Let’s tax about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about Australia’s proposal for a reduced tax rate for small business.
Ok yes I am excited. A new government. A Labour led government. And a young woman as a Prime Minister. Mostly what I hoped for as I climbed the millions of steps to door knock in Wellington. My left leg is almost recovered too. Thanks for asking.
And as if all of this wasn’t exciting enough two of my young friends Talia Smart and Matt Woolley won the Robin Oliver tax competition. Talia on Charities and Business and Matt on the integration of the company and personal tax. I hope to cover their papers once they become public.
Oh and Stuart Nash has won the pools and become Minister of Revenue.
So big congrats to Talia, Matt and Hon Stu. Expecting great things from you all.
We should hear about the tax working group soon. A group that as well as looking as the fairness thing for tax is also looking at housing affordability. And as of today is now looking at whether small businesses should have a lower tax rate. Like wot Australia has.
Now as hadn’t really paid any attention to this dear readers now seems like an opportune time to have a look. Apparently in 2016 the Australian government reduced the tax rate on companies with a low turnover who were in business like this:
Now there is a thing that if the turnover is more than 80% passive income – dividends and the like – the lower rate doesn’t apply. But 75% alg. And the turnover thing seems to have a group concept in it – so that is something. No splitting up companies – in theory anyway.
Tbh it looks like a fiscal thing. Reducing the company tax rate but it a way that doesn’t all go to the nasty big companies. Some of whom will be foreign. So will cost less than a simple company tax reduction.
Conceptually a tax cut for small business – not nasty big business – what’s not to love? The tax equivalent of free doctors visits. It does have a few downsides:
- At the margin may inhibit growth. Coz who wants to grow and get a higher tax rate?
- Incentivise passive holding companies. 80% is still pretty and
- (You guessed it) incentivise recharacterisation of other higher taxed forms of income. Aka alignment issues.
As we have discussed before dear readers – alignment matters. Whether it is misalignment of the trust and top rate or the company and the top rate. Income will gravitate to its lowest taxed form. Now if that income stays in the company and helps it grow. Alg. Effectively a tax subsidy for small business who might use this money to – say – help offset the higher minimum wage.
But it also might further incentivise the whole ‘salary at $70k’ thing; an overdrawn current account; and dodgy as dividend stripping. Because with small business the corporate veil in practice is pretty thin. The shareholders, the company and the senior employees are all the same people. And as we saw last week, small business isn’t as tax pure as maybe first thought.
The tax avoidance provision will help but is no way to run a tax system. Maybe we’ll need some tighter rules on getting money out of a company. That has merit regardless.
Will be interesting to see what the working group thinks about it.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about about a case I mentioned last week in the alignment post. It was quite controversial at the time within the tax community and did leak out a bit into the general public. As is often the ‘case’ tax is just an overlay on other interesting stuff.
Also thought of it again wot with the junior doctors strike and how the consultants would be helping over that period. I guess coz its Health that means its not strike breaking?
Anyway back to the case. Penny and Hooper (last names) were both specialist doctors earning shed loads of cash in Christchurch fixing the bung knees of those who were in denial about the length of their running careers and had yet to find yoga.
Now these gentlemen were unremarkable in that they weren’t big on paying tax according to the progressive tax scales that applied to little people and so adopted a structure recommended by their accountant. I mean everyone was doing it and what could possibly go wrong. In fact even John Shewan – of Shewan report fame – said it was bog standard behaviour.
The wheeze was that they put their businesses into a trust which at that time had a lower tax rate (33%) than the little people faced who earned over $60,000 ( threshold increased at some point but detail not relevant) 39%.
The Commissioner who was a he at the time – yes Virginia men can be senior public servants – was not best pleased. He used a bunch of words like ‘tax avoidance’,’market salary’ and ‘not’and made them pay tax like the little people. Go Team Commissioner.
The tax community also used a bunch of words like ’emmently foreseeable’; ‘lack of certainty’; and ‘chilling effect on investment’. Well maybe not the last set but that is never far away when the big people are being made to pay tax.
Anyway the Commissioner won; tax accountants lost; largely graciously ate that and everyone moved on to the next tax dept v tax community stousch.
There was some commentary at the time about how this was more than a tax case – at which point I got very excited – only to find it was about trusts could be looked through and weren’t as inviolable as people thought.
But what was never discussed was how two men who were educated at the state’s expense presumably before student loans; weren’t bonded; and whose business was almost wholly paid for by the taxpayer via ACC were earning so much money. I guess it was before the days of ‘joined up government’.
I also guess Labour’s ‘three years free’ policy will also remove what little royalty we currently get from the taxpayers’ investment in such lovely people.
