Tag Archives: Tax

COVID-19 and a fairer economy

FT European Economics Commentary Martin Sandbu believes the COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rebuild better economies that work for everyone. Sandbu author of ‘The Economics of Belonging’ – see previous post – talks here about the polarisation of rich societies since 1980. The main points of interest that he raises are below. Worth a look.

  • 1980 – large number of jobs available in factories start to disappear.
  • Globalisation – not the main cause of unemployment but technology has taken a lot of the manual and clerical jobs (structural unemployment) and retail has gone online.
  • Tax systems have not redistributed income – unions have been in decline.
  • Rural areas worst effected – good jobs more prevalent in cities so rural areas suffer.
  • Low paid service jobs have been impacted by COVID-19. Also as they involve contact with others there is more exposure to the disease.
  • Pandemic catalyst for change. History tells us – US Great Depression = New Deal, 2nd WW = postwar welfare state.
  • Technology change is with us so the need to find new ways of working. Do we have a Universal Basic Income (UBI)?
  • Lower burden of employing workers – less income tax, payroll tax and generally make it cheaper to hire people in to better jobs. Make up the shortfall in revenue elsewhere.
  • With the significant increase in inequality – introduction of a wealth tax. Also a tax on carbon emissions and redistribute to help the worse off.
  • Greater need to overcome regional inequality within countries
  • Need to the political will to make economies work better for everyone.

Automatic stabilisers – Direct Stimulus Payments

It is unavoidable that recessions are part of the economic environment that we live in. In tackling the impact of recessions it has become apparent that one cannot solely rely on expansionary monetary policy of the central bank. Economic conditions have changed, as if an economy was to fall into recession in this low interest environment monetary policy options are far more limited than they were post the GFC. Add to this a higher debt level and you put further pressure on the banking system. A publication this year entitled “Recession Ready – Fiscal policies to stabilise the American economy.” (Published by the Hamilton Group – Washington Center for Equitable Growth) suggests that governments should assist in ensuring that the recovery phase is much quicker than it has been by ensuring confidence amongst businesses and households so they resume investing and spending again. They focus on antirecession programmes known as “automatic stabilisers.”

Automatic stabilisers are the automatic increases in revenues and decreases in expenditure in the government budget that occur when the economy strengthens, and the opposite changes that occur when the economy weakens.

Increase in GDP growth = the government will receive more tax revenues – people earn more and so pay more income tax. As it is assumed that unemployment decreases the amount of money spent on unemployment benefit decreases.

Reduction in GDP growth = lower incomes – people pay less tax. As unemployment increases the government spends more on unemployment benefits. This increase in benefit spending and lower tax collection helps to limit the fall in aggregate demand.

One of the chapters written by Claudia Sahm proposes a direct payment to individuals that would automatically be paid out early in a recession and then continue annually when the recession is severe. During a recession consumer spending (C) declines sharply – see graph – and as it makes up above 70% of most countries aggregate demand – C+I+G+(X-M) – this can lead to employment losses and reduced output. Consumers therefore are integral to boosting aggregate demand and direct stimulus payments to individuals should become part of the system of automatic stabilisers as additional income translates quickly into additional spending.

Trigger to start automatic stimulus payments.

The idea behind this is for direct payments to individuals after a 0.5% in the quarterly unemployment rate. If you look at each recession since 1970 the stimulus trigger of an increase in 0.5% unemployment meant that payments would have been triggered within three months of the start of the past six recessions (USA). But there are some concerns with using unemployment data:

  1. Unemployment rate tends to lag the business cycle as unemployment tends to peak after the recession ahas ended.
  2. The rise in unemployment doesn’t necessarily mean you are in recession – two consecutive quarters of negative GDP.

Lump sum v Tax cuts

There is an argument that a one-off lump sum payment is much effective in boosting spending than changes in income tax which would be spread fiscal stimulus throughout the year. Even if the Marginal Propensity to Consume (MPC) was the same for both lump sum and tax cuts it would not be until early in the next year that the full spending occurred under the tax cut option. The delay in spending from lump sum payments would be three months thus the overall stimulus boost would be both larger and more rapid – see graph below.

Final thought
Direct stimulus payments would quickly deliver extra income to millions of households at the start of a recession and maintain income support until the recession has subsided. This should generate more aggregate demand and thereby reducing the impact of the recessionary phase.

