My lovely young friends had a great time with their guest post last week and were delighted with the reception they received. Including getting picked up by interest.co.nz – something they like to point out I have never managed.
They were really keen to post this week on the digital services tax discussion document which they think is awesome. But I need to have a little chat to them before they do.
We also had a chat about whether the Andrea Tax Party is really a goer. Much like Alfred Ngaro we have concluded it all seems a bit hard. Also the move from thinking about things to politics hasn’t been the smoothest for TOP. So as the evidence led people that we are, we have decided to conserve our emotional energy and not fall out over boring constitutional issues.
I’ll stay as your correspondent and my young friends will come back from time to time when they can fit it in between their three jobs and studying. They are also checking out Organise Aotearoa who recently put up this sign in Auckland and seem to be to the left of Tax Justice Aotearoa.
As well as the digital services tax proposal – which I’ll save for my (briefed) young friends – the other tax story this week was how thanks to the Department upgrading its computer system it has found a number of people – 450,000 – haven’t been paying enough tax on their PIE investments. And while that is the case the Department has said that it won’t chase this tax on any past years.
Behind this story are two interesting – to me anyway – tax concepts.
Portfolio investment entities (PIEs)
These are a Michael Cullen special and came in at the same time as KiwiSaver. Before their introduction all managed funds were taxed at the trust rate of 33% and were taxed on any gains they made on shares sales – because they were in business.
Alongside all this was passive investment or index funds who had managed to convince Inland Revenue that because they only sold because they had to, those gains weren’t taxable.
Individual investors weren’t taxed on their capital gains and otherwise they were taxed at less than 33% if they had taxable income below the 33% threshold. This was particularly the case for retired investors.
The status quo did though give a minor tax benefit to high income people who were otherwise paying tax at 39%.
So it was all a bit of a hot mess.
Added into the equation was that, unlike now, the Department’s computer wasn’t up to much so all policy was based on ‘keeping people out of the system’.
So where the PIE stuff landed was income of the fund would be broken up in terms of who owned it and taxed at the rate of the owners. Except for the high earners – as their alternative was a unit trust taxed at the company rate – the top rate was capped at the company rate.
Low income people were now taxed at their own rate rather than the trust rate and high income people kept their low level tax benefit.
Happiness all round.
But it all depended on the individual investor telling the fund what the correct rate was and boy did the funds send out lots of reminders. I got totally sick of them.
Particularly when not filling them out meant you got taxed at 28% which was the top rate anyway.
So the people getting caught out this week would have once told the fund to tax them at a lower rate. It wouldn’t have happened by accident.
Although it is entirely possible they were on a lower rate at the time – because they had losses or something – and then ‘forgot’ to update it. Such people though would probably had a tax agent who would normally pick this stuff up. So not these people,
The caught people I would suggest are people, without tax agents, who accidentally or intentionally chose the wrong rate at the time or are PAYE earners whose income has increased over time and didn’t think to tell their fund.
But really only a tax audit would tell the difference between the two groups even if the effect is the same.
The other thing this week has shone light on is something known in the tax community as timebar (2).
It is a balance between the Government’s right to the correct amount of revenue and taxpayer’s ability to live their lives not worrying about a future tax audit. The deal is that if you have filed your tax return and provided all the necessary information – but you are wrong in the Government’s favour – Inland Revenue can only go back and increase your tax for four years.
If you haven’t filed and/or provided the necessary information – usually in cases of tax evasion – game on. The Department has no time constraints.
But the thing is none of this is an obligation on Inland Revenue. It is a right but not an obligation.
Under the Care and Management provisions (1) – the Commissioner must only collect the highest net revenue over time factoring in compliance costs and the resources available to her.
And so on that basis – I must presume – she has decided to not go back and collect tax for the last three years underpaid PIE income. In the same way he – as it was then – decided to only pursue two years of tax avoidance that arose from the Penny and Hooper tax avoidance cases.
But with a tax fairness lens, it makes discussions with my young friends quite tricky.
They only have their personal labour which, to them, is taxed higher than I was at the same age. They don’t have capital and see this recent story as another way the tax system is slanted against them.
So I am not sure we have seen the last of the motorway signs.
(1) Section 6A(3)
(2) Section 108
Kia ora koutou
Andrea has handed over to us on the youth wing of the Andrea Tax Party for this week’s blog post so we can set out our views on tax.
What she proposed is ok but we can’t help feeling it was more than a little influenced by her Gen X, neoliberal, tax free capital gain and imputed rent earning privilege. A bit like the recent Budget – more foundational than transformational.
But we have also worked out that – by definition – any capital gains tax that applied from a valuation day or worse still grandparenting would have hit any gains our generation would have earned rather than the gains that have arisen to date.
And don’t get us started about the exemption for a family home. The only members of our generation who will buy a house – with exorbitant mortgages – are those whose parents can help financially. Again more revealed Gen X privilege.
So we aren’t super sad it is off the table.
