Opinion

Sovereign Wealth Funds in the tax spotlight

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Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) hold a significant position in the worldwide financial arena, but what drives their success?

In contrast to common beliefs, a critical factor contributing to Sovereign Wealth Funds prosperity is the special tax treatment they enjoy for income earned beyond their own borders. This advantageous position is rooted in the principle of "sovereign immunity" in international law, which underscores that one sovereign state should not impose its laws on another.

In 2005, economist Andrew Rozanov introduced the concept of the 'Sovereign Wealth Fund' (SWF). Imagine an SWF as a vast savings account, but instead of belonging to individuals, it belongs to the entire country. This fund exists to acquire, manage, and trade assets located in other countries, such as stocks, bonds, and real estate, all with the goal of generating income for the country. In more technical terms, Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) can be seen as financial tools that enable nations to allocate their wealth into assets located beyond their national borders, all with the goal of enhancing their overall income and financial security. These funds serve multiple functions. They function as a financial safeguard in times of economic hardship, offering resources to stabilise the nation鈥檚 finances during challenging periods. SWFs are also used to proactively set aside funds for a country's future needs and aspirations. This includes saving for anticipated expenses or projects that will benefit the nation in the long run.

However, recent changes in the global economic landscape, driven by evolving global power dynamics and international relations, have brought attention to a significant issue: the increasing amount of money shielded from taxation due to the concept of sovereign immunity. This issue has not only affected the United States but also various European nations in terms of their tax revenues. In response, both the United States and several European countries have introduced bills and issued consultation documents with the goal of updating how they tax foreign government investment funds, such as SWFs, aiming to strike a balance between ensuring these investors are content while still collecting taxes.

In the United States, there is a fundamental tax principle tied to sovereign immunity. This principle states that foreign countries and their related entities, including funds and corporations, are not required to meet certain tax responsibilities within the U.S. Currently, under U.S. tax legislation, specifically Section 892 of the Internal Revenue Code, foreign governments and their investment vehicles, such as sovereign wealth funds, benefit from an exemption. This exemption shields them from a 30 percent withholding tax on certain types of payments, such as dividends or interest, when these payments are directed to foreign entities. However, now, a new bill called the "Ending Tax Breaks for Massive Sovereign Wealth Funds Act" aims to cancel this special tax break for foreign SWFs with over $100 billion in global investment. Moreover, in the United Kingdom (UK), there is a proposal to modify the tax regulations related to SWFs鈥 investments. As part of this revision process, the UK tax authority (HMRC) has actively sought input from the public through a consultation period that concluded on September 12,2023.

The anticipated outcomes of these substantial changes are likely to deeply influence Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs), global investors, and the wider financial markets. If these proposed bills and consultation results become legally binding, prominent SWFs could encounter elevated tax responsibilities regarding their investments, potentially prompting the need for strategic adaptations.

Additionally, it might present challenges for domestic investment funds seeking capital from these significant investors targeting the United States.

Mohamed Filali is the founder and managing director of Jurisfiscal, a firm that specialises in the intersection of law and economics.

Article published in BBNTimes