“We don’t tax businesses highly” and other misrepresentations

As we wait to learn where the government has setttled on the idea of a capital gains tax, Radio New Zealand had an interview this morning in which their presenter Guyon Espiner talked to a business lobby group opponent (John Milford of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce) of a capital gains tax.   I’m someone who is, at best, sceptical of the merits (and potential revenue gains) of a CGT, but it wasn’t the most effective case made against such a tax.

But what really prompted me to pay attention was when Milford argued that business was already quite highly taxed.  The interviewer responded along the lines of “oh, come on, the company tax rate of 28 per cent isn’t high at all”, and Milford simply let it pass and moved off to a claim that regulatory burdens and other costs were high.

We should not lose sight of the fact that we have one of the highest statutory company tax rates of any OECD country.  Here are the OECD’s own numbers for 2019 (incorporating all levels of government –  some countries, including the US, have state level company taxes as well as national ones).

corporate tax 2019

As almost everyone knows, headline corporate tax rates can mask a multitude of exemptions and deductions.  So here is the data on the tax collected on the “income, profits, and capital gains” of corporates, expressed as a share of GDP.  Data on actual tax collections takes time to compile, so these data are for 2017.

corp tax 2017

In this particular year, we took the second highest share of GDP in corporate tax revenue.      That rank bobs around a bit from year to year (in the year the Tax Working Group used in their discussion document, we ranked number 1) and it appears to matter a bit whether countries collect taxes from central government entities or not (we do), but no one seriously questions that however one looks at things, New Zealand is one of the handful of countries collecting the highest tax (share of GDP) from corporates.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that New Zealand (and Australia, but almost no one else) runs a dividend imputation scheme, such that for domestic resident shareholders (only), corporate tax is really a withholding tax, and tax paid at the corporate level is credited against the shareholder’s personal tax liability. In most other countries there is a double taxation issue (profits and dividends are taxed with no offsetting credits), and partly as a result dividend payout rates tend to be lower.  (This, incidentally, is one reason why there is a stronger case for a CGT in other countries than there is in New Zealand or Australia.)

Incidentally, here is how corporate tax revenue (same measure as in the previous chart) in New Zealand compares with that of the median OECD country over 50+ years.

corp tax hist

If anything, the gap appears to have been widening over the last 25 years or so.

It is worth remembering here that New Zealand is not, by OECD, standards a highly taxed country.  Over that entire 50 year period we’ve been around the median OECD country for total tax revenue as a share of GDP (currently just a bit below).   We also have relatively low levels of capital in our production processes (recall low rates of business investment, relative to population growth, over many decades), and yet we raise among the largest share of GDP from companies of any OECD country.

We also get quite a lot of revenue from taxes on good and services (mostly GST here).

G&S tax

We are also a bit above the median OECD country in the share of GDP taken in property taxes (mostly local authority rates, levied on property).

And, by contrast, the area where New Zealand collects hardly any tax revenue at all, as a share of GDP.

soc security taxes.png

I can’t highlight the New Zealand bar.  There isn’t one.  On this definition, we collect nothing (on other definitions one might include ACC levies, but their equivalent is presumably also excluded in the calculations for other countries).

Most advanced countries fund a significant chunk of their welfare systems (unemployment, disability, age pension) with explicit social security taxes, typically levied only on labour earnings (although some are directly paid by employees, and some directly by employers).  Of course, as the chart indicates there is a wide range in practices, but we (and Australia) are at one extreme, and partly in consequence we are the two OECD countries taking the largest share of total tax revenue in corporate taxes.

Does all this have much bearing on the case for a CGT?  Personally, I don’t think so.   A decent CGT –  that didn’t tax pure inflation and allowed proper loss-offsetting –  would be expected to raise very little revenue over time.   If there is an argument for a CGT it is mostly in some conception of “fairness”, which needs to be weighed up against problems such as lock-in, and of the consequent biasing of asset holdings towards big institutional entities and away from individuals.

But don’t try to use as an argument for a CGT that business activity in New Zealand is lightly taxed.  It isn’t.  In absolute terms, business tax revenue as a share of GDP is currently well above the average for the last 50 years.  In international comparative terms, we tax business activity more heavily than almost OECD country –  and perhaps it isn’t entirely coincidental that we sometimes anguish about why we don’t have more business activity.

I listened to more of Morning Report than usual this morning (kneading hot cross bun dough as I did) and had the misfortune to hear Business New Zealand chief executive commenting on government proposals to crackdown on the “exploitation” of migrant workers.  I haven’t looked into the details, so have no view on the substantive merits of the specific proposals (sympathetic as I am to the cause generally).  But people shouldn’t be able to advance their cause with straight-out lies.  Kirk Hope claimed that what the government was proposing was quite inappropriate in part because we currently have “record low” unemployment.   Perhaps his memory is short, but Business NZ used to have an economist who could have briefed him.  In the absence of that person, here are the data

U historical

Perhaps you might want to discount the first 20 years (although it was a real phenonenon), but current unemployment rates haven’t even reached the lows we managed for several years prior to the last recession.   And these days older workers (aged over 65) are a much larger share of the labour force, and naturally tend to have a materially lower unemployment rate (in other words, what might have been unsustainably low 15 years ago, is probably rather more sustainable now).

Reading the TWG report

You might idly dream –  or hope, increasingly desperately, for your own sake (younger readers), or for your children or grandchildren – that one day real house prices might be sustainably lower again. There is no good or defensible reason why they shouldn’t be.  It is just that our political “leaders” choose to keep on doing nothing real about it.  From time to time some of our politicians talk a good talk about fixing this national disgrace –  once upon a time the current Minister of Housing was foremost among them (embraced even by the libertarians at the New Zealand Initiative) –  but then do nothing, or attempt to distract us with interventions that have little or nothing to do with the real problem.

