Ministers of Revenue typically deliver several speeches during the year, mostly to business audiences or at the start of tax conferences.
On Tuesday, however, the Minister of Revenue, David Parker, delivered a speech at Victoria University Wellington entitled Shining a Light on Fairness in the Tax System, which is without doubt one of the most interesting speeches made by any Minister of Revenue in many years.
After some scene setting about the purpose of tax and how the Government has been able to use tax revenues to fund its COVID 19 response, Parker then pivoted to talk about beginning what he called a fact-based discussion. He started by challenging the assumption that our tax system is progressive overall.
“What’s hidden that the effective marginal tax rate for middle income Kiwis is generally higher than it is for their wealthiest citizens. Indeed, some of their wealthier Kiwi compatriots pay very low rates of tax on most of their income.”
The Minister then dived into the question of the lack of data on the distribution of wealth and capital income in New Zealand. He highlighted the fact that according to the Household Economic Survey, the highest net worth ever reported was $20 million.
This was, he said, ridiculous, given that we know there are billionaires in the country. As he pointed out, that meant the National Business Review's annual rich list is a better set of data than the official statistics. In fact, that's quite common around the world as statistics on capital wealth are rare and rich lists are often used to help revenue authorities gather data in this area.
So this lack of data, Parker explained, was the rationale behind the powers granted to Inland Revenue for the purposes of conducting research into high wealth individuals. As listeners will know, this is a somewhat controversial project, even though the Minister repeatedly stated that the intent was to gather better data for research and not as had been accused, so Inland Revenue could secretly work on new taxes.
“Until we have a much more accurate picture about how much tax the very wealthy pay relative to their full “economic income”, we can't really we can't honestly say that our tax system is fair.” And this led on to the most surprising part of the speech his proposal for a Tax Principles Act.
He referenced four principles of taxation that Adam Smith set out in Wealth of Nations back in 1776. And he noted that the many tax working groups and other reports that New Zealand has had over the past 40 years, such as the McCaw Review in 1982, the MacLeod Review in 2001, the most recent tax working group, and the all the work that went on during the Rogernomics period all basically followed these four principles set out by Adam Smith.
“They all endorse the same principles, based in that most core value of New Zealand - fairness. The main settled principles are:
Horizontal equity, so that those in equivalent economic positions should pay the same amount of tax
Vertical equity, including some degree of overall progressivity in the rate of tax paid
Administrative efficiency, for both taxpayers and Inland Revenue
The minimisation of tax induced distortions to investment and the economy.”
He also noted that recent reviews in the UK and in Australia both adopted similar approaches. Incidentally and perhaps not coincidentally here, Deborah Russell and I adopted the same principles when we wrote Tax and Fairness back in 2017.
And as you know, Deborah is now the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Revenue and David Parker's number two. The proposal is that officials should periodically report to ministers on the operation of the tax system using the principles as the basis for the reporting.
The Tax Principles Act would sit alongside existing legislation, such as the Public Finance and Child Poverty Reductions Acts, which also require the Government and officials to report on specific issues. This is quite revolutionary, but in a way sits within the philosophy of open tax policy that New Zealand has adopted through what we call our generic tax policy process.
This open approach to developing tax policy is widely regarded as world leading by other jurisdictions. The proposed Tax Principles Act is not inconsistent with the existing approach. The intention is there will be consultation later this year and following that a bill would be introduced once the principles had been agreed and the reporting requirements had been established.
The resulting bill would be enacted before the end of the current parliamentary term, i.e. just in time for next year's election. The proposal caused quite a stir and there’s plenty of good reading on it. Bernard Hickey has a very good summary of the matter.
It's also quite rare certainly to see Ministers of Revenue philosophise in quite a public way. David Parker referenced Thomas Piketty's seminal work, Capital in the 21st Century. He also acknowledged the very regressive nature of GST. Somewhat controversially he noted that because GST in transactions between GST registered businesses essentially zeros out and is a final tax for those who are not GST registered, it many ways it falls on labour earners.
As he put it, “GST is really paid out of our earnings when we spend it. In economic terms, GST is mainly a tax on labour income. Who pays that cost?”
The Minister noted we have limited data on the overall rate of GST paid by New Zealanders, either by income or wealth decile. So he's asked Inland Revenue to gather data and to provide feedback on this. I suppose from a political viewpoint this hints that potentially if there are changes to a tax mix at a later date, something may be done in relation to GST as it impacts lower income earners.
All this kicked up quite a stir. When I appeared on Radio New Zealand's the Panel following the speech, the panellists expressed some shock about the fact that we don't really have data about how wealthy people are. I think the reason for this, which wasn't discussed by Minister Parker, is that it's probably largely the unintended consequences of the abolition of stamp duties, estate and gift duties, and the absence of a general capital gains tax.
