Category: World events affecting region

Opinion Piece – Amazon and Google and the prickly question of UK Corporation Tax


Luxembourg
Luxembourg (Photo credit: epha)

This week has seen the issue of corporation tax paid – or rather not paid – in the UK come to the boil, after simmering for several weeks with the articles of various MPs from various parties in various newspapers. It has now made the front page news and there has been an open harangue on three companies, Starbucks, Google and Amazon in the Public Accounts Committee by a group of British MPs headed up by Margaret Hodge.

The argument of the Committee is that these are companies who have made a good deal of turnover in the UK but they haven’t paid any tax. The way in which this has occurred is that they haven’t shown much by way of profits in the UK. They are now being told by Mrs Hodge that she doesn’t believe that they have not made profits in the UK given so much turnover, she thinks that profits are being salted away to other countries, like Luxembourg or Holland, using various techniques such as management charges, royalty fees, transfer prices, etc.

There are of course laws which are set up to determine whether profits in the UK are being assessed fairly – there is transfer pricing legislation and the Inland Revenue are able to investigate whether Transfer Pricing has been used. However, in the end what Mrs Hodge’s argument has boiled down to is the fallacious “argument from incredulity” – she cannot believe that the businesses have not made bigger profits (she seems to be oblivious to the fact that there is a recession going on out there and has been for some time, and that companies in all sectors and of all sized are bankrolling losses), and since she cannot believe it, it cannot be true.

In the case of Amazon a particular point was made – in addition to the insulting of Amazon’s spokesman Mr Andrew Cecil by accusing him of “gross ignorance” – namely when he pointed out that of course Amazon has paid taxes, only not corporation tax, they have paid VAT and employment taxes and created jobs – Hodge said that this argument was irrelevant because also the corner bookshops which would have sold those books would have created those jobs (fictional employment was always beloved by the left) and that Amazon, by making offshore structures involving Luxembourg, were making those little corner bookstores less competitive.

The fact is, however, that Amazon is not competing with little bookstores – it’s the Internet, new technology, which is competing with physical bookstores, but anyone with any kind of memory ought to be able to remember how a few large stores like WHSmiths and Waterstones already managed to put the corner shop bookstores out of business long before the Internet came along. Also if you look at markets like Poland or the Czech Republic, where they have online stores for books but not so much by way of the colossal physical bookstores the way the UK has, there the corner bookstore is alive and well. So Mrs Hodge has absolutely the wrong villain in her sights if she wishes to defend the corner store bookshop. But if she really was interested in championing them, then where was her voice railing against expansions by Waterstones and Smiths ten to fifteen years ago, which transformed that industry then just as much as the internet does now? Where is her voice against the Net Book Agreement, which makes it very hard in the UK for small businesses to deal in new books against larger companies? Tax is important, but it is only a thin layer of icing on that particular rather thick cake.

She admitted also that she wasn’t accusing Amazon of being illegal, only of being “immoral”. I am sorry, but is Luxembourg not another EU state in good standing? Is it now “immoral” to use the EU structures that were offered to us as the bait for getting us to sign up to the Single Market in the first place? Well, if there is any immorality in all of this, I can’t see it on the part of the private businesses. I see immorality and utter hypocrisy in the way these MPs, elected members of a government, blame business for their own failures. Failure in so many years of our being in the EU to sort out some kind of harmonisation in income taxes and corporate income taxes meaning that people are able to doing interesting kinds of arbitrage between EU legislations both in terms of their personal taxes and corporate profits taxes. They have had so many years and so many terms of office to sort this matter out.

In fact the answer in Amazon’s case is ridiculously simple – the UK has held a zero rate of VAT for books in order not to penalise reading, but bookselling companies paid the same profits taxes as any other kind of company. That means that book VAT in the UK isn’t even propely harmonised with the rest of the EU. VAT cannot easily be evaded, and even Margaret Hodge couldn’t deny that Amazon paid VAT, merely dismissed it as irrelevant. So what the government can do to produce a more level playing field is to put the general rate of VAT on books and reduce the profits tax for companies all of whose income comes from the sale of books. This would force booksellers who are in a lot of different businesses to be just in books in order to profit from the reduction, and it would mean that it would be of less worry who used corporate income tax reducing techniques, as they would be spending time and money reducing a smaller imposition anyway, and therefore would be less likely to do it.

Schools could be enabled to reclaim the input VAT, the students of university colleges also, therefore the impact on education would be minimised.

I wonder whether anyone in Government will consider this solution, or work towards the harmonisation of EU member state corporation taxes which we all believed back in 1993 was likely to happen before the turn of the Millennium, or whether they will continue, like Margaret Hodge, to blast other people in the private sector for doing their jobs properly while government continues to neglect its own job with impunity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audit fees bouncing back in the USA. Will Europe follow?