The Tax Working Group’s report, out last week, assumes this state of affairs goes on indefinitely.   Why do I say that?   Because in the revenue projections they include in the report (and on which they construct a case for permanent income tax cuts):

  • the bulk of the revenue is from gains in urban property prices (land and buildings), and
  • they assume that property prices rise (indefinitely) at 3 per cent per annum, only 2 per cent of which is general consumer price inflation.

Since actual physical buildings experience real depreciation, and since over the long term construction costs are unlikely to rise at a rate much different than general CPI inflation, the implicit assumptions seems to be that urban land prices will rise even faster.   (It has never been clear to me how anyone thinks they can safely forecast real asset prices, let alone plan responsible tax policy on such forecasts, but set that to one side just for the moment.)

So most of the revenue would arise from general consumer price inflation –  which simply shouldn’t be taxed (since no one is better off as a result; there is no addition to purchasing power) – and the rest apparently from assuming that the rigged (by central and local government) housing market continues to get even more out of line.   If we are going to have a capital gains tax on urban property, perhaps the government could at least consider using any proceeds to compensate the generation put in an ever-more-impossible position by their own policy choices/failures?   Alternatively, if the government (Mr Twyford) really is still serious about fixing the housing market –  and he claims to be so – they need to recognise that there will be little or no revenue from a capital gains tax for a very long time.  In principle, the ability to deduct capital losses from other taxable income would actually make it a net drain on the public finances were anything serious ever to be done about fixing the housing market (investors, but not owner-occupiers, would be partly compensated for their losses, upending most people’s sense of fairness).

There is a choice:

  • reasonable amounts of revenue, much of it plundered by taxing inflation compensation, if the rigged housing market is allowed to continue, while doing nothing to compensate the actual losers from that (governmentally) distorted housing market,
  • or little or no revenue (perhaps even net fiscal costs) if a government ever gets serious and fixes the housing and urban land market.

Reading the entire report yesterday, and even going back to read the interim report, I was struck by how thin and weak the economic analysis in the document was.  As someone noted to me yesterday, it had a strong feel of something in which the working group started with a conclusion and went pretty much straight to how to write rules, without thinking about the underlying economics.   I noted a year ago how little any concerns around productivity (lack of it) figured when the Tax Working Group set out their plans.  And they delivered –  there was very little about those considerations in their reports.  Not even a recognition that, for all the talk about reallocating investment, if anything probably too few real resources have gone into housebuilding over the years not too many (given the growth of the population).

There was lots of focus on raising more revenue, and little on the low rates of business investment we already have, or on the way in which we tax much of capital income more onerously than almost any other OECD country.   The idea of fixing inflation distortions directly didn’t get much space either.  The current system bears very heavily –  and quite unjustly – on people holding savings in the form of bank deposits, and it also gives away money, totally unnecessarily (and without economic justification) to business borrowers. Allow deductions of interest expenses only for the real component of any interest rate –  it wouldn’t be that hard to do –  and you’d both improve efficiency and get more money out of leveraged property investors (and in ways that didn’t rely on a continued rigged market).

The economic analysis around the proposed capital gains tax itself was also weak –  I’d say “surprisingly weak”, but there was an agenda going into this review, so I can really only say “disappointingly weak”.   I know I saw no mention of the idea that most real capital gains (and losses) are windfalls (since markets tend to price assets efficiently on the information available at the time) –  and that, in the case of windfalls, a capital gains tax is pure double taxation.   I don’t think I saw a single mention anywhere of the fact that, if these recommendations are adopted, New Zealand will have probably the very highest rate of capital gains tax in the world.   The discussion of the lock-in problems around capital gains taxes was threadbare –  it was noted, but there was no sustained analysis, no careful discussion of various published studies on the effect, and nothing linking back to the fact that if our CGT rate is the highest in the OECD, our lock-in problems are likely to be more significant.    There was little or no serious analysis of the potential impact on entrepreneurship and innovation –  and certainly nothing that put that issue in the context of an economy with low rates of business investment.

There was also nothing at all about the incentives a realisations-based CGT creates for assets to be held not by those best able to utilise them, but by those least likely to have to face a CGT charge and those best-placed to utilise any losses: capital gains taxes  (like ring-fencing, like the PIE regime) will create more of an incentive for more assets to be held by institutions, foundations etc, rather than directly by individual investors, not because those institutions are better managers or owners, but because they are less likely to have to crystallise a CGT liability.  Tax policy for the big end of town.

And, of course, there was nothing about the systematic asymmetry built into the system, in which gains are fully taxed (when realised) but many losses may never be able to be fully utilised.   Take two separate businesses each valued at $100 million on the day the CGT is implemented, both owned by individuals who are 55.  Over the following decade, one business does well and when the owner comes to retire he sells it for two hundred million dollars. He is liable for CGT on that gain. The other business does poorly and when the owner comes to retire, there is little or no value left in the business.    In principle, he can offset that capital loss against other income, but at 65 it is very unlikely that over the remainder of his life he will anywhere near enough income to fully utilise those losses (and even if he does, there is a further –  perhaps lengthy –  time delay).   In fact, the TWG proposes that some losses could only be used to offset other losses in that same sort of activity (not against, say, labour income).  Since the nature of a market economy is that some businesses do well and others don’t, mine isn’t at all an implausible scenario.  There might be a decent case (in equity, although not in efficiency) for taxing windfalls etc if the treatment of losses was fully symmetric –  the government then would be a pure equity stakeholder in all businesses –  but that isn’t what is proposed.

And finally, I was also struck by how threadbare was the discussion around the New Zealand Superannuation Fund.   That organisation appeared twice in the report.  The first was this bid.

