Global minimum tax – a head-scratcher for developing countries

Picture: John Tyson on Unsplash

In a meeting with prospect investors, Jamaican industry minister Aubyn Hill eloquently conveyed his vision for a new free zone in Caymanas, Kingston. A smirk appeared on his face as he delivered the final line. 

“Developers will enjoy a 50-year total exemption on corporate income tax,” Mr Hill said on June 16, seemingly indifferent to the 15% global minimum tax rate that 136 countries, including Jamaica, are expected to implement from 2023 onwards. 

His remarks embody the ambiguity of many developing countries towards the OECD-sponsored reform. While most of them subscribe to the idea behind the reform, they cannot help seeing fiscal incentives as a key pillar of their investment promotion strategies. 

Viable tool  

Policy-makers across the globe have resorted to tax cuts to lure foreign businesses as competition for investment went global in the past 40 years. The world’s weighted average statutory corporate income tax (CIT) rate has declined from 46.5% in 1980 to 25.4% in 2021, according to figures from the Tax Foundation. 

Developing countries in particular have raced to lower national CIT rates to boost their investment appeal. The global minimum tax reform now puts them between a rock and a hard place. 

“From a resource mobilisation perspective typical of a finance minister, the reform may be seen as a good base to stop the race to the bottom,” Bogolo Joy Kenewendo, an economist and former minister of investment of Botswana, tells fDi, on the sidelines of AICE2022, the annual gathering of free zones organised by the World Free Zones Organisation in Jamaica in June 13-17. 

“However, from an investment promotion perspective, tax incentives are the tools we use to attract investment. OECD countries, in particular G20 countries, have already gone through that development phase and built their industries. They no longer need that race to the bottom, but what about countries that see this as a viable tool?” 

The OECD proposal is built on two main pillars. The first proposes to re-allocate some taxing rights over multinational enterprises from their home countries to the markets where they have business activities and earn profits, regardless of whether firms have a physical presence there. The second introduces a global minimum corporate tax rate set at 15%, which will apply to companies with revenue above €750m and is estimated to generate around $150bn in additional global tax revenues annually.

Free zones 

Developing countries often resort to fiscal incentives to offset structural weaknesses that would otherwise sink their hopes of landing big ticket investments. Free zones are a case in point. They have flourished on their unique combination of fiscal incentives, customs facilitations and plug-and-play infrastructure. Unctad tracked as many as 5383 free zones in 2019, 89% of which were located in developing economies.

Almost 80% of the special economic zone (SEZ) laws worldwide provide for fiscal incentives, such as tax holidays for a defined period of often five to 10 years, or the application of a reduced tax rate, Unctad also found. 

“Differentiated taxes are a necessary compensatory measure to offset the inherent inefficiencies and disadvantages of developing nations which suffer from high energy costs, deficient infrastructure, and higher inbound/outbound transportation costs,” Cesare Zingone, the CEO of Zeta Group Real Estate, a developer of free zones in Central America, tells fDi.

“Therefore an equal minimum tax would increase compliance costs, place developing countries at a competitive disadvantage, and finally favour the relocation of companies to wealthy, developed nations. However if the minimum global tax were to be implemented, it would be imperative for developing countries to implement other compensatory measures, such as reducing social security costs on labour, property taxes or import duties.”

Regardless of the OECD’s global minimum tax push, fiscal incentives continue to feature at the heart of the offer of some of the world’s biggest free zones under development. Among others, in Guatemala, developer Pacific Investment is developing 1200 hectares of land for the new Michatoya SEZ, which promises no CIT for 10 years; Indonesia has just named the island of Natuna Regency in the South China Sea as a SEZ, offering zero CIT for 10 years; Iraq is launching three SEZs to trigger development, also offering zero CIT for the duration of the project. 

If policy-makers and zones developers seem unfazed by the global minimum tax reform, the OECD is equally unfazed. 

“SEZs don’t seem to have done much to prepare for this. The reality is that this is happening, and they will have to get ready for this to come,” Pascal Saint-Amans tells fDi, oozing his confidence in the fact that once the EU and US approve the reform, a domino effect will prompt all the countries that endorsed the reform to fall in line. 

However, the road for the OECD remains uphill. In the EU, Hungary has vetoed a key vote on June 17 to approve the reform. 

