Showing posts with label multinationals. Show all posts
Showing posts with label multinationals. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

My new hero, Mathias Cormann, now valiant for truth

I find it hugely encouraging. Don’t know if you’ve heard the glad tidings but, on his road to Damascus – or, in this case, Paris – our own Mathias Cormann, former senator and minister for finance, has experienced a miraculous conversion. He’s gone from persecutor of those who care about climate change to being a leader of the cause.

As we said in my Salvo youth, there is much joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth. I bet Brother Scott’s joy is unconfined.

And it’s clear from Cormann’s first speech as Secretary-General of the revered Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that he’s seen the light on a lot more than climate change. Indeed, the new man is exhibiting a distinct air of wokefulness. He’s now valiant for “stronger, cleaner, fairer economic growth”.

Speaking to a meeting of the OECD’s 37 rich and wannabe-rich member-country Council at Ministerial Level last week, Cormann said: “We need to continue to overcome the immediate health challenge, including by pursuing an all-out effort to reach the entire world population with vaccines.

“This is not just an act of benevolence from advanced economies. It is about sustained virus protection for all of us and about giving ourselves the best chance of a sustained recovery.”

Enlightened self-interest. I love it.

Cormann hasn’t changed his tune on chasing down slippery multinational tax avoiders. “It is very important we [the OECD] continue to lead the global fight against tax evasion and multinational tax avoidance and to ensure that digital businesses and all large businesses pay their fair share,” he said.

“We need to complete this work, including by facilitating agreement on an appropriate minimum level of global taxation and by minimising the profit-shifting that has accompanied the digitisation of our globalised economy.” All well and good.

On other matters, where I come from, there was nothing we enjoyed more than hearing some reformed Trophy of Grace testifying to his former wicked ways. As finance minister, Cormann led the Coalition’s repeated cuts to our overseas aid budget which, as a poor country with a big debt, we were told, we could no longer afford.

The reborn Cormann sees it differently. “We [the rich OECD countries] must also continue to strengthen our development co-operation. Low-income countries need our co-operation more than ever – to ensure access to vaccinations, to trade, to financing to help them deal with the climate challenge,” he said.

Cormann, you recall, was one of Tony Abbott’s lieutenants in abolishing Labor’s (already watered-down) minerals resource rent tax and its “price on carbon”.

At the time we were led to believe Julia Gillard’s carbon tax was the reason the retail price of electricity had risen so steeply. Turned out it was just a small part of the story. Prices stayed high.

But, in any case, new insight has come to Cormann in a blinding flash. “Market-based economic principles work,” he now sees. “Global competition at its best is a powerful engine for progress, innovation and an improvement in living standards.”

True, he admits, competition can be uncomfortable. “It can lead to social disruption which, collectively, we need to better manage.” Love that new thought that we ought to do more things “collectively”. Doesn’t quite roll off Cormann’s tongue, but he’s getting there.

“We need to ensure access to high quality education, upskilling and reskilling to ensure everyone can participate and benefit. We need the necessary social supports for those who struggle,” he said.

Amen to that. No hanging the unis out to dry during the pandemic. No spending a decade starving technical education of funds.

On climate change, he tells us that “more and more countries are committing to net-zero emissions as soon as possible and by no later than 2050.

“The challenge is how to turn those commitments into outcomes and to achieve our objective in a ... way that will not leave people behind.”

It’s easy to be cynical. In my youth, working in a big private-sector bureaucracy and watching people fighting their way to the top, I formed the view that many people were happy to adjust their views to fit their new role in the organisation.

When, with much assistance from the Morrison government, Cormann was travelling the world canvassing support for the top OECD job, many environmental groups were loudly opposing his candidacy. They failed to anticipate the fluidity of his views.

In my limited contact with the man, I found this Rocksolid Roarer of the Right friendly to the point of charming. Remembering how successful he was at getting crossbench Senate support for the government’s controversial measures – and at so little cost to the exchequer – I think he has just the right qualities to succeed in bringing the OECD’s divers members to agreement.

And, after all, he wouldn’t be the first person lately to realise that the climate worm has turned and fossil fuel’s days are ending.

Benediction from the Apostle Mathias: “Protecting ourselves from competition and innovation does not stop it from happening elsewhere – it just means that, over time, those who find themselves behind those protective walls fall further and further behind.”


