Young Australians will wear the costs of Turnbull’s middle income tax cut


Danielle Wood, Grattan Institute and Hugh Parsonage, Grattan Institute

Malcom Turnbull has promised tax cuts for middle-income earners in the next budget or even earlier. The short-term political benefits of pre-election tax cuts are not in doubt. But unless the government is willing to increase taxes elsewhere to pay for these sweeteners, there will be longer-term costs for the budget and the economy. And younger Australians will wear these costs.

Young people will pay the price

If the government goes ahead with tax cuts and nothing else changes, we can look forward to the announcement in the 2021 budget of Australia’s 13th successive budget deficit. This is despite the fact Australia is in the midst of the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth anywhere in the developed world. And the unlucky recipients of this legacy of poor budget management are the young.

Grattan Institute research shows that each year the government runs a A$40 billion deficit, it increases the lifetime tax burden for households headed by a person aged 25 to 34 by A$10,000. This is based on the share of debt they would have to repay – with interest – over time. With each successive budget deficit, the tab grows for today’s young Australians.

And the government is magnifying the cost of future economic downturns. Australia was well placed to respond to the global financial crisis because of its healthy fiscal position. But with net debt now sitting at A$322 billion (18.4% of GDP), the government has less room to respond if there is another serious downturn.

Middle-income earners are hit by bracket creep

In the 2017-18 budget, the government was clear: if the senate won’t support spending cuts, then tax increases will have to do the “heavy lifting” on budget repair. And this heavy lifting is largely happening through bracket creep – growth in income taxes as a share of wages.

Middle-income earners are particularly hurt by bracket creep. Based on the wages growth projected in the 2017 budget, the average tax rates for people in middle-income groups will increase by between 1.9 and 2.9 percentage points by 2021. For example, a person earning A$50,000 a year will go from paying an average tax rate of 17.1% in 2017 to 19.5 % in 2021 – and that’s before the government’s proposed increase in the Medicare levy.

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No government likes to go to an election with taxes going up, so the temptation to “give back” bracket creep was always going to prove irresistible in next year’s pre-election budget. And as the prime minister flagged, there is also an economic case for such tax cuts. High marginal tax rates for middle income earners can significantly affect incentives to participate in the workforce, particularly for for women with children in childcare.

Tax cuts will blow the surplus

But the kicker is the effect of the promised tax cuts on the budget bottom line. The Australian government has been running budget deficits since 2009. In the last budget, the treasurer promised a return to surplus in 2021.

That promised surplus always relied on optimistic assumptions: strong wages growth, healthy growth in profits, government spending restraint, and, importantly, no cuts to income taxes. The government’s proposal is light on details, but even modest cuts to tax rates could eliminate the forecast surplus.

For example, if the government was to reduce the tax rate only in the middle bracket (A$37,000-$80,000) from 32.5% to 30%, the cost to the budget bottom line would be about A$7.3 billion in 2021, almost wiping out the promised A$7.8 billion surplus.

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If Malcolm Turnbull wants to cut income taxes but is still serious about delivering on his commitment to return the budget to surplus, then he will need to look elsewhere for revenue. Winding back the capital gains tax discount or negative gearing, better targeting of superannuation tax concessions and tax breaks for older Australians, or increasing or broadening the GST are just a few policies we could suggest.

The ConversationBut if the PM pursues the sugar hit of tax cuts without the difficult work on paying for them, then politics will once again have trumped policy and the economic future of today’s young Australians.

Danielle Wood, Program Director, Budget Policy and Institutions, Grattan Institute and Hugh Parsonage, Associate, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Turnbull wants to take middle-income earners’ income tax both up and down


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

If you were running a well-honed political strategy you’d surely have your prime minister announce his plan to give middle-income earners income tax relief in a major speech around Australia Day, forming a launchpad for 2018. You wouldn’t be tossing it out there at the fag end of a disastrous year, amid the general chaos.

But Malcolm Turnbull is operating on tactics rather than strategy.

Regardless of how long the tax aspiration had been in the pipeline, his Monday night speech to the Business Council of Australia did its job of securing a “look-over-here” effect, when Turnbull was under fire for cancelling next week’s House of Representatives sitting.

It achieved the front–page headlines despite being totally without detail.

Apart from general sentiments about the desirability of lower personal income tax, all Turnbull said in the way of specifics was: “In the personal income tax space, I am actively working with the treasurer and all my cabinet colleagues to ease the burden on middle-income Australians, while also meeting our commitment to return the budget to surplus”.

