I had thought this might be a good post for my young friends to sub in on. But quite quickly into the conversation it became clear there would need to be too many ‘but Andrea says’ interjections to make it technically right. So we decided that I should go it alone.
Now first of all the whole making multinationals pay tax thing is a bit of a comms mess so I thought I’d have a go at unpicking it.
The underlying public concern was, and is, based around large – often multinational – companies not paying enough tax. A recent article on my Twitter feed on Amazon earning $11.2 billion but paying no tax is pretty representative of the underlying concern.
Technically there were/are two reasons for this:
1) The ability to earn income without physically being in the country you earn the money from. This is primarily the digital issue.
2) Arbitraging and finding their way through different countries rules to overall lower tax paid worldwide. This is primarily an issue with foreign investment as such techniques really only worked with locally resident companies or branches.
In terms of the OECD work while it was 1) that kicked off the work – most of their action points have previously related to 2). That is – the base erosion part of base erosion and profit shifting.
In New Zealand there was a 2017 discussion document that was advanced by Judith Collins and Steven Joyce on the New Zealand specific bits of 2) which was then picked up and implemented by Stuart Nash and Grant Robertson.
And while the speech read by Michael Wood after Speaker Trevor got upset with Stuart for sitting down opens with a discussion of ‘the digital issue’, the bill was about increasing the taxation of foreign investment – ie 2) – not the tech giants. (1)
Current NZ proposal
Now Ministers Robertson and Nash have issued a discussion document proposing – maybe – a digital services tax if the OECD doesn’t get its act together.
Before we go any further one very key aspect here is the potential revenue to be raised. $30- $80 million dollars a year.
Now that may seem like a lot of money – and of course it is – but not really in tax terms. As a comparison $30 million was the projected revenue from a change to the employee shares schemes. Only insiders and my dedicated readers would even have been aware of this.
Now given the public concern and the size of the tech giants – with $30 million projected revenue – I would say either there really isn’t a problem or the base is wrong.
So what is the base? What is it that this tax will apply to?
Much like the Michael Wood/Stuart Nash speech, the problem is set out to be broad – digital economy including ecommerce (2) but then the proposed solution is narrow – digital services which rely on the participation of their user base (3).
This tax will apply to situations where the user is seen to be creating value for the company but this value is not taxed. The examples given are the content provided for YouTube and Facebook , the network effects of Google or the intermediation platforms of Uber and AirBnB.
And because of this, the base for the tax is the advertising revenue and fees charged for the intermediation services. Contrary to what the Prime Minister indicated it will not be taxing the underlying goods or services (4). It will tax the service fee of the Air BnB but not the AirBnB itself. That is already subject to tax. Well legislatively anyway.
There are some clever things in the design as, to ensure it doesn’t fall foul of WTO obligations, it applies to both foreign and New Zealand providers of such services. But then sets a de minimis such that only foreign providers are caught (5).
Officials – respect.
But then it takes this base and applies a 2-3% charge and gets $30 million. Right. Hardly seems worth it for all the anguish, compliance cost and risk of outsider status.
The other issue that seems to be missing is recognition of the value being provided to the user with the provision of a free search engine, networking sites, or email. In such cases while the user does provide value to the business in the form of their data, the user gets value back in the form of a free service.
For the business it is largely a wash. They get the value of the data but bear the cost of providing the service. That is there is no net value obtained by the business. (6)
For the individual the way the tax system works is that private costs are non deductible but private income is taxable. Yep that is assymetric but without assymetries there isn’t a tax base.
In some ways this free service is analogous to the free rent that home owners with no mortgage get – aka an imputed rent and the associated arguments for taxing it. That is the paying of rent is not deductible but the receipt of rent should be taxable.
Under this argument it is the user that should be paying tax on the value that has been transferred to them via the free service not the business. While I think the correct way to conceptualise digital businesses, taxing users is as likely as imputed rents becoming taxable.
But key thing is that the tax base is quite narrow and doesn’t pick up income from the sale or provision of goods and services from suppliers such as Apple, Amazon and Netflix. None of this is necessarily wrong as there has never been taxation on the simple sale of goods but it is a stretch to say this will meet the publics demand for the multinationals to pay more tax.
And it is true such sales are subject to GST but last time I looked GST was paid by the consumer not the business.
Technically there are also a number of issues.
The tax won’t be creditable in the residence country because it is more of a tariff than an income tax hence the concern with the WTO. It is also a poster child for high trust tax collecting as the company liable for the tax by definition has no presence in New Zealand and it is also reliant on the ultimate parent’s financial accounts for information.
This is all before you get to other countries seeing the tax as inherently illegitimate and risking retaliation.
The alternative to this is what is going on at the OECD.
They have divided their work into 2 pillars.
Pillar one is about extending the traditional ideas of nexus or permanent establishment to include other forms of value creation.
The first proposal in this pillar is to use user contribution as a taxing right. It is similar to the base used for the digital services tax and faces the same conceptual difficulty – imho – with the value provided to users.
However unlike the DST it would be knitted into the international framework, be reciprocal and there would/should be no risk of retaliation or double taxation.
The second proposal is to extend a taxing right based on the marketing intangibles created in the user or market country. The whole concept of a marketing intangible is one I struggle with. Broadly it seems to be the value created for the company – such as customer lists or contribution to the international vibe of the product – from marketing done in the source/user/market jurisdiction.
This is a whole lot broader than the user contribution idea and has nothing really to do with the digital economy – other than it includes the digital economy.
Some commentators have suggested it is a negotiating position of the US. Robin Oliver has suggested that the US seems to be saying – if you tax Google we’ll tax BMW. In NZ what this would mean is that if we could tax Google more then China could tax Fonterra more based on marketing in China that supported the Anchor brand.
