Disruption and taxes

Earlier this year, there was a lot of talk about how the likes of Amazon and Alibaba would disrupt shipping and how it was inevitable that in the very near future such companies could be operating more ships than today’s established players.

At the time, some observers were very sceptical of such developments despite the likes of Maersk, Hapag Lloyd, Evergreen, CMA CGM and Zim announcing some initial tie ins with online shopping platforms.

Those doubting that the online platforms would have much clout pointed to the fact that the Amazons and Alibabas of the world are not manufacturers but merely middlemen in commercial transactions. Middlemen can of course make transport arrangements and they can even do so on their own but in doing so they take on risks that they currently do not and generally lack the skills needed to operate ships effectively. That would suggest that they would be leasing vessels under bareboat or time charter arrangements.

Amazon and similar operations have certainly been disruptive when it comes to consumer retail markets and they have come in for some considerable criticism for some of the tactics employed. While fair competition is acceptable it has been the tax evasion by sellers on the online platforms that these operations allow that has caused most criticism.

This week in presenting the UK budget, the Chancellor Phillip Hammond announced new measures that will address the tax evasion issue. As well as some other taxation measures, Hammond said he would hold online marketplaces responsible for paying VAT when sellers on the platforms do not collect and pay the tax. A report for the government put this evasion as being around £1Bn annually.

If that were to happen, the consequence of any action by the government would be targeting assets belonging or operated by the online platforms and that could very well include any chartered vessels. For the head shipowners concerned that is an additional risk that would need to be evaluated when fixing their ships. It would mean that as well as vetting the charterer itself, some assurances will also need to be sought about the charterers customers as well.