The G8 Summit: Another Flawed Show?

The G8 Summit took place quietly in Northern Ireland on June 17-18. UK Prime Minister Cameron was in the chair, with his bold TTT (Taxes, Trade and Transparency) theme.

None of the actors around the conference table brought rosy economic news. Europe struggled to not slip back into recession. The UK was in austerity-induced doldrums. President Obama pleaded for less EU austerity to avoid a new stall back home.

Apart from Prime Minister Harper’s unhelpful G7+1 poke at the Russians Canada kept a low profile. The Canada-EU trade deal was seriously stuck. Our still weak economy left little room for empty boasting. More importantly, we were worried about getting trapped by UK PM Cameron into tough commitments on transparency. Talking about the glories of competition was fine, but actually to legislate transparency for Canadian companies on their offshore dealings was quite another thing.

Understandably, but regrettably, developing countries will have a long wait for the transparency needed to receive an equitable share of the value-added from their resources when dealing with many multinationals.

This display of weak economic performance is coming from the once all-powerful G8.  Emerging Economies (EE), notably China, have become the G8’s economic lifeline. The EEs had also sustained their extractives and energy consumption, thus sparing our (and the Australian) economies from the fate of the U.S.

The Leaders G20 was created as the forum where a financial crisis-weakened G8 would talk global economics with its essential partners in the South. This month’s G8 saw the group again struggling to appear as leaders—but the harsh reality is that it currently is just a very powerful lobby group whose main efforts focus on getting its own house in order. It has not crossed the threshold of internalizing the fact that on important issues (certainly on topics of global governance and policy) it needs partnership with the rest of the G20. Still, oldthink too often prevails, and they acts as if G20 harmonization is more G8 diktat.

G8 meetings always have their formal and quite broad agenda, but this is largely pre-packaged by their advisor-sherpas rather than shaped by real leaders. First was the accountability round, a Canadian favourite, with largely self-assessed progress reports on old promises. There were technical rounds on special topics such as food security and nutrition. G8 members inevitably praised trade liberalization, despite its decade of failures. They recognized climate change as a risk to economic and political progress, but somehow (with the notable exception of the EU) they overlooked the need for real action. Not least, leaders were inevitably engaged by the tragic civil war in Syria.

The star item was Mr. Cameron’s TTT package. The Trade dimension was briefly discussed, with a one-liner announcing the opening of US-EU partnership talks. The real debate—on the interconnected worlds of Taxes and Transparency—was a political response to growing unrest in an increasingly unequal world, with a focus on profitable multinationals that seemingly paid almost no taxes anywhere.

The UK goal, now a shared G8 objective, is to rein in footloose global corporations who have become increasingly smart at legal avoidance. Companies such as Amazon and Google are exploiting loopholes in complex tax laws to earn millions of dollars in one place, and then shifting the profits (using opportunistic transfer pricing or shell companies) to tax havens.

A key Transparency challenge concerns corporate owners who have no clear or consistent identity. Profits and assets move from company to company identified as mere numbers. Part of the solution discussed was to insist that multinationals produce country-by-country accounts. This would be combined with a universal system requiring registration of ‘beneficial’ owners, thus ending the tax-avoiding role of shell companies (especially if the ultimate owner was publicly named). But PM Cameron, lacking enough allies, lost for now on this key front.

Recovering ‘lost’ taxation would be popular with populations facing fiscal austerity. Tax-havens lurk even inside the G8 itself (such as Delaware in the U.S., or Luxemburg in the EU). Several in the G8, Canada included, felt more comfortable postponing real action; the political will for change was not there, particularly with respect to public sharing of ownership information. Left inexplicit was also a fear of extending the level playing field to the developing countries who complain about G8 multinationals arranging their business affairs to pay minimal local taxes. Fairer royalties, honest pricing and improved wages would help pay for poverty reduction—but they face the evasiveness of well-connected Western stakeholders.

Canada promised to help Peru improve its extractives transparency, but spoiled this positive move by refusing to take action in imposing binding transparency rules for its domestic companies working worldwide (including in Peru). The excuse? A couple more years are needed to first discuss the matter with Canadian stakeholders.

Greater transparency is supposedly the route to a consensus on what is fair. The G8 goal was formal rules on transparency (either voluntary or legally binding, in the case of larger hard-core ‘abusers’) that would expose the modalities for suspect payments. Such rules would help tax inspectors, and increasingly irate voters, to know where avoidance lies, along with the true ownership of shell companies.

One key mechanism promoted at the G8 session was the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which provides technical help for developing countries.  However, the session failed to achieve closure on mandatory reporting by multinationals.  Triangulation between developed country tax authorities and their usually weaker developing country counterpart on internal transfer prices and intermediary shell companies in low-tax regimes could close many loopholes and abuses, including outright bribery.

An effective solution to the TT agenda demands that everybody play tough tax cop simultaneously. This time around, such a consensus did not even embrace all of the G8.

Overall the returning G8 leaders can show some modest advances, which hopefully will be picked up in this fall’s G20 meeting. But the eight leaders hesitated when confronted by corporate lobbyists from New York and London opposed to paying fairer taxes.  Understandably, but regrettably, developing countries will have a long wait for the transparency needed to receive an equitable share of the value-added from their resources when dealing with many multinationals.

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