Chapter 1 - Background


Historic focus on the problem of double taxation

1.1 The global international tax framework reflected in international tax treaties and countries’ domestic tax rules recognises that income earned from cross-border activities is at risk of double taxation – once in the country where it is earned (the source state) and once in the country where the entity deriving the income is resident (the residence state).

1.2 Co-operation among countries regarding income taxation has been mostly concerned with this risk of double taxation – when an item of income is taxed under the domestic law of both the source and residence states and its harmful effects on cross-border trade and investment. The principal focus of international tax treaties has been on eliminating double taxation through allocating taxing rights over cross-border income between the residence and source states.

The problem of double non-taxation

1.3 Since late 2012, there has been growing awareness that the combination of different domestic tax rules and tax planning allows multinationals to pay little or no tax on their income anywhere in the world, if they choose to do so. This so-called double non-taxation (or less than single taxation) raises a number of tax policy issues. Many of the issues raised, such as distortionary effects and competitive concerns, are similar to those raised by double taxation.

1.4 The wide range of international tax planning techniques that are used to achieve double non-taxation are collectively referred to as “base erosion and profit shifting” or “BEPS”. As BEPS strategies take advantage of weaknesses in the current international tax framework and/or gaps or mismatches that result from the interaction of the tax systems of different countries,[1] it is impossible for any single country, acting alone, to fully address the issue. Recognising this, the OECD and G20 have taken the lead on work in this area, with the aim of developing a co-ordinated global approach to addressing BEPS concerns.

G20/OECD Action Plan

1.5 The OECD approach has been to develop specific recommendations for countries to implement, either through changes to their domestic laws, through treaty provisions, or multilaterally. The aim has been to give countries the tools necessary to ensure that profits are taxable, and taxable where the economic activities generating the profits are performed and where value is created. The OECD released an Action Plan on BEPS on 20 July 2013, containing a comprehensive package of measures to address BEPS concerns.[2] New Zealand has participated in the Action Plan work and supported it, particularly the intention that a co-ordinated global approach be taken to addressing BEPS concerns. The final BEPS package of recommendations was released on 5 October 2015, approved by G20 finance ministers on 9 October 2015, and by G20 leaders during their annual summit on 15–16 November 2015.

Hybrid mismatch arrangements

1.6 Hybrid mismatch arrangements are identified in the Action Plan as an important source of BEPS concerns. Action 2 of the Action Plan aims to neutralise their effects by developing model treaty provisions and recommendations regarding the design of domestic tax rules.

1.7 Hybrid mismatch arrangements exploit differences in the tax treatment of an entity or instrument under the laws of two or more countries to achieve double non-taxation (including long-term tax deferral) by, for example, creating two deductions for one borrowing or creating a deduction without a corresponding income inclusion. Mostly, the tax result comes from a mismatch of domestic laws, but double tax agreements can be used to enhance the tax benefit by, for example, eliminating or reducing source state withholding taxes. It is often difficult to determine which of the countries involved has lost tax revenue, but there is a reduction of total tax paid.

1.8 With many hybrid mismatch arrangements involving New Zealand taxpayers, the exploited mismatch is between New Zealand and Australia’s domestic rules. For example, a number of New Zealand taxpayers have been involved in recent tax avoidance litigation with the Commissioner of Inland Revenue (the Commissioner), which concern funding arrangements that exploit the different tax treatment between Australia and New Zealand of optional convertible notes (a hybrid financial instrument) issued by the New Zealand taxpayer to their Australian parent. Similarly, tax disputes have arisen between New Zealand taxpayers and the Commissioner over the tax effects of arrangements that exploit the different ways in which Australia and New Zealand treat Australian limited partnerships.

OECD recommendations

1.9 As part of a first set of deliverables under the Action Plan, the OECD released a paper containing recommendations regarding hybrid mismatch arrangements in September 2014.[3] A final report was released in October 2015,[4] as part of the final BEPS package, containing further work on various remaining technical issues, and additional guidance and practical examples explaining the operation of the recommendations in further detail. The recommendations are for specific improvements to domestic rules to prevent mismatches arising and neutralise their effect, and for changes to the OECD Model Tax Convention[5] to deal with hybrid entities, and the interaction between domestic rules and the OECD Model. The recommended hybrid mismatch rules are primarily linking rules that seek to align the tax treatment of a hybrid entity or instrument with the tax treatment in the counterparty country, but do not otherwise disturb the commercial outcomes.

1.10 New Zealand already has some rules that deter and prevent hybrid mismatch arrangements from arising. However, the OECD recommendations on hybrid mismatch arrangements are comprehensive by comparison.

Implementation of OECD recommendations

1.11 With the release of the Final Report, along with the Action Plan as a package of recommendations, governments will now look to implement the results into their domestic rules. Although it remains to be seen where different countries will land in terms of implementation, there is an expectation that countries that are part of the consensus will act.

1.12 The United Kingdom and Australia have both already committed to implementing the OECD recommendations into their domestic law. In addition, EU member states have been issued a directive to implement anti-hybrid measures for transactions between EU members, with further action on rules applying to non-EU countries expected later this year.

 

1 The issues coalesce such that rules developed to allocate income among countries can be manipulated to shift income away from its “true” source to low tax countries.

2 OECD (2013), Action Plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264202719-en (OECD BEPS Action Plan).

3 OECD (2014), Neutralising the Effects of Hybrid Mismatch Arrangements, OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264218819-en (OECD 2014 Interim Report).

4 OECD (2015), Neutralising the Effects of Hybrid Mismatch Arrangements, Action 2 – 2015 Final Report, OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264241138-en (OECD 2015 Final Report).

5 OECD (2014), Model Tax Convention on Income and on Capital: Condensed Version 2014, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/mtc_cond-2014-en (OECD Model).