Both options explicitly exclude taxation on the basis of sales of goods or services (7).
There is a third option under this option pithily known as the significant economic presence proposal. The Ministers discussion document describes it essentially as a form of formulary apportionment that could be an equal weighting of sales, assets and employees. (8) Now that sounds quite cool.
I do wonder whether it would also be reasonable to include capital in such an equation as no business can survive without an equity base.
In the OECD discussion document they state that while revenue is a key factor it also needs one or more other things like after sales service in the market jurisdiction, volume of digital content, responsibility for final delivery or goods (9). Such tests should catch Apple and Amazon in Australia as they have a warehouse there but they are likely to be caught already with the extension of the permanent establishment rules.
It is less clear whether this would mean New Zealand could tax a portion of their profits but if that is what is wanted – this seems the best option as it is getting much closer to a form of formulary apportionment.
The other pillar – Pillar 2 – sets up a form of minimum taxation either for a parent when a subsidiary company has a low effective tax rate or when payments are made to associated companies with low effective tax rates. Again much broader than just the digital economy and similar to what I suggested a million years ago as an alternative to complaining about tax havens.
For high tax parents with low tax subsidiaries this is effectively an extension of the controlled foreign company rules and would bring in something like a blacklist where there could be full accrual taxation or just taxation up to the ordained minimum rate.
For high tax subsidiaries making payments to low tax sister or holding companies, they have the option of either denying a tax deduction for the payment or imposing a withholding tax. This could be useful in cases where royalties and the like are going to companies with low effective tax rates. On the face of it, it could also apply to payments for goods and services made by subsidiary companies.
It might also be effective against stories of Amazon not paying any tax – as zero is a pretty low effective tax rate.
The underlying technology seems to be based on the hybrid mismatch rules which also had an income inclusion and a deduction denial rule. Such rules were ultimately aimed at changing tax behaviour rather than explicitly collecting revenue.
Pillar 2 seems similar. If there will be clawing back of under taxation it is better to have no under taxation in the first place. So it may mean the US starts taxing more rather than subsidiary companies paying more tax.
Pillar 2 by being based around payments within a group will have no effect when there is no branch or subsidiary as is often the case with the cross border sale of goods and services to individuals .
Now the reason for all this work – both the DST and the OECD – is the issue of tax fairness and the public’s perception of fairness.
DST – imho – is really not worth it. All that risk for $30 million per year. No thank you.
But it has come about because even after the BEPS changes they still aren’t catching the underlying concern of the public – the lack of tax paid by the tech giants.
And there is no subtlety to that concern. In all my discussions no one is separating Apple, Amazon and Netflix from Google, Facebook and YouTube.
But it is time to be honest.
There are good reasons for that distinction. NZ is a small vulnerable net exporting country. Our exporters may also find themselves on the sharp end of any broader extension of taxation.
So policy makers please stop asserting the problem is the entire digital economy and then move straight to a technical discussion of a narrow solution without explaining why.
It gives the impression that more is being done than actually is. And quite frankly this will bite you on the bum when people realise what is actually going on.
And front footing an issue is Comms 101 after all.
(1) To be fair that bill did also include a diverted profits tax light which was directed at the likes of Facebook who just do ‘sales support’ in New Zealand rather than full on sales. But that was a very minor part of the bill.
(2) Paragraphs 1.2-1.4
(3) Paragraphs 1.5 onwards
(4) I had a link for her press conference but it has been taken down. She suggested that it was only fair that if motels in NZ paid tax so should AirBnBs. I completely agree but the AirBnBs are already in the tax base and if they aren’t currently paying tax that is an enforcement issue not a DST issue.
(5) Paragraph 3.24
(6) Paragraph 60 of the OECD interim report also notes this issue.
(7) Paragraph 67
(8) Paragraph 4.47
(9) Paragraph 51
My lovely young friends had a great time with their guest post last week and were delighted with the reception they received. Including getting picked up by interest.co.nz – something they like to point out I have never managed.
They were really keen to post this week on the digital services tax discussion document which they think is awesome. But I need to have a little chat to them before they do.
We also had a chat about whether the Andrea Tax Party is really a goer. Much like Alfred Ngaro we have concluded it all seems a bit hard. Also the move from thinking about things to politics hasn’t been the smoothest for TOP. So as the evidence led people that we are, we have decided to conserve our emotional energy and not fall out over boring constitutional issues.
I’ll stay as your correspondent and my young friends will come back from time to time when they can fit it in between their three jobs and studying. They are also checking out Organise Aotearoa who recently put up this sign in Auckland and seem to be to the left of Tax Justice Aotearoa.
As well as the digital services tax proposal – which I’ll save for my (briefed) young friends – the other tax story this week was how thanks to the Department upgrading its computer system it has found a number of people – 450,000 – haven’t been paying enough tax on their PIE investments. And while that is the case the Department has said that it won’t chase this tax on any past years.
Behind this story are two interesting – to me anyway – tax concepts.
Portfolio investment entities (PIEs)
These are a Michael Cullen special and came in at the same time as KiwiSaver. Before their introduction all managed funds were taxed at the trust rate of 33% and were taxed on any gains they made on shares sales – because they were in business.
Alongside all this was passive investment or index funds who had managed to convince Inland Revenue that because they only sold because they had to, those gains weren’t taxable.
Individual investors weren’t taxed on their capital gains and otherwise they were taxed at less than 33% if they had taxable income below the 33% threshold. This was particularly the case for retired investors.
The status quo did though give a minor tax benefit to high income people who were otherwise paying tax at 39%.
So it was all a bit of a hot mess.
Added into the equation was that, unlike now, the Department’s computer wasn’t up to much so all policy was based on ‘keeping people out of the system’.