TOP are still promoting an alternative minimum tax and CPAG want to tax a risk free return on residential property. Both reasonable and we may yet move over to them but it the meantime we are seeing if we can do better.
This is what we are thinking:
Land tax on holdings over $500,000. Limited targetted exemptions.
This was a proposal under National’s tax working group (1) in 2009/10 that was also then ignored by the Government at the time.
The deal is that there would be a tax on the value of land. That’s pretty much it. There could be exemptions for conservation land, maybe land locked up for ecological services and Maori freehold land.
The last one might be controversial but we are completely over the race baiting that goes on anytime different treatment for Maori assets comes up. Settlement assets were a fraction of that taken by the Crown and until such time as Maori indicators – not the least the prison population – gets anywhere near non-Maori, we are open to different treatment to improve outcomes.
As this tax is certain what tends to happen is that the price of land falls by an NPV of the tax. The effect therefore is the same as a one off tax on existing landowners. And to be honest – we’d be open to that. Seems much lower compliance cost something Andrea and her friends get so excited about.
Now we know there is an argument that because of the effect on existing land owners – this is unfair.
However to a generation locked out of land ownership in any form due to the high prices – we are deeply underwhelmed by that argument. It was equally unfair that existing owners got the unearned gains over the last 10 years or so. And yes they might not be the same people who are affected – but again – underwhelmed.
So all holdings of land over $500,000 – other than those mentioned above – will be subject to a land tax. And honestly maybe we have the threshold too low.
GST – no change
This one causes us pain.
We really want to drop the rate as poor people spend so such more of their income than rich people. But rich people who might be living off tax free capital gains still have to buy food – and they spend more on food than poor people. So a cut in GST is – in absolute terms – a greater tax cut for the rich.
However the prevailing wisdom that increases in GST don’t matter if you increase benefits is also BS. This is for a couple of reasons:
Benefits – until this Budget kicks in – are increased by CPI but low income households have higher inflation than high income households.
Benefit increases do not survive National Governments. The associated rise in benefits from the GST introduction were unwound by the benefit cuts in 1992 and more recently benefits were eroded through changes to the administration by WINZ.
And even Andrea witnessed the changed behaviour of WINZ as she was in receipt of the Child Disability Allowance from 2007 to 2012. She went from having a super helpful empathetic case manager to having the allowance stopped when they lost her paperwork.
If anyone wants to argue instead that the last government increased benefits – bring it on – because if that is how Andrea was treated by them just imagine how WINZ behaved to people who weren’t senior public servants.
So we are recommending no change here unless there was some way of making it progressive.
Inheritance tax on all estates over $500,000
Andrea might be fixated with taxing people when they are alive but all this means is that the huge untaxed gains that have been earned get to be passed on to the next generation. And yes that might be some of us but anything to reduce the wealth inequality in New Zealand has to be considered.
We take Andrea’s point about this also applying to death of settlors (and maybe beneficiaries) but all estates over $500,000 will be taxed at the GST rate as it is inherently deferred consumption.
Make the personal tax scale more progressive
When Andrea started work in 1985 – as an almost grad – she earned $15,000 and paid $5,000 of that in tax. That is an average tax rate of 33% and probably a marginal tax rate of something like 45%.
She had no student loan because University was free. In fact she also got a bursary of about $700 three times a year. There was no GST.
Grads in 2019 start on about $50,000. Income tax is about $9,000. This is an average tax rate of about 18% and a marginal tax rate of 30%. Student loan repayments are 12% and GST is probably about 10% allowing for rent and savings. This gives a marginal tax rate of 52% which will then climb to 55% if they ever get a well paying job. So 10% higher tax than 1985 on pretty middling incomes.
We get that including student loans might upset Andrea’s tax friends but we are also guessing none of those people have 12% of their earnings going to Inland Revenue every pay day.
Team if it looks like a duck and quakes like a duck….
In fairness we also know her father in 1985 had a marginal tax rate of 66% although he got deductions for life insurance and ‘work related’ expenses. Now parents top out at 33% plus say 10% for GST – 43%.
We guess then parents should pay more but 1) not everyone has middle class parents 2) declining labour share of GDP and 3) the ones who can are already helping us and that is a recipe for entrenched privilege.
So our policy proposal is:
2) Extend the bottom tax rate of 10.5% to $40,000
3) Increase the next tax rate to 25% from $40,000 to $70,000
4) Bring in a new threshold of 40% at $100,000
Or something like that.
The bottom threshold needs extending to include anyone who can still receive any sort of welfare benefit while also earning income. That reduction in tax then needs to be clawed back for higher earners and really high earners just need to pay more.
Emissions trading scheme
And please if there isn’t going to be any sensible carbon tax or any environmental taxes could we at least put a proper price on carbon in the Emissions Trading Scheme.
It is only human life on this planet we are talking about.
We think that is it for us. Andrea and her Gen X biases will be back next week.
Young friends of Andrea
(1) Page 50
Your correspondent is back from Sydney. Had a great time because – well – Sydney.
