if 'patent-knowledge' box schemes constitute illegal state aid.

One simply cannot assess the full impact of the new changes on the economy. We have no data on specific activities by MNCs here. We have no data on operating tax structures. We have no data on how MNCs can re-arrange their activities here to address the challenge. It is, however, safe to assume that none of existent MNCs will be rushing to do much before 2020. And it is also safe to assume that by 2020, when the Double Irish fully bites the dust, the OECD-led BEPS reforms will be already known.

This, in effect, will mean that Ireland's Double Irish abolition today is a preemptive move that preempts nothing but bad PR. Reputational gain. Opportunity of real reforms for now remains a distant hope.

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