The Tax Debate: There is a lot more to an economy than taxes

Posted on July 26, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |


The OECD recently launched a scheme to combat tax avoidance and evasion related issues from both major multinational corporations and individuals. The initiative called base erosion and profit shifting ( BEPS )  plan was presented to G 20 finance ministers on the 20th of July this year on their request.

In short, the BEPS report confirms OECD’s findings that the existing international tax system is failing the rich as well as poor countries. This is more or less stating the obvious. Taking the initiative further during a recent announcement the OECD has also identified 15 policy action points that it hopes will restore trust and fairness in the system. In principle, the scheme does seem to hit the right notes especially with law and policy makers and hence it was fully endorsed by the G 20 finance ministers this month.

The OECD’s action plan on base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) will most likely be considered by many as a step in the right direction but it does seem to be loaded with complicated ideas to help nations find ways to collect more tax revenues from major international corporations as well as individuals. And while it rightly focuses on tax treaties, tax compliance, overall tax policies among other things to fix the inefficient global tax system, parts of the scheme may not be fair for all and also falls short on addressing the real issues. For example under the planned proposal OECD recommends a multinational treaty aimed at tax avoidance but this treaty could also potentially hurt smaller countries that are using low corporate income rates to attract investments from across the world.

Also after looking at the bigger picture it will be unwise to conclude that the downward trend in tax income revenues is all simply down to deliberate tax avoidance and evasion by major corporations and individuals. But here is something interesting, according to the US government agency data for the financial year ending 2011, the US corporate tax collection was roughly around 2.4% of its GDP. And the historical data suggests that the overall corporate tax contribution  has shrunk dramatically since 1950s but its not just a US problem as most OECD economies collect between 2% to 3% of their GDP in corporate income tax revenues. However, there are no clear evidence to suggest that this downward trend is all cause of corporates tax avoidance and evasion. There are serious existing policy issues related to taxation thats need to resolved and unless the lawmakers take radical measures to reform the existing tax systems even if OECD’s scheme was to be fully implemented it’s hard to project a significant rise in the overall corporate tax income revenues in terms of percentage of the GDP but we will have to wait and see.

Over the past few decades there has been a significant shift in the overall distribution of the tax burden. For example from Oct 1, 2010 to Sep 30, 2011 the US government collected $2.30 trillion in tax revenues of which 47% was individual income taxes, 36% social insurance taxes and just 8% in corporate income taxes along with 3% in excise taxes, 1% custom duties, 0.3% estate and gift taxes, and 4% in other taxes. So clearly from the overall tax distribution stand point it is evident that the US households are bearing the brunt of the tax burden. But again this is not just a US issue for example Europeans overall tax burden is estimated to be over 15% higher than Americans or Asians for that matter. And this shift in tax distribution burden has happened over decades so its not a new phenomenon and while the law and policy makers may find it easier to criticise the corporations, it is not the corporations who make or create tax policies.

The focus of the law and policymakers of G20 countries should be around finding ways to harmonise and simplify taxes across the board as most tax systems are extremely complicated and also work with major corporations to create incentives for them to make sure they pay a fair share in corporate income tax. The world has changed and will continue to change and going forward a good tax system will need to be constantly updated and forwarding looking. Any system that is seen as Tax grab and simply aimed at taking more cash out of the private economy will most likely struggle in the long run. The system needs to be redesigned to look and feel fair and this should clearly be the focus and aim of law and policy makers involved in the ongoing tax debate.

However,the recent steps taken by various governments around the world especially the European as well as the US government has been more or less front loaded with measures to increase the tax burden on the existing tax payers. And the temptation to find ways to collect more tax revenues is understandable as most governments are under severe pressure to find ways to fix their stretched fiscal position but the law and policymakers should also realise that there are already too many hidden and indirect taxes that really affect people’s standard of living. 

And also while higher taxes or finding new ways to increase tax revenues from the existing pool of tax payers in order to pay down the debt may seem as an easier option there needs to be a realisation that the current deficits weren’t caused by corporate and individual tax evasion and avoidance. The law and policymakers do need to realise that there is a lot more to an economy than taxes, and there are no perfect economic or tax systems and probably never will be but without growth most countries will continue to struggle. Also continuing to tap more from the existing pool without enlarging it or cutting down on the overall expenses to a sustainable level is a high risk  plan so the G 20 finance ministers will do well to keep their focus on finding ways to take collective measures to boost the global growth in order to generate more income.

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