Country-by-country reporting in the FT

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The FT has an article on country-by-country reporting this morning. It’s so important, I offer it almost unabridged (and trust they’ll forgive):

A clash between an aid charity and the four biggest accountancy firms over international tax reporting rules has gained new impetus after a top Revenue & Customs official stepped into the debate.

Supporters of Christian Aid are sending postcards and e-mails to the heads of the accounting firms demanding changes to international rules. The campaign is designed to tackle what it views as tax abuses that drain developing countries of revenue.

Dave Hartnett, permanent secretary at the Revenue, told a press conference in Paris last week that it was “an idea that is gathering momentum”.

“There is a growing recognition that country-by-country reporting brings additional transparency, particularly in relation to how multinationals are operating in emerging and developing countries,” he said. But he added that the issue had not been debated at the two-day meeting of 34 tax authorities on evasion and avoidance.

The Christian Aid campaign has bemused many tax experts, who think it is based on poor understanding. One adviser said: “I think the corporates are losing the debate because it is so hard to explain.”

The charity launched its campaign after meetings failed to win the advisers’ support for its drive to persuade standard-setters to introduce country-by-country reporting rules.

It argues this could address the “asymmetry of power and information” when it comes to transfer pricing, which determines the allocation of taxable profits between parts of a multinational.

Advisers are continuing discussions with Christian Aid but believe the change would be a significant extra burden for companies that compile management information on a cross-border basis. In addition, they doubt it would be a useful tool in navigating the complexities of transfer pricing, which is dominated by arguments over the value of brands and other intellectual property.

Although tax specialists are largely sceptical that developing countries are particularly disadvantaged, some governments have voiced concern. Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s former minister of finance, said last year: “It is a contradiction to support increased development assistance yet turn a blind eye to actions by multinationals and others that undermine the tax base of a developing country.”

Of course tax specialists are sceptical: it is in their interests to keep the current system from which they and their clients make a fortune. And they have provided no evidence of significant real cost to this proposal: we have proved benefit. So why keep ignoring Trevor Manuel? Now is the time for change. And shareholders win too. So what is the problem apart from vested interest in the tax profession?

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