This paper uses Starbucks Corporation, the premier roaster, marketer and retailer of specialty coffee in the world, as an example of stateless income tax planning in action. “Stateless income” comprises income derived for tax purposes by a multinational group from business activities in a country other than the domicile of the group’s ultimate parent company, but which is subject to tax only in a jurisdiction that is neither the source of the factors of production through which the income was derived, nor the domicile of the group’s parent company.
The paper reviews both Starbucks’ recent U.K. tax controversy (including a parliamentary inquiry), which revolved around the intersection of its consistent unprofitability in the United Kingdom with large deductible intragroup payments to Dutch, Swiss, and U.S. affiliates, and its more recent submission to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee. The paper draws from this review two lessons.
First, if Starbucks can organize itself as a successful stateless income generator, any multinational firm can. Starbucks follows a classic bricks and mortar retail business model, with direct customer interactions in thousands of “high street” locations in high-tax countries around the world. Moreover, Starbucks is not a firm driven by hugely valuable identifiable intangibles that are separate from its business model, which it employs whenever it deals with those retail customers. Nonetheless, it appears that Starbucks enjoys a much lower effective tax rate on its non-U.S. income than would be predicted by looking at a weighted average of the tax rates in the countries in which it does business.
Second, the Starbucks story—in particular, its U.K. experience—demonstrates the fundamental opacity of international tax planning, in which neither investors in a public firm nor the tax authorities in any particular jurisdiction have a clear picture of what the firm is up to. It is not appropriate to expect source country tax authorities to engage in elaborate games of Twenty Tax Questions, in turn requiring detailed knowledge of the tax laws and financial accounting rules of many other jurisdictions, in order simply to evaluate the probative value of a taxpayer’s claim that its intragroup dealings necessarily are at arm’s-length by virtue of alleged symmetries in tax treatment for expense and income across the group’s affiliates. U.S.-based multinational firms owe a similar duty of candor and transparency when dealing with the Congress of the United States.
The remedy begins with transparency toward tax authorities and policymakers, through which those institutions have a clear and complete picture of the global tax planning structures of multinational firms, and the implications of those structures for generating stateless income. National governments should recognize their common interest in this regard and promptly require their tax and securities agencies to promulgate rules providing a uniform world-wide disclosure matrix for actual tax burdens by jurisdiction. As a first step the United States should enforce the current rule requiring U.S. firms to quantify the U.S. tax cost of repatriating their offshore “permanently reinvested earnings.”