Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about tax and companies.
Well dear readers what a week it has been in the Beltway. Secret recordings down south and secret payouts from Wellington. All the more bizarre as – Mike Williams confirmed – MPs staffers pretty much have sack at will contracts. If your MP doesn’t like you – that’s it you’re out. No lengthy performance management for them. Facepalm. So maybe this factoid could get added to new MPs induction?
But as always the key issue gets missed. Exactly who under 40 years old knows what a dictaphone is?
And into this maelstom Inland Revenue released a paper on taxation of individuals and some stuff on debt. Both worthy topics of discussion. But then Ryman released its results. And their CEO said like tax is paid – just not like income tax and just like not by them.
So after last week’s post I thought I’d have a look.
Oh yes the real tax is very easily found in the Income Tax Note. Tax losses of $28.9 million in the 2017 year. Up from last year when they were only $15 million of losses. They are a growth stock after all. Quite different from the tax expense which was $6m tax payable.
To your correspondent this looks awfully like her specialist subject of interest deductions for capital profits. All mixed up in a world where interest expense isn’t in the P&L but instead added to the asset value. Complying with both accounting and tax. And yeah totes a tax loophole but one from like whenever.
And again in Ryman’s accounts the rent equivalent from the time value of money of the occupancy advances is in neither the accounting nor the tax profit. Because reasons.
Now expecting controversy the CEO front footed the issue saying that the shareholders paid tax and that Ryman had actually paid GST. He then also referred to the PAYE deducted as they were employers. Kinda going to ignore that bit tho coz the whole claiming credit for other people’s tax really gets on my nerves.
And I’ll take his word on the GST angle coz I am cr@p at GST. But with his shareholders paid the tax comment – he is talking about imputation. And as I haven’t covered that before dear readers – today you get imputation. Oh and other random thoughts on tax and companies.
Now the official gig about imputation is how – notwithstanding that they are separate legal peeps – the company is merely a vehicle for their shareholders to do stuff. So for tax purposes the company structure should – sort of – get looked through to its shareholders. And this means dividends are in substance the same income as company profits and so should get a credit for tax paid by the company.
And as a tax person this stuff is considered to be in the stating the flaming obvious category.
But as I am no longer an insider – I am increasingly finding it interesting just how public policy on companies manages to talk out of both sides of its mouth. And how – much like the sack at will contracts or milliennials using dictaphones – no one has noticed.
On one hand we have the Companies Act which sets up companies with separate legal personalities from its shareholders. Meaning that if you transact with a company and it doesn’t pay you. Bad luck bucko. Nothing to do with the shareholders. Limited liability; corporate veil and all that.
But for tax if you only have a few shareholders those losses can flow through to the shareholders and be offset against against other income. The negative gearing thing but using a company. Coz in substance the company and shareholders are like the same.
And a similar thing happens with the Trust rules. Trust law says that it is trustees that own the assets. And once you have handed stuff over to them as settlor – that’s it – that stuff isn’t yours anymore. So if that settlor owes you money – also bad luck bucko. Don’t for a second think you can approach the trustees – coz whoa – settlor nothing to do with them.
But then tax says – for trusts – as settlors call the shots; it’s the residence of the settlor that is important. Mmmm. This means that a trust with a New Zealand resident trustee and a foreigner wot gave the stuff to the trustee – foreign trust – isn’t taxed on foreign income. Coz that would be like wrong. Even though the assets are owned by a New Zealand resident. And New Zealand residents normally pay tax on foreign income.
Right. Awesome. Thanks for playing.
Anyway back to imputation.
Now put any thoughts of separate legal personalities outside your pretty heads dear readers and think substance. Think companies are vehicles for shareholders. Don’t think about small shareholders having no say or liability if anything goes wrong. Just think one economic unit.
And then you will have no problem seeing potential double taxation if profit and dividends are both taxed. Coz #doubletaxationisgross.
So as part of the uber tax reforms in the late eighties imputation was brought in. Tax paid by the company can be magically turned into a tax credit called – imaginatively – an imputation credit which then travels with a dividend. Creating light and laughter in the capital markets. Or as I have put to me – increased inequality. As when imputation came in it gave dividend recipients – aka well off people – an income boost courtesy of the tax system. Probs also a tax free boost in the share price too.
Now putting aside such inconvenient facts – your correspondent has always defended imputation. Because in order to get the light and laughter or increased inequality – companies actually have to pay tax. And of that – big fan.
