The basis of Glencore’s competitive advantage is not paying tax

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As the Financial Times reports:

Glencore is facing a big increase in its tax bill following its $60bn initial public offering after paying almost no corporate taxes on its trading business for years in spite of bumper profits, according to the banks underwriting its $60bn listing.

“Under the current private structure, [the trading business of] Glencore has been largely tax free,” Liam Fitzpatrick, the lead analyst for Credit Suisse, wrote in a report.

Michael Rawlinson, lead analyst for Liberum Capital, another member of the IPO syndicate, added: “Income has been subject to a corporate tax rate close to zero due to the company’s historical share ownership structure.”

I think we can safely call that agreement that they've not been paying tax.

How come? The FT explains:

Glencore’s trading business made earnings before taxes and interest of $2.33bn last year, the banks estimate.

As a private Swiss-based company, the tax charges in the trading business are borne by its employees. The partners – about 485 employees – accumulate tax liabilities during their work career and pay them when they cash their shares at retirement as income tax.

The net effect has apparently been a tax rate of about 10%.

After the IPO this will apparently go up to a figure exceeding 20%.

Well, that's the good news. But let's stand back a moment and look at the bigger piucture.

Up to 50% of the world's trade in some commodities has been controlled by the 485 partners in Glencore. And as is now apparent that was not due to their innate ability. It was due to to the fact that Switzerland let them trade virtually tax free, providing a wholly artificial competitive advantage.

Who has suffered from this? Well, you have. Prices are too high as a result of the actions of this monopolist.

Who else has suffered? Undoubtedly the poorest countries in the world have, who have not enjoyed prices they should have been paid if a freeer market had existed. Most particularly, no doubt, the governments of those countries have suffered a shortfall in revenues as a result - a point made time and again by those of us involved in campaigning for tax reform for the developing world. As Christian Aid and others have shown, very little of the benefit  from the speculative gains in commodities that the likes of Glencore generate flows to the coffers of those governments. So the populations of those countries see their states denuded of their assets but without an inflow of funds to pay for education, health, welfare, infrastructure and all the other services so badly needed in those places.

And let's note: this is not the result of free market action. This is the result of state subsidy. The Swiss state chose to subsidise Glencore by way of not charging it to tax that it would have been charged elsewhere. So there is no miracle about this. State subsidy for Glencore; state subsidy hidden behind a veil of secrecy at that, has been used to enrich a very few at cost to billions of people, some of whom no doubt will have dies as a result because the resources they needed to survive will have been denied to them.

And now we're all being asked, through our pension funds, to reward those few who have perpetrated this abuse on the world at large by buying their assets, created behind a veil of opacity that disguised their state subsidy that created a monopoly. You should be annoyed: they're getting the deal, it's your pension that's likely to suffer.

But we've more than individual personal interest to get worried about. What this shows yet again is the harmful impact of secrecy jurisdictions.

Secrecy jurisdictions are places that intentionally create regulation for the primary benefit and use of those not resident in their geographical domain. That regulation is designed to undermine the legislation or regulation of another jurisdiction. To facilitate its use secrecy jurisdictions also create a deliberate, legally backed veil of secrecy that ensures that those from outside the jurisdiction making use of its regulation cannot be identified to be doing so.

Glencore used a secrecy jurisdiction to abuse markets. But there's no news in that: that is what secrecy jurisdictions are meant to do. Tehy're not pro-market locations. They're anti-market locations.

Good markets rely on data: secrecy jurisdictions create opacity.

Good markets rely on equal access: secrecy jurisdictions are designed to undermine that.

Good markets rely on a level playing field: as the Swiss tax subsidy for Glencore shows, secrecy jurisdictions undermine that.

Secrecy jurisdictions are about creating monopoly power.

Secrecy jurisdictions are about market abuse.

Secrecy jurisdiction tax abuse is part of this process.

And so too is the secrecy jurisdiction role in undermining regulation - regulation designed almost always to make sure markets work in the common interest, not the interests of a few.

The simple fact is that if you believe in the power of free markest you have to be opposed to tax havens / secrecy jurisdictions.

Glencore just shows why.

And shows why, if we're serious about economic reform, fair markets and mutual well-being then getting rid of tax havens / secrecy jurisdictions is vital.