35. The New Zealand Superannuation Fund (NZSF) has suggested the use of a limited tax incentive to spur investment into Government-approved, nationally significant public infrastructure projects that would benefit from unique international expertise.
36. NZSF suggested that investors pay a concessionary rate of 14% (i.e. half of the
current company rate of 28%) on profits made in New Zealand from qualifying projects. Qualifying investors would need to have a demonstrated capability to deliver world-class infrastructure projects; they would also need to bring expertise that is not ordinarily available in New Zealand and commit that expertise to the delivery of the infrastructure.
37. NZSF’s suggestion has merit. The Group recommends that the Government consider the development of a carefully designed regime to encourage investment into large, nationally significant infrastructure projects that both serve the national interest and require unique international project expertise to succeed.

I wrote about this bid when NZSF first published their submission.  I wrote then that

I’m all in favour of lower company (and capital income) taxes more generally.  Standard economic analysis supports that sort of policy, and all of us would be expected to benefit from adopting such a policy approach.  But that isn’t what is proposed by NZSF; it is just a lobbying effort to skew capital towards particular sectors they happen to favour.  It is a pretty reprehensible bid to degrade the quality of our tax system.  There is no economic analysis advanced in support of their proposal –  so little it almost defies belief –  no sense of considerations of economic efficiency, just the success of lobbying efforts in a few other countries (including two struggling middle income countries not known for the efficiency of capital allocation or quality of governance, and the United States –  which not only has plenty of poor infrastructure, but a corporate tax code  riddled with exemptions and distortions).

Same goes for the Tax Working Group’s treatment of the issue.  We deserve better.

The second substantive issue in which NZSF is mentioned is around the tax liability of NZSF itself.

56. During its discussions on retirement savings, the Group noted the oddity that the NZSF must pay tax to the New Zealand Government. The NZSF reports that it paid $1.2 billion in tax, or 9% of New Zealand’s corporate tax take, in the 2016-17
tax year.

That is a good thing. It helps to ensure that the NZSF –  operating at arms-length from the government of the day –  faces the same incentives as any other New Zealand investor.   Were it not so the ownership structure of various assets could look quite different, since NZSF would be in a position to pay more than other potential investors for any particular asset, not because they would be better owners, but just because they were tax-favoured.

There does appear to be a small substantive issue, relating to NZSF’s activities overseas

It is more difficult to argue that the NZSF should benefit from sovereign immunity when it is subject to tax in its home jurisdiction. The NZSF reported paying approximately $14 million in tax to foreign governments in the 2016-17 tax year (New Zealand Superannuation Fund, 2017). This is a cost to the NZSF that does not benefit New Zealand.
59. Tax-exempt status would better recognise the fact that the NZSF is an instrument of the Government of New Zealand and make it easier for the NZSF to apply for tax exemptions in foreign countries where they are available. Not all governments recognise the principle of sovereign immunity, so the NZSF may still have to pay tax in some jurisdictions, even if it becomes tax-exempt in New Zealand. Nevertheless, the NZSF will benefit from lower compliance costs in New Zealand and some reduction in foreign taxes.

That $14 million is a real cost to New Zealanders, but as the TWG themselves recognise even exempting NZSF from all New Zealand taxes would probably not reduce that number to zero.

But what is really striking is that there is no discussion –  not a word –  about the risks that exempting NZSF from taxes might pose to the efficient allocation of capital in New Zealand.  Instead we get shonky arguments like this

Tax-exempt status would also reduce the amount of contributions that need to be made by the Government over time in terms of the funding formula in the New Zealand Superannuation and Retirement Income Act 2001.

Well, yes, but so what?   Reduced contributions aren’t a real saving in this context, just a substitute for reduced tax revenue from the NZSF.

Ah, but “the NZSF will benefit from lower compliance costs in New Zealand”.   No doubt that is true, but NZSF with its $37 billion of your money is considerably better placed to cope with the inevitable compliance costs of the tax system than most of the rest of us, including most of the rest of the business operations that would become subject to the TWG’s capital gains tax.   Hard to believe that they could really run that line with a straight face.

Capital gains taxes: some thoughts

It is a day for repeating some material from old posts. I haven’t yet read any more than a few news reports on the Tax Working Group’s report.  But I have debated capital gains taxes for years.   This was a post on the topic from 2017.  Here was the gist of my comments.   My bottom-line is that capital gains taxes aren’t the worst thing in the world, but mostly are a distraction from what should be the real issues.

Anyway, here are some of the points I make:

