Cash-hungry countries have encouraged the rise of tax havens

A desire to protect the oppressed, and generate revenue, has got us to here

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So why don’t the major countries do something about tax havens? Is it that they can’t, or might it just be that permitting tax havens to exist rather suits them?

The mood against tax havens is running hot and strong, fuelled by extreme examples of tax avoidance by multinationals and rich individuals, and the main governments, including our own, are pledged to do something about it. But, for most of us, the puzzle is that the whole system was allowed to grow up in the first place. We can just about understand why our racing drivers choose to live in Monaco but when multinationals flip their earnings through several different jurisdictions, with affiliates busy lending to each other, and end up paying hardly any tax – well, it does all seem a bit rum.

The easiest way to get one’s mind round this extraordinarily complex world is to divide it into two categories: tax havens for individuals; and tax havens for companies. Though the two blend into each other. Take individuals first.

There are really two forces that have pushed countries to create tax havens for people. One has been the desire to protect people fleeing from oppression. Thus the British “non-dom” status goes back to the Napoleonic Wars, when people were fleeing from the Continent. The Swiss banking secrecy was formalised in 1934 after the Nazis came to power, largely to enable Jewish people to get their money out and not be traced by the authorities in Germany. Both systems have been abused and belatedly are now being reformed, but the origins were honourable.

The other has been a simple quest for revenue. The Channel Islands, Andorra, Monaco and the like are all short of natural resources. Having a tax regime that is attractive to rich individuals is a way of exploiting one competitive advantage: the freedom to set tax rates. Again, there have been abuses, and there are downsides such as the impact on property prices (Monaco is prime London, doubled). But if people live in a place, they pay the local taxes. If they need to keep a log of their movements to prove they really live there, so be it.

For companies, it is more complicated. Governments around the world seek to attract investment. So they build foreign firms’ factories, give grants for training, pay for improved infrastructure and so on. For manufacturing, it was all fairly clear, though there have been abuses, where companies take the money, build their washing machines or whatever for a few years, then declare the business unprofitable and bunk out. While many of these incentives made little sense, the photo opportunity for a politician to open a factory in a marginal constituency proved a powerful driver.

But now much international investment is not in physical capital – a factory – but rather in financial and intellectual capital. So countries have developed elaborate schemes to attract these forms of capital, too. The Netherlands has focused on intellectual capital, which is why pop groups locate there. (Yes, pop music is intellectual capital.) Luxembourg has majored on financial capital, attracting fund managers – as indeed has Ireland. Cyprus had a huge offshore banking business, and the money there is now being eagerly courted by other eurozone centres.

If a government in an established democracy creates an incentive, it will attract business. The great advantage of luring financial and intellectual capital is that it is cheap to do so. Politicians may not get the kudos from opening the factory but they don’t have to stump up the funds to build it. Yet the host still gets tax revenue from the deal. The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Ireland are decent, established democracies. The problem is that the effect of these incentives is to deny revenue to other decent democracies.

The solution? There will, of course, have to be better coordination on this to check the most egregious examples of such manipulation – and there will be. But do not expect a revolution. Why else would both the present British Government and its predecessor boast about bringing down UK corporation tax rates to attract investment from other, more onerous jurisdictions? One country’s incentive is another country’s loophole.

What the Lloyds sale signifies

If you want to pick a moment when the banking crisis can be declared to have turned the corner, it will, I think, be when the first chunk of the Government’s investment in Lloyds Bank is sold back to the public. That day moved closer yesterday.

The bank is back in profit and commentators were reckoning that in the next few weeks the share price could reach the 63p price at which the Government bought its stake. Yesterday, the price was 54p. In terms of public finances, the sale is not important; in terms of perception of the health of banking, it is massively so.

So fingers crossed.

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