Source: “Recession Ready – Fiscal policies to stabilise the American economy.” (Published by the Hamilton Group – Washington Center for Equitable Growth)

Inequality after tax and transfer payments

The Economist had a very informative graphic which looked at the change in the Gini coefficient after taxes and transfers. The Gini Coefficient is derived from the same information used to create a Lorenz Curve. The co-efficient indicates the gap between two percentages: the percentage of population, and the percentage of income received by each percentage of the population. In order to calculate this you divide the area between the Lorenz Curve and the 45° line by the total area below the 45° line eg.

Area between the Lorenz Curve and the 45° line
Total area below the 45° line

The resulting number ranges between:
0 = perfect equality where say, 1% of the population = 1% of income, and
1 = maximum inequality where all the income of the economy is acquired by a single recipient.

* The straight line (45° line) shows absolute equality of income. That is, 10% of the households earn 10% of income, 50% of households earn 50% of income.

The comparison before and after taxes and transfer gives an indication of how they benefit the levels of inequality in an economy.

America’s tax system is progressive and as the its pre-tax Gini coefficient is high the government has to spend more on transfer payments to reduce inequality. In contrast, countries with low pre-tax inequality, such as South Korea, manage to achieve low post-tax inequality without doing much by way of redistribution. Note that the graph from The Economist is on a scale of 0 – 100. 100 being maximum inequality.

The significance of government spending has a big impact on a country’s Gini coefficient. The Economist note that both France and the US have similar levels of inequality before tax but after taxes France reduces inequality from 45 to 28 whilst the US reduces it from 47 to 38 approximately. In France government spending accounts for 57% of GDP. America’s federal, state and local authorities spend just 35%.

New Zealand has a Gini coefficient of 42 whilst after taxes and transfers goes down to 34.

Ireland does most to slash inequality. After taxes and transfers, Ireland’s income distribution goes from 50 to 30 – the higher income groups pay more in tax than in most other countries, while low-earning households receive generous tax credits and transfer payments. Part of the reason Ireland is able to do so much redistribution is that it relies more than most on taxes paid by multinational companies. Foreign-owned firms accounted for 80% of corporate tax in 2017. Cross-country data suggest that if America wanted to bring its level of inequality down to the OECD average, it would have to boost government spending to 50% of GDP.

Source: The Economist – April 13th 2019.

A2 Economics – The Laffer Curve

New to the A2 syllabus last year was the Laffer Curve. PBS Economics correspondent Paul Solman explores the question of just how high U.S. tax rates should or shouldn’t be and examines the relationship between economic activity and tax rates. There is a good explanation of the Laffer Curve which is the relationship between economic activity and tax rates.

In between, a smooth curve representing Laffer’s pretty simple idea: Somewhere above zero percent and below 100 percent, there is a tax rate where government will collect the most revenue in any given year. Now, the Laffer Curve applies to everyone, but the top so-called marginal rate is only relevant to the rich. It’s now 35 percent on all taxable income in excess of about $380,000 a year. Does that 35 percent rate maximize total tax revenue for the government?

Trump’s tax cuts likely to have limited impact on growth

Donald Trump has indicated that the US economy needs a big tax cut to stimulate some growth and aggregate demand –  C+I+G+(X-M). His rationale is that with consumers having greater income they will spend consume more (C) and businesses keeping more of their profits will invest more (I). He is even so confident that the tax cuts won’t put a dent in the overall tax revenue of the government. However economists are suggesting that the US economy is already growing as fast as it can and in order to improve its growth rate it needs to investment in productivity.

D Pull Inflation.jpegNevertheless, US tax cuts in the 1980’s under Ronald Reagan proved to be very effective in stimulating aggregate demand but the economic environment then was different to that of today. The 1980’s was an era of stagflation with the US experiencing 10% unemployment and inflation reaching 15%. Since the GFC in 2007 growth has been positive and unlike the 1980’s unemployment has been falling  – from 10% in Oct 2009 to 4.4% in April 20178. Tax cuts are all very well when you have high unemployment but with the rate falling to under 5% companies may find it difficult to respond to the greater demand for goods and services by taking on workers to increase supply. Tax cuts would then lead to an increase in inflationary pressure (see graph) which is turn would prompt the US Fed to increase interest rates.

ProductivityTrump’s plan would also increase the Federal deficit and borrowing from the government. This would put upward pressure on interest rates for the private sector which reduces the potential for further growth. As noted earlier the area that needs to be addressed is productivity, with a shift of the LRAS curve to the right – see graph.

