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Why Greece's ships could sink its tax plan

Is the Greek shipping industry evading tax?
Is the Greek shipping industry evading tax?

Greece shouldn't look to its shipping industry to help raise the tax revenues it desperately needs to secure a bailout deal, an industry expert has warned.

Tony Foster, chief executive of Marine Capital, a fund management firm that oversees investments in the global shipping business, told CNBC that the chances of the Greek government getting more tax revenues out of the shipping industry were "absolutely nil."

After a Greek referendum on Sunday in which the majority of Greeks voted against more austerity measures, as required by the country's bailout program and creditors. Greece is now expected to submit more proposals on how to cut spending and raise tax revenues on Tuesday, in a bid to find a new deal with lenders.

Read MoreGreece proposals expected as euro zone leaders meet

Both Greece's government and its creditors have singled out the Greek shipping industry -- which employs 200,000 people according to the National Bank of Greece – as an industry ripe for more taxation. Among the revenue-raising proposals are a higher tonnage tax, scrapping of special tax allowances and implementing a taxation framework for commercial shipping.

However taxing the shipping industry is a risky gamble, given the important part that shipping plays in Greece's struggling economy.

Shipping is one of Greece's few healthy industries, however, accounting for 7 percent of the country's economy. In addition, the Hellenic fleet is the world's most valuable at $106 billion, according to, accounting for 19 percent of the world's tankers.

Yet the Greek shipping industry, like many country's maritime industries, could take advantage of the fact that it can register both the ship's flag and ownership in other countries where there are lower taxes and fewer regulations.

Panama, for instance, has a huge shipping industry despite its small size, with a nation of just 3 million people. Panama has registered more maritime vessels than any other country in the world, according to the Panama Offshore Legal Service firm, with "more than 8,200 maritime vessels registered and flying the Panama flag."

That's because of its favourable shipping taxation laws: in Panama, foreign ship owners pay no income taxes and there are no minimum tonnage requirements before someone can register a vessel.

Read MoreRough seas ahead for container shipping industry

No chance of taxing ships

Photographer | Collection | Getty Images

Foster said it was futile idea to try to pursue tax the shipping industry, however, and that Greek shipping owners could just register their companies elsewhere.

"You don't have to have your flag, or your company of ownership in the country when you're operating in," he said.

"The Greek ship owner could have his ship ownership in Switzerland, the company of the ship owned in Panama and all he has in Greece are the technical guys doing the operational work," he said, adding that there was "effectively no chance" of the Greek government getting revenue from those shipping companies.

"If they tried, the Greeks would just move or they would change anything that relates to Greece, they don't have to have the Greek flag."

Asked whether the shipping industry was the worst offender then, in terms of tax evasion, Foster said that "in a sense, yes."

"Because ship owners effectively don't pay tax anywhere and there are regimes in almost every European country, like the one in Greece that allows the Greeks to operate effectively taxfree onshore, we can do the same in the U.K."

Greece has opposed other demands from creditors for privatization of Greek assets, such as the Port of Piraeus, although it recently said it would re-open the process in a bid to appease lenders. Foster said there were no ramifications for Greece were it to privatize the port.

"Ships call anywhere and do anything, shipping was globalized before we invented the word."

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt. Follow us on Twitter: @CNBCWorld