April 28, 2013 9:15 pm

Figures shed light on tax avoidance haul

The Netherlands and Luxembourg had booked foreign direct investment of $5.8tn by the end of 2012 – more than the US, UK and Germany combined, according to data that will fuel controversy over aggressive corporate tax policies.

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The OECD figures show the Netherlands attracted FDI of $3.5tn by the end of last year with stocks – the value of cumulative capital investment – of $3.5tn, though just $573bn ended up in the “real” Dutch economy.

The rest went to special purpose entities, the finance and holding companies often designed to help big businesses avoid tax.

Luxembourg booked $2.28tn in FDI but just $122bn entered the real economy.

Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the OECD, has called on governments to make reforms, saying “we cannot blame business for using the rules that policy makers themselves have put in place”.

He told a conference of the Paris-based club of mostly rich nations last month that although “tax planning strategies that exploit loopholes are mostly legal . . . [they] constitute a major risk to tax revenues, tax sovereignty and tax fairness”.

Governments in the spotlight are on the defensive. Switzerland last month bowed to EU demands to scrap the incentives it offers foreign multinationals, saying it would announce reforms by midyear.

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Multinational groups have for years routed profits through low tax countries and used other techniques to minimise their tax bills.

But as many developed economies are forced into austerity regimes because of budget deficits, questions are being raised about tax policies and their effect on the global economy.

Much recent attention has focused on tax havens and individual companies such as Google, which has faced public outrage in countries where it has paid little tax despite doing billions of euros of business.

But the global debate is beginning to focus on developed economies such as the Netherlands and Ireland, which have sucked up corporate investment by helping – entirely legally – companies avoid hefty tax bills at home.

Even as international pressure grows on countries with a history of low corporate tax rates, there are signs that other nations are joining a race to cut rates.

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Last week Portugal announced plans to lower its 24 per cent corporate tax rate despite being the subject of a €78bn bailout. In his budget proposals this month, US President Barack Obama proposed eliminating business tax breaks to reduce the 35 per cent corporate tax rate. And British chancellor George Osborne last month announced plans to cut the corporate tax rate to 20 per cent, the lowest in the G20, saying “in this global race, we cannot stand still”.

US multinationals disproportionately report profits in low tax countries, in a sign of the scope provided by the US tax code to minimise and defer tax on foreign earnings. But the effect for European governments is substantial as well with authorities calculating that European businesses invested $768bn in low tax and no tax countries in 2010, nearly as much as the $824bn that originated from the US.

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