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Special report: We all thought Libya had moved on – it has, but into lawlessness and ruin

Libya has plunged unnoticed into its worst political and economic crisis since the defeat of Gaddafi

 
Tuesday 03 September 2013
by Patrick Cockburn

A little under two years ago, Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, urged British businessmen to begin “packing their suitcases” and to fly to Libya to share in the reconstruction of the country and exploit an anticipated boom in natural resources.

Yet now Libya has almost entirely stopped producing oil as the government loses control of much of the country to militia fighters.

Mutinying security men have taken over oil ports on the Mediterranean and are seeking to sell crude oil on the black market. Ali Zeidan, Libya’s Prime Minister, has threatened to “bomb from the air and the sea” any oil tanker trying to pick up the illicit oil from the oil terminal guards, who are mostly former rebels who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi and have been on strike over low pay and alleged government corruption since July.

As world attention focused on the coup in Egypt and the poison gas attack in Syria over the past two months, Libya has plunged unnoticed into its worst political and economic crisis since the defeat of Gaddafi two years ago. Government authority is disintegrating in all parts of the country putting in doubt claims by American, British and French politicians that Nato’s military action in Libya in 2011 was an outstanding example of a successful foreign military intervention which should be repeated in Syria.

In an escalating crisis little regarded hitherto outside the oil markets, output of Libya’s prized high-quality crude oil has plunged from 1.4 million barrels a day earlier this year to just 160,000 barrels a day now. Despite threats to use military force to retake the oil ports, the government in Tripoli has been unable to move effectively against striking guards and mutinous military units that are linked to secessionist forces in the east of the country.

Libyans are increasingly at the mercy of militias which act outside the law. Popular protests against militiamen have been met with gunfire; 31 demonstrators were shot dead and many others wounded as they protested outside the barracks of “the Libyan Shield Brigade” in the eastern capital Benghazi in June.

Though the Nato intervention against Gaddafi was justified as a humanitarian response to the threat that Gaddafi’s tanks would slaughter dissidents in Benghazi, the international community has ignored the escalating violence. The foreign media, which once filled the hotels of Benghazi and Tripoli, have likewise paid little attention to the near collapse of the central government.

The strikers in the eastern region Cyrenaica, which contains most of Libya’s oil, are part of a broader movement seeking more autonomy and blaming the government for spending oil revenues in the west of the country. Foreigners have mostly fled Benghazi since the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, was murdered in the US consulate by jihadi militiamen last September. Violence has worsened since then with Libya’s military prosecutor Colonel Yussef Ali al-Asseifar, in charge of investigating assassinations of politicians, soldiers and journalists, himself assassinated by a bomb in his car on 29 August.

Rule by local militias is also spreading anarchy around the capital. Ethnic Berbers, whose militia led the assault on Tripoli in 2011, temporarily took over the parliament building in Tripoli. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has called for an independent investigation into the violent crushing of a prison mutiny in Tripoli on 26 August in which 500 prisoners had been on hunger strike. The hunger strikers were demanding that they be taken before a prosecutor or formally charged since many had been held without charge for two years.

The government called on the Supreme Security Committee, made up of former anti-Gaddafi militiamen nominally under the control of the interior ministry, to restore order. At least 19 prisoners received gunshot shrapnel wounds, with one inmate saying “they were shooting directly at us through the metal bars”. There have been several mass prison escapes this year in Libya including 1,200 escaping from a prison after a riot in Benghazi in July.

The Interior Minister, Mohammed al-Sheikh, resigned last month in frustration at being unable to do his job, saying in a memo sent to Mr Zeidan that he blamed him for failing to build up the army and the police. He accused the government, which is largely dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, of being weak and dependent on tribal support. Other critics point out that a war between two Libyan tribes, the Zawiya and the Wirrshifana, is going on just 15 miles from the Prime Minister’s office.

Diplomats have come under attack in Tripoli with the EU ambassador’s convoy ambushed outside the Corinthia hotel on the waterfront. A bomb also wrecked the French embassy.

One of the many failings of the post-Gaddafi government is its inability to revive the moribund economy. Libya is wholly dependent on its oil and gas revenues and without these may not be able to pay its civil servants. Sliman Qajam, a member of the parliamentary energy committee, told Bloomberg that “the government is running on its reserves. If the situation doesn’t improve, it won’t be able to pay salaries by the end of the year”.

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Special Report: Amazon’s billion-dollar tax shield

By Tom Bergin
LUXEMBOURG | Thu Dec 6, 2012 3:18am EST

(Reuters) – In 2005, Amazon rented a historic five-storey building in Luxembourg‘s Grund quarter, right at the bottom of a steep rock-walled valley below the old town.

By setting up in Luxembourg, and channelling sales through its units there, the world’s biggest online retailer could minimize corporate taxes.

It was a move with big financial consequences.

Amazon’s Luxembourg arrangements have deprived European governments of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax that it might otherwise have owed, as reported in European newspapers. But a Reuters examination of accounts filed by 25 Amazon units in six countries shows how they also allowed the company to avoid paying more tax in the United States, where the company is based.