So where the PIE stuff landed was income of the fund would be broken up in terms of who owned it and taxed at the rate of the owners. Except for the high earners – as their alternative was a unit trust taxed at the company rate – the top rate was capped at the company rate.
Low income people were now taxed at their own rate rather than the trust rate and high income people kept their low level tax benefit.
Happiness all round.
But it all depended on the individual investor telling the fund what the correct rate was and boy did the funds send out lots of reminders. I got totally sick of them.
Particularly when not filling them out meant you got taxed at 28% which was the top rate anyway.
So the people getting caught out this week would have once told the fund to tax them at a lower rate. It wouldn’t have happened by accident.
Although it is entirely possible they were on a lower rate at the time – because they had losses or something – and then ‘forgot’ to update it. Such people though would probably had a tax agent who would normally pick this stuff up. So not these people,
The caught people I would suggest are people, without tax agents, who accidentally or intentionally chose the wrong rate at the time or are PAYE earners whose income has increased over time and didn’t think to tell their fund.
But really only a tax audit would tell the difference between the two groups even if the effect is the same.
The other thing this week has shone light on is something known in the tax community as timebar (2).
It is a balance between the Government’s right to the correct amount of revenue and taxpayer’s ability to live their lives not worrying about a future tax audit. The deal is that if you have filed your tax return and provided all the necessary information – but you are wrong in the Government’s favour – Inland Revenue can only go back and increase your tax for four years.
If you haven’t filed and/or provided the necessary information – usually in cases of tax evasion – game on. The Department has no time constraints.
But the thing is none of this is an obligation on Inland Revenue. It is a right but not an obligation.
Under the Care and Management provisions (1) – the Commissioner must only collect the highest net revenue over time factoring in compliance costs and the resources available to her.
And so on that basis – I must presume – she has decided to not go back and collect tax for the last three years underpaid PIE income. In the same way he – as it was then – decided to only pursue two years of tax avoidance that arose from the Penny and Hooper tax avoidance cases.
But with a tax fairness lens, it makes discussions with my young friends quite tricky.
They only have their personal labour which, to them, is taxed higher than I was at the same age. They don’t have capital and see this recent story as another way the tax system is slanted against them.
So I am not sure we have seen the last of the motorway signs.
(1) Section 6A(3)
(2) Section 108
Kia ora koutou
Andrea has handed over to us on the youth wing of the Andrea Tax Party for this week’s blog post so we can set out our views on tax.
What she proposed is ok but we can’t help feeling it was more than a little influenced by her Gen X, neoliberal, tax free capital gain and imputed rent earning privilege. A bit like the recent Budget – more foundational than transformational.
But we have also worked out that – by definition – any capital gains tax that applied from a valuation day or worse still grandparenting would have hit any gains our generation would have earned rather than the gains that have arisen to date.
And don’t get us started about the exemption for a family home. The only members of our generation who will buy a house – with exorbitant mortgages – are those whose parents can help financially. Again more revealed Gen X privilege.
So we aren’t super sad it is off the table.
TOP are still promoting an alternative minimum tax and CPAG want to tax a risk free return on residential property. Both reasonable and we may yet move over to them but it the meantime we are seeing if we can do better.
This is what we are thinking:
Land tax on holdings over $500,000. Limited targetted exemptions.
This was a proposal under National’s tax working group (1) in 2009/10 that was also then ignored by the Government at the time.
The deal is that there would be a tax on the value of land. That’s pretty much it. There could be exemptions for conservation land, maybe land locked up for ecological services and Maori freehold land.
The last one might be controversial but we are completely over the race baiting that goes on anytime different treatment for Maori assets comes up. Settlement assets were a fraction of that taken by the Crown and until such time as Maori indicators – not the least the prison population – gets anywhere near non-Maori, we are open to different treatment to improve outcomes.
As this tax is certain what tends to happen is that the price of land falls by an NPV of the tax. The effect therefore is the same as a one off tax on existing landowners. And to be honest – we’d be open to that. Seems much lower compliance cost something Andrea and her friends get so excited about.
Now we know there is an argument that because of the effect on existing land owners – this is unfair.
However to a generation locked out of land ownership in any form due to the high prices – we are deeply underwhelmed by that argument. It was equally unfair that existing owners got the unearned gains over the last 10 years or so. And yes they might not be the same people who are affected – but again – underwhelmed.
So all holdings of land over $500,000 – other than those mentioned above – will be subject to a land tax. And honestly maybe we have the threshold too low.
GST – no change
This one causes us pain.
We really want to drop the rate as poor people spend so such more of their income than rich people. But rich people who might be living off tax free capital gains still have to buy food – and they spend more on food than poor people. So a cut in GST is – in absolute terms – a greater tax cut for the rich.
However the prevailing wisdom that increases in GST don’t matter if you increase benefits is also BS. This is for a couple of reasons:
Benefits – until this Budget kicks in – are increased by CPI but low income households have higher inflation than high income households.
Benefit increases do not survive National Governments. The associated rise in benefits from the GST introduction were unwound by the benefit cuts in 1992 and more recently benefits were eroded through changes to the administration by WINZ.
And even Andrea witnessed the changed behaviour of WINZ as she was in receipt of the Child Disability Allowance from 2007 to 2012. She went from having a super helpful empathetic case manager to having the allowance stopped when they lost her paperwork.
If anyone wants to argue instead that the last government increased benefits – bring it on – because if that is how Andrea was treated by them just imagine how WINZ behaved to people who weren’t senior public servants.
So we are recommending no change here unless there was some way of making it progressive.
Inheritance tax on all estates over $500,000
Andrea might be fixated with taxing people when they are alive but all this means is that the huge untaxed gains that have been earned get to be passed on to the next generation. And yes that might be some of us but anything to reduce the wealth inequality in New Zealand has to be considered.