Managed to score a gig on a panel at the TP Minds conference talking about international policy developments for transfer pricing. An interesting experience as I am pretty strong in most tax areas except GST – and you guessed it – transfer pricing.
But it was ok as I did a bit of prep and all those years of working with the TP people paid off. And of course I do know a little bit about international tax and BEPS so alg.
Even a techo tax conference again reminded me just how different – socially and culturally – Australia is to New Zealand. Examples include: the expression man in the pub being used without any sense of irony or embarrassment and one of the presenters – a senior cool woman from the ATO – wearing a hijab.
Can’t imagine either in tax circles in NZ.
My particular favourite though was watching the telly which showed a clip of Bill Shorten describing franking (imputation) credits as something you haven’t earned and a gift from the government. Now Australia does cash out franking credits but – wow – seriously just wow. Kinda puts any gripes I might have about Jacinda talking about a capital gains tax into perspective.
And in the short time I have been away yet another minor party has formed as well as the continuation of the utter dismay from progressives over the CGT announcement.
In the latter case I am fielding more than a few queries as to what the alternatives actually are to tax fairness is a world where a CGT has been ruled out pretty much for my lifetime.
Now while I have previously had a bit of a riff as to what the options could be, I have been having a think about what I would do if I were ever the ‘in charge person’ – as my kids used to say – for tax.
To become this ‘in charge person’ I guess I’d also have to set up a minor party although minor parties and tax policies are both historically pretty inimical to gaining parliamentary power.
But in for a penny – in for a pound what would be the policies of an Andrea Tax Party be?
Policy 1: All income of closely held companies will be taxed in the hands of its shareholders
First I’d look to getting the existing small company/shareholder tax base tidied up.
On one hand we have the whole corporate veil – companies are legally separate from their shareholders – thing. But then as the closely held shareholders control the company they can take loans from the company – which they may or may not pay interest on depending on how well IRD is enforcing the law – and take salaries from the company below the top marginal tax rate.
On the other hand we have look through company rules – which say the company and the shareholder are economically the same and so income of the company can be taxed in the hands of the shareholder instead. But because these rules are optional they will only be used if the company has losses or low levels of taxable income.
My view is that given the reality of how small companies operate – company and shareholders are in effect the same – taking down the wall for tax is the most intellectual honest thing to do. Might even raise revenue. Would defo stop the spike of income at $70,000 and most likely the escalating overdrawn current account balances.
So look through company rules – or equivalent – for all closely held companies. FWIW was pretty much the rec of the OG Tax Review 2001 (1).
Now that the tax base is sorted out – if someone wants to add another higher rate to the progressive tax scale – fill your boots. But my GenX and tbh past relatively high income earning instincts aren’t feeling it.
Policy 2: Extensive use of withholding taxes
The self employed consume 20% more at the same levels of taxable income as the employed employed. Sit with that for a minute.
Now the self employed could have greater levels of inherited wealth, untaxed capital gains or like really awesome vegetable gardens.
Or its tax evasion. Cash jobs, not declaring income, income splitting or claiming personal expenses against taxable income.
Now in the past I have got a bit precious about the use of the term tax evasion or tax avoidance but I am happy to use the term here. This is tax evasion.
IRD says that puts New Zealand at internationally comparable levels (2). Gosh well that’s ok then.
Not putting income on a tax return needs to be hit with withholding taxes. Any payment to a provider of labour – who doesn’t employ others – needs to have withholding taxes deducted.
Cash jobs need hit by legally limiting the level of payments allowed. Australia is moving to $10,000 but why not – say $200? I mean who other than drug dealers carries that much cash anyway?
Claiming personal expenses is much harder. This we will have to rely on enforcement for.
Policy 3: Apportion interest deductions between private and business
Currently all interest deductions are allowable for companies – because compliance costs. Otherwise interest is allowed as a deduction if the funding is directly connected to a business thing.
What it means though is that for someone with a small business and personal assets such as a house, all borrowing can go against the business and be fully deductible.
Options include some form of limitation like thin capitalisation or debt stacking rules. I’d be keen though on apportionment. If you have $2 million in total assets and $1 million of debt – then only 50% of the interest payable is deductible.
Policy 4: Clawback deductions where capital gains are earned
Currently so long as expenditure is connected with earning taxable income it is tax deductible. It doesn’t matter how much taxable income is actually earned or if other non-taxable income is earned as well.
Most obvious example is interest and rental income. So long as the interest is connected with the rent it is deductible even if a non-taxable capital gain is also earned.
One way of limiting this effect is the loss ringfencing rules being introduced by the government. Another way would be – when an asset or business is sold for a profit – clawback any loss offsets arising from that business or asset. Yes you would need grouping rules but the last government brought in exactly the necessary technology with its R&D cashing out losses (4).
Policy 5: Publication of tax positions
And finally just to make sure my party is never elected – taxable income and tax paid of all taxpayers – just like in Scandinavia will be published. Because if everyone is paying what they ought. Nothing to hide. And would actually give public information as to what is going on.
