Corporate tax system will have to change – but when?

Calls for change is not about 12.5% corporate tax rate, but trappings alongside it

The Government’s ongoing review of the corporate tax regime follows relentless international pressure over the tax strategies deployed in Ireland by big American groups such as Apple and Google

The Government’s ongoing review of the corporate tax regime follows relentless international pressure over the tax strategies deployed in Ireland by big American groups such as Apple and Google

Wed, Aug 27, 2014, 01:01

The Government’s ongoing review of the corporate tax regime follows relentless international pressure over the tax strategies deployed in Ireland by big American groups such as Apple and Google.

Talk of unilateral Irish action has been met with scepticism in the world of business. Submissions to the Department of Finance from organisations such as the Tax Executives Institute in Washington and from a host of Irish-based bodies suggest that a pre-emptive move by Government would be likely to receive a cold response from many participants in the Irish market. That said, other senior figures involved in the Irish tax world believe change is inevitable and that the Government should seek to gain an advantage by moving early.

This is not about the 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate, but the trappings that have developed alongside it which have greatly boosted Ireland’s lustre for international investors. The outside world has duly taken note.

The pressure on Dublin in recent years has come from Washington, Berlin and Paris and it reflects concern among global leaders that too many large corporations are too aggressive in their drive to maximise profits and minimise tax payments.

With governments around the world forced into huge public bailouts of the banking system at the height of the financial crisis, the argument goes that assertive international action is now required to ensure business pays its fair share of tax. This presents a problem, however, as companies can move faster to shield their income from tax collectors than governments can move to prise more payments from them.

Given the ease with which companies can move money around the global financial system, there is a further difficulty. Companies can respond to interventions by one government by moving assets or activities elsewhere to ensure their net tax payments do not increase.

This is the backdrop to moves by global leaders, US president Barack Obama among them, to seek an overhaul of business taxation around the world, the basic aim being to avoid tax seepage through collective global action.

The leaders instructed the OECD in Paris to examine how to curtail base erosion and profit-shifting (BEPS) schemes, which global firms use to cut their tax payments. The process has political support at high level. The governments of each of the Group of 20 (G20) advanced and developing countries are wedded to the cause of stamping out aggressive tax avoidance.

Ireland is in the frame mainly because of the large number of international groups that have taken advantage of attractive tax rules introduced by successive finance ministers. This has become something of a specialism for legions of accountants and tax lawyers in Dublin but Ireland is not alone in this regard. The Netherlands and Luxembourg have highly advanced tax systems calibrated to maximise foreign direct investment.

Although tax is not the only feature of Ireland’s foreign direct investment policy, it is a major one. Taoiseach Enda Kenny spurned a Franco-German assault on Ireland’s low corporate rate during the EU-IMF bailout, but the pressure persisted.

Controversy in the US over Apple’s tax arrangements in Ireland prompted a move in Budget 2014 last October to scrap some of the mechanisms it deploys here. The question has not gone away, however. The European Commission recently initiated a state-aid examination into Apple’s Irish tax scheme. The Government argues the investigation is groundless, but it serves to highlight the acute sensitivity that attaches to Ireland’s corporate tax regime.

This is on top of controversy over the “double Irish” tax mechanism, which enables global companies such as Google to minimise tax by exploiting differences between the law in Ireland and that in other countries.

The Irish authorities used to insist there was no reason to rethink tax policy. The bottom line now, however, is that international momentum for change is becoming more difficult to resist.

The budget manoeuvre in Apple last year demonstrates that the international criticism has stung and that the Government is concerned to avoid further reputational damage to Ireland’s foreign direct investment efforts, which is central to its effort to revive the economy.

In Coalition circles now, the sense is that the “double Irish” has become too controversial and should be wound down. The question, however, is when.

At issue in a review by the Department of Finance is whether Ireland moves before the OECD process concludes or awaits the final outcome.

Some professional observers believe Ireland would secure a longer phasing out period by moving unilaterally to scrap the “double Irish” scheme. Others, however, see potential here to disrupt the activities of companies whose activities here have brought enormous economic benefit.

All of these questions will be teased out repeatedly as the Government prepares for Budget 2015 in mid-October.