Age of currency disruption is here

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

It is unusual for the World Economic Forum’s Davos conference, held every year at the end of January, to be genuinely significant. But it seems this one was. Davos 2020 made clear that we are now living through a monetary reform era comparable to the great monetary events of the twentieth century.

The end of the gold standard, the creation of the Bretton Woods system in 1944, and that system’s collapse in the 1970s all brought about massive, structural economic changes. Our new age – the age of digital money competition – is likely to be just as disruptive.

At Davos the World Economic Forum announced a global consortium for the cross-border governance of digital currencies (including the class of cryptocurrencies stabilised against fiat money known as ‘stablecoins’) and a toolkit for the world’s central banks to establish their own digital central bank currencies.

The details of these Davos initiatives are less important than what they symbolise. Central banks have been experimenting with fully digital currencies for at least half a decade, ever since Bitcoin received its first big waves of press. But their experiments are suddenly urgent, for both commercial and geopolitical reasons.

On the one side, the Facebook-led Libra digital currency project offers a vision of corporate-sponsored non-state private money. On the other side, China is fast-tracking the development of a fully digital yuan, with a barely disguised goal to challenge the American dollar’s domination through technological innovation. Both projects create enormous problems for the rest of the world’s central banks – let alone finance regulators and foreign policy strategists.

Libra has been faced with a concerted hostile attack from central banks and regulators – an attack that begun literally the day it was announced in June last year. Many of the Libra consortium have been pressured into withdrawing from the project.

Mastercard, Stripe and Visa withdrew after they received a letter from US Senators in October declaring that if they stayed in Libra they could “expect a high level of scrutiny from regulators not only on Libra-related payment activities, but on all payment activities”. The Bank of France chief declared last week that “Currency cannot be private, money is a public good of sovereignty”, and the French finance minister has warned that Libra is not welcome in Europe.

This mafia-like behaviour from American and European regulators is short-sighted – astonishingly so. Whether Libra ends up being a successful global corporate currency or not, it represents a powerful and competitive counterbalance to the Chinese digital yuan.

Details have been dribbling out about the digital yuan since it was revealed in August last year. Its key feature is that it is fully centralised. The People’s Bank of China will have complete visibility over over financial flows, including the ability to control transactions tied to an individual consumer’s identity. This offers China the digital infrastructure for a type of financial repression that is without historical parallel.

And adoption is basically assured. The Chinese government can coerce financial institutions to adopt the digital yuan, if necessary, and can exploit the remarkably strong hold that digital payments like WeChat Pay and AliPay have on Chinese commerce.

Let us hope there are some serious strategists thinking about what happens if this digital currency becomes part of China’s foreign policy toolkit – what the consequences of yuan-isation will be for those countries torn between the Chinese and American spheres of influence.

This is the context in which the many of the world’s central bankers came to Davos to spruik their own digital currencies. More than 50 central banks surveyed by the Bank of International Settlements are working on some form of digital currency, and half a dozen have moved to the pilot project stage. Our Reserve Bank told a Senate committee in January that it too has been secretly working on an all-digital Australian dollar.

And of course in the background to this monetary competition between the corporate sector and the government sector is the slowly growing adoption of fully decentralised cryptocurrencies – the decade-old technology that first sparked these waves of monetary innovation.

The global monetary system of 2020s will be a regulatory and financial contest between these three forms of all-digital money: central bank digital currencies, corporate digital currencies, and cryptocurrencies. The contest has profound significance for the ability for governments to control capital flows across international borders, for financial privacy, for tax collection, and obviously monetary policy.

China has the authoritarian power to force adoption of its central bank digital currency. Countries like Australia do not. So it is not obvious which form of money will eventually dominate.

National governments have had nearly absolute control over national currencies for at least a hundred years, in some cases much longer.

The end of the Bretton Woods system in the 1970s incited a generation of economic reform, as domestic policymakers discovered that Bretton Woods had been propping up all sorts of regulatory controls, trade barriers and even labour restrictions.

We’re about to discover what centuries of state monopoly over money has propped up.

Automating the big state will need more than computers

Robodebt – the automated Centrelink debt issuance program that was found invalid by a federal court last month – is not just an embarrassment for the government. It is the first truly twenty-first century administrative policy debacle.

Australian governments and regulators increasingly want to automate public administrative processes and regulatory compliance, taking advantage of new generations of technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain to provide better services and controls with lower bureaucratic costs. There are good reasons for this. But our would-be reformers will need to study how robodebt went wrong if they want to get automation right.

