My fair tax review
So the details of this government’s tax review is out.
Depending on who you read it will either be revolutionary or not radical.
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.
Fairly efficient or efficiently fair?
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.
And who do the private equity lot include? Pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and charities who have zero tax rates.
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.