Let’s talk about tax. Yes dear readers – tax. No prison reform no yoga stuff. Just nice emotionally simple tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about the recent Australian Budget announcement of a levy on banks aka the Great Australian Bank Robbery.
Your correspondent has now completed her yoga teacher training and so is available for weddings, funerals and bar/bat mischvahs. Highlights of the course included injuring herself while dancing and getting zero on the first attempt on the final exam.
It’s not like I haven’t failed things before but when the question was – reminiscent of the Peter Cook coal miners sketch – ‘who am I?‘ to fail – mmm – more than a little surreal. Now even the first time thought I had answered in a sufficiently right brained way – lots of introspective emotion involving personal power and connection with others – aahhh no.
But your correspondent is a resilient adaptive individual – even before the course – so regrouped with – ‘complete‘.
I couldn’t make this up. Subsequently found other correct answers included: me; enough – and my particular favourite – light. Ok right. Thanks for sharing.
And it all really did make me crave balance. Which in my world after eight full days on yoga is the left-brained world of tax. I had planned to write about the Australian transfer pricing case Chevron but this week has been the Australian Budget with a big new tax on their banks. And as I have had a few questions on this and I am trying to be more topical – here we go:
Now the bank tax thing seems to be part of a package of the Australian government responding to the Australian banks bad – but probs more likely monopolistic – behaviour. Also potentially a political response to appointing a popular Labour Premier – and good god a woman – to be head of the Bankers Association. And my word the banks must have been bad as they only found out about it on Budget Day and it starts on 1 July without – as far as I can see – any grandfathering.
Wow. Just wow.
So what is it?
It is a levy on big banks liabilities that aren’t:
- customer deposits or
- (tier 1) equity that doesn’t generate a tax deduction.
It targets commercial bonds, hybrid instruments (tier 2 capital) and other instruments that smaller banks can’t access coz they are small. And as it will form part of the cost of this borrowing- under normal tax principles – the levy would be tax deductible. But even allowing for this tax deduction it is supposed to raise AUD 6.2 billion over four years. So not chump change.
What is its effect?
Now there can be no argument that the levy will effectively make such instruments more expensive to use. And here the public arguments get really sophisticated:
- Malcolm Turnbull says that ‘other countries have them’ and it would be ‘unwise’ for banks to pass it on to borrowers; and
- the Treasurer Scott Morrison (ScoMo) is telling banks to ‘cry me a river’ when they have expressed a degree of displeasure.
Awesome. Thanks for playing.
Now while this is predicted to raise revenue; it is by no means clear that this is its primary objective or even if it will occur. The reason being it only applies to big banks and to certain types of liabilities. To me this looks like a form of corrective tax like cigarette excise rather than a revenue raiser like an income or consumption tax like GST.
And much like a tax on cigarettes; pollution or congestion; this tax is 100% avoidable – legitimate tax avoidance even – by funding lending with an untaxed option like customer deposits. In theory anyway. It is likely that banks will have maxxed out how much they can borrow from the public at existing interest rates.
But with this extra tax; the relativities will change. Meaning there is now scope to pay more for the untaxed deposits but less than the tax if Banks want to maintain the same level of lending. Bank costs will still go up but through marginally higher deposit rates incentivised through the tax – rather than the tax itself.
In this scenario the Australian government still gets the costs of the higher interest deduction but not the revenue. But Australian savers win.
As the big banks are the dominant players in the market – this increase in interest rates for depositors will also impact the smaller banks as they will need to pay the higher rates to continue to attract depositors too. So no actual competitive pressure from the small banks and possibly less actual tax. Genius.
An alternative equally revenue enhancing scenario is that banks wind down assets – lending – and become smaller. Less lending but higher cost of borrowing if demand stays the same.
Who bears the cost?
