Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about tax and companies.
Well dear readers what a week it has been in the Beltway. Secret recordings down south and secret payouts from Wellington. All the more bizarre as – Mike Williams confirmed – MPs staffers pretty much have sack at will contracts. If your MP doesn’t like you – that’s it you’re out. No lengthy performance management for them. Facepalm. So maybe this factoid could get added to new MPs induction?
But as always the key issue gets missed. Exactly who under 40 years old knows what a dictaphone is?
And into this maelstom Inland Revenue released a paper on taxation of individuals and some stuff on debt. Both worthy topics of discussion. But then Ryman released its results. And their CEO said like tax is paid – just not like income tax and just like not by them.
So after last week’s post I thought I’d have a look.
Oh yes the real tax is very easily found in the Income Tax Note. Tax losses of $28.9 million in the 2017 year. Up from last year when they were only $15 million of losses. They are a growth stock after all. Quite different from the tax expense which was $6m tax payable.
To your correspondent this looks awfully like her specialist subject of interest deductions for capital profits. All mixed up in a world where interest expense isn’t in the P&L but instead added to the asset value. Complying with both accounting and tax. And yeah totes a tax loophole but one from like whenever.
And again in Ryman’s accounts the rent equivalent from the time value of money of the occupancy advances is in neither the accounting nor the tax profit. Because reasons.
Now expecting controversy the CEO front footed the issue saying that the shareholders paid tax and that Ryman had actually paid GST. He then also referred to the PAYE deducted as they were employers. Kinda going to ignore that bit tho coz the whole claiming credit for other people’s tax really gets on my nerves.
And I’ll take his word on the GST angle coz I am cr@p at GST. But with his shareholders paid the tax comment – he is talking about imputation. And as I haven’t covered that before dear readers – today you get imputation. Oh and other random thoughts on tax and companies.
Now the official gig about imputation is how – notwithstanding that they are separate legal peeps – the company is merely a vehicle for their shareholders to do stuff. So for tax purposes the company structure should – sort of – get looked through to its shareholders. And this means dividends are in substance the same income as company profits and so should get a credit for tax paid by the company.
And as a tax person this stuff is considered to be in the stating the flaming obvious category.
But as I am no longer an insider – I am increasingly finding it interesting just how public policy on companies manages to talk out of both sides of its mouth. And how – much like the sack at will contracts or milliennials using dictaphones – no one has noticed.
On one hand we have the Companies Act which sets up companies with separate legal personalities from its shareholders. Meaning that if you transact with a company and it doesn’t pay you. Bad luck bucko. Nothing to do with the shareholders. Limited liability; corporate veil and all that.
But for tax if you only have a few shareholders those losses can flow through to the shareholders and be offset against against other income. The negative gearing thing but using a company. Coz in substance the company and shareholders are like the same.
And a similar thing happens with the Trust rules. Trust law says that it is trustees that own the assets. And once you have handed stuff over to them as settlor – that’s it – that stuff isn’t yours anymore. So if that settlor owes you money – also bad luck bucko. Don’t for a second think you can approach the trustees – coz whoa – settlor nothing to do with them.
But then tax says – for trusts – as settlors call the shots; it’s the residence of the settlor that is important. Mmmm. This means that a trust with a New Zealand resident trustee and a foreigner wot gave the stuff to the trustee – foreign trust – isn’t taxed on foreign income. Coz that would be like wrong. Even though the assets are owned by a New Zealand resident. And New Zealand residents normally pay tax on foreign income.
Right. Awesome. Thanks for playing.
Anyway back to imputation.
Now put any thoughts of separate legal personalities outside your pretty heads dear readers and think substance. Think companies are vehicles for shareholders. Don’t think about small shareholders having no say or liability if anything goes wrong. Just think one economic unit.
And then you will have no problem seeing potential double taxation if profit and dividends are both taxed. Coz #doubletaxationisgross.
So as part of the uber tax reforms in the late eighties imputation was brought in. Tax paid by the company can be magically turned into a tax credit called – imaginatively – an imputation credit which then travels with a dividend. Creating light and laughter in the capital markets. Or as I have put to me – increased inequality. As when imputation came in it gave dividend recipients – aka well off people – an income boost courtesy of the tax system. Probs also a tax free boost in the share price too.
Now putting aside such inconvenient facts – your correspondent has always defended imputation. Because in order to get the light and laughter or increased inequality – companies actually have to pay tax. And of that – big fan.
But all of this is only useful if shareholders are resident. Coz the credits only have value to New Zealand residents. And this is kind of why foreign companies may not care about paying tax here. And did I mention tax has to actually be paid?
And this last point that brings me back to Ryman’s chairman. He is right. If the company doesn’t pay tax – then the shareholders do when a dividend is paid. So honestly what are we all getting excited about?
Well – profits have to be like actually distributed before that happens and shareholders have to be taxpayers. And Ryman distributes less than 25% of their accounting profit.
And the residence of shareholders? Who knows. Lots of nominee companies listed which could mean KiwiSavers or non-residents. Oh and Ngai Tahu. Who seems to be a charity.
So yeah maybe. Some tax will be paid by some shareholders. That is true. Let’s hope it exceeds the tax losses Ryman is producing.
PS. This will be the last post – except if it isn’t – for the next couple of weeks. Your correspondent is getting all her chickens back for a while. And much as I love you all dear readers – I love them more. Until Mid July. Xx
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about 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.