Avoiding Tax and Panama

The big story at the moment surrounds Panama, which many folk may know best from Prison Break rather than its financial sector. A truly massive leak of confidential files from a law firm (terabytes, not just gigabytes…) is causing embarrassment and more for many leading global figures. UK Prime Minister David Cameron is fending off questions about his family’s involvement with the law firm via his father, while the Icelandic Prime Minister was more deeply embroiled and has already bitten the bullet. Links to Vladimir Putin do not appear to have caused quite so much shock and consternation

What exactly is going on, and why does it matter from a macroeconomic perspective? It must matter, since it pertains to billions of dollars. Economies have billions of dollars (or pounds, or euros) moving around within them, and hence that billions ended up in Panama rather than the places that the people mentioned above are located is of interest.

Towards the end of term we covered the Balance of Payments, which is the financial account of a country – what financial flows go in and out of a country. Clearly, it seems, considerable flows went out of the UK, Iceland, and Russia to Panama, and for what? Money is moved from one place to another usually for some purpose – for example an investment, or to pay for imported goods. The claim, however, is that much of these financial flows were “offshore” – moving of money primarily for the purpose of avoiding paying taxes.

In the case of Ian Cameron, the PM’s dad, their company Blairmore Holdings was based in Panama, it would seem, to avoid paying as much tax as would be paid in the UK. However, as the leaks appear to make clear, major decisions about the firm were still made in the UK (based on documented meetings of board members revealed in the leaks) – which apparently is the test of where a company is “located”. What this makes clear is the difficulty of regulation – definitions have to be made for things that are easy to think about, but harder to pin down the detail of – what is the definition of where a company is located? And once a definition is made in a country’s law, it will provoke those in that country to consider ways in which that law can be avoided. As a result, it’s likely that those involved will claim nothing illegal was done, regardless of the wider moral implications about doing right and wrong.

Economic activity, you’ll learn more as you study further in microeconomic topics, tends to need some level of regulation. However, that regulation need not be a panacea, and need not lead to unintended consequences. The rise of offshore tax havens came primarily in response to higher tax rates in major Western economies, particularly in the 1970s, and of course regulation is something that many in favour of the UK leaving the EU cite as a reason to leave. A very thoughtful friend of mine has noted the link between these two – the UK remains a place for lots of finance taking place onshore, and is so at least in part because of its position within the single market (single market = more customers = more revenues). If that attraction was lost, the UK may need to consider other ways to retain its position, which may include more favourable tax and regulatory arrangements for finance – yet financial markets are precisely the markets where the clamour for “more regulation” has been greatest since the financial crisis.

As with anything in macroeconomics, it’s complicated, but it’s well worth studying!

Risk and Return: Snookers

Snooker players have to be very good at maths. When building breaks, it helps them if they can determine how many points remain on the table when making a choice of next shot (and subsequent ones). When in deficit, maths is all important in terms of how many snookers a player needs.

What is perhaps less well appreciated is the strategy involved, and the attitude towards risk. Every decision has some risk attached to it, but also some potential return (with some probability). Each pot could be missed, each positional shot could turn out badly. The more difficult the pot, the less likely that the next position the player finds themselves in is a good one.

Ronnie O’Sullivan, one of the most successful, controversial and flamboyant players of our generation, is being criticised for a sensible decision when faced with risky options. Having built a large break (putting the frame beyond doubt) of solely reds and blacks, Ronnie had the choice between a tricky black and an easier pink. Taking the black would keep him on course for a maximum break of 147, a highly prized outcome. Taking the pink would remove the 147 as an option, but leave him on for a 146, still overwhelmingly likely to be the highest break of the tournament (thus gaining him a prize – financial reward).

Hence this decision was one about relative risks and returns. Wisely, O’Sullivan asked about the reward for a 147 relative to a 146. He found it to be £10,000, with £2,000 for the highest break. Either pink or black potted would almost certainly get the £2,000, so it was the £10,000 that was at stake. Take a riskier black, risk getting nothing with a higher probability than taking an easier pink which yielded a higher probability of £2,000.

The moral of the story is: if we want to reward risky behaviour (which the fans and viewers love), it has to be rewarded adequately to reflect the risks involved. Rather than criticising Ronnie, we should be applauding his decision not to be recklessly risky for small rewards, something we criticised the bankers for in 2008.

Tis the season?

overseas-aid

You may have seen this graphic, or some similar sentiment, doing the rounds at the moment.

As you may be aware, successive governments have committed to spending 0.7% of GDP on aid to some of the poorest and most needy people around the world. It’s also a tiny amount of money. The plot below makes this clear: it’s a small amount even of the interest the government pays on its national debt, and (not plotted) about a twentieth of what we spend on pensions each year.

Foreign Economic Aid and Interest on National Debt since 1993

So, practically, firstly, stopping this money would make little difference to the government’s overall budget. Bear in mind that the deficit is still much larger than 0.7% of GDP.

Secondly, there are many, many things that the government spends lots of money on that might be better reconsidered if there is a need to cut other things before we spend more money on flood defences (and helping those affected by the floods).

