Unintended and Undesired Consequences: The Impact of OECD Pillar I and II Proposals on Small Open Economies
Corporate tax laws vary significantly between different jurisdictions. Over the past four decades, governments globally competed for business activity by lowering statutory and effective corporate tax rates. Many governments provide special tax incentives for businesses to invest and expand employment. Special economic zones often grant full corporate tax exemptions to stimulate commercial development. Corporate income tax incentives for research and development activities are common across countries’ corporate tax codes reflecting governments’ desire to stimulate innovation and business development.
While corporate tax competition is common government practice in the world economy, the OECD currently aims to curb international corporate tax competition. The OECD’s corporate tax reform proposals officially aim to address “corporate tax avoidance” and “unfairness in taxation”. The policy debate is driven by some governments’ motivation to increase revenues from taxes on corporate income. Economic impact assessments of the OECD’s current Pillar I and II proposals are still scarce. Individual governments have so far failed to conduct impact assessments or are hesitant to make their assessments available to the general public. The OECD’s secretariat expects additional tax revenues of 100bn USD annually, which are said to be evenly distributed among the 137 countries comprising the Inclusive Framework. The narrow focus on changes in governments’ revenues and the static nature of the OECD’s analysis is in various respects misleading.
This paper highlights that the proposed reforms would shift taxing powers (tax sovereignty) and economic activity away from small open economies to the world’s largest countries, of which most (currently) apply very high statutory corporate tax rates. The implementation of Pillar I and II proposals would pave the way for a global tax redistribution framework transferring financial funds away from governments that embrace free international trade and investment to the many of the world’s worst-performing governments with respect to economic openness, acceptance of the rule of law, corruption, state interventionism, and the recognition of basic human rights (e.g. Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Russia). Conversely, the OECD’s proposed corporate tax reforms would punish the world’s best performing economies with regard to economic freedoms, trade and investment openness and the rule of law (e.g. Estonia, the Czech Republic, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, including small city and island states, such as Hong Kong, Luxembourg and Singapore).
The reforms proposed by the OECD would have a significant impact on how much and where multinational enterprises would have to pay corporate income tax in the future. The proposed measures would therefore impact where large companies produce and invest in the future. Continued tax competition would contribute to a narrowing of international corporate tax rate differentials up to the 12.5% minimum tax threshold level proposed by the OCED. The narrowing of tax rate differentials between today’s high-tax jurisdictions, of which most are very large countries, and today’s low-tax jurisdictions would direct international and domestic investments and investment-induced tax revenues away from small countries. Estimates show that inward FDI in today’s high-tax countries would increase and outward FDI would decrease. In a symmetrical way, inward FDI in today’s low-tax countries would decrease and outward FDI would increase. Overall, the shift in effective taxing powers would undermine small countries’ relative attractiveness to international businesses and, on top of that, would induce domestic businesses to relocate to larger countries with the gravity of larger markets.
Contrary to claims made by the OECD, the implementation of Pillar I and II proposals would not improve the global allocation of capital. Global trade and investment flows would still be subject to tax competition and prevalent trade and investment barriers. The OECD’s current proposals would likely incentivise the governments of large countries to maintain long-standing barriers to trade and investment. The economic gravity of large countries may even incentivise large country governments to erect additional barriers that would restrict market access for companies from small open economies. For small open economies that are home to research- and knowledge-intensive multinational companies, the OECD’s proposed tax reforms would undermine future investments in R&D, innovation and business model development, with adverse implications for existing research clusters, education systems and high value-added jobs.
Policymakers should reconsider whether taxes on corporate income actually contribute to governments’ overall social and economic policy objectives, such as economic development, redistribution and fairness in taxation. Replacing tax systems that include taxes on corporate income by systems that rely more or exclusively on direct taxes on labour income, capital income and consumption (VAT/sales taxes) would increase transparency about the distributional effects of taxation and significantly improve governments’ tax manoeuvrability in response to citizens’ preferences for fairer taxation. A regime change towards greater use of VAT/sales taxes would also have a positive impact on global capital allocation. Companies would no longer have to pay attention to corporate tax rate differentials, while governments would have additional invectives to embrace foreign trade and investment, materialising in lower barriers to trade and investment and a more efficient allocation of global capital respectively.