European flag outside the Commission
European flag outside the Commission (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

CPA Trendlines have recently run a few articles highlighting a rather brisk upturn in the fees taken by audit firms in the States, and together with that an increase in salaries as well as movement in the market for hires in audit in that country.

Europe may or may not follow the trend in the USA – on the one hand we all went down together in 2007, so hopefully we will start to rise together also, but on the other hand Europe is author of some of its own problems. The Euro crisis is far from over, credit is still not flowing in the way people had become accustomed to in those halcyon pre 2007 days, and even where there is talk about green shoots of grass out on the Eastern European green fields, it seems to be a case of “two steppes forward, one steppe back”.

Europe has been discussing the Barnier proposals for audit reform which would have given more teeth to the profession as well as reduced the oligopolistic effect of the Big Four, who seem to be using their oligopoly so as to sour the market for the middle tier and thus cement their place as fairly unthreatened by competition from the mid-tier audit firms.  In this, the smaller firms with low audit quality are their natural allies, and in places like Poland where the Big Four took effective control of the local audit chambers, the previous initiatives to force the small pensioner firms to either level up or get out of the market have been unravelled and tiny micro firms of auditors manned by geriatric owners still get to pronounce on the financial statements of even listed companies in exchange for fees which simply guarantee that they cannot possibly have done the work required to be able to make such pronouncements and back them up. Should they ever land in court they will probably not need to worry as they will be too old to get into trouble or endure sanctions for long.  Even though this status quo means that governance is largely bogus, the Oversight boards don’t seem to care and the Companies themselves are not complaining, as they save money and also don’t need to put themselves to the trouble of a proper audit, where they might actually need to answer questions and furnish documents to an auditor following a proper audit plan. And behind all this is the Big Four, knowing that this state of affairs squeezes hardest on the mid tier, as the largest companies simply must use the Big Four, and they are fighting the mid-tier for the medium sized business since the recession started and every euro counts.

Before 2007, they tended to bother less with mid-tier clients as they themselves are aware that they are not really geared up to give them what they want, and that is what the mid-tier audit firms are designed for.

The Barnier proposals initially struck hard at the Big Four, and they responded by sending armies of lobbyists to Brussels and to national governments. As a reesult of this, the European Commission is already arguing over a watered-down version of Barnier, and there is the opposing threat that has appeared from nowhere of upping the audit thresholds again.

Now it seems crazy that exactly at a time when many European governments are going to be increasing tax burdens in order to fund their return to lower sovereign debts, and therefore the motivation for taxpaying companies to cheat will be intensified, governments at the same time are talking about reducing seriously the percentage of the economies which are subjected to proper audit.

It makes no sense, but it seems that they don’t appreciate at all the value of the audit system. They are aware of the failures when they occur and concern themselves with the 1% of audits that have gone astray and ignore and legislate in an adverse way for the 99% of audits that have not gone astray. As a result the markets for audit firms have been skewed and more pressure on our prices occured and more and more pressure on time available for audits, which in turn doesn’t do much to improve auditors’ chances to spot abuses and irregularities.

So we hope that the situation will be on the mend in Europe as well, but the politicians need to wise up in order for this to happen. They need to understand that  an audit profession that is choking to death in this continent is not in anybody’s interests, and least of all in their own.

Why do Governments try to make competitive businesses follow the same kind of labour law that applies in their own offices?


Labour law concerns the inequality of bargaini...

I was reading on Linked In today a post by someone blaming Labour Law, and the risks associated with having employees, as one reason why Europe is having more difficulties getting out of the Crisis than maybe some other places.

I think his comments were quite true. There are now, in situations where employers even have any choice, serious reasons not to employ anyone whatsoever and just go for self-employed subcontractors. Reasons include:

1. What you said, the inability to sack anyone, and the huge potential claims if you bungle the sacking of an employee

2. Employees cost more because the social insurance regime in most EU countries is expensive on employment and the onus falls on the employer

3. Self-employed people are likely to be more entrpreneurial anyhow. They already showed themselves to be less supine than the chronic employee by dint of actually going on the self-employed subcontractor route.

The problem is, where does this leave people who cannot deal with the challenge of saying, “to hell with my social shield in employment law, I will put my self out as self employed and stand and fall on my daily performance, and not on the basis that I have accrued rights that make me unassailable even if I become useless”? Even those who genuinely intend to be conscientious and profitable parts of a boss’s team often can’t get their heads around the transition to self -employment, and simply remain unemployed. And where does this leave bosses in businesses in places or sectors where the tax office doesn’t smile on people being self-employed and calls it “crypto employment”?

The reform of labour law to be a little bit more business-friendly is long overdue in most of Europe. And it’s not just the EU. I did some work in the Ukraine a few years back and what I heard about the claims wrongly sacked people can bring about there I found simply astounding. I learned that if the employee who sacks a person – even in a disciplinary way which is fully justified, and fails to pay them all they owe by accident – if it is found even 5 or so years later that they did not pay them everything, even if they were under by a miniscule amount, they now owe that ex-employee their whole final monthly salary for each month of the intervening period as if they had been working!

