Topic: International Economics and Development

(Some) Developing Countries Don’t Like the “Trade” Bit in “World Trade Organization”

The Doha round of world trade talks stagger on, with the latest “deadline” for completion of a deal set at end-2007 (i.e., before the US presidential campaign season gets underway in earnest). Last week the chair of the agriculture negotiations released a paper designed to inject movement back in to the agriculture negotiations that are proving the key stumbling block to reaching a deal on the other important areas of world trade. (On why agriculture is such a big deal, considering its relatively small share in world goods trade, see here). In any event, the chairman’s paper has been roundly criticized, which means it has been a success.

Part of the skirmish, and this is true of the trade talks more broadly, is the explicit commitment to give developing countries “special and differential (S&D) treatment” in the negotiations. In other words, poorer countries have to lower their trade barriers less than do developed countries. In the wake of the disastrous meeting in Cancun in September 2003, when developing countries flexed their muscle, these sorts of concessions were deemed necessary to get the Doha round back on track.

Unfortunately, the S&D provisions have been used frequently as an excuse for developing countries to do almost nothing to lower their trade barriers. It is not quite that clear-cut, of course. Many developing countries have an interest in exporting to other developing countries, and so want to see trade barriers come down across the board. But generally, developing countries feel that this round is about developed countries lowering their barriers to developing country goods and services, while the poorer nations continue to protect their “sensitive” goods markets from competition.

Mercantalism is to some extent the basis of the World Trade Organization: it presupposes that countries will only open their markets in return for increased access for their exports, from which the benefits of trade flow. That’s economic nonsense, of course, but in the absence of political will for unilateral trade liberalization (see more about that here), the negotiated multilateral route is the best one towards freeing markets and giving consumers access to cheaper and more goods and services.

The new development focus of the WTO, however, is proving to be an obstacle in itself to reaching a deal. South Africa, for example, on behalf of a group of other developing countries, read a statement in a meeting earlier this week of the negotiating group on market access (for industrial–or manufactured–goods) that, according to an article today:

“accused rich countries of subverting the talks known as the Doha round by seeking to advance their commercial interests instead of the original “development” goal of lifting millions of people worldwide out of poverty through free trade.” (emphasis added)

Seeking to advance their commercial interests? Those shameless knaves!

The World Trade Organization is just that – a trade organization. It is not a development institution. It is true that freer markets and trade lead to economic growth, but the Doha round of trade talks is a commercial negotiation, not a donors’ conference.

Naming it the ‘Doha Development Agenda’ may have been politically necessary, but it has proven to be a big mistake.

Don’t Expect Much from Sarkozy

A Financial Times column neatly summarizes the economic views of Nicolas Sarkozy. His opposition to “fiscal dumping” really means that he opposes tax competition and wants to insulate the French welfare state from global competition:

He wants the EU to move in a French direction, offering citizens “protection” from the outside world. …During the campaign, he called on the EU to protect its citizens from unfair competition from abroad, particularly
Asia, and from fiscal, social and environmental “dumping” from poorer EU members in eastern Europe. That approach is at odds with the “open
Europe” model being promoted by most northern, central and eastern European countries.

The Global Flat Tax Revolution Continues

A column in Canada’s Globe and Mail reviews the successful shift to flat tax systems and appropriately notes that tax competition is a key reason for the adoption of better tax policy:

In one of its first acts last year as an independent country, Macedonia (population: two million) legislated radical tax reforms. On Jan. 1, 2007, the country introduced a flat-rate tax of 12 per cent on both personal and corporate income, matching the rate introduced two years ago by Georgia (population: 5.6 million). On Jan. 1, 2008, Macedonia will cut its rate to 10 per cent - and achieve one of the lowest tax rates in the world. Macedonia’s tax revenues will almost certainly rise. The country’s new, young (age: 36 years) free-market Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, cites the phenomenon of voluntary compliance that accompanies flat-tax regimes. “This reform will decrease tax evasion,” he says, “and encourage people to meet their obligations to the state.” As Russia (population: 144 million) vividly demonstrated when it adopted a flat tax (replacing a 40-per-cent rate on personal income with a 13-per-cent rate) in 2000, low rates are persuasive tax collectors. Russia’s revenues rose 25 per cent in the first year, 25 per cent in the second year, 15 per cent in the third year. People who violently resist getting scalped will submit voluntarily for a trim. …Around the world, tax rate competition is getting keener. Countries that resist flat-tax reform are nevertheless lowering rates. Poland (population: 37.5 million) has moved three-quarters of the way to a flat tax - with a single rate of 19 per cent for all corporate income, capital gains, dividends and self-employed individuals. Spain (population: 40 million) has introduced a flat rate of 18 per cent for all income derived from savings. Effective this year, Iceland (population: 300,000) taxes all personal income at a flat rate of 32 per cent - which appears high because it includes municipal as well as national taxes. It now taxes capital gains, dividends, interest income and rental income at a flat rate of 10 per cent.