Options not included
What’s not there is any form of taxation of imputed income like rfrm. It isn’t a bad policy but taxing something completely independent of what has actually happened – up or down – doesn’t sit well with me.
Also no mention of inheritance tax. Again not a bad policy I’d just prefer to tax people when they are alive.
And for international tax I think keep the pressure on via the OECD because the current proposals plus what has already been enacted in New Zealand is already pretty comprehensive.
Now I know none of this is exactly exciting and so I’ll get the youth wing to do the next post.
(1) Overview IX
(2) Paragraph 6
(3) Treatment of interest when asset held in a corporate structure
(4) Page 11 onward
Taking a break from TWG report proper stuff for a bit. Although very pleased to see that when the government said no further work on a Tax Advocate they actually meant no further work except for its inclusion in a soon discussion document.
Silly me and everyone else. Clearly misread the Government’s response. Recommendation 73 but getting over myself …
And there has just been a tax bill passed back in the (tax) real world.
R&D tax credits which seems largely to be a grants based system administered by IRD (1) and not anything I would recognise as a tax credit. But hey all the benefits of a grant while still calling it a tax thing. What’s not to love.
And coming up strongly behind is the GST and low value goods bill which also has the loss ring fencing for residential rental property.
Now the latter is pretty much loathed by the tax community. But as interest deductions in the face of untaxed capital gains is a bit of specialist subject/anguish for your correspondent I may write some more on that. As with no more capital gains being taxed I would say this is technology that should get a broader look.
But today I am going to have a bit of a chat about the GST stuff. Now as your correspondent’s taste in clothes tends toward vintage reproduction, she is a big online shopper from relatively obscure American and now Swedish suppliers. And my one piece of tax avoidance has always been keeping purchases below $225 so that no GST would be triggered. Often a struggle – albeit a financially useful one – when the NZ dollar is weak.
Now the $225 comes from the $60 de minimis Customs has where it won’t collect tax and duty up to that amount coz the admin to do so would be higher than the tax collected. So for clothes and shoes – another specialist subject but no anguish here – as there is a duty of 10% when you work it back this means $225 of clothes and shoes can be imported free of taxation and while for everything else it is $400.
And yeah it is not a total free ride as there is postage involved and if things don’t fit sending things back is probs not worth it.
Now this implicit tax exemption is only ever an administrative thing. It wasn’t like Parliament ever said ‘Off you go Andrea, have a foreign tax free dress, just keep it under $225 and only one at a time mind’. And so I have been expecting this loophole to be closed since forever.
And now there is a bill to do just that a select committee. The vibe is that offshore suppliers will collect GST for goods under $1000 and Customs over $1000. Cool. So far so good.
First it is the poster child for high trust tax collecting. It requires the offshore supplier to register with IRD, collect GST and then pay it to the department. Three steps where – just saying – something might go wrong. Would hate to think I pay GST and it isn’t passed on. But for the big guys at least they face ‘reputational risk’ if things go wrong.
Now yes we do have the bright, shiny, newish Convention of Mutual Administrative Assistance (2) that does include GST and yes the Department has tried hard to make the whole thing simple so yes the big people should get caught/ and or voluntarily comply.
2) Suppliers paying to GST registered buyers don’t have to charge coz that would be compliance without tax. Fair enough but I am now GST registered, how will the offshore supplier know my single dress isn’t just like a sample? Or will they even care so long as they have an IRD number?
3) Offshore suppliers only have to register if they are selling more than NZD 60k to people who aren’t GST registered. And yes this is self assessed by taxpayers outside out tax base.
But how will IRD know if the supplier or I am not compliant? There really will be limits to the whole Convention for Mutual Assistance. And anyway if they sell less than $60k no GST is totes legit.
But ultimately none of this should matter as any tax not collected by the offshore supplier will be picked up by Customs. Except …
4) De minimis raised to $1000 value of item for goods not GSTed by supplier. Sorry wot? So if GST is not charged – correctly by my new obscure foreign retailer – or incorrectly because reputational risk isn’t a thing for them – my GST free band has increased? Yup.
To be fair this is all sort of covered in the RIS (3) but I can’t find anything that discusses why the de minimis or threshold had to be increased.
Interestingly the Tax Working Group explicitly looked at these issues and concluded that the de minimis should only be NZD 400. And this is the right answer particularly when fairness is the lens. Although I would have thought there was now a case to bring the de minimis right down to incentivise collecting at source.
It is true that all the marketplaces and Youshops will get caught but anyone like me with any form of obscure foreign importing – which I am guessing is much like capital gains and a feature of a higher income/wealth profile – can now buy more tax free than before.
And why this is important is that the official primary reason for this policy change was to increase the fairness of the tax system. Not efficiency or even revenue but fairness.
And the thing about increasing fairness is that it might not reduce administrative costs. It might not improve the customer experience. But it says that tax is paid by everyone not just when it is easy to collect and people don’t get upset with you.
So a day or so after discovering I won’t be taxed on capital gains, surely I am not also up for more GST free shopping? Hope not.