The robodebt program (officially described as a new online compliance intervention system) was established in 2016 to automate the monitoring and enforcement of welfare fraud. Robodebt compared an individual’s historical Centrelink payments with their averaged historical income (according to tax returns held by the Australian Taxation Office). If the Centrelink recipient had earned more money than they were entitled to under Centrelink rules, then the system automatically issued a debt notice.

That was how it was supposed to work. In practice robodebt was poorly designed, sending out notices when no debt actually existed. Around 20 per cent of debts issued were eventually waived or reduced. The fact that those who bore the brunt of these errors had limited financial resources to contest their debts contributed to robodebt’s cruelty. In November, the federal court declared that debts calculated using the income average approach had not been validly made, and the government has now abandoned the approach.

Automation in government has a lot of promise, and a lot of advocates. Urban planners are increasingly using AI to predict and affect transport flows. The Australian Senate is inquiring into the use of technology for regulatory compliance (‘regtech’) particularly in the finance sector. Some regulatory frameworks are so byzantine that regulated firms have to use frontier technologies just to meet bare compliance rules: Australia’s adoption of the Basel II capital accords led to major changes in IT systems. And the open banking standards being developed by CSIRO’s Data61 promise deeper technological integration between private and public sectors.

Regulatory compliance costs can be incredibly high. The Institute of Public Affairs has estimated that red tape costs the economy around 11 per cent of GDP in foregone output. The cost of public administration to the taxpayer is considerably more. Anything that lowers these costs is desirable.

But robodebt shows us how attempts to reduce the cost of administration and regulatory compliance can be harmful when done incompetently. The reason is built into the modern philosophy of government.

Economists distinguish between administrative regimes governed by discretion and those governed by rules. The prototypical example here is monetary policy. Rules-based monetary policies, where central banks are required to meet targets fixed in advance, are less flexible (as the RBA, which has consistently failed to meet its inflation target is keenly aware) but at the same time provide a lot more certainty to the economy. And while discretionary regimes are flexible, they also vest a lot of power in unelected bureaucrats and regulators, which comes at the cost of democratic legitimacy.

Automation in government is possible when we have clear rules that can be automated. If we are going to build administrative and compliance processes into code, we need to be very specific about what those processes actually are. But since the sharp growth of the regulatory state in the 1980s governments have increasingly relied less on rules and more on discretion. ASIC’s shrinks-in-the-boardroom approach to corporate governance is almost a parody of the discretionary style.

The program of automating public administration is therefore a massive task of converting – or at least adapting – decades of built up discretionary systems into rules-based ones. This was where robodebt fell over. Before robodebt, individual human bureaucrats had to manually process welfare compliance, which gave them some discretion to second-guess whether debt notices should be sent. Automating the process removed that discretion.

The move from discretion to rules is, to be clear, a task very much worth doing. Discretionary administration feeds economic uncertainty, and ultimately lowers economic growth. We have a historically unique opportunity to reduce the regulatory burden and reassert democratic control over the non-democratic regulatory empires that have been building up.

Of course, public administration-by-algorithm is only as effective (or fair, or just, or efficient) as those who write the algorithm build it to be. There’s a lot of discussion at the moment in technology circles about AI bias. But biased or counterproductive administrative systems are not a new problem. Even the best-intentioned regulations can be harmful if poorly designed, or if bureaucrats decide to use discretion in their interest rather than the public interest.

Robodebt failed because of an incompetent attempt to change a discretionary system to a rules-based system, which was then compounded by political disregard for the effect of policy on welfare recipients. But robodebt is also a warning for the rest of government. The benefits of technology for public administration won’t be quickly or easily realised.

Because when we talk about public sector automation, we’re not just talking about a technical upgrade. We’re talking about an overhaul of the regulatory state itself.

Facebook’s monetary revolution

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

With its new digital money, Libra, a Facebook-led global consortium has created the world’s first private international reserve currency.

Announced on Wednesday, this is no small thing. For the first time since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system there is a clear competitor to the US dollar for global dominance in the currency market.

For simplicity’s sake think of Libra as a return to the global gold standard. But rather than governments setting the rules and exchange rates, with gold being the underlying store of value, we’re seeing a private organisation setting the rules and a portfolio of relatively risk-free assets playing the role of gold.

