A month after the International Consortium of International Journalists (ICIJ) obtained and published documents showing that over 340 multinational companies — including IKEA, FedEx, and Amazon — have been dodging taxes in Luxembourg, new evidence has surfaced implicating a further 35 companies.
US companies Koch Industries and The Walt Disney Company are two of the major firms on the list of companies that slashed their tax bill by circulating profits through a series of barely legal tax deals. According to ICIJ, which received the documents from an anonymous source, both Koch and Disney enjoyed tax rates of less than 1 percent during some years.
Other companies implicated today include Microsoft-owned Skype, Hong Kong conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa, and Warburg Pincus, a private equity firm.
Some of the companies underwent major restructuring to avoid paying taxes in the US and in the rest of Europe. Disney, for example, divided up into 24 global subsidiaries that loaned each other money, allowing the company to absorb profits from countries with normal to high tax rates — like France and Germany — and funnel them into tax havens like Luxembourg.
UK-based professional services firm Ernst & Young engineered restructuring schemes for both Disney and Koch, according to ICIJ. Ernst & Young spokesman Will Brewster declined comment to the ICIJ, citing "professional standards, as well as privacy laws."
The other three of the "big four" accounting firms — PriceWaterHouseCooper, Deloitte, and KPMG — were also named today as participants in brokering this sort of tax structuring.
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has come under fire for enabling the tax avoidance schemes during his stint as prime minister of Luxembourg. Speaking to French daily Libération on Tuesday, Juncker said he had been "weakened" by the revelations, but that the buck didn't stop with him.
According to Juncker, "everyone was guilty," since for many years, no one spoke up about the disparity between the tax rules of countries within the EU. Juncker says that this endemic lack of response allowed multi-national companies to find "a dark room" in which to cut their tax-saving deals.
To better understand how hundreds of major companies were able to siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, VICE News spoke to Gabriel Zucman, a professor at the London School of Economics and author ofThe Hidden Wealth of Nations: Investigating Tax Havens.
What can be learned from the "Luxleaks" scandal?
Luxleaks has highlighted the fact that a large number of multinational companies are doing everything they can to take advantage of the international tax system, and to show bigger profits in Luxembourg, Ireland, and Bermuda, where the tax rate is extremely low. It's something that we already knew from macroeconomic indicators, but it remained fairly abstract. This type of revelation helps us link major companies, such as Skype, back to these kinds of schemes. It gives us a more concrete understanding of the aggressive tax planning of certain companies.
What do you mean by "aggressive tax planning?"
These multinational companies tend to respect the wording of the law, but not its intent. That's why we talk of "planning," not fraud. It's aggressive because it's not what lawmakers intended.
How does it work?
The main technique for paying less taxes is to show income in countries where the tax rate is low or close to zero — for example, in Bermuda, where there is no corporate tax. In contrast, you show losses in countries where the corporate tax is high — like France, or Germany. Every tax avoidance scheme is a variation on this simple idea.
There are two ways to make it work. The first is the loan of money between subsidiaries. One subsidiary, based in a tax haven, lends money to a subsidiary located in a country like France, with a very high interest rate. As a result, a high level of interest is paid out to the subsidiary based in the tax haven, and the subsidiary in the country with the high tax rate records major losses.
The second way is to meddle with transfer pricing. The idea is the same: to show profits [in the country] where they are subject to the least amount of tax.
If it's legal, then why are the documents kept secret?
Often, these tax deals are barely legal, or rather, they undermine the purpose of domestic tax laws. What the multinationals are trying to get, is a guaranteed deal with the tax authorities. Before setting up a tax avoidance deal, a company like Skype will ask for a company in Luxembourg to provide it with a guarantee. These advance pricing agreements are kept secret because there is currently no obligation to make this information public.
Are some companies more prone to these kinds of schemes?
What's obvious is that in certain economic sectors, it's easier to manipulate profits in order to pay less tax. This is true in the digital sector, where a big part of profits comes from patents and algorithms. These forms of capital are intangible, and don't have fair value, so it's fairly easy to manipulate the transfer pricing. It would be harder for a company that sold fruit and vegetables.
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter @meloboucho