But all of this is only useful if shareholders are resident. Coz the credits only have value to New Zealand residents. And this is kind of why foreign companies may not care about paying tax here. And did I mention tax has to actually be paid?
And this last point that brings me back to Ryman’s chairman. He is right. If the company doesn’t pay tax – then the shareholders do when a dividend is paid. So honestly what are we all getting excited about?
Well – profits have to be like actually distributed before that happens and shareholders have to be taxpayers. And Ryman distributes less than 25% of their accounting profit.
And the residence of shareholders? Who knows. Lots of nominee companies listed which could mean KiwiSavers or non-residents. Oh and Ngai Tahu. Who seems to be a charity.
So yeah maybe. Some tax will be paid by some shareholders. That is true. Let’s hope it exceeds the tax losses Ryman is producing.
PS. This will be the last post – except if it isn’t – for the next couple of weeks. Your correspondent is getting all her chickens back for a while. And much as I love you all dear readers – I love them more. Until Mid July. Xx
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about accounting tax expense.
Now dear readers the most unlikely thing has happened. A tax free week in the media. No Matt Nippert on charities – just for the moment I hope – no Greens on foreign trusts. No negative gearing and – thankfully – no R&D tax credits. So with nothing topical atm – we can return to actually useful and non-reactive posts. And yes I am the arbiter of this. Although the whole Roger Douglas and his #taxesaregross does warrant a chat. Need to psyche into that a bit first though.
So I am now returning to my guilt list. Things I have been asked to write about but haven’t . That list includes land tax; estate duties; some GST things; raising company tax rate; minimum taxes; and accounting tax expense.
And so today picking from the random number generator that is my inclination – you get accounting tax expense.
At the Revenue when reviewing accounts one of the things that gets looked at is the actual tax paid compared to the accounting income. This percentage gives what is known as the effective tax rate or ETR. And yes there are differences in income and expense recognition between accounting and tax but for vanilla businesses – in practice – not as many as you would think.
Now it is true that a low ETR can at times be easily explained through untaxed foreign income or unrealised capital profits. But it is also true that for potential audits it can be a reasonable first step in working out if something is ‘wrong’. Coz like it was how the Banks tax avoidance was found. They had ETRs of like 6% or so when the statutory rate was 33%.
So when I ran into a May EY report that said foreign multinationals operating in New Zealand had ETRs around the statutory rate – I was intrigued.
Looking at it a bit more – it was clear that it was a comparison of the accounting tax expense and the accounting income. Not the actual tax paid and accounting income. Now nothing actually wrong with that comparison but possibly also not super clear cut that all is well in tax land.
And I have been promising/threatening to do a post on the difference between these two. So with nothing actually topical – aka interesting – happening this week; now looks good.
Now the first thing to note is that the tax expense in the accounts is a function of the accounting profit. So if like Facebook NZ income is arguably booked in Ireland – then as it isn’t in the revenues; it won’t be in the profits and so won’t be in the tax expense.
Second thing to note is that the purpose of the accounts is to show how the performance of the company in a year; what assets are owned and how they are funded. One key section of the accounts called Equity or Shareholders funds which shows how much of the company’s assets belong to the shareholders.
And the accounts are primarily prepared for the shareholders so they know how much of the company’s assets belong to them. Yeah banks and other peeps – such as nosey commentators – can be interested too but the accounts are still framed around analysing how the company/shareholders have made their money.
And it is in this context that the tax expense is calculated. It aims to deduct from the profit – that would otherwise increase the amount belonging to shareholders – any amount of value that will go to the consolidated fund at some stage. Worth repeating – at some stage.
First a disclaimer. When IFRS came in mid 2000s the tax accounting rules moved from really quite difficult to insanely hard and at times quite nuts. Silly is another technical term. That is they moved from an income statement to a balance sheet approach. Now because I am quite kind the rest of the post will describe the income statement approach which should give you the guts of the idea as to why they are different. Don’t try passing any exams on it though.
Now the way it is calculated is to first apply the statutory rate to the accounting profit. And it is the statutory rate of the country concerned. That is why it was a dead give away with Apple – note 16 – that they weren’t paying tax here even though they were a NZ incorporated company. The statutory rate they used was Australia’s.
Then the next step is to look for things called ‘permanent differences’. That is bits of the profit calculation that are completely outside the income tax calculation. Active foreign income from subsidiaries; capital gains and now building depreciation are but three examples. So then the tax effect of that is then deducted (or added) from the original calculation.
