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Tax Havens: International Tax Avoidance

Jane G. Gravelle, Senior Specialist in Economic Policy, recently published a report that was prepared for Members and Committees of Congress.

The findings are the following:

The federal government loses both individual and corporate income tax revenue from the shifting of profits and income into low-tax countries, often referred to as tax havens. The revenue losses from this tax avoidance and evasion are difficult to estimate, but some have suggested that the annual cost of offshore tax abuses may be around $100 billion per year. International tax avoidance can arise from large multinational corporations who shift profits into low-tax foreign subsidiaries or wealthy individual investors who set up secret bank accounts in tax haven countries.


Recent actions by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the G-20 industrialized nations have targeted tax haven countries, focusing primarily on evasion issues. There are also a number of legislative proposals that address these issues including the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act (S. 506, H.R. 1265); draft proposals by the Senate Finance Committee; two other related bills, S. 386 and S. 569; and a proposal by President Obama.


Multinational firms can artificially shift profits from high-tax to low-tax jurisdictions using a variety of techniques, such as shifting debt to high-tax jurisdictions. Since tax on the income of foreign subsidiaries (except for certain passive income) is deferred until repatriated, this income can avoid current U.S. taxes and perhaps do so indefinitely. The taxation of passive income (called Subpart F income) has been reduced, perhaps significantly, through the use of “hybrid entities” that are treated differently in different jurisdictions. The use of hybrid entities was greatly expanding by a new regulation (termed “check-the-box”) introduced in the late 1990s thathad unintended consequences for foreign firms. In addition, earnings from income that is taxed can often be shielded by foreign tax credits on other income. On average very little tax is paid on the foreign source income of U.S. firms. Ample evidence of a significant amount of profit shifting  exists, but the revenue cost estimates vary from about $10 billion to $60 billion per year.


Individuals can evade taxes on passive income, such as interest, dividends, and capital gains, by not reporting income earned abroad. In addition, since interest paid to foreign recipients is not taxed, individuals can also evade taxes on U.S. source income by setting up shell corporations and trusts in foreign haven countries to channel funds. There is no general third party reporting of income as is the case for ordinary passive income earned domestically; the IRS relies on qualified intermediaries (QIs)who certify nationality without revealing the beneficial owners. Estimates of the cost of individual evasion have ranged from $40 billion to $70 billion.


Most provisions to address profit shifting by multinational firms would involve changing the tax law: repealing or limiting deferral, limiting the ability of the foreign tax credit to offset income, addressing check-the-box, or even formula apportionment. President Obama’s proposals include a proposal to disallow overall deductions and foreign tax credits for deferred income and restrictions on the use of hybrid entities. Provisions to address individual evasion includeincreased information reporting, and provisions to increase enforcement, such as shifting the burden of proof to the taxpayer, increased penalties, and increased resources. Individual tax evasion is the main target of the proposed Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act and the Senate Finance Committee proposals; some revisions are also included in President Obama’s plan.


I was impressed by the figure page 17: U.S. Foreign Company Profits Relative to GDP, Larger Countries (GDP At Least $10 billion) on Tax Haven Lists and the Netherlands. In the case of Luxembourg, these profits are 18.2% of output. Shares are also very large in Cyprus (9.8%) and Ireland (7.6%).


Download report



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