We take Andrea’s point about this also applying to death of settlors (and maybe beneficiaries) but all estates over $500,000 will be taxed at the GST rate as it is inherently deferred consumption.
Make the personal tax scale more progressive
When Andrea started work in 1985 – as an almost grad – she earned $15,000 and paid $5,000 of that in tax. That is an average tax rate of 33% and probably a marginal tax rate of something like 45%.
She had no student loan because University was free. In fact she also got a bursary of about $700 three times a year. There was no GST.
Grads in 2019 start on about $50,000. Income tax is about $9,000. This is an average tax rate of about 18% and a marginal tax rate of 30%. Student loan repayments are 12% and GST is probably about 10% allowing for rent and savings. This gives a marginal tax rate of 52% which will then climb to 55% if they ever get a well paying job. So 10% higher tax than 1985 on pretty middling incomes.
We get that including student loans might upset Andrea’s tax friends but we are also guessing none of those people have 12% of their earnings going to Inland Revenue every pay day.
Team if it looks like a duck and quakes like a duck….
In fairness we also know her father in 1985 had a marginal tax rate of 66% although he got deductions for life insurance and ‘work related’ expenses. Now parents top out at 33% plus say 10% for GST – 43%.
We guess then parents should pay more but 1) not everyone has middle class parents 2) declining labour share of GDP and 3) the ones who can are already helping us and that is a recipe for entrenched privilege.
So our policy proposal is:
2) Extend the bottom tax rate of 10.5% to $40,000
3) Increase the next tax rate to 25% from $40,000 to $70,000
4) Bring in a new threshold of 40% at $100,000
Or something like that.
The bottom threshold needs extending to include anyone who can still receive any sort of welfare benefit while also earning income. That reduction in tax then needs to be clawed back for higher earners and really high earners just need to pay more.
Emissions trading scheme
And please if there isn’t going to be any sensible carbon tax or any environmental taxes could we at least put a proper price on carbon in the Emissions Trading Scheme.
It is only human life on this planet we are talking about.
We think that is it for us. Andrea and her Gen X biases will be back next week.
Young friends of Andrea
(1) Page 50
Taking a break from TWG report proper stuff for a bit. Although very pleased to see that when the government said no further work on a Tax Advocate they actually meant no further work except for its inclusion in a soon discussion document.
Silly me and everyone else. Clearly misread the Government’s response. Recommendation 73 but getting over myself …
And there has just been a tax bill passed back in the (tax) real world.
R&D tax credits which seems largely to be a grants based system administered by IRD (1) and not anything I would recognise as a tax credit. But hey all the benefits of a grant while still calling it a tax thing. What’s not to love.
And coming up strongly behind is the GST and low value goods bill which also has the loss ring fencing for residential rental property.
Now the latter is pretty much loathed by the tax community. But as interest deductions in the face of untaxed capital gains is a bit of specialist subject/anguish for your correspondent I may write some more on that. As with no more capital gains being taxed I would say this is technology that should get a broader look.
But today I am going to have a bit of a chat about the GST stuff. Now as your correspondent’s taste in clothes tends toward vintage reproduction, she is a big online shopper from relatively obscure American and now Swedish suppliers. And my one piece of tax avoidance has always been keeping purchases below $225 so that no GST would be triggered. Often a struggle – albeit a financially useful one – when the NZ dollar is weak.
Now the $225 comes from the $60 de minimis Customs has where it won’t collect tax and duty up to that amount coz the admin to do so would be higher than the tax collected. So for clothes and shoes – another specialist subject but no anguish here – as there is a duty of 10% when you work it back this means $225 of clothes and shoes can be imported free of taxation and while for everything else it is $400.
And yeah it is not a total free ride as there is postage involved and if things don’t fit sending things back is probs not worth it.
Now this implicit tax exemption is only ever an administrative thing. It wasn’t like Parliament ever said ‘Off you go Andrea, have a foreign tax free dress, just keep it under $225 and only one at a time mind’. And so I have been expecting this loophole to be closed since forever.
And now there is a bill to do just that a select committee. The vibe is that offshore suppliers will collect GST for goods under $1000 and Customs over $1000. Cool. So far so good.
First it is the poster child for high trust tax collecting. It requires the offshore supplier to register with IRD, collect GST and then pay it to the department. Three steps where – just saying – something might go wrong. Would hate to think I pay GST and it isn’t passed on. But for the big guys at least they face ‘reputational risk’ if things go wrong.
Now yes we do have the bright, shiny, newish Convention of Mutual Administrative Assistance (2) that does include GST and yes the Department has tried hard to make the whole thing simple so yes the big people should get caught/ and or voluntarily comply.
2) Suppliers paying to GST registered buyers don’t have to charge coz that would be compliance without tax. Fair enough but I am now GST registered, how will the offshore supplier know my single dress isn’t just like a sample? Or will they even care so long as they have an IRD number?
3) Offshore suppliers only have to register if they are selling more than NZD 60k to people who aren’t GST registered. And yes this is self assessed by taxpayers outside out tax base.
But how will IRD know if the supplier or I am not compliant? There really will be limits to the whole Convention for Mutual Assistance. And anyway if they sell less than $60k no GST is totes legit.
But ultimately none of this should matter as any tax not collected by the offshore supplier will be picked up by Customs. Except …
4) De minimis raised to $1000 value of item for goods not GSTed by supplier. Sorry wot? So if GST is not charged – correctly by my new obscure foreign retailer – or incorrectly because reputational risk isn’t a thing for them – my GST free band has increased? Yup.
To be fair this is all sort of covered in the RIS (3) but I can’t find anything that discusses why the de minimis or threshold had to be increased.
Interestingly the Tax Working Group explicitly looked at these issues and concluded that the de minimis should only be NZD 400. And this is the right answer particularly when fairness is the lens. Although I would have thought there was now a case to bring the de minimis right down to incentivise collecting at source.