For Ryman – note 4 – adjusting for non-taxable income takes their tax expense from from $309 million to $3.9 million. That number then becomes the tax expense for accounting.
But there is still a bunch of stuff where the tax treatment is different:
- Interest is fully tax deductible for a company. But – if that cost is part of an asset – it is added to the cost of the asset and then depreciated for accounting. And the depreciation will cause a reduction in the profits over say – if a building – 40-50 years. So for tax interest reduces taxable profit immediately while for accounting 1/50th of it reduces accounting profits over the next 50 years.
- Replacements to parts of buildings that aren’t depreciable for tax can – like interest – receive an immediate tax deduction. But for accounting a new roof or hot water tank are added to the depreciable cost of the building and written off over the life of the asset.
- Dodgy debts from customers work the other way. Accounting takes an expense when they are merely doubtful. But for tax they have to actually be bad before they can be a tax deduction.
These things used to be known as timing differences as it was just timing between when tax and accounting recognised the expense.
And then the difference between the actual cash tax and the tax expense becomes a deferred tax asset or liability. It is an asset where more tax has been paid than the accounting expense and a liability where less tax has been paid than the expense.
And the fact that these two numbers are different does not mean anyone is being deceptive. They just have different raisons d’etre. Now if anyone wants to know how much actual tax is paid – the best places to look are the imputation account or the cash flow statement. The actual cash tax lurks in those places.
But yeah it does look like actual tax. I mean it is called tax expense.
Your correspondent has memories of the public comment when the banking cases started to leak out. I still remember one morning making breakfasts and school lunches when on Morning Report some very important banking commentator was talking. He was saying that the cases seemed surprising coz looking at the accounts the tax expense ratio seemed to be 30%. [33% stat rate at the time]. But that 3% of the accounting profits was still a large number and so possibly worthy of IRD activity.
Dude – no one would have been going after a 3% difference.
In those cases conduit tax relief on foreign income was being claimed on which NRWT was theoretically due if that foreign income were ever paid out. So because of this the tax relief being claimed never showed up in the accounts as it was like always just timing.
Except that the wheeze was there was no actual foreign income. It was all just rebadged NZ income. And yeah that income might be paid out sometime while the bank was a going concern. So it stayed as part of the tax expense. Serindipitously giving a 30% accounting effective tax rate while the actual tax effective tax rate was 6%.
And a lot of these issues are acknowledged by EY on page 13 of under ‘pitfalls’.
So yeah foreign multinationals – like their domestic counterparts – may well have accounting tax expense ratios of 28%. But whether anyone is paying their fair share though – only Inland Revenue will know.
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.
Or more particularly let’s talk about the recent Australian transfer pricing case Chevron.
In a week when Inland Revenue announced a major restructure which will involve staff now needing ‘broad skill ranges’; it made me think of the type of work I used to do there – international tax.
It was true that my job needed skills other than technical ones:
- keeping your cool when being verbally attacked by the other side;
- being able to explain technical stuff to people ‘who don’t know anything about tax’ – aka anyone at Inland Revenue not in a direct tax technical function;
- ensuring the bright young ones got opportunities and didn’t get lost in the system; and
- generally ‘leveraging’ my networks to support those who were doing cutting edge stuff but not getting cut through doing things the ‘right’ way.
But otherwise what I did required a quite narrow specialised technical skill range. And that was good as it allowed me and my colleagues to focus on one particular area so we could be credible and effective. You know kinda like professional firms do?
As an aside I am not sure how this broad skill ranges thing ties in with the original business case – page 36 – which alluded to the workforce becoming more knowledge based. Coz knowledge-based work is kinda specialised not broad. But then the proposals are coming from a Commissioner who has a legal obligation to protect both the integrity of the tax system as well as the medium to long term sustainability of the department so I am sure she knows what she is doing.
Wonder what the penalties are for breaching those provisions? But I digress.
Back to me. The international tax I did though was actually quite broad compared to the work my colleagues did in transfer pricing. That was eye wateringly specialised and quite rightly so. These were the girls and boys who were on the frontline with the real multinationals like Apple, Google, Uber and the like.
The guts of the case is that Chevron Australia set up a subsidiary in the US which borrowed money from third parties for – let us say – not very much and on lent it to Chevron Australia for – let us say – loads. And it was with a facility of 2.5 billion US dollars. Now you can kinda imagine the difference between not very much and loads on that was a f$cktonne of interest deductions – see why I get obsessed with interest – and therefore profit shifting from Australia to the US.