  • in a well-functioning efficient market, there are typically no real (ie inflation adjusted) expected capital gains.    An individual participant might expect an asset price to rise for some reason, but that participant will be balanced by others expecting it to fall.  If it were not so then, typically, the price would already have adjusted.  In well-functioning markets, there aren’t free lunches.    It also means that, on average, capital losses will be pretty common too, and thus a tax system that treated capital gains and losses symmetrically wouldn’t raise much money on average over time.   A CGT is no magic money tree.   And there is no strong efficiency argument for taxing windfalls.
  • if you thought, for some reason, that people were inefficiently reluctant to take risk, there might be some argument for a properly symmetrical CGT.  In such a system, the government would take, say, a third of your gains, but would also remit a third of your losses (the overall risks being pooled by the state).    The variance of an individual’s private after-tax returns would be reduced, and they might be more willing to take risk.   But, in fact, no CGT system I’m aware of is properly symmetrical –  there are typically tough restrictions on claiming refunds in respect of capital losses (one might only be able to do so by offsetting them against future gains).  There are some reasonable base-protection arguments for these restrictions, but they undermine the case for a CGT itself.
  • All real world CGTs are based on realised gains (and losses to an extent).   That makes it not a pure CGT, but in significant part a turnover tax –  if you never trade, you never pay (“never” isn’t literal, but tax deferred for decades discounts to a very small present value).    And that creates lock-in problems, where people are very reluctant to sell, even if their circumstances change or if a new potential owner could make much more of the asset, for fear of crystallising a CGT liability.  In other words, introducing a CGT introduces a new inefficiency to asset markets, making it less likely that over time assets will be owned by the parties best able to utilise them.
  • Basing a CGT on realised gains will also, over time, bias the ownership of assets subject to CGT to those most able to avoid realising the gains.  A long-lived pension fund, or even a very wealthy family, will typically be better able to  count on not having to sell than, say, an individual starting out with one or two rental properties, or some other small business, where changed circumstances (eg a recesssion or a divorce) might compel early liquidation.  Large funds are also typically better able to take advantage of loss-offsetting provisions.  The democratisation of finance and asset holding it certainly isn’t.
  • CGTs in many countries exclude “the family home” altogether.  In other countries, they provide “rollover relief”, enabling any tax liability to be deferred.  Most advocates of a CGT here seem to favour the exclusion of the family home, even though unleveraged owners of family homes already have the most favourable tax treatment in our system.  Again, a CGT applied to investment properties but not owner-occupied ones would simply trade one (possible) distortion for another.
  • In practice, most of the arguments made for a CGT in New Zealand have to do with the housing market.   But, on the one hand, all major (and minor?) parties claim that they have the fix for the housing market (various combinations of RMA reform, infrastructure reforms, changes to immigration, restrictions on foreign ownership, state building programmes or whatever).  If they are right, there is no reason to expect significant systematic real capital gains in houses.  If anything, real house prices should be falling –  a long way, for a long time.    Of course, prices in some localities might still rise at some point, if unexpected new opportunities appear.  But “unexpected” is the operative word.   Enthusiasm for a CGT, at least at a political level, seems to involve a concession that the parties don’t believe, or aren’t really serious about their housing reform policies.
  • Oh, and no one I’m aware of anywhere argues that a realisation-based CGT applied to (a minority of) housing has made any very material difference to the level of house prices, or indeed to cycles in house prices.
  • In general, capital gains taxes amount to double-taxation.    Think of a business or a farm.  If the owner makes a success of the business, or product selling prices improve, expected profits will increase.  If and when those profits are achieved, they would, in the normal course of affairs, be subject to income tax.  The value of the business is the discounted value of the expected future profits.  It will rise when the expected profits rise.  Tax that gain and you will be taxing twice the same increase in profits –  only with a CGT you tax it before it has even happened.   Of course, at least in principle, there is a double deduction for losses, but as noted above utilising losses (whether of income, or capital) is a lot more difficult.    If you think that New Zealand has had less business investment than might, in some sense, have been desirable,  you might want to be cautious about applauding a new tax that would fall heavily on those who took business risks and succeeded.
  • Perhaps double taxation of expected business profits doesn’t bother you.  But trying reasoning by analogy with wages.   If the market value of your particular skills has gone up, your wages would be expected to rise.  When they do you will pay taxes on those higher wages.  But by the logic of a CGT, we should capitalise the value of your expected future labour income and tax your on both that “capital gain” and on the later actual earnings.  Fortunately, we abolished slavery long ago, but in principle the two cases aren’t much different: if there is a case for a CGT on the value of a business, it isn’t obvious why one shouldn’t have one on the value of a person’s human capital.
  • (I should note here, for the purists, that there are other concepts of double-taxation often referred to in tax literature, none of which invalidate the point I’m making here.)
  • Real world CGTs also tend to complicate fiscal management?  Why?   Because CGT revenue tends to peak when asset markets and the economy are doing well, and when other government revenue sources are performing well.  CGT revenue doesn’t increase a little as the economy improves and asset markets increase, it increases multiplicatively.  And then dries up almost completely.  Think of a simple example in which real asset prices had been increasing at 1 per cent per annum, and then some shock boost asset prices by 10 per cent.  CGT revenue might easily rise by 100 per cent in that year (setting aside issues around the timing of realisations).  And then in a period of falling asset prices there will be almost no CGT revenue at all.   Strongly pro-cyclical revenue sources create serious fiscal management problems, because in the good times they create a pot of money that invites politicians to (compete to) spend it.  If asset booms run for several years, politicians start to treat the revenue gains as permanent, and increase spending accordingly. And if/when asset markets correct –  often associated with recession and downturns in other revenue sources-  the drying up of CGT revenue increases the pressure on the budget in already tough times.     It is easy to talk about ringfencing such revenue (mentally, if not legally) but such devices rarely seem to work.

None of this means that I think there is no case for changes in elements of our tax system as they affect housing.  The ability for business borrowers to deduct the full amount of nominal interest, even though a significant portion of that interest is simply compensation for inflation (rather than a real cost), is a systematic bias.  It doesn’t really benefit new buyers of investment properties (the benefit is, in principle, already priced into the market) but it is a systematic distortion for which there is no good economic justification   Inflation-indexing key elements of our tax system is highly desirable –  at least if we can’t prudently lower the medium-term inflation target –  and might be a good topic for a tax working group.  In the process, it would also ease the tax burden on people reliant on fixed interest earnings (much of which is also just inflation compensation, not a real income).

Of course, at the same time it would be desirable to look again at a couple of systematic distortions that work against owners of investment properties.  Houses are normal goods and (physically) depreciate.  And yet depreciation is no longer deductible.  Perhaps there was a half-defensible case for that when prices were rising seemingly inexorably –  but even then most of the increase was in land value, not in value of the structures on the land –  but there is no justification if land reform and (eg) new state building is going to fix the housing market.    Similarly, when the PIE system was introduced a decade or so ago, it gave systematic tax advantages to entities with 20 or more unrelated investors.  Most New Zealand rental properties historically haven’t been held in such entities.  There is no good economic justification for this distinction, which in practice both puts residential investment at a relative tax disadvantage as a saving option, and creates a bias towards institutional vehicles for holding such assets.  Institutional vehicles have their own fundamental advantages –  greater opportunities for diversification and liquidity –  but it isn’t obvious why the tax system should be skewing people towards such vehicles rather than self–managed options.  As noted above, any CGT will only reinforce that bias.  Funds managers, and associated lawyers and accountants, would welcome that. It isn’t obvious why New Zealand savers should do so.

