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The Accountancy Climatic Flip – Time for Digital

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The Accountancy Climatic Flip – Time for Digital

Steve Cox, chief evangelist, IRIS

Steve Cox will be speaking about the Climatic Flip at Accountex on Wednesday 23rd May.

 “There is no single trend to base our business decisions on in the coming years but a multitude of macro-environmental factors to consider as we progress in the economy, business and life.”

 The extent to how the accountancy industry is changing is now evident. Making Tax Digital (MTD) for VAT is now in beta phase, the deadline for the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is almost upon us, and recent updates to Anti Money Laundering (AML) were approved by HMRC in March.

Steve Cox

Steve Cox

However, it’s not just the legislative changes that accountancy practices need to consider as we digitise the economy. And we should not isolate technology changes either; artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT) will impact digital transformation, but they are not the beall and endall.

So, what else is there to consider in the tsunami heading for the industry?

Firstly, the market is growing and expanding. According to BDO, M&A deals totalled $2.6tn in 2017 and are predicted to reach a record high of $3.2tn this year. The market for mergers is stronger now than it has ever been.IRIS found further evidence of change in its Voice of the Accountant research – nearly two thirds (60 per cent) of accountants agree that practice mergers are driven by the early retirement of practice partners/owners and 44 per cent believe the UK market will continue to consolidate into a smaller number of practices overall.

Alongside market changes is the evolution of the workforce: by 2025, 75 per cent of workforce will be millennials which marks a step change in the working environment – not only for employees but the way services are provided to clients. And millennials are driving the technology changes in practices, with nearly two fifths (37 per cent) under 30 are in the technology driving seat.

The economic landscape will look very different too. The UK Government is changing to a digital entity, inspired by countries such as Sweden, Singapore and United Arab Emirates and we are not doing too badly: in 2016, the World Economic Forum placed us at number ten in promoting information and communication technologies and providing online services to the population. Digitisation will evolve, so accountants must consider this aspect as they move towards value-added services and most importantly business intelligence – upon which accountancy practices can develop further service opportunities.

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DAC 6 – D Day is imminent – Update of key elements

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DAC 6 – D Day is imminent – Update of key elements 1

By Andrew Knight is managing partner of Harneys Luxembourg office and head of its Tax and Tax Regulatory team in Luxembourg

Introduction

At a time when lengthy books are beginning to be written on the Sixth Directive on Administrative Co-operation in Tax Matters (DAC 6) it is a daunting task to summarise the key elements of DAC 6. However, with an eye on 1 January 2021 when the clock starts ticking for the various deadlines for the initial set of reporting obligations, there are some material elements that deserve particular focus in the context of international business structures.

Policy objectives / Interpretation difficulties

In essence, the principal objective is to provide tax authorities with early warning of arrangements that involve aggressive tax planning so that they can take the necessary action to examine those arrangements under existing tax rules and to amend the tax rules as appropriate to prevent further use of such arrangements.

In line with that objective, the EU Commission took a leaf out of the Common Reporting Standard (CRS) by targeting certain intermediaries as the people who were considered best placed to identify and therefore report on RCBAs. However, unlike the CRS that targets a relatively limited group of “Financial Institutions”, DAC 6 targets anyone that falls within the category of “Intermediary” and this covers potentially anyone who has some involvement with devising or implementing an RCBA. A further departure from the CRS model is that DAC 6 places the ultimate reporting obligation on the so-called “relevant taxpayer” where there is no “Intermediary” that has a reporting obligation.

Being an EU initiative, the intention is to have a uniform set of rules that will be applied uniformly across Europe such that, where several Member States are involved, reporting is only needed in one Member State. Unfortunately, this objective will be difficult to achieve for a number of reasons, not least the different interpretations placed on the DAC 6 rules by different intermediaries, particularly where they operate in different Member States. The fact is that there is enormous scope for differences in interpretation of DAC 6 due to the imprecise terminology frequently used in DAC 6.