Now even though it was a subsidiary of Chevron Australia; the Australian CFC rules don’t seem to apply to the US. Coz comparatively taxed country – thank god we don’t have those rules anymore. And the judgment says it wasn’t taxed in the US either. Didn’t spell out why but I am guessing as the Australian companies are Pty ones – check the box stuff – they get grouped in the US somehow. No biggie for US but bucket loads less tax than they would otherwise pay in Australia.
And according to Chevron it was like totes legit. Coz loads is the market price for lots of really risky unsecured debt. I mean seriously dude like look up finance theory.
To which the seriously unbroad people in the Australian Tax Office said – yeah nah. Theory is like only part of it. The test is what would happen with an independent party in that situation.
- Option one – the seriously risky party ponies up with guarantees from those who aren’t seriously risky. You know how those millennials who buy houses and don’t eat smashed avocado do when their parents guarantee their loans? It is the same with big multinationals.
- Option two – banks don’t lend. So just like for all the milennials who don’t own houses but who do eat smashed avocado and don’t have rich parents.
And the Australian court thought about it all – pointed at the unbroad public servants – and said:
“What they said. Chevron you are talking b%llcocks. The arms length price is one an independent party like millennials would actually pay. This includes guarantees and you price on those facts. Not the fantasy nonsense you are spouting.”
Well broadly. Actual wording may vary. Read the judgments.
Now these are seriously useful judgments – internationally – for the whole multinationals paying their fair share thing. Let’s just hope New Zealand keeps the people who can apply them.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about how retirement villages don’t pay much tax.
Your correspondent has just returned from Auckland having: topped up her CPD hours; seen old friends and talked with tax peeps. And in that short period while I was away another industry was outed as being non-taxpaying. Now it is retirement villages and they aren’t even foreign.
But don’t panic. Steven Joyce says Inland Revenue is reviewing sectors of the economy which has low tax to accounting profits. And if there is a policy problem it can be put on the policy work programme. Phew.
Now as I have 5 days to complete 3 major pieces of assessment from my yoga course I have had two months to do – the sensible thing would be to put this issue down and pick it up after I have done my assessment. Coz it is not like they about to start taxpaying anytime soon.
But the issue is really interesting.
I am sure 4 days is enough to do all that other work. And I do need breaks from all that right brained stuff. I mean isn’t yoga all about balance?
So let’s have a look at the public stuff dear readers and see if we can’t unpick why these lovely people – much like our multinational friends – aren’t major contributors to the fisc. Now I know there are a few different operators but I thought I’d have a look at Ryman. Who may or may not be representative of the rest of them.
Tax actually paid
Now their tax stuff is interesting. Accounting tax expense of $3.9 million on an accounting profit of $305 million. But accounting tax expense is a total distraction if you want to know how much tax is actually paid. Why? Different rules. Future post I think.
Next place to look – imputation account which increased by $37,000. That can be real tax but can also include imputation credits from dividends received. So close but no cigar.
And then there is the oblique reference in note 4 to their tax losses in New Zealand having increased from $2.5 million in 2015 to $17.9 million in 2016. Bingo! That looks like they made a tax loss of $15 million in 2016 when they made an accounting profit of $305 million. Nice work if you can get it.
Ok now before we get into some exciting detail let’s have a think about what these retirement villages actually do. They can provide hospital services; some provide cafeterias; and they generally keep the place maintained. But mostly they ‘sell’ lifetime rights to apartments and flats on their premises.
And it is this lifetime rights/apartment thing that is – in your correspondents view – the most interesting.
Looking at Ryman’s accounts and marketing material the deal seems to be residents provide an occupancy advance and get to have undisturbed use of an apartment until they ‘leave’. On ‘departure’ the right will be ‘resold’ and the former resident gets back wot they paid less some fees.
So the retirement village gets the benefit of any capital gain on the apartment as well as the benefit of forgone interest payable on the advance. All comparable to a ‘normal’ landlord who would receive the benefit of rent and capital gain on their property.
And like a ‘normal’ landlord they don’t really know how long the resident or tenant will want to stay. It could be one day or 30 years. But economically this doesn’t matter as the longer the resident stays the less in NPV terms the retirement village has to pay back. So whether landlord gets rent or repayable occupancy advance they both give the same outcome pretax and pre accounting rules. That is with rent over a long period you get lots of rent; with interest free occupancy advances over a long period you get lots of not having to pay interest.
However this isn’t how it pans out for accounting or tax.