It is true that all the marketplaces and Youshops will get caught but anyone like me with any form of obscure foreign importing – which I am guessing is much like capital gains and a feature of a higher income/wealth profile – can now buy more tax free than before.
And why this is important is that the official primary reason for this policy change was to increase the fairness of the tax system. Not efficiency or even revenue but fairness.
And the thing about increasing fairness is that it might not reduce administrative costs. It might not improve the customer experience. But it says that tax is paid by everyone not just when it is easy to collect and people don’t get upset with you.
So a day or so after discovering I won’t be taxed on capital gains, surely I am not also up for more GST free shopping? Hope not.
Really hope this isn’t the beginning of fairness going back to Khloe or Pippa status.
(1) In year approval page 6.
(2) Article 2(b)(iii)(c)
(3) Page 5 Potential behavioural changes by consumers
Now the most logical next post would be a discussion of the OECD digital proposals as that is the international consensus thing I am so keen on and also fits nicely into the thread of these posts.
The slight difficulty is that this requires me to do some work which is always a bit of a drag and when I am suffering badly from jetlag – an insurmountable hurdle.
So as a bit of light relief I thought I’d have a bit of a pick into the narrative around multinationals and why their non-taxpaying is particularly egregious.
You know the whole small business pays tax so large business should too thing.
Now because of the tax secrecy thing, we can never know for def whether this is the case. But there is some stuff in the public domain, so let’s see what we can do as a bit of an incomplete records exercise.
In one of the early papers for the TWG, officials had a look at tax paying of certain industries. Now while the punchline – industries with high levels of capital gains pay less tax – is well known, there are some other factoids that are worth considering.
Factoid 1 The majority of small businesses are in loss (1). Ok wow. But that could be fine if all the income was being paid out to shareholders.
Factoid 2 Spike of incomes at $70k. Ok suspicious I’ll give you that. But maybe there are lots of tax paid trust distributions.
Factoid 3 Shareholder borrowings from the company (2) – aka overdrawn current account balances – have been climbing since the reduction in the company tax rate in 2010. Oh and the imputation credit balances have been climbing over that period too (3). But that could be fine if interest and/or fringe benefit tax is paid on the balances.
Factoid 4 Consumption by the self employed is 20% higher than by the employed for the same taxable income levels. But this could be fine if the self employed have tax paid or correctly un-tax paid – like capital gains – sources of wealth that the employed don’t have.
Factoid 5 In 2014 high wealth individuals had $60 million in losses (4) in their own name. But that could be ok because if companies and trusts have been paying tax and they have been receiving tax paid distributions from their trusts.
Factoid 6 Directors with an economic ownership in their company are rarely personally liable for any tax their company doesn’t pay. Because corporate veil. And that even includes PAYE and Kiwisaver they have deducted from their employees.
Now all of this is before you get to the ability small business has to structure their personal equity so that any debt they take on is tax deductible. Not to mention the whole accidentally putting personal expenditure through the business accounts thing.
And of course I am sure none of this has any relevance to the Productivity Commission’s concern that New Zealand has long tail of low productivity firms [without] an “up or out” dynamic. (5)
But is it all ok?
- Are there lots of taxpaid trust distributions? We know the absolute level (6) but not whether it is ‘enough’.
- Is interest or FBT being paid on overdrawn current accounts?
- Do the self employed have sources of taxpaid wealth that the employed don’t have?
- Why have some of our richest people still got losses?
- How much tax do directors of companies in which they have an economic interest walk away from?
- What is the level of personal expenditure being claimed against business income? Or at least what is the level that IRD counters?
Combination of tax secrecy and information not currently collected. But IRD are working towards an information plan and the TWG have called for greater transparency.
Coz most of this is currently totes legit. In much the same way as the multinationals structures are.
(1) Footnote 9
(2) Page 11
(3) Page 10
(4) Page 15
(5) Page 19
(6) Page 9
Ok. So the story so far.
The international consensus on taxing business income when there is a foreign taxpayer is: physical presence – go nuts; otherwise – back off.
And all this was totally fine when a physical presence was needed to earn business income. After the internet – not so much. And with it went source countries rights to tax such income.
However none of this is say that if there is a physical presence, or investment through a New Zealand resident company, the foreign taxpayer necessarily is showering the crown accounts in gold.
As just because income is subject to tax, does not necessarily mean tax is paid.
And the difference dear readers is tax deductions. Also credits but they can stand down for this post.
Now the entry level tax deduction is interest. Intermediate and advanced include royalties, management fees and depreciation, but they can also stand down for this post.
The total wheeze about interest deductions – cross border – is that the deduction reduces tax at the company rate while the associated interest income is taxed at most at 10%. [And in my day, that didn’t always happen. So tax deduction for the payment and no tax on the income. Wizard.]
Now the Government is not a complete eejit and so in the mid 90’s thin capitalisation rules were brought in. Their gig is to limit the amount of interest deduction with reference to the financial arrangements or deductible debt compared to the assets of the company.
Originally 75% was ok but then Bill English brought that down to 60% at the same time he increased GST while decreasing the top personal rate and the company tax rate. And yes a bunch of other stuff too.
But as always there are details that don’t work out too well. And between Judith and Stuart – most got fixed. Michael Woodhouse also fixed the ‘not paying taxing on interest to foreigners’ wheeze.
There was also the most sublime way of not paying tax but in a way that had the potential for individual countries to smugly think they were ok and it was the counterparty country that was being ripped off. So good.
That is – my personal favourite – hybrids.
Until countries worked out that this meant that cross border investment paid less tax than domestic investment. Mmmm maybe not so good. So the OECD then came up with some eyewatering responses most of which were legislated for here. All quite hard. So I guess they won’t get used so much anymore. Trying not to have an adverse emotional reaction to that.
