Tax Agreements with Tax Havens and Other Small Countries by Marshall Langer
The current hostility of the major OECD countries towards the smaller international financial centers can be eliminated. The current lose-lose situation can be transferred into a win-win scenario by using simplified mini-agreements between developed countries and low-tax or no-tax countries that would provide tax benefits to bona fide resident individuals, but not to companies or other entities. The world has changed considerably during the past half century; millions of wealthy individuals with trillions of euros and dollars now live in or have retired to small countries with benign tax systems. We should design a simplified mini-agreement that would enable a developed country to attract substantial new investment from wealthy individuals as well as tax information from their countries of residence in return for a reduction in excessive withholding taxes and an appropriate sharing of the withheld taxes between the source and residence countries. Most existing income tax treaties are suitable only when both the source country and the residence country impose tax on the worldwide income of all their residents. These treaties do not work well when some or all of the residents of either country pay no income tax at all or no tax on foreign income. Residents of no-tax or low-tax countries often suffer from a different form of double taxation ? excessive source-country withholding taxes on their cross-border investment income. Many OECD countries have low “wholesale” withholding tax rates (15% or less) on dividends, interest and royalties paid to residents of treaty countries and a much higher “retail” rate (30% or more) when such income is paid to residents of non-treaty countries. Let us look at how the current regime works when an OECD country imposes a high withholding tax on passive income paid to foreign individuals. The US, for example, still taxes corporate income twice. A US corporation pays about $400,000 in federal and state income taxes on each $1 million it earns. If the corporation distributes the remaining $600,000 as a dividend, US individuals and foreign individuals resident in most tax-treaty countries pay a further 15% US federal tax ($90,000 per $1 million), bringing the US tax liability to about 49% ($490,000 per $1 million). A foreign high-net-worth individual (HNWI) residing in a non-treaty country does much worse. He or she is supposed to pay a 30% US withholding tax on the dividend ($180,000 per $1 million); this would bring the US tax liability to about 58% ($580,000 per $1 million). The typical foreign HNWI reacts to this situation in one of three ways: he invests only in US companies that pay no dividends or very low dividends, primarily seeking capital gains since these are tax-free to foreign investors; or he invests in US shares through a company resident in a suitable third country (such treaty shopping used to be easy but it is gradually becoming more difficult and more expensive); or he invests elsewhere and limits his US equity investments to companies incorporated in other countries, many of which are foreign companies with substantial US business operations. A foreign HNWI deriving interest income has an easier time with the US because it does not tax most interest paid to foreign persons. The US has never taxed foreign persons on US bank-deposit interest. Most other US-source interest income qualifies as tax-free “portfolio interest.” The foreign non-treaty HNWI avoids investing in taxable US obligations because the combination of inflation and a 30% withholding tax would eat up over 100% of his taxable interest income. An author or inventor with substantial US royalties or a retired investor with income from US pensions and annuities can move to one of several countries with a favorable US tax treaty and a comparatively benign local tax system for individual residents. Or, he can move to a country that does not tax his foreign income and he can use an intermediate company for treaty shopping and tax minimization. Most, but not all, comprehensive income tax agreements are formal treaties that deal with different kinds of tax situations involving both individuals and businesses. There are several inherent problems with formal tax treaties: Each country must maintain an adequate supply of experienced negotiators. Tax treaties often take years to negotiate. They require time-consuming parliamentary scrutiny and approval. Some parliaments and treasury departments rarely look at tax treaties after they are ratified and enter into force. Subsequent treaty amendments require the same time-consuming parliamentary scrutiny and approval as the original treaty. Thus, treaties often remain in force unchanged long after they should have been amended to deal with changes in both countries’ domestic tax laws. The difficulty of ratifying and amending tax treaties has led treasury officials in some OECD countries to refrain from negotiating tax treaties with small developing countries, especially those countries with companies that they fear might be used for treaty shopping. Treasury officials in OECD countries frequently say: “We don’t do tax treaties with tax havens.” The truth is that many OECD countries have always had tax treaties with some countries that are tax havens. Some of these treaties were acquired more by accident than by design. Others have been done intentionally on a very selective basis. Those acquired by accident have sometimes resulted from extending tax treaties with other OECD countries to their colonies that supposedly had substantially similar tax systems. One example is that of the US treaty relationship with the Netherlands Antilles. The 1948 Netherlands-US income tax treaty was extended to the Netherlands Antilles in 1955. This and some other tax treaty extensions were used (or abused) for treaty shopping. The Netherlands Antilles adopted offshore legislation granting a 90% exemption on some passive income derived by qualified Netherlands Antilles companies. This reduced the normal 24% to 30% Netherlands Antilles tax rate on dividends, interest and royalties derived by these companies to only 2.4% to 3%. The statutory US withholding tax rate on dividends, interest, royalties and other passive income was then (and still is) 30%. The treaty provided for a 15% US withholding tax on most dividends and no US withholding tax on interest or royalties. This permitted Sanchez NV, an investment company owned by Juan Sanchez of Panazuela, to obtain US portfolio dividends with a total tax of only about 17%. The company also obtained US interest and royalties at a total tax of 3% or less. Despite some subsequent treaty modifications, the Netherlands Antilles-US treaty remained a treaty with the world for several decades. The extended treaty was substantially terminated in 1987. The Netherlands Antilles has since attempted without success to enter into a new tax treaty with the US.