Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fallen Heroes

A properly respectful article by my fellow Aularian Bidisha:
It wasn’t a trip or a tumble. It wasn’t funny; it was terrifying and so brutal that the audience fell silent. It was the kind of accident that breaks necks, damages brains and haunts Cirque du Soleil performers’ nightmares...
But it’s not just about individualistic survival ability, brotherliness or externals like attitude. Mugabe is not worthy of respect simply for surviving, having sass or cannily working out how to play every capitalist angle. He has a brilliant and indeed record-breaking talent in his discipline, which is stealing elections. He’s been stealing great elections including 1979, 2000 and 2005 throughout his career, and the latest, 2010, is up there with them; he is “in the game again”, as The Telegraph says.
But he was brutally mocked in the reviews. And that laughter is growing louder and crueller and uglier, as the Twitter response to his fall illustrated. Mugabe’s longevity was first admired and is now actively sabotaged by editorials which never fail to mention his age, as though it is something to be ashamed of. I am shocked by the uninflected scorn, the derision and foul-mouthed trashing he is dealt, and how much of it is grossly visceral. 
In order to withstand this, one would have to be superhuman. Luckily, Mugabe is. But why should anyone have to swallow the world’s unstinting hatred when he wants to be remembered for his brilliant dictatorship?
Just appalling.

 Lest we forget

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

London calling

I do find the Guardian very hard to understand sometimes. Ian Martin (not to be confused with the infinitely sounder Iain Martin) has a piece in today's paper that is basically a squeal of baffled rage against modernity, and one that barely makes sense on its own terms to boot.
For a start, it takes as its premise that London has "privatised itself to death" and will, in 100 years, be abandoned to the wilderness. How this squares with the fact that London is growing rapidly (and is at its largest since 1939) and is the largest European city is unclear. How Martin's paean to the glory days of the 1960s and 70s squares with the fact that London's population was shrinking during that time is equally unclear.

These are mere details, however, compared with the glaring error at the heart of the piece - that the aesthetics and morals of London are destroyed by private architecture, while they were elevated by the lost days of GLC-sponsored architecture. The comparison he makes is between the "infantile, random collection of improbable sex toys poking gormlessly into the privatised air" that make up the new City and the "beautiful, brilliant, brutalist Hayward, part of a people’s South Bank that had started with the Festival Hall in 1951 and would end triumphantly with the National Theatre in the 1970s." In other words, this is the appalling, hideous monstrosity that private developers are forcing on us:

And this is the beautiful Hayward gallery:
And the triumphant National Theatre:
In this context the infantile politics ("the reign of Margaret the Baby-Eater. Through John Major’s steady-as-you-go age of dinge") is just a detail. What's weird is that he seems to have no appreciation of the fact that the greatest crimes against London architecture have been done by the state. He cites the dismantling of the mosaics at Tottenham Court Road as a part of London's soulless privatisation even while blaming it on Crossrail - a public works project. He rails against the architecture of the Shard, and rhetorically demands why there's no hospital in it. Maybe because it's next door, and another shining example of London's public architecture:
He yearns wistfully for the lost space of Broad Street station, which, when it was finally closed, carried about 6,000 passengers a week (140,000 people arrive at London Bridge each morning). This was that great accessible lost public space:
And here it is now, with the public cruelly denied access:
I've had a few drinks there on a summer evening, and there were more people sitting, talking and laughing than used to commute from the old station. Private developers have turned a dead space, where public space amounted to disused concrete railway platforms, into an accessible and fun courtyard. I struggle to see how this is anything but a good thing.
This miserabilist paean for the lost glories of British Rail tea, and a three month waiting list for a crackly landline from BT, and the good old days where working class people could find a decent pit in which to catch silicosis and die at 50, while their middle class representatives could get a proper grant to explore post-modern themes of orientalist post-structuralism is reactionary bullshit that is fundamentally indistinguishable from UKIP's blinkered, one-eyed 1950s nostalgia. Both have their cartoonish enemies (for Martin it's, astonishingly, "Qatari, Saudi, Russian, Indian, Chinese, some UK hedge funds...dicks in haircuts 'doing business'") and both just wish we could turn the clock back, forget all this nonsense about globalisation and go back to those comforting days when Nanny would look after us (for Martin, that's a metaphorical all-providing state; for UKIP I get the feeling it's often a bit more literal).
This is a great time to be alive - the best there's ever been. Things are getting better still. London is bigger now than it was, richer now than it was, prettier now than it was and basically better now than it was. That's why everyone wants to come and live here.

