Houlder is a new entry this year
As the chief tax writer for one of the most reputable
mainstream financial news publications, Vanessa Houlder is one
of the most influential tax reporters around. Based in the UK,
Houlder has written for the Financial Times (FT) since
1988 and has broken numerous stories on tax avoidance and tax
She has made a major contribution to bringing corporate tax
issues to a wider audience and to bridging the gap between
mainstream media coverage and specialist financial news
coverage through her engaging and insightful reporting, which
has seen her named 'best tax writer of the year' by LexisNexis,
on top of recognition from the Overseas Press Club of America
and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.
ITR's Amelia Schwanke speaks with Houlder,
International Tax Review: Why did you choose to
begin writing about tax?
Vanessa Houlder: I was the environment correspondent for the
Financial Times before I took on the tax role and the
news editor at the time thought that tax would be a really
interesting subject to have a specialist reporter who was
looking at nothing else and was a part of the economics team.
That's how I got into it; it was specifically something that he
asked me to do and I think it was quite an imaginative move
from his part because at that stage it was not nearly as high
profile an issue as it is now.
ITR: Now that you've been in the industry for
quite some time, what would you say your thoughts are on how
tax as a subject in the world matters?
VH: It's one of those things, as I said earlier, that used
to have a low profile. It was a bit of a Cinderella subject and
what's happened since the financial crisis is that its
prominence shot up the political agenda and what I find
remarkable is that it is still so interesting, there's still so
many issues to cover. Every year I think 'golly, this is the
year it's all going to get boring,' but it never has so far.
Last year was as interesting as any and I suspect this year may
be as well.
ITR: What would you say was your most influential
article or the most important topic that you wrote about during
VH: There was a story I did about Amazon starting to pay tax
in the UK which was picked up almost immediately right across a
whole range of newspapers. This was something where a branch
had been set up in the UK of a Luxembourg company. It was a bit
of a tip-off, but it was also one I was able to find through
Companies House, so that was quite exciting.
ITR: The tax industry has seen a lot of reform
movement since the inception of BEPS themes; where do you think
VH: Surveys suggest that companies are taking it seriously;
maybe not a majority, but a significant minority will review
and change their structures. But at the same time I think we're
going to see governments looking at how they can maintain their
competitiveness without having to shut out some of these
loopholes that companies are exploiting. They may lower their
tax rates, among other things, and I just think in the end most
companies won't end up paying a huge amount of tax as a
ITR: What impact do you think your work
VH: Well I'm just a reporter so all I'm trying to do is
follow the stories, try and see what's going on and explain it
as clearly as I can to the extent that is useful and helps show
people what's going on. It sets the agenda which is important
to so many companies and individuals.
ITR: What areas will you be focusing on during
2016 and beyond, taking into account the dominant themes from
VH: I think the fallout from the BEPS changes is going to be
a huge theme that we will all be writing about this year and
for several years to come. In addition, there is the Common
Reporting Standard. And I think this is the year where people
will start to notice what's going on. At the moment banks have
had to get their systems up to scratch to report this data and
at some point, possibly towards the end of this year, their
clients are going to realise what's happening and I think it
could become quite controversial.
Also, we may see ways that individuals are trying to get
around the new rules so I think that's going to be another
interesting theme this year.
I think I would also give a special mention to the European
Commission investigations on state aid; that's a massively
powerful weapon that's been yielded. Back to BEPS, we'll see
what countries do to implement these measures and see if it
achieves its goal of trying to impose some sort of coherence on
tax bills around the world.
Another big theme that has been underpinning some of this
has been inequality and some of these big economic shifts
because that is dual in the public interest and the tax system.
There's no sign of public scrutiny of who is paying tax and at
what rate letting up and I don't think it will this year
either. There's a lot on the reputational risk side that we
will be looking out for.
ITR: Finally, as an influential figure in your
field, what message would you give to other tax
VH: Tax is such a difficult subject for me and everyone
writing about it; it's so difficult to get it right but these
stories are in the public's interest. I think what I would
really like people – less other journalists, but more
people in the industry – to bear in mind is that
public interest in tax isn't going to go away and the more that
people can be transparent, the more they can explain what's
going on, the better our coverage is going to be.
It would be a plea, really, for people not to hold back and
just wring their hands about how bad tax coverage is and
instead try to get involved, be more up front about things and
we can all push to cover this in the most clear and informative