Comments on BEPS Action 7: Revised Discussion Draft on
Preventing Artificial Avoidance of Permanent Establishment Status
Under international tax rules, whether a foreign company can be taxed on profits earned from activities in a country depends on whether it has a Permanent Establishment (PE). Devised a century ago, this concept has become easy to avoid, and is clearly inappropriate for the post-industrial age. The BEPS Action Plan proposed only a relatively modest reconsideration of some aspects of the rules, although it should also be considered under Action 1 relating to the Digital Economy.
Summary of BMG Comments
We are concerned that this revised discussion draft (RDD) seems to have given too much weight to the quantity of comments received on the initial draft, failing to take into account that since the vast majority came from the same community of MNEs and their paid tax advisers, it is hardly surprising that they tend to agree. In particular the RDD picks out the comments which defended ‘the fundamental concept of the independence of legal entities’, without mentioning our submission pointing out that it flies in the face of business reality to claim that associated entities within a multinational corporate group operate as independent parties, a view which is supported by economic theory and practice, and by most independent commentators.
We welcome that nevertheless a majority of the Working Party agreed to the proposed anti-fragmentation rule, although it has been given very limited scope. Indeed, the Working Party has interpreted its mandate very narrowly, focusing essentially on commissionaire arrangements and sales-related activity, so that its proposals will only deal with a few types of corporate fragmentation, those related to delivery of goods to customers. The proposals on commissionaire arrangements leave unclear whether they will apply even to activities such as marketing, while failing to deal with many other types of functional fragmentation which facilitate BEPS.
The RDD does not deal at all with the reality of the modern world in which real value is created through scientific research and the development and testing of products and services, in continuous processes of innovation and improvement. This is not just a ‘digital economy’ issue. Spending on innovation is key to the success of many businesses today. This must be reflected in Article 5 with sufficient nuance that MNEs will not continue to undervalue for source countries the value that is truly created within their borders.
The report also does not deal with the key issue of attribution of profits, which has been deferred to be dealt with after the G20 deadline for the BEPS project, perhaps in conjunction with the continued work on the Digital Economy. The weakness of these proposals is confirmed by the introduction by some OECD countries (e.g. Australia, UK) of unilateral measures to tax ‘diverted profits’. Developing countries should also take measures to protect their tax base, e.g. through withholding taxes on fees for services, but these are blunt instruments (applying to gross payments rather than profits). An internationally coordinated approach would clearly be far better both for business and revenue authorities.
The BEPS project is in our view seriously weakened by this failure to reconsider the permanent establishment concept to provide a definition of taxable presence more suited to the 21st century.