Saturday, June 13, 2020

The tables have turned in our economic dealings with the world

If you know your economic onions, you know that our economy has long run a deficit in trade with the rest of the world which, when you add our net payments of interest and dividends to foreigners, means we’ve long run a deficit on the current account of our balance of payments and, as a consequence, have a huge and growing foreign debt.

Except that this familiar story has been falling apart for the past five years, and is no longer true. In that time, our economic dealings with the rest of the world have been turned on their head.

Last week the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced that we’d actually run a surplus on the current account of $8.4 billion in March quarter. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t because it was the fourth quarterly surplus in a row.

But that should surprise you because the first of those surpluses, for the June quarter last year, was the first surplus in 44 years. And now we’ve clocked up four in a row, that’s the first 12-month surplus we’ve run since 1973.

Of course, when the balance on a country’s current account turns from deficit to surplus, its net foreign liabilities to the rest of the world stop going up and start going down.

What’s brought about this remarkable transformation? Various factors, the greatest of which is our decade-long resources boom, which occurred because the rapid development of China’s economy led to hugely increased demand for our coal, natural gas and iron ore.

A massive rise in the world prices of those commodities, which began in 2004 and continued until 2011, prompted a boom in the construction of new mines and gas facilities which peaked in 2013. From then on, the volume of our exports of minerals and energy grew strongly as new mines came online.

But while our mining exports expanded greatly, the completion of the new mines and gas facilities meant a fall in our extensive imports of expensive mining equipment. As a consequence, our balance of trade in goods and services – which between 1980 and 2015 averaged a deficit equivalent to 1.25 per cent of gross domestic product – has been in surplus ever since.

The rise of China’s middle class gets much of the credit for another development that’s helped our trade balance: strong growth in our exports of services, particularly inbound tourism and the sale of education to overseas students.

When our country has gone since white settlement as a net importer of foreign financial capital – which has been necessary because our own savings haven’t been sufficient to fund all the physical investment needed to take full advantage of our country’s huge potential for economy development – it’s not surprising we have a lot of foreign investment in Australian businesses and have borrowed a lot of money from foreigners.

In which case, it’s not surprising that every quarter we have to pay foreigners a lot more in interest and dividends on their investments in our economy than they have to pay us on our investments in their economies.

This “net income deficit” – which is the other main component of the current account - has grown enormously since the breakdown of the post-World War II “Bretton Woods” system of fixed exchange rates prompted us to float our dollar in 1983 and started a revolution in banks and businesses in one country lending and investing in other countries, including the rise of multinational corporations.

That was when Australia’s net foreign debt started rising rapidly and the net income deficit began to dominate our current account. The net income deficit has averaged a massive 3.4 per cent of GDP since the late 1980s.

It hasn’t changed much since the tables started turning five years ago. Except for one thing. The rapid growth in our superannuation funds since the introduction of compulsory employee super in the early 1990s has seen so much Australian investment in the shares of foreign companies that, since 2013, the value of our “equity” investment in other countries’ companies has exceeded the value of more than two centuries of other countries’ investment in our companies.

At March 31, Australia had net foreign equity assets worth $338 billion. You’d expect this to have significantly reduced our quarterly net income deficit, but it hasn’t. Why not? Because the dividends we earn on our investments in foreign companies aren’t as great as the dividends foreigners earn on their ownership of our companies. Why not? Because our hugely profitable mining industry is three-quarters foreign-owned.

If you add our net foreign equity assets and our net foreign debt to get our net foreign liabilities, they’ve been falling as a percentage of GDP for the past decade. If you look at the absolute dollar amount, just since December 2018 it’s fallen by more than 20 per cent.

If all this sounds too good to be true, it’s certainly not as good as it looks. The final major factor helping to explain the improvement in our external position is the weakness in the economy over the 18 months before the arrival of the virus shock.

The alternative way to see what’s happening in our dealings with the rest of the world is to focus on what’s happening to national saving relative to national (physical) investment. That’s because the difference between how much the nation saves and how much it invests equals the balance on the current account.

Turns out that national investment has fallen in recent times (business investment is weak, home building has collapsed and government investment in infrastructure is falling back) while national saving has increased (households have been saving more, mining companies have been retaining much of their high profits, and governments have been increasing their operating surpluses).

