Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about sugar tax and Jacinda’s announcement about a regional fuel tax.
As of last week my gap year officially ended. Really keen now to go back to being a grownup. Trouble is still don’t know what that looks like. So as a bit of a transition path; decided tutoring tax to lovely young people at Victoria would be a good idea. Had no idea it would require seven hours of training – don’t ask – before I could get in front of them though. But all over now and three weeks of actual tutoring has now taken place. Hence the transmission silence.
Now the first week of classes included a question on legal v economic incidence of taxation aka who bears the tax aka taxes are gross.
And since I last posted the Sugar tax people have done some work and the lovely Jacinda – who may or may not have a baby as PM – has announced a regional fuel tax to fix Auckland. Well transport anyway.
So as this is what passes as topical these days for tax; today I’ll look at sugar and petrol taxes. More similar than you’d think. And both come down to who pays the tax is different to who bears the tax. TAXN 201.
Now while a sugar tax is but a dream of public health professionals; petrol tax is currently in existence. And unlike GST which cascades; petrol tax is an excise simply applied either at the border or at the refinery. Same applies to alcohol and cigarettes – except for the refinery bit. One off charge to producers or importers which then flows through – or not – to the final consumer.
Now there is the whole ‘paying for roads’ thing with a petrol tax but fundamentally it is a tax because we can. Petrol – almost like insulin – has a relatively inelastic demand. No or minimal dead weight loss. No triangles. What’s not to love?
And because of this no deadweight loss/inelastic demand, the tax that is paid by the oil company feeds through to the price paid by the car driver. And so my aversion to driving and cars makes it a form of legitimate tax avoidance. Sweet. But otherwise tax is raised with little change in behaviour.
Now a regional fuel tax is interesting. I guess the vibe is that petrol that is consumed in Greater Auckland gets the tax and petrol that isn’t – doesn’t. It could be that the destination can be broadly worked out once it leaves the refinery on its way to the Wiri tank farm. Auckland pipeline or something. In which case it will be a matter of the oil companies adding another set of codes to their computer system. I’m sure that they accept that without comment. Even then there’ll probs need to be a crediting system for fuel delivered outside the taxable region.
Alternatively if it can’t be worked out – then it will have to be charged by the individual petrol station. Possibly by the oil companies when they deliver to them. They’ll enjoy that too.
But one way or another because of our carbon economy, serious money will be raised. Perhaps more buses will be taken but broadly Auckland car drivers will have less money to spend on other things.
On the other hand – the Sugar Tax people’s gig is not that they want revenue raised per se. Although they do have a laundry list of stuff they want the money spent on. More that they want an increased price so that less of it is consumed. Because health reasons. And as someone who has a tricky relationship with the white stuff – am sympathetic. But whether it ends up being a corrective tax with some revenue raised – like cigarettes – or just a tax grab all depends on the elasticity of demand for it.
If we turn our minds back to taxes are gross. Wage income has an elasticity of 0.414; non- wage income of 0.909 – source Treasury. While cigarettes have an elasticity of 0.5 – source my aging brain.
Now working on the assumption that sugar is less addictive than cigarettes and less embedded than Auckland car driving; all things being equal there should be less of it consumed. So although it would have a similar structure to a petrol tax it would be a corrective tax rather than a revenue raiser per se. Although with cigarettes it does a good job at being both. But as is seen with cigarettes the tax has to get to eye watering levels to actually have a significant impact.
The complexities with a sugar tax all come with:
- What is taxed? Sugar or soft drink
- What is the level of the tax? Ultimately a political decision like all taxation.
- Who collects it? Probably the importers.
Personally I am an agnostic. For people who are really interested in this stuff I’d recommend the recent book co written by Lisa Marriott on this. After reading it: still agnostic. With all taxes the compliance and administration is far more than proponents ever realise. So I’d prefer far tougher regulation on advertising to children before moving to tax. But as part of a package like cigarettes – maybe.
