Friday, May 29, 2009

Law Street in The Economic Times (May 2009)

Dear Readers,
Our Finance Bill is to be tabled in early July, our next column shall deal with what we truly need by way of tax reforms. For now, international tax policy reforms advocated by the Obama administration have truly upset the globalisation apple cart. Do we need protectionist measures? Zenobia Aunty thinks what we need are universal stimulus packages. For more, click here.
As always, for your convenience, the column is also pasted below.
Have a nice weekend.
Best regards,
(Photograph taken from the official website of then Senator Barak Obama)

The circle of taxes

• Local policies must not dent globalization
• Global competiveness is the key to survival
• Countries must adopt progressive tax policies

This columnist vaguely remembers watching her elder cousins sip cold fizzy Coke from a bottle in the mid 1970s, which she as a toddler prone to frequent bouts of allergic cold was not allowed to touch.

Zenobia Aunty, the ever generous Aunt, who took us kids to Chowpatty beach over weekends, would ignore my plaintive cries for just a sip. A few years later, Coke, had to exit India. However, Coke made a comeback in 1990s and it has been part of my staple quick-fix diet, ever since.

Somehow, the international tax proposals recently announced by Prez Obama, made this columnist think of Coke. In an era, where companies play in the world market and are not confined to local spaces, one wonders whether these proposals will result in localization of companies. Companies of US origin are today, brand names not only in the US but across the world. Coke, is just but one example.

Zenobia Aunty is of the firm view that there should be a strong demarcating line between abuse of tax havens, setting up of sham companies merely to get a tax break and genuine global business operations. Unfortunately, Prez Obama’s international tax policy announcements appear to have blurred this distinction.

Let us just concentrate on one such proposal. The reform deferral proposal requires US companies to defer deductions in the US, if such deductions (with the sole exception being R&D) are associated with foreign income, until such time that the income is brought back to the US and is subject to US tax.

A press note by the US Treasury provides an illustration: Suppose that two US companies decided to borrow to invest in a new factory. Company A invests that money to build its plants in US, while Company B invests overseas in a jurisdiction with a tax rate of only 10 per cent.

Now Company A will be able to deduct its interest expense, reducing its overall US tax liability by 35 cents for every dollar it pays in interest. But it will also pay a 35 per cent tax rate on its corporate profits. On the other hand, Company B will also be able to deduct its interest expense from the US tax liabilities at a 35 per cent rate. But it will only face a tax of 10 per cent on its profits. Thus, our current tax code uses US tax payer dollars to put companies that invest in the US at a competitive disadvantage with companies who invest overseas.

Zenobia Aunty doesn’t quite understand it. Today the world is a consumer - does this mean that US companies with existing subsidiaries should just pack up and go? Fortunately, the Congress is yet to deliberate upon these proposals, which have been announced with an effective date of January 1, 2011.

Perhaps some exceptions to the norm should be carved out for genuine business operations. True, it amounts to a deferral of the expense, but it will impact the immediate cash flow status of a US company with global operations. At times, dividends may not be repatriated back with a long term view to expand overseas operations and earn more profits – which ultimately would flow back to the US parent.

Citizens for Justice, a US non profit group focusing on tax research, in a press note points out: “Most of the corporate practices the administration wants to crack down on probably don’t even involve companies that are truly competing abroad. Rather, they involve companies operating within the United States but using sham transactions to make their income appear to be earned abroad, so that the U.S. taxes on that income can be ‘deferred’ (meaning ‘not paid’).”

Zenobia Aunty agrees that this may be true, but argues that genuine business needs will be hurt. To this, this association has another point of view. It states:
“Even in cases where U.S. multinational companies are carrying out real business in a foreign country, their competition with other companies in that country is generally based on the price they charge for their products. Corporate income taxes don’t affect the price a foreign subsidiary can charge so much as they affect the dividends the U.S. owners receive.” Well, corporate income taxes do impact profitability and profitability does impact the ability of a company to compete. It is not just about pricing.

But coming back to US policies, the only exception that has been carved out is in respect of R&D expenditure because of the positive spill-over impact of these investments on the US economy. However, the Citizens for Justice Forum opines that: Unfortunately, this exception is a boon to the companies who are among the worst abusers of deferral, the tech and pharmaceutical companies.

It sure isn’t easy to please everyone. But, one can only hope that the US Congress will think it over rationally and the policies that will be put in place will be those that not only help the US economy back on the track but also will not stem the process of globalization.

Interestingly both Japan and UK have made receipt of foreign dividends exempt in their respective home jurisdictions. One hopes India adopts a similar progressive stand. What we need today are universal stimulus packages. Increasing protectionism and localization sounds scarier than a horror movie.

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