Really hope this isn’t the beginning of fairness going back to Khloe or Pippa status.
(1) In year approval page 6.
(2) Article 2(b)(iii)(c)
(3) Page 5 Potential behavioural changes by consumers
Your correspondent is having a lovely Friday. Thanks for asking.
Started the day chatting to Terry Baucher on tax stuff and then Wellington is having one of its beautiful days.
Had lunch with a friend setting the world to rights which included me riffing on what a progressive tax policy could look like that was a bit radical but not completely nuts.
I have very tolerant friends.
Anyway given the relational being that I am – I thought I’d share it with you.
It starts from a place of Jacinda saying that while a CGT is off the table – nothing else is. And having spent the last 16 months or so thinking about tax stuff from a heavily constrained perspective – it is all a bit exciting to get off the leash.
So it goes!
This would apply to all estates over a (tbd) threshold. It has the advantage of involving one of life’s certainties so wouldn’t be affecting behaviour at all. Now it might mean people pass on assets before they die and they might use trusts to avoid it.
The former strikes me as a collateral benefit of the tax and the latter would need to involve rules involving death of settlors and/or beneficiaries. Next.
Closely held companies
They would become taxed at the top marginal tax rate to stop all the $70k and overdrawn current account stuff. There would be the option though of the look through company rules applying when incomes of shareholders are actually below $70k.
Very small companies
Consistent with a submission from Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand (1) very small companies – tbd – would be taxed on turnover. Yes there are issues with it but it would reduce compliance costs for them and stop the revenue risk of oh gosh how did that personal expenditure get into my tax return.
The CPAG submission of a net equity tax would apply here. Yes it is similar to the TOP proposal but has the advantage of only applying to property so none of the valuation issues. Also I am not too stressed about partial family home exemptions so the types thresholds Susan St John proposes seem very pragmatic.
Personal tax thresholds
Any money collected – and quite frankly there may not be any when your focus is fairness rather than revenue raising – would go into raising the bottom threshold as per the TWG proposal.
Then either this could flow through to everyone or get clawed back by raising the tax rate for the next threshold. Also a possibility raised by the TWG.
Options not considered
Raising the top personal tax rate
Now I know this is a darling of the left and I accept I could be heavily coloured by having paid the higher rate for many years. But here’s the thing:
It is taxing the top income earners who are already in the tax system paying tax on their income. It doesn’t touch income that isn’t taxed already in a way a number of the measures above do.
Also the mismatch thing between different entities is a nightmare and to do properly would involve also an increase in the trust rate or face the use of trusts that were prolific previously.
There is already an issue with a mismatch between the company rate and top personal rate which I am hoping the proposal for closely held companies would fix.
Lowering the GST rate
Now I get that GST is regressive. Totes. No argument. But as rich people spend more in absolute terms, they pay more GST in absolute terms. And if they are not paying income tax for whatever reason – if they want to eat they have to pay GST.
So can’t recommend this I’m afraid.
However also not a fan of raising it either. See comment on regressivity.
Anyway that’s enough from me.
So would this all make the tax system fairer. Totes. Could anyone get elected on this? No idea. Well beyond my skill set.
Enjoy your weekend.
(1) Pages 28-29
Ok yes I am disappointed.
But probably no more or less than the members of the 2001 and 2008 tax reviews who also recommended greater taxation of capital. So it was always on the cards.
And to be fair the New Zealand tax system has never had a formal capital gains tax but has been taxing capital gains since whenever. All by deeming them to be taxable income.
IMHO this really hasn’t been the end of the world from a social cohesion point of view until that is – land prices went insane and somehow my generation extracted value from our children.
Now yes it would be awesome to tax that value extract – but what would be more awesome would be land prices falling. Coz something has gone gobsmackingly wrong when yopros need government intervention to buy their first home.
But back to tax.
Personally though I am surprised there wasn’t something. After all even the minority felt their was a very strong case to tax gains from residential rental and for those who were worried about valuation issues there was always the CGT lite option aka grandparenting.
But this is not to be.
So what is happening? Possible vacant land tax, cracking down of speculators and tax dodgers.
The former I am quite comfortable with as I think it has merit as a corrective tax. Needs to be better than Australia though. And yes local government is the best placed for that. Maybe a targetted rate or something.
Cracking down on speculators. Right.
Now there is the small matter of the brightline test which taxes sales within 5 years which – I would have thought – well included any speculation period.
And then there is the existing provision since whenever – bought with the intention of resale – which didn’t work very well so the Nats brought in the brightline test.
Unfortunately though compliance with these rules is a bit average and enforcement is a bit hard. (1)
And there will also be cracking down on tax dodgers. Not quite sure I know what that means.
There are our friends the closely held companies and dividend stripping . Which is essentially winding up to extract an untaxed capital gain and setting up a new company. Rather than just getting a taxable dividend from the original company.
Taxing these capital gains would have helped the issue.
And so instead strengthening enforcement for closely held companies (2) will be considered a high priority area for the next work programme.
