The Problem with the Low-Tax Backlash: Rethinking Corporate Tax Policies to Adjust for Uneven Reputational Risks

  • Jack M. Mintz School of Public Policy, University of Calgary
  • V. Balaji Venkatachalam University of Calgary


When a major corporation is found to be paying little or no taxes, public backlash and media furor over the issue may ensue. Some governments may well be just fine with it, while others like U.S. may take steps to ensure companies pay more tax. Sometimes, companies being in a non-taxpaying position properly reflects appropriate tax policy. That explanation, however, does not sell lattés, which is why in 2012, after the British public grew outraged over the discovery that Starbucks was paying no corporate taxes in the U.K., the coffee retailer actually volunteered to just write a cheque to the government. The reputational damage to Starbucks’ brand, the company calculated, was not worth the money it was saving in avoiding taxes, even if it was doing so perfectly legally. The fear of this kind of reputational damage can foil the very taxation policies that governments design specifically as a means to tax corporations fairly, efficiently and competitively. It may be good tax policy to allow corporations various deductions, or the ability to carry forward or carry back losses, but it can be politically vexatious. U.S. President Barack Obama demonstrated that explicitly when he suggested certain American companies using so-called tax inversions to relocate their headquarters to low-tax jurisdictions, were failing in their “economic patriotism.” Yet more multinationals than ever are legally and quite appropriately using tax strategies to minimize their taxes in various jurisdictions to the point where they are paying little to no corporate tax. For some corporations, the risk of public backlash is greater than it is for others: Starbucks and Facebook, being consumer-facing companies with a great deal of brand goodwill, have a lot more at risk than do Pfizer and Oracle. This risk makes the playing field for taxation less level, jeopardizing the fundamental tax principle of horizontal equity — that those of similar means should pay similar taxes. If Starbucks feels pressured to pay extra taxes, then the tax system is not functioning optimally. This emerging reputational risk is a new dimension governments are going to have to take into account when designing tax policy. Understanding that there is more to consider than the financial implications of a tax policy should and will have an effect on the way policies are designed. One important approach that governments should take is to avoid the practice of targeted tax incentives, such as tax holidays or accelerated depreciation. The reputational risk will see some companies willing to take the government up on tax breaks, but others may prefer to pass. Better to focus on more general corporate tax reductions, which will be less distortive and unfair to those companies at greater risk of reputational damage. In some jurisdictions, governments could also consider requiring some level of minimum taxation (as Ontario does), ensuring that every profitable company pays at least something every year. This will have an impact on economic efficiency, but it will help level the playing field for all corporations, regardless of their varying degrees of reputational risk. The most effective measure still available to governments is one they should be pursuing anyway: tax levels that are internationally competitive and, therefore, broaden the corporate tax base while promoting neutrality. Canada’s several targeted programs — such as accelerated depreciation for manufacturing equipment and a generous capital-cost allowance for liquefied natural gas plants — only hurt neutrality. They also make it more likely that a particular company may find itself in an uncomfortable controversy, as Starbucks did. Focusing on international tax competitiveness, rather than targeted tax breaks, is the way to build the fairest system for all companies, whether they are nervous about their reputation or not.

Research Papers