Friday, February 13, 2015

More tax! Yay!

Oh, while I'm on the subject, Philip Collins makes the following point about the Tories and tax:
Last week, Mr Cameron refused to say why he would not force hedge funds to pay stamp duty on stock market transactions. I am sure the motives of the hedge-fund impresarios who donate to the Tories are as pure as the driven snow on the slopes of Verbier. No doubt they are all keen to see the national roll-out of universal credit rather than, say, a crony place in the House of Lords or favourable tax treatment for hedge funds. So why the reluctance?
PMQs is a spectacularly useless format for getting actual answers to good faith questions. This was the question from Ed Miliband:
Everyone pays stamp duty on stock market transactions except those involved in hedge funds, who are allowed to avoid it. That is costing many hundreds of millions of pounds. Why is the Prime Minister refusing to act?
It's a direct question. But it's a very difficult one to answer for two reasons. The first is that the premise of the question is untrue. Intermediary tax relief applies to institutions that deal in stock, and has done since 1997 (via the inserted s.80A Finance Act 1986). Hedge funds don't actually benefit directly from this exemption, what they do is trade exposure to shares held by the banks, rather than trade the shares themselves (so-called "contracts for difference"). Since the banks are exempt from paying SDRT on the shares at the heart of the CFD, there is no SDRT payable at any point in the transaction. It's not just hedge funds that do this either - probably the largest beneficiaries are pension funds. What Labour are asking for, therefore, is not that hedge funds should stop getting special treatment through the tax code, it is that hedge funds should start getting special treatment through the tax code.

As a bonus, there is no legal definition of "hedge fund", and so legislating to prevent them utilising contracts for difference would be non-trivial.

The second reason this is a hard question to answer is that it is a highly technical question on an obscure part of tax law that has been left relatively undisturbed since the late 90s. Without prior warning, there is simply no way that any Prime Minister could answer it. Given that warning, a competent answer could look something like this:
As the Honourable Member is surely aware, hedge funds do not qualify for the intermediary exemption on SDRT. That exemption applies principally to investment banks, and was introduced in order to increase liquidity in the stock market - to the great benefit of the economy. The Government has no plans to abolish this general exemption, which is of most benefit to our pension funds. It was, in fact, introduced in by 1997 by the Member for Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath. I must say it is rather surprising to see that the party opposite are so keen to reverse one of the few entirely sensible policies they introduced when last in Government.
As it is, it was just an excuse for yah-boo gotcha-ism.

Tax Avoidance

I nearly became a tax lawyer. The thought still haunts me. There is something chilling about the memory of trying to parse the 18,000 pages of Tolley's Yellow and Orange books, or of the hours spent waiting for someone at HMRC to pick up the damn phone.

What it did teach me, however, was an understanding of the fiendish complexity involved in navigating the English tax system. Any corporate deal is massively complicated by its tax implications - many transactions incur such a large potential tax exposure that they are simply not viable as a result. In most cases specific exemptions apply for precisely this reason - to prevent legitimate business activity being stifled by unintended tax charges. Structuring a deal, therefore, involves a great deal of tax advice, to ensure that the deal doesn't become liable for massive tax charges.

This, obviously, is tax avoidance, and sophisticated tax avoidance at that. Lawyers' and accountants' jobs are entirely dependent on piloting corporates and individuals through the weird and incomprehensible channels that a century's accretion of taxes, exemptions and anomalies have created. This is an area defined by its ambiguity - while tax avoidance measures will be held invalid if they were entered into solely to avoid tax, this is a pretty unclear benchmark. The 2009 Code of Practice for banking says that a bank "should not engage in tax planning other than that which supports genuine commercial activity", which goes some way towards clarity, but stops short of actually reaching it.

The long and the short of it therefore is that, as Lord Fink says, more or elss everyone avoids tax to a certain degree. This is obviously true of all companies and rich people - when dealing with large sums of money, unless you actually take positive steps to maximise your tax liability (and if anyone does this, I've never heard of it) you will be avoiding tax to an extent. It is also true of most people in more normal circumstances. Paying into an ISA, or into a pension avoids paying tax. Hell, if your definition of tax avoidance is just "not paying all the tax you possibly could" then buying orange squash instead of orange juice means you're avoiding paying VAT.

