Will the Pope tell Gucci and Prada to please pay their taxes? (Mick Jagger and Microsoft too!)
In the next few days Pope Benedict plans to issue his second encyclical - the most authoritative statement a pope can issue - which apparently will focus on social and economic inequity in a globalized economy. In the statement, he is expected to denounce the use of tax havens as socially-unjust and immoral in cheating the greater well-being of society.
According to the Times (UK) newspaper, the statement may have been inspired by a recent request to the Vatican by Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister, who urged church leaders to speak out on tax evasion.
Prodi's government plans to seek taxes on undeclared earnings of â¬60 million ($84 million) by Valentino Rossi, the world motorcycling champion. How about also asking Gucci and Prada, some of Italy's best known fashion designers, to move their tax headquarters back to home turf (from the tax-saving Netherlands, see below) and contribute to Italy's budget deficit?
As global capital has progressively unbound itself from traditional national constraints, excessive off-shore wealth seemingly knows no shame, with wealthy individuals and corporations setting up front companies abroad to avoid paying taxes, supported by a new class of financial services specialists.
While Caribbean island resorts are often assumed to be the places where the wealthy stash their money away for retirement, some European countries (and I don't mean Lichtenstein) have also newly seen the light.
A favored location is the Netherlands -- check out the November 2006 report by Dutch-based SOMO, "The Netherlands: A Tax Haven?" The report is the first comprehensive analysis of the complex system of double tax treaties, tax incentives, the relationship with the Netherlands Antilles and the now 20,000 and counting mailbox corporations operating within the borders of this small European nation. According to SOMO, "examples of companies with tax-induced headquarters in the Netherlands are Volkswagen, IKEA, Gucci, Pirelli, Prada, Fujitsu-Siemens, Mittal Steel, and Trafigura."
The issue has been in the news, mostly because big name musical artists (like Bono and Mick Jagger) and famous athletes (think David Beckham) have also been getting in on the act. When it comes to evading taxes on lucrative licensing and royalties, the Netherlands is fast emerging as the hip tax haven of choice because Holland levies no tax on earnings royalties.
In an article titled "Gimme Tax Shelter", the New York Times reported on this in February 2007 as newly public documentation surrounding the assets and wealth-transfer plans of the Rolling Stones demonstrated that the wily rockers have paid a mere 1.5% (as opposed to the British tax rate of 40%), or $7.2. million, on $450 million in earnings routed through the land of tulips with the help of their company Promogroup.
"The Caribbeans are thinking about trading profits, not royalties, so the smaller European countries like Holland have had to be creative, tax-wise,'' David Pullman, an investment banker in New York who caters to entertainers and athletes told the New York Times. ''They are going for the high-end stuff and don't want to be seen as shady like some Caribbean haven.''
More scandalous was the 2006 revelation that super-rockers U2 had transferred their song-publishing catalog from Ireland to Holland's Promogroup, in order to avoid a change in Irish tax law introducing taxes on royalties earned in excess of 250,000 Euros per year. Much ado was made of Bono's unwillingness to pony up his share of the tax obligation in service of the global debt relief and poverty eradication for which he so famously advocates.
Another European country that has figured they can make money out of tax evasion is Ireland -- whose "Celtic Tiger" growth is largely the product of charming huge corporations like Dell, Google, Microsoft and Sun Systems to move much of their intellectual property patents over to subsidiaries in the land of Eire -- where the corporate tax rate is 12.5%, but no taxes are charged on royalties.
Microsoft has been a major beneficiary of this scheme for the last four or so years -- it slashed billions in tax receipts to the U.S. Treasury -- by setting up subsidiaries Round Island One and Flat Island Company in Dublin. Recently Microsoft took things a step further by re-registering the two patent-holding entities as unlimited liability companies which have no obligation to file their accounts publicly.
Indeed, the Sunday Independent (Ireland) reports that Ireland was the most profitable location for U.S. multinationals between 1998-2002, during which the "the profits of US companies with Irish facilities doubled."
The Irish law exempting patent income from taxes also provides a sweet loophole for corporate executive pay. In November 2005 it was reported that Dell Ireland's top executives were reaping the fruits of sumptuous pay, and saving the company taxes: between them the senior management shared nearly $3.8 million in tax-free dividends since 2003.
These corporate tax breaks have earned Ireland the distinction of being hailed "the world's 7th freest economy" in 2007 by the conservative, DC-based Heritage Foundation, which says that "Ireland's economy is 81.3 percent free."
Most of this tax evasion, is sadly, quite legal. But ordinary citizens around the world who think that Microsoft and Mick Jagger should pay taxes, can take heart from the fact that some members of the global elite have been punished -- take the recent conviction of media mogul Conrad Black of Hollinger International. In July, Canadian and U.S. press reported on the lawsuits, corporate and civil, that are following his conviction for obstruction of justice and mail fraud, seeking remuneration from assets, including purported millions stashed in the Caribbean:
..."Not satisfied with receiving $20 to $40 million a year in excessive management fees, Black and the Ravelston insiders then directed significant portions of those fees to Moffat Management and Black-Amiel Management, which were empty shell companies registered in Barbados," a special report from Hollinger's board stated.
"Even though these entities did nothing to earn fees, and did not have either employees or real operations, paying management fees to them on the pretense that they performed services allowed the recipients the prospect of transforming a portion of the enormous management fees that would otherwise most likely have been taxable in Canada (where the payments were received), or possibly the U.S. (where services were largely performed), into dividends received in Barbados (where nothing occurred)," the report stated.
NOTE: For more good examples of what tax journalist Lucy Komisar calls the "corporate bag of tricks called profit laundering," check out the Tax Justice Network, and the Komisar Scoop -- who just revealed where did Rupert Murdoch get $5 billion to buy up the Wall St. Journal? (Answer: A collection of 800 offshore companies that helped him cut corporate taxes to 6%!)
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