As they do in New Zealand anytime extra taxes are mooted; the Australian banks are arguing that these extra costs will be borne by borrowers. Now in a fully competitive market without barriers to entry the more price dependent – or elastic – the demand for loans is the more it will fall on the shareholders. But lending overall will fall with the imposition of a tax which in turn will have housing market impacts if fewer people can get a mortgage.
With barriers to entry – like hypothetically say banking regulation – they are already pricing to maximise their profit so I would be inclined to say it will also hit shareholders. And the fall in price of banking shares would indicate that is what shareholders think too.
Except that if deposit rates go up instead; the cost structure of the entire banking industry will go up. And if no tax is actually being paid but the cost is being transferred through higher deposit rates then the banking industry will have political cover to pass the cost on to borrowers.
Now if this schmoozle is all about the banks paying more tax then either a higher company tax rate on big banks or increasing the requirements for non- interest bearing capital would have been far simpler. While the former is pretty transparent that it is a blatant tax grab from the banks; the latter less so. They both have the advantage though of ensuring tax can’t be opted out of as well as keeping the competitive pressure from the smaller banks.
But both would form part of the banks cost structure and so – depending on the pressure from the small banks and how elastic demand is – be passed on in some form to borrowers. However if the government really wanted only the shareholders to pay then a one- off windfall tax would be the way to do it.
Whether or not the banks – and their shareholders – should actually be treated like this is another story. But Cry me a river ScoMo: at least be transparent and do it properly!
It goes without saying that this is truly cr@p process. All the detail seems to be in ScoMo’s press statement. Although – legislation by press statement – is an unfortunate feature of Australian tax policy.
And as for the Malcolm Turnbull ‘other countries have it too’ argument. From what I can see this was to pay back the government for the bail outs they gave the banks over the GFC. While Australia does have deposit insurance I wasn’t aware of any like actual bailouts.
It is though kinda reminiscent of the diverted profits tax which is also a targetted tax on a group of bad people. Except that might have a non-negative tax effect. Here we have – to extent it is passed on in higher deposit rates – higher costs industry wide causing less, not more, tax paid by this industry. Let’s just hope for Australia’s sake the savers are not all in the tax free threshold.
So nicely done ScoMo and Big Malc. Possibly more Lavender Hill mob than Ronnie Biggs. But much like the Australian fruit fly; keep it on your side on the Tasman. It makes even this revenue protective commentator blanch and our banking tax base can so do without it.
A commentator on the blog’s facebook page has suggested that this levy makes sense in terms of addressing the huge implicit subsidy that is the Australian deposit guarantee scheme. I have absolutely no issue with this being charged for in the form of a levy on the banks. Naively I would have thought that such a levy would then be based on the deposits covered by the guarantee not the liabilities that aren’t. Apparently that’s not how Australian politics works!
The discussion can be found in the Facebook comments section for this post.
So the aim could be in ‘protecting’ the financial system by discouraging bank investment behaviour in non-vanilla instruments? If so, will the banks find a way around this?
I am not close enough to the detail to find ways around it. But easiest avoidance mechanism is to pay slightly more for term deposits or untaxed liabilities.
I wonder, was the motivation behind this because the banks make excessive profits, or because they don’t pay enough tax?
Both would normally be dealt to by changing the Bank thin cap ratios so they had to hold more non-deductible capital.
It does seem to be connected with the Coleman review of banks which is concerned with anti competitive behaviours. Although I am not aware of this levy was part of the proposals.
The levy should reduce the level of ‘non-vanilla’ instruments held by big banks. So if that was there actual aim it should succeed. But like all corrective taxes success looks like a behaviour change and no revenue.
Although like tobacco; carbon and congestion- you do get tax paid as the benefits of the behaviour outweigh the cost of the tax. Or in the case of tobacco it is an addiction and so demand can be inelastic unfortunately.
So here there may be either diversification benefits from holding these instruments or they can pass on the tax – which will mean that there is tax paid. I just hope that the substitution behaviours were factored into the costing.