MOSCOW International leaders are moving closer to taking action on corporate tax avoidance, despite challenges, a top official at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said on Wednesday.
National austerity measures taken by OECD member governments as a result of the financial crisis have sparked voter anger at the way big international companies shift profits around the world to cut their tax bills.
As a result they have asked the OECD to draft proposals to tackle problems like double-tax agreements, transfer pricing and the exchange of information between tax jurisdictions.
"You cannot have a situation of crisis, unemployment, people unhappy, facing increases in taxes and no recovery and at the same time big profitable, juicy players not paying a penny," Pascal Saint-Amans, head of the OECD's tax centre told Reuters.
"It's just politically impossible," he said in an interview, adding that the support of "right-wing" governments increased the chances of action.
In the last year Britain has become more prominent in the controversy over how much tax multinationals pay and Prime Minister David Cameron called on the European Union to use the impetus of the G8 summit he is hosting in June to organize "radical" international action to crack down on tax evasion and avoidance.
The OECD is due to deliver its recommendations at the July Group of 20 (G20) meeting. These have not yet been agreed but Saint-Amans said one of the proposals would be that double taxation agreements (DTAs) between countries be amended to avoid the problem whereby neither country taxes the income.
The European Commission recommended such a measure in December.
In a recent example it was revealed in a report by Reuters that Google (GOOG.O) takes advantage of DTAs between Ireland, where the Internet search firm has its European base, and other countries, to shelter billions of dollars each year from tax.
Most of Google's European income flows to Ireland untaxed, thanks to DTAs, and most of this income is then sent to an untaxed Google entity in Bermuda. Google says its follows the tax rules that apply in every country where it operates.
"You need to neutralize the use of tax havens," Saint-Amans said.
The OECD has no estimates of how much is lost by tax evasion and avoidance, but wants to set up a mechanism that could measure the money at stake, he added.
Saint-Amans said other areas that the OECD was looking at included revisions to international transfer pricing rules in relation to intellectual property.
Companies can avoid tax by parking intellectual property, such as brands or work processes, with a subsidiary in a tax haven, which then charges affiliates in major markets hefty fees for its use.
Other ideas include a harmonization of the tax treatment of transactions or financial instruments, such as convertible bonds, which in some countries are taxed as bonds and in others treated as shares, allowing a form of tax arbitrage.
The OECD will also urge companies and governments to be more transparent and adopt "spontaneous exchange of information". Saint-Amans expects the G20 group to adopt the measure in July or September as the new standard to curb cross-border tax evasion.
Currently only a small group of countries have signed tax treaties guaranteeing the automatic exchange of tax information, as opposed to delivery upon specific requests.
As well as new measures, Saint-Amans said governments needed to implement the laws they already have.
UK lawmakers have said a recent Reuters report which showed Google employs sales staff in the UK while telling the tax office that sales are made from Ireland, raised questions about whether the power of existing tax law had really been tested.
Google says UK staff do not sell to UK customers but has not said whether they negotiated with customers, had sales targets or 'closed' deals. Job advertisements on its website had said recruits would be expected to conduct such roles.
(Additional reporting Krista Hughes in Mexico and Stella Dawson and Kim Dixon in Washington; Writing by Tom Bergin in London; Editing by Jane Barrett and Greg Mahlich)