How much this will amount to in the end and when taxpayers would get something tangible remain to be seen. Asked on Tuesday when he thought he would deliver the tax cuts, Turnbull said: “Well, this is going to be our focus next year. Obviously we’ve got the budget coming up, as always, in May. But we are determined to make sure that there is more money in the pockets of hardworking Australians.”

If in the event the tax relief became an election promise, rather than pre-election money in the pocket, would voters be sceptical?

In the meantime, Labor – which proposes a higher tax regime – had plenty of ammunition, not only to assert that Turnbull was looking for a distraction but to remind people that this year’s budget actually flagged an increase in personal tax. This is in the form of a higher Medicare levy to help fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

From July 2019 the Medicare levy will rise from 2% to 2.5%. This will be a nice little revenue-earner, raising A$8.2 billion over the forward estimates.

As Deloitte’s Chris Richardson points out, after finding deep spending cuts too hard a road in trying to repair the budget, the government in May opted for higher taxes (although it had just passed some of its business tax cuts from the 2016 budget and was still pressing the rest).

Richardson dubs the May strategy Plan B, after Plan A, based on spending cuts and epitomised by the 2014 budget, had been abandoned.

“Surely they can give Plan B longer than six months,” Richardson says. It seems not.

Richardson says tax cuts are not needed to stimulate the economy, and are counter-productive for fiscal repair – which is dependent on projected revenue growth.

“The figures show that what gets us to [the projected] surplus in 2020-21 is higher taxes. The move from deficit to surplus between 2016-17 and 2020-21 is a swing of 3% of national income. Of that, 2.5% is from revenue and 0.5% from spending cuts,” Richardson says.

Personal income tax cuts would be costly. On Tuesday former minister Eric Abetz, speaking on Sky, suggested the priority should be on income tax cuts over the company tax cut for big business that’s stymied in parliament. Any retreat on the business tax cut would be a major backflip from the government.

A Parliamentary Budget Office paper released a few weeks ago notes that the average tax rate for individuals is estimated to increase by 2.3 percentage points from 2017-18 to 2021-22.

There are increases in every income quintile although they vary. The largest increase is expected in the middle quintile (taxable incomes from $37,000 to $56,000) where taxable income is expected to be an average $46,000 this financial year. These taxpayers are projected to see their average tax rate increase by 3.2 percentage points by 2021-22, the paper says.

As for the Medicare levy increase, it “has the greatest impact on individuals in the third, fourth [$56,000 to $85,000], and fifth [$85,000 and over] income quintiles. Medicare levy concessional arrangements eliminate this impact for the first income quintile and limit the impact for the second,” the paper says.

So we have the government simultaneously planning a tax rise while now talking about tax relief for middle-income earners.

The ConversationAnd that takes us to the question of whether Turnbull can manage this new tax debate he has opened. This includes making sure he and his treasurer are on the same page, and the backbench doesn’t run off prematurely and in multiple directions. At an earlier stage of his prime ministership, a debate about tax directions didn’t go well. He can’t afford that sort of mess now that he has so little political capital.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/nqtdd-7bf599?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Income tax relief on Turnbull’s agenda


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Malcolm Turnbull has raised the prospect of personal income tax relief to help middle-income earners, saying he is “actively working” on it.

As the government is still trying without success to get the remaining part of its company tax plan through parliament, which would deliver lower tax to big companies, Turnbull has moved to hold out the prospect of relief for individuals.

Speaking to the Business Council of Australia on Monday night, he noted the government had already lifted the second-highest income tax bracket threshold from A$80,000 to A$87,000, keeping some half-a-million people from moving into a higher bracket. It had also spared people facing a permanent top marginal rate of 49.5% by not making the temporary deficit levy permanent.

“You know our plans on corporate tax,” he said. “In the personal income tax space, I am actively working with the treasurer and all my cabinet colleagues to ease the burden on middle-income Australians, while also meeting our commitment to return the budget to surplus.”

He said his commitment to all Australians was: “Whether you are starting out in your first job, a worker providing for their family, or a business hiring staff, our goal is always to leave more money in your pocket, not in ours.

“Higher taxes penalise people who are trying to get ahead. But when you reward hard work and enterprise, you encourage hard work and enterprise.

“It’s pretty simple – more investment, more jobs. That’s the key.”

He recalled that his earliest foray into the personal income tax debate in 2005 as a fairly new MP was not uniformly welcomed. He did not spell out that then-treasurer Peter Costello was furious.

But the concerns that underpinned a report he released then still existed: “The tax system remains complex and compliance is a burden, our marginal tax rates are high, bracket creep is a constant challenge that needs to be addressed”.