For accounting the advances are carried at full value because they could be called immediately – occupancy advances in section j of Significant Accounting Policies. And because of this there is no time value of money benefit ever turning up in the Profit and Loss account – or what ever it is called now. Unlike rent which would get booked to the P&L when it was earned.
And tax is equally interesting. The Ryman gig seems to be that for the occupancy advance the resident gets title under the Unit Titles Act and a first mortgage for the period they are in the property. Fabulous.
Unfortunately your correspondent is about as far away from a property lawyer as it comes. But according to my property law advisor Wikipedia; a leasehold estate is where a person holds a temporary right to occupy land. Kinda looks like what is happening here. So that would be taxable under the land provisons. And even if it isn’t taxable there – to your correspondent – it looks pretty taxable as business income.
But in either case that involves taxing the entire advance and not just the interest benefit. Seems a bit mean.
True. But let’s look at deductions before we call meanness.
Tax deductions are allowed when expenses are incurred or legally committed to. Not when actually paid. So if you are a yoga teacher and you commit to a Tiffany Cruikshank course in Cadiz in May 2017 – she is here in Wellington ATM so exciting – paying the USD 500 deposit in April 2016 you can take a deduction for the full amount of USD 2790 in the 2016/17 tax year. Even though you don’t pay it until closer to the actual course. Tax geeks yeah I am talking about Mitsubshi.
So for our retirement village friends as they are committed to repaying the occupancy advance in the future on the day they receive it. Immediate deductibility which cancels any taxable income. Mmm.
Tbf though the tax act isn’t big on the whole time value of money thing.
Financial arrangement rules
The exception is the financial arrangement rules where embedded interest can be spread over the term of the loan. And there is even a specific determination that deals with retirement villages. Now that seems to have more bells and whistles than is obvious from Ryman’s accounts so not entirely sure it relates to them. But there is one bit that could apply as the determination does say that the repayable occupancy advance is considered to be a loan.
Except even this gives no taxable income. This is because value coming in is compared to expected value going out. And of course THEY ARE THE SAME AMOUNT! So nowt to bring in as income.
Fixing this gap it would involve imputing some form of interest benefit that was in lieu of rent. But what interest rate to use? What is the term? And then there is the whole thing that no one actually sees it as a lease agreement. Everyone sees it as ‘ownership’ with a guaranteed sale price back.
Also entirely possible that what I consider to be blindingly obvious; cleverer people than me may consider to be – well – wrong.
Then we get to much more old school techniques interest deductions to earn capital gains. And here Ryman seems to capitalise interest into new builds – section e of Significant Accounting Policies – rather than expense it for accounting. So there will be whole bunch of interest expense that isn’t in the P&L that will be on the tax return.
Unrealised capital gains
And finally thanks to NZ IRFS 13 – really does roll off the tongue doesn’t it – their accounting profits note 7 include a bunch of revaluations on their investment properties which I am guessing is the apartments. Bugg€r with this is that even a realised capital gains tax wouldn’t touch this and doesn’t look like these guys sell. Gareth’s thing though would work a treat as all the unrealised gains are on the balance sheet.
So here we have a property business that gets interest deductions; doesn’t pay tax on its capital gains or its imputed rent. Gains go on the P&L but not the interest expense. All while being totally compliant with tax and accounting.
No wonder they are share market darlings.
Thinking about the occupancy advances some more – depending on the counterfactual – maybe the value is in the tax system already as a reduced interest deduction.
The properties need funding somehow. Usually the options are debt which generates a deductible interest payment; equity which is subject to imputation or a combination of both. Here the assets are partially funded by the interest free occupancy advance. If the residents just paid rent – the assets would then need more capital. This could be completely debt funded which would mostly offset the rental income. May even exceed it if there was an expectation of a large capital gain. So while the occupancy advance is not in the tax system; neither is the extra interest deduction.
So maybe it is all an old school interest deduction for untaxed capital gain thing. But one for which a realised CGT would be useless as they don’t sell.
May need to look at Gareth’s thing again.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about tax and fairness.
On leaving the bureaucracy last year there were two issues that drove me absolutely mental and I wanted to put my energies into. The first was the rising prison population at a time of falling crime rates and the second was homelessness. Since then with the former I have become the policy coordinator for JustSpeak and a trustee for Yoga Education in Prisons Trust. For the latter – zip.
So with that in mind I went to a recent Labour Party thing on Housing stuff. But about mid way Phil Twyford said that the Labour Party in its first term of office was going to do a comprehensive review of the tax system to improve its fairness. Now I have heard them talk about this before – but comprehensive review. Wow.
