How can we tax multinationals fairly?

Large multinational companies can easily avoid paying tax in any particular jurisdiction, to the degree that many pay virtually nothing in the UK on massive business streams. But tax is and always has been a creature constructed by laws and if there is widespread abuse or unhappiness with the current results the only answer is to consider how best to change the laws. We have inherited certain taxes from the past, in this case most notably Corporation Tax which itself dates back only to the 1960’s. But the rules don’t seem to work for multinationals. Perhaps it is time to consider whether the notion of taxing profit, the net income of a company available to contribute to public purposes among other things, is outdated in an age when companies can choose where and how they manifest such surplus.

Moving profit around the world to minimise tax is nothing new, of course. For decades companies have tried transferring goods, intellectual property rights and licences, expertise and anything else they could think of so that costs appeared in higher tax countries and profits in low tax or no tax countries. For decades some governments have tried to keep up by disallowing each new device as it appeared, while others connived at avoidance by offering very low tax environments so that they would gain revenue at a low rate but on large volumes of diverted profit. The process was like a game, played for high stakes but relatively even sided until about the turn of the century. By then the ability to switch ownership, money, even the location of a sale with a few keystrokes had become an overwhelming advantage. It seems now that the game has been decisively won by the companies.

So if we believe that multinationals should contribute revenue for public purposes, it is no use tinkering with the rules of the game. We must change the game itself. One way to go might be to tax sales revenues rather than profits. Another would be to divide declared world profits according to sales revenues in each country, the so called unitary tax method which some US states tried to impose in the 1970’s but fell foul of international tax treaties. World profits are less understated than country profits because they are what justifies a company’s management to its shareholders and drives the share price on which executive bonuses often depend.

But both of these suggestions suffer from the same problem. When you buy something on the internet from the UK you may without even realising it be dealing with a company in a tax haven (such as Luxembourg) and that is where your purchase is filled. No UK-based company actually sells anything in this instance. The website says “UK” but the small print says otherwise.

So the solution has to be radical to take account of the radical change the Internet has brought about in the way business is done. Here is one idea. The location of the buyer rather than the seller could be legislated to be the determining factor of where a sale takes place for tax purposes. That location is not difficult to detect and police on the internet. Indeed, multinationals themselves could be required to log sales according to the location of the buyer and tax could then be based on “value of goods bought per country”. World profits, for example, could be divided up by this measure, or a new tax could replace tax on profits and be based on it.

This is not a trivial change. It would require alteration or even unwinding of international tax treaties and understandings built up over decades. It would of course be bitterly opposed by multinationals and their apologists. It would be opposed even in the forums which consider international tax matters like the OECD by countries who have done well out of providing a home for tax avoidance. It would obviously only work fully and equitably if it was adopted by many countries, and although it could work perfectly well unilaterally there would be the usual, inevitable and false scares that it would destroy jobs. In fact, it would only destroy jobs in the tax avoidance industry, because the location of customers is one factor even multinationals do not control. Of course, someone would eventually come up with a way to cheat the system (someone always does) but meanwhile multinationals might contribute a little more to the countries they harvest.

Taxing multinationals fairly is thus possible but it is not easy or quick. It requires radical changes in the way the taxation of multinational sales and profits are understood and in the way countries seek to divide tax sources between them. All the more reason to address the problem sooner rather than later, by getting such ideas onto the political agenda.

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