Turnbull said that “just because we’re in challenging fiscal times doesn’t mean we should raise the white flag on making the tax system work better”.

A Treasury analysis showed Australia risked being left behind by the rest of the world in the competitiveness of its business tax, he said, citing in particular the US and the UK.

The Conversation“If we don’t reduce our corporate rate to 25% as planned – in our Enterprise Tax Plan – over the coming decade, the only advanced nations that will exceed Australia’s tax rate are Japan and Malta.”

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/nqtdd-7bf599?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Three strategies to fight the tax avoidance revealed by the Paradise Papers



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The first strategy is to require the public disclosure of country by country reporting of company tax affairs.
Shutterstock

Roman Lanis, University of Technology Sydney and Brett Govendir, University of Technology Sydney

The release of more than 13 million financial and tax documents known as the “Paradise Papers” show that the Panama Papers last year and LuxLeaks in 2014 were just the tip of the tax avoidance iceberg. It also shows that governments have not learnt their lesson and taken action.

Both the OECD and G20 made recommendations several years ago that would have increased transparency of corporate taxes, and extensive research shows that this is effective in limiting corporate tax avoidance. Recently, we also recommended to a Senate committee that the government limit the use of some financial products that can be re-purposed for tax avoidance.

The Paradise Papers detail the complex offshore financial and tax activities of celebrities, politicians, world leaders, and more than 100 multinational entities. Here are three things that could help curb the problem.


Read more: Explainer: the difference between tax avoidance and evasion


1) Require public disclosure of tax affairs

The first strategy is to require the public disclosure of country by country reporting of company tax affairs (CbCR). This idea comes out of the OECD’s action plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS). It would increase tax transparency by requiring corporations to make specific disclosures on the tax paid in different countries, by project and region.

Doing so would allow any interested party to observe and understand how corporations transfer profits from high to low tax jurisdictions. With such specific information it would more difficult for companies to hide their tax affairs and provide impetus and justification for the public to pressure tax avoiders.

This idea was strongly opposed by the majority of multinational entities’ in most countries on the basis of commercial sensitivity of the information, the compliance burden, and that it might distort the view of a company’s true contribution to an economy. However, such argument is spurious as large corporations already have sophisticated systems in place that are capable of producing this information.

Nevertheless, some European countries (notably the United Kingdom and France) do require that large multinational companies publicly disclose their tax affairs, country by country.

The laws in the United Kingdom fostered a 2010 campaign that named and shamed companies who were not disclosing subsidiaries in tax havens. That campaign made the UK authorities tighten disclosure requirements, and after companies started disclosing their tax haven subsidiaries they became less tax aggressive.

Unfortunately, there is no similar mechanism in Australia for the provision of information to the public to pressure corporations that avoid taxes.

2) Create a register of who benefits

The next idea comes from the G20, and is to set up a public register of beneficial ownership (in other words, who owns the companies).

Earlier this year the Australian Treasury released a consultation paper looking at this idea. At the time, Minister for Revenue and Financial Services Kelly O’Dwyer noted that:

Improving transparency around who owns, controls, and benefits from companies will assist with preventing the misuse of companies for illicit activities including tax evasion, money laundering, bribery, corruption, and terrorism financing.

However, the policy is still at the consultation stage.

Interestingly, a recent comment by ATO Commissioner Chris Jordan seems to both support and dismiss a public register.

A register of beneficial ownership is just, you know, what someone says someone else owns so, you know, it could be good but it could be just a lot of ‘stuff’ that doesn’t really help us.

The United Kingdom has set up a beneficial ownership register, but it is too early to know what the impact has been.

3) Limit some financial products

A third strategy is one we presented to a Senate committee and might have tackled some of what the multinational conglomerate Glencore was alleged to have been doing in the Paradise Papers.

Glencore is alleged to have used cross currency interest rate swaps and is under investigation by the Australian Tax Office. These are financial instruments that may be legitimately used by companies to manage foreign currency risk, for instance when borrowing debt denominated in foreign currencies.

However, these instruments may also be used by multinationals to avoid tax, by shifting profits between subsidiaries in different countries. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to determine whether these instruments are being used for legitimate purposes or for avoiding tax. Our proposal is to prohibit or limit their use, as has been done in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a special case, as it has a very low tax rate, but some form of this policy might be adopted in Australia and elsewhere.


Read more: Four things the Paradise Papers tell us about global business and political elites


With three large leaks, spanning a number of years, Australians have a right to ask why the problem of tax avoidance seems to be stagnating, if not getting worse.

