In a meeting with prospect investors, Jamaican industry minister Aubyn Hill eloquently conveyed his vision for a new free zone in Caymanas, Kingston. A smirk appeared on his face as he delivered the final line.
“Developers will enjoy a 50-year total exemption on corporate income tax,” Mr Hill said on June 16, seemingly indifferent to the 15% global minimum tax rate that 136 countries, including Jamaica, are expected to implement from 2023 onwards.
His remarks embody the ambiguity of many developing countries towards the OECD-sponsored reform. While most of them subscribe to the idea behind the reform, they cannot help seeing fiscal incentives as a key pillar of their investment promotion strategies.
Policy-makers across the globe have resorted to tax cuts to lure foreign businesses as competition for investment went global in the past 40 years. The world’s weighted average statutory corporate income tax (CIT) rate has declined from 46.5% in 1980 to 25.4% in 2021, according to figures from the Tax Foundation.
Developing countries in particular have raced to lower national CIT rates to boost their investment appeal. The global minimum tax reform now puts them between a rock and a hard place.
“From a resource mobilisation perspective typical of a finance minister, the reform may be seen as a good base to stop the race to the bottom,” Bogolo Joy Kenewendo, an economist and former minister of investment of Botswana, tells fDi, on the sidelines of AICE2022, the annual gathering of free zones organised by the World Free Zones Organisation in Jamaica in June 13-17.
“However, from an investment promotion perspective, tax incentives are the tools we use to attract investment. OECD countries, in particular G20 countries, have already gone through that development phase and built their industries. They no longer need that race to the bottom, but what about countries that see this as a viable tool?”
The OECD proposal is built on two main pillars. The first proposes to re-allocate some taxing rights over multinational enterprises from their home countries to the markets where they have business activities and earn profits, regardless of whether firms have a physical presence there. The second introduces a global minimum corporate tax rate set at 15%, which will apply to companies with revenue above €750m and is estimated to generate around $150bn in additional global tax revenues annually.
Developing countries often resort to fiscal incentives to offset structural weaknesses that would otherwise sink their hopes of landing big ticket investments. Free zones are a case in point. They have flourished on their unique combination of fiscal incentives, customs facilitations and plug-and-play infrastructure. Unctad tracked as many as 5383 free zones in 2019, 89% of which were located in developing economies.
Almost 80% of the special economic zone (SEZ) laws worldwide provide for fiscal incentives, such as tax holidays for a defined period of often five to 10 years, or the application of a reduced tax rate, Unctad also found.
“Differentiated taxes are a necessary compensatory measure to offset the inherent inefficiencies and disadvantages of developing nations which suffer from high energy costs, deficient infrastructure, and higher inbound/outbound transportation costs,” Cesare Zingone, the CEO of Zeta Group Real Estate, a developer of free zones in Central America, tells fDi.
“Therefore an equal minimum tax would increase compliance costs, place developing countries at a competitive disadvantage, and finally favour the relocation of companies to wealthy, developed nations. However if the minimum global tax were to be implemented, it would be imperative for developing countries to implement other compensatory measures, such as reducing social security costs on labour, property taxes or import duties.”
Regardless of the OECD’s global minimum tax push, fiscal incentives continue to feature at the heart of the offer of some of the world’s biggest free zones under development. Among others, in Guatemala, developer Pacific Investment is developing 1200 hectares of land for the new Michatoya SEZ, which promises no CIT for 10 years; Indonesia has just named the island of Natuna Regency in the South China Sea as a SEZ, offering zero CIT for 10 years; Iraq is launching three SEZs to trigger development, also offering zero CIT for the duration of the project.
If policy-makers and zones developers seem unfazed by the global minimum tax reform, the OECD is equally unfazed.
“SEZs don’t seem to have done much to prepare for this. The reality is that this is happening, and they will have to get ready for this to come,” Pascal Saint-Amans tells fDi, oozing his confidence in the fact that once the EU and US approve the reform, a domino effect will prompt all the countries that endorsed the reform to fall in line.
However, the road for the OECD remains uphill. In the EU, Hungary has vetoed a key vote on June 17 to approve the reform.
Back in Caymanas, Mr Hill continued to mingle with prospect investors, pushing the CIT exemption as the icing on the cake for the package on offer. As with any other policy-maker in developing economies, he is taking his chances at the policy-making table — and so is the OECD.