Have people in Government who write these laws got some kind of grudge against business or what? Certainly they are welcome to have such luxurious laws to protect Government workers if they want to, but why do they insist on forcing them on private businesses? They don’t seem to understand, these Governments, that even though the government of the Czech Republic is not in competition with the government of China for the role of running this Central European country, the same is not true of Novak s.r.o., competing against China or anywhere else in the world with lower social leveraging, in order to make money which, if it is succesful, pays for the taxes that pay for the salaries of these Czech Government people. They certainly don’t create any wealth themselves – excpet for those politicians who have real business interests also, that is. And often the less there is said about that, the soonest mended.

List of minimum wages by country – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Minimum Wage In Paraguay, one simple figure
Image by WageIndicator - Paulien Osse via Flickr

List of minimum wages by country – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

The above link’s content should provide most people with food for thought.

Compare the minimum wage in Holland or Luxembourg, just shy of 20 thousand dollars a year, with Burundi at less than 100 dollars per year – I don’t know why they even bother with minimum wage legislation, but presumably they need it which is harrowing even to dwell on.

Can it be that an unskilled person in Holland is really worth over 200 unskilled people in Burundi? Regardless of where they are, they are both unskilled.

There’s no easy answer to this one – if you increase the minimum wage then the investment in labour intensive jobs for lowly-skilled people just goes to a more competitive country, and more people starve.

Also of course, one dollar in Burundi will buy you a lot more than a dollar in Holland (especially in terms of unskilled services, should you require them, but also in terms of food, clothing and shelter).

In and of itself it’s not the most useful index of human development, but it certainly makes you think.

The EGIAN Position Paper in full (republished by permission) Quoracy.com fully endorses the views expressed in this document


Enlargement of the European Union (animation)
History of the EU

 

AN EGIAN POSITION PAPER

 

EGIAN SUPPORTS ROBUST REFORM PROGRAMME FOR THE EUROPEAN UNION AUDIT PROFESSION

PRINCIPLES AND ACTIONS

 

1 THE URGENT NEED FOR CHANGE

The creation of a more open vibrant market in the audit of large listed companies is urgently needed to protect and advance the public interest. If no action is taken, the currently excessive levels of concentration in this segment of the audit market in nearly all Member States of the European Union will very likely continue to rise even further, not least as a result of non-Big 4 firms being taken over by their dominant Big 4 competitors in key markets. An example of how to define large listed companies is set out at the end of this paper. Continue reading “The EGIAN Position Paper in full (republished by permission) Quoracy.com fully endorses the views expressed in this document”

Monopoly the way we know it is not much of a game…


A German Monopoly board in the middle of a gam...
Monopoly - the only game in town

In Monopoly, whichever player is banker is supposed to keep the bank money separate to the money he’s also doing business with in the market. He’s also supposed to run the bank according to certain rules and if he was cheating it’d be game over. They should bring out a new version of Monopoly in which the Banker is allowed to cheat all he likes and always automatically wins, and another player is called The Government and that player chooses from the Chance and Community Chest cards for the other players instead of just getting them to take the next one in a shuffled pack. The Government cannot only do it to the banker – they automatically give the Banker the best card. Banker and Government get to throw three dice instead of two, and they are also allowed to compulsorily purchase other player’s properties, and also send them to Jail for two turns if they complain about the unfairness of the rules.

That modern update to the famous board game would be most enlightening. Nobody would play it given the choice, but in reality of course we don’t really have a choice. After all, there’s a monopoly of government in any country and there’s an oligopoly of banks.

Poland is Europe’s white goods leader


Front-loading washing machine
Could Poland become the new leader in monetising laundry? A "pralka", yesterday.

Poland’s production of household appliances is expected to grow some 5% this year. The country is expected to produce and export 15.5 million washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators and cookers. Poland has already beaten Germany and is about to get ahead of ItalyDziennik Gazeta Prawna” reports.

The so called large household appliances made this year in Poland will be worth the record amount of PLN 3 billion, the newspaper underlines. A lot of it is owing to Samsung Electronics who purchased a washing machine and refrigerators manufacturing plant in Wronki from Amica and announced that it would invest nearly USD 170 million in the development of this plant. Samsung Electronics is also to transfer its production from other European plants to Wronki. The investments are underway.
“Dziennik Gazeta Prawna” found out that Samsung Electronics says it is possible that production in Poland will be expanded with manufacturing heating equipment like ovens, stoves and plates. There is a large demand for this kind of appliances in the EU. According to analysts, demand for heating equipment will remain at around 30% of total annual production, “Dziennik Gazeta Prawna” notes. (Source: gazeta.pl)