Perhaps the hackers who leak these documents are getting better. But the likely answer is that it is the result of inaction by governments around the world, and Australia in particular.

Recommendations from the OECD, G20, and even our submission to a Senate inquiry show there are ideas out there to solve some of these issues. And countries such as the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and France have made efforts to increase public transparency of corporate tax affairs and limit the use of certain financial instruments.

The research from these countries show that these proposals can be successful if enacted.

The ConversationIn the end, failure to cut down on tax avoidance is not due to a lack of proposals. The failure to enact these proposals feeds into the distrust of all governments as they don’t appear to be doing a very good job at limiting tax avoidance.

Roman Lanis, Associate Professor, Accounting, University of Technology Sydney and Brett Govendir, Lecturer, Accounting Discipline Group, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Five ways to kickstart the economy — without cutting company taxes



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The Productivity Commission has recommended sweeping changes to how infrastructure is governed.
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Jim Minifie, Grattan Institute

The Productivity Commission has released the first in a planned series of five-yearly updates on productivity in Australia. The report shows that there is much the Australian government can do to boost productivity and living standards.

These include changing how government delivers or controls education and health, and how it manages infrastructure. Interestingly, for the Commission, policy to improve productivity in the private sector (primarily tax and regulation), while still important, plays second fiddle.

The Commission backs up its recommendations in these huge domains by a compendium of analyses spread over hundreds of pages in 16 supporting papers.


Read more: Why reforming health care is integral for our economy


The Productivity Commission’s review comes amid a period of slow productivity growth in Australia and around the developed world. Fifteen years ago, most economists expected that the internet revolution and the rapid shift of manufacturing to China would, for all the disruption they entailed, sustain strong growth in the rich world. But those hopes were dashed.

A wide range of research has identified many possible culprits for the productivity slowdown. These include mismeasurement, that “easy wins” such as universal education have already been used up, ageing, risk aversion, and a hit to investment and innovation from the global financial crisis.

One of the Commission’s background papers covers many of these contributors to slow growth.

Australian productivity has grown faster than in many other high-income economies since the financial crisis, largely thanks to the mining boom and to our having avoided a deep recession.

But productivity growth has not been strong enough to keep wage growth strong in the face of declining export prices and some broader weakness as the mining investment boom comes off. Getting policy settings right is urgent to reduce the risk that Australia slides into the stagnation that other high-income economies have experienced.

The recommendations

The new report identifies five priorities to revitalise productivity: health, education, cities, market competition, and more effective government.

The Commission’s estimates imply that its policies would eventually boost GDP by at least two per cent, with additional non-market benefits in longer lives and quality of life.

In health, the report recommends changing funding arrangements, cutting low-value treatments, putting the person at the centre of health care, shifting to automated pharmacy dispensing in many locations, and moving to tax alcohol content on all drinks. The Commission estimates that the value of these reforms is at least A$8.5 billion over 5 years.

In education, the report makes recommendations to build teacher skills, better measure student and worker proficiency, extend consumer law to cover universities, and improve lifetime learning, including better information about the performance of institutions. The Commission does not put a dollar value on these reforms.


Read more: Myth busting claims on the impact of the company tax cut


In cities and transport, the report recommends improved governance to stop poor projects being built, budget and planning practices to properly provide for growth and infrastructure, and policies to get more value out of existing and new assets (including road user charges, extending competition policy principles to cover land use regulation, and replacing stamp duties with land tax). The Commission estimates that these reforms would be worth at least A$29 billion per year in time.

To improve market competition, the report suggests a single effective price be placed on carbon, an end to ad-hoc interventions in the energy market, better consumer control of and access to data, and reforms to intellectual property to support innovation. The Commission estimates that these reforms would be worth at least A$3.4 billion per year.

Finally, to improve government, the report recommends that the states and the Commonwealth develop a new formal reform agenda that clarifies who has responsibility for what, tax changes, measures to improve fiscal discipline, and tougher accountability for implementation of agreed initiatives. The Commission does not put a dollar value on these reforms.

What’s missing?

The review’s omissions are informative, and some are glaring.

First, cutting company taxes is conspicuously absent from the proposals. It seems unlikely this omission is an oversight. It would seem, instead, that the Commission does not see a company tax cut as a priority for productivity growth, and is happy for government to make its own case for a tax cut.

Still, the report would have been stronger had it considered the tax mix more fully. There is credible case for a company tax cut, though it is not the only way to stimulate investment, it would take years to pay off, and it would hit the budget without increase in other taxes or spending cuts.

