As crisis-induced fear fades, companies take on more leverage ... Companies are increasing their borrowing for three main reasons. The most obvious is that interest rates are low, meaning a key cost, borrowed money, can be obtained cheaply. That can result in higher returns to shareholders. Moreover, rates are likely to rise, which is encouraging companies to lock in low rates while they can. ... A second driver is the resurgence of activist investors which, emboldened by a benign economic environment, are pushing firms to return to shareholders cash that had been retained for a rainy day. There are weekly announcements of one hedge fund or another pushing a company to buy back shares, as much for short-term reasons—a large buyer in the market might temporarily push up the price of a stock—as for longer-term ones. ... And then, inevitably, there is tax. Many large companies are quietly following the well-publicised example of Apple by issuing debt to fund dividends or buy-backs rather than repatriating cash held overseas that would trigger large tax payments. Aside from the quirk of holding cash abroad, debt itself offers tax benefits: interest payments are tax-deductible and push down taxable earnings.
Worries grow about an ill-thought-out new European tax … WHEN the European Commission first mooted a financial-transactions tax (FTT) in 2011, the reaction was subdued. No longer. As plans for an FTT covering 11 European nations—including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, but not Britain—have advanced, opponents have grown more worried. Rather more unusually, supporters of the tax also seem to be more nervous. … In February the commission published a proposal that would allow the 11 countries to press ahead with an FTT without all the other European Union members. It hopes that by the start of 2014 they will begin to charge levies of 0.1% on equity and debt transactions and 0.01% on derivatives.
It’s 2 a.m. at the La Factoria bar in Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan, a hipster joint with a sagging couch, tile floors, and Christmas lights that wouldn’t be out of place in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. While Get Lucky plays, tipsy couples slink out the doors onto the colonial city’s cobblestone streets and into this warm April night. At the bar, a 28-year-old hedge fund trader—the type of person who posts his SAT results on his LinkedIn page—is ranting about the tax code. He’s obsessed with it, complaining that the U.S. is the only major country taxing citizens on their worldwide income, no matter where they reside. That’s why he moved here. ... Struggling to emerge from an almost decadelong economic slump, the Puerto Rican government signed a law 18 months ago that creates a tax haven for U.S. citizens. If they live on the island for at least 183 days a year, they pay minimal or no taxes, and unlike with a move to Singapore or Bermuda, Americans don’t have to turn in their passports. (Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in federal elections.) About 200 traders, private equity moguls, and entrepreneurs have already moved or committed to moving, according to Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce, and billionaire John Paulson is spearheading a drive to entice others to join them. ... Most of the new arrivals downplay Puerto Rico’s fiscal problems, which include runaway pension obligations and an underground economy that leads to low tax collection rates. They’re also convinced their 20-year contracts with the government guaranteeing the tax benefits are sacrosanct. They will survive the inevitable Internal Revenue Service audits, they say, as long as they follow the residency rules.
Restricting companies from moving abroad is no substitute for corporate-tax reform ... Tightening the rules on corporate “inversions”, as these moves are called, does nothing to deal with the reason why so many firms want to leave: America has the rich world’s most dysfunctional corporate-tax system. It needs fundamental reform, not new complications. ... America’s corporate tax has two horrible flaws. The first is the tax rate, which at 35% is the highest among the 34 mostly rich-country members of the OECD. Yet it raises less revenue than the OECD average thanks to myriad loopholes and tax breaks aimed at everything from machinery investment to NASCAR race tracks. Last year these breaks cost $150 billion in forgone revenue, more than half of what America collected in total corporate taxes. ... The second flaw is that America levies tax on a company’s income no matter where in the world it is earned. In contrast, every other large rich country taxes only income earned within its borders. Here, too, America’s system is absurdly ineffective at collecting money. Firms do not have to pay tax on foreign profits until they bring them back home. Not surprisingly, many do not: American multinationals have some $2 trillion sitting on their foreign units’ balance-sheets, and growing. ... All this imposes big costs on the economy. The high rate discourages investment and loopholes distort it, because decisions are driven by tax considerations rather than a project’s economic merits. The tax rate companies actually pay varies wildly, depending on their type of business and the creativity of their lawyers: some pay close to zero, others the full 35%.
