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Posted on January 5, 2011

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Multinational corporations use accounting tricks to deprive developing countries of billions in tax revenues every year. Using the example of the beverage manufacturer SABMiller, a new report from the British NGO ActionAid shows how these tricks work and the ugly role played by Switzerland in the process – and how it undermines a Seco programme in Ghana.

The beverage manufacturing concern SABMiller brews beer in several African countries. Every year it shifts about 100 million francs in profits to foreign tax havens disguised as payments for mostly fictitious services and royalties. A report just published by the British development organisation ActionAid demonstrates this.

According to ActionAid, some 60 million francs of that go to companies domiciled in Switzerland, especially in the Canton of Zug. ActionAid puts the revenue loss suffered by the African countries concerned at about 8 million francs. Altogether they are losing some 20 million francs in tax revenues because of SABMiller’s accounting tricks.

The example of Ghana

There is one particularly striking example in the report. So far this year a subsidiary of the corporation in Ghana has paid the Zug-based company Bevman Services AG 1.5 million francs for services which, according to investigations by ActionAid, were most likely never provided. The corporation thus circumvented the Ghanaian business tax of 25 per cent. All that could be retained by the developing country was the modest take from the withholding tax of just 8 per cent. Under the new double taxation agreement with Switzerland, Ghana is still able to levy that tax on payments for services. The remaining 17 per cent, which after all is about a quarter million francs, is lost to Ghana.

Ironically enough, Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) is supporting a programme, precisely in Ghana, to enhance the efficiency of the tax system and various measures to improve the investment climate for foreign companies. Seco explains that Ghana urgently needs more domestic revenues in order to reduce poverty. The latest statistics are that about one third of Ghana’s population lives below subsistence level. Yet, as long as foreign companies continue to use accounting tricks to transfer their profits to Switzerland, tax reforms and investment programmes will be worth precious little.

New standards required

A new reporting standard that is now also being discussed in the EU Commission under the designation «Country-by-country reporting» could provide a remedy for these nasty tax tricks by multinational corporations. The corporations should be required to identify the activities for each country separately in their balance sheets. Official Switzerland, however, is resisting this standard. Switzerland does not want to see it included even in the non-binding OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises that are currently being revised.

The British charity Christian Aid estimates that developing countries lose 160 billion francs in revenues each year owing to tax tricks by multinational corporations.

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