In effect, Amazon used inter-company payments to form a tax shield for the group, behind which it has accumulated $2 billion to help finance its expansion.

Amazon revealed last year that the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) wants $1.5 billion in back taxes. The claim, which Amazon said it would “vigorously contest”, is linked to its foreign subsidiaries and payments made between them.

The issue highlights the way multinationals reduce their taxes by parking intellectual property in tax havens and charging affiliates big fees for using it. Politicians in rich countries are beginning to target such practices, which have been used by other multinationals including Google and Microsoft.

U.S. Senator Carl Levin has called the tactics “gimmickry.” Michael McIntyre, a tax expert at Wayne State University in Michigan, said that while Amazon’s arrangement, and others like it, looked like commercial transactions, they actually only served to reduce taxes.

“The IRS shouldn’t be happy about this,” he said. “It sounds like they’re not.”

Amazon declined to answer questions about its tax affairs for this story, the latest in a Reuters series on corporate tax avoidance. In an emailed statement a spokesman said that “Amazon pays all applicable taxes in every jurisdiction that it operates within.”

The group has come under scrutiny from tax departments in at least six countries over the past six years. Tax authorities in the United States, UK, Germany, France and Luxembourg declined to comment, citing rules on taxpayer confidentiality.

The Luxembourg structure, outlined by media including the Guardian newspaper in April, fulfils a corporate obligation to shareholders to maximize returns. There is no suggestion the company has broken any laws; Amazon, which started out selling books and now offers everything from tools to toys, paid an average 44 percent tax on its U.S. earnings in the last five years.

This is an examination of how Amazon set up its tax shield, and how it works.

MARKET SHARE

Amazon’s first foray abroad came in 1998, when it bought online retailers in Britain and Germany and rebranded them Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de. In 2000, it launched a French website, Amazon.fr.

At first it did little to integrate these foreign units, former senior executives say. Even product purchasing – where Amazon would later squeeze huge savings by negotiating hard with suppliers – was handled independently in different markets.

“There were no real operational synergies in our early years. The units operated largely independently,” said Todd Edebohls, current CEO of recruitment website Inside Jobs, and Amazon’s Director of Business Development and Sales between 1999 and 2007.

But in late 1999, accounts for the UK business show, the UK unit’s principal activity changed from “marketing and selling of books via the Internet” to “the provision of services to other group undertakings.”

People shopping on Amazon.co.uk would now do business with a U.S. unit registered in Delaware. There were similar changes at the German business: in effect, the fast-growing European units had become fulfillment operations just to distribute packages and offer customer support. Amazon’s accounts show the bulk of its overseas revenues were now attributed to the U.S. parent.

That shift helped with a problem it faced at home.

Founded in 1995 and listed two years later, the company lost money every year until 2003. This was standard practice for a dotcom startup: Amazon focused on market share rather than profit.

But by the end of 1999 Amazon’s accumulated losses were so large – more than $1 billion – that its own accountants would not let the firm recognize them as a tax asset, because it was unclear it could ever make enough profit to use them up. Bringing foreign profits home allowed Amazon to set them against U.S. losses, so the company did not have to pay tax on overseas profits, according to Stephen Shay, a professor of tax law at Harvard University.

SERVICES, NOT BOOKS

That changed in 2003, when Amazon started making a lot more profit in the United States. There was a chance the foreign earnings would now increase its global tax bill, according to Shay, because U.S. corporate tax rates were higher than in other markets such as Britain.

Amazon turned to the tiny country of Luxembourg. The Grand Duchy has a population of 500,000 – half the size of Rhode Island – and offers a variety of advantages. It’s a member of the European Union, so businesses based there can sell across EU borders with less red tape. Then there’s the tax rate.

Luxembourg has a headline charge on corporate income of 29 percent, but under certain circumstances it will exempt income a company earns through intellectual property by up to 80 percent, a government spokesperson said. This cuts the effective tax rate to below 6 percent. Tax advisers and academics say rates close to zero can be achieved using other methods.

In June 2003, Amazon registered Amazon Services Europe SARL in Luxembourg, establishing an office in a drab grey concrete building overlooking the central bus depot. The initials stand for Societe a Responsabilite Limitee – a limited company, liable for tax.

A month later, it told clients in the UK its terms were changing. Contracts with third-party retailers who used Amazon to sell their products would no longer be handled in the United States but with the Luxembourg unit.

In June 2004, Amazon established another Luxembourg entity – Amazon Europe Holding Technologies – whose purpose was to hold shares in Amazon group companies and “to acquire … any intellectual property rights, patents, and trademarks licenses and generally to hold, to license the right to use it solely to one of its direct or indirect wholly owned subsidiaries.”

This group was set up as a “Societe en Commandite Simple” or SCS, a type of limited partnership that a Luxembourg government spokesman said is exempt from income taxes. It has not had any operational staff or premises, its registered address being the offices of a trust services company in an upmarket residential area west of Luxembourg’s old town.

