Tax losses pose a special problem for the federal fisc. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first some set-up as to how tax noncompliance differs on the income side versus the deduction and credit side. The overall purposes of this post are to address some questions I’ve gotten and pull together some tax enforcement themes that are implicated by the recent NY Times reporting on Pres. Trump’s returns.
The Importance of Third-Party Reporting
A lot of tax noncompliance occurs with respect to income. Not for folks with mainly wage and salary income who maybe earn a little bit of interest from a bank account. All of that is reported by third parties (the payors) to the IRS, on information returns like Form W-2 or Form 1099. The taxpayer/payee receives a copy the information return and that both simplifies reporting and communicates what information the IRS has about the transaction. As Joe Dugan and I argue in a forthcoming article, third-party reporting is very effective. With the IRS able to do simple return matching to catch any incorrect reporting (intentional or otherwise), IRS figures like this bar graph show that there’s not a lot of noncompliance where there’s substantial third-party information reporting.
Where much tax noncompliance occurs is with respect to income earned by the self-employed and small businesses, where there’s much less third-party reporting and also more use of untraceable cash. (I added the red circle to the IRS image below.)
Usually we think of tax shelters and other tax strategies as the province of private parties. These shelters may involve accommodation parties, even foreign government infrastructure, such as transportation systems, but we tend to think of private parties as getting the tax benefits. We may not think as often about a subnational government bolstering its tax revenues at the expense of the national government, particularly via a cooperating private party’s transaction structure. But that’s what happened a few years ago in Spain.
There is a Volkswagen (VW) plant in Pamplona, a city in the autonomous community of Navarra. From 2007-2011, Navarra reportedly collected approximately 1.5 billion Euros in value-added tax (VAT) from Volkswagen for its cars manufactured at the plant there. If VW-Navarra (which is a subsidiary of SEAT) had shipped the cars directly from Navarra to Germany, presumably Navarra would have had to refund that VAT. (Cars shipped to Germany leave Spain “clean of VAT”* (translation mine)).
Instead, according to an interview with Prof. Fernando de la Hucha in this El Diario article, the basic structure was that VW-Navarra sold the cars (although without physically moving them there) to a related Barcelona company, VAESA (Volkswagen-Audi España S.A.), which is located in the Catalunya region, not Navarra. VAESA then sold them to SEAT with the very low mark-up of 5 Euros per car.SEAT, which is also in Catalunya, then sold them to VW-Germany—the transfer abroad triggering entitlement to a refund. But because the cars were sold from a city outside the Navarra region, VW’s refund claim did not go to Navarra. Instead, the Spanish national government was the one that issued the refund, which is how Navarra benefitted. (Catalunya did not issue the refund because, unlike Navarra, does not have a fiscal agreement with Spain that allows it to administer and collect taxes—only Navarra and the Basque regions do). The result was that Volkswagen was refunded the taxes it paid but Navarra profited at the expense of the Spanish government. (Spain has a credit-invoice VAT. Technically, the amount that Navarra retained was the VAT that VW-Navarra paid, which was the VAT on its sales to VAESA minus the VAT its suppliers had paid.)
Here is a simple diagram of the transaction, along with a map of Spain’s regions. (Navarra is in the north, bordering France; Catalunya—that’s the Catalan spelling—is in the northeast, also bordering France.)
In a statement today, the court (the decision is in Spanish) in the tax fraud trial of Lionel Messi and his father found them guilty with a sentence of 21 months. Although, under the Spanish system Messi and his father will serve probation and not jail time.
The court rejected Messi’s side of the story. He had been claiming that he did not know what he signed. The court did not believe Messi and decided that he (my translations) “decided to remain in ignorance over time” in a situation that benefited him, “because he received returns of the funds”.
Because the strategy that they court thought Messi knew about and used was to a scheme to “create the appearance of assignment” of these rights to “companies located in countries whose tax legislation allowed opacity”.
Thus, the court added over 3.5 in Euros of fines (2 million for Messi and 1.5 for his father) for the scheme to conceal earnings from image rights. Prior to the trial, Messi claimed to have paid the 5 million Euro tax deficiency. Messi does retain appeal rights.
F.C. Barcelona issued this statement in support of Messi and his father. As Shu-Yi pointed out to me, F.C. Barcelona might have it’s own agenda on tax schemes. As the E.U. is about set to give a verdict against the Spanish clubs for violating the public spending provisions via tax breaks. The opening of the inquiry stated, “Professional football clubs should finance their running costs and investments with sound financial management rather than at the expense of the taxpayer. Member states and public authorities must comply with EU rules on state aid in this sector as in all economic sectors.”
As a final thought, I do wonder, however, if that open probation affects his ability to travel via Visa to various countries, e.g., will Brexit matter for Messi?
Last night, I flew back from the (wonderful!) AMT conference. After a three-hour storm delay, I landed at Chicago O’Hare and, walking to get my bag, I checked Twitter. A tweet from Voice of San Diego (VoSD) (which seems largely to be a geographically-focused ProPublica) highlighted a convergence between two of my favorite things: taxes and avocados.
I grew up in and around San Diego, and I grew up eating avocados (both in guacamole and BLAT form),[fn1] but I’ll confess that I’d never much thought about why there were so many avocados grown in San Diego; I probably always assumed that they were native to Mexico, and that San Diego had a similar climate to Mexico, so they were a natural fit. Continue reading “Avocados and Other (Delicious) Tax Shelters”→