The fact that this is the case should not be particularly surprising. The EU body that crafts Directives is not a legislative body in the normal sense of the term. Nor is a Directive designed to be legislation but rather to be, in effect, an intergovernmental agreement between Member States. The upshot of this is that Directives are not drafted in the precise way and with the rigour that is generally applied by Member States when preparing domestic legislation or regulations. And yet what appears to happen is that Member States, perhaps out of a concern not to be departing from the terms of a Directive, frequently enact local DAC 6 legislation largely by way of simply replicating the terms of the Directive.

The outcome is a set of unclear rules in a context where infringement of the rules may result in significant financial penalties.

Thus, there is a desperate need for guidance. Fortunately, a number of countries are publishing detailed guidance although inconsistencies are emerging between the various publications. In some cases, Luxembourg being an example, most of the guidance has been prepared by professional associations and is available only to their members.

Particular challenges for secondary intermediaries

The world of intermediaries is divided up between those that are considered to be in the frontline when it comes to devising aggressive tax planning techniques and those that provide a supporting role. The former are frequently referred to as “Primary Intermediaries” or “Promoters”. If one for the moment accepts that intermediaries are the right people to be targeted, then these frontline advisers should logically be included.

Less logically included are the other category, referred to as “Secondary Intermediaries” or simply as “Service Providers”. These are the intermediaries that provide “aid, assistance or advice” to the Primary Intermediaries. As Primary Intermediaries are frequently excused from reporting due to the application of the professional legal privilege exemption, it is beginning to emerge that it is the Secondary Intermediaries who find themselves as bearing the bulk of the burden of DAC 6 compliance.

While DAC 6 recognises that Secondary Intermediaries should only be treated as such where they have knowledge, or should be treated as having knowledge, of the RCBA in question, it is questionable whether merely having knowledge of an RCBA should be the basis for placing such a significant compliance obligation on businesses such as trust and company service providers banks and insurers where they have minimal involvement in the planning of the affairs of taxpayers.

Frequently relevant hallmarks

In the world of international business structuring, certain of the so-called hallmarks (ie the features of a cross border arrangement that make it reportable) are emerging as the ones that are most likely to come up for consideration. They are as follows:

  • Hallmark A3 involving the use of standardised documentation.
  • Hallmark B2 involving the conversion of income into forms of capital or into forms of income that are subject to a lower level of taxation.
  • Hallmark C1 involving deductible payments between associated enterprises.
  • Hallmark D1 involving CRS avoidance arrangements.
  • Hallmark E3 involving business re-organisations.

Main Benefit Test

Before going on to examine some of the material features of these particular hallmarks, it is helpful to examine certain aspects of the so-called “Main Benefit Test” (MBT) that is an additional requirement to be satisfied in relation to certain hallmarks (in particular A3, B2 and C1 out of those named above).

A question that frequently arises in the context of structures that involve Member States that have particular tax regimes that generate tax efficiencies for particular structures is whether the fact that tax is a material feature in the choice of jurisdiction creates an assumption that the MBT is going to be satisfied. The question leads on to a discussion as to how extensive the tax benefit needs to be in order for it to be treated as “one of the main benefits”, especially in comparison with other non-tax related benefits, and whether, but for the tax benefit, the particular jurisdiction would not have been chosen.

Fortunately, a number of countries are producing guidance to the effect that, if the tax treatment is in line with the terms and policy objectives of existing legislation, that tax treatment will not be treated as being “one of the main benefits” of the arrangement. An important ingredient of the arrangement, in order for it to be within line of policy objections, will be that it could not be treated as abusive, in particular that there is a commercial or economic justification for a particular structure.

A3 – Standardised documentation

This hallmark has been causing considerable concern in a world where increasing use is made of standardised documentation whether in the context of bank products, insurance related products or the templates that form part of lawyers’ stock in trade in a wide range of transactions.

The first thing to note is that if this hallmark is satisfied then the arrangement in question is likely to be a so-called “marketable arrangement” and one that is going to involve quarterly updated reporting. It is clear that such arrangements should be limited to those that are in the form of a product that is frequently used by different taxpayers with little modification.

