A colleague of mine yesterday highlighted comments made recently by Robert Stack, deputy assistant secretary for international tax affairs at the US Treasury Department: “We are determined to put a big dent in the ‘cash box’ because countries cannot afford large piles of untaxed income.”
But what is a “cash box”, anyway? The concept is pretty simple: it’s a company within a multinational group located in a low-tax jurisdiction that owns some sort of valuable asset. That company may not even have any employees, but since it owns the asset it is legally entitled to the profits that are generated by the asset, thereby ensuring that a portion of the multinational group’s income gets taxed at a very low tax rate.
But for tax authorities, restricting the use of such arrangements is trickier than it might seem. Let’s use an example to illustrate. Imagine there’s a company called SuperTech USA that develops a fantastic new product. SuperTech USA sets up a subsidiary on a lovely tropical island that happens to have a corporate tax rate of zero, and then has SuperTech Island Co purchase the designs and technology underlying that product. SuperTech Island Co hires a contract manufacturing company in China to make the product, and contracts other SuperTech affiliates around the world, possibly including SuperTech USA, to essentially act as local sales agents. From that time onward, whenever SuperTech products are sold to consumers the local sales affiliates get some sort of arm’s length compensation for their services (maybe a sales commission), but SuperTech Island Co gets the rest of the revenue. If it’s really a good product with fat profit margins then it’s likely that the bulk of the group’s profits will actually belong to SuperTech Island Co and be subject to zero corporate income tax.
If you are interested in stopping this type of arrangement, how would you go about it? Perhaps you might consider blocking the initial purchase of the asset by SuperTech Island Co. But companies buy and sell assets all the time for perfectly reasonable business reasons, so any sort of simple rule prohibiting that won’t work. What about requiring all of SuperTech’s sales revenue to belong to the local sales affiliates rather than to SuperTech Island Co? Allowing the owner of an asset to claim the income generated by that asset is a basic element of our notion of property rights, so we can’t easily tamper with that.
The OECD seems inclined to address the issue in a different way: require SuperTech Island Co to pay much more compensation to SuperTech’s local sales affiliates. That’s a transfer pricing issue, and would depend on making the argument that SuperTech Island Co is paying its sales affiliates less than what it would have to pay to unrelated sales agents. Given the abundance of sales people in this world eager to have a good product to sell, it seems likely that would be a difficult argument to make. Trying to tweak existing transfer pricing rules to address this particular situation would likely open an entirely new can of worms.
Instead, Stack indicated that the US government thinks a better approach would be for an international agreement to allow countries to tax income earned by companies domiciled outside their jurisdiction. In other words, Treasury would like to get other countries to agree to allow the US to tax the profits of SuperTech Island Co even though that company is not located in the US. Needless to say, however, reaching such an international agreement could be extremely difficult.
But the economist in me wonders if the root cause of this sort of arrangement is really something else: incorrect initial valuations of the asset. If the price that SuperTech Island Co had to pay to acquire ownership of the asset fully reflected the future stream of income that could be expected from that asset, then it seems likely that there would not be much of an incentive to move the asset in the first place. With the transaction described above SuperTech USA would record a large amount of income in the year of the asset sale – on which it would pay US tax rates – in exchange for a stream of tax savings in future years. It strikes me that a correct initial valuation of the asset should take this into account. And if it did, then perhaps the cash box problem would not be so much of a problem after all.