Second, the report gives short shrift to population growth. Governments are racing to keep pace with population growth in Melbourne and Sydney in particular, yet the report does not consider how population contributes to congestion, how it dilutes the value of natural resource rents, and how the challenges it creates for governments make it more difficult for them to deliver reforms that would boost productivity.


Read more: City planning suffers growth pains of Australia’s population boom


Third, the report does not give enough attention to reforms to improve market functioning. Many consumers in retail markets for services like energy and superannuation do not know how to identify good products, and so consumers often bear the costs of excess marketing or an excess of providers.

It seems likely that the Commission did not want to prejudge the subject of a current Commission inquiry on superannuation, but other markets have similar problems.

There are other gaps. The report does not give enough attention to macroeconomic stability, or even note the risks posed by the Australian house price boom. It does not mention the problematic National Broadband Network. It pays too little attention to the role of social safety nets in helping people manage risks and making the economy more flexible.

And finally, the report could have made stronger recommendations for better measurement. It is ironic that it finds the biggest opportunities in the health and education sectors, whose output is not measured with much accuracy.


Read more: Myth busting claims on the impact of the company tax cut


Overall, the report is something of a landmark, and the Treasurer deserves credit for commissioning it. It condenses much of the policy advice the Productivity Commission has made in recent years, and adds new insights (for example, on land use).

It provides credible, if incomplete recommendations for improving health and education, and cities and transport. It undersells the value of further reforms to private sector regulation and tax. But it underscores how much governments can do on the “home turf” of the things they control most directly.

The ConversationNow it is up to Commonwealth and state governments to absorb its insights, integrate them into their agendas, and put them into action.

Jim Minifie, Productivity Growth Program Director, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Middle income earners probably won’t be paying as much tax as the government expects



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The PBO has likely overestimated future personal income tax revenue.
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Phil Lewis, University of Canberra

The federal government’s return to a budgetary surplus by 2020/21 will mainly be due to a projected increase in personal income tax revenue, according to a report from the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO).

The PBO modelling shows that people in the middle of the income spectrum will bear the brunt of this, due to bracket creep. This occurs when tax thresholds (including the tax free threshold) stay constant while income grows due to inflation.

But the PBO modelling includes assumptions about inflation and wages growth that do not bear a resemblance to what is happening in the economy. Both inflation and wages growth have been depressed for some time, and there’s little reason to believe there will be a sudden increase.


Read more: How market forces and weakened institutions are keeping our wages low


The fundamental assumption driving the PBO projections is nominal (not adjusted for inflation) income growth of between 4% and 5%. This consistutes 2% to 2.5% annual inflation and 2.5% to 3% percent annual increase in real income.

The difference between nominal and real incomes is important as it is increases in real income (adjusted for inflation) that result in higher standards of living. But taxes are levied on our nominal incomes, regardless of inflation. Because of this difference, bracket creep means that real incomes after tax (otherwise known as disposable income) will actually fall.

What the PBO report projects

To calculate how much tax we will be paying in the future, the PBO first makes assumptions about inflation and real earnings growth and uses these to project individual incomes. Current income tax rates are then applied to these projected incomes, and the increased amount paid by each individual is added together.

According to the PBO’s modelling, the average individual tax rate will increase by 2.3% from 2017–18 to 2021–22. And every income group will see their tax rates increase over this period.

The largest tax increase is expected for individuals in the middle incomes, who have an average taxable of A$46,000 in 2017/18. This group are projected to face an increase in their average tax rate of 3.2% by 2021–22. Their average tax rate is expected to increase from 14.9% to 18.2%.

Meanwhile, those in the second lowest and two highest income quintiles are expected to see their average tax rate rise between 1.9% and 2.5%. The average tax rate for individuals in the lowest income group is projected to rise by only 0.2%, as most of their income remains below the tax free threshold.

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The increases in average tax rates are even greater if a comparison is made with 2016/17, the latest year for which individuals have been paying tax. As you can see in the previous chart, when compared to 2016/17, individuals in the middle income quintile will see their average tax rate rise by 3.8%.

As you can see, the largest burden of the tax brack creep will fall on “average Australians”. This is because they will see their nominal (before adjusting for inflation) incomes rise. Typically, the lowest income earners do not earn enough to get above the tax free threshold and the highest income earners already pay a large portion of their tax at the top marginal rates.

Because of increasing inflation and wage growth, the Parliamentary Budget Office projects that even the lowest income earners will be liable to pay income tax by 2019/20.