To be clear – Libra is not a cryptocurrency like, say, Bitcoin; but it has many Bitcoin-like characteristics. It is a private money. It is not government money – ultimately fiat is backed only by the taxing powers of the state. Libra will be backed by tangible assets.

Rather than Bitcoin, Libra is more like PayPal, or WeChat Pay, on steroids – a payment gateway and a new money system all rolled into one. This is perhaps a good halfway house to introduce the world to the concept of non-government digital money.

The implications are huge. Facebook has disrupted digital money in a way central banks and the commercial banking system never could. Facebook has brand recognition that even the global banks must envy.

For those consumers who may baulk at using Facebook to transact, other large tech companies cannot be far behind with their own products. So what now?

We predict a large uptake in these digital money products. Largely because consumers tend to emphasise convenience. Libra will very quickly achieve global acceptance among consumers and merchants. If that prediction comes true, many other firms will launch their own competing monetary systems. In short, there is going to be a lot of competition in this space in the very near future.

The short-term consequences include the immediate disruption of the remittance market. Those companies charging exorbitant fees to move money around the world will see their rivers of gold drying up. Debit cards will also quickly become redundant – accelerating the move to phone-based tap and pay systems. The world’s “unbanked” will quickly become “banked”.

There are other immediate practical concerns. Within the next year, both Australian consumers and merchants will be wanting to use Libra. How will this be done? How will it be taxed? Will it be taxed? But any work that has been done so far on these questions has come in the context of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency – an extremely niche market. A general use private money has simply not been on the radar.

Those central banks that tolerate high rates of inflation will see disintermediation. Governments that pursue irresponsible fiscal policies will see even greater capital flight. Ironically the presence of a convenient, sound and private digital money will provide incentives to institutionally challenged governments to lift their game or lose total control over their domestic policy environments.

Every country in the world faces policy challenges from a viable private international reserve currency. Control over the monetary system lies at the heart of the modern economy. A viable alternative to fiat currency, with international mobility, undermines both the conduct of monetary policy and fiscal policy.

No doubt governments and their regulators will be looking very closely at Libra. They may treat it as a threat. But it is an opportunity for a forward-thinking government. It should come as no surprise that Libra is being set up in Switzerland. They have sensible laws relating to financial matters. The question we should be asking is why Australia isn’t being considered as a location for these products?

Australia should consider becoming a currency haven. Not only should a suite of policies be developed that facilitates the use of a private international reserve currency within Australia, a suite of policies that attracts the providers of such currencies to Australia should be considered. The use of Australian markets to purchase the underlying assets should encouraged and especially the inclusion of Australian assets in those portfolios should be encouraged.

With the announcement of Libra, the global monetary system – and arguably the structures of global financial capitalism – changed irreversibly. And just 10 years after the invention of Bitcoin and blockchain technology. The rate of disruptive innovation is only going to accelerate.

How well Australia adapts to this change will be determined over the next six months. Libra is coming in 2020. Regulatory obstruction is simply not an option.

ABC is about partisanship not diversity

With Sinclair Davidson

The difference between the ABC and Fairfax and News Ltd is that the ABC is a $1 billion government program that provides media services to Australians. Fairfax and News Ltd are private entities that do so at their own expense and hope to earn a profit. Those small details were missing from Laura Tingle’s defence of the ABC published in Weekend AFR.

As such we can expect somewhat different behaviour from the national broadcaster than from the private sector. Indeed, holding the public sector to a different standard is commonplace in our society. The ABC, very often, wants to have it both ways. For example, paying its employees market rates of pay when they don’t have to compete in marketplace for income.

But some criticism of the ABC is unfair. Of course the ABC would send journalists to cover the recent royal wedding. As every other serious media organisation did. That, however, should not detract from the mounting criticism that is being levelled at the ABC.

For all its protestations of “independence” the ABC as a large and generously funded government program can and should be scrutinised by government, the Opposition, and ultimately the taxpayers who pay for it. Having embedded itself into the Australian psyche and culture the ABC has managed to avoid serious scrutiny for a long time. The ABC – like all government programs – should be an election issue at every election.

To justify its existence the ABC and its supporters posit a range of mostly overlapping rationales. We hear a lot about independence, quality and diversity. Less about being a market-failure broadcaster. Rural subsidy also appears to play a role in justifying the ABC’s existence – although it seems to be very Sydney-centric for a rural audience. It was the diversity argument that Laura Tingle emphasised at the weekend.

