International tax rules apply to income companies earn from their overseas operations and sales. Tax treaties between countries determine which country collects tax revenue, and anti-avoidance rules are put in place to limit gaps companies use to minimize their global tax burden.
What is the purpose of cross-border tax rules?
Businesses generally follow what makes most sense from an economic perspective when designing their supply chains and investing across borders. However, the economic reasons for a certain structure may need to align with what makes most sense from a tax perspective.
Multinational businesses have employees and operations in countries all around the world. When a company earns profits in a foreign jurisdiction it will often send some of those earnings back to its headquarters, which may distribute a portion to shareholders as a dividend. Each of these activities could trigger one or more international tax rules.
International tax rules define which countries tax the profits of a multinational business. Generally, the purpose is to ensure that the income of companies is taxed once rather than multiple times by multiple jurisdictions. When more than one country taxes the same earnings of a multinational, the result is double taxation, which is a barrier to cross-border investment.
What rules impact multinational companies?
There are three general policy areas that impact the taxation of multinational businesses. These are tax treaties between countries and the withholding tax rates set in those treaties; rules that define what income will be taxed by the country where the headquarters is located; and rules to minimize tax avoidance by multinationals.
Tax treaties are most often agreed to between two countries. Tax treaties define which country will tax income generated by a company that has operations in both countries. Imagine a U.S. company with a factory in France earning profits and paying taxes to French authorities on those profits. The company may send a dividend back to its U.S.-based parent company out of those French profits. The tax treaty between France and the U.S. allows France to place a 15 percent withholding tax on the dividend payment. The company can reconcile the withholding tax with its corporate tax liability with France.
Another set of international tax rules applies to the foreign earnings of companies. A U.S. company that has operations abroad may owe taxes to the U.S. government depending on how it earns its profits and the extent to which those profits are taxed in a foreign country. The U.S. rules for taxing these foreign profits include the tax on Global Intangible Low Tax Income (GILTI) and Subpart F rules. GILTI is designed to tax foreign income of U.S. companies that generally face low rates of tax abroad. Subpart F results in U.S. companies paying tax to the IRS on foreign income from royalties and dividends. In many countries, similar rules are called controlled foreign corporation (CFC) rules, and selectively tax some foreign earnings of companies.
The last set of rules is designed to minimize tax avoidance through international tax planning. These rules look different depending on whether a country operates a territorial or worldwide tax system. Transfer pricing rules regulate how companies price the goods and services they sell across borders from one operation to another. Thin capitalization rules limit opportunities to minimize global taxes by shifting internal debt from low-tax jurisdictions to high-tax jurisdictions. Other anti-avoidance rules include punitive taxes on business structures designed to avoid taxation.
Economic Impacts of International Tax Rules
International tax rules can be designed to allow multinational companies to reach their customers abroad and compete with foreign companies in international markets. They do this best when they provide tax certainty for companies and eliminate double taxation through clear tax treaties and limited rules that require foreign earnings to be taxed in headquarter countries.
However, many countries have been adopting or strengthening their anti-tax avoidance rules on cross-border income in recent years. These policies, like transfer pricing rules, controlled-foreign corporation rules, and thin capitalization rules have been found to decrease tax avoidance behavior. They can also reduce investment and hiring by multinational companies both abroad and in their headquarter countries.
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