In other jurisdictions which have some or all of those taxes, this gives a reference point when a transaction occurs as to what wealth is held and by whom. Incidentally, the disclosure requirements regarding trusts I discussed last week although they are primarily an integrity measure, they also represent, in part, an attempt to gather some data about wealth held in trusts and help fill the gaps in Inland Revenue knowledge.
With National and Act already putting out their tax proposals, it looks like tax will feature quite heavily in next year's election. So it's very much a case of let's watch this space.
Moving on, today is the due date for submissions on Inland Revenue’s discussion document, Dividend Integrity and Personal Services Income Attribution. This contains a couple of controversial proposals.
Firstly, that sales and share of shares in a company with undistributed retained earnings would trigger a deemed dividend.
And secondly, changes to the personal services income attribution rules, which would mean more income would be attributed to a primary income earner.
Now, neither of these proposals have gone down particularly well and to describe them as controversial would be a bit of an understatement. The personal services attribution rules, in fact, may well have a very much wider effect politically than the Government might want to see.
Brian Fallow, writing in a very good column in last week's New Zealand Herald, pointed out that the attribution rules, if enacted, would affect very large numbers of small businesses quoting former Inland Revenue Commissioner Robin Oliver "It is likely to catch tradies — a plumber, say, or a landscape contractor — with a van and some equipment and just themselves or one employee doing the work,"
And Oliver raised the question, is this really appropriate? I expect a lot of submissions on this paper, and I urge you to do so because as you can gather from comments made by Oliver, it could have a quite potentially significant impact for the SME sector.
I personally think the proposals go too far. And incidentally, one of the reasons that the proposals have been made comes back to a longstanding topic in this podcast and something that wasn't directly referenced by Minister Parker in his speech, the absence of a general capital gains tax.
Inland Revenue proposes any transfer of shares by a controlling shareholder to trigger a dividend where the company has retained earnings. In jurisdictions which have capital gains tax, that transaction is normally picked up as a capital gain. But as we don't have a capital gains tax Inland Revenue is proposing a workaround which I don’t think is appropriate one.
I think there are other alternatives they might want to consider. The proposals on the personal services attribution rules are an integrity measure. They build on the Penny Hooper decision relating to surgeons from ten years ago.
They are understandable, but I believe go too far and are probably targeting the wrong group of people. Moving on Inland Revenue has a useful draft interpretation statement out considering what is the meaning of building for the purpose of being able to claim depreciation.
This has actually become quite relevant because back in 2011 the depreciation rate on buildings was reduced to zero. But in 2020, in the wake of the pandemic, the depreciation rate for long life non-residential buildings was increased from 0% to 2% if you use a diminishing value basis or 1.5% if you're using straight line method.
What this draft interpretation statement explains is the critical difference between residential and non-residential buildings. it replaces a previous interpretation statement released in 2010 which has had to be updated following an important tax case in 2019 involving Mercury Energy.
A building owner will be able to claim depreciation for a ‘non-residential building’ and that can in some cases have some residential purposes. Generally, it's aimed at commercial industrial buildings and certain buildings such as hotels, motels that could provide residential commercial accommodation on a commercial scale. It’s a useful explanation and comments on the draft close on 2nd May.
Chump change for FATCA
And finally, a quite extraordinary story from the United States, where it has emerged that a very important tax act, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, better known as FATCA, hasn't generated as much income as was expected when it was introduced in 2010.
The projection was that over the ten years to 2020, it would raise about US$8.7 billion US. The US equivalent of Inland Revenue, the Internal Revenue Service, (the IRS) spent US$574 million implementing FATCA. But according to a report just released, all the IRS can show for all that money invested are penalties totalling just US$14 million.
Now, that's quite extraordinary. And this is important from a New Zealand perspective, because FATCA represents a huge compliance burden for all US citizens who are required to file tax returns, even if they may be tax resident in another jurisdiction.
FATCA was the template for what became the Global Common Reporting Standards on the Automatic Exchange of Information. The rest of the world looked at FATCA and thought, “That's a good idea. We'd like to have some information about what overseas accounts our taxpayers have”. And so, the CRS, as it's known, was introduced and has been in force now for about four years.
I would hazard a guess that Inland Revenue probably gathered well in excess of US$14 million as a result of the introduction of CRS. But to come back to a point that David Parker made about politics and tax being inseparable. One of the reasons that the IRS has done so badly is that the Republican controlled Congress won't give it the money to do its job. And that situation doesn't look likely to change.
As David Parker said, politics and tax are inseparable. And we're going to hear plenty more about the two in coming months.
Well, that's it for this week. I’m Terry Baucher and you can find this podcast on my website www.baucher.tax or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening and please send me your feedback and tell your friends and clients.
Until next time kia pai te wiki, have a great week!
*Terry Baucher is an Auckland-based tax specialist with 25 years experience. He works with individuals and entities who have complex tax issues. Prior to starting his own business, he spent six years with one of the "Big Four' accountancy firms including a period advising Australian businesses how to do business in New Zealand. You can contact him here.