The second point to note is that, notwithstanding that documentation takes on a seemingly standardised form, frequently it is going to require a material amount of adaptation to the transaction in question. This will generally be the case in relation to documents that are generated by a lawyer from a standard template.

If the above points do not serve to take a particular arrangement out of range of this hallmark, the need also to satisfy the MBT will in many cases achieve that result. As examples, the use of standardised banking documentation used for home loans and related security arrangements or standard insurance wrapper documentation will frequently not satisfy the MBT. Any tax advantage associated with such arrangement would generally be clearly envisaged by the relevant tax rules applicable to the taxpayer in question.

B2 – Conversion of income

What this hallmark is targeting is an arrangement that involves changing the nature of the payment received by somebody so that it causes that person to pay less tax on that payment than they did before, for example a dividend under an employee share scheme instead of normal employment income or a capital gain instead of dividend income.

This can be illustrated by an arrangement that might involve a shareholder receiving its return on a share by redeeming that share through a repurchase and cancellation of that share by the company rather than through a dividend being paid on that share.

There are a number of points that indicate that such an arrangement may often not be reportable:

  • If the shares are, at the time of issue, capable of being redeemed by either the shareholder or the company and if either of them subsequently chooses redemption over a dividend, there would appear to be no conversion of a pre-existing income stream.
  • From the perspective of the company, there may be no “conversion” as the payment made on the repurchase of the shares from a legal and accounting perspective may be no different from a dividend as in each case there is a distribution by the company of the relevant distributable reserves (with only a relatively small capital payment made on the cancellation of the shares).
  • Even if there is a conversion of income such that less tax is payable, provided that this is a mechanism that can be and is legitimately used by reference to the applicable pre-existing tax rules, the MBT may not be satisfied.

Similar considerations might apply if a shareholder chooses to fund its company with debt rather than equity or prefers that the company is put into solvent liquidation rather than first distributing the available accumulated profits to the shareholder.

C1 – Deductible payments between associated enterprises

Andrew Knight

Andrew Knight

The first thing to note is that “associated enterprises” are not limited to legal persons or arrangements, but also include individuals if the relevant control criteria are met.

Deductible payments (for example, interest, royalties, fees) made in favour of entities resident in blacklisted countries or to entities that have no residence for tax purposes are reportable without the need to apply the MBT. It appears that tax transparent entities would not be covered by this nor would corporate recipients that are resident in countries that have no corporate tax.

Deductible payments made to associated enterprises that are subject to zero or near zero tax or payments that are tax exempt or that benefit from a preferential tax regime will be caught only if the MBT is also satisfied. Where such payments are limited to what is allowed by the relevant tax rules of the payer, they may well not satisfy that test. In particular, it should be noted that just because a payment falls within this hallmark, it cannot be taken to mean that the MBT is satisfied.

D1 – CRS avoidance arrangements

Hallmark D1 is extremely broadly drafted and could potentially catch a very large number of transactions that “may have the effect of undermining the reporting obligations” under the CRS. Fortunately, there is a very clear statement to the effect that EU Member States can choose to interpret D1 in line with guidance published by the OECD in relation to their Mandatory Disclosure Rules. This is potentially extremely helpful and would therefore result in excluding from reporting arrangements that are consistent with the policy objectives of the CRS.

Thus, converting assets held through financial accounts into assets (for example, real estate, works of art) that are not covered by the CRS should generally not be caught unless abusive or part of a concerted promotion of such arrangements. However, care should continue to be exercised in relation to arrangements that involve the transfer of assets or financial institutions to the United States.

E3 – Transfer pricing and group re-organisations

This hallmark presents some difficulties as, although it is clearly intended to address transfer pricing concerns, the way it is drafted has the result of it potentially covering a large number of transactions that are typically used in the context of corporate re-organisations. These would include, for example, migrations, mergers, de-mergers, transfers of subsidiaries, and liquidations. A particular difficulty arises as the MBT does not apply to this hallmark.

