Bill Black: The “Magical Fairyland” of Corporate Tax Scams

Yves here. Brace yourself for the perverse spectacle of Republicans and their US corporate masters whinging about tax rates when effective corporate tax rates are super low by historical standards, in large measure due to clever tax structuring and the use of tax havens.

The European Union has made a show of cracking down on Ireland as a tax scam, um, tax haven for its low corporate tax rate, while leaving the even more flagrant destination of Luxembourg untouched. A newly-relesed report shed some light on the scale of the Luxembourg tax scam, which is now leading to some official kabuki as to what to do about it. What goes unsaid is the degree to which the US and UK are top players in tax avoidance, the US through destinations here (including Delaware and Wyoming limited liability corporations) and the Caymans, the haven preferred by US banks. In the UK, the City has its own network of preferred tax haven, including the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Bermuda.

By Bill Black, the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One and an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Originally published at New Economic Perspectives

I’m in Kilkenny, Ireland where Kilkenomics V begins tonight. Kilkenomics is the economics festival in which economists and professional comedians combine to produce a blunt presentation of issues involving economics that have enormous effects on our lives. One of the traditions of Kilkenomics is that the travesty of some act by the Troika (the European Central Bank (ECB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Commission (EC)) is revealed just in time to kick off the festival. This year, the Troika produced a double-barreled blast. First, the ECB’s November 2010 letter extorting the Irish government to inflict austerity and produce a second Great Recession in Ireland was leaked.

But it was a second leak that revealed a scam that could have even more critical political implications for Ireland, the EU, and the UK. The scam is what a former senior U.S. tax official aptly labeled the “magical fairyland” that is Luxembourg when it comes to corporate (non) taxation. Luxembourg is one of the most notorious tax havens in the world. While U.S. firms are the worst actors in this (im)morality play, UK firms are also huge players. But Ireland also plays a role in which massive corporations reduce their taxes to single digits by combining Ireland’s and Luxembourg’s penchant for aiding foreign corporations to evade nearly all taxes.

This will likely become a serious political issue in the UK for several reasons. First, the head of the EC is Luxembourg’s former Prime Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker. The great bulk of Luxembourg’s increasingly infamous “let’s make a (secret) deal” tax scams were done under Juncker’s leadership and Juncker has been a leading apologist for the deals. Second, the UK’s PM, David Cameron, made it his personal mission to try to block Juncker from being made head of the EC. Cameron, who loves austerity, did not criticize Juncker on the basis of Juncker’s self-destructive demands for austerity. Cameron’s critique was that Juncker favored EU bureaucratic power. Cameron’s effort to block Juncker was routed. Cameron’s defeat was seen as increasing the chances that the UK would eventually vote to leave the EU.

Third, Northern Ireland’s economy is in deep trouble, in part due to the UK’s austerity while Eire, fueled in no small part by its aggressive role as a tax haven, is (finally) recovering. Indeed, in the valley of the blind that is the eurozone, the Irish economy now reigns. Powerful Northern Ireland politicians are demanding that their province’s corporate tax rates be slashed to match the Republic of Ireland. All of this, in conjunction with Cameron’s demands for changes in EU internal migration policies, increases the chances of the UK exiting the EU. Given the eurozone’s pathetic economic results – produced by German diktats to inflict self-destructive austerity – the prospect of the leading financial power in the EU choosing to exit what has been exposed as a non-“union” is deeply unsettling.

Fourth, the EC is “investigating” Luxembourg’s “let’s make a deal” corporate tax scams. Luxembourg is stonewalling the EC. Juncker runs the EC and has already proclaimed that Luxembourg is innocent of all scams. Any real investigation would implicate not just Luxembourg, but Juncker and his top political allies as well as many of the leading EU firms – particularly in the UK – and Ireland. Whether Luxembourg continues to stonewall and prevail (which is the smart bet) or there is a real investigation and crack down the results are likely to increase the likelihood of an UK exit from the EU.

Will Cameron cite the new revelations about the scandals in Luxembourg under Juncker’s rule? “I told you so” is so sweet that it is hard to pass up the opportunity. We’ll see whether Cameron calls on Juncker to resign and clear the way for a real investigation of Luxembourg.

Oh, and the empty suits posing as President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder could end the scam by making public the results of their investigations and prosecuting the senior corporate officers and the top tier audit firms leading these secret deals that have created a “Gresham’s” dynamic in corporate taxation. The worst firms gain the greatest competitive advantage by buying influence in the worst tax havens. Remember that the worst firms are predominately (nominally) U.S. firms.

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  1. hunkerdown

    Yves: “The European Union has made a show of cracking down on Ireland as a tax scam, um, tax haven for its low corporate tax rate, while leaving the even more flagrant destination of Luxembourg untouched.”

    The angle that comes immediately to mind is, to whom are Lux and Ireland respectively useful as tax havens? Could this move be an attack on certain nations complicit in setting Europe and Russia against each other, meant in part to give the oligarchs of a particular nation whose drunken calls to “let’s you and him fight” just cheesed off farmers across the Union?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      No, Luxembourg has marketed itself forever to financial firms. The Luxembourg government regularly holds seminars in New York as to how to set up funds there. It has also long been a favorite destination for middle/upper middle class Europeans. Even when I was a kid, back in the 1980s, doing a study out of McKinsey’s London office, you’d hear regular mention of Belgian dentists as the prototype of the person who’d haul cash in their car to Luxembourg to stash in a bank account there.

      Russians hide their money in UK banks and property. The less rich Russians would have a summer place in Cyprus.

  2. Chris in Paris

    Under the category of wishful thinking: Instead of a trans-Atlantic treaty ceding more democratic power to the corporate elite, we should be working on a tax treaty that closes all these scams and rescinds tax authority ruling letters.

    1. susan the other

      Maybe that’s part of Juncker’s angle. The tax scams must pay out good kickbacks to pols like Juncker. So when he came out against the TTIP the other day – which was astonishing – maybe he was protecting his turf. In that if corporations get their way in these trade deals which allow them to go after investor losses by demanding damages be paid by taxpayers – then maybe there is a quid pro quo that limits tax havens. Also an excellent reason for keeping these deals secret.

      1. susan the other

        Then that would also explain David Cameron’s sweaty confusion. He’d rather leave the EU than give up lucrative tax havens.

  3. Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

    Monetarily Sovereign governments (U.S., Canada, Australia, China, et al) have no need for taxes, so why tax corporations? They are the entities that grow the economy.

    Monetarily non-sovereign governments (local governments, euro nations) do need taxes, so the question becomes, where best to get the tax money? Corporations probably would be low on the list. At the top of the list: Rich individuals (to narrow the gap between the rich and the rest).

    1. financial matters

      I think that’s an interesting point. Mazzucato is all about corporations ‘paying’ for their use of publicly generated knowledge and infrastructure but there are other ways of doing this. She notes that corporations tend to flock to areas that show innovative advances for their products even more than to tax havens. I’m interested to see what comes of her collaboration with Randy Wray.

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