A month later, this company established a third Luxembourg company, Amazon EU SARL, whose principal purpose was to “sell, auction, rent or otherwise distribute products or services of all types” via Amazon websites.

This taxable unit was to become, on paper at least, the supplier of all goods and services to Amazon’s European customers.

FROM NEVADA TO LUXEMBOURG

To be tax efficient, though, Amazon needed to shift the profit this unit would make into its untaxed parent. The easiest way to do this was for Amazon EU SARL to pay Amazon Europe Holding Technologies a fee to license the Amazon technology it would use to sell things.

There was just one problem: Amazon Europe Holding Technologies had no technology to license. Amazon’s patents – including the Amazon brand and its ‘1-click’ ordering software – were held by Amazon Technologies Inc, a unit registered in Nevada, Patent and Trademark Office records show.

In early 2005, Amazon did an inter-company deal that solved this problem.

Exact details of the arrangement have never been made public and Amazon declined to clarify them. Chief Financial Officer Tom Szkutak told analysts on a conference call a few weeks afterwards that the deal to create the Luxembourg operation involved shifting “certain operating assets” offshore and that it would boost the group’s 2005 tax bill by $58 million but “beneficially impact our effective tax rate over time.”

Amazon’s Luxembourg arrangements have helped it pay an average tax rate of 5.3 percent on overseas income over the past five years, less than a quarter of the average rate across its major foreign markets.

Company accounts show that since 2005, Amazon Europe Holding Technologies started to make payments to Amazon Technologies Inc in Nevada of up to 230 million euros ($300 million) each year. At the same time it received up to 583 million euros each year from its European affiliates.

The difference stayed in Luxembourg.

Had Amazon remitted all that to the United States and then paid the headline U.S. corporate income tax rate on it, the firm would have incurred taxes of more than $700 million. But it has not and the deal has allowed Amazon’s Luxembourg unit to accrue tax-free cash worth more than $2 billion.

Historically, such inter-company payments might have been treated as a taxable dividend under U.S. tax law, but a provision introduced in 1997 known as ‘check-the-box’ allowed companies to have them disregarded by the IRS. Senator Levin, a Democrat, is among many U.S. politicians who want this loophole rescinded.

“HEADQUARTERS OF NIGHT LIFE”

For Amazon’s tax-free money-making machine to work, it had to show it had more than a nameplate in Luxembourg.

To benefit from favorable taxation, the Grand Duchy says firms “must ensure that they give adequate substance to their presence in the country in terms of both logistics and staff.” At the end of 2005, Amazon had just a dozen staff there. If tax departments around the continent were to recognize the arrangement, Amazon needed a meaningful corporate presence.

In February 2006, it transferred ownership of its UK, German and French businesses to Amazon EU SARL, and ownership of its UK and French web domains to Amazon Europe Holding Technologies. It also moved some U.S. executives to Luxembourg, hired more locals and began to call Amazon EU its European headquarters.

Filings show that in December 2006, the group relocated its Luxembourg operating units into the rented building on Plaetis Steet, a stone’s throw from the English and Irish bars that lead the city-state’s tourist office to describe the Grund and neighboring Clausen as the “Headquarters of Luxembourg’s night life.”

CASH PILE BUILDS

As the cash built up in Amazon Europe Holding Technologies, the firm started to lend to Amazon EU SARL. Besides funding international expansion, this has generated up to 45 million euros a year in interest since 2005 – all untaxed.

Today, Amazon calls its 300-person Luxembourg operation the nerve-centre of an operation which employs tens of thousands of people across the continent. It expanded into a new building, opened by Luxembourg’s Finance Minister, Luc Frieden, in October.

“All the strategic functions for our business in Europe are based in Luxembourg,” Amazon’s head of public policy, Andrew Cecil, told UK parliamentarians in November.

At home in the United States, though, the Internal Revenue Service seems unconvinced.

Amazon disclosed in October 2011 that the IRS wanted $1.5 billion in unpaid taxes. It has declined to say exactly what transactions the charge relates to but said it was linked to “transfer pricing with our foreign subsidiaries” over a seven-year period from 2005.

“We disagree with the proposed adjustments and intend to vigorously contest them,” Amazon said at the time. “If we are not able to resolve these proposed adjustments … we plan to pursue all available administrative and, if necessary, judicial remedies.”

Shay, the Harvard professor who contributed to a recent Congressional committee investigating tax avoidance, said the fact the Luxembourg unit charged a much higher price than it paid for the right to license Amazon intellectual property could open the company to an investigation into whether it is engaging in abusive transfer pricing.

“The price originally paid to the U.S. for the rights is something the IRS should want to look at,” he said.

Transfer pricing is the way corporations trade goods or services between their units. Many multinationals use it.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which lays down the rules on transfer pricing, stipulates that it should not be used to shift profits from high tax jurisdictions to low tax jurisdictions.

The IRS declined to comment.

(Additional reporting by Alistair Barr in San Francisco; Edited by Sara Ledwith and Simon Robinson)

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