So much so that the nation is now saving more than it’s investing, giving us a current account surplus. But this is a recipe for weaker not faster “jobs and growth”.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Why Turnbull's Google tax would be reasonably effective

So, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison are introducing a "Google tax" to ensure multinational companies "pay their fair share of tax in Australia". Really? You could be forgiven for being sceptical.

Does the Coalition really want to crack down on their generous mates at the big end of town? And, even if they do, how do we know a Google tax will work?

My sceptical mind (professionally trained by 40 years of living and breathing politicians) can see it all.

Big business had become disillusioned with Turnbull who, like Tony Abbott before him, had balked at increasing the goods and services tax. On no, is he a dud, too?

Turnbull knew he had to deliver "reform" for the big end of town and a cut in the rate of company tax was what it had its heart set on.

Further, he knew he had to have a project to be getting on with, a reason we needed to re-elect him, a way he could be seen to be doing what we expect of governments: adding to jobs and prosperity.

But polling shows most voters don't think cutting company tax is a good idea. Those blighters should be paying more, not less. What about all those internet companies defiantly telling a Senate committee they pay every cent they're legally required to? What about the Panama Papers?

My sceptical mind sees Turnbull realising that, if he wanted to get away with cutting company tax, he'd have to balance it by doing something big on multinational tax avoidance.

I know, let's copy the Brits' diverted profits tax, and not discourage the media from calling it the Google tax.

Look up the government's "tax integrity package" in the budget papers, and your scepticism deepens. It contains eight measures, but six of them only rate an asterisk, denoting that "a reliable estimate [of the revenue expected to be saved] cannot be provided".

The diverted profits tax is expected to raise a mere $100 million a year, and not start doing so until 2018-19.

So how come we're being told the package will raise a net $3.3 billion over four years? Because all the money will come from establishing a new "tax avoidance taskforce" and hiring hundreds more people to audit "large corporates and high wealth individuals".

Hang on. Isn't this something the government could and should have done years ago? Hasn't it actually been cutting Tax Office staff until now?

Right. Got all that? Now get this: although much of that scepticism is no doubt justified – especially in terms of motivations – I'm convinced the crackdown on multinational tax avoidance is genuine, that it started a couple of years ago, and that the new diverted profits tax is likely to be reasonably effective in collecting more revenue.

The fact is that – no doubt in response to pressure from voters and their own difficulties finding the revenue to cover all the spending they want to do – the developed countries have finally got serious about countering tax avoidance by the "transnational corporations" (including some headquartered in Oz) that have come to dominate global commerce.

This requires a high degree of co-operation between countries, and this was initiated by the G20 a few years ago, using the services of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

During our year in the G20 presidency, Joe Hockey and Treasury became heavily committed to the organisation's BEPS – base erosion and profit shifting – project, pushing it along and vowing to set a good example to others.

A key part of the project is the "country-by-country reporting requirement" which requires big multinationals to report details of their profits, sales, employees, assets and income taxes paid in each of the countries in which they operate.

They should do this in their home country but, if they don't, any country in which they operate can demand the full report and share it (confidentially) with the other countries involved.

We put our end of the BEPS agreement through Parliament last year. Once this arrangement gets going it will greatly improve national tax authorities' ability to counter transfer pricing.

The Brits got impatient and introduced their own diverted profits tax, which involves the taxman making an estimate of the amount diverted, without the benefit of the detailed information that will soon be available. Their new tax took effect in April last year.

There are plenty of campaigners against multinational tax avoidance and they weren't impressed by the Google tax, just as they were disappointed with the final report on the BEPS project.

By now, however, they've decided the tax is reasonably effective. And Amazon has announced that it will avoid the diverted profits tax by paying ordinary tax on its retail sales in Britain rather than booking sales through Luxembourg.

That's an important point. Our version of the tax, which would apply from July next year, would be levied at the penalty rate of 40 per cent, rather the present big-company rate of 30 per cent.

So it's designed not to raise tax directly, but to encourage multinationals to avoid it by paying the right amount of ordinary company tax. Our expected collections of only $100 million a year would come just from the slow learners.

Fortunately, sometimes it's possible for our pollies to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.