Stuart Gulliver’s crisp explanation this week of why he once held his annual bonuses in a Swiss private bank account via a Panamanian company was plausible yet somehow more puzzling than if he had been evading tax.
I am angry with Stephen Green. I am angry in part because HSBC’s former chairman (now Lord Green) presided over a financial institution where, it turns out, oversight was so distant that large-scale tax avoidance schemes could be peddled by a Swiss subsidiary, in breach of, at the very least, the spirit, if not the letter, of good banking.
“Even if the truth is more complex than the headlines, re-establishing confidence in and respect for the banks will be a journey up a steep mountain.”
Stephen Green – now Lord Green – has not commented on the leak of files exposing tax-avoidance practices at HSBC’s Swiss-based private bank. But in 2009, the then chairman of HSBC put his whole philosophy of ethical business on the record in his book Good Value, sub-titled “Reflections on money, morality and an uncertain world”. The newly topical quotation above is an extract. Read more
Every so often, a company announces that it is considering its “strategic options” for one of its businesses, which means that it wants to ditch it as soon as possible. This would be a good time for technology companies to consider their strategic options for their global tax arrangements.
For students of perverse incentives created by tax, it is a bonanza week. Apple has raised $12bn in bonds to buy back shares, despite having $130bn sitting in cash overseas, and Pfizer wants to turn itself into a UK-domiciled company by acquiring AstraZeneca for £60bn.
I have met Debbie Bosanek. I’ve also met her boss Warren Buffett. But as far as this week’s US political news is concerned, the more important figure is Ms Bosanek, the billionaire investor’s secretary. She’s important because she’s met Barack Obama, who gave her a high-profile spot in the audience for his State of the Union address this week, transforming her into a symbol of tax inequality in America.
Mr Buffett started this, of course. In a New York Times op-ed last August he attacked a system that allows him to pay a lower tax rate than any of the other people in his Omaha office. This has spawned the “Buffett rule”, the benchmark that Barack Obama is using to promise that the richest Americans will not pay tax at a lower rate than their secretaries.
Ms Bosanek is both an obvious and an odd choice to become – as an ABC interviewer put it this week – “the poster woman” for this campaign. Obvious, because she is the gatekeeper for Mr Buffett. Odd, because she is far from a typical secretary (in her polite but terse emails, she actually styles herself, in the modern way, as “Assistant to Warren Buffett”). Read more
At last, a bit of perspective on tax avoidance.
Andrew Witty, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, says something is lost when companies switch tax domicile on a whim. The pharma boss tells The Observer:
One of the reasons why we’ve seen an erosion of trust broadly in big companies is they’ve allowed themselves to be seen as being detached from society and they will float in and out of societies according to what the tax regime is.