Back in Caymanas, Mr Hill continued to mingle with prospect investors, pushing the CIT exemption as the icing on the cake for the package on offer. As with any other policy-maker in developing economies, he is taking his chances at the policy-making table — and so is the OECD. 

Source: FDi Intelligence

South Africa to lose preferential access to US markets

The US has narrowed its list of countries it considers to be developing nations, including SA, to prevent them getting special trade preferences.

SA is set to lose preferential access to US markets after the Trump administration moved to change key exemptions to America’s trade-remedy laws on Monday.  

In 2019, US President Donald Trump issued an executive memo that asked US trade representative Robert Lighthizer to determine whether there has been “substantial progress” towards limiting the number of countries considered developing nations. 

“The WTO [World Trade Organisation] is BROKEN when the world’s RICHEST countries claim to be developing countries to avoid WTO rules and get special treatment. NO more!!! Today I directed the U.S. Trade Representative to take action so that countries stop CHEATING the system at the expense of the USA!” Trump said in a tweet in July.

In doing so, the US eliminated its special preferences for a list of self-declared developing countries that includes Albania; Argentina; Armenia; Brazil; Bulgaria; China; Colombia; Costa Rica; Georgia; Hong Kong; India; Indonesia; Kazakhstan; the Kyrgyz Republic; Malaysia; Moldova; Montenegro; North Macedonia; Romania; Singapore; South Africa; South Korea; Thailand; Ukraine; and Vietnam.

The US trade representative said the decision to revise its developing country methodology for countervailing duty investigations is necessary because America’s previous guidance — which dates back to 1998 — “is now obsolete.”

In a separate, but related matter the US is already considering whether SA can continue to be part of its preferential trade programme.

The Trump administration wants to reconsider SA’s preferential access to its markets over concerns that the Copyright Amendment Bill will threaten intellectual property (IP) rights. Should the US decide to suspend SA from the trade programme, the country could lose as much as R34bn in export revenue. The bill, which is being opposed by several local and international lobby groups, has been on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s desk for 10 months.

The International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property (AIPPI), which represents US companies that produce copyright-protected material including computer software, films, television programmes, music, books, and journals (electronic and print media), is objecting to the bill because of the risk it poses to US IP rights. As a retaliatory measure, the association has been lobbying the US government to withdraw SA’s preferential trade status.

Under the US Trade Act, one of the criteria for eligibility for the generalised system of preferences (GSP) programme is that the state “provide ‘adequate and effective protection’ of American copyrighted works and sound recordings”.

Source: Article by Bekezela Phakathi, Business Day, 11 February 2020

Other useful reads

South Africa will caution Trump on ‘premature’ trade review (Tralac)

2014 – EU’s Revised Trade Rules to Assist Developing Countries

European-Commission-Logo-squareThe European Union’s rules determining which countries pay less or no duty when exporting to the 28 country trade bloc, and for which products, will change on 1 January 2014. The changes to the EU’s so-called “Generalised System of Preferences” (GSP) have been agreed with the European Parliament and the Council in October 2012 and are designed to focus help on developing countries most in need. The GSP scheme is seen as a powerful tool for economic development by providing the world’s poorest countries with preferential access to the EU’s market of 500 million consumers.

The new scheme will be focused on fewer beneficiaries (90 countries) to ensure more impact on countries most in need. At the same time, more support will be provided to countries which are serious about implementing international human rights, labour rights and environment and good governance conventions (“GSP+”).

The EU announced the new rules more than a year ago to allow companies enough time to understand the impact of the changes on their business and adapt. To make the transition even smoother for exporting companies, the Commission has prepared a practical GSP guide.

The guide explains in three steps what trade regime will apply after 1 January 2014 to a particular product shipped to the EU from any given country. It also provides information on the trade regime that will apply to goods arriving to the EU shortly after the New Year.

The changes in a nutshell:

  • 90 countries, out of the current 177 beneficiaries, will continue to benefit from the EU’s preferential tariff scheme.
  • 67 countries will benefit from other arrangements with a privileged access to the EU market, but will not be covered by the GSP anymore.
  • 20 countries will stop benefiting from preferential access to the EU. These countries are now high and upper-middle income countries and their exports will now enter the EU with a normal tariff applicable to all other developed countries.

For the finer details of the revised EU rules visit: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-13-1187_en.htm?locale=en