Third, as we’ll learn about this coming term, governments have budget constraints, and if they spend more than they get in tax receipts they run a deficit (as the UK government has done for a long time now), and need to borrow. As such, if something is important (hence has a good rate of return, however measured), and can be financed at a low interest rate (as is the case at the moment), then a better argument is that it should be funded by more borrowing.

Finally:

Private Sector Space Exploration?!

Last night a space rocket landed back on earth upright. That in itself is hugely impressive (although apparently it isn’t the first rocket to do that), but what’s perhaps most interesting is that this was done by a private sector company, SpaceX. Our instinct when it comes to space exploration is to think about public sector bodies like NASA, or the European Space Agency, yet this is a private company founded by Elon Musk, described on his Wikipedia page as “South African-born Canadian-American business magnate, engineer, inventor and investor”. Musk is also the man behind PayPal, and Tesla, the electronic car manufacturer.

Is there any reason why space exploration needs to be public sector? This is one of the challenging questions as economists we should ask. Why do we think the private sector could not deliver in this area? Why do we also instinctively think that trains should be publicly owned? Why a National Health Service but not a National Food Service? Surely the food we eat is just as important to our health as any actions the NHS takes (maybe after we’ve eaten some bad food)?

We won’t touch on such issues in Intro Macro (EC114) next term, but you’ll have covered many of the building blocks for such an analysis in Intro Micro (EC113) this term – an analysis of markets and market failure. Under what conditions do we expect markets to succeed, and in what ones do we expect markets to fail? Some of the answers relate to information (do buyers and sellers have equal information?), some to power (do buyers or sellers have greater power?), and others still to the cost of mistaken choice (how costly is it?). You’ll get plenty of opportunities to think more deeply about what the state should and shouldn’t do as you go through your three years with us. Challenge yourself on why you think things should be done particular ways whilst you’re with us…

Fracking: Economics and Externalities

From Huffington Post

The BBC headline this afternoon communicates the outcome of a vote in Parliament to allow fracking in National Parks. This would appear to be a doubly controversial outcome. Fracking is a means to extract gas from deep underground, and is controversial, as is any kind of economic development in National Parks.

Fracking is unpopular amongst many because of concerns regarding the amounts of water used in the process, which must be transported to fracking sites at great cost, and also concerns about fracking causing small earthquakes, or tremors. Nonetheless, it is a means for producing energy, hence increasing its supply, and bringing prices down. It’s generally acknowledged to have played a considerable role in energy prices falling in the US.

The government’s own website for National Parks says they are “areas of protected countryside that everyone can visit, and where people live, work and shape the landscape”. Anybody who has visited any of them knows how beautiful they are, and rightly protected. Nonetheless, at the same time they provide a valuable place where economic activity could take place; not least there is likely plenty of natural resources beneath them, but also, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to study at university and in the afternoon take a walk, or go for a jog in one of our glorious National Parks? Many companies would jump at the opportunity to provide such a working environment for their employees (of course, many wouldn’t also). However, these are areas that are protected for a reason – primarily their outstanding natural beauty. The tragedy of the commons teaches us that more than likely without this protection, we’d overuse such areas.

Now, of course, the fracking bill passed in Parliament restricts digging to areas of non-outstanding natural beauty, but once 1.2km underground, then frackers (so to speak) can drill horizontally to get underneath the areas of outstanding natural beauty. This, naturally, is concerning – will it have no effect whatsoever to be doing things underneath the ground?

What this fundamentally boils down to is the difference between private net benefits of actions, and social net benefits. When making decisions, we will usually consider the benefits and costs that accrue to us individually and pay less attention to benefits and costs that society at large may feel as a result of our actions. When there’s a difference between the two, like for example if I choose to play music very loudly in my neighbourhood, we say there’s an externality. In the case of economic activity in National Parks, there are clearly private benefits: mining companies, and energy providers will get private benefits, as we all will, if energy prices fall. But equally, if damage is done to our National Parks as a result, we will all suffer since we can no longer enjoy those National Parks as we previously did.

Government Investment

One common criticism by those sceptical of the role of government is that attempts by governments to influence economic activity suffer from excessive delays. Hence the term “shovel ready” has quickly become part of the political vernacular since the financial crisis and economic downturn in 2008.

Today gives a great example of a project that is anything but “shovel ready”: the expansion of London (and by extension the UK’s) airport capacity. This is basically a decision on whether to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport, and as the BBC article points out, this has been being discussed now for 25 years, and commission after commission have reported on the issue. Nonetheless, the government is about to announce that yet another review is necessary, and a decision that might have been made around about now will instead happen in six months’ time.

Conveniently enough, after the forthcoming London Mayor elections.

Understandably, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), a group that represents the interests of UK businesses, is highly frustrated by this. Yet further uncertainty on the back of 25 years of uncertainty is something that is unwelcome for business. We’ll cover investment next term, but one thing that is generally cited as a reason for firms choosing to invest is the absence (or otherwise) of uncertainty. Will firms, British or otherwise, choose to invest less in the UK at the moment given there’s still no clarity on whether or not a third runway will be built at Heathrow?