University of Bayreuth, Press Release No 109/2021 06 August 2021
Volkswagen Foundation funds collaborative research on corporate tax in Europe at the University of Bayreuth
The taxation of multinational companies is a major challenge for nation states in a globalised economy. European business and economic historians led by Prof. Dr. Jan-Otmar Hesse, Chair of Economic & Social History at the University of Bayreuth, will now be investigating the conflicts of interest between nation states and multinational companies on the basis of historical case studies. The Volkswagen Foundation is supporting these efforts over the next four years to the tune of € 1.2 million, as part of its “Challenges for Europe” funding programme.
“Historical Tensions between International Business and National Taxation: A Challenge for Europe Today” is the title of the research project coordinated by Prof. Dr Jan-Otmar Hesse from the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Bayreuth. The project is being carried out by a consortium comprising the Universities of Prague, Rotterdam, Coventry, and Bayreuth and is scheduled to run for four years.
Multinational companies have the opportunity to optimise their taxation by distributing their profits around the globe. The international community recently reacted to this by welcoming US Treasury Secretary Janett Yellen's proposal to introduce a minimum tax on corporate profits. However, both policy-makers and academics face one central problem, namely their lack of data with which to map the extent of this tax minimization. Quantification and statistical analysis are difficult when the data is unclear. “Since the sharing of tax reports from banks only started in 2014, and from multinationals only in 2016, we know very little about the long-term development of tax strategy and tax management among multinationals”, Prof. Dr. Hesse explains regarding the joint project’s starting point. “In the absence of reliable data, only historical research can fill this gap. After all, the tension between national taxation and international business activity is not a new phenomenon.” According to Hesse, strategies for international tax optimisation in multinational companies have existed since the late 19th century. They have been handed down through a network of managers, specialised law firms, and economic policymakers. The functioning of this network of actors is to be investigated in the research project that has now been set up. Hesse: “Our methodological strategy here is not to analyse the problem of corporate taxation and its possible circumvention at the macro level of state statistics and finances, but to break the topic down into case studies.”
The case studies relate to the corporate histories of four influential European multinationals from the four countries involved in the research project plus Luxembourg. They all maintain particularly close relations with the governments of their home countries due to their social networks, but also due to their size and economic influence. In all cases, the company archives are accessible, and state archives have additional, freely-available source material. “Our project will give policy-makers a unique insight into the long-term history of conflicts and cooperation between multinational corporations and nation states on the issue of corporate taxation”, explains Hesse. Policy-makers will be informed about the effectiveness of various measures and policies in balancing the respective conflicts of interest, taking into account specific historical contexts. Hesse continues: “We are convinced that the long-term development of these institutional interactional structures is responsible for the continued success of multinational companies’ tax strategies, and that the historical background of this European challenge must be understood if policy measures are to be successful. Indeed, although the recent Yellen initiative is addressing the problem for the first time, it will by no means solve it.”