USA could learn from the New Zealand tax system

Former US President Ronald Reagan said that the US tax system was “complicated, unfair, cluttered with gobbledygook and loopholes designed for those with the power and influence to hire high-priced legal and tax advisers”. Paul Solman of PBS News, looks at the US tax system in the video below and compares it to other countries. Even Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House states that the USA has the worst tax code in the industrialised world, bar none. T.R.Reid, author, “A Fine Mess” suggests that New Zealand is a model of good tax policy. “They have done what all the economists think is right, to get a tax code that is simple, fair and efficient”. He mentions the BBLR – broaden the base, lower the rates. You broaden the base by making everything taxable – health insurance, car park, pension contribution. By contrast Americans spend about six billion hours a year collecting the data and filling out the forms. They spend $10 billion to H&R Block and other preparers and, on top of that, $2 billion in tax preparation software, which still takes hours of work. Furthermore there are more than 400 additions to the tax code every year, and most of them are giveaways to one or two taxpayers. Of the 35 richest countries, in total tax burden, U.S. ranks 33rd. And in return, the US government spends less as a percentage of GDP than other governments.

What makes a good tax?

A new part of the AS Level Economics syllabus is Canons of Taxation. Adam Smith’s contribution to this part of economic theory is still regarded as classic. His enunciation of the canons of taxation has hardly been surpassed in clarity and simplicity. His four celebrated canons are as follows:—

  1. Canon of Equality. Equality here does not mean that all tax-payers should pay an equal amount. Equality here means equality or justice. It means that the broadest shoulders must bear the heaviest burden.
  2. Canon of Certainty. The individual should know exactly what, when and how he is to pay a tax. Otherwise, it causes unnecessary suffering. Similarly, the State should also know how much it will receive from a tax.
  3. Canon of Convenience. Obviously, there is no sense in fixing a time and method of payment which are not suitable. Land revenue in India is realized after the harvest has been collected. This is the time when the cultivators can conveniently pay.
  4. Canon of Economy. This means that the cost of collection should be as small as possible. If the bulk of the tax is spent on its collection, it will take much out of the people’s pockets but bring little into the State’s pocket. It is not a wise tax.

Inequality: What can be done? review by Thomas Piketty in NYR

Inequality what can be doneI recently read another piece from the New York Review of Books – a review by Thomas Piketty (‘Capital in the Twenty-first Century’ fame) of the new book ‘Inequality: What can be done?’ by Anthony Atkinson. He is innovative in his ideas and shows that alternatives still exist. He proposes the following:

  • Universal family benefits by progressive taxation policies
  • Guaranteed public sector jobs as a minimum wage for the unemployed
  • Democratisation of access to property via an innovative national savings system with guaranteed returns for depositors
  • Inheritance for all with a capital endowment at age18 financed by an estate tax

1908’s – UK and US income tax rate reductions

Atkinson does mention the reduction in income tax rates that were instigated by the Thatcher government. The top marginal rate was reduced to 40% – the rate was 83% when Thatcher’s conservative government first came to power in 1979. A conservative MP got quite excited by this and is reported to have said ‘he did not have enough zeroes on his calculator’ to measure the size of his tax cut that he helped to endorse. This break with a half-century of progressive tax policy in the UK was Thatcherism’s distinctive accomplishment. Across the Atlantic US President Ronald Reagan was also in a tax cutting mood and reduced the top marginal tax rate to 28%. Succeeding governments in the UK under Tony Blair (Labour) and in the US under Bill Clinton (Democrats) didn’t change the tax policy that was left by both the Conservatives and the Republicans respectively. This lowering of the top marginal income tax rates contributed to the increase in inequality since the 1980’s.

A more progressive tax rate

Atkinson proposes top rates of income tax in the UK of 55% for annual income above 100,000  and 65% for annual income above £200,000, as well as a hike in the cap on contributions to national insurance. This will allow for a significant expansion of the UK social security and income redistribution system – family benefits and unemployment benefits. According to Atkinson if these taxes were implemented the level of inequality would be reduced significantly.

New rights for those with fewest rights

Atkinson proposes include guaranteed minimum-wage public jobs for the unemployed, new rights for organized labour, public regulation of technological change, and democratisation of access to capital. Piketty alludes to two of Atkinson’s innovative suggestions:

  1. The establishment of a national savings program allowing each depositor to receive a guaranteed return on her capital. Given the drastic inequality of access to fair financial returns, particularly as a consequence of the scale of the investment with which one begins (a situation that has in all likelihood been aggravated by the financial deregulation of the last few decades), this proposal is particularly sound
  1. The establishment an “inheritance for all” program. This would take the form of a capital endowment assigned to each young citizen as he or she reached adulthood, at the age of eighteen. All such endowments would be financed by estate taxes and a more progressive tax structure. He calls for a far-reaching reform of the system of inheritance taxation, and especially for greater progressivity with regard to the larger estates. (He proposes an upper rate of 65 percent, as with the income tax.) These reforms would make it possible to finance a capital endowment on the order of £10,000 per young adult.

