03 December 2012

HMRC and Starbucks, Amazon and Google (amongst others)

It seems to me that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has allowed companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Google to value inter-group transactions with complete freedom. This feels like public sector complacency, evidence of a cosy relationship where nobody on the collections side felt motivated or able to do much to change the status quo.  George Osborne's announcement of a boost to HMRC's legal teams and computer systems may shake things up.

In the case of Starbucks, their logo and their recipes have been valued as intellectual property bought from the parent group, even though the recipes have very probably been designed in the UK to match UK tastes. Who knows where their logo was designed? Their coffee beans have been reported as bought from a company in the Netherlands and roasted by a company in Switzerland. Has HMRC ensured that the valuations in all of these transactions are valid, or is it possible that Starbucks is unchallenged and can charge its UK operation well over the odds because there's no element of arms-length dealing? And how much cheaper could a cup of coffee be if the raw materials were bought at UK market prices?

Personally, I would find it hard to give up Amazon, if only due to Kindle. It needs to be supplied with new material on a frequent basis, and Amazon is the only source. According to The Times (£) today, which quotes the Public Accounts Committee, the company paid £151 million in 2011 alone for intellectual property, e.g. its brand name. That was enough to reduce its stated profit in the UK to £74 million - in other words, reduce it by over two thirds.  Smells bad for Amazon. 

Google seems to have been paying royalties to its operation in Bermuda. Presumably because Bermuda is the source of its search engine expertise? Again, this smells.

HMRC should examine all intra-group payments for Intellectual Property to make sure they're fairly valued. They should challenge retrospectively and with sanctions where valuations are not fair. And when they've had a good look at these, they should compare the price of coffee beans in open markets and in intra-group markets. And make some examples pour encourager les autres.

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