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Global minimum tax effort moves forward as Ireland and Hungary join pact

136 countries have now agreed to minimum tax rules for businesses, but each government must formally approve the changes.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (C) listens to President Biden. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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A sweeping overhaul of global corporate tax rules took a major step forward Friday, as 136 nations backed a 15 percent minimum levy on profits and a new approach to tackling the most successful companies of the Internet economy.

The agreement, announced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, included countries accounting for more than 90 percent of world output.

Importantly, the accord was joined by several low-tax jurisdictions that had resisted the deal, such as Ireland, Hungary and Estonia. All members of the Group of 20 nations and the OECD have signed on, capping more than six years of diplomatic bargaining.

“Virtually the entire global economy has decided to end the race to the bottom on corporate taxation,” said Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, who negotiated the pact. “Rather than competing on our ability to offer low corporate rates, America will now compete on the skills of our workers and our capacity to innovate, which is a race we can win.”

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Friday’s announcement, potentially the most significant shift in global taxation in a century, updates a July agreement that had been backed by 130 nations. The tax changes still must be turned into legislation and passed by each of the participating countries, including the United States.

Yellen linked the esoteric tax rules to Main Street interests, saying the deal promised Americans “decades of prosperity.”

President Biden’s use of multilateral diplomacy to deliver global economic fairness represents a dramatic shift from President Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for unilateral trade measures. Redrawing global taxation is aimed at combating resentment over an economic system tilted toward the needs of corporations rather than heartland communities, administration officials have said.

“The arcane language of today’s agreement belies how simple and sweeping the stakes are: When this deal is enacted, Americans will find the global economy a much easier place to land a job, earn a living or scale a business,” Yellen said. “President Biden often talks about a ‘foreign policy for the middle class.’ Today, is what foreign policymaking for the middle class looks like in practice.”

In a statement, Biden said the accord would “ensure that profitable corporations pay their fair share, and provide governments with the resources to invest in their workers and economies.”

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The president spurred the global effort in May by calling for a 15 percent corporate minimum tax, which was lower than many tax analysts and foreign officials had expected. Agreeing to limit corporate tax-cutting overseas could help Biden secure congressional backing for raising the U.S. corporate levy above its current 21 percent.

For years, companies have engaged in a variety of creative bookkeeping practices that allowed them to legally escape tax bills by assigning income to low-tax venues. An estimated 40 percent of the profits multinationals earn outside their home country are “artificially shifted to tax havens,” concluded a 2018 study by Gabriel Zucman, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and Ludvig S. Wier and Thomas R. Tørsløv, both at the University of Copenhagen.

Some business leaders have warned that higher U.S. corporate taxes could encourage them to prioritize investment abroad.

“This takes the wind out of those sails,” said Thornton Matheson, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

But the senior Republicans on the tax-writing Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees slammed Biden for pursuing the OECD agreement before Congress has acted on the administration’s proposed changes to U.S. tax law, calling into question how quickly lawmakers may act on needed changes.

The global deal would require legislation rewriting a provision of the U.S. tax code known as the global intangible low-taxed income or “GILTI,” which applies to categories of income such as intellectual property and trademarks.

“As other countries delay implementation and secure side agreements and carveouts to protect their own companies, U.S. businesses will be hit by tax increases ultimately borne by American workers, savers and consumers,” Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said in a joint statement.

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Prospects for the new digital tax setup are cloudier. Some Republicans and Wall Street analysts have said it would require a two-thirds vote of the sharply divided Senate. “It remains unclear if Congress is able and willing to legislate tax law changes that will facilitate a binding agreement,” strategists at Morgan Stanley wrote in a client note Friday.

Yellen this summer said the administration would consult next year with Congress on what is needed to secure that part of the new taxing arrangement.

The 15 percent corporate tax is expected to generate a global total of $150 billion in new tax revenues. The Biden administration says it will reduce incentives for U.S. corporations to locate plants and personnel in low-tax jurisdictions abroad.

The accord also shifts the right to tax multinationals from their home countries to nations where they earn significant profits, even without a physical presence there. The measure applies to corporations with profit margins above 10 percent and global sales exceeding 20 billion euros (or roughly $23 billion at current exchange rates).

The new tax would shift taxing rights on about $125 billion in profits and would apply to one-quarter of earnings in excess of the 10 percent threshold. Likely to be most affected would be American and Chinese companies, according to the Morgan Stanley analysis.

An OECD statement described the affected companies, notably including American digital giants such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, as “the winners of globalization.” European nations that had begun imposing dedicated digital taxes to raise revenue from these Internet-age stars now are expected to rescind them, if the deal is implemented.

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Negotiators adjusted the plan that had been agreed upon in July to attract key holdout nations, including Ireland, which for nearly half a century has used low corporate taxes as a lure for foreign employers.

Dropping a reference to “at least” 15 percent in describing the minimum corporate tax brought Dublin on board.

“We have secured the removal of ‘at least’ in the text. This will provide the critical certainty for government and industry and will provide the long-term stability and certainty to business in the context of investment decisions,” Irish Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said Thursday.

The Irish also secured an exemption for businesses with revenues of less than 750 million euros, or roughly $868 million, leaving “the vast majority” of Irish companies outside the tax scheme, he said.

The new 15 percent tax, up from Ireland’s current 12.5 percent mark, will apply to 56 Irish multinationals, with about 100,000 employees, and 1,500 foreign multinationals with roughly four times as many workers.

Hungary, another low-tax venue, joined the deal after winning agreement on a 10-year phase-in period for the changes, rather than the original five-year schedule.

On Wednesday, Yellen spoke by phone with Estonia Finance Minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus to emphasize that securing a global tax consensus was a “top priority.”

Of the 140 nations involved in the talks, only Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Sri Lanka remain in opposition to the tax pact.

G-20 leaders are scheduled to take up the agreed statement at their meeting in Rome at the end of this month. Next year, diplomats from all participating countries aim to sign a formal document calling for implementation of the new rules in 2023, the OECD said.

Barbara Angus, global tax policy leader for EY, an accounting firm, said there is “substantial work still to be done to fill in all of the technical and administrative detail of these two sets of rules.”