Now all of this stuff applies to foreign investment rather than multinationals per se. It most certainly affects investment from Australia to New Zealand which may be simply binational rather than multinational.
Diverted profits tax
As nature abhors a vacuum while this was being worked through at the OECD, the UK came up with its own innovation – the diverted profits tax. And at the time it galvanised the Left in a way that perplexed me. Now I see it was more of a rallying cry borne of frustration. But current Andrea is always so much smarter than past Andrea.
At the time I would often ask its advocates what that thought it was. The response I tended to get was a version of:
Inland Revenue can look at a multinational operating here and if they haven’t paid enough tax, they can work out how much income has been diverted away from New Zealand and impose the tax on that.
Ok – past Andrea would say – what you have described is a version of the general anti avoidance rule we have already – but that isn’t. What it actually is is a form of specific anti avoidance rule targetted at situations where companies are doing clever things to avoid having a physical taxable presence. [Or in the UK’s case profits to a tax haven. But dude seriously that is what CFC rules are for]
It is a pretty hard core anti avoidance rule as it imposes a tax – outside the scope of the tax treaties – far in excess of normal taxation.
And this ‘outside the scope of the tax treaties’ thing should not be underplayed. It is saying that the deals struck with other countries on taxing exactly this sort of income can be walked around. And while it is currently having a go at the US tech companies, this type of technology can easily become pointed at small vulnerable countries. All why trying for an new international consensus – and quickly – is so important.
In the end I decided explaining is losing and that I should just treat the campaign for a diverted profits tax as merely an expression of the tax fairness concern. Which in turn puts pressure on the OECD countries to do something more real.
Aka I got over myself.
In NZ we got a DPT lite. A specific anti avoidance rule inside the income tax system. I am still not sure why the general anti avoidance rule wouldn’t have picked up the clever stuff. But I am getting over myself.
Of course no form of diverted profits tax is of any use when there is no form of cleverness. It doesn’t work where there is a physical presence or when business income can be earned – totes legit – without a physical presence.
And isn’t this the real issue?
So the details of this government’s tax review is out.
Now even though this blog has come as a response to the Left’s – and fairness’s – relatively recent introduction into the tax debate – I couldn’t see anything I could competently add to the random number generator that is the current public discussion. That was until I read one commentator – who actually understands tax – talk about the last Labour government’s tax review – the McLeod Report.
He referred to that report as having analysis that stood up 16 years later. And with the underlying analysis found in the issues report I would wholeheartedly agree. But in terms of the recommendations in the final report I would say, however, that it was very much of its time.
And by that I mean that while the issues report fully discussed all issues of fairness/equity as well as efficiency – when it came to the final report efficiency was clearly queen.
Now by efficiency I am meaning ‘limiting the effects tax has on economic behaviour’. And fairness as meaning all additions to wealth – aka income – are treated the same way.
The tax review kicked off in 2000 at about the same time I arrived at Inland Revenue Policy. In early 2000 there was:
- No working for families
- No Kiwisaver
- Top personal tax rate was about to increase to 39% but with no change to company or trust tax rate
- Interest was about to come off student loans while people studied.
That is the settings generally were the ones that had come from the Roger Douglas Ruth Richardson years.
Also in tax land the Commissioner was having a seriously hard time as the Courts were taking a very legalistic attitude to tax structuring. High water mark was a major loss in 2001. And unsurprisingly in such an environment the banks had started structuring out of the tax base. But it would be a while before that became obvious.
Housing was affordable. Families such as mine could be supported on one senior analyst salary – and live walking distance to town.
The tax review was headed by a leading practitioner Rob McLeod; and had two economists, a tax lawyer and a small business accountant. One woman. Because that is what progressive looked like 2000.
And so what were their recommendations/suggestions?
No capital gains tax but an imputed taxable return on capital This one is both efficient and fair. And did materialise in some form with the Fair Dividend rate changes to small offshore investment. It is the basis of TOP tax proposal. At the issues paper stage it was proposed to include imputed rents but the public (over) reaction caused it to be dropped. Interestingly it is explicitly out of scope with the Cullen review.
Flow through tax treatment for closely held businesses and separate tax treatment for large business
What this is about is saying entities that are really just extensions of the individuals concerned should be taxed like individuals not the entity chosen. This is effectively the basis of the Look Through Company rules – although they are optional. It means the top tax rate will always be paid. But it also means that capital gains and losses can be accessed immediately.
Now this is definitely efficient as the tax treatment will not be dependent on the entity chosen. And it is also arguably fair for the same reason.
It does mean though that if a company structure is chosen and the business gets into trouble: the tax losses can be accessed as it is effectively the loss of the shareholder but the creditors not paid because it is a separate legal entity. Which probably wouldn’t exactly feel fair to any creditor.
But all this is unreconciled public policy rather than the McLeod report.
Personal tax scale to be 18% up to $29,500 and 33% thereafter.
The tax scale at the time ranged from 9.5% to 39% at $60,000. The proposal would have had the effect of increasing the incentive to earn income over $60,000 as so would have been more efficient than the then 39% tax rate. As the company and trust rate were also 33% it would have returned the tax nirvana where the structure didn’t matter.
However it would have increased taxes on lower incomes and decreased taxes on higher incomes. So while efficient – not actually fair according to the vibe of the Cullen review terms of reference.
New migrants seven years tax free on foreign income
At this time our small foreign investment – aka foreign investment fund – rules were quite different to other countries. While we didn’t have a realised capital gains tax – for portfolio foreign investment we could have an accrued capital gains tax in some situations. This was considered off putting to potential high skilled high wealth migrants. So to stop tax preventing migration that would otherwise happen; the review proposed such migrants get seven years tax free on foreign income.
