Tax Challenges of the Digital Economy
The BMG has made a new submission on Tax Challenges of the Digital Economy in response to the Request for Comments by the OECD in connection with the work of the Task Force on the Digital Economy, preparing a report for the G20.
Digitalisation has further exacerbated the fundamental flaws in international tax rules. The ability to do substantial business in a country without a significant physical presence has long been a problem especially in relation to services. The importance of intangibles and the ability to transfer ownership of such assets to affiliates in low-tax jurisdictions was pioneered long ago by pharmaceutical companies.
Although digitalisation has resulted in important changes in business models, their effects are less significant for those rules than the transformations resulting from the emergence and growth of multinational enterprises (MNEs) since those rules were devised almost a century ago. MNEs have exploited the ‘independent entity’ principle, by creating complex corporate groups and fragmenting their functions to allocate a high proportion of their global income to low-taxed affiliates. The BEPS project has so far aimed only to patch up these rules, and has not resolved the central challenge of how profits should be allocated according to where ‘economic activities occur and value is created’. This requires a paradigm shift, to move away from the independent entity principle, and treat MNEs in accordance with the economic reality that they are unitary firms.
The BEPS issues raised by digitalised products or services are not caused by small companies, such as software firms, selling digital products to customers around the world, but by the giant web-based MNEs. These firms usually do have a significant physical presence in countries where they have a significant level of consumers, but they fragment their activities, and attribute functions such as sales, order fulfillment, production, marketing and customer support to different affiliates.
The main changes due to digitalisation are (i) the closer relationship it both requires and enables between producers and consumers; (ii) the digital services that are often supplied with no direct charge to users, while their inputs are monetised through revenue generated through services provided to other customers, especially advertising; and (iii) the ability that digitalisation gives for some firms to recharacterise themselves as pure intermediaries between producers and consumers. The various unilateral and defensive measures introduced or proposed by countries (diverted profits tax, equalisation levy, etc) may be necessary in the short term but are only interim solutions.
We propose a new definition for taxable presence based on significant presence; a holistic approach in attributing profits to take account of the combined contributions of all the affiliates of a MNE within a country; and a shift towards allocating aggregate profits of all relevant associated enterprises based on factors reflecting the drivers of profit for typical business models.