Since then Andrew Little has said they aren’t putting up taxes. So maybe this means this working group will be ‘tax neutral’ in the way Bill English’s was?
Now on the basis that this isn’t simply code for a capital gains tax, I thought I’d do a bit of a scan as to what this could mean in practice. My focus will be on the revenue positive items as the tax community will have their own laundry list of revenue negative ‘unfairnesses’ they will want fixing.
But first I am going to get over myself. Yes fairness could mean a poll tax but when the Left talks about tax and fairness it is implicitly a combination of horizonal and vertical equity. Horizontal equity where all income is taxed the same way and Vertical equity where tax rises in proportion to income.
Alternatively tax and fairness to the Left can also mean using the tax system to remove or reduce structural inequities in the economy and not just in the tax system itself. So here we go:
Now the most obvi unfair thing is the way capital income is taxed more lightly than labour income. Always loved Andrew Little’s comment about the average Auckland house earning more than the average Auckland worker. Dunno why he doesn’t use it more.
Now the lighter taxation might be there for some good reasons including:
- Long periods before it is realised. Is it fair to tax people when don’t have cash to pay the tax?
- Valuation issues. Although this goes once move to realisation based taxes.
- International norm. Soz unfortunately everyone taxes capital more lightly – sigh.
- Lock in effect. If have to pay tax would you ever sell?
- Incentive for entrepreneurship which is a good thing apparently.
Oh and not being able to get elected.
Options include a realised capital gains tax or Gareth’s wealth taxation thing. Both have issues but both would be an improvement if fairness or horizontal equity is your thing.
Alongside the not taxing capital gains is that we don’t tax imputed rents. Remember how owning your own home is effectively paying non-deductible rent to yourself and earning taxable rent? Except the value of the rent is not taxed? Awesome. But its non-taxation also offends the horizontal equity thing – even if it is your house – and so is unfair.
Active income of controlled foreign companies
New Zealand companies that earn foreign business income in their own names are taxed. New Zealand companies that earn foreign income through a foreign company aren’t. Why? International norm. Not fair but everyone else does that too. Also brought in by Michael Cullen. Nuff said.
Capital or wealth taxation
While Gareth’s thing is potentially wealth taxation it really is taxation of an imputed or deemed return on wealth rather than a tax on wealth per se. Actually taxing capital or wealth is where inheritance or gift duties come in.
Now neither of them are actually income taxes. They are outright taxes on capital. And if that capital arose from taxed income then would be very unfair to tax. However not entirely sure that is the case and these taxes are relatively painless as they tax windfalls; don’t effect behaviour and only apply to the well off. So they potentially promote fairness from a ‘reducing inequality’ sense rather than a horizontal or vertical equity sense.
There are a few things here. There are all the issues with interest and capital gains but they reduce if you ever tax capital gains or do Gareth’s thing. Others include:
- Borrowing for PIE investment can get deductions at 33% while PIE income is taxed at 28%
Donations tax credit
Now this isn’t an obvious one as everyone can get a third back of their donations up to their total taxable income. So that is pretty fair. But the more taxable income you have the more subsidy you get. And it can go to a decile 10 school; your own personal charity or a church with an interesting back story. But dude – seriously – who can afford to give away all their taxable income? Perhaps worth a little look.
Labour income that is earned as an employee is subject to PAYE and no deductions are allowed. Labour income that is earned as a contractor is only sometimes subject to withholding taxes and deductions are allowed. Aside from deductions which are likely to be pretty minimal with most employee type jobs – there is an evasion risk when people become responsible for their own tax. Spesh when such people are on very low incomes. Whole bunch of other ‘fairness’ issues too like access to employment law; but this is just a tax post.
Labour – and any income – can also be earned through a company. And a company is only taxed at 28% while the top rate is 33%. So if you don’t need all that income to live off you can decide how much stays in the company and how much you pay yourself. Is that fair?
Now of course there is always the old staple – increasing the top marginal tax rate. And yes that does enhance vertical equity but it also causes other problems elsewhere. So if you are going to make the system more misaligned please make sure that it doesn’t become the backdrop for widespread income shifting as it did last time.
Oh and secondary tax. Now there are many things that are unfair including precarious work and over taxation. Not sure secondary tax is one of them. While you have a progressive tax scale and multiple income sources – you get secondary tax. It appears that under BT – page 22 – the edges can be taken off getting a special tax code which should help but secondary tax in some form is structurely here to stay.
