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 (havens).
After eight days on a yoga course the role of balance in postures and in life was a recurring theme. And upon finishing the course this was brought home to me quite starkly. As after eight days of sequencing Sun A and B without naming the poses, understanding my inner child and hugging people that were a week ago complete strangers – your correspondent spent the subsequent week talking about multinationals and tax havens.
Yin and yang. Perhaps not as it is traditionally known but defo in my life.
Now my views on multinationals are ‘on the record’ but I realised I haven’t ever properly discussed tax havens.
Putting aside for a moment that no country has ever owned up to being a tax haven. And so much like the term ‘fat’ – it is in the eye of the beholder.
There are a number of criteria floating around but really they can be summarised as:
- low or no tax and
So yeah for New Zealand and foreign trusts pre Shewan report probs more tax haveny than not and post Shewan less tax haveny than not.
In the campaigns against them, tax havens are often swept up with the ‘multinationals – bad’ messaging. And the story goes something like this:
Multinationals strip profits from developing countries to tax havens. No tax paid in developing country or tax haven. Profits then not sent home coz they don’t want to pay tax on them. Double non-taxation – bad thing – everyone loses.
But in that story there are 2 quite distinct players:
- The developing country who is capital importing and
- the home country who is capital exporting.
The concerns of the developing or capital importing country – of which New Zealand is one – is to ensure that some tax is paid for the use of resources or on the location specific rents.
The concerns of the home or capital exporting country is to ensure that it receives some tax – after foreign tax is paid – for the capital invested.
Traditionally these two concerns have been reconciled through the OECD model for tax treaties. Broadly the approach is to let the source or capital importing country tax first but not too much. Then let the residence country also tax the income but give a tax credit for tax paid at the source country level.
Now that all works beautifully when structures are very simple and the person earning the money in the source country belongs to the capital exporting country. It becomes much more complicated when even simple entites like companies are in the mix. And it all starts to completely break down when tax paid in the capital importing country has no value as a tax credit to the ultimate owner of the capital.
Coming back to tax havens. For capital exporting countries where the multinationals are headquartered, tax havens then are a complete bugg@r. They potentially – will come back to this – put a block on the return on capital from the source country to them.
For capital importing countries like NZ the issue is not so clear. As IMHO isn’t the real concern returns leaving the country untaxed rather than where they go? Coz we have already seen with the use of hybrids it is quite possible for tax to be paid nowhere without a tax haven in sight. Also that income could also be directed to companies in the international group that were otherwise loss making – cross border loss refreshment. So really for capital importing countries, tax havens are just a tool in the mix rather than the definitive source of tax badness.
The story with tax havens being a blight on developing nations is also more nuanced than would first appear as they are often tax havens themselves. Vanuatu? Cooks? Admittedly more low rent – and therefore I would imagine more exploitable – than say Jersey or Bermuda but they still turn up on lists of potential havens.
Also capital exporting and importing countries are not as powerless against tax havens as it would first appear.
For capital exporting countries there is a 50 plus year old tool called the controlled foreign company rules that can be used against tax havens. The way it works is to say – you know if any foreign company is ultmately controlled by anyone in our country – well guess what we want to tax that income too. Trick can be knowing that income exists and so that is why the disclosure campaigns, TIEAs and automatic exchange of information are so useful. And if there continues to be non- disclosure this ups the ante with the tax administration to become potentially tax evasion and the spectre of the prison wall.
For capital importing countries its weapon of choice is the even more old school withholding taxes. Payments made to tax havens can have tax withheld at what ever rate you choose if you don’t have a tax treaty with that country. And if the treaty is a problem – it can strictly speaking be withdrawn.
The fact that these don’t happen really – IMHO – comes down to an international consensus to tax capital income more lightly than labour income. Aggravated by:
- The zero rate of tax borne by charities and pension funds;
- The active income exemption from the controlled foreign company rules;
- Classical taxation of dividends.
None of which provide any incentive to pay tax at the source country or even the home country.
