A tax haven is a country or place with very low "effective" rates of taxation for foreign investors ("headline" rates may be higher). In some traditional definitions, a tax haven also offers financial secrecy. However, while countries with high levels of secrecy but also high rates of taxation, most notably the United States and Germany in the Financial Secrecy Index ("FSI") rankings, can be featured in some tax haven lists, they are not universally considered as tax havens. In contrast, countries with lower levels of secrecy but also low "effective" rates of taxation, most notably Ireland in the FSI rankings, appear in most § Tax haven lists. The consensus on effective tax rates has led academics to note that the term "tax haven" and "offshore financial centre" are almost synonymous.
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Traditional tax havens, like Jersey, are open about zero rates of taxation, but as a consequence have limited bilateral tax treaties. Modern corporate tax havens have non-zero "headline" rates of taxation and high levels of OECD compliance, and thus have large networks of bilateral tax treaties. However, their base erosion and profit shifting ("BEPS") tools enable corporates to achieve "effective" tax rates closer to zero, not just in the haven but in all countries with which the haven has tax treaties; putting them on tax haven lists. According to modern studies, the § Top 10 tax havens include corporate-focused havens like the Netherlands, Singapore, Ireland, and the U.K., while Luxembourg, Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, and Switzerland feature as both major traditional tax havens and major corporate tax havens. Corporate tax havens often serve as "conduits" to traditional tax havens.
Use of tax havens results in a loss of tax revenues to countries which are not tax havens. Estimates of the § Financial scale of taxes avoided vary, but the most credible have a range of US$100–250 billion per annum. In addition, capital held in tax havens can permanently leave the tax base (base erosion). Estimates of capital held in tax havens also vary: the most credible estimates are between US$7–10 trillion (up to 10% of global assets). The harm of traditional and corporate tax havens has been particularly noted in developing nations, where the tax revenues are needed to build infrastructure.
Over 15% of countries are sometimes labelled tax havens. Tax havens are mostly successful and well-governed economies, and being a haven has brought prosperity. The top 10–15 GDP-per-capita countries, excluding oil and gas exporters, are tax havens. Because of § Inflated GDP-per-capita (due to accounting BEPS flows), havens are prone to over-leverage (international capital misprice the artificial debt-to-GDP). This can lead to severe credit cycles and/or property/banking crises when international capital flows are repriced. Ireland's Celtic Tiger, and the subsequent financial crisis in 2009–13, is an example. Jersey is another. Research shows § U.S. as the largest beneficiary, and use of tax havens by U.S corporates maximised U.S. exchequer receipts.
Historial focus on combating tax havens (e.g. OECD–IMF projects) had been on common standards, transparency and data sharing. The rise of OECD-compliant corporate tax havens, whose BEPS tools were responsible for most of the lost taxes, led to criticism of this approach, versus actual taxes paid. Higher-tax jurisdictions, such as the United States and many member states of the European Union, departed from the OECD BEPS Project in 2017–18, to introduce anti-BEPS tax regimes, targeted raising net taxes paid by corporations in corporate tax havens (e.g. the U.S. Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 ("TCJA") GILTI–BEAT–FDII tax regimes and move to a hybrid "territorial" tax system, and proposed EU Digital Services Tax regime, and EU Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base).