Look forward to it all playing out.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about Oxfam’s recent press release on inequality and tax.
Now dear readers when I moved to weekly – hah – posting it was because this blog was supposed to be my methadone programme. Getting me off tax and on to other issues. So when I posted last night – after having posted 3 times last week – I gave myself a good talking to. This had to stop. One post a week was quite enough to keep the cravings at bay. To continue in this vein would risk a relapse.
But this morning while I was getting dressed my husband came and turned on the radio. Rachel LeMesurier from Oxfam was talking about inequality and then she talked about tax and then Stephen Joyce came on and then he talked about tax and then he talked about BEPS.
Just one more little post won’t hurt I am sure and I’ll cut down next week honest.
Oxfam has compared the wealth of 2 New Zealand men Graham Hart and Richard Chandler to the bottom 30% of all adult New Zealanders. Now the inclusion of Richard Chandler seems to be a rhetorical device as from what I can tell he hasn’t lived here since 2006. So very unlikely to be resident for tax purposes.
In the interview Rachael Le M also made reference to the tax loopholes that support such wealth. So using what is public information about Graham Hart and what is public about the tax rules I thought I’d make a stab at setting out what these ‘loopholes’ are.
Now first dear readers please put out of your head anything you have heard about BEPS or diverted profit tax or any of the ways that the nasty multinationals don’t ‘pay their fair share of tax.’ None and I repeat none of this is relevant when dealing with our own people. It might be relevant for the countries they deal with but not for New Zealand. I am hoping that officials will also explain this to new MoF Steven Joyce as when he came on to reply to Rachael – he talked all about BEPS. Face palm.
Graham Hart is a serial business owner. Buying them sorting them out and then selling off the bits he doesn’t want all with a view to building up a Packaging empire. A Rank Group Debt google search also indicates that a substantial proportion of all this buying and selling was done through debt. And at times quite low quality debt which would indicate a proportionately higher interest rate. A number of his businesses are offshore.
So then what ‘loopholes’ – or gaps intended by Parliament – could Mr Hart be exploiting?
The first and most obvious one is that there is unlikely to be any tax on any of the gains made each time he sold an asset or business. The timeframes and lack of a particular pattern – as much as Dr Google can tell me – would indicate that the gains would not be taxable.
The second is that income from the active foreign businesses will be tax exempt and any dividends paid back to a New Zealand will also not be taxed. Trust me on this. I’ll take you all through this another day.
The third relates to debt. Even though it assists in the generation of capital gains and/or the exempt foreign income it will be fully deductible. Now because of the exempt foreign income there will potentially be interest restrictions if the debt of the NZ group exceeds 75% of the value of the assets. A restriction true but not an excessive one given exempt income is being earned.
Now also in Oxfam’s press statement is a reference to a third of HWIs not paying the top tax rate. I am guessing some version of one and three plus the ability to use losses from past business failures is the reason.
Unsurprisingly Eric Crampton of the New Zealand Institute is not sympathetic to Oxfam’s views and points to our housing market as the main driver of inequality. So then in terms of tax and housing the other tax ‘loophole’ then would be the exclusion of imputed rents from the tax base.
Now one answer could be Gareth’s proposal. That is if someone could explain to me how to tax ‘productive capital as measured in the capital account of the National Income Accounts’ in a world where tax is based on financial accounts according to NZIFRS.
The second could be a capital gains tax even on realisation and the third some form interest restriction or clawback when a capital gain is realised. Oh and taxing imputed rents.
How politically palatable is this? Not very given National, Labour, Act, New Zealand First and United Future are all opposed to a capital gains tax – at least Labour for their first term.
But then maybe it is stuff for Labour’s working group. Will be interested to see this all play out.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about the Republican party’s recent proposal to impose ‘border adjustments’ as a reform of their corporate tax system.
To date this has passed me by. Slowly though things have percolated up to various feeds I follow. All talking about how Trump can balance the budget and punish companies that export jobs. The first I saw looked like a GST where imports are taxed and exports aren’t. Fair enough I thought if the US wants to impose import duties – ok but nothing to do with me. I do income tax not tariffs. I won’t be commenting. Good luck with the WTO on that. And our US tax treaty only covers federal income taxes not value added taxes so no issue there.