Now tax havens can still be annoying to New Zealand to the extent our people have undisclosed money offshore – and the non- complying trust is worthy of its own future post – but as a country we are a net capital importer and so have much the same issues as the developing countries. And at times the label tax haven comes our way too – fairly or not.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about secondary tax.
Early on in my mothering life as a good middle class parent your correspondent – or probs a family member as I was pretty much exhausted for the first couple of years with each baby – bought Dr Seuss’ ABC.
Aunt Abigail’s Alligator A – A – A
All the letters had rhymes with words that started with the ‘profiled’ letter. The exception – pun coming – was the letter X. Because I guess xylophone and xenophophia were outside the target range for preschoolers – the rhyme became X is very useful for words like ax (with no fricken e) and extra fox.
Now while I was still 5 plus years away from discovering tax, Mr your correpondent and I always read that as extra tax. Coz I mean what is an extra fox for goodness sake? Aunt Abigail’s Alligator now that makes sense but – Dude really – an extra fox? What’s that about?
Now amonst the Precariat secondary tax is very much considered to be an extra tax. And according to the Council of Trade Unions the Labour party has promised – as they did last election – to repeal it on coming to government.
Thing is they haven’t actually promised that. They have said in the detail of recommendation S8 that the Government as part of Inland Revenue’s business transformation should look to remove secondary tax. These are subtle but important distinctions which we will come back to. Lucky for them Labour actually has someone on their team that gets tax.
So what is secondary tax?
Well it is the tax deducted on second jobs. It is a function of having the progressive tax scale that the left loves so much.
First jobs get code M which I guess stands for main job. It takes the pay and multiplies it by the number of pay periods to get an annual amount ; calculates the tax and then divides that by the number of pay periods to get the tax for the income in the period. While it is relatively simple it does mean those with lumpy pays – overtime; seasonal workers – are overtaxed as a high pay is assumed to be a high annual income.
Second jobs however people have to choose a flat rate – secondary tax – based on how much they earn from other jobs. And there is a view – clearly shared by the CTU – that this overtaxes their income. Now it is true that it taxes second jobs more than first jobs but this is really just to reflect that extra income means higher tax.
Coz remember how progressive taxation means the more income you earn the proportionally greater tax you pay? Yeah well this is how it is implemented for those with second jobs und the current PAYE system.
Now I fully get that as it is a flat rate and if you don’t earn as much as you thought you will be over taxed. But that is a function of our PAYE system being inherently middle class. As it works beautifully for those on stable incomes ie salaries.
Everyone else with unstable incomes – even if it is only from one job – runs the risk of being overtaxed and then yes needing the claim a refund. And then yes if you go to those refund companies they’ll take a cut. There is an IRD option but they don’t have the marketing budget of the refund firms so it is less well known.
The real issue though is the changing face of employment and precarious work – something the Labour Party is at least acknowledging and trying to address. Yeah I am not sure about the training levy either – but at least they are trying.
So yeah trying to get BT to address lumpy incomes is a good idea. So good that Hon Mike may have his officials on it already.
Just repealing secondary tax though is a really dumb idea.
Unless you are happy with undertaxation and people needing to file and/or becoming non-compliant with all the associated risks. Alternatively it is an argument for widening the bottom bands. But rich people will get that benefit too. So Labour Party – trying to get technology to solve it is the right direction.
Real issue though is the numbers outside the withholding systems coz they’re not employees.
Let’s talk about tax, (withholding and labour hire firms).
Your (foreign) correspondent is in London this week catching up with friends and family over a quarter of a century since she arrived for her big OE. My timing was exquisite as the month I arrived – April 1990 – almost perfectly corresponded with the start of the Exchange Rate Mechanism recession and my departure in December 1993 with its ending.
Having lived through that I never want to live in a country again that does not have control of its monetary policy. For all Michael Reddell has concerns over Graeme Wheeler’s stewardship; what New Zealand is facing currently is nothing compared to what England in the early 90’s faced. That is being in recession with high interest rates all because Germany had inflationary pressures due to reunification.