Heroic assumptions?

The 2% to 2.5% inflation assumed in PBO’s forecast is in the mid-point of the Reserve Bank’s target range of 2% to 3%, so this is not entirely unreasonable assumption.

But both PBO’s inflation and wage growth (2.5% to 3%) assumptions are currently way above the levels seen in the economy. According to the ABS annual inflation currently stands at just 1.8%, and the earnings of all Australian employees is growing at 1.6% per annum.

The reasons for persistent low inflation, not just in Australia but in most other industrialised countries, are not well understood or agreed upon.

And a number of theories have been put forward to explain low real wage growth including, the degree of underemployment, reduced job security, declining bargaining power of unions and increased potential competition, either from advances in technology or from international competition.

But regardless of the reasons for the persistently laggard growth in wages and inflation, there are also no signs that these rates will rise significantly any time soon, let alone to the levels assumed by the PBO.


Read more: Budget explainer: why is Australia’s wage growth so sluggish?


Given the information contained in the PBO report we can’t calculate exactly what the impact of these tax increases will be for individuals.

However, it is clear that if the current wage and price conditions persist the actual tax revenue will fall way short of the projected figures for all years up to and including 2021/22 and make a Budget balance even further off.

We can also make some extrapolations based on averages. As a simple example, consider someone on an annual income of A$84,000 in 2017/18 (which is around the current average earnings in Australia). Under the assumption that nominal incomes increase by only 2% per year, the tax paid (including Medicare levy) in 2020/21 would be A$23,158.

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However, if you compare this to nominal income growth of 5% (which is what the PBO assumes) the tax paid would be A$26,357 in 2020/21.

That is, tax collected from this individual would be 12% less under a low growth scenario than under the PBO’s more optimistic scenario. In the years 2018/19 and 2019/20 the tax collected would be respectively 4% and 8% less. This illustrates how precarious the projection of a balanced Budget in 2020/21 is.

The ConversationWhatever the outcome, it is for certain that income earners will see any nominal increases eroded not just by inflation, but also through bracket creep.

Phil Lewis, Professor of Economics, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Bottom of the canal: Pfizer’s billion-dollar tax ploy



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The Netherlands is where nearly $1 billion from Australia was sunk into two companies liquidated three years later.
Alex de Haas/flickr, CC BY-NC

Michael West, University of Sydney

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has engaged in a series of paper transactions to create a A$936 million loss in Australia. It is, for all intents and purposes, a billion-dollar exercise in tax avoidance.

Pfizer and its auditor KPMG, the “Big Four” global accounting firm, refused to comment on the transactions or to defend them when presented with questions by this columnist. Pfizer was contacted on numerous occasions and refused. Both parties refused to return emails and phone calls.

These are transactions housed within a byzantine corporate structure. We will outline, in brief, the series of transactions with Pfizer associates in the Netherlands which led to this “bottom of the canal” tax scheme, then provide the background to the company’s activities.

The sequence of transactions

2011: Pfizer Australia Investments Pty Ltd issues $728 million in shares to Pfizer companies in the Netherlands, the US and Luxembourg.

Pfizer Australia Investments (PAI) then uses the cash from this share issue to buy two subsidiaries incorporated in the Netherlands. These are called Pfizer Australia Investments B.V. and Pfizer Pacific Cooperatief U.A.

There is no record of these two companies in Pfizer’s global accounts before December 31 2010.

2014: PAI issues more shares and invests another $208 million in the two Dutch companies. This brings the total investment in these companies to $936 million.

By the end of 2014, the Dutch subsidiaries have been liquidated with zero return for PAI. The financial effect of this round-robin transaction is that share capital of $936 million has been created in Pfizer’s Australian entity and losses of $936 million are recorded in Australia.


Michael West/Rachell Li, Sydney Democracy Network

This ring-a-ring-a-rosy has all the hallmarks of a transaction designed to create almost a billion dollars in losses which can be used for tax purposes in Australia. The Australian company has “invested” almost a billion dollars into two overseas companies which were suddenly liquidated – with no value left for shareholders. Nothing is heard of them since.

It brings to mind the infamous Bottom of the Harbour tax schemes of the 1970s and ’80s where the financial engineers – aided by the top end of the accounting community – made investments in companies, stripped those companies of their assets and left nothing for the taxman.

In Pfizer’s case, almost $1 billion of cash was “invested” in two companies in the Netherlands which went belly up within three years. That left the Australian entity – indeed Australian taxpayers – carrying the can for its losses as the freshly created $1 billion in share capital is now sitting pretty for tax-effective distribution to Pfizer overseas.

