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Profile: Christopher Wales, Brown’s buddy at Goldman Sachs

Enter the revolving doors and all you can see are high, imposing ceilings,
commanding dark art deco-style marble walls, angled corridors and minimalist
modern art hung to perfection – all of which combines to give a distinct air of
financial clout.

It’s like being transported into the 1920s Fritz Lang film, Metropolis, where
the favoured live above ground and the less favoured below. But this is no film
set. It’s the main lobby of the building that used to house the Daily Express
and now plays home to Goldman Sachs in London’s Fleet Street.

An immense feeling of power and influence spreads across the impressive
entrance hall and continues up to the spacious top floor breakout room
overlooking the River Thames where I meet one of the investment bank’s managing
directors, Christopher Wales.

The words influence, power and financial clout are not used lightly. During
more than a quarter of a century, Wales has achieved what many in the
profession, in both the public and private sectors, would hope to accomplish in
a lifetime.

From a doctorate in medieval history and a PhD thesis entitled The knight in
12th Century Lincolnshire, a 16-year stint at Andersen, then six years on the
influential council of economic advisers, to becoming one of the most senior
members of the oldest global investment bank is no mean feat. But, even more
importantly, Wales is one of the most connected people in business and politics
– on first-name terms with the prime minister and the chancellor.

‘I keep in touch with Gordon and spoke to him a few days ago,’ says Wales,
not wanting to dwell too much on the fact he is one of Brown’s closest
confidants. ‘He did say to me that I should let him know when things were going
wrong, but then he added that was everyday,’ he laughs.

Wales is a staunch Labour supporter and joined the party in the late
seventies because ‘he couldn’t believe we’d elected Margaret Thatcher’.

During the early eighties he worked alongside the former shadow Treasury
spokesman, a young Tony Blair (the pair ‘did two or three finance bills
together’), managing to establish himself among the senior ranks of the party as
an authority on the economy and taxation – a role that would alert the future
chancellor to his expertise.

‘I became known within the party and over the next few years worked with
several senior party people including (former Labour leader) John Smith. I was
then asked to do some forensic work on particular tax issues and when I came
back to London, after a stint in Stockholm for Andersen in 1994, I was asked by
Gordon Brown to look into various tax issues.’

Wales’ proximity to the top ranks sparked Brown to ask him to join the
six-strong council of economic advisers where he became his principal adviser on
taxation policy. Wales’s expertise then led to one of the most important pieces
of work he carried out under Blair and one of the biggest revenue earners –
around £5.2bn – Brown’s budgetary coffers have ever experienced.

‘In 1997 the government was looking for some help to put together and design
a windfall tax on utilities. It was designed to recognise the fact that those
companies had, to a large extent, been privatised to up their value. Really, it
was an attempt to recapture some of the lost revenues to the Inland Revenue, but
the key thing was to find a methodology to the rationale for it and we found a
very good way of doing this. Gordon was very pleased with it.’ ‘

Wales contentedly cites this as a key piece of work, but says his biggest
achievement has been ‘preventing certain things from happening’, although he
refuses to be drawn on what these ‘never-before-seen’ tax proposals might be.

‘One of the delights of the job is that things that get out into the public
domain are, by and large, things that you are keen to see through. Occasionally
you get policy proposals that are not appropriate, so preventing some of these
things happening to business can give you great satisfaction.’

Despite the stereotype of taxation experts as penny-pinching villains, Wales
is regarded as a good cop and during his time on the committee, ensured that
everyone got a fair deal, not just the tax regulator. ‘From the things that did
happen, a number of areas on the structural simplification agenda of taxation
were very dear to my heart. I’ve always felt that within the UK system there
were a number of quite significant features that forced businesses down a
particular torturous tax route – so why not make it easier for them?’

This is a field he has determinedly ploughed during his 26-year career and,
in a sense, sums up Wales’ mission to ensure a simple, but fair taxation system
that allows UK businesses to compete effectively and profitably in a global
marketplace. The culmination of this mission, he says, was the creation and
launch of the Oxford University centre for business taxation (see box) on 4
November this year.

Based at the Saïd Business school and backed by £5m-worth of funding from the
influential Hundred Group of Finance Directors, the centre has been set the goal
of using academic weight, alongside HM Revenue & Customs and business
expertise and assistance, to achieve a more competitive tax system for British
businesses.

