The row over taxing big tech firms heats up

【双语】数字鸿沟 Digital divide-书迷号

WHEN G20 FINANCE ministers met on July 18th and 19th, avoiding a new trade war was high on the agenda. Cash-strapped governments around the world are planning to whack taxes on online services. But America regards these as a grab for its companies’ profits, and is considering retaliation against ten digital-tax proposals. On July 10th it said it would respond to France’s tax by hitting French handbags, lipstick and soap with tariffs of 25%. Unless a truce is struck, the tariffs will go into effect in January.


The root cause of the dispute is a flaw in the international tax system. In order to avoid taxing businesses twice, governments typically apply the corporate tax to firms that are legally domiciled on their shores or have a local physical base, and link the amount due to the location of their assets and production. But now many companies provide online services and can shift intellectual property to low-tax regimes with the click of a button. A system intended to stop profits being taxed too much allows them to be taxed too little.


In 2017 40% of profits made by multinational firms outside their home country were shifted to tax havens, reckon Thomas Torslov, now at the Danish Ministry of Taxation, and Ludvig Wier and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California, Berkeley. That meant more than $200bn in forgone tax revenue, equivalent to 10% of global corporate-tax receipts. This is a relatively small amount: by comparison, governments worldwide have unleashed stimulus of $5.4trn in response to covid-19. But it is symbolically important and rightly irks taxpayers, who must fill the hole.

据任职于丹麦税务部的托马斯·托尔斯洛夫(Thomas Torslov)以及加州大学伯克利分校的路德维格·维尔(Ludvig Wier)和加布里埃尔·祖克曼(Gabriel Zucman)估算,2017年跨国公司在母国之外赚取的利润中有40%被转移到了避税天堂。这意味着2000多亿美元的税收付诸东流,相当于全球公司税收入的10%。这个数额相对较小——各国政府针对新冠疫情推出的刺激计划规模达5.4万亿美元。但这笔钱具有重要的象征意义,而且让纳税人不满,这也合情合理,因为缺口得由他们来填补。

For several years now, the OECD, a club of rich countries, has convened governments in the hope of plugging the tax leaks. The idea was that the G20 meeting would lay the groundwork so that the OECD’s summit, planned for October, yields results.


The talks cover two proposals, or “pillars”, in OECD-speak. The first is meant to direct more of the global-tax take towards places where the customers of digital firms live. Corporate-tax liability will depend not on whether companies are physically present in a country, but on whether they have a “sustained and significant involvement” there. Pillar two establishes a global minimum tax. The OECD reckons that the two proposals could together raise corporate-tax revenue by up to 4%.


Pillar two has the greater chance of being agreed—and would raise more revenue. The idea of a global minimum is to blunt companies’ incentives to shift profits to low-tax jurisdictions. There is still some haggling to be done. But some sort of agreement should be possible, if only because governments can go it alone. The Americans, for example, enacted a version in 2017, with a tax on global intangible low-taxed income (GILTI). Havens can offer all the perks they want, but American companies still face a rate of at least 10.5% on GILTI associated with their foreign affiliates.


That might explain why Steven Mnuchin, America’s treasury secretary, was reasonably positive about the second pillar in June. But he wants to put talks on the first on hold. In December he proposed that the new system should be optional for American firms. The suggestion, which would in effect neuter any new rules, was badly received by other countries. But as it stands, the OECD’s plan is unbalanced: it asks America to hand over the right to tax its companies to other countries, without getting much in return.

这或许可以解释为何美国财长史蒂芬·姆努钦(Steven Mnuchin)在6月表达出对支柱二较肯定的态度。但他想搁置关于支柱一的谈判。去年12月,他提出美国公司应该可以选择是否加入新的税收制度。该提议实际会让任何新规则都失去意义,其他国家对此非常不满。但目前而言经合组织的计划也不够公正:它要求美国把对本国公司的课税权移交给其他国家,却没有给美国什么对等的益处。

Without an agreement on pillar one that divvies up tax rights, a proliferation of digital-tax schemes seems likely. (The European Union’s resolve to implement one may have been stiffened by its loss on July 15th of a big tax case against Apple.) These taxes are a much cruder fix than a pillar-one solution. Companies could face a stack of competing tax bills. The levies also mostly apply to revenues rather than profits, and often try to exempt domestic champions. To top it all off, they are a recipe for trade conflict. ■