The OECD's Harmful Tax Competition initiative and the tax havens: From bombshell to damp squib

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Abstract

The OECD's Harmful Tax Competition of 1998 departed in both tone and substance from almost anything the organization had published before. The roots of the associated project lie mainly in EU concerns that certain forms of intra-union competition were eroding both the corporate and personal income tax bases of member states. But it appeared impossible to deal with those problems unless policies were also changed in the 40 or so jurisdictions know as ''tax havens." HTC threatened sanctions against the tax havens if they failed to collect and share information upon request about individuals and corporations attempting to evade or avoid income taxes. HTC also set criteria for the legitimacy of claims about corporate location. A firm could claim location in a tax haven only if it had ''substantial" activity there. The report created a furor among the tax havens, which complained loudly that they were facing a new form of colonial control by being held accountable for standards they had no role in setting. Over the next several years the corporate element of the project disappeared, and the style of the OECD's approach shifted from confrontation to cooperation. HTC was strongly supported by the Clinton Administration, and summaries of the project's development often stress how much change came with the election of George W. Bush. A careful look at OECD reports, however, reveals that much of the shift in direction occurred before the outcome of the U.S. election in 2000 had been determined. The revised focus on bank secrecy did yield results. Virtually all of the tax havens had acceded to the revised OECD demands for transparency and information exchange by 2004. This article looks at the data on tax haven liabilities to gauge the impact of the project on tax evasion. It employs the ARIMA technique to investigate both tax haven activity as a whole and the particularly important case of the Cayman Islands. No significant impact can be found probably because investment in the havens remains very easy to disguise and very difficult to detect. This suggests that an effective attack on personal income evasion will require more than the OECD demanded. Automatic information-sharing on the ownership based on an internationally consistent set of identifying numbers over a range of financial instruments holds greater promise for a significant decline in the use of the havens for tax evasion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1
JournalGlobal Economy Journal
Volume8
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 29 2008

Keywords

  • Tax competition
  • Tax havens

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