A multilateral tax cooperation mechanism under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Belt and Road Initiative Tax Administration Mechanism (BRITACOM) which includes tax authorities from 34 countries and regions, was established on 18 April 2019. The reported aim of BRITACOM is to facilitate cross-border trade and investment along BRI routes by expanding tax dispute resolution activities, increasing transparency, streamlining compliance and digitizing filing. An office will be opened in Beijing to help facilitate these goals.
Since the BRI consists primarily of Chinese outbound investment in infrastructure projects in the participating countries, BRITACOM will likely function more in facilitating outbound Mainland Chinese entities’ local tax compliance and dispute resolution when engaged in such projects. BRITACOM will be different from the various anti-tax avoidance initiatives of the OECD and other international organisations.
International Effort in Anti-Tax Avoidance
The most well-known international effort against tax avoidance is the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project. The 15 BEPS Actions issued in October 2015 challenge tax avoidance practices by large Multinational Enterprises (“L-MNEs”) by amending the global tax treaties, increasing disclosure and transparency, introducing new documentation in transfer pricing, countering harmful tax practices, lowering threshold of permanent establishment recognition, investigating into new form of taxation for digital services and toughening interest deduction rules. The primary aim of BEPS is to ensure that the international tax rules do not facilitate the shifting of corporate profits away from the real economic activity and value creation are taking place. Many of these Actions have been implemented already, the latest being the Economic Substance Law (with the BVI just issued the Draft Economic Substance Code).
In addition, the OECD has stepped up efforts in international cooperation on tax matters in recent years. Heads of tax administrations meet regularly at the Forum of Tax Administration (FTA). Cross-border tax avoidance intelligence is shared among tax offices under the Joint International Taskforce on Shared Intelligence and Collaboration (JITSIC). The International Compliance Assurance Programme (ICAP) invites large MNEs to engage voluntarily with tax administrations from 17 jurisdictions (expanded from 8 when the pilot began in January 2018). Tax Inspectors Without Borders sends experience tax officials to train those in developing countries to perform tax audits on MNEs.
The United Nation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Unions are also very active in introducing new initiatives in combating tax avoidance.
Large MNEs have Acted
Many L-MNEs have already started restructuring back in around 2013/14 in view of the disclosure requirements especially the Country-by-Country Reporting (CbCR). In the past, many L-MNEs housed the intellectual properties (“IP”) in tax haven jurisdictions earning untaxed royalties or have captive insurance companies there to provide insurance coverage to group companies in order to receive untaxed income while the group companies could take a tax deduction. Smart L-MNEs would have restructured early so that no tax office would have the opportunity to ask the sensitive questions. Their most immediate challenge to the L-MNEs would likely be dealing with the economic substance law in the tax haven countries, especially those that have been acting as funding vehicles.
Smaller MNEs – Act Now
L-MNEs have internal tax resources to help them manage tax risks in this rapidly changing tax environment. What about the Small and Medium Size MNEs (S-MNEs) that do not have in-house tax people? They obviously have to rely on external tax consultants. The key is to identify the right consultants to do the following two things:
1. Review the existing structure, operations and arrangements
The objective of such review is to identify tax risks and opportunities currently embedded in the group structure and operations. The author had seen a group missing out the 50/50 offshore claim in the Hong Kong profits tax filing on a contract manufacturing arrangement. In another case, a Hong Kong-based listed group devoted resources in Hong Kong to help the overseas affiliates in high tax countries to become highly profitable but they do not realise that they should recoup the costs incurred in Hong Kong via transfer pricing in order to align with the commercial reality and reduce the group’s effective tax rate. These can be dug out and properly addressed in order to create legitimate tax saving.
Some groups have not paid attention to documentation of decision making and thereby creating risks of being regarded as tax resident in jurisdictions unexpectedly. The old model of cost-plus remuneration of agents may now be exposed to permanent establishment risks. Some have ignored the documentation of substance. The impact of the Economic Substance Law introduced by the tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands (BVI) must be properly analysed with a set of action determined to address the issue.
To be a good manager, issues should be addressed and resolved upfront so that the expectation of shareholders and directors of the group/company is well-managed. The review should be conducted by professionals with solid technical and business experience. There are well-qualified tax advisors in the market to do the work at competitive rates and high efficiency to deliver substantial value to the groups.
Often the finance managers of the groups/companies prefer to stick their heads into the sand instead of dealing with the problems because they don’t want to take the blame for issues uncovered by the seasoned tax advisors. It is thus important for the directors or even the shareholders to realise what the current tax environment is like and take initiative in carrying out the review. At the end of the day, if the hidden tax exposures are not cleared before they crystalise, the group/company, the directors and shareholders would be badly hurt.
2. Seek on-going tax support especially on documentation
Having identified and dealt with past issues, it is important that no such issue will arise again in the future. This can be achieved by retaining the tax advisor to review transactions or documentation as and when required, just a family doctor caring for the health of the family. For example, sometimes the auditors, being unaware of the tax exposure created, may make disclosures in the audited financial statements that are unnecessary and sometimes even harmful to the tax arrangement of the company. For listed companies, they should be very careful in the disclosures in the annual reports.
Board papers are crucial. It is direct evidence of management and control which is one of the key factors in determining substance and tax residency. Tax advisors play an important role in advising who should be on the board of each company, location of board meetings and review the board papers.
Also, management should be made aware of tax law changes and new cases that affect their business. Questions they should ask, or proactively addressed by the tax advisor, include:
- What are the benefits of the new tax incentives introduced in Hong Kong such as the two-tier tax system to the group?
- Should something be done about intellectual property in view of the new Section 15F of the Inland Revenue Ordinance?
- What should the group do in view of the Beneficial Ownership rules in Mainland China to ensure that the benefits can be obtained?
- Is CbCR going to affect the group?
- The boss travels to Mainland China often, is he exposed to the Chinese Individual Income Tax on worldwide income?
- Is the loan financing of a foreign subsidiary compliant with transfer pricing or will it be challenged by the tax authorities?
- In view of the tax cases, can the Hong Kong company still lodge an offshore claim on its trading profits? How to ensure a successful claim?
- How to structure a new acquisition? Is the Multilateral Convention to Implement Tax Treaty Related Measures to Prevent BEPS (commonly referred to as the Multilateral Instrument) going to affect the group? Would all the new tax rules introduced bring higher tax exposures in a share deal and how to mitigate such risks?
The list of questions can be much longer.
It is time for the smaller groups to gear up the tax risk monitoring and compliance, and ensure that structures are sustainable in the medium term. The BEPS Project is at the implementation stage and it will not be long before OECD reviews the achievement and point to the next target: the S-MNE groups. The time to act is NOW.