What do the latest revelations about tax avoidance tell us about multinationals and modern capitalism? JONATHAN WHITE has a few ideas
THE Paradise papers are the latest in a series of disclosures that have shone a light on the issue of tax havens and in particular, the way that the super-rich in Britain have used the Crown Dependencies to avoid paying eye-watering amounts of tax.
The use of tax havens has been a key part of the concentration of wealth that underpins the formation of “the 1 per cent.” In this exclusive club, celebrities, royalty, oligarchs and politicians swim with the owners and chief executives of multinational corporations (MNCs).
For all the welcome attention on the hypocrisy of Bono and the parasitism of our own revered head of state, it is this link with big business that we need to understand because it exposes more fundamental issues about the development of the capitalist economy and poses important strategic questions for the working class.
In recent decades, multinationals have developed “brain achingly complex” corporate structures involving hundreds of affiliate companies.
According to data from the UN Committee on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the value of assets held by foreign affiliates of multinationals has risen from £2.97 trillion in 1990 to £77.3 trillion in 2014 and much of this movement of wealth around global company structures has been aimed at aggressive tax avoidance.
Multinationals establish affiliates in low tax jurisdictions like the Netherlands, Ireland and Luxembourg and tax havens like the Crown Dependencies. The most famous example is Apple, which was alleged to have paid 0.05 per cent tax on its European profits in 2014, but this is now part of the standard repertoire of the MNC.
According to UNCTAD analysis, 2015 in particular saw a surge in the flow of foreign direct investment that was in fact multinational profits being invested in affiliates in low tax regimes.
Researchers in the US have also noted a correlation between the aggressive use of tax avoidance and the use of share ownership for executive remuneration. Paying CEOs with stock is supposed to solve one of the “problems” of the emergence of big monopolistic companies: the separation of the interests of managers from those of shareholders.
Give them stock, the argument goes and shareholders will feel the benefit. CEOs respond by gaming the low tax jurisdictions. They also use share buy-backs, a device by which companies amass cash profits and rather than reinvesting them, use them to buy back their own equity, ramping up the share price and dividends to shareholders.
According to Oxfam, the top 500 US companies are estimated to have used on average 64 per cent of their profits on buying back shares.
Tax avoidance, executive payment by stock ownership and the use of share buy-backs are all devices for “extracting value” from companies and privileging the creation of massive profit margins over reinvestment — or “shareholder value,” as it’s often known.
The scale of tax avoidance, the concentration of wealth among the richest 1 per cent and the huge profits being generated by multinationals are all explained by the dominance of this approach. But if we want to understand why this is happening, we need to look at what’s happened to multinational ownership.
UNCTAD’s analysis of the top 100 MNCs in the world economy shows that 52 per cent of them are now solely owned by financial institutions. Only 12 per cent were owned by individuals and pension fund ownership has also declined.
The big players are now private equity funds, hedge funds and investment banks and even where they are not sole owners, they often play a controlling role through their holdings.
Enmeshed in the high profit markets in financial assets, these financial institutions are themselves geared to the generation of short-term shareholder value.
In this “quarterly capitalism” they regularly turn over their investment portfolios to extract maximum profits. This explains why multinationals are working to turn so much of their profit into shareholder value and why they are working so hard to widen their profit margins in the first place. They have been “financialised.”
For workers within multinational company structures or supply chains, the pursuit of “shareholder value” has meant the intensification of exploitation, offshoring of jobs, outsourcing and sub-contracting, the disruption of collective bargaining structures, more precarious work and large-scale automation. This helps to account in large part for the historic wage squeeze on workers.
But the growth of financialised multinationals is felt by all of us. Take taxation, for example. As the burden of taxation has moved away from corporations, so it has shifted more squarely onto working people.
In Britain, the poorest 10 per cent of the population saw the percentage of their income paid as tax rise from 35 per cent in 1979 to 43 per cent in 2010, while the richest 10 per cent have seen theirs fall. But the fall in corporation tax is an international phenomenon. The OECD average for corporation tax rates fell from 50 per cent in 1984 to 33 per cent in 2014.
