Multi-national companies are the oldest form of international company, and are characterised by having a clear national base and identity. A parent company usually retains a single brand, and operates in other countries through international divisions.
Often, the host territory remains the single biggest market, and divisions may act as suppliers of materials to the host country. Despite control remaining with the parent company, products sold in other territories may be customised to suit local tastes, demand, and legal requirements.
While trans-national companies may also have a parent company which may control the assets of ‘affiliate’ companies located in other countries, they are not run from a specific geographical HQ based in a single country. For this reason trans-nationals are often referred to as ‘borderless’ companies.
While activities of ‘affiliates’ may be co-ordinated, their brands, marketing and production are typicaly specific to each country, and decisions are not centralised.
The rise of the trans-nationals
For various reasons, many international companies have become more ‘trans-national’ in their operations and philosophy, taking advantages of ‘tax havens’ if and when they can. Complex global value chains (GVCs) now typify the production of may goods, services and commodities, as resources zig-zag their way around the globe.
As well as create issues for tax collection in different countries, GVCs also represents a statistical problem for national income valuation, with double counting possible as resources are moved back and forth between countries.
This problem is especially associated with the valuing of services associated with the movement of goods – it has been estimated that around 50% of the value added as goods and resources are moved between territories comes from services associated with trade, including marketing and IT services.
A push for greater transparency in terms of the tax liability of trans-nationals has been underway for some time. In 2000, the OECD initiated the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes, and other organizations have put tax transparency on their agendas. However, trans-national tax avoidance and alleged evasion has become a topic of much media attention in recent years, with a number of high profile cases including Starbucks, Google and Amazon.
According to the European Parliament, the methods used to avoid taxes have included:
- Transfer pricing
- Using lower-tax jurisdictions
- Over-charging ‘affiliates’ and other ‘entities’ in high tax countries to reduce tax liability
- Completing transactions in a low-tax country
- A rise in the value of intangible assets such as brand names
What is clear is that tax law is out-of-date compared with the sophisticated practices of trans-nationals. This is all the more significant as governments look to achieve more sustainable public finances in the wake of rising public sector debt, which, many may argue, is, itself, a direct result of the uncontrolled operations of trans-national banks and their affiliates.