Fusion analyzed an archive containing 11.5 million internal documents from Mossack Fonseca’s files, including corporate records, financial filings, emails, and more, extending from the firm's inception in 1977 to December 2015. The documents were obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with Fusion and over 100 other media outlets by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) as part of the Panama Papers investigation. The massive leak is estimated to be 100 times bigger than Wikileaks. It's believed to be the largest global investigation in history. ... The results of the yearlong investigation encompass 214,488 corporate entities – among them companies, trusts, and foundations –controlled by everyone from heads of state, politicians, Forbes-listed billionaires, to drug lords, businesses blacklisted by the US government, scammers, and FIFA officials. ... Today, he says, “Panama is essentially an extension of the U.S. economy.” It harkens back to the early 20th century, when canal workers were paid in American dollars. In the roaring, free-market friendly 1920s, Panama adopted U.S.-style corporate laws. ... The move to Central America positioned Jurgen Mossack to ride the offshore banking wave that crested in Panama (and around the world) in the 1970s, when the country adopted bank-secrecy legislation designed to attract foreign money.
Since we’re in the midst of election season, with promises of cures for our economic woes being thrown around, this seems like a particularly appropriate time to explore what can and can’t be achieved within the laws of economics. Those laws might not work 100% of the time the way physical laws do, but they generally tend to define the range of outcomes. It’s my goal here to point out how some of the things that central banks and governments try to do – and election candidates promise to do – fly in the face of those laws. ... Let’s start with central banks’ attempts to achieve monetary stimulus. When central banks want to help economies grow, they take actions such as reducing the interest rates they charge on loans to banks or, more recently, buying assets (“quantitative easing”). In theory, both of these will add to the funds in circulation and encourage economic activity. The lower rates are, and the more money there is in circulation, the more likely people and businesses will be to borrow, spend and invest. These things will make the economy more vibrant. ... But there’s a catch. Central bankers can’t create economic progress they can only stimulate activity temporarily. ... In the long term, these things are independent of the amount of money in circulation or the rate of interest. The level of economic activity is determined by the nation’s productiveness. ... Much of what central banks do consists of making things happen today that otherwise would happen sometime in the future. ... the truth is, this “tyranny of the majority” is an unhealthy development. First, society does better when able members have strong incentive to contribute. Second, upward aspiration and mobility will be constrained when taxes become confiscatory. Finally, taxpayers aren’t necessarily powerless in the face of rising tax rates.
Given Estonia’s history, the invention of Skype in this country was ironic. While Americans were buying their first cell phones, about a quarter-century ago, Estonians were shut off from the world as an outpost of the Soviet Union. You could easily wait 10 years to be assigned a landline phone. By the time the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the country was in a time warp. “We did not have anything,” says Gen. Riho Terras, the commander of Estonia’s armed forces, who had been a student activist at the time. The country had to reboot from zero. ... One generation on, Estonia is a time warp of another kind: a fast-f orward example of extreme digital living. For the rest of us, Estonia offers a glimpse into what happens when a country abandons old analog systems and opts to run completely online instead. ... At birth, every person is assigned a unique string of 11 digits, a digital identifier that from then on is key to operating almost every aspect of that person’s life—the 21st-century version of a Social Security number. The all-digital habits begin young: Estonian children learn computer programming at school, many beginning in kindergarten. ... this year Estonia will open the world’s first “data embassy” in Luxembourg—a storage building to house an entire backup of Estonia’s data that will enjoy the same sovereign rights as a regular embassy but be able to reboot the country remotely, in case of another attack. ... for a fee of 145 euros (about $154) e-residents can register companies in Estonia, no matter where they live, gaining automatic access to the EU’s giant common market—about 440 million once Britain leaves the union.