Then I saw something that said it was income tax. Sales to foreigners wouldn’t be taxed and purchases from foreigners wouldn’t get deductions. And no interest deductions coz it was a cashflow tax. Whoa I thought – that’s odd. How do you deny interest deductions as they are a cashflow? And what about restricting deductions for local purchase costs when you aren’t taxing foreign income? How’s that going to work?
But in that article Professor Alan Auerbach is talking positively about the proposals. Penny dropped.
A few years ago Prof A came to New Zealand with some other academics and gave two presentations on destination taxation that I am embarrassed to say did not understand one word of. Awesome so that is what this is about and I will have to do some actual work to comment rather than accessing my increasingly failing tax memory.
Having now done some work – that is I found the good professor’s 2010 paper and read it – I can see why I didn’t understand. It is a major change in how income tax systems work and so nothing really would have resonated.
Now let’s see if I can paraphrase the 29 pages.
Focus is on taxing cashflows that originate in the US – so:
- Foreign sales not taxed;
- Foreign purchases not deductible;
- All domestic purchases – including capital items – are deductible;
- All domestic borrowings – full amount borrowed not typo keep breathing – are taxable;
- All domestic lending is deductible; and
- Foreign borrowing and foreign lending – not respectively deductible or taxable.
Wow just wow. So wish I had followed this when Prof A came out. I would have had soooo many questions.
The advantages of this are said to be:
- Tidies up the US treatment of foreign income and removes the incentive to move US income to havens because the US would tax it even less. Yep agreed.
- Treats debt and equity equally and removes the tax preference for debt. Yep does that too as while capital items are fully deductible the full amount that is borrowed – so long as it is borrowed domestically – is taxed.
Issues with this though kinda are:
- Not only originally US income could find its way back from abroad. So could most actual foreign income actually earned overseas – as Auerbach is proposing the US become the MacDaddy of tax havens.
- No deductions for foreign purchases but deductions for the same domestic purchase. Mmm what does that sound like? Ah discrimination according to the US/NZ treaty – is what it sounds like. Article 23(4) to be precise.
- Foreign purchases not deductible but domestic sales taxable. Mmm how long will it be before foreign subs start servicing the US market? Now that can be stopped if they reform their controlled foreign company (CFC ) rules – but a CFC is by definition foreign – and isn’t foreign stuff out. It can also be stopped through a reform of the permanent establishment rules as proposed by the OECD but isn’t that a nasty pinko Obama thing?
- Domestic borrowings fully taxable but foreign borrowings not. Too easy. Bye bye local banks. Hello City of London.
There are other things like I am not at all sure that full deductibility for long lived assets is at all the right policy as it doesn’t match the decline in their economic life. So the longer lived the asset the greater the tax expenditure – because why? Is there a shortage of long lived assets in the US economy? And accelerated depreciation was the basis for the double dip leases that were all the rage around and before 2000. But maybe the requirement that the asset has to be in the US will protect them this time.
Now that was 2010 and an academic paper. Let’s see what has actually proposed by policy makers – Paul Ryan nonetheless.
Paul Ryan’s 2016 tax policy allows: full deductions for capital expenditure; repatriation of foreign dividends tax free; ‘border adjustment’ aka taxing imports and exempting exports; ‘streamlining’ subpart F aka CFC rules and denying deductibility for net interest. So pretty much Professor Auerbach’s proposal with a corporate tax cut to 20c and not the foreign bank preference.
As a big interest whinger – here, here and here – I am going to be really interested to see how interest denials stay the course. The rest of the proposal looks pretty standard right wing with a bit of foreign bashing with the foreign purchase deduction denial. But denying interest – wow – that is huge. Further than I would go even with a reduced corporate tax rate. But then maybe the interest deductions will flow into foreign countries at the same time the income is flowing out. All the more reason for New Zealand to a make sure we have interest deductions for non- residents properly sorted. Next week’s post promise.
In Paul Ryan’s thing there are some spurious references to the WTO and how they are mean to the US – I think that is called doing their job – but no reference to the tax treaty breaches. But the IRS international tax counsel know all about these issues and I hope they are being funded properly – coz buckle up boys – their competent authorities are about to get really busy. Oh and it’s Article 23(3) in the US treaty with China.
And the servicing of the US from say Canada and Mexico – don’t know how far drones can fly – pretty sure though it’s higher than the average wall or fence. But that is my bet as to what will happen when imports are denied a tax deduction. Not more tax revenue and not more jobs. And lots of warning for the companies who can start looking at border real estate. Just like the GOP – so very business friendly.
Yep. Making America great again – one own goal at a time.