Except enforcement is operational and the work programme is policy so not quite sure how that will work. But maybe I should get over myself, go with the vibe and wait for the actual new work programme.
But the Charities (3) stuff is all looking good.
The things I am most saddest about though are some of the more innovative obscure issues that aren’t being even considered for inclusion on the work programme. Which really only means – ‘will get to it if have time’.
They are the :
- Tax Advocate service (4) which would have helped small business and given an additional source of advice to the Minister;
- Overarching purpose clause (5) to say what the point of taxation is;
These are all potential neutral unpolitical improvements to the tax system. But didn’t hear Jacinda ruling them out – so maybe still hope.
So I might write some more about these. Oh and the OECD work on digital services. But once I have processed all this.
(1) Annex on compliance.
(1) Paragraph 17 Executive Summary
(2) Recommendation 66
(3) Recommendation 78-82
(4) Recommendation 73
(5) Recommendation 77b
(6) Recommendation 66. Although to be fair there is a suggestion this could be handled differently.
Now the most logical next post would be a discussion of the OECD digital proposals as that is the international consensus thing I am so keen on and also fits nicely into the thread of these posts.
The slight difficulty is that this requires me to do some work which is always a bit of a drag and when I am suffering badly from jetlag – an insurmountable hurdle.
So as a bit of light relief I thought I’d have a bit of a pick into the narrative around multinationals and why their non-taxpaying is particularly egregious.
You know the whole small business pays tax so large business should too thing.
Now because of the tax secrecy thing, we can never know for def whether this is the case. But there is some stuff in the public domain, so let’s see what we can do as a bit of an incomplete records exercise.
In one of the early papers for the TWG, officials had a look at tax paying of certain industries. Now while the punchline – industries with high levels of capital gains pay less tax – is well known, there are some other factoids that are worth considering.
Factoid 1 The majority of small businesses are in loss (1). Ok wow. But that could be fine if all the income was being paid out to shareholders.
Factoid 2 Spike of incomes at $70k. Ok suspicious I’ll give you that. But maybe there are lots of tax paid trust distributions.
Factoid 3 Shareholder borrowings from the company (2) – aka overdrawn current account balances – have been climbing since the reduction in the company tax rate in 2010. Oh and the imputation credit balances have been climbing over that period too (3). But that could be fine if interest and/or fringe benefit tax is paid on the balances.
Factoid 4 Consumption by the self employed is 20% higher than by the employed for the same taxable income levels. But this could be fine if the self employed have tax paid or correctly un-tax paid – like capital gains – sources of wealth that the employed don’t have.
Factoid 5 In 2014 high wealth individuals had $60 million in losses (4) in their own name. But that could be ok because if companies and trusts have been paying tax and they have been receiving tax paid distributions from their trusts.
Factoid 6 Directors with an economic ownership in their company are rarely personally liable for any tax their company doesn’t pay. Because corporate veil. And that even includes PAYE and Kiwisaver they have deducted from their employees.
Now all of this is before you get to the ability small business has to structure their personal equity so that any debt they take on is tax deductible. Not to mention the whole accidentally putting personal expenditure through the business accounts thing.
And of course I am sure none of this has any relevance to the Productivity Commission’s concern that New Zealand has long tail of low productivity firms [without] an “up or out” dynamic. (5)
But is it all ok?
- Are there lots of taxpaid trust distributions? We know the absolute level (6) but not whether it is ‘enough’.
- Is interest or FBT being paid on overdrawn current accounts?
- Do the self employed have sources of taxpaid wealth that the employed don’t have?
- Why have some of our richest people still got losses?
- How much tax do directors of companies in which they have an economic interest walk away from?
- What is the level of personal expenditure being claimed against business income? Or at least what is the level that IRD counters?
Combination of tax secrecy and information not currently collected. But IRD are working towards an information plan and the TWG have called for greater transparency.
Coz most of this is currently totes legit. In much the same way as the multinationals structures are.
(1) Footnote 9
(2) Page 11
(3) Page 10
(4) Page 15
(5) Page 19
(6) Page 9
So the details of this government’s tax review is out.
Now even though this blog has come as a response to the Left’s – and fairness’s – relatively recent introduction into the tax debate – I couldn’t see anything I could competently add to the random number generator that is the current public discussion. That was until I read one commentator – who actually understands tax – talk about the last Labour government’s tax review – the McLeod Report.
He referred to that report as having analysis that stood up 16 years later. And with the underlying analysis found in the issues report I would wholeheartedly agree. But in terms of the recommendations in the final report I would say, however, that it was very much of its time.
And by that I mean that while the issues report fully discussed all issues of fairness/equity as well as efficiency – when it came to the final report efficiency was clearly queen.
Now by efficiency I am meaning ‘limiting the effects tax has on economic behaviour’. And fairness as meaning all additions to wealth – aka income – are treated the same way.