And in all this in a country where we systematically over-tax capital income already.  I commend to readers a comment on yesterday’s tax post by Andrew Coleman, of Otago University (and formerly Treasury).  As Andrew noted:

Somehow, New Zealand’s policy advising community decided it would restrict most of its attention to the ways income tax could be perfected rather than question whether income taxes (which are particularly distortionary when applied to capital incomes) should be replaced by other taxes. It is almost as if we have the Stockholm Tax Syndrome – fallen in love with a system that abuses us.

A broad-based capital gains tax would just reinforce that problem.

2019 again. I hope the TWG report has dealt substantively with these sorts of points.  But I’m not optimistic.

 

Inflation and the tax system

When I went looking for the interim report of the Tax Working Group, I found that various other papers had been released.   These include background papers prepared by the Treasury and IRD secretariat looking at various possible options for reducing other taxes if, for example, new capital taxes were to provide more government revenue.

Among them was a short and rather unconvincing paper on productivity.   It was notable for highlighting how difficult it was to give any concrete meaning to the aspiration repeatedly expressed by the Minister of Finance, and included in the terms of reference, of “promoting the right balance between the productive and speculative economies”.  And it was also notable for the aversion of officials to lowering the company tax rate (or the effective tax rate shareholders pay on company income), even though they accept that our business income tax rates are now high by international standards, and that business investment (including FDI) is low by international standards. This chart is from the paper.  In general, what is taxed heavily you get less of.

corp income tax

But this time I was more interested in another of the background papers, this one on the possibility of inflation indexing the tax system.   Even with 2 per cent inflation, failing to take explicit account of inflation in the tax system introduces some material distortions and inefficiencies.  Many of the costs of inflation arise from the interaction with the tax system, and these distortions may be greater in New Zealand than in many other countries because of the way we tax retirement income savings (the TTE system introduced, as a great revenue grab at the time, in the late 1980s).

In the days of high inflation there was some momentum towards doing something about indexation. It had, for example, been a cause championed by former Reserve Bank Governor Ray White.  And in the late 1980s, the then government got as far as publishing a detailed consultative document.  But then inflation fell sharply (and maximum marginal tax rates were cut) and the issue died.  We don’t even have the income tax thresholds indexed for inflation, allowing Ministers of Finance ever few years to present as a tax cut an increase in revenue that should never have occurred in the first place.

In the early days of inflation targeting there might even have been a case for letting the issue die.  The inflation target was centred on 1 per cent annual CPI increases, and that target was premised on a view that the CPI had an annual upward bias of perhaps as much as 0.75 per cent per annum).  But since then, the extent of any biases in the CPI have been reduced, and the inflation target has twice been increased.   The inflation target now involves aiming for “true” inflation” of at least 1.5 per cent per annum.

The distortions are most obvious as regard interest receipts and payments.  Take a short-term term deposit rate of around 3 per cent at present.  Someone on the maximum marginal tax rate (33%) will be taxed so that the after-tax return is only 2 per cent. But if, as the Reserve Bank tells us, inflation expectations are 2 per cent, that means no real after-tax return.  Compensation for inflation isn’t income and it shouldn’t be taxed as such.  Only the real component of the interest rate (1 per cent) should be taxed.   The same distortion arises on the other side, for those able to deduct interest expenses in calculating taxable income: in the presence of inflation, this tax treatment subsidises business borrowing.  The amounts involved are not small.   As economist Andrew Coleman notes in his (as ever) stimulating TWG submission

Even at low inflation rates, these distortions are substantial. In 2017, for instance, residential landlords borrowed $70 billion. Even if the inflation rate is as low as 1 percent, this means residential landlords can deduct $700 million of real principal repayments from their taxable income, a subsidy worth over $200 million per year. New Zealand households lend in excess of $150 billion. When the inflation rate is 1 percent, lenders are expected to pay tax on $1.5 billion more than they ought. Many people who invest in interest-earning securities are elderly, risk averse, or unsophisticated investors. For some reason the New Zealand Government believes these investors should pay more tax than any other class of investors in New Zealand. It is a strange country that taxes the simplest, most easily understood, and the most easily purchased financial security at the highest rates. It suggests the Government has little interest in equity, its protestations notwithstanding.

There are other distortions too, notably around trading stock valuations and asset valuations on which true economic depreciation would be calculated.

As reflected in the paper released this week, officials are very wary about doing anything about fixing these distortions (and they fairly note that “no OECD country currently comprehensively inflation indexes their tax system”), and they devote many pages to outlining the practical challenges they believe would be involved, and the new distortions they believe would arise from partial approaches to indexation.

I have some sympathy with the stance taken by officials on the specific challenges to doing comprehensive indexation, especially in a way that does not bias transactions through favoured institutional vehicles.  But it is a particularly bloodless document that seems to reflect no sense of the injustice involved in taxing so heavily relatively unsophisticated savers (while subsidising business borrowers, especially those financing very long-lived assets).

