Diplomacy, or the Art of the Tax Deal 2.0?

The Republican-led passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act may have evoked a Marx Brothers movie for some, but when it comes to international competition for the capital investment of foreign multinational enterprises (MNEs), the reform seems to fall squarely into President Trump’s 2016 campaign promise, “America First.”

After a decades-long rise of free trade agreements and the automation of manufacturing jobs, United States political sentiment seems to be shifting away from international cooperation.  (Hence the barrage of tariffs?)  The new law, rather than seeking to harmonize international taxation (which could decrease the outsized role of tax in decision-making), instead casts the United States as Rocky making a comeback in the global fight for capital investment.  In other words, from an America First perspective, efficiently allocating capital investment to create the most value for the global economy is less important than bringing that investment into the United States, even though it might be less productive here.  The reform’s tax competitive stance is likely to be politically palatable because most voters neither understand nor care that the Trump administration’s fight for a larger United States share of the worldwide economy might result in a smaller worldwide economy overall.

Indeed, foreign-based MNEs are likely to benefit from increased capital investment in the United States going forward.  At an event hosted on March 5 in Vienna by IFA Austria, one panelist noted that at least three large foreign manufacturers—Daimler, BMW, and Siemens—expect to see initial benefits in the hundreds of millions of Euros.  In fact, the United States reform has prompted the EU to request an OECD investigation of whether the new law violates international standards on harmful tax practices.

The United States’ forward-leaning stance is somewhat (or some might say almost entirely) unhinged from typically applicable diplomatic constraints, both formal and informal.  In particular, Congress seems to have disregarded potentially applicable WTO prohibitions on export subsidies. (For more on this point, read my OSU colleague Ari Glogower and others here and here.)   Given the United States’ long history of these types of violations (you may recall the DISC, the foreign sales corporation, and the extraterritorial income system), this new WTO fence-jump cannot easily be viewed as accidental.  Already several EU finance ministers have already lodged complaints about it with members of Congress  and the U. S. Treasury.

It is difficult, then, not to think that the new law was written in part to provoke a worldwide competitive response.  Particularly in light of the president’s move toward tariffs, the new tax law reads like a catch-us-if-you-can grab for capital.  Christian Kaeser, global head of tax for Siemens, described it as a “showcase of protectionism.”  German newspaper, Die Welt, ran an editorial headline that translates, “Europe Dreams of a Tax Fortress- Trump Acts.”   Ralf Kronberger, Head of the Department of Financial, Fiscal and Trade Policy at the Federal Austrian Economic Chamber, said of the EU, “We have to be in the game and create an attractive environment, and tax policy must contribute its share.”  He added that while countries like Austria may be forced to compete with the United States for capital investment, “tax and trade war are not beneficial for anyone.” (Would someone please tell that to the president?)

So how will Europe react?  Corporate tax policy in the European Union generally assumes that coordination within Europe and cooperation under BEPS will be sufficient to protect the tax base.  Coordination, though, may not be compatible with competition, which the new United States law seems deliberately designed to provoke.  Casually, tax folks here in Europe have been wondering aloud whether increased pressure to compete will further strain the effectiveness of the European Union’s effort to curb base erosion or whether it may put pressure on the alliance itself.  If nothing else, economists and political scientists should be having a moment.  The new law sets up a credible natural experiment for the observation of tax as a factor in capital mobility.  And if viewed as a tool to encourage renegotiation of trade deals and bilateral tax treaties, it is an exciting (frightening?) opportunity to see what happens when a world power brings a business approach to statecraft at a time when states cannot be as facile as businesses in their response.

Follow me on Twitter @profhoffer.

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