>But it isn’t quite clear what is meant by the term “diversity”. The idea that media markets might lack diversity has its origins in a famous spatial economic model by the mathematical economist Harold Hotelling. In his model, firms, in a market with a small number of firms and not competing on price, would offer near identical products. Hotelling believed this explained the “excessive sameness” in capitalist markets. That is an interesting model but it does not explain the creation of public broadcasters in Australia and the UK.

To the contrary, public broadcasting in the UK was introduced explicitly to reduce diversity – the perceived cacophony and anarchy of radio broadcasting seen in the United States. The ABC was designed to follow the BBC model (albeit with a small commercial sector alongside). To argue that the ABC provides diversity where the private sector does not is entirely incorrect. What the ABC does is provide those very same services without having to attract an audience.

A generous interpretation of that feature is that there are some media services that should be provided that the private sector won’t provide. But it is difficult to imagine what those services might be. In any event, the ABC explicitly denies that it is a market-failure provider.

What the ABC does provide in excess, however, is partisanship. Any media organisation should be ashamed to be told that it is reporting political falsehoods as facts. Yet Mitch Fifield – the Minister for Communication and (very) nominally responsible for the ABC, did just that. No doubt he’ll be told something about consistency with “editorial standards”.

Those would be the same editorial standards that saw Emma Alberici publish Labor talking points on company tax cuts as if they were uncontroversial facts. The same editorial standards that saw two News Ltd journalists compared to a mass murderer just last week. Yet we are supposed to be fed up with News Ltd antics.

Let’s be blunt here: the ABC burns through $1 billion of taxpayers’ money every year. Not shareholder money, not a mogul’s money. Taxpayer money. The ABC is a not a blog run on a shoestring, or out of someone’s basement. To argue that being left-partisan is simply to compensate for right-partisanship in the commercial sector is to disfranchise all those coalition voters who pay for the ABC. Australians do not expect their government agencies – even nominally independent agencies – to exclude other Australians without excellent reason.

The problem with Nobel laureate Richard Thaler’s nudgonomics

With Sinclair Davidson

Economists have spent the last 240 years – ever since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations – trying to understand how decentralised economies work. In that time they have established that the price mechanism does a pretty good job of coordinating economic activity, and that profits provide excellent incentives to stimulate human action.

In the course of understanding how economies operate, economists have had to develop a working model of human behaviour, and various simplifying assumptions have been made. An example of such an assumption is that people are pretty smart, and best know their own self-interest. That is the so-called rationality assumption.

But, of course, there are many rationality assumptions. Standard economic theory maintains what can be described as ‘strong-form’ rationality. In this view of rationality, the human brain is an unlimited resource and can easily and quickly compute all outcomes and make choices that maximise satisfaction and well-being.

Then there is a ‘semi-strong form’ of rationality – bounded rationality – associated with 1978 economics laureate Herbert Simon. He suggested that people intend to be rational but that there are limits to rationality. Finally ‘weak-form’ rationality, associated with the Austrian school, suggests that people economise on their brain power as they would any other resource and make use of rules of thumb and heuristics to make choices and decisions.

So the notion that economists have a single dogmatic view of human behaviour and rationality is something of a straw man, if not actually a whipping boy when non-economists debate economists.

Enter into this milieu Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, and the latest economics laureate awarded for his work in behavioural economics. Thaler is a worthy Nobel winner. He has successfully challenged the mainstream and standard assumption of strong-form rationality. He has brought respectability to what would have been heresy as recently as the 1970s. Many of the insights of his research agenda and his followers have been profound, others have been trivial. That is to be expected from any productive scholar and intellectual movement.

What is unexpected is how successful behavioural economics has been in a policy sense. Popularly and politically, Thaler is best known for his book Nudge, written with Cass Sunstein. This remarkable book both established a new theoretical framework for government intervention and successfully marketed it to the governing class.

Nudge was published in 2008. By 2010, the Conservative government in Britain had established a ‘nudge unit’ within the Cabinet Office. Many other governments have followed suit. The rapid leap that nudge theory made from seminar room to law-of-the-land has been unprecedented.

These days, lots of policies are routinely described as ‘nudges’, and the word is as much a political branding exercise as anything. But Thaler and Sunstein were very specific about what they meant by a nudge. As they describe it, we all have two ‘semiautonomous’ selves: the ‘doer’ and the ‘planner’. The doer is irrational – thinking only about the short term and gratuitous pleasures. The planner is rational – thinking about the future, focusing on getting healthy and saving money.

