India is leading a global charge to make corporate giants pay fair tax

India’s new finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman will represent the country at G20 tax discussions in Tokyo.
India’s new finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman will represent the country at G20 tax discussions in Tokyo.
Image: Reuters/Kham
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They’re talking about a revolution in the tax world.

At a Tokyo summit this weekend, G20 finance ministers are expected to give a thumbs-up to a “road map” proposing various ways to upend the system that lets many of the world’s corporate giants get away with paying little-to-no tax.

“They’re extraordinarily radical,” Reuven Avi-Yonah, a tax law professor at the University of Michigan, said of the proposals. “Even the most conservative ones would have seemed almost inconceivable, I would say, as short as five years ago.”

Five years ago, the world’s powers were also discussing reforms to the global tax system. After two years of debate between 2013 and 2015 at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, they passed some useful changes—for example, a system to force multinationals to tell authorities how much they earn in each country and one to tackle tax evasion by the super rich. But reformists were left frustrated that the OECD, often dubbed a “club of rich countries,” failed to tackle loopholes that allow behemoths like Apple and Microsoft to avoid shelling out billions by booking their profits in tax havens. “They refused to countenance such radical change,” Avi-Yonah said of previous discussions.

Today, however, none of the proposals submitted to the G20 aim to keep the profit-shifting status quo. One of the main reasons that has changed is India.

India is “fed up”

The world’s largest democracy is leading dozens of developing nations, which feel digital giants and others should pay taxes in countries where they have hundreds of millions of users. After years of the OECD asking it to play along with international negotiations, New Delhi has made a number of unilateral moves that indicate it is “fed up with the OECD and that it cannot wait any longer,” said Ajitesh Kir, a doctoral candidate at Michigan and co-author with Avi-Yonah of an upcoming paper on India’s tax proposals.

Its most bombastic move came this April. India offered up an 84-page “public consultation” paper, which explored ways to forgo the tortuous international process and simply forcing multinationals to pay some taxes there. It proposes taxing companies partly on where they have economic activity, rather than just where they locate their headquarters or intellectual property. Kir thinks prime minister Narendra Modi’s newly re-elected government may well pass these changes in a matter of months.

The paper amounts to a loaded weapon that New Delhi can place gently in front of them at future negotiations, implicitly demanding: “Send more tax revenue to developing countries, or we’ll simply pass this law on our own.” Many analysts expect that would inspire other developing countries—which rely much more heavily on corporate taxation than Western ones—to adopt similar plans, rupturing the international tax system from a current state where most countries are aligned on how they tax multinationals.

It would be an unhappy outcome for corporate giants, who enjoy the profit-shifting status quo, but would prefer that any changes result in a one-size-fits-all system. Having every country put in place a different unilateral measure would “be distortive of trade. It would increase tax disputes. It would negatively affect multinationals,” said Tommaso Faccio, head of secretariat at ICRICT, a commission pushing for tax reform, who supports India’s efforts.

OECD tax chief Pascal Saint-Amans told Quartz that “the threat of unilateral measures is all around,” but insisted it is just one factor in the negotiations. He warned developing countries about playing with fire: “If you’re a very big country like the United States, you can protect yourself. But if you’re a midsized or developing country, you get screwed by unilateral measures—you lose business or don’t protect yourself because companies have ways of using other routes [to avoid taxes],” he said.

OECD under fire

India isn’t alone in using unilateralism to push the OECD. Saint-Amans notes that the United States, United Kingdom, and France are among other countries adopting their own measures. However, the South Asian giant has gone beyond mere policy—making unsubtle stabs at the legitimacy of the OECD in language that, in the diplomatic world, is akin to a bar brawler smashing a glass bottle and waving the jagged remnants in an adversary’s face.

The attacks have centered on the OECD’s small, overwhelmingly Western, membership. In its consultation paper, India argued that these members’ interests “take precedence over the interests of non member countries.” The OECD has opened tax reform discussions to around 90 outside countries in what it calls an “inclusive framework.” But, at a recent UN tax debate, India’s representative pointedly said, “calling a process inclusive does not make it so.” The diplomat then called for a new platform to debate tax at the United Nations.

The apparent threat is that if the OECD doesn’t shift revenues towards developing countries, India and others will concertedly push to remove its status as the convener of all things tax.

Saint-Amans said he was unfazed by the criticism, insisting that everyone in the “inclusive framework” participates on “an equal footing.” He brushed off India’s rhetoric at the United Nations, saying activity there is “more about making political statements and taking positions, while our work is more about negotiating stuff and agreeing on stuff.”

He pointedly added that for the Modi government, which has prioritized attracting foreign business, keeping up its “pretty aggressive” behavior might “not be the best way of attracting investment.”

On the table

The OECD seems to have taken note of India’s machinations, including New Delhi’s proposal as one of a handful of options to be considered in its “road map” to passing a major tax reform by the end of 2020.

Tax reformists, like Faccio, see the mere inclusion of a policy once deemed unthinkable as a win; a sign the tides are moving in their direction. But the proposal being put on the table doesn’t guarantee any success. “India are putting pressure on the negotiations—this is the first time there is a developing country proposal on table. It’s backed by a number of countries but I expect this to be a negotiation,” said Faccio, whose commission counts leftist economists Thomas Picketty, Joseph Stiglitz, and Gabriel Zucman as members.

The US Treasury’s international tax policy chief fired a salvo this week by calling for developing countries to accept a system which, he admitted, won’t make any actual change to revenues “in many, many cases.” But Saint-Amans played down the notion that the US and Indian positions are too far apart to reconcile, arguing that Washington has come a long way to a point where it’s adopting a policy that “would have been a shock” just two years ago. “Frankly speaking, this is big, this is massive—which makes me think there may be room for some form of agreement,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ll be able to bridge the gap, but at least we have the building blocks to do so.”

Reaching an agreement on most areas being discussed would require all but a handful of the 129 countries involved to sign on. Finding that consensus will be a massive task. Saint-Amans acknowledged that “there’s no outcome which benefits everyone,” half-joking that his life “is a nightmare” as he tries to help so many disparate countries find consensus. But he argued that the question for any pact should be whether a concrete, real-world deal is “acceptable” for everyone, rather than a notional agreement that’s “optimal” for all.

“Because if we don’t have a deal countries would go ahead with unilateral measures,” he said. “Is the real world satisfactory? No, but I don’t know any other world.”

This story has been updated with quotes from Pascal Saint-Amans.

Correction (June 6, 2019): Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article mistakenly called the OECD the “Office of Economic Cooperation and Development.”