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One of the issues in handling the tax function in business, especially where it involves direct (income) taxes, is the technical expertise required. At the more senior levels, practitioners must be knowledgeable about accounting and tax law. In multinational corporations, understanding differences between accounting and legal structures in various localities and their effects on tax liabilities requires more knowledge. Yet when I began to study the structures of corporate tax departments, I was struck by the scarcity of senior-level titles in them. This may reflect the low profile of the department in most companies and the tactical nature of the work it has performed. Advances in information technology have the potential to automate most of the manual tasks tax professionals perform. This increase in efficiency will enable tax departments to fill a more strategic, important role in the companies they serve.

In the past (and still in many organizations today) there was a sharp pyramid of value-added work in the tax function, with tax attorneys at the top, corporate counsel in the middle and tax practitioners at the bottom. The tax attorney, versed in the intricacies of laws and their applications – especially in cross-border situations – typically has had the greatest ability to minimize tax expenditures. The role requires a combination of inspiration and art to see the underlying logic of tax laws and legal structures to be able to apply creative interpretations to black-letter statutes and has been rewarded accordingly. Senior corporate counsel has weighty responsibilities and therefore merited elevated titles. But the role of tax preparation has been oriented toward functional execution. It typically is done hard-working experts who have limited impact on policy and decision-making. Because the workings of this group are particularly sensitive, it also has a culture that attracts people who tend to be tight-lipped and not given to self-promotion. This hierarchy has helped to keep tax matters outside of the mainstream activities of the corporation, as I have discussed.

Today, information technology can flatten the value-added pyramid  by automating routine work. Doing this can give skilled practitioners in the tax department more time to spend on value-adding analysis and contingency planning because they spend less time on data gathering, data transformation and vr_Office_of_Finance_15_tax_depts_and_spreadsheetscalculations. Increased productivity creates more time to find tax or cash flow savings, as well as to provide better-informed guidance on alternative strategies. To accomplish this, corporations must automate their tax provisioning process; most will benefit from having a tax data warehouse, which I have written about. However, our recent Office of Finance research finds that this is not widely done. Instead almost all midsize and larger companies (90%) use spreadsheets exclusively or mainly to manage their tax provisioning process, including calculations and analysis, and this demands manual effort.

Desktop spreadsheets are not well suited to any repetitive collaborative enterprise task or as a corporate data store. They are a poor choice for managing taxes because they are error-prone, lack transparency, are difficult to use for data aggregation, lack controls and have a limited ability to handle more than a few dimensions at a time. Data from corporate sources, such as ERP systems, may have to be adjusted and transformed to put this information into its proper tax context, such as performing allocations or transforming the data so that it reflects the tax-relevant legal entity structure rather than corporate management structure. Moreover, in desktop spreadsheets it is difficult to parse even moderately complex nested formulas or spot errors and inconsistencies. Pivot tables have only a limited ability to manage key dimensions (such as time, location, business unit and legal entity) in performing analyses and reporting. As a data store, spreadsheets may be inaccessible to others in the organization if they are kept on an individual’s hard drive. Spreadsheets are rarely documented well, so it is difficult for anyone other than the creator to understand their structure and formulas or their underlying assumptions. The provenance of the data in the spreadsheets may be unclear, making it difficult to understand the source of discrepancies between individual spreadsheets as well as making audits difficult. Companies are able to deal with spreadsheets’ inherent shortcomings only by spending more time than they should assembling data, making calculations, checking for errors and creating reports.

On the other hand, a tax data warehouse addresses spreadsheet issues. It is a central, dedicated repository of all of the data used in the tax provisioning process, including the minutiae of adjustments, reconciliations and true-ups. As the authoritative source, it ensures that data and formulas used for provisioning are consistent and easily audited. Since it preserves all of the data, formulas and legal entity structures exactly as they were in the tax period, it’s far easier to handle a subsequent tax audit, even several years later. In this respect a dedicated tax data warehouse has an advantage over corporate or finance department data warehouses, which are designed for general use and often are modified from one year to the next as a result of divestitures or reorganizations.

Another benefit of automating provisioning and having a tax data warehouse is that this approach provides greater visibility and transparency (at least internally) into tax-related decisions. This gives senior executives greater certainty about and control over tax matters and allows them to engage more in tax-related decisions. In companies where executives are more engaged in tax, the tax department gains visibility. Also, because automation enables better process and data control, external auditors spend less time examining the process and tax-related calculations in financial filings, and it cuts the time the tax department might need to spend in audit defense with tax authorities. Process automation enables tax departments to increase their efficiency and give members more time to apply their tax expertise to increase the business value of their work, thereby flattening the value-added pyramid.