And no removing GST from healthy food is so not the answer. Because rich people spend far more in absolute terms on healthy food than poor people do. And like the whole tax free threshold thing – ends up being a bigger tax cut to the rich than the poor.
Now dear readers you may have noticed that my weekly postings are no longer happening. I am still fairly active on the blog’s facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Letstalkabouttaxnz/ but full blog posts – not so much. Because busy.
Coming up to the election; I have views. And as I am no longer a bureaucrat; will be doing some partisan foot soldier stuff. So maybe a transmission silence until then.
I am however fascinated by what is happening and am seeing parallels to the 1984 election. If I get time I will share that with you.
But otherwise see you all on the other side – of the election.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about the proposed Australian tax on under-utilised properties.
Now in New Zealand the big tax story is how Labour is planning to remove tax breaks from ‘speculators’. Including the best headline ever – ‘Shelter is for people – not for tax‘. Great strap line. I can see the #shelterisforpeople hashtags and possible memes. And all because they are only planning to remove negative gearing.
Now negative gearing is a term used when losses – usually from interest – from renting out a property are deducted from other taxable income. Usually income from a day job. And this kinda is a standard feature of our tax system. All income is added together and then all deductions are offset and tax is paid on the balance.
However with property a major form of income – capital gains – is not included in the calculation. So this does give a degree of tax preference – or shelter – that ordinary businesses don’t get. Is it a loophole? Dunno. Not including capital gain definitely is a loophole. But really the only way interest should actually be allowed even with including capital gains – is if they were taxed every year on an unrealised accrued basis. Now that would really be #shelterisforpeople.
And until that ever happens – no breath holding here – all that second order stuff like removing tax depreciation and negative gearing has a place. Such restrictions also probs still have merit with a realised capital gains tax as can be massive deferral benefits with that. Remember how the retirement villages don’t ever sell?
And of course in all this #shelterisforpeople stuff around negative gearing there is no mention of the other real tax breaks of:
And given the cr@p Labour is getting over this relatively mild proposal – which will only move the tax system towards fairness a tiny bit – I can’t say I blame them. Working group I guess.
And into this mix comes the recent Australian proposals to tax ‘under-utilised’ housing of foreigners. The rhetoric behind it is to free up housing for Australians. And I guess it comes off the reports of large scale empty properties in Sydney. Now recently I watched – with increasing horror – my son and his girlfriend both with incomes and references trying to find a flat in Manly. So I am totes in support of that objective – so long as ‘Australians’ can be also read as bludging Kiwi students. Not entirely sure why it is targetted at foreigners though. Coz exactly why is the nationality of the landlord relevant when the problem is that a house is empty?
Now the actual plan is to impose the charge that is levied when foreigners get permission to buy property in the first place. AUD 5,000 for a property of less than AUD 1 mill and equivalently more thereafter. And much like the Inland Revenue restructure cleverer people than me will have come up with it; but here’s what I don’t get:
- One. If someone is rich enough to own property and not need to rent it out then don’t ya think they can cope with an extra 5-10k expenditure?
- Two. Collectability. Now I get that people will pay if it is the price of getting what they want. But how exactly is this going to be collected from people who have already got the right to buy a new property? And from foreigners who by definition don’t live in Australia much? How is this going to work exactly? There are collection clauses in some treaties but this won’t be a tax covered by them.
- Three. AUD 16.5 m over next three years collected. Really? All this for just $16.5 mill?
Now if this is a big problem such a corrective tax could be put into the mix. But then it needs to be:
- A tax that is penal. So people look to change their behaviour;
- Applied to all under-utilised properties. Coz foreigners only is nuts; and
- Deemed income tax so collection clauses in treaties can be used.
Now there is no mention of an equivalent policy in the Labour stuff. Maybe under-utilised property isn’t a big problem in New Zealand? Even if Gareth does have six. But much like the Bank Levy – let’s not blindly follow the Australians. If we want one let’s make it work.
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.