A company with form

Pfizer has form on such transactions.

Back in 2011, another Pfizer entity, Pfizer Australia Holdings, created new share capital of $733 million after it bought two subsidiaries from Pfizer Inc. The two subsidiaries were acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Pfizer issued shares, rather than paid cash, to buy these assets from themselves. So, new shares were created at a value of $733 million. This enormous price relied on a fancy asset valuation for the intangible assets held by these subsidiaries, notably “product development rights” of $461 million. These were the main assets acquired.

By 2014, share capital of $408 million of this new share capital had been returned in cash, repatriated to Pfizer companies overseas. And the product development rights had already evaporated (amortised) by $161 million.

Share capital created, assets written off, again. This is the Pfizer pattern. Share capital is created and its assets vanish.

On December 1 2014, yet another Pfizer entity here, Pfizer PFE Pty Ltd, acquired the Innovative Products Oncology and Consumer business from Pfizer Australia Holdings for nil consideration. This included the mysterious product development rights. Nil consideration. These are the rights valued three years earlier at $461 million.

Traditionally, when one company acquires a business from another company, one company is the buyer and the other company is the seller. This immutable principle of commerce does not necessarily pertain to Pfizer.

Pfizer Australia Holdings describes the transfer of this Innovative Products business as a “distribution”, a “transaction with owners in their capacity as owners”, according to its statutory financial statements.

In reality it is no such thing. Pfizer PFE is not an owner of Pfizer Australia Holdings. It holds no shares. It is merely a related party with a common ultimate parent in the US, Pfizer Inc.

Behind this narrative of a “distribution to owners” is tax. When you make profits of hundreds of millions of dollars, avoiding the 30% corporate income tax rate is big business.

Then and now

In 2007, Pfizer Australia Holdings was at the helm of Pfizer’s tax consolidated group in Australia and prepared “General Purpose” financial statements, full financial statements and full disclosures.

In 2008, it switched to preparing “Special Purpose” financial statements with far less disclosure, especially about income tax. KPMG’s 2008 audit report gave this special purpose report a clean bill of health even though required disclosures of changes in accounting policies were not made.

From 2009 to 2012, Pfizer Australia Holdings paid franked dividends to shareholders of $576 million; that is more than half-a-billion dollars going overseas. This is the good stuff, though, the above-board stuff, dividends paid out of profits already taxed in Australia.

After 2012, Pfizer ran out of Australian profits to distribute. It had hit the “patents cliff”. The blockbuster drugs Lipitor and Viagra were coming off patent and being challenged by generic competitors. Pfizer’s sales peaked at $2.2 billion in 2012. This used to be the biggest pharmaceutical company in the country.

Yet Pfizer had hit another cliff. The company was running out of Australian profits to distribute as dividends. It needed another way to rake the money offshore. And it came in the guise of return of share capital – better than dividends as there are far lighter tax obligations.

In 2014, a return of capital of $408 million was made offshore. And now, in 2016, Pfizer has made sure, through transactions with associates in the Netherlands, that there is another billion dollars ready to go offshore when the US overlords make the call.

Two things stand out, two takeaways from the “magic pudding” of Pfizer share capital creation and its bottom-of-the-canal tax scheme.

One, PAI’s audited financial statements claim that two Netherlands subsidiaries were incorporated in Australia. We can find no record of this.

Two, in 2014, PAI invested $208 million in the two Netherlands subsidiaries that were liquidated in the same year for no return. What is an observer to make of that?


The ConversationThis column, co-published by The Conversation with michaelwest.com.au, is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

Michael West, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rumours of the death of multinational tax avoidance are greatly exaggerated


Michael West, University of Sydney

The Australian government took out newspaper ads earlier this month boasting of unequivocal victory in the fight against multinational tax avoidance.

It is no small irony that taxpayers have forked out for this bald-faced lie. “Multinational corporations earning Australian dollars now pay their fair share of Australian tax,” decreed the ad.

The Australian government advertisement falls a long way short of telling the whole truth about multinationals’ tax.
Commonwealth of Australia

Hardly. While it is true that the Australian Tax Office (ATO) and the federal government have reaped more income tax from multinationals this year than they had earlier anticipated, this is a fight that has only just begun.

Were it not for increasing community awareness of multinational tax avoidance – the world’s biggest rort – and rising concern over tax fairness, things would be worse. So the positive perspective is that, yes, inroads are being made via the diverted profits tax, the ATO’s tax avoidance task force and the multinational anti-avoidance law, which was enacted late in 2015.