This seems like a case where some joined-up whole-of-government policy advice would be desirable.  There would be no systematic distortions arising from the interaction between inflation and the tax system if there was no systematic or expected inflation.   Systematic inflation isn’t a natural or inevitable feature of an economic system –  in some ways it is about as odd as changing the length of a metre by 2 per cent a year, or the weight of a gram by 2 per cent a year.  In the UK, for example, (and with lots of annual variation) the price level in 1914 was about the same as it had been in 1860).  And the most compelling reason these days for targeting a positive inflation rate is the effective lower bound on nominal interest rates, itself created by policymakers and legislators.   Take some serious steps to remove that lower bound and (a) we’d be much better positioned whenever the next serious economic downturn happens, and (b) we could, almost at a stroke, eliminate the distortions –  and rank injustices –  that arise from the interaction between continuing, actively targeted, positive inflation, and a tax system that takes no account of this systematic targeted depreciation in the value of money.

It wouldn’t be hard, but our ministers, officials (Treasury and IRD), and central bankers currently seem utterly indifferent to the issue.

Regressivity, petrol taxes, and ministerial PR

Someone around home mentioned this morning that there was a confused article on the Herald website about the progressivity (or otherwise) of the fuel tax increase.   I didn’t pay much attention until I read the paper over lunch, when I was a bit staggered by what I found.

This was the centrepiece chart

fuel tax

The line of argument from opponents has been that the fuel tax increase will fall more heavily on low income people.   But according to the Herald’s journalist, channelling Phil Twyford.

 in a startling revelation, the ministers claim that the wealthier a household is, the more it is likely to pay for petrol. They say the wealthiest 10 per cent of households will pay $7.71 per week more for petrol. Those with the lowest incomes will pay $3.64 a week more.

I still don’t understand what the journalist finds startling.  It is hardly surprising that higher income households spend more on petrol than lower income households do.  They spend more on most things.

But he goes on to claim

This is a complete reversal of the most common complaint about fuel taxes, which is that they are “regressive”. That means, the critics say, they affect poor people more than wealthy people.

The suggestion that these data are some sort of “complete reversal” of the claim the tax is regressive is itself just nonsense.  One would need to look at the impact of the fuel tax increase as a proportion of income.  And households in the top decile earn about ten times as much as households in the bottom decline, according to the same Household Expenditure Survey.

So I went and got the income by decline data for the June 2017 year from the Household Expenditure Survey.  The income data is presented in range form, so for each decile I used the average of the high and low incomes for that decile.  And then I took the Auckland fuel tax increases numbers in the right hand column of the table above, and calculated them as a annual percentage of annual household income by decline.  (The income numbers are for 2017, and the fuel tax increases phase in to 2020, so the absolute percentages will be different –  incomes will have risen – but what won’t change materially is that high income households earn a lot more than low income ones.)

fuel tax by decile

On the numbers the Herald themselves used, apparently supplied by the Ministry of Transport, the  direct burden of the fuel tax increase will fall much more heavily on low income people than on those further up the income scale.   The extremely high number for the lowest decile masks how significant these effects are even for other groups: the second and third deciles of household income will see an increase twice as large, as a percentage of income, as those in the 9th decile.

I’m driving to Auckland later this afternoon for a wedding, and planning to get out again on Sunday without having paid the increased Auckland fuel levy.

So much company tax, so little investment

Almost 10 years ago I stumbled on this chart in the background papers to Australia’s tax system review.

Chart 5.11: Corporate tax revenue as a proportion of GDP — OECD 2005

Aus company tax as % of GDP 2008

I was intrigued, and somewhat troubled by it.   New Zealand collected company tax revenue that, as a share of GDP was the second highest of all OECD countries.   And yet New Zealand:

  • didn’t have an unusually large total amount of tax as a share of GDP, and
  • had had quite low rates of business investment –  as a per cent of GDP –  for decades, and
  • as compared to Australia, just a couple of places to the left, New Zealand’s overall production structure was much less capital intensive (mines took a lot of investment).

And, of course, our overall productivity performance lagged well behind.

Partly prompted by the chart, and partly by a move to Treasury at about the same time, I got more interested in the taxation of capital income.   After all, when you tax something heavily you tend to get less of it, and most everyone thought that higher rates of business investment would be a part of any successful lift in our economic performance.  That interest culminated in an enthusiasm for seriously considering a Nordic tax system, in which capital income is deliberately taxed at a lower rate than labour income.  It goes against the prevailing New Zealand orthodoxy –  broad-base, low rate (BBLR) –  but even the 2025 Taskforce got interested in the option.

Flicking through the background document for our own new Tax Working Group the other day I came across this chart (which I haven’t seen get any media attention).

company tax revenue

It is a bit harder to read, but just focus for now on the blue bars.   On this OECD data New Zealand now has company tax revenues that are the highest percentage of GDP of any OECD country.   A footnote suggests that if one nets out the tax the government pays to itself (on businesses it owns), New Zealand drops to only fourth highest but (a) the top 5 blue bars are pretty similar anyway, and (b) it isn’t clear who they have dropped out (if it is just NZSF tax that is one thing, but most government-owned businesses would still exist, and pay tax, if in private ownership).

So for all the talk about base erosion and profit-shifting, and talk of possible new taxes on the sales (not profits) of internet companies, we continue to collect a remarkably large amount of company tax (per cent of GDP).  Indeed, given that our total tax to GDP ratio is in the middle of the OECD pack, we also have one of the very largest shares of total tax revenue accounted for by company taxes.

The Tax Working Group appears to think this is a good thing, observing that it

“suggests that New Zealand’s broad-base low-rate system lives up to its names”

There is some discussion of the trend in other countries towards lowering company tax rates, but nothing I could see on the economics of taxing business/capital income.  It is as if the goose is simply there to be plucked.

There are, of course, some caveats.   Our (now uncommon) dividend imputation system means that for domestic firms owned by New Zealanders, profits are taxed only once.  By contrast, in most countries dividends are taxed again, additional to the tax paid at the company level.    But, of course, in most of those countries, dividend payout ratios are much lower than those in New Zealand, and tax deferred is (in present value terms) tax materially reduced.