‘If you look at what’s happening in the world economy, globalisation is of
tremendous importance and has a huge influence on tax systems beyond just a
European level. We have to have the right tax structures to deal with global
issues and that involves looking at the fundamentals of the tax system.

‘There’s no obvious right answer, but unless you are prepared to stand back
and look at each system as a whole, then the risk is that you do bits in salami
slices and you never get to the right answer for the whole thing.’

Wales is passionate about tax and ensuring the UK gets a competitive and
even-handed fiscal system. And he says there is still much more the government
can do.

‘We need a more straightforward form of business taxation. A lot of the work
I was commissioned for between 2002 and 2003 was to move towards the idea of a
single source framework of business taxation that takes away the arbitrary
distinctions between one kind of income and another.

‘If you look at some of the tax systems around the world there are far fewer
divisions in business income and far fewer distortions in sources of income
taxed. It would make it much easier for UK companies to operate and compete
effectively if they didn’t have to go through all the necessary steps to ensure
they remain tax efficient.’

But Wales has some concerns when it comes to the subject of the newly merged
HMRC and the way in which he believes tax policy has been left by the wayside.

‘The area I’m most nervous about is how HMRC handles the policy side. If it
had been left to me, then I would rather have seen policy teams left as they
were. The situation it has moved to now is fundamentally unsatisfactory and it
doesn’t really have anybody who has a good overview of tax policy as a whole.

‘Also, if you look at the Treasury today, does it really make sense to have
one person looking at business taxation and another person responsible for the
international side? Surely there ought to be someone who looks over the top of
all that and who has the right economic and tax-related credentials to develop a
system that makes sense not just for the UK, but for the international context?

‘By dividing the teams in the way they have – so all the policy makers are
nearly all in the Treasury – you destroy that kind of continuity.’

Wales has some strong opinions on the future of UK taxation, which he will
inevitably share with his peers at Goldman Sachs, the Oxford tax research centre
and even the chancellor.

As I leave our interview and once again reach the minimalist lobby, the
receptionist tells me there has been a power cut across the ground floor. Wales
may be one of the most powerful business people around, but there are some
things that even he can’t control.

CV2004 Managing director, financing group, Goldman Sachs International2003-04
Visiting fellow, faculty of law at Cambridge University2003-05 Member, council
of economic advisers at Treasury; principal adviser to the chancellor of the
exchequer on taxation policy1998-03 Led EU code of conduct group on business
taxation on behalf of paymaster general Dawn Primarolo1990-97 Partner, Arthur
Andersen1979-90 Arthur Andersen, London and Stockholm1982 Qualified as a
chartered accountant

OXFORD TAX RESEARCH CENTRE

Last month’s launch of the £5m Hundred Group of FDs-funded Oxford University
centre for business taxation marked the culmination of years of careful
consideration and 12 months’ hard work for Christopher Wales.

Conceived during a conversation with Jon Symonds, CFO of AstraZeneca and
until recently Hundred Group chairman, Wales was confident that his vision for a
centre to help British business become more competitive globally could become a
firm reality.

Symonds invited him to talk to the Hundred Group where the plans were well
received. Wales pitched the idea to Cambridge University and the London School
of Economics before a decision was made to base the centre at Oxford. The Saïd
Business school’s existing focus on finance, corporate governance and regulation
made it a perfect fit.

But the centre has its detractors. Richard Murphy, senior adviser at the Tax
Justice Network, criticised the centrefor focusing too narrowly on tax issues
for the FTSE100.

‘Business taxation only makes sense within a broader range of fiscal issues,
so the whole range of taxes and the interaction between them have to be
considered,’ he says.

But despite its opponents, a majority of tax, business and government
representatives believe the centre is a step in the right direction in order for
academia, UK plc and Whitehall to collaborate and debate the best way to improve
the UK’s taxation system, so that British businesses can prosper on the world
stage.

Christopher Wales’ CV

  • 2004 Managing director, financing group, Goldman Sachs International
  • 2003-04 Visiting fellow, faculty of law at Cambridge University
  • 2003-05 Member, council of economic advisers at Treasury; principal adviser
    to the chancellor of the exchequer on taxation policy
  • 1998-03 Led EU code of conduct group on business taxation on behalf of
    paymaster general Dawn Primarolo
  • 1990-97 Partner, Arthur Andersen
  • 1979-90 Arthur Andersen, London and Stockholm
  • 1982 Qualified as a chartered accountant

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