The scope of the value that tax practitioners can add is broadening because having greater visibility into the methods used in direct tax provisioning will be increasingly important. I have noted that companies that have significant operations in multiple tax jurisdictions are likely to face a more challenging future. While I’m skeptical that there will be a massive change in how tax authorities manage cross-border tax information soon (which is more a reflection of the competence of the taxing authorities than their motivation), it’s worth assuming that it will grow at least gradually and therefore companies must be prepared to deal with increasingly better-informed tax officials. Transparency also fosters consistency in tax treatments and the ability to manage the degree of risk that CEOs, CFOs and their board are willing to take on in weighing how conservative or aggressive a corporation would like to be in how it handles taxes. This is another way for tax practitioners to increase their value and visibility in their corporation.

Forward-looking companies have been making the transition to automating their direct tax provisioning process, redefining their approach to managing taxes and giving their tax departments greater visibility. It’s unlikely that these companies are using desktop spreadsheets to any meaningful degree. It’s not clear when the mainstreaming of the tax department will be common, but it’s probably at least several years away. Evidence that a fundamental shift has occurred in how corporations manage their income tax exposure will exist when a majority of midsize and larger companies use dedicated software rather than spreadsheets for this function. That’s also likely to be when Senior Vice President – Tax becomes a common title. This promotion won’t be the result of title inflation. It will happen because the tax department’s role will be important, making a bigger, more visible contribution to the company as practitioners focus more on analyses that optimize tax decisions and far less on the calculations and other repetitive mechanical processes that consume time but produce little value.

I recommend that every CFO of a company operating in multiple tax jurisdictions with even a slightly complex legal structure consider automating tax provisioning and deploying a third-party (rather than a custom-built) tax data warehouse.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

I’ve written before about the increasing importance of having a solid technology base for a company’s tax function, and it’s important enough for me to revisit the topic. Tax departments are entrusted with a highly sensitive and essential task in their companies. Taxes usually are the second largest corporate expense, after salaries and wages. Failure to understand this liability is expensive – either because taxes are overpaid or because of fines and interest levied for underpayment. Moreover, taxes remain a political issue, and corporations – especially larger ones – must be mindful of the reputational implications of their tax liabilities.

In this context of seriousness, there are five interrelated requirements for the work that tax departments do:

  • The work must be absolutely accurate.
  • Corporate and tax executives must be certain that the numbers are right – instilling confidence is key.
  • Certainty depends on transparency: Source data and calculations must be demonstrably accurate, and any questions about the numbers must be answerable without delay.
  • Speed is critical. All department tasks related to tax planning, analysis and provisioning can become sources of delay in core finance department processes. Being able to quickly execute data collection and calculations allows more time to explore the results and consider alternatives.
  • Control of the process is essential. Only particular trustworthy individuals can be permitted to access systems, perform tasks and check results. Control promotes accuracy, certainty and transparency.

vr_Office_of_Finance_15_tax_depts_and_spreadsheetsThese requirements form the basis of a business case for a tax data warehouse. Properly executed, it promotes all of these qualities. However, our forthcoming benchmark research on the Office of Finance shows that not many corporations have adopted one. Rather, most companies rely mainly or entirely on spreadsheets for provisioning income tax: managing  data, calculations and modeling. More than half (52%) of companies use spreadsheets alone to handle income taxes while just 10 percent use a dedicated application designed for that purpose. Desktop spreadsheets are a poor choice for managing taxes since they are error-prone, lack transparency, are difficult to use for data aggregation, lack controls and have little ability to handle more than a few dimensions at a time. To deal with these deficiencies companies have to spend more time than they should in assembling data, making calculations, checking for errors and creating reports. 

There are strong reasons to change this reliance on inappropriate tools. One is that more companies must deal with an increasingly complex tax environment. Despite decades of talk about simplifying the tax code in the United States, it has grown ever more intricate. For those with a long memory, there was some simplification in the 1980s, but since then complexity has returned with a vengeance. Moreover, as corporations grow and expand internationally, their legal entity structure becomes more multifaceted, and their source systems for collecting and managing tax data can become fragmented. Unless the tax function is completely centralized, companies that operate in more than a handful of tax jurisdictions can find it hard to coordinate their tax data, calculations and processes. Centralization is not a cure-all, either, as the lack of local presence poses its own issues in tax management in coordinating with local operations and finance organizations.