There is some guidance emerging to the effect that these kinds of transactions should not be caught, supported by the fact that the OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines simply do not address these as being of concern in the context of business re-organisations (where the focus is on the transfer of functions and risks).

Reporting – practical challenges

As we have seen, the principal reporting obligation is on “intermediaries” and it is clear that a large number of intermediaries could be involved in any particular arrangement and, as DAC 6 targets cross-border arrangements, the intermediaries are likely to be located in a number of different jurisdictions.

We have also seen that there is a likelihood that different intermediaries will have differing views on whether a particular arrangement is reportable or not. This will be partly due to the inherent uncertainties in the interpretation of the relevant rules. However, it will also be due to the fact that the rules and their interpretation are likely to vary across the different EU Member States.

It will clearly be in the interests of the client that there be as uniform an approach to reporting as possible and that the number of reports is kept to a minimum. There is a clear mechanism for allowing intermediaries not to report where an arrangement has been reported by another intermediary in any EU Member State and where the other intermediaries have adequate proof of the reporting.

This is all well and good but, once the reporting period up to 31 December 2020 has been dealt with (and there is some time for preparing that reporting process), reports will need to be filed within 30 days of the relevant trigger date. This does not leave much time for intermediaries to ensure that someone else has done the reporting and to get the required proof of that. The risk is that intermediaries, out of a concern to ensure that they are being DAC 6 compliant, will simply file their reports, thus leading to a multiplicity of reporting where the reports may themselves be different.

Relevant taxpayers (ie clients) would be advised to take a pro-active role (together with their principal advisers) to ensure that the reporting process is tightly co-ordinated and that there is an agreed process for any reporting before the 30-day period starts to run.

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Cash in the time of Covid-19: A tale of financial exclusion

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Cash in the time of Covid-19: A tale of financial exclusion 2

By Matt Adam, company’s chief executive, We Are Digital

Financial exclusion rates are on the rise thanks to Covid-19. But what are the solutions to this significant finance problem in a post-pandemic world, asks Matthew Adam, chief executive, We Are Digital?

Cash is fighting to survive Covid-19. Globally, from the UK to Australia, contactless payments have become a necessity for shoppers. Various retail outlets, responding to reports that Covid-19 could be transmitted through handling money, quickly put up “no cash” signs, cutting off millions of shoppers worldwide from access to essential goods.

Bank branches across the world closed or pared down operations. In Australia, open ATMs are at their lowest number in 12 years (Australian Payments Network), leaving 2.5 million elderly Australians, some of whom fear being scammed online, compromised.

Finance providers in countries including the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg have raised the amount consumers can spend just by tapping a debit or credit card to move shoppers further away from physical money. In the UK, the use of ATMs has dropped by 80%.

But cash remains key for millions across the world, and some are fighting to keep it. In July, US banks were told they would not be able to use Covid-19 as a cover to close branches or win permanent regulator concessions by Officer of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) acting head Brian Brooks. In Britain the Financial Conduct Authority warned that banks must protect consumers’ access to cash, providing alternative ATM services for elderly and vulnerable customers elsewhere if they close further branches.

Not every economy is reacting in this way. China and Sweden have already seen the top-down imposition of a digital currency; the Chinese central bank’s digital yuan plans currently dominate fintech media headlines. Sweden’s Riksbank is testing the e-krona and has even set a date by which the country intends to become cashless in 2023.

Sweden, however, is a country where even the poorest have access to tech and digital exclusion is almost non-existent and where cash reserves will still be available for the elderly and vulnerable. On a global level, with high rates of digital exclusion still prevalent, is a wholly digital currency achievable? Or even desirable for millions across the globe?

An anxiety-inducing shift 

In much of the world, the swift shift to digital for the bulk of consumer transactions has, for some, caused a great deal of distress and anxiety. This is especially the case for those for whom contactless payments are not an option.

