“George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in England, announced in The Financial Times in 2016 that he wants to lower the corporate income tax rate in the UK following Brexit. His aim is to attract investments from multinationals in the UK. As a result of severe economic adversity, Mr. Osborne faces a new reality that calls for government action. More than anything else, it has to be effective in the short term.
Some would call it ‘taking necessary action’. Others may be inclined to say it’s opportunistic.
Governments and the OECD are putting increasing pressure on multinationals to adhere to high moral standards and serve interests beyond the borders of their enterprise. The BEPS project was primarily aimed at reducing so-called ‘tax avoidance’, i.e. opportunistic tax planning by multinationals within the boundaries of law. According to the OECD member states, too many multinationals did not voluntarily choose the moral high road that governments and the EU are now trying to program into their navigation system through the implementation of BEPS.
But what about the tax morality of governments themselves?
Lowering corporate income tax rates has been a trend for many years and resembles opportunistic tax competition between countries. And what’s more: it is one of the main facilitators of the type of tax planning that governments are trying to end, which is arbitration by shifting profits to where they are taxed at a low(er) rate.
Where is Margaret Hodge when you really need her?
Hodge – former Chair of the British Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee – is famous for her statement during a public hearing of Amazon, Starbucks and Google in 2012:
“We’re not accusing you of being illegal, we’re accusing you of being immoral.”
Surely the envisaged lowering of the English corporate income tax rate would go through the democratic process and therefore be legal. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is opportunistic government behavior, aimed solely at improving the competitive position of Britain at the expense of tax revenues of other European countries.
Achieving short term goals by taking opportunistic action at the expense of others… Rings a bell?
Britain is not alone. Amongst others, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently announced in Le Parisien that France is investigating ways to persuade bankers leaving the City to move to Paris. The French government is considering to incentivize multinationals through reduction of taxes. The Dutch prime Minister Rutte was quick to state that there is flexibility in the Dutch restrictions for bankers’ bonus schedules, a heritage of the 2008 financial breakdown.
Where governments require multinationals to look beyond their own interests and refrain from opportunistic behavior within the boundaries of law, why should there be no moral obligation for governments to look beyond their own borders and domestic interests in designing tax policies?
Mr. Osborne’s plans are logical, lucid and legal. It’s not my position to judge Mr. Osborne nor his plans. But please, governments in general and the UK government in particular: be careful in passing moral judgment on multinationals that also use taxes to achieve short terms goals and optimize their competitive position.