This proposal was the other one that was enacted with a four year tax free window – transitional migrants rules.
And again a policy that is efficient but arguably not fair. As the foreign income of New Zealanders in subject to full tax. However Australia and the United Kingdom also have these rules that New Zealanders can access.
The logical consequence though is that no one with capital lives in their countries of birth anymore. And not sure that is ultimately efficient.
New foreign investment to have company tax rate of 18%
Again this is the foreign investment – good – argument. But it ultimately comes from a place where foreign capital doesn’t pay tax because it is from a pension fund, sovereign wealth fund or charity. Or if it is tax paying that tax paid in New Zealand doesnt provide any form of benefit in its home or residence country. So by reducing the tax rate by definition this reduces the effect of tax on decision making.
However doesn’t factor in the loss of revenue if there are location specific rentswhich aren’tsensitive to tax. And not exactly fair that domestic capital pays tax at almost twice the tax rate. Unsurprisingly didn’t go ahead.
Tax to be capped at $1 million for individuals
This again comes from the place of removing a tax disincentive from investing and earning income. Yeah not fair and also didn’t go ahead.
Restricting borrowing costs against exempt foreign income
This was the basis of the banks tax avoidance schemes that ended up costing $2 billion. It is only briefly mentioned in the final report with no submissions. It is to the review team’s – probably most likely Rob McLeod – credit that it is there at all. This proposal was both efficient and fair. Stopping the incentive to earn foreign income as well as making sure tax was paid on New Zealand income.
It will be very interesting to see where this review comes out with the balance between efficiency and fairness. Because both matter. Without fairness we don’t get voluntary compliance and without efficiency we get misallocated capital and an underperforming economy. But the public reaction to the taxation of multinationals and ‘property speculators’ would indicate a bit more fairness is needed to preserve voluntary compliance.
And as indicated 16 years ago – taxation of capital is a good place to start.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about the fairness v efficiency tension in tax policy.
You correspondent is now about two thirds through her gap year. There have been perks to not going to work. Meeting people I would never have met as a tax bureaucrat; working without getting out of bed; and morning yoga classes now being conceptually possible. And of course becoming your correspondent tops it out.
On the con side though is no income; a carefully curated wardrobe that just looks at me; and that not going to (paid) work is simply exhausting. I am the most demanding person I have ever worked for. There is no concept of downtime.
Another con as a chartered accountant is there is no benevolent employer meeting my training needs – and my CPD hours – without me realising it. So with this in mind earlier this year I arranged to attend – without credit – a postgrad course on International Tax. Two days which should sort out my CPD. Or at least push out the problem for another year. And after all those years in tax I know the benefit of deferral.
Now as a participant I need to give a talk. So I heroically offered to talk about the tension between the tax fairness people and the tax efficiency people. As at that time I thought I had reconciled them. Now not so sure. So I thought I’d riff to you dear readers and see how we go.
It is an internal discussion I regularly have – yes I really am that interesting. As in my heart I am a tax fairness person but one whose head worries about tax efficiency.
Let’s start with the wot these guys say:
Fairness people say: Everyone should pay their fair share; People should pay in proportion to their income; Tax is the price you pay for civilisation.
And Gareth has a nice general take on all this which can be paraphrased as an unfair economy is inefficient. But while I am quite attracted to that as I can’t explain it without hand waving – I won’t.
So going back to things I do understand.
Efficiency people say: New Zealand needs be an attractive place to invest; it is important tax doesn’t distort decisionmaking; company tax is a tax on labour.
Now in a domestic setting – New Zealanders using New Zealand capital employing New Zealanders; through the use of withholding taxes and imputation – efficiency and fairness cohabit happily. Wages are deductible by firms and taxable to employees. Tax is deducted by the employers on the wages and this offsets the tax liability of the employee. Company tax can be used as a credit when dividends are paid.
There is a progressive tax scale for individuals which applies no matter how they earn their income. There can be deferral benefits if money stays in a company; a concessionary PIE rate for top income earners; and interest is deductible when capital gains are earned. But all of this is cohabitation peace and harmony compared to the situation with foreign capital and New Zealand workers.
Now with foreign capital, tax paid here is next to worthless. The fairness argument is that it is that the tax is the price for using the infrastructure and educated workforce paid for from taxation. Reasonable argument but problem is that the use of that stuff is not conditional on paying tax. Classic public good/freerider thing in economics which is supposed to be stopped through the use of taxation. Mmmm.
And foreign countries give no credit for company tax paid here. They might give credit for withholding taxes but there is this whole ‘excess foreign tax credit thing’ that means they don’t. For serious tax nerds, yes there is the underlying foreign tax credit given by the US when dividends come back. But we all know how much they come back. So foreign tax is a net cost of doing business. And like all costs something they will minimise if they can.
This becomes all the more compounded when the foreign investor is a charity or pension fund or sovereign wealth fund and doesn’t pay even tax in their home country.
So then the options are invest through deductible debt or pay tax but only invest if expected return is high enough to allow for paying tax.
Right. Then so how do we get the price of civilisation thing actually paid? Working on the assumption that foreign investment is good – when I think the analysis is a bit more nuanced than that – do we just have to suck up lower foreign investment if we want more tax paid?
If only we had some New Zealand based studies to see what happened? Oh yeah we do. Company tax was cut once by Dr Cullen and then again by Hon Bill.
Did we see an uptick in foreign investment? Nah – according to Inland Revenue foreign investment as a percentage of gross domestic product pretty much didn’t change.
Now of course there is a lot of noise in that; not the least that it happened over the GFC where normal rules did not apply. And Inland Revenue did have a go at reconciling all the stuff. Maybe.