The tax review kicked off in 2000 at about the same time I arrived at Inland Revenue Policy. In early 2000 there was:
- No working for families
- No Kiwisaver
- Top personal tax rate was about to increase to 39% but with no change to company or trust tax rate
- Interest was about to come off student loans while people studied.
That is the settings generally were the ones that had come from the Roger Douglas Ruth Richardson years.
Also in tax land the Commissioner was having a seriously hard time as the Courts were taking a very legalistic attitude to tax structuring. High water mark was a major loss in 2001. And unsurprisingly in such an environment the banks had started structuring out of the tax base. But it would be a while before that became obvious.
Housing was affordable. Families such as mine could be supported on one senior analyst salary – and live walking distance to town.
The tax review was headed by a leading practitioner Rob McLeod; and had two economists, a tax lawyer and a small business accountant. One woman. Because that is what progressive looked like 2000.
And so what were their recommendations/suggestions?
No capital gains tax but an imputed taxable return on capital This one is both efficient and fair. And did materialise in some form with the Fair Dividend rate changes to small offshore investment. It is the basis of TOP tax proposal. At the issues paper stage it was proposed to include imputed rents but the public (over) reaction caused it to be dropped. Interestingly it is explicitly out of scope with the Cullen review.
Flow through tax treatment for closely held businesses and separate tax treatment for large business
What this is about is saying entities that are really just extensions of the individuals concerned should be taxed like individuals not the entity chosen. This is effectively the basis of the Look Through Company rules – although they are optional. It means the top tax rate will always be paid. But it also means that capital gains and losses can be accessed immediately.
Now this is definitely efficient as the tax treatment will not be dependent on the entity chosen. And it is also arguably fair for the same reason.
It does mean though that if a company structure is chosen and the business gets into trouble: the tax losses can be accessed as it is effectively the loss of the shareholder but the creditors not paid because it is a separate legal entity. Which probably wouldn’t exactly feel fair to any creditor.
But all this is unreconciled public policy rather than the McLeod report.
Personal tax scale to be 18% up to $29,500 and 33% thereafter.
The tax scale at the time ranged from 9.5% to 39% at $60,000. The proposal would have had the effect of increasing the incentive to earn income over $60,000 as so would have been more efficient than the then 39% tax rate. As the company and trust rate were also 33% it would have returned the tax nirvana where the structure didn’t matter.
However it would have increased taxes on lower incomes and decreased taxes on higher incomes. So while efficient – not actually fair according to the vibe of the Cullen review terms of reference.
New migrants seven years tax free on foreign income
At this time our small foreign investment – aka foreign investment fund – rules were quite different to other countries. While we didn’t have a realised capital gains tax – for portfolio foreign investment we could have an accrued capital gains tax in some situations. This was considered off putting to potential high skilled high wealth migrants. So to stop tax preventing migration that would otherwise happen; the review proposed such migrants get seven years tax free on foreign income.
This proposal was the other one that was enacted with a four year tax free window – transitional migrants rules.
And again a policy that is efficient but arguably not fair. As the foreign income of New Zealanders in subject to full tax. However Australia and the United Kingdom also have these rules that New Zealanders can access.
The logical consequence though is that no one with capital lives in their countries of birth anymore. And not sure that is ultimately efficient.
New foreign investment to have company tax rate of 18%
Again this is the foreign investment – good – argument. But it ultimately comes from a place where foreign capital doesn’t pay tax because it is from a pension fund, sovereign wealth fund or charity. Or if it is tax paying that tax paid in New Zealand doesnt provide any form of benefit in its home or residence country. So by reducing the tax rate by definition this reduces the effect of tax on decision making.
However doesn’t factor in the loss of revenue if there are location specific rentswhich aren’tsensitive to tax. And not exactly fair that domestic capital pays tax at almost twice the tax rate. Unsurprisingly didn’t go ahead.
Tax to be capped at $1 million for individuals
This again comes from the place of removing a tax disincentive from investing and earning income. Yeah not fair and also didn’t go ahead.
Restricting borrowing costs against exempt foreign income
This was the basis of the banks tax avoidance schemes that ended up costing $2 billion. It is only briefly mentioned in the final report with no submissions. It is to the review team’s – probably most likely Rob McLeod – credit that it is there at all. This proposal was both efficient and fair. Stopping the incentive to earn foreign income as well as making sure tax was paid on New Zealand income.
It will be very interesting to see where this review comes out with the balance between efficiency and fairness. Because both matter. Without fairness we don’t get voluntary compliance and without efficiency we get misallocated capital and an underperforming economy. But the public reaction to the taxation of multinationals and ‘property speculators’ would indicate a bit more fairness is needed to preserve voluntary compliance.
And as indicated 16 years ago – taxation of capital is a good place to start.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about the fairness v efficiency tension in tax policy.
You correspondent is now about two thirds through her gap year. There have been perks to not going to work. Meeting people I would never have met as a tax bureaucrat; working without getting out of bed; and morning yoga classes now being conceptually possible. And of course becoming your correspondent tops it out.