The planner makes the best choices; the planner makes the choices we don’t regret and would make again. In nudge theory, government should design systems that allow us to favour what our planner selves would rather do, rather than our reckless doer selves.

In this way, Thaler and Sunstein avoid one of the central critiques of the nanny state – the nanny state wants to impose its own preferences on others. Both the planner and doer’s preferences are our own. We still get to choose. Thaler and Sunstein describe nudge theory as ‘libertarian’ paternalism.

But it has some serious practical and conceptual problems.

Rather than just leaving choice to the market, nudge theory says the government should try to discern a set of best preferences from our worst ones – but not impose its own. Then it should regulate the economy so it favours the choices of our planner selves, but doesn’t force us into any specific choice. This sounds like hard work for a government.

More fundamentally, is it true that we have two separate, distinct selves? Nudge theory needs there to be two distinct systems so the government can choose between them. ‘Dual systems’ theory, as it was known in the psychological literature, has now been replaced by theories that describe our cognitive processes as a continuum or graphical space. The upshot is that it is not meaningful to say we have two sets of preferences – good ones and bad ones – but an infinite number of sets of preferences.

With this shift, psychologists seem to have coalesced around the weak-form Austrian view of rationality: that rationality itself is a matter of trade-offs and choices. One could even say this was Adam Smith’s view. People are a rich mix of passion, interest and sympathy – not all-knowing, rational calculators.

Thaler’s contribution has been to help return us to that understanding. But it’s a big leap from the observation that ‘people are not always perfectly rational’ to ‘bureaucrats can make us rational’.

Government must leave encryption alone, or it will endanger blockchain

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

If we could give Malcolm Turnbull one piece of economic advice right now – one piece of advice about how to protect the economy against a challenging and uncertain future – it would be this: don’t mess with encryption.

Earlier this month the government announced that it was going to “impose an obligation” on device manufacturers and service providers to provide law enforcement authorities access to encrypted information on the presentation of a warrant.

At the moment it’s unclear what exactly this means. Attorney-General George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull have repeatedly denied they want a legislated “backdoor” into encrypted devices, but the loose way they’ve used that language suggests some sort of backdoor requirement is still a real possibility.

Hopefully we’ll discover more when the legislation is introduced in the August sitting weeks. Turnbull did say at the press conference “I’m not suggesting this is not without some difficulty”. The government may not have made any final decisions yet.

But before any legislation is introduced, the government needs to understand what the stakes are in as they strive against encryption.

Anything the government does to undermine the reliability of encryption could have deleterious consequences for what we believe will be the engine of economic growth in decades to come: the blockchain protocol.

The blockchain is the distributed and decentralised ledger that powers the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. Blockchain constitutes a suite of five technologies: cryptography, a database that can be added to but not altered, peer-to-peer networking, an application of game theory, and an algorithm for ensuring a consensus about what information is held on the ledger.

Taken separately, these are long established technologies and techniques – even mundane ones. But taken together, they constitute an entirely new tool for creating political, economic, and social relationships.

The possibilities far exceed digital currencies. Already banks and other financial institutions are trying to integrate blockchains into their business structures: blockchains drastically reduce the costs of tracking, recording, and verifying transactions. Almost any business or government organisation that is done with a database now can be done more efficiently, more reliably, and cheaper with a blockchain – property registers, intellectual property, security and logistics, healthcare records, you name it.

But these much publicised blockchain applications are just a small taste of the technology’s possibility. “Smart” self-executing contracts and massively distributed organisational structures enabled by the blockchain will allow the creation of new forms of business structures and new ways to work together in every sector and every industry.

In fact, we think that the blockchain is so significant that it should be treated as its own category of human organisation. There are firms, there are markets, there are governments, and now there are blockchains.

But the blockchain revolution is not inevitable.

If there is one key technology in the blockchain, it is cryptography. There are lots of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs playing around with lots of different adaptations of the blockchain protocol, but this one is a constant: the blockchain’s nested levels of encryption are built to ensure that once something is placed on the blockchain it is permanent, immutable, and only accessible to those who own it.

Blockchains only work because their users have absolute confidence that the system is secure.

Any legal restrictions, constraints or hurdles placed on encryption will be a barrier to the introduction of this remarkable new economic technology. In fact, any suggestion of future regulatory challenges to encryption will pull the handbrake on blockchain in Australia. In the wake of the banking, mining and carbon taxes, Australia already has a serious regime uncertainty problem.

