Monday, October 05, 2015

Tax scams

First came the slave traders, then the colonisers carrying off rubber and diamonds, then the mercenaries of the cold war years. Today, it is the accountants. Of the estimated $50bn that illicitly departs Africa annually the bulk, according to the most widely used calculations, is neither the proceeds of corruption nor of organised crime. Instead, the biggest drain is via accounting fiddles by multinational companies. The data are inherently vague but the broad figures are vast — equal to the entire annual shortfall in African infrastructure investment.

Transfer pricing is at the heart of the illicit financial flows. When one arm of a multinational transfers goods or services to another arm of the group in a different country, it must record a price for that transaction. Under the “arm’s-length principle”, the price should be the same as that which would have been paid had the transaction been with an unrelated company at market rates.  But trade statistics and increasingly frequent challenges by tax authorities suggest that these numbers can be manipulated to shift profits out of countries with normal tax rates and into tax havens such as Switzerland, Luxembourg or assorted Caribbean islands.
“Multinational corporations take an awful lot of advantage over the lack of capacity of African governments to police transfer pricing,” says Raymond Baker, president of Global Financial Integrity, the US think-tank that coined and popularised the notion of illicit financial flows. “You have to go through all sorts of gymnastics to show that money was illegally taken out.”

After auditing dozens of multinationals, Kenya’s tax authority demanded Ks25bn in tax it says was avoided mainly through abusive transfer pricing. But Kenya is seeking to establish itself as a financial centre, potentially creating new loopholes.

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