The experience was all the more wonderful as my working career in New Zealand in the late 80’s as a junior accountant had involved losing my job twice without redundancy. Unlike a number of my peers though I was never unemployed. Had some less than wonderful employment experiences but never unemployed.
In April 1990 I had no idea though of the forthcoming recession and did what every other young antip professional did when arriving in London – I became a temp.
I worked for Warner Music using Lotus 123 to put together the monthly management accounts. This largely consisted on taking the general ledger and repackaging it into a usable form. It sounds easy but it wasn’t. My colleague whose desk was in front of mine did the same thing for the balance sheet. After several days and lots of checking with each other we would get the same number and we would stand up and high five each other. Yes we were cool. And our manager would then breathe a sigh of relief that he would be able to deliver that month.
I imagine Xero now does what Serjit and I did then.
Warner Music was based in North London – Alperton – and was a huge eyeopener for the white girl from Christchurch. Highlights included:
- My (Jewish) manager eating his bacon sandwich complaining like mad about the bombing of Jerusalem by Iraq because – it had interfered with the football game he was watching.
- Asking my very happily married (Sikh) colleague how he met his wife and being told it was arranged.
- That lots of the happily married young people in the warehouse and the office had arranged marriages.
- Being asked if New Zealand celebrated Christmas.
- Wearing jeans to work – it was a record company.
- Discovering that the white South African auditor was not only a perfectly reasonable human being – but that I had more in common with him than I did the English. FWIW the two of us discussing issues used to have the office in hysterics with our accents.
Anyway back to New Zealand tax. As a temp I worked for a labour hire company and not for Warner Music. The received wisdom was there were two ways I could be employed. Through my own personal services company which is what the cool kids did. They all had accountants and could claim expenses. Or through having PAYE deducted.
I cannot for the life of me remember why – but I went into the PAYE system. And oh man that was the right thing to do. I saved myself a world of pain because ultimately I saw the cool kids having to make appointments with accountants during chargeable work time; organise all their bank statements; and find cash for large tax payments. Although I didn’t see it I would imagine there was also a degree of just letting it all go and getting on a plane – effectively with their tax money -when their visa ended.
But all this ‘I am an independent contractor employed through a company’ stuff was a complete nonsense as they were employed by their labour hire firm as much as I was by mine.
Now Hon Mike is having a go at this nonsense in New Zealand. Nice one Hon Mike nice one. In the recent bill he is making labour hire firms withhold from all payments to all people and ‘companies’ they place. A good start. There is still all the people who contract outside those firms and whose activities are not on those schedules. You know – policy analysts for example. Next bill will be fine.
Recently the Labour party also had a go in this area trying to get the minimum wage legislation extended to contactors. The select committee report discusses the issues quite well including the general issue of the move from employees to contactors in the labour market which is of course a move out of withholding with the consequent risks to the PAYE tax base.
I was also pleased to see this discussion as in Budget 2012 the government replaced the child’s tax credit with a tax exemption for non PAYE income for children at school. David Cunliffe – I think – called it the Paper boy Tax budget. Nice line. But from the opposition there was a lot of wailing that these children would earn $20 for 5 hours work and now they would only get $17 because of tax. At the time I remember thinking:
- gosh that is a low hourly wage
- seriously – it is the tax that concerns you in that scenario?
But to be fair it was removed under budget night urgency where the opposition gets zero prep time. So with more prep we got the entirely sane and well thought out bill from David Parker. Tax however was missing.
It is entirely likely that such low income workers are using every dollar they earn and not meeting their tax obligations. Now Hon Mike you and I both know that this is called tax evasion. And you and I know this is a criminal offence; carrying a risk of a 150% penalty and jail time.
So Hon Mike how about a bit of joined up government. You already control the Revenue and Labour officials. Treasury whether it is Tax, Labour Markets and Welfare or Social Inclusion must also have a view.
And your government has made such an artform of swiping the best ideas from the opposition.
So go on. Nick this one too. Slap withholding obligations on the payer and call it your own.