Melbourne in particular is starting to see the growth of a small but prospective financial technology industry of which blockchain is a central part. The Australian Financial Review reported earlier this week about the opening of a new fintech hub Stone & Chalk in the establishment heart of Collins St. What’s happening in Melbourne is exactly the sort of innovation-led economic growth that the Coalition government was talking about in the 2016 election.

But the government won’t be able to cash in on those innovation dividends if they threaten encryption: the simple and essential technology at the heart of the blockchain.

Diverted Profits Tax Will Go Nowhere

With Sinclair Davidson

The Turnbull government’s diverted profit tax has passed the Parliament. Introduced in response to the moral panic that, somewhere, somehow multinational corporations don’t pay a fair share of taxation, this new tax is at odds with the government’s professed belief in lowering the corporate tax burdens, is at odds with our international competitors, and (as we learnt just this month), is even at odds with the Australian Taxation Office’s tax enforcement priorities.

The 40 per cent tax on diverted profits is expected to raise $100 million. That implies that the federal government estimates a mere $250 million of diverted profits. To put that figure into perspective, the federal government recently announced a tightening of the rules on the grandparent child care benefit. That policy change would result in welfare savings of $250 million.

Grandparents allegedly rorting the welfare system are a much bigger budget problem than multinational corporations allegedly rorting the tax system.

Indeed, Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan gave the game away on March 16 when he told a Tax Institute conference that the gap between what large corporates and multinationals pay and what they should pay in tax was “relatively modest” and that “the biggest gap we’ve got in the system is us” – that is, individual taxpayers.

After five years of hyperventilating about corporate tax avoidance, this is a striking confession. The previous treasurer Joe Hockey made much of the fact that the ATO had identified 30 multinational corporations likely to offend and had embedded agents in those firms and would carefully investigating their practices.

True, Scott Morrison did say that this diverted profits tax is a tax integrity measure. Ensuring the integrity of the tax base is a legitimate policy goal. But a diverted profits tax is a counterproductive and illiberal way to go about it.

It allows the ATO to impose upfront liability and collect tax on allegedly diverted profits. It reverses the onus of proof and removes the right to silence – thus multinational corporations the right to natural justice under the Australian legal system. That is not a reasonable integrity measure but rather a punitive regime that targets foreign investors and successful Australian companies.

This is a policy that substantially increases the powers of the ATO without any governance measures to ensure that abuses do not occur. No doubt these powers will be exercised by the ATO to collect revenue beyond the amount intended by Parliament. That is simply the nature of regulatory bureaucracies and it will be small comfort for those multinationals who successfully challenge the ATO that their money is eventually returned to them.

Even more fundamentally, the diverted profits tax doesn’t sit well with current policy settings, nor with economic reality. There is currently a lot of effort and anti-business rhetoric to collect $100 million. Is it a coincidence that business investment is low? Or is that government is passing tax laws that violate societal norms of fairness and are creating an uncertain and arbitrary tax environment?

Business doesn’t know what tax rate they will face in Australia in years to come. It could be 30 per cent. It could go down to 25 per cent over 10 years if the Turnbull government’s corporate tax cut goes through. Or it could be as high as 40 per cent if some Canberra bureaucrat, empowered by the diverted profits tax, gets a bee in their bonnet about multinational structures they do not understand.

There’s been a lot of talk about policy uncertainty in the Australian energy market. With a lot less fanfare the corporate tax confusion is doing the same to the entire corporate sector. This is not how to ensure jobs and growth

In the meantime, Australia is facing an international environment where the British Prime Minister is openly discussing turning the UKinto a tax haven, and the Trump administration wants to reduce America’s corporate tax rate to between 15 and 20 per cent. The Turnbull government has chosen the wrong time to put multinational engagement with Australia at risk.

Why Multinationals Are Not Avoiding Australian Tax

with Sinclair Davidson

The title of the interim report of the Senate economics committee inquiry into corporate tax avoidance, released this week, is “You cannot tax what you cannot see”.

This is a rather embarrassing admission that the evidence for widespread corporate tax avoidance – the avoidance which has filled so many newspaper columns, so many hyperbolic speeches in parliament – just doesn’t exist.

Imagine being pulled over by the police and told that even though you’ve been observed driving below the speed limit, stopping at stop signs, giving way at give way signs, indicating correctly, wearing your seatbelt, and maintaining a respectable distance from the car in front, the police have a hunch you’re somehow violating community expectations.

While the Senate committee feels sure there are questionable corporate tax practices going on, it doesn’t actually find any.