Privatisation has enabled the incursion of shareholder value-oriented multinationals into water, power, transport, education and health services.
Working people have seen the depletion of vital national infrastructures and services, diminishing what used to be called the social wage while placing small groups of monopolistic companies in control of pricing in the new markets.
The growth of the financialised multinationals has also increased pressure on smaller capitals and producers. Aggressive supply chain management by multinationals forces down prices among producers bidding for contracts, whether they are farmers in Europe, while driving smaller capitalist firms producing industrial components to cut wages.
These processes also help to explain the sluggish growth of advanced Western capitalist economies, and their greater vulnerability to financial shocks.
The bloated banking sectors are just as prone to global crashes as before, while financial control of multinationals helps to account for the slow growth rates in economies like the US, Britain and Europe.
As the incentive structures of multinationals have been redirected to short-term shareholder value and profit margins have grown, productive investment, accumulation and productivity have all declined.
Were he alive today, Marx would undoubtedly be astonished at some of the phenomena discussed above. And yet, 150 years after the publication of Das Kapital, he would also recognise the fundamental forces that he had identified as driving capital accumulation, still at work albeit on a grander global scale: the revolutionising of production, the centralisation of capital and the creation of a precarious industrial reserve army of labour.
Similarly, the Marxist economists of the early 20th century who theorised the effects of monopolies would discern many of the same processes they analysed: continued dynamism enabled by the sheer scale of available capital, coupled with the restrictions of production to hold up prices, the destruction of smaller capitals and peasantries, the creation of mass unemployment and the downward pressure on wages.
The new element is the way in which financial control has aggravated all these tendencies. Financialisation could be seen to be taking to a new level the fundamental contradiction between the social organisation of production, given limited expression by large multinationals, and the private ownership of the means of production, in the form of the trade in multinational holdings by financial institutions.
Marxists would also point to the continued importance of the capitalist state. This tends to be under-emphasised in the existing literature on multinationals. When the revenues of leading multinationals exceed those of smaller developing states, it’s easy to see why arguments for the redundancy of national political structures have an appeal.
But this is to fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between financial and multinational capital and national states.
This became evident in 2008 when national state structures recapitalised the failed banks and handed them vast subsidies in the form of zero interest rates. Similarly, the tech giants like Apple, Microsoft and Google have relied on massive US state investment in blue skies research to develop their technologies, preferring to indulge their shareholders by ramping up their share prices and shuffle their profits around the world’s tax havens rather than invest in development.
The various forms of privatisation that have swept through public services in the US, Europe and Britain represent not just sales of assets but the redirection of ongoing revenue streams to multinationals and their finance capital backers.
As for tax itself, the international competition to lower corporation tax and shift the burden of taxation onto workers was started by the states of the advanced capitalist nations. And for all the privatisations that took place, it’s too soon to announce the death of the “state owned enterprise,” which continues to play a key role in many strategically important sectors of national economies.
The form of the state’s intervention in the economy may have changed but its extent and its importance to capital remains the same.
Multinational capital pursuing massive profits uses every lever: its ability to disperse and divide workers organisations in production, its increasing domination of the sphere of social reproduction and its domination of the modern state alike.
The working class must organise and link up its struggles in each of these spheres.
Unions must develop international strategies that target weak points in global supply chains, but they must also go back to the basics and mobilise workers at the workplace level again, building from scratch in many cases.
This must be coupled with rediscovering strategies that link workplace struggles with those over social reproduction and consumption and which build alliances with smaller capitals and producers who are also suffering from the dominance of financialised multinationals.
Finally, it must mean zeroing in on the state and using its power to weaken the grip of financial institutions over monopoly organisation “from the top down.”
Using the economic power of the state to develop forms of socially controlled finance and ownership will be critical in changing the value-extracting behaviour of transnational companies.
Building and leading international action to close down the tax havens must be part of that wider programme to challenge the financialised multinationals.