On the con side though is no income; a carefully curated wardrobe that just looks at me; and that not going to (paid) work is simply exhausting. I am the most demanding person I have ever worked for. There is no concept of downtime.
Another con as a chartered accountant is there is no benevolent employer meeting my training needs – and my CPD hours – without me realising it. So with this in mind earlier this year I arranged to attend – without credit – a postgrad course on International Tax. Two days which should sort out my CPD. Or at least push out the problem for another year. And after all those years in tax I know the benefit of deferral.
Now as a participant I need to give a talk. So I heroically offered to talk about the tension between the tax fairness people and the tax efficiency people. As at that time I thought I had reconciled them. Now not so sure. So I thought I’d riff to you dear readers and see how we go.
It is an internal discussion I regularly have – yes I really am that interesting. As in my heart I am a tax fairness person but one whose head worries about tax efficiency.
Let’s start with the wot these guys say:
Fairness people say: Everyone should pay their fair share; People should pay in proportion to their income; Tax is the price you pay for civilisation.
And Gareth has a nice general take on all this which can be paraphrased as an unfair economy is inefficient. But while I am quite attracted to that as I can’t explain it without hand waving – I won’t.
So going back to things I do understand.
Efficiency people say: New Zealand needs be an attractive place to invest; it is important tax doesn’t distort decisionmaking; company tax is a tax on labour.
Now in a domestic setting – New Zealanders using New Zealand capital employing New Zealanders; through the use of withholding taxes and imputation – efficiency and fairness cohabit happily. Wages are deductible by firms and taxable to employees. Tax is deducted by the employers on the wages and this offsets the tax liability of the employee. Company tax can be used as a credit when dividends are paid.
There is a progressive tax scale for individuals which applies no matter how they earn their income. There can be deferral benefits if money stays in a company; a concessionary PIE rate for top income earners; and interest is deductible when capital gains are earned. But all of this is cohabitation peace and harmony compared to the situation with foreign capital and New Zealand workers.
Now with foreign capital, tax paid here is next to worthless. The fairness argument is that it is that the tax is the price for using the infrastructure and educated workforce paid for from taxation. Reasonable argument but problem is that the use of that stuff is not conditional on paying tax. Classic public good/freerider thing in economics which is supposed to be stopped through the use of taxation. Mmmm.
And foreign countries give no credit for company tax paid here. They might give credit for withholding taxes but there is this whole ‘excess foreign tax credit thing’ that means they don’t. For serious tax nerds, yes there is the underlying foreign tax credit given by the US when dividends come back. But we all know how much they come back. So foreign tax is a net cost of doing business. And like all costs something they will minimise if they can.
This becomes all the more compounded when the foreign investor is a charity or pension fund or sovereign wealth fund and doesn’t pay even tax in their home country.
So then the options are invest through deductible debt or pay tax but only invest if expected return is high enough to allow for paying tax.
Right. Then so how do we get the price of civilisation thing actually paid? Working on the assumption that foreign investment is good – when I think the analysis is a bit more nuanced than that – do we just have to suck up lower foreign investment if we want more tax paid?
If only we had some New Zealand based studies to see what happened? Oh yeah we do. Company tax was cut once by Dr Cullen and then again by Hon Bill.
Did we see an uptick in foreign investment? Nah – according to Inland Revenue foreign investment as a percentage of gross domestic product pretty much didn’t change.
Now of course there is a lot of noise in that; not the least that it happened over the GFC where normal rules did not apply. And Inland Revenue did have a go at reconciling all the stuff. Maybe.
But the best expanation I ever got for tax and how it influences foreign investment came from a tax mergers and acquisitions person I met during my time inside. They said there are two types of foreign investment:
- Normal foreign businesses who are looking to buy an equivalent New Zealand business. They make their decisons to purchase based on the headline tax rate and say the headline thin capitalisation ratios. Once that decison is make the tax people then swing in and look to minimise the tax further.
- The second type was the private equity lot for whom minimising tax was very much part of their MO. They turn up with elaborate templates – which include tax savings – which then all fed into the decision to purchase and at what price.
Is this right? Dunno but it has always made sense to me. And helps explain the often ‘inconclusive results’ found when two sets of behaviours are blended in any data set.
Ok so what does all of this mean to tax fairness people? I think what it means is be aware that the zero tax rate of significant international investors combined with the internationally lighter taxation of income from capital – none of which is addressed in the OECD BEPS project – mean that getting tax off foreigners may bounce back on locals in the form of higher prices or reduced investment.
To the tax efficiency people though – settle down – any impact is not one for one. The Inland Revenue stuff does show that there is a degree of taxation that is just sucked up by the owners of capital. Coz ultimately all business income comes from people who can get a bit p!ssed if they think you are free riding on their taxes paid infrastructure. And maybe they’ll spend their money somewhere else. Assuming of course that there is a taxpaying alternative coz it’s not like domestic capital is free from loopholes.
So will I say all this in my talk this week? Dunno but thanks for the chat dear readers. My head is clearer now. Thanks for listening.