In wake of Panama Papers leak, Vietnam keeps tax haven-based firms on radar

Vietnam’s tax authorities are watching foreign investors headquartered in popular tax havens, including Panama and the British Virgin Islands, for possible transfer pricing or tax avoidance, officials said on Wednesday.

The move came shortly after numerous Vietnamese names were found in the recent Panama Papers leak, a database of secret offshore companies that was made available to the public on Tuesday.

Vietnam’s General Department of Taxation has formed an inspection team to look into issues related to the Vietnamese names and companies revealed in the database.

In the meantime, tax haven-based investors will also come under the scrutiny of the country’s transfer pricing and tax avoidance watchdogs, according to sources from local tax agencies.

A tax haven is a place that offers foreign individuals and businesses little or no tax liability and provides little or no financial information to foreign tax authorities.

Individuals and businesses can take advantage of these places to avoid paying taxes in their home countries.

Among the most known tax havens are the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, Hong Kong, Cyprus, and Panama.

In 2015, British Virgin Islands-based companies were Vietnam’s eighth-biggest foreign investor, beating out the U.S., France, and Germany, according to the Foreign Investment Agency (FIA) under the Ministry of Planning and Investment.

As of the end of last year, South Korea was the country’s biggest foreign investor with a total investment of more than US$45 billion, while the British Virgin Islands took the fifth place with over $19 billion.

At the 24th notch was Cyprus, which stood above Italy, Belgium and Austria. Panama had a modest ranking at #54.

Many investors also prefer channeling investment into Vietnam from Singapore and Hong Kong, where the tax policies and business environment are preferable.

Singapore was Vietnam’s third-biggest source of foreign investment, with an influx of $35 billion as of December 31, 2015, while Hong Kong came sixth with $15 billion.

Casino Group also set up a subsidiary in Hong Kong to operate the Vietnamese business of its Big C supermarket chain, instead of the parent company in France.

This caricature shows an investor with the loss-making trick to avoid taxes.

An anti-transfer pricing expert told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper on Wednesday that companies setting up subsidiaries in tax havens to avoid taxes is no news.

Vietnam currently sets corporate income tax at 20 percent, compared to the below ten percent in many tax haven countries and zero percent in Andorra and the British Virgin Islands.

Tax authorities have, in fact, kept a close watch on tax haven-based businesses for a long time, as they seem to repeatedly report losses despite rising revenue, a tax expert said.

“One common trick is that the Vietnam-based company will sell products to the subsidiary in the tax haven country at non-profit prices to avoid taxes in Vietnam,” the pundit said on condition of anonymity.

“That subsidiary will then sell the products to the third-party buyer, the profits of which are subject to little or zero taxes.”

Many major enterprises have adopted such model, investing in Vietnam via a tax haven-based unit instead of the parent entities, to enjoy the tax benefits. “In other words, this is an act of tax avoidance,” lawyer Dao Duc Trung, from the Dang Dung law firm, said.

Trung said companies can also set the selling prices between its Vietnamese and tax haven-based units so that the one in Vietnam will have no profit or even losses.

“In the end they will pay no corporate income tax in Vietnam and no tax in the tax haven either,” he said.

“The tax authorities should have solutions to fix such loopholes and increase the effectiveness of the fight against transfer pricing.”

The Panama Papers, leaked by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) from Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca, include 11.5 million documents, some of which date back to the 1970s, that detail financial and attorney–client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities.

German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung was the first to get access to the Panama Papers database after a tip-off from a source named ‘John Doe’. The newspaper then granted the ICIJ access to this resource.

The Panama Papers, first reported by the media on April 3, illustrate how wealthy individuals, including public officials, are able to keep personal financial information private.

A searchable platform of the Panama Papers database, said to be the largest ever release of information about offshore companies and the people behind them, was made available to the public on Tuesday by the ICIJ.

The Panama Papers documents, including the names of the real owners of those opaque structures, were added to an ICIJ existing database called Offshore Leaks, a report released on April 2013 that discloses details of 130,000 offshore accounts.

A search request with the keyword “Vietnam” made by Tuoi Tre Newson the ICIJ database on Wednesday morning showed the names of 189 "officers," both foreign and Vietnamese individuals and businesses.

The search results also include 19 offshore entities, 23 intermediaries and 185 addresses.

The sets of data are a combination of information revealed in both the Panama Papers and Offshore Leaks affairs.

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