The government's "patent box" is the tax avoidance package companies have been begging for

It might incentivise innovation, but it definitely incentivises paying far less tax.

The Conservative party back-benches are seething with rebellion. Not only do ministers deplore David Cameron for an un-Tory like attitude toward gay marriage, in recent weeks he has further upset them with a positively radical spiel directed against those super-corporations the conservative leader suspects of tax avoidance:

Any businesses who think that they can carry on dodging their fair share ... need to wake up and smell the coffee.

However. Refreshing though the rhetoric certainly is, the actions of the Government seem to tell a different story. Corporation tax will have fallen from 28 per cent to 21 per cent toward the end of the Government’s first term in 2014 — and this will translate into a loss of roughly £5 billion in tax revenues each year as those cuts are enacted (according to 2011 estimations by the Treasury).

The buck doesn’t stop there. In order to better facilitate corporate needs, HM Revenue and Customs is set to introduce a new form of tax relief for businesses due to begin in April this year. It’s called the Patent Box. Ostensibly, it means that a company which shows sufficient innovative nous by patenting innovations will be entitled to a tax break of 13 per cent, applied to the value of the product. In theory this should provide impetus for companies to conceive fabulous new technologies, and give a spurt to growth and development thereby. Right?

Well not quite. The first problem is that said companies are not actually required to own the patent themselves in order to attain the tax break. They can simply lease a patent from the original patent owner; consequently there is no real incentive to invent stuff creatively and in-house, so to speak. But the most salient fact about the Patent Box is that it does not apply to the patent in isolation. A company could, for instance, produce a tractor, and if that tractor was possessed of a patented right view mirror, the revenue from the whole vehicle itself — not only the mirror — would be subject to same overall and significantly larger cut in tax.

In other words, a measure which appears to contain a degree of legitimacy, in fact becomes yet another way for big corporations to achieve massive, unwarranted tax slashes on their products. And this is ironic. The Conservatives always pride themselves on encouraging small business development, perhaps because this provides a highly effective propaganda sheen — allowing their PR initiatives to be expressed in terms of hard working individuals and entrepreneurs rather than faceless corporate monoliths. But the Patent Box will only serve the latter. Small businesses do not have the purchasing power to buy in bulk the products which will benefit from the tax cut, nor can they afford to gamble with new technological innovations, nor can they divert money into buying up the patents of others.

Part of the whole problem lies in the way in which the government develops Controlled Foreign Companies (CFCs) regulations. One of the lead advisors who helped the government to devise the Patent Box was one Jonathan Bridges — a tax advisor for KPMG, an accountancy company which has no remit outside ensuring the lowest tax returns for its corporate clientèle; it has, therefore, no commitment to any notional "national interest".

The use of the representatives of corporate power to provide advice on the means by which that power should be channelled in socially effective ways makes about as much sense as employing a local war lord to advise on the committee of Amnesty International. But despite its connotations, the practise of employing huge corporations to help devise precisely the laws which are supposed to regulate them is one which both the current and the previous Government have engaged in. At the time of the transition to the coalition government, Labour had already set up working groups for consultations regarding CFC reforms; panels which included representatives of HSBC, Vodafone and Shell — all major multi-nationals and all involved in controversies regarding tax evasion.

The current Government has an objective rationale for its position which isn’t simply an expression of neo-liberal ideology and partisan politics. These super-companies have genuine power — and the ability to decamp to another country taking thousands of jobs with them. Like petulant, spoiled children, they are always on the verge of tantrum, should their desires not at once be met. In the midst of an economic crisis there is a cogent argument that any single Government must of necessity make their tax rates as favourable as possible in order to attract those companies and secure those jobs.

But the problem with such an argument lies in its generalisation. If every government follows suit, slashing corporate tax over and over in order to remain competitive, and if all governments adhere to the strictures of such competition, we are at once locked into a downward spiral, a race to the bottom in which the benefits gained from corporation tax are increasingly illusory.

And it is important to recognise that this is exactly the type of cycle which got us here in the first place. We were sold on the need to slash regulations in the finance industry, and look what happened. By playing this game the government are not responding pro-actively to the crisis, they are adopting the very logic which led to it.

How can these companies be regulated? By people putting pressure on their governments for sure. But also by directly targeting the companies themselves through grass-roots activity and customer boycotts. Following mass protest, Starbucks was recently "persuaded" to agree to pay £10m in corporation tax in the UK for each of the next two years. A drop in the ocean certainly. But nevertheless an indication that, ultimately, it is the consumer who has the ability to make or break a company.

Innovate on the mirror, profit on the tractor. Photograph: Getty Images
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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?