Another reason is that national taxing authorities are beginning to improve their coordination with one another, which means that tax departments will have to deal with increasing complexity in reporting and a more stringent compliance environment. In 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a report titled “Action Plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting”, which describes the challenges national governments face in enforcing taxation in an increasingly global environment with a growing share of digital commerce. The OECD also is providing a forum for member governments to take action (including collective action) to strengthen their tax collection capabilities. Although the process of increased government coordination is likely to take years to unfold, the outcome almost certainly will be to put additional pressure on companies that have legal entities domiciled in multiple countries. The impact is likely to mean longer and more frequent audits (including concurrent audits by multiple tax authorities) with more detailed requests for information. Increased data sharing among tax authorities will make it even more critical that the tax data – and all the minutiae of adjustments, reconciliations and year-to-year permanent changes – be absolutely accurate, consistent and readily available.

In addition, governments worldwide are increasing their electronic collection of tax data. This enables them to improve scrutiny of tax returns by applying analytic techniques that highlight errors and discrepancies as well as to identify suspicious activities or potentially aggressive tax treatments. Eliminating paper forms allows tax authorities to require even more data from companies. In this environment, having accurate, consistent data becomes essential. Having time to consider the best tax-related options thus becomes even more valuable.

In this increasingly complex and demanding environment it is good news that technology, such as a tax data warehouse, has advanced to become feasible and affordable for the kinds of organizations that can benefit most from it. A tax data warehouse addresses all of the needs of a tax department listed above. A single source of data minimizes errors and ensures consistency. It also promotes transparency, especially when used in conjunction with a dedicated direct tax management application. Because it is possible to exactly recreate the assumptions, data and methods used and because the data and the calculations are consistent, the answer to “where did that number come from” can be found quickly and with complete assurance. The process is better controlled, access to the records and application is more secure, and the entire process is much more easily audited than when working with spreadsheets. Since all of the numbers and assumptions are kept intact and readily available, an audit defense can be performed with less effort and greater confidence. In addition, the ability to create multiple scenarios with different assumptions and treatments enables tax and legal departments to determine the best approach for the company’s risk tolerance. The financial impact of these benefits can be considerable because most companies that operate in multiple direct (income) tax jurisdictions spend considerable amounts of time gathering and assembling data manually. As noted, they often use spreadsheets – sometimes dozens or even hundreds of them – for tax calculations and data storage. These spreadsheet-based systems are built on a weak foundation because of the data issues inherent when there are multiple systems of record and inconsistent data-related processes.

vr_fcc_tax_effectivenessThe evolving tax environment means that tax departments must be in the mainstream of finance organizations. Our research on the financial close finds that a majority of finance executives do not know how long it takes for the tax department to complete quarterly tax calculations. Executives who are not tax professionals usually do not appreciate the important difference between finance and tax data requirements. Corporations are constantly changing their organizational structure as well as acquiring and divesting business units. As these events occur, accounting and management reporting systems adapt to the changes both in the current as well as past periods. Tax data, on the other hand, must be stable. Legal obligations to pay taxes are based on facts as they exist in specific legal entities operating in a specific tax jurisdiction in a specific period. From a tax authority’s standpoint, these facts never change even as operating structures and ownership evolve. Audit defense requires a corporation to assemble the facts and related calculations, sometimes years after the fact. A general finance data warehouse does not deliver this capability because it is not – and for all practical purposes cannot be – structured to satisfy the needs of a tax department, particularly those that operate in multiple jurisdictions.

To ensure accuracy and inspire confidence in the products of the tax department’s work, it important for tax departments to tightly control the end-to-end process of taking numbers from source systems, constructing tax financial statements, calculating taxes owed and keeping track of cumulative amounts and other balance sheet items related to taxes. Transparency is the natural result of a controlled process which uses a single set of all relevant tax data. A readily accessible authoritative data set makes tax department operations more efficient. Reducing the time and effort to execute the tax department’s core functions frees up the time of tax professionals for more useful analysis. In a more challenging tax-levying environment, having tax data and tax calculations that are immediately traceable, reproducible and permanently accessible provides company executives with greater certainty and reduces the risk of noncompliance and the attendant costs and reputation issues. Having an accurate and consistent tax data warehouse of record provides corporations and their tax departments with the ability to better execute tax planning, provisioning and compliance.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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