Financial exclusion – the inability to access finance, banking and income – is not as uncommon as you may think. Nor is it entirely the preserve of the elderly, vulnerable or poor. In the UK, one in four adults will experience financial exclusion at least once in their lives (The Inclusion Foundation), while 7.4 million people rely on a basic bank account, products designed for those with poor credit scores – the provision of which costs banks £350 million each year in administrative fees.

The world’s ‘unbanked’

Matt Adam

Matt Adam

In 2017, the BIS found that 10% of Europeans don’t have a bank account. Italy is home to the highest rate of financial exclusion at 16%. For the world’s poorest, online banking is a huge stumbling block – one which keeps millions in a state of poverty. The world’s ‘unbanked’ are charged much higher fees for basic transactions, while their access to other financial products and services like savings accounts, insurance and pensions is often limited.

The pandemic has merely highlighted this significant social issue. Globally, regardless of Covid-19, those who are unable to embrace a move to cashless risk being left behind and stuck in the poverty premium of financial exclusion. This is the condition around 14 million people in the UK who are forced to pay extra for essential goods find themselves in.

Research from the Personal Finance Research Centre at the University of Bristol suggests this costs the average low-income household £490 each year. For more than one in ten of these households, this figure rises to a staggering £780. Thanks to Covid-19, this figure is likely to be even higher when reassessed.

In the UK, just one in eight low income households have managed to strengthen their finances since the start of the crisis compared with two fifths of higher income families (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, June 2020). Meanwhile youth unemployment levels are on course to more than triple the highest levels since the early 1980s (The Resolution Foundation, October 2020).

For some, cash is still preferential too. When asked what types of payments they expected to use in the next six months, more people responding to ING International Surveys picked cash than any other method, despite Covid-19 (September 2020).

Breaking down the barriers

There are millions in desperate need of positive and practical solutions to break down the barriers financial exclusion raises. Training across all the areas touched by financial exclusion – online banking tuition, debt management and advice, provision of a wider range of financial products and services – is a measurable route out of poverty for the world’s financially excluded.

Over the course of the pandemic, we have worked with our corporate and banking clients to ensure the UK’s most financially excluded gain the financial understanding and digital skills they need to stay on top of their finances. We’ve seen first-hand how critical financial inclusion is to maintaining quality of life. It has been a privilege to witness the impact we’ve made in just a few months of working with banking customers and referrals in the charity sector.

To have any hope of solving this issue, it is key to acknowledge the full social scope of the problem, which is associated with poor levels of both mental and physical health and wellbeing and low quality of life. Community investment must be at the heart of any financial training or fintech programme and a joined-up approach pooling the resources of both financial sector and government is essential.

Campaigning for change

In the UK we hope to see central government directly acknowledging and tackling the issue of financial exclusion. A parliamentary Select Committee on Financial Exclusion (March 2017) called for the appointment of a minister responsible for financial exclusion to champion the rights of Britain’s financially excluded and to campaign for both recognition and change.

We believe it’s time such an idea was seriously considered – not just in the UK, but globally, even, considering the scale of the issue. Improved mental health, higher quality of life, better

physical health and wellbeing are all additional outcomes of improved levels of financial inclusion. Educating the financially excluded on what so many take for granted as the basics of life truly is an opportunity for societal and economic change none of us should allow to fall by the wayside.

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Digital Finance: Unlocking New Capital in Disrupted Markets

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Digital Finance: Unlocking New Capital in Disrupted Markets 3

By Krishnan Raghunathan, Head of Finance & Accounting Services at WNS, explores how a digitally transformed finance department can give enterprises the ability they need to improve cash flow and revenue through better use of data and improved analytics-driven visibility.  

Businesses everywhere are scrambling to recover lost revenues and protect cash flow. But as countries globally grapple with a dreaded second wave of the pandemic, imposing far more stringent localised lockdowns and new restrictions, it is set to be the hardest winter in living memory for many sectors.

The likelihood of winter peaks, so often the saviour of sectors such as travel and hospitality, benefitting businesses is diminishing rapidly. While many have pivoted to a greater or lesser degree, few have been able to offset the impact of falling revenues on cash flow. Even retail, riding an e-commerce boom in many regions, is finding itself in choppy waters, with 17 percent of consumers switching brands due to the economic pressures and changing priorities caused by the pandemic.