Rather, it relies very heavily on the political rhetoric of a now-discredited 2014 report by the Tax Justice Network, which claimed that firms were denying the government vast sums of revenue through opaque and confusing tax arrangements.

In fact, what the committee’s interim report shows is that the tax practices of the big tech firms are quite explicable.

For instance, Microsoft and Google have their regional headquarters in Singapore. As the committee admits, these headquarters are not shells, existing solely to avoid giving Joe Hockey money. They’re real. They have real offices, real assets, and real staff doing real work. In Singapore. Not Australia. Just because those Singapore headquarters digitally export some products and services to Australia does not mean they should pay Australian corporate tax on the profits.

Even more explicable is large firms with large research and development costs deducting those costs from their taxable profits. The R&D corporate tax deduction is bipartisan government policy. It seems a bit much for governments to introduce a tax incentive then get angry with firms for using it.

The lack of evidence of tax avoidance makes the committee’s belief that the Australian government should name and shame corporate tax avoiders vaguely comic.

Certainly, the Australian Tax Office should be vigilant ensuring firms are paying what they owe. Firms that fail to do so should face the full consequences of the law. But that already happens. Australia has some of the strongest anti-avoidance laws on the planet. The government has the tools, right now, to deal with illegal tax evasion.

Underpinning this whole debate is the fact that Australia’s corporate tax rate is very high. At 30 per cent, it is substantially above the OECD average of 25.3 per cent. And Australia is one of the most heavily reliant countries on corporate tax revenue in the OECD. The Senate committee admits that this heavy burden puts Australia at a “comparative disadvantage”.

With such a disadvantage, it is no surprise that multinational companies are not lining up to establish their regional headquarters here.

But a failure to establish regional headquarters in Australia – “avoiding permanent establishment” in the lingo of the committee – does not constitute tax avoidance. Australia’s tax and regulatory environment is not competitive. Singapore’s is competitive. This ought to cause some soul-searching by the Parliament. Handwringing about phantom corporate tax avoidance just postpones consideration of the real problem.

Perhaps we might expect the sort of anti-corporate nonsense espoused at the inquiry from Labor and the Greens. What’s really disappointing is the full-throated support of the corporate tax panic from the Coalition.

Government senators on the committee wrote a dissenting minority report. Yet their complaint was that the committee did not fully acknowledge all the exciting work the Abbott government was doing to clamp down on multinationals.

Earlier this year the government released its own proposed legislation to deal with corporate tax avoidance. In effect that legislation would empower the ATO to second-guess where it feels profits should be booked for tax purposes.

The consequences of such an approach would be dire. It would expose multinational firms to double taxation. It would be a huge incentive for those firms to leave Australia all together, taking jobs and economic activity with them.

All this fretting about tax avoidance makes good demagoguery. But it might seriously harm Australia’s economy.

Moral Panic Overlooks Real Company Tax Problem

with Sinclair Davidson

The corporate tax profit shifting debate is a classic example of moral panic. First, it’s incredibly complicated. How many Australians could explain how company tax is calculated, let alone what business practices a “double Irish Dutch sandwich” refers to?

Second, it’s driven by hyperbolic and simplistic reports of companies paying little to no tax. These stories pivot on even more complicated scandals, such as “Lux Leaks”, and the technicalities of foreign tax systems.

And third, it’s wildly overstated. The best current estimates of how much corporate tax is shifted across borders is in the realm of 2 per cent to 4 per cent of total corporate tax.

It’s true that earlier estimates in the 1990s were much more than that. It was those high estimates that got the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development interested in the issue. But the firm- and affiliate-level evidence is better now. It’s pointless to scrutinise a moral panic for the clarity of its claims. But the corporate tax debate is missing the point.

As a society we don’t value firms for the money the government extracts from them. We value firms because they produce goods and offer services that make us richer, our lives easier, more convenient and more enjoyable, and our standards of living higher.

We ought to design our tax system to encourage foreign firms operating and doing business on Australian shores, bringing investment and jobs. Any attempt to tackle profit shifting that raises uncertainty or lowers Australia’s investment climate would be a disaster.

The corporate tax is not a good tax. As a recent Treasury paper pointed out, it is one of the most inefficient taxes levied by Australian governments. The burden of the corporate tax is scattered and obscure.

