Beware Google Tax Grabs

with Sinclair Davidson

Last month, Treasurer Joe Hockey ­announced the government had “embedded” auditors in 10 ­unnamed multinational corporations to ensure they pay tax on profits earned in Australia. And the government is “contemplating additional legislative action” to ensure multinationals pay their “fair share”.

The government should tread carefully. This obsession with multinationals and corporate tax looks like the Rudd government’s mining tax debacle. In 2010, Wayne Swan said foreign-owned mining companies were paying only 13 per cent tax in Australia. Tax office data told a different story but the government ploughed ahead. As we learned, populism made for poor policy.

Last month, the British government announced a “Google tax” to tax 25 per cent of the profits earned by multinational firms in Britain that are “profit-shifted” to other jurisdictions.

As the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs pointed out, the British proposal is a “retrospective and arbitrary tax change designed to attack a particular small set of well-identified businesses that are not popular with the public”.

This financial year, the Australian government is budgeting to collect $71.6 billion in company tax revenue. Hockey says just 10 targeted multinationals could contribute up to another $3bn in revenue. This doesn’t seem plausible. Indeed, the entire corporate tax debate is a cloud of confusions and misconceptions.

There is a big difference between tax minimisation, which is legal and tax evasion, which is not and properly so. Hockey has made no allegation of illegality. Perhaps they are not paying as much tax as the government would like but there is no evidence that multinationals are not paying their correct tax liabilities.

Australia has some of the strongest tax avoidance laws in the world. Every government ­announces a “tax crackdown”. The idea that the powers which successive governments have granted the tax office are insufficient to deal with any problem in the tax system is ludicrous.

Governments have defined their own domestic tax base and established rules to define the international tax base.

The British Google tax is a big change to the principles of taxation. Countries can either operate a residency-based tax system or a source-based tax system. Many high-income countries ­operate residency-based systems and then enter into double taxation agreements to avoid (or minimise) double taxation.

The Google tax looks like a shift to a source-based tax system – or worse, an arbitrary hybrid of the two, designed on the run to meet temporary political goals. The British general election will be held within six months.

Politics aside, the question is how big is the problem of profit-shifting? The evidence isn’t as clear as governments and tax ­bureaucracies would like it to be.

In the past, academic studies suggested the amount of forgone tax revenue from profit-shifting was substantial. Shocked by those estimates, the OECD launched a broad campaign against profitshifting and tax competition.

Yet in recent years, economists have gained access to far more ­detailed data sets that offer a better picture of what happens within multinational firms. Now the story looks very different.

In a recent survey paper, Dhammika Dharmapala of the University of Chicago concludes “the estimated magnitude of (profit-shifting) is typically much smaller than that found in earlier studies”. Estimates of the amount of shifted profits are now between 2 per cent and 4 per cent.

This is not enough to justify undermining Australia’s relatively effective and coherent corporate tax system. Or risk damage to our investment reputation.

There’s another reason for Hockey to be careful. When all the dust had settled from Swan’s tax crusade, the mining tax raised almost no money anyway.