The conflation of tax avoidance with tax evasion, therefore, is pretty disingenuous. Ed Miliband is having a great time at the moment calling people "tax avoiders", but this as swords go, this is a pretty double-edged one. There are a lot of rich people in the Labour party, and I doubt any of them wish their tax activities being subject to that much scrutiny. Ed himself used a Deed of Variation to protect himself from a potential IHT liability on his parents' house (the fact that he didn't face an IHT charge is irrelevant - the purpose of the Deed was to avoid a potential liability). Tony Benn used a trust structure to minimise IHT expsoure on his death. More obviously, dozens of Labour MPs 'flipped' their second homes to avoid a CGT liability. There are very few clean hands in all of this, and no winners from a 'back to basics' on tax.

It may be, as Phillip Collins says, that linking Tories to tax avoidance is good politics for Labour in the short-term. In the longer term, however, I suspect that all it does is make life harder for everyone.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Is Smythson based in a tax haven?

There's a fun little story in the Daily Mail that plays perfectly to a whole string of prejudices.
Awkward! Luxury leather goods firm Smythson where PM's wife Samantha Cameron works is based in a tax haven.
Crivens! A tax avoider at the heart of Downing Street!
So there must have been an awkward conversation over the Number 10 breakfast table this morning after it emerged the Prime Minister's wife Samantha works for a company which is now based in a tax haven. Luxury leather goods firm Smythson, where Mrs Cameron is a creative consultant, is owned through a holding company in Luxembourg and linked to a secretive trust in the Channel Island of Guernsey, another well-known tax haven
The meat in this sandwich is down at the bottom of the page:
Smythson is owned and run by secretive Egypt-born Frenchman Jacques Bahbout, who bought the group for £18m in 2009 through his Italian handbag manufacturer Tivoli Group... Details in the firm’s annual accounts filed at Companies House show Holdsmyth is owned by ‘a company incorporated in Luxembourg’ and is ultimately controlled by ‘Ogier Trustee (Jersey) Ltd as trustees of the Barracuda Trust, a trust settled in Guernsey’

As a bonus, exactly the same story appeared in the Mirror more than a year ago.

Is there anything to this story? Not really. The Smythson brand and stores are owned by Holdsmyth, a UK-registered company with its registered office in Bond Street. So, the headline's not true - Smythson is based in London, which is only a tax haven if you believe Nick Shaxson. Any profits made by Holdsmyth will, obviously, be liable to corporation tax here. Holdsmyth itself is owned by a Luxembourg company (Greenwill SA), which is the Holdco for Tivoli Group SA, the Italian company owned by Bahbout.

All that's happened is that the Mail (and the Mirror this time last year) have read Holdsmyth's accounts and hyperventilated at the mention of foreigners. This one's a #QTWTAIN for John Rentoul's series.

Thankless jobs

Ben Stokes has made the national selectors look "ridiculous" for leaving him out of the World Cup squad, says ex-England captain Paul Collingwood.

In fairness, that was a ridiculous innings. 15 sixes, and 150 off 80. 3 wickets as well. Why on earth is this superstar not in Australia, instead of the useless Ravi Bopara, who's managed 57 runs in the Tri Series at an average of 14 (and a strike rate of 57) and hasn't taken a wicket in his last 14 games? What are the idiot selectors playing at??

Well, the last time Bopara was dropped, back in the summer, he promptly averaged over 50 for the Lions (and under 30 with the ball), and was re-selected for the Sri Lanka tour where he was England's third highest scorer. Meanwhile...

7.3, 10.7. These are, respectively, superstar Ben Stokes's batting average and economy rate from the last time he played an ODI series for England. I can't give a bowling average, because he didn't take a wicket. Stokes was beyond hopeless on that tour - he was unselectable. He couldn't get the ball off the square when he batted, and he couldn't pitch it on the square when he bowled.

Selectors take a lot of stick, often fairly, often not. But it's very hard to blame them for not picking Stokes for the World Cup. The fact that he's woken up in South Africa is fantastic news, and if there's a last minute injury, he looks a shoe-in as a sub. But don't blame the selectors for Stokes being crap in Sri Lanka.