Greens leader Christine Milne has been running around this week accusing companies of not paying their “fair share”. But that fair share is always and inevitably passed on to someone else. The literature on the incidence of corporate taxation suggests the burden of corporate tax is worn in the short term by investors, and in the long run by a combination of investors and workers. Of course, under our superannuation system every worker is an investor as well.

Few of the standard justifications for the existence of corporate tax – particularly in a small, open economy – are compelling. One fear is that company owners might divert their personal income into the company. But they’d still have to pay capital gains tax on the way out again. Another argument is that corporate tax is an easy way to get money out of multinationals. Absurd, we know.

That’s why there are academic tax papers with titles such as “Why is there corporate taxation in a small open economy?” and “Can capital income taxes survive? And should they?”

For the political class, the corporate tax has one great advantage: it’s unclear who ultimately pays. It’s easy and comfortable to beat up on corporations, just as long as you stay mum about who actually ends up paying corporate tax. The whole system rests on this clever one-two trick. Who could sympathise with big bad business?

But even if the government wishes to keep the corporate tax fiscal illusion going, there’s hope. For all the handwringing about the double Irish Dutch sandwich, one point often missed is that Ireland has been very clever. That country’s low corporate tax rates have brought in multinationals, and with them jobs and investment.

It’s not obvious those low rates have come at a cost to the Irish budget. Corporate tax revenue as a percentage of total revenue in Ireland is almost exactly the OECD average. There’s no reason we couldn’t copy the Irish example – get in on the Irish-Dutch sandwich ourselves. The Irish make their own luck. So should we.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Metadata Move Will Aid Regulators, Not Security

The Abbott government has rightly focused on red tape reduction and deregulation.

But Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull could well preside over one of the largest increases in the regulatory burden since the telecommunications market was liberalised two decades ago.

At the very moment when Turnbull seems to have cleaned up the mess that was the national broadband network, his mandatory data retention policy puts the entire competitive dynamic of the Australian telecommunications sector at stake.

Terrorism is a very real problem. The existence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has heightened the terror threat. If there are serious gaps in our anti-terror law framework, they should be filled. The government has spent the past six months doing so.

However, the data retention bill the government has put forward – which requires telecommunications providers to store masses of data on their customers for no other purpose than if a law enforcement agency or regulator wants to have a look at it in the future – is not a targeted anti-terror law.

If data retention is just for terrorism, the government could legislate to ensure it was just for terrorism. But from what we know, both the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Securities and Investment Commission are likely to get access to the new data.

Indeed, over the half a decade that data retention has been debated, its most fervent advocates have been economic regulators, not counter-terror agencies.

One draft data set (even as Parliament is set to vote on the bill, we still don’t know what the final data set to be retained will be) included a requirement to store records of “download volumes” for two years. What anti-terror benefit would that add? Download volumes would useful in copyright infringement cases.

The threat data retention poses to privacy has been widely discussed. But data retention is, first and foremost, a new economic regulation. So let’s treat it as sceptically as we would any increase in the regulatory burden on business.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said that the cost of data retention would be around $300 to $400 million, or just 1 per cent of the total revenue of the telecommunications industry.

This is a very significant amount of money. Telcos are already some of the most highly regulated firms in the country.

Turnbull has suggested government will contribute substantially to the cost of implementing data retention. But whether we pay for data retention through internet bills or just general taxation, we’ll still pay for it.

This new burden could dramatically reshape the telecommunications sector. All else being equal, large firms, with their well-established regulatory teams, are able to comply with new regulation much easier than small firms, which lack the economies of scale to absorb costs.

The unfortunate result of burdensome regulation is push smaller firms out of the market, reducing competition as they disappear. Less competition will, in the long run, result in higher prices.

In the case of data retention, it isn’t just size however that matters. Some telcos have more complex networks and technologies and legacy systems – think of Telstra – for whom imposing these new requirements might be disproportionately expensive.

Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis claim that mandatory data retention will require telcos to store no more data than some firms do already – just store it for a bit longer.

It’s not clear which firms they’re referring to. The entire industry has been up in arms about data retention. The proposed policy is not just a minor extension of existing practice.

Nevertheless, there’s a reason some telcos store data more than others. The smallest internet service providers survive by keeping their data storage and infrastructure costs as low as possible, hoping to pull customers away from the big firms with lower prices or better service.

For the law enforcement and regulatory agencies that have spent the past six years lobbying for data retention, regulatory compliance costs are an abstract second-order issue.

But for internet users and taxpayers, who will be charged higher prices by a declining number of internet service providers, the economic effect of mandatory data retention is a big deal.