Tax avoidance gets the world’s attention

A group of wealthy nations set a goal to agree on a minimum corporate tax rate. With the pandemic busting budgets, the world needs more integrity in tax collection.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called for a global minimum corporate tax rate last week.

A favorite research topic among economists is whether countries are able to improve their tax collection, especially in curbing legal tax avoidance (“loopholes”) by citizens and corporations. The former Soviet state of Georgia, for example, was recently commended by the International Monetary Fund for a rapid rise in tax revenue. Its reform, said the IMF, required “first and foremost a broad social and political commitment.”

Soon this topic could be global. On April 7, the finance ministers of the world’s wealthiest nations (the Group of 20) said they hope to agree by mid-2021 on a way to prevent one of the most common tax-avoidance schemes: corporations shifting their profits or legal identity to a low-tax country, or even a no-tax “haven” like the Cayman Islands.

In theory, the G-20 endorsed a global minimum corporate tax rate that might prevent such “tax shopping” – and the resulting competition among nations to lower their tax rates. Agreeing on a specific rate, however, could be difficult, as would enforcing it. Many countries now do legal somersaults to lure foreign investment.

The G-20’s move was made easier by a decision last week from the Biden administration. A minimum rate would help “make sure the global economy thrives based on a more level playing field,” said Janet Yellen, President Joe Biden’s treasury secretary and a former head of the Federal Reserve. With such a global standard, President Biden hopes American corporations will keep more of their money in the United States, thus funding his ambitious spending plans.

The idea of a global tax rate has gained in popularity because of the rapid globalization of commerce as well as the rise of digital companies that can easily operate across borders. And with the pandemic draining government budgets, countries are even more eager to find new revenue. On April 6, the IMF’s managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, called on political leaders to “collect taxes more effectively.”

Much of the groundwork in finding a consensus on corporate taxation has been done by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of mostly rich countries that helps set global norms. Not to be outdone, the United Nations issued a report in February that looked at the “gaps, loopholes and shortcomings” in how countries finance themselves. While offering dozens of recommendations, the report said tax abuse arises from a “weakness of social contracts” and “incentives that divert taxpayers (both corporate and individual) away from society’s goals.”

While countries need greater transparency and enhanced accountability in tax collection, stated the U.N. report, all people in a country must contribute “towards financial integrity in all aspects of their lives.”

Corporations might seem like abstract entities, but they are made up of individuals who can live up to that goal. If the G-20 agrees on global rules for taxation, it might raise the bar on tax integrity. Perhaps then avoiding a tax bill, even if done legally, might seem outside the bounds of a country’s social contract.

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