And, perhaps more importantly, the imputation system doesn’t apply to foreign investment here at all.   Foreign investment would probably be a significant element in any step-change in our overall economic performance.  And our company tax rates really matters when firms are thinking about whether or not to invest here at all.  And our company tax rates are high, our company tax take is high –  and our rates of business investment are low.  Tax isn’t likely to be the only factor, or probably even the most important –  see my other discussions about real interest and exchange rates – but it might be worth the TWG thinking harder as to whether there is not some connection.

Otherwise, as in so many other areas, we seem set to carry on with the same old approaches and policies and yet vaguely hope that the results will eventually be different.

 

Taxes, housing, and economic underperformance

Two local articles on possible tax system/housing connections caught my eye this morning.  One I had quite a lot of sympathy with (and I’ll come back to it), but the other not so much.

On Newsroom, Bernard Hickey has a piece lamenting what he describes in his headline as “Our economically cancerous addiction”.    The phrase isn’t used in the body of the article, but there is this reference: “our national obsession with property investment”.   Bernard argues that the tax treatment of housing “explains much of our [economic]underperformance as a country over the past quarter century”, linking the tax treatment of housing to such indicators (favourites of mine) as low rates of business investment and lagging productivity growth.

Centrepiece of his argument is this chart from the Tax Working Group’s (TWG) discussion document released last week.

TWG chart

Note that, although the label does not say so, this is an attempt to represent the tax rate on real (inflation-adjusted) returns.

It is a variant of one of Treasury’s favourite charts, that they’ve been reproducing in various places for at least a decade.   The TWG themselves don’t seem to make a great deal of it –  partly because, as they note, their terms of reference preclude them from looking at the tax-treatment of owner-occupied housing.  They correctly note –  although don’t use the words –  the gross injustice of taxing the full value of interest income when a large chunk of interest earnings these days is just compensation for inflation, not a gain in purchasing power at all.   And, importantly, the owner-occupied numbers relate only to the equity in houses, but most people get into the housing market by taking on a very large amount of debt.  Since interest on debt to purchase an owner-occupied house isn’t tax-deductible –  matching the fact that the implicit rental income from living in the house isn’t taxed –  any ‘distortion’ at point of entering the market is much less than implied here.

Bear in mind too that very few countries tax owner-occupied housing as many economists would prefer. In some (notably the US) there is even provision to deduct interest on the mortgage for your owner-occupied house.   You –  or Bernard, or the TOP Party –  might dislike that treatment, but it is pretty widespread (and thus likely to reflect some embedded wisdom).  And, as a reminder, owner-occupation rates have been dropping quite substantially over the last few decades –  quite likely a bit further when the latest census results come out.  Perhaps a different tax system would lead more old people –  with lots of equity in a larger house – to downsize and relocate, but it isn’t really clear why that would be a socially desirable outcome, when maintaining ties to, and involvement in, a local community is often something people value,  and which is good for their physical and mental health.

So, let’s set the owner-occupied bit of the chart aside.  It is simply implausible that the tax treatment of owner-occupied houses –  being broadly similar to that elsewhere –  explains anything much about our economic underperformance.  And, as Bernard notes, it isn’t even as if, in any identifiable sense, we’ve devoted too many real resources to housebuilding (given the population growth).

So what about the tax treatment of rental properties?   Across the whole country, and across time, any distortion arises largely from the failure to inflation-index the tax system.  Even in a well-functioning land market, the median property is likely to maintain its real value over time (ie rising at around CPI inflation).  In principle, that gain shouldn’t be taxed –  but it is certainly unjust, and inefficient, to tax the equivalent component of the interest return on a term deposit.     Interest is deductible on rental property mortgages, but (because of inflation) too much is deductible –  ideally only the real interest rate component should be.  On the other hand, in one of the previous government’s ad hoc policy changes, depreciation is not deductible any longer, even though buildings (though not the land) do depreciate.

But, here’s the thing.  In a tolerably well-functioning market, tax changes that benefit one sort of asset over others get capitalised into the price of assets pretty quickly.  We saw that last year, for example, in the US stock market as corporate tax cuts loomed.

And the broad outline of the current tax treatment of rental properties isn’t exactly new.  We’ve never had a full capital gains tax.  We’ve never inflation-adjusted the amount of interest expense that can be deducted.  And if anything the policy changes in the last couple of decades have probaby reduced the extent to which rental properties might have been tax-favoured:

  • we’ve markedly reduced New Zealand’s average inflation rate,
  • we tightened depreciation rules and then eliminated depreciation deductions altogether,
  • the PIE regime – introduced a decade or so ago –  had the effect of favouring institutional investments over individual investor held assets (as many rental properties are),
  • the two year “brightline test” was introduced, a version of a capital gains tax (with no ability to offset losses),
  • and that test is now being extend to five years.

If anything, tax policy changes have reduced the relative attractiveness of investment properties (and one could add the new discriminatory LVR controls as well, for debt-financed holders).  All else equal, the price potential investors will have been willing to pay will have been reduced, relative to other bidders.

And yet, according to Bernard Hickey

It largely explains why we are such poor savers and have run current account deficits that built up our net foreign debt to over 55 percent of GDP. That constant drive to suck in funds from overseas to pump them into property values has helped make our currency structurally higher than it needed to be.

I don’t buy it (even if there are bits of the argument that might sound a bit similar to reasoning I use).

A capital gains tax is the thing aspired to in many circles, including the Labour Party.   Bernard appears to support that push, noting in his article that we have (economically) fallen behind

other countries such as Australia, Britain and the United States (which all have capital gains taxes).