All the more reason then guys to make sure misalignment works and they do actually pay the top tax rate.
Let’s talk about tax (and tax rate alignment).
Your (foreign) correspondent is finishing up her ‘retirement cruise’ and gearing up to make that execrable journey home – also known as long distance economy class travel.
The yoga is going well too – thanks for asking – even without regular access to a studio. In large part to now knowing how alignment needs to work with my skeleton rather than that of a textbook Indian man.
So I have been thinking about this, how foreign tax systems are pretty much all misaligned, and that I promised to talk about the tail chasing stuff needed to make a higher top marginal tax rate work – or at least not not work. Because like misaligned bodies in yoga; misaligned tax systems also need props to work.
So today dear readers you get top personal tax rate alignment issues.
A couple of years ago while I was still a Treasury official I was at a social engagement and found myself talking to a Greens’ supporter. We were talking about the Christchurch earthquake and the rebuild and stuff – yes I do have all the fun – and the convo went something like this:
GS: You may remember that Russel proposed an earthquake levy as a means for the whole of the country to support Christchurch.
Me: yeah I remember that and on the face of it it did have merit – the problem is that whenever you increase the gap between the personal rates and the trust and company rate – you get people moving income into different forms. You may not collect all you think you will.
GS: [eye roll] you’re not one of those people are you? Other countries cope.
Well yeah I am ‘one of those people’. I really do like alignment and again not from a ‘purity of the tax system’ thing but because – like keeping R&D tax incentives out of the tax system – it serves us. It serves us because no matter how clever people want to get with their structuring – you always get the same result.
Alignment – like a capital gains tax is not a silver bullet and – doesn’t mean:
- everyone magically starts earning income in their own names or
- income that isn’t taxed magically starts becoming taxed
It just means that there is no incentive to start finding a bunch of non-tax commercial reasons that coincidently mean current taxable income is now earned in different lower taxed forms.
But next lefty government if you do want to raise the top rate for individuals – you are going to need some tax props to stop or reduce the tax injuries. That is how othe countries cope. Have a look at page 36 of IRD’s 2005 BIM.
First thing that is beyond key is the trust or trustee tax rate. This must be raised too as income taxed at the trustee rate can be then given to beneficiaries without any more tax to pay. Australia has. All the Penny and Hooper drama happened because the trustee rate wasn’t raised too.
However there are potentially some collateral damage issues from this – aka political risk:
- Will estates
- Trusts for the ‘handicapped child’ or the disabled relative
Australia deals with these respectively by taxing at the progressive tax scale and giving the Commissioner a discretion to alter the rate. In the last – and possibly both – cases face palm. Given our tax administration’s aging computer and business transformation programme – a better option would be treating them like widely held superannuation funds and giving them the company tax rate.
You could also do something like giving them a non-refundable tax credit to get the rate back down to 33%. That technology was used in cashing out R&D losses. But this is all second order design detail and nothing officials and/or your working group can’t sort out. No biggie. It might be a bit messy but nothing compared to the carnage involved with not aligning the trust rate.
Next issue is companies and that is a bit harder. I am assuming raising the company tax rate is off the agenda – yeah thought so.
Misalignment with the company rate – as we do now – is marginally less risky as distributions from companies – dividends – are taxed in the hands of the shareholders. And they use my personal favourite technology – the withholding tax. There is currently an additional withholding tax on dividends when they are paid bringing total tax up to 33%.
You could keep the additional withholding tax at 5% and make people file who need to pay more tax – as there was no withholding at all last time there was a 33% company rate and a 39% top rate. But there also wasn’t alignment with trusts and that went well.
Or you could raise the withholding tax to – say – 11c and people who need refunds would then need to file. Or possibly a progressive withholding system from say 5c to 11c. All technically possible. But all options will raise compliance costs on taxpayers and/or administration costs on IRD. And remember the aging computer thing?
The real issue is whether our dividend rules last properly looked at almost 25 years ago can stand the strain of say a 11c difference between the company rate and top personal rate. There are ultimately limits to how long people can pay themselves $70k salaries but have a $200k lifestyle. You need to make sure you get that extra 11c when they decide to sort out that gap.
Alternatively you may like to consider making the look through company rules compulsory for all closely held companies. This would mean the company wasn’t taxed and all the income went to shareholders personally.
Neither issue will need to be part of the first 100 days tax changing under urgency that is de rigeur for new governments. It can be sorted out with consulation and will be better for it. But you will need to be prepared to use these tax props if you don’t want the 2000 – 2009 mess again.
Think that’s it.
Hardest thing will be reprioritising the existing BT and BEPS work programme to get space for this and your new fairness working group stuff.