|Vanessa 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 policy issues.
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, journo-to-journo.
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 2015?
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 we're headed?
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 result.
ITR: What impact do you think your work has?
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 2015?
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 journalists?
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 way possible.