Ireland's Empty Gesture on Curbing Offshore Tax Abuses


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Responding to growing international pressure over his country’s role in facilitating international tax avoidance, Ireland's Minister of Finance, Michael Noonan, proposed a new measure that would end the ability of companies to avoid taxes by incorporating in his country without declaring any country of residence for tax purposes. The move comes after a Senate investigation in the U.S. that revealed Apple’s massive tax avoidance involving subsidiaries in Ireland.

But this move will not make any difference in the ability of Apple and other companies to avoid Irish, and by extension, other countries’ taxes. The law, as proposed, would continue to allow a company incorporated in Ireland to select any country to be its “residence,” the place where it is technically managed. In other words, a subsidiary company incorporated in Ireland can declare a tax haven as its residence and pay zero taxes on its profits and on profits funneled to it from related companies in other countries.

In fact, this approach is already being used by Google, which reportedly routed $12 billion in royalty payments to Bermuda, an infamous tax haven, using the "Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich" technique. This strategy involves shifting profits (on paper) through subsidiaries that are shell companies in several jurisdictions until they are officially in an Irish shell company that legally “resides” in a country like Bermuda or the Cayman Islands which has no corporate income tax. The U.S. and many other countries have rules that would immediately tax certain payments made directly into a shell company in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands, so this complicated strategy takes advantage of the treaties between Ireland, the Netherlands, and many other countries that waive those taxes.

While it would fail to block this sort of tax avoidance, Ireland’s new proposal has succeeded so far in generating headlines that suggest the country is taking action and doing its part in international efforts to crack down on tax avoidance. Most reporting does, however, note somewhere in the text of the article, if not the headline, the fact that the change would likely have no material effect on tax avoidance (unlike some of the fumbled reporting on the end of the Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into Apple).

The leaders of the U.S. Senate investigation into Apple's tax practices, Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, noted in a statement that in order for Ireland to demonstrate that it’s truly "ready to close the door on these egregious corporate tax abuses," it must ensure that the new rules truly prevent companies from excluding substantial income from the Irish corporate tax by declaring residency in a tax haven. In other words, unless this recent proposal is followed up with changes that would actually impact tax avoidance, then it may be nothing more than a PR move.

Congress can end Apple's and other U.S. companies’ avoidance of U.S. taxes right now, without waiting for Ireland to do the right thing. The best way is to simply repeal the rule that allows American corporations to defer paying (PDF) U.S. taxes on their offshore profits.  American corporations only use gimmicks like the “Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich” so that they can defer (for years or forever) U.S. taxes on profits they claim are earned offshore. If Congress fails to repeal deferral, it can at least curb the worst abuses of deferral by enacting the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act which Senator Levin has introduced.

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