A Wealth Tax

He also proposes a progressive tax system on real estate and eventually on net wealth. Stamp duty, which is a tax on real estate transactions, would be implemented as follows:

  • 0% tax if property worth less than 125,000
  • 1% tax if property worth between £125,000 and £250,000
  • 3% tax if property between £250,000 and £500,000
  • 5% tax between one and two million pounds (a new rate introduced in 2011)
  • 7% tax on properties worth more than two million pounds (introduced in 2012)

Many have called into question the financing of the British welfare state (especially the National Health Service) through taxes. This was seen as an unacceptable form of competition by those countries where the cost of the welfare state rested on employers. A substantial proportion of the British left at the time saw in Europe and its obsession with “pure and perfect” competition a force that was hostile to social justice and the politics of equality.

Why increasing taxes in developing economies may help growth.

In order to assist growth higher taxes may seem illogical as they take money out of the circular flow. However developing countries on average collect only 13% of GDP in tax compared to 34% in developed countries. Public investment can encourage private investment and it is estimated that an $1 of public investment increases private investment by $2. At the recent UN conference in Addis Ababa there is a desire to increase the tax take of LDC’s to 20% of GDP.

Why do developing countries not collect much tax?

  1. most of the population have no money
  2. most developing countries have a prevalent informal economy
  3. because of the rural nature of LDC’s the cost of tax collection is often higher than the benefits

The World Bank has suggested improving the tax agencies and tax revenue in Rwanda has increased by 6.5 time after automating the process, which reduced errors and opportunities for fraud. There would be much more tax revenue if LDC’s reduced tax emption and avoidance, including from foreign investors. It is estimated that exemptions have cost developing countries $1bn in lost revenue in 2011 whilst the cost of multinational companies deliberately avoiding tax exceeds $200bn a year.

How multinationals avoid paying tax

The most common way multinationals avoid taxes is through “transfer pricing”, in which their subsidiaries in tax havens buy goods cheaply from arms in more exacting countries, and then sell them on at a higher price, thereby shifting profits to the tax haven. The OECD is trying to combat such schemes by persuading tax authorities to require firms to disclose where they generate their profits and share the disclosures. A proposal from 137 developing-world NGOs goes further, calling for the formation of an international tax agency, although it is unlikely to prosper.

Blatant tax dodging.

This is a major problem as undeclared money transfers, false invoices etc cost developing countries more than $990 bn in 2012 which equates to almost 4% of a developing countries’ GDP.

Source: The Economist 11th July 2015

Petrol Tax in New Zealand

The New Zealand Parliamentary Library “Monthly Economic Review” published a feature on taxes and levies on petrol.

Taxes and levies on a litre of petrol in New Zealand account for approximately 43 percent of the overall price.

July 2014 – Retail price = 223.9 cents per litre

A forecast $1,702 million is expected to be raised through the excise duty on petroleum in the year ended June 2015. This includes:

– $936 million in petroleum excise duty on domestic production
– $766 million on petroleum imports.

The following diagram shows the taxes and levies on a litre of petrol (including GST).

Petrol Tax NZ

Danish Fat Tax in the scraps

Smor ButterAfter a year in operation the Danish government recently announced that it was to abolish its tax on saturated fats. The idea behind the Fat Tax was to increased the price of unhealthy foods and therefore reduce consumption and improve the health of the population. However in practical terms the tax was a nightmare to administer as it not only targeted chips, burgers, hot dogs etc but also high-end food including gourmet cheeses. According to some critics this was to the worst example of the nanny state. The Economist reported some of the problems:

* Bakers were concerned with fat content in their cakes.
* Pig farmers said their famous bacon would cost more than imports.
* Independent butchers complained that supermarkets could keep their meat prices down as they could spread the cost of the tax across other goods.
* The tax applied on meat was imposed by carcass not per cut, which meant higher prices for lean sirloin steak as well as fatty burgers.
* Before the tax was imposed there was significant hoarding especially in margarine, butter and cooking oil

However there was also a surge in cross border shopping and a study estimated that 48% of Danes had done shopping in Germany and Sweden – sugary drinks, beer, butter etc were no doubt high on the shopping list.