Accountants say they want certainty in their lives, but those involved in tax
seem to spend most of their lives creating uncertainty for all who depend upon
it. They do this by using tax strategies which are of uncertain legality.
Of course, they call it tax planning but the inevitable consequence of their
actions is that they will fall foul of the tax authorities on occasion.
The US Federal Accounting Standards Board
has noticed this. Each company subject to US GAAP is now required to assess all
the claims it has made to a tax authority and to then assess the likelihood that
they will be agreed based on its past record, opinion received and the state of
negotiation. If it can’t be more than 50% sure of getting the claimed benefit it
has to provide for it in its accounts.
As importantly it has to disclose three things. The first is the value of tax
claims it is making which it recognises might be a ‘try on’. Second it has to
provide for reasonable interest and penalties due on these sums. Third it has to
say when it was last subject to tax audit, so indicating the period of exposure.
This is incredibly important for investors and tax authorities worldwide. If
tax liabilities or the resulting cash flows are being mis-stated because of
claims for benefits to which they are unsure they are entitled, then
shareholders must know if they are able to calculate the impact on the future
cash flows of the company. Companies with a poor record of tax claims should now
be downgraded by the market.
Tax authorities will be able to see which companies are, by their own
admission, undertaking unreasonable tax avoidance. That means that those
companies should be targeted and the innocent will, hopefully, be subject to a
But most of all this approach is important for what it requires of companies.
The first requirement is that they bring tax management into the open. The
second is that companies must now assume that full disclosure is the norm. To
date it has being quite possible for one transaction to be presented in
different ways to different tax authorities. It is clear that FASB thinks this
The result can only be good for investors and tax authorities. No doubt
that’s why almost every letter on the draft raised an objection to the proposed
Thankfully this is a case where the standard setters have acted in the best
interests of society.
Richard Murphy is a Director of Tax Research LLP
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