There might be a “fairness” argument for a capital gains tax, but there isn’t much of an efficiency one (changes in real asset prices will mostly reflect “news” –  stuff that isn’t readily (if at all) forecastable).   And there isn’t any obvious sign that the housing markets of Australia and Britain –  or the coasts of the US –  are working any better than New Zealand’s, despite the presence of a capital gains tax in each of those countries.   If the housing market outcomes are very similar, despite differences in tax policies, and yet the housing channel is how this huge adverse effect on productivity etc is supposed to have arisen, it is almost logically impossible for our tax treatment of houses to explain to any material extent the differences in longer-term economic performance.

And, as a reminder, borrowing to buy a house –  even at ridiculous levels of prices –  does not add to the net indebtedness of the country (the NIIP figures).  Each buyer (and borrower) is matched by a seller.  The buyer might take on a new large mortgage, but the seller has to do something with the proceeds.  They might pay down a mortgage, or they might have the proceeds put in a term deposit.    House price inflation –  and the things that give rise to it –  only result in a larger negative NIIP position if there is an associated increase in domestic spending.  The classic argument –  which the Reserve Bank used to make much of –  was about “wealth effects”: people feel wealthier as a result of higher house prices and spend more.

But here is a chart I’ve shown previously

net savings to nni jan 18

National savings rates have been flat (and quite low by international standards) for decades.  They’ve shown no consistent sign of decreasing as house/land prices rose and –  for what its worth –  have been a bit higher in the last few years, as house prices were moving towards record levels.

What I found really surprising about the Hickey article was the absence of any mention of land use regulation.  If policymakers didn’t make land artificially scarce, it would be considerably cheaper (even if there are still some tax effects at the margin).   And while there was a great deal of focus on tax policy, there was also nothing about immigration policy, which collides directly with the artificially scarce supply of land.

I’ve also shown this chart before

res I % of GDP

These are averages for each OECD country (one country per dot).  New Zealand is the red-dot –  very close to the line.  In other words, over that 20 year period we built (or renovated/extended) about as much housing as a typical OECD country given our population growth.    But, as I noted in the earlier post on this chart

The slope has the direction you’d expect – faster population growth has meant a larger share of current GDP devoted to housebuilding – and New Zealand’s experience, given our population growth, is about average. But note how relatively flat the slope is. On average, a country with zero population growth devoted about 4.2 per cent of GDP to housebuilding over this period, and one averaging 1.5 per cent population growth per annum would have devoted about 6 per cent GDP to housebuilding. But building a typical house costs a lot more than a year’s average GDP (for the 2.7 people in an average dwelling). In well-functioning house and urban land markets you’d expect a more steeply upward-sloping line – and less upward pressure on house/land prices.

And, since Hickey is –  rightly – focused on weak average rates of business investment here is another chart from the same earlier post.

Bus I % of GDP

Again, New Zealand is the red dot, close to the line.   Over the last 20 years, rapid population growth –  such as New Zealand has had –  has been associated with lower business investment as a share of GDP.  You’d hope, at bare minimum, for the opposite relationship, just to keep business capital per worker up with the increase in the number of workers.

This issue, on my telling, isn’t the price of houses –  dreadful as that is –  but the pressure the rapid policy-fuelled growth of the population has put on available real resources (not including bank credit).  Resources used building or renovating houses can’t be used for other stuff.

And one last chart on this theme.

productive cap stock

The blue line shows the annual per capita growth rate in the real capital stock, excluding residential dwellings (it is annual data, so the last observation is for the year to March 2017), but as my post the other day illustrated even in the most recent national accounts data, business investment has been quite weak.   I’ve added the orange line to account for land and other natural resources that aren’t included in the official SNZ capital stock numbers.  We aren’t getting any more natural resources –  land, sea, oil and gas or whatever –  (although of course sometimes things are discovered that we didn’t know had been there).  The orange line is just a proxy for real natural resources per capita –  as the population grows there is less per capita every year, even if everything is renewable, as many of New Zealand’s natural resources are (and thus the line is simply the inverted population growth rate).

In New Zealand’s case at least, rapid population growth (largely policy driven over time) seems to have been –  and still to be – undermining business investment and growth in (per capita) productive capacity.   Land use regulation largely explains house and urban land price trends.  And it seems unlikely that any differential features of New Zealand’s tax system explain much about either outcome.

The other new article that caught my eye this morning was one by Otago University (and Productivity Commission) economist, Andrew Coleman.    He highlights, as he has in previous working papers, how unusual New Zealand’s tax treatment of retirement savings is, by OECD country standards.  Contributions to pension funds are paid from after-tax income, earnings of the funds are taxed, and then withdrawals are tax-free.   In many other countries, such assets are more often accumulated from pre-tax income, fund earnings are largely exempt from tax, and tax is levied at the point of withdrawal.   The difference is huge, and bears very heavily on holding savings in a pension fund.

As Coleman notes, our system was once much more mainstream, until the reforms in the late 80s (the change at the time was motivated partly by a flawed broad-base low rate argument, and partly –  as some involved will now acknowledge –  by the attractions of an upfront revenue grab.

The case for our current practice is weak.  There is a good economics argument for taxing primarily at the point of spending, and not for –  in effect –  double-taxing saved income (at point of earning, and again the interest earned by deferring spending).  And I would favour a change to our tax treatment of savings (I’m less convinced of the case for singling out pension fund vehicles). I hope the TWG will pick up the issue.

That said, I’m not really persuaded that the change in the tax treatment of savings 30 years ago is a significant part of the overall house price story.  The effect works in the right direction –  and thus sensible first-best tax policy changes might have not-undesirable effects on house prices.  But the bulk of the growth in real house (and land) prices –  here and in other similar countries –  still looks to be due to increasingly binding land use restrictions (exacerbated in many places by rapid population growth) rather than by the idiosyncracies of the tax system.