From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 165-167:
Two-thirds of trade happens within multinational corporations. To a large extent those companies decide where to pay taxes on which portions of their earnings. That leaves ample scope to avoid paying taxes anywhere or to pay taxes at a rate far below what purely domestic companies pay.
Imagine a multinational company making rubber chickens, called Fowl Play Incorporated. Fowl Play’s headquarters and most of its customers are in the United States. A subsidiary, Fowl Play Cameroon, runs a rubber plantation in Cameroon. The rubber is shipped to a factory in China, owned by another subsidiary, Fowl Play China, where it is made into rubber chickens and packaged. The rubber chickens are shipped to Fowl Play’s parent company in the United States, which sells them to mainly US customers.
Fowl Play could simply pay taxes in each location based on an honest assessment of the proportion of its income that accrues there. But it has a duty to its shareholders to maximize returns, and its executives want the bonuses that come from turning big profits, so its accountants are instructed to minimize the effective tax rate Fowl Play pays by booking more revenues in places with low tax rates and fewer revenues in places with high tax rates. If, for example, Fowl Play wanted to reduce its tax liability in Cameroon and the United States by shifting profits to China, where it has been granted a tax holiday to build its factory, it would undervalue the price at which the rubber is sold from the Cameroonian subsidiary to the Chinese one, then overvalue the price at which the Chinese subsidiary sells the finished rubber chickens to the parent company in the United States. All this happens within one company and bears scant relation to the actual costs involved. The result is that the group’s overall effective tax rate is much lower than it would have been had it apportioned profits fairly. Many such tax maneuvers are perfectly legal. When it is done ethically “transfer pricing,” as the technique in this example is known, uses the same prices when selling goods and services within one company as when selling between companies at market rates. But the ruses to fiddle transfer pricing are legion. A mining company might tweak the value of machinery it ships in from abroad, or an oil company might charge a subsidiary a fortune to use the parent’s corporate logo.
Suppose Fowl Play gets even cannier. It creates another subsidiary, this time in the British Virgin Islands, one of the tax havens where the rate of corporation tax is zero. Fowl Play BVI extends a loan to the Cameroonian subsidiary at an astronomical interest rate. The Cameroonian subsidiary’s profits are canceled out by the interest payments on the loan, which accrue, untaxed, to Fowl Play BVI. And all the while Fowl Play and the rubber chicken industry’s lobbyists can loudly warn Cameroon, China, and the United States that, should they try to raise taxes or clamp down on fiddling, the company could move its business, and the attendant jobs, elsewhere. (The BVI company is only a piece of paper and doesn’t employ anyone, but then there is no need to threaten the British Virgin Islands—its tax rate could not be lower.)