Large Dutch multinationals make use of letterbox firms in tax havens such as Bermuda, the Bahamas and the Caymans. The corporations have a total of 237 subsidiaries located in the nine tax-free countries of the world. Shell and ABN AMRO have by far the most letter box firms in tax havens.
This is apparent from an investigation conducted by de Volkskrant of the subsidiaries of 26 large Dutch multinationals in Bermuda, the Caymans, the Bahamas, Bahrain, The Maldives, the Isle of Man, the British Virgin Islands and the two British Channel Islands. Foreign companies pay zero percent tax over profits, in these nine countries.
With 81 Dutch subsidiaries located on the island, Bermuda is the most popular fiscal refuge among the nine, followed closely by the Cayman Islands (66 subsidiaries), and the British Channel Island Jersey (37). The largest Dutch corporation, Shell, has a total of 85 subsidiaries in six tax havens. ABN AMRO is located in five of the nine tax havens, with 54 subsidiaries, and Vitol has 17 subsidiaries in five of the countries.
Most corporations give little information about their activities in these fiscal oases. Oil company Vitol and oilfield service company Fugro refused to answer at all.
ABN AMRO provided with more details. According to the state-owned bank the subsidiaries in these countries have been set up for international clients, in relation to, among other things, special investment funds and arrangements for the shipping industry. ABN AMRO emphasizes, just as the other companies do, that there is no question of tax evasion.
Sometimes these companies actually have operational activities in these islands. For example, Heineken has a brewery located on the Bahamas, and Boskalis maintains the country’s harbor. Other multinationals, including Akzo Nobel, Philips and Unilever, responded to our questions by noting that they are currently in the process of liquidating (some of) their holdings in tax havens.
Out of the 26 companies included in the research, TomTom, PostNL and Wolters Kluwer are the only companies that do not own any subsidiaries in the nine tax havens. Navigation company TomTom does however own two subsidiaries in Cyprus.
Shell is not prepared to share any details about its tax routes. The company states that when requested it shares all information with the tax authorities of the countries concerned. Furthermore, the energy company does not agree with our definition of a tax haven and points to a directive by OECD which states that Bermuda and the Cayman Islands are not, in fact, to be considered as tax havens.
This directive is internationally seen as controversial. If a country has a minimum of six tax treaties with other nations, than this is according to the OECD already enough not to be considered a tax haven.
Professor of fiscal economics Peter Kavelaars considers such wordplay folly. According to the professor these nine countries that have no tax on profits are definitely tax havens. “Looking at the tariffs from a Dutch perspective, a profit taxation of ten percent is really the bare and necessary minimum.”
According to Kavelaars, a country needs to do two things it wants to lose the tax haven label. The tax pressure for companies, via profit tax and other forms of taxation, has to be minimally 20 percent. Moreover, countries need to be transparent and share the information they have, as well as know no bank secrecy. Companies need to deposit their annual accounts.
“Multinationals need to be much more transparent about the payment of their taxes” echoes Mark van Dorp of SOMO, an organization that advocates a fairer tax system, “but companies hide behind the lack of local and international regulations”.