With many governments pulling back on public spending that is directly impacting many vulnerable groups in society, it’s not surprising that people and the press are making noises about the amount of tax paid by the super-rich and some of our global companies. Although they are complying with regulations, the ones that are in the frame in the UK are Google, Amazon and Starbucks, which last month Reuters reported as having paid no corporation tax on revenues of over UK£3bn over the last 3 years. Last week, senior managers from these three companies were hauled up before an all-party panel of members of parliament to explain themselves and frankly they didn’t perform too well with some real gaffs about how they paid a huge amount in Value Added Tax. The fact is that is a sales tax paid by the customer and the comapny is simply the tax collector – doh, get it right!
Working within the regulations, these companies, ( and many others, including no doubt most of the UK’s own blue chips), are minimizing their exposure to the United Kingdom’s 24% corporate tax rate by repatriating high royalty fees for using their brands, transfer pricing service fees for IT and the like and basing their entities in countries such as Switzerland with its 12% rate of corporate tax where Starbucks operates its worldwide coffee-trading activities, and Ireland with a 12.5% rate, where Google has headquartered its European operations. Let’s be honest, as long as we stick by the rules, wouldn’t we all do it?
Now it’s not just us whingeing Brits that are complaining; everyone is, including Germany and France, (which is already making changes to French law to tighten up some local loopholes), – and particularly the OECD that sets the rules. Even the Financial Times came out with a clear statement about the issue last week when it wrote,
‘The international tax system in effect provides vast subsidies for multinationals, helping them outcompete local rivals on a factor – tax – that has nothing to do with economic productivity. They free-ride on tax-funded benefits – roads, educated workforces, reliable courts – provided by the countries where they do business, while others pay for those benefits. This distortion is inefficient and unproductive, and corrupts the very fabric of markets.
Well my guess is that new regulation is being formulated, which will broadly centre on two key principles:
- Unitary taxation where companies are taxed according to the genuine economic trading they do in each country.
- Some form of minimum tax payable locally which would be determined by looking at the global profit of a company and then applying a formula based on where sales are made and where people are employed to allocate a fair share of the taxable profit to each country.
When this new regulation is unleashed it will mean that every company that trades outside its national borders will need to make an annual submission to the tax authorities of each country where it does business. This submission will combine the consolidated accounts for the whole global group that ignores all internal transfers and shows the group’s physical assets, workforce, sales and the overall profits which are broken down by country according to the weighting set out in the final formula. Now if you thought getting ready for IFRS was a challenge, (albeit one which as yet has no firm delivery date for the US), step back and reflect on internal implications of this. Overnight the number of published reports has gone through the roof as one needs to be submitted in each country where you trade. Already the global financial crisis has stepped up the pressure from investors and regulators for accounting and reporting processes that are rock solid with no errors, faster reporting and agility in dealing with new disclosure requirements, such as this one which certainly raises the bar on transparency.
Reporting and disclosure is still a major concern for Finance. ‘Fortifying the Financial Close to Disclose Process’, a new research paper from APQC found that nearly 75% of organizations around the globe have the close-to-disclose process ranked among their top-two targets for financial management improvement over the next 18 months. The type of improvements that respondents currently seek cluster around four core themes:
- Taking less time to gather and process financial data with benefits such as a 30% cost reduction for companies that have an integrated and automated end-to-end process.
- Automating the process to improve effectiveness by deploying solutions, such as SAP Financial Consolidation and SAP Disclosure Management, that have compelling functionality around key process areas such as variance analysis, journal entry processing, and close scheduling.
- Being able to identify the root causes of accounting and reporting errors and reduce the risk of restatements through having more robust processes, particularly around intercompany accounts, something that SAP now packages with both SAP Financial Consolidation and SAP Business Planning and Consolidation, but still offers as a stand-alone solution that can even be integrated into a non SAP process – SAP Intercompany.
- Strengthening the alignment between the data used for regulatory reporting and the data used for planning and resource allocation internally – again something that won’t get far relying on spread sheets.
There is lots of other interesting stuff in the report, which you can read here, (you may have to register) including benchmarking on various metrics and process steps. But it seems to me that the close-to-disclose process is set to become infinitely more burdensome if and when country level reporting for taxation purposes is mandated a few years down the line. So although more speed and less cost are compelling targets in the short and medium term, perhaps it’s time to step back and look at the bigger picture and whether the solutions you have today can cope with the demands of tomorrow when a new stakeholder enters into the picture.