But the best expanation I ever got for tax and how it influences foreign investment came from a tax mergers and acquisitions person I met during my time inside. They said there are two types of foreign investment:
- Normal foreign businesses who are looking to buy an equivalent New Zealand business. They make their decisons to purchase based on the headline tax rate and say the headline thin capitalisation ratios. Once that decison is make the tax people then swing in and look to minimise the tax further.
- The second type was the private equity lot for whom minimising tax was very much part of their MO. They turn up with elaborate templates – which include tax savings – which then all fed into the decision to purchase and at what price.
Is this right? Dunno but it has always made sense to me. And helps explain the often ‘inconclusive results’ found when two sets of behaviours are blended in any data set.
Ok so what does all of this mean to tax fairness people? I think what it means is be aware that the zero tax rate of significant international investors combined with the internationally lighter taxation of income from capital – none of which is addressed in the OECD BEPS project – mean that getting tax off foreigners may bounce back on locals in the form of higher prices or reduced investment.
To the tax efficiency people though – settle down – any impact is not one for one. The Inland Revenue stuff does show that there is a degree of taxation that is just sucked up by the owners of capital. Coz ultimately all business income comes from people who can get a bit p!ssed if they think you are free riding on their taxes paid infrastructure. And maybe they’ll spend their money somewhere else. Assuming of course that there is a taxpaying alternative coz it’s not like domestic capital is free from loopholes.
So will I say all this in my talk this week? Dunno but thanks for the chat dear readers. My head is clearer now. Thanks for listening.
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 (and fairness).
Fairness (or equity) and her sister Efficiency are two of the touchstones for tax policy. There is also a younger sister Simplicity but she tends to get left at home the second anything gets contentious or revenue is at risk. For Jane Austen readers think Margaret in any Sense and Sensibility adaptations.
For years Fairness was only paid lip service to and Efficiency was the queen. But now with news of multinational non-tax paying and the fallout from the GFC, Fairness is getting profile. At this point having got in a Margaret reference I was wanting to make a Kate and Pippa reference or even a Kim and Khloe one. But neither of them really work as an analogy so I won’t.
Now as pleased as my inner left leaning tax geek is about Fairness/Pippa/Khloe getting the attention now, unlike Efficiency, Fairness means different things to different people.
I am sure dear readers that a number of you have either raised children or are still in the trenches. I am sure also dear readers that while you always try to be fair; quickly you find fair is a relative concept.
You spend more time with the child who finds reading difficult. Now that is fair to you because that child has difficulties your other children don’t have. Strangely the other children may not see it that way.
They may not see the learning difficulty. Even if they do their view may be that is just how the cookie has crumbled and as your child they have an equal right to your time. Anything other than equality is simply unprincipled favouritism.
With tax the equivalent arguments run like this:
To the left what is fair is those who have the most should pay the most. And the more you have the more you should proportionately pay. This is also known as vertical equity and is the basis of the personal progressive tax scale; lower incomes pay a lower proportion of their income in tax than higher incomes.
To the right what is fair is that everyone pays the same or at least everyone pays the same proportion of their income.
The former which was taught to me in ECON 101 – in the same year I voted for the NZ Party – is a flat or poll tax. It is the economically most efficient tax as it doesn’t distort decision making at all kinda like a negative universal basic income. It is also arguably very fair as every person pays exactly the same amount of tax. And what could be fairer than that?
It is however HIGHLY regressive meaning it hits the poor far worse than the rich as potentially it could take all their income. But it is the same as the child without the learning issues wanting the same amount of time from a parent as the one with the learning difficulties.
Your correspondent has memories of her farewell party in 1990 before going to London. Actually lots of memories as her darling friend R was making her drinks. But on the telly there were riots in Trafalgar Square as Margaret Thatcher was bringing in a poll tax. And that was only to replace rates.
So perhaps for this reason or just genuine human decency I have never heard the right in New Zealand proposing taxation being the same amount per person. But if fairness is the touchstone a poll tax could be considered fair as well as highly efficient.
Normally the right advocates flat (or flatter) tax rates. They tend to invoke the other sister Efficiency when doing so but there are also fairness arguments to support their position.
The main one is that it is fair that everyone contributes the same proportion of their income to society. And the left doesn’t need to stress as those who earn more will by definition always pay more in absolute terms.
Right. So what is a future lefty government to do that wants more fairness of the tax system. [I know you’ll want to reach for raising the top tax rate because – sigh – that increases vertical equity. But tax rate alignment does matter and if you want to do this you’ll need to do a bunch of other tail chasing stuff too. A future post I feel. And yes I will talk about multi-nationals at some point.]
As a good former bureaucrat I am all about the solutions. The key to improving the tax system is a combination of an examination of the application of horizontal equity – is income of different sources taxed the same way – combined with some old fashioned integrity measures aka closing some loopholes. Most of which will involve refinements of income classification, deductions and timing. But there is no silver bullet.
Should give you an opportunity to also throw around Andrew Little’s quote about the average Auckland house earning more than the average Auckland worker. I do enjoy that one. Whether you get re-elected is beyond my ken as every hole in the base has a highly motivated constituency for whom equality feels like oppression. Imputed rents anyone?
Will also need to watch out that you don’t give away the farm. Coz a tax base is built on asymmetries and nothing feels less fair than being on the wrong side of an asymmetry.
But if this talk of fairness is code for raising substantially more revenue then in that case you need higher rates across the board not just on high income earners; a different base or to stop adjusting thresholds for inflation. Treasury has already done that work in the 2013 Long Term Fiscal Forecast which is worth a read. None of that should be too hard to package as fair as even a riot inducing poll tax can be packaged as fair.
I am on a yoga course this week so it seemed appropriate that the Friday post be on tax and yoga. But I will return to this topic when I have the energy. I will also think about who Labour should put on their working group.