By Anis Chowdhury and Jomo Kwame Sundaram
SYDNEY and KUALA LUMPUR, Apr 1 2021 – Illicit financial flows (IFFs) hurt all countries, both developed and developing. But poor countries suffer relatively more, accounting for nearly half the loss of world tax revenue.
IFFs refer to cross-border movements of money and other financial assets obtained illegally at source, e.g., by corruption, smuggling, tax evasion, etc. This often involves trade mis-invoicing and transnational corporations’ (TNCs) transfer pricing via ‘creative’ accounting or book-keeping.
Staggering revenue losses
About US$500–600 billion in corporate tax revenue is lost yearly to TNCs shifting profits to low-, or no-tax ‘havens’. These often involve fictitious ‘paper’ transactions at inflated prices among subsidiaries to ‘move’ profits out of the country where a TNC actually does business and makes profits, to tax havens where they pay much less, often little or no tax.
Low-income economies account for some US$200 billion of such lost revenue, typically involving much higher shares of their national incomes than in advanced economies. This is much more than the US$150 billion or so they receive annually in official development assistance.
About US$7 trillion of private wealth is hidden in tax haven countries, such as Singapore, Panama or Switzerland; about 10% of world income may be secretly held offshore in tax havens. US Fortune 500 companies alone held about US$2.6 trillion offshore in 2017.
Various studies in 2016–2017 estimated rich individuals had stashed a staggering U$8.7–36 trillion in tax havens, depriving national authorities of personal income tax of around US$200 billion yearly worldwide. Annually, about US$20–40 billion is used for bribery, while around 2.7% of global GDP is criminally laundered.
“These abuses threaten Governments’ ability to provide basic goods and services, and drain resources from sustainable development”. This warning in last year’s interim report of the FACTI Panel, or High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda, has been largely ignored.
Thus, IFFs involve massive wealth theft from developing countries, typically ending up hidden in tax havens, depriving governments of revenue. The fiscal shortfall has become more dire with the huge new challenges of COVID-19 pandemic relief, recovery and reform needed to build a more sustainable future for all, leaving no one, or country, behind.
Illicit flows condoned
IFFs have long existed, but are still growing. Practices enabling them have long been condoned by authorities in many rich countries. Most major tax havens are in a few such economies or their territories.
The top three havens for TNCs – the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands – are all British overseas territories, while Switzerland, the US and the Cayman Islands are the three favourites of rich individuals.
Offshore tax havens drain ever more resources from poor countries as opportunities have grown. When one jurisdiction crafts a new tax loophole or secret facility to attract mobile money, others try to outdo them in an inevitable race to the bottom.
Meanwhile, poor countries have been encouraged to provide more generous tax benefits to corporations and wealthy individuals, e.g., by the World Bank’s Doing Business Report (DBR), now discredited for selective data manipulation and political bias.
Before the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (GFC), the OECD rich countries’ club made little serious effort to check tax evasion except for ‘offshore’ tax havens. With the GFC, it came under pressure to enhance members’ ‘fiscal space’ by limiting such massive revenue losses. It has since focused on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS).
But developing countries have long been excluded from discussions of policy and regulatory design, even those affecting them. They are only allowed to join the OECD’s BEPS Inclusive Framework (IF) if they first commit to implement measures designed without their participation.
However, the US has refused to join any initiative allowing others to tax US digital platforms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. These tech giants have avoided paying taxes abroad, with the Trump administration even threatening retaliation against countries trying to tax them.
UN inclusion initiative
The 74th President of the UN General Assembly and the 75th President of the UN Economic and Social Council jointly appointed the FACTI Panel to identify gaps, impediments and vulnerabilities in the international economic system allowing, if not enabling abuses and related IFFs.
Its interim report recognised many international initiatives and instruments for financial accountability, transparency and integrity, but stressed that implementation has been wanting. Lack of coordination, trust and inclusion undermines enforcement of existing rules while preventing better ones from being made.
FACTI’s February 2021 final report reiterates that low income countries face tax rules and practices developed without their involvement. The OECD still calls the shots, with the G20 inconsistently chiming in. Instead, developing countries should be enabled to enhance revenue by really participating in efforts to tackle tax avoidance and evasion.
A more coherent, nuanced and equitable approach to international tax cooperation is urgently needed. But efforts to improve tax information sharing have been impeded by the absence of an authoritative multilateral body to collate and analyse tax data.
The Panel recommends a UN Tax Convention with universal participation enabling countries to come together to find comprehensive solutions. The co-chairs emphasise, “The issues at hand are global. They call for global cooperation and engagement by all stakeholders, including non-state actors as well as governments.”
UN should lead
The COVID-19 pandemic has put developed and developing countries into the same boat as all need massive fiscal resources to finance relief, recovery and reform measures. Hence, it is in the interest of all to avoid ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policies to better combat IFFs.
The exclusive OECD is not the right forum to design a multilateral tax framework to combat IFFs. It does not include, and cannot claim to represent poor countries, while its track record hardly inspires confidence to the contrary.
The IMF has near-universal membership, enabling a more inclusive and balanced approach. Currently, it provides technical support on tax issues to over a hundred countries annually. But with the Fund’s governance arrangements and track record stacked against developing countries, it lacks their support and trust.
The UN is the only forum where all countries are represented on par. Hence, international tax cooperation consultations should be in the UN, with the IMF providing fair and balanced technical support. This is the only way to ensure that developing country interests get due recognition in creating a fairer international tax architecture.