England Becoming a Top-Flight Tax Haven

The UK-based Guardian reports that the number of “non-doms” has nearly doubled in three years. The phrase refers primarily to foreigners who move to the UK and are allowed to dodge any taxes on the income they earn in other jurisdictions. This policy is strongly opposed by leftists in the Labour Party, though Tony Blair obviously has chosen to leave it intact. And if the Guardian can be believed, Gordon Brown may decide to leave well enough alone when he moves into 10 Downing Street:

The number of people claiming non-domicile tax status has nearly doubled in three years, fuelling fears that Britain is becoming the world’s first onshore tax haven. …The tax break…is now increasingly used by City tycoons and overseas billionaires who are flocking to London to take advantage of a loophole that allows them to keep their vast fortunes intact. …Labour MP Stephen Pound has called on Sir Ronald Cohen, Gordon Brown’s closest ally in the City, to come clean over whether he benefits from non-domiciled tax status. Cohen, a substantial Labour donor who founded Apax Partners, Britain’s most successful private equity firm, exerts strong influence over the Chancellor. He has repeatedly refused to disclose his tax status.

The Flat Tax May Spread to Bulgaria

The global tax reform revolution may soon include Bulgaria. The Sofia Echo reports on the pressure - thanks to tax competition - for Bulgaria to hop on the flat tax bandwagon:

It won’t be surprising if in a couple of years Bulgaria introduces a flat 10-per cent tax on incomes, Georgi Angelov, senior economist at Open Society Institute, said, as quoted by Pari daily. Radical reforms are carried out more easily in countries with radical problems, such as those in Eastern Europe. A quarter of the countries in Europe levy a flat tax. The first to introduce a flat tax rate was Estonia – 26 per cent in 1994. The tax has been cut to 22 per cent already and the fashion has spread to neighbouring countries like Lithuania, Latvia, Russia and Ukraine. The example has been followed by Slovakia, Romania, Georgia, Serbia and Macedonia, with the Czech Republic and Albania expected to apply the lowest rate of 10 per cent from 2008. According to Angelov, one of the reasons for that is that Bulgaria has so far focused on reducing the corporate tax. Now that the tax has been cut to 10 per cent, the logical step is to reduce labour taxation by implementing a single rate. Just a few years ago, a 10 per cent tax was wishful thinking, but now it is a fact.

Bloated Salaries at the World Bank

The controversy involving Paul Wolfowitz  is seemingly devoid of any policy issues, but it has brought to light some of the exorbitant waste at the World Bank. Nearly 1,400 employees have salaries above the amount given to America’s secretary of state. But even that comparison is misleading, since World Bank bureaucrats get tax-free compensation.

The Wall Street Journal comments on the sweet deal — and virtual lifetime tenure — of the staff:

American taxpayers supply some 17% of the bank’s capital, and a new round of fund raising for the bank’s International Development Association is about to commence. If Congress is going to ante up the $7 billion or so the bank is expected to request, the least it can do is insist on more accountability….

Of its roughly 10,000 employees, no fewer than 1,396 have salaries higher than the U.S. Secretary of State; clearly “fighting poverty” does not mean taking a vow of poverty at “multilateral” institutions. At the time of Ms. Riza’s departure from the bank, she was a Grade “G” (senior professional) employee; the typical salary in that grade hovers around the $124,000 mark. For the next level, Grade “H”—the level to which Ms. Riza was due to be promoted—salaries average in the $170,000 range, with an upper band of $232,360. No fewer than 17% of bank employees are in this happy bracket.

Even sweeter, all of this is tax-free to non-Americans. U.S. employees have to pay U.S. tax but have their income taxes reimbursed by the bank. As with any public bureaucracy, these jobs are also impossible to lose for anything other than gross incompetence or venality.

Singapore Becoming One of the World’s Stellar Tax Havens

The New York Times has a thorough story detailing how officials in Singapore are taking advantage of globalization to diversify the nation’s economy. Bank secrecy and good tax law are particularly helpful in attracting capital from people suffering from fiscal oppression:

This affluent city-state of 4.5 million people is aiming to be a sanctuary for the world’s wealthy and their money, Asia’s answer to Geneva and Zurich. … Now the tiny enclave at the tip of the Malay peninsula is trying to carve out a new niche for itself in the global economy by bolstering banking secrecy laws and offering generous tax incentives. “I can’t think of any other place where private banking is growing so much as in Singapore,” said Henrik Mikkelsen, a private banker at Commerzbank in Singapore. “We want to be the Switzerland of Asia.” … Almost 40 private banks now have regional operations in Singapore, including Swiss stalwarts such as Bank Julius Baer. Citigroup’s headquarters for all private banking outside the United States is now in Singapore, as is the global banking headquarters of Standard Chartered Bank of Britain. …Robert Chandran, who emigrated to the US from India and made fortunes in California real estate and the fuel oil business. In 2005, contemplating retirement, he moved his company and family here, bought a luxury condominium downtown and space in a waterfront resort with parking for yachts. He traded in his American passport for one from Singapore. Chandran said he was lured by Singapore’s blend of Western conveniences with Asian values and by the Government’s zeal for keeping Singapore competitive. “They don’t have global taxation,” he said, which means that his capital gains and interest income from outside Singapore are not taxed here. …Tax rates are low as well. Singapore does not tax capital gains or interest income. Its top income tax rate is 20 per cent, and it does not tax income earned outside Singapore. … Singapore had already beefed up its banking secrecy laws in 2001. While many banks are moving their back offices to India, bankers here say Singapore’s secrecy rules are so tight, they are moving the data centres handling their private banking transactions from India to Singapore. … Singapore’s secrecy rules do not extend to anyone involved in terrorism or smuggling.