Cantillon: Facebook story could yet yield tax return

Any OECD measure to combat tax base erosion has potential to see Ireland get a bigger slice of the Facebook pie

In its US Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Facebook noted the potential for its affairs to be affected by changes to US tax law, or those of other jurisdictions. Photograph: Reuters/Thomas Hodel

In its US Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Facebook noted the potential for its affairs to be affected by changes to US tax law, or those of other jurisdictions. Photograph: Reuters/Thomas Hodel


This newspaper’s report on Thursday highlighting the vast chasm between Facebook Ireland Ltd’s €1.7 billion turnover in 2012 and its €1.9 million Irish corporation tax charge was picked up by the Financial Times yesterday, after which it went “viral” on the internet.

From the news sites of Forbes to the Guardian, the Daily Mail to Bloomberg, the interest and associated commentary were huge. Which is not surprising when you look at the figures in the latest annual return filed by Facebook Inc to the Securities and Exchange Commission in the US.

By the end of 2012, the technology behemoth had 1.06 billion monthly active users, up 25 per cent on the position at the end of 2011, and 618 million daily active users, up 28 per cent on the end of 2011. On average, according to the filing, 350 million photographs were uploaded to Facebook every day during the last quarter of 2012, and 240 billion photographs had been shared on the platform by the year’s end.

Given that sort of public engagement with the company, and the ongoing controversy over the taxation of multinationals, media businesses were quick to spot a story of general, and global, interest. Some commentators were quick to suggest that Ireland should do something to close down the tax-avoidance strategies that are used by Microsoft, Google and Facebook, by way of subsidiaries registered here – for the most part missing the point that the United States, home to all of these companies, could change its laws to bring an end to the tax schemes.

Of course, given its nature, the most logical way to approach the issue is by way of international co-operation, which is exactly what seems to be happening by way of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and its project to tackle tax-base erosion.

Facebook, in its US filing, noted the potential for its affairs to be affected by changes to US tax law, or those of other jurisdictions. As they put it, the US and other countries “are considering changes to their tax regimes in an effort to raise additional tax proceeds from companies such as Facebook”.

Ireland is the most important country in Facebook’s tax affairs after the US. Global revenue for 2012 was $5 billion, so Facebook Ireland’s €1.7 billion is a big part of its overall book. Given Ireland’s 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate, any OECD measure introduced to combat base erosion has the potential, if it goes our way, to see Ireland get a bigger chunk of the Facebook pie. Not to mention those of Microsoft, Google, and others.

Patching up pharma relationships
When Elan put itself on the market after its bruising battle with Royalty Pharma, US over-the-counter medicines group Perrigo seemed to appear out of nowhere to offer the company an alternative and more profitable exit from independent existence.

But Perrigo was not unknown to Elan. In fact, the companies’ connections go back 15 years and involve the product for which Elan first made a name for itself – the nicotine patch.

The patch was the brainchild of Elan founder Don Panoz, and was the reason for his establishment of a drug-delivery business in Athlone when he first arrived in the country to found Elan.

Initially the patch was a prescription product but, in 1999, Elan and its US partner, a then unheralded company called Perrigo, announced they had secured FDA approval to change the status of the patch to an over-the-counter product. And Perrigo secured the rights to market and distribute the patch in the US. The Elan executive behind the move was one Seamus Mulligan, then president of Elan Pharmaceutical Technologies.

A few years later Mulligan was credited with saving the company from collapse by masterminding an ambitious $2 billion asset sale programme.

Mulligan noted the irony of Perrigo returning all these years later to buy in its entirety the company which had effectively sold its cast-off product to it in 1999 when he addressed students this week at an entrepreneur’s day run by Trinity’s Biomedical Sciences Institute.

“Entrepreneurship is a bit like a migraine,” he said. “As you’ll know if you’ve ever had one, it’s fuzzy around the edges but clear at the core.” He advised wannabe start-ups to be focused on their project, not diverted by minor issues.

It’s clearly worked for Mulligan, who founded the very successful Azur Pharma on leaving Elan in 2004. When it was sold on to Jazz Pharma last year he held a 10 per cent stake in the merged entity which was worth over €100 million shortly after the deal closed.

Paying for banks’ tracker mortgage losses
The Macro-Financial Review issued yesterday by the Central Bank had little to say about the position of people with variable rate mortgages and how they might be protected from banks desperate to find sources of profit.

While the holders of tracker mortgages will remain “somewhat insulated”, it said, “ those with standard variable rate loans or fixed rate loans approaching renewal could face greater debt service burdens if there are interest rate rises from banks under pressure to rebuild margins and profitability or a general rise in interest rates”.

Of course, a general rise in interest rates, when it happens, could be an indicator of improved economic prospects in the euro zone, and so could be part of a beneficial turn in the wider economy. Meanwhile, the interest rates being charged by the banks are relatively low by historical standards. But that is of little comfort to households under financial stress, with large mortgages relative to their incomes, and who know the losses being incurred by the banks as a result of their neighbours’ tracker mortgages are, in part at least, being compensated for by increased margins on their loans.

The loss-making tracker mortgages become ever more loss-making with every ECB rate cut , increasing the pressure on the banks to shift their focus towards the vulnerable holders of variable mortgages.

The authorities continue to explore options to lower the funding cost of tracker mortgage portfolios, the review said, but gave no further detail. During the week, Irish Fiscal Advisory Council chairman Prof John McHale expressed his view that any deal that could look like one EU member state was being asked to lend its shoulder to the wheel in an effort to help another state’s banks deal with their tracker mortgages was likely the be a non-runner. But maybe some whizz kid somewhere can come up with a solution that is politically acceptable.

Meanwhile, those with variable rate mortgages, and especially those in negative equity, remain in a very vulnerable position. How, or if, they can be protected is an interesting question, though the banks have to play a balancing act between putting more pressure on their customers, and increasing the number of distressed loans on their books.

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