As one McKinsey article notes, “With some companies losing up to 75 percent of their revenues in a single quarter, cash isn’t just king – it’s now critical for survival”. Where then do businesses find new sources of cash to sustain their operations through the coming months?

Tapping Overlooked Cash Opportunities

For many, the answer could depend on whether they have digitally transformed their finance department. Why? Because many organisations are sitting on unidentified opportunities, funds that could be vital in shoring up businesses over the next few months or plugging the gap between operating costs and government bailouts. Yet those that have been slow to start their digital transformation journey are at a disadvantage;. At the same time, it is possible to identify these hidden seams in an analogue organisation, the process is time-consuming, manually intensive and, without the right digital tools, prone to human error.

Where deploying digital tools helps is by bringing speed, automation and reliable data to the fore. Connecting them with digital finance and accounting systems can give businesses clear insights into how money is being spent, where wastage is occurring, and where opportunities for optimisation exist.

Krishnan Raghunathan

Krishnan Raghunathan

It might be something as simple as automating the accuracy checking, issuing and chasing of invoices and late payments. This could reduce errors and invoice disputes and ultimately lead to faster payments. Accuracy and organisation are also important in billing – better records enable faster billing for work completed, and in turn, should deliver quicker payments.

It could also be around having the ability to review the supply chain and procurement data and identify where a supplier is subsidising a larger customer’s product line through drawn-out payment terms, or where a variety of vendors are on different terms across the business.  Using that data and overall knowledge of the business to negotiate better terms that work for both supplier and customer can create new opportunities. It could even be to identify late-paying customers, determine the reason for late payments, and use that intelligence to develop products or financing solutions that continue to support those customers (and improve loyalty) without increasing the burden on the balance sheet.

Generating Reliable Insights for Faster Decision-making

To do any of these manually would take months, generating data slowly that would quickly go out of date. But digital finance departments have evidence they can trust to inform business decision-making. That’s because old, manual processes built around Order-to-Cash lack the flexibility and agility that businesses require in today’s markets. The fact is that even before the global pandemic crisis, the pace of digitisation across all sectors was demanding new approaches to finance and book balance.

The opportunities are significant – from cognitive credit and improved forecasting accuracy to enhanced customer analytics. All use similar tools, based on artificial intelligence and quality, trusted data. Cognitive credit can be deployed to quickly make decisions on whether to advance or restrict credit, based on individual company positions and available data. Doing so enables businesses to either capitalise on opportunities (for instance, agreeing credit for a supplier that has run out but is a supportive and integral partner) or avoid risk (in the cases where a business might be in administration).

With more accurate forecasts, businesses can better manage their currency purchases and deposits, selling currency that is not required or buying more where predictions identify an upcoming demand.

It is the same with customer analytics – with a greater understanding of customer needs, businesses can make decisions based on the right mix of the product (and how it meets demand) and supply chain suitability (such as production costs and location in relation to customers).

In many ways, the events of the past year have accelerated the process. In doing so, the problem is the pandemic has also accelerated the speed at which failure to act can lead to obsolescence. Therefore, it is vital that businesses, and more particularly their finance and accounting departments, kick start their digital transformation. This will enable them to deploy the tools and analytics that is needed to capture data, generate insights and drive fast, accurate decision-making to uncover previously untapped sources of cash and reverse revenue degradation.

The Importance of Digitally Enabled Finance Teams

Forward-thinking CFOs have already begun the process of digitising their departments, but for those that have been slow to start, now is the time to push forward. It is only through digital tools and analytics that finance leaders can identify both the internal and external opportunities to recover revenue and improve cash flow. Whether that’s releasing working capital, minimising revenue loss and accelerating revenue recovery, reducing total cost of ownership or enhancing customer retention – only digitally enabled finance teams will be in a position to capitalise and, ultimately, bolster business performance during what will be a trading period like no other.

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