Tax Office people privately confide, too, that another A$2 billion may drop this year. That’s A$2 billion on top of earlier expectations – A$1 billion from tightened enforcement and another A$1 billion from “behavioural” factors: better behaviour by some multinationals, in other words.

As the swathe of December year reports have flowed through this month and last, it is evident that some companies such as Google and Facebook have been paying more tax, albeit slightly more and still well short of reasonable amounts.

Same old tricks

Others, such as oil giants Exxon, Shell and Chevron, digital players Booking.com, Airbnb, Expedia and eBay, and assorted others such as American Express are up to their same old tricks. We are presently analysing Big Pharma, a sector that is swimming in taxpayer subsidies thanks to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and then has another bite of the cherry via transfer-pricing shenanigans as well.

To a couple of serial offenders, Goldman Sachs and News Corporation. The 2016 financial statements for “Goldies”, as the Giant Vampire Squid is affectionately known in financial markets, are utterly inadequate.

For a start, they are not even consolidated, so don’t provide a true picture of the profitability of Wall Street’s famous, or infamous as many would put it, investment bank. Its head entity in Australia, Goldman Sachs Holdings ANZ Pty Ltd, discloses revenues of just US$24 million, the same as the prior year and well shy of the US$45 million booked in finance costs. Then the profit and loss statement shows an income tax “benefit”, yes benefit, of US$2.4 million, compared with last year’s benefit of US$18.5 million. There was a bottom-line loss in both years.

On this, it would appear that Goldman has paid zero tax in the past three years in Australia. Travelling along to the cash-flow statement, though, they disclose US$286 million was paid in tax last year (down from tax received of US$8.5 million). But when you get to the notes to the accounts it shows an income-tax benefit of US$2.4 million.

All of this is meaningless, of course. As the accounts are not consolidated, they don’t disclose what has been going on in the whole group. Further, tax may have been paid in Hong Kong, the domicile of the immediate parent, or elsewhere.

The usual feature of high finance charges and large related party loans are there, not to mention “service fee expenses” with related parties. Merchant banks such as Goldman Sachs, being banks, get away with a lot on the tax front.

Our very own Macquarie Bank had a keen reputation for tax structuring until it got pinged by authorities three years ago. In 2008, it even recorded a tax rate of 1.7% after a jumbo “tax arb” transaction, a currency swap so successful that it delivered a profit of A$850 million in Asia and a matching loss in Australia.

So a billion-dollar profit bore almost no tax.

At least Macquarie pays homage to financial accounting standards and doesn’t file a pitiable and arguably non-compliant set of accounts like Goldman. ASIC could issue an edict tomorrow, if it had the courage and a burst of energy, decreeing that any multinational company operating in Australia had to file proper “General Purpose” accounts.

Feeling the heat

This brings us to the entity formerly identified as the nation’s number one “tax risk”, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. That mantle has probably gone to Chevron now. After being rapped over the knuckles by the Senate Inquiry into Corporate Tax Avoidance two years ago, News has begun to pay more tax: A$110 million last year.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/kFdQN/2/

The main ruse was to create A$7 billion in “goodwill” in 2004 via a string of related party transactions and then to rip out A$4.5 billion in profits to the US.

News is still deploying this “repatriation of capital” subterfuge to this day. This practice may be legal but it is unethical. The creation of “internally generated goodwill” could be described as suspect in the least. A “magic pudding” was the way former University of NSW accounting academic Jeffrey Knapp labelled it.

Over the ten years to 2015, Rupert Murdoch’s companies paid income tax equivalent to a rate of 4.8% on A$6.8 billion in operating cash flows, or just 10% of operating profits.

The basic numbers for the past two years are: A$110.5 million tax on revenues of A$3.1 billion and profit of A$156 million. In
2015, it was A$109 million tax paid on revenues of A$2.95 billion and profit of A$287 million.

They are still aggressively debt loading, however, or giving themselves loans from overseas so they can rip out interest before paying tax. The critical numbers are A$2.6 billion in related party borrowings on which they paid A$130 million to themselves in related party interest charges offshore. Overall, debt jumped from A$2.4 billion to $4.3 billion.

A A$411 million loan to Foxtel, which News owns with Telstra, remains. The interest rate on this loan is 10.5%, more than double what the average wage earner pays on a mortgage. This is another ruse to avoid tax.

All in all, it’s a better effort from News, but the evidence on multinational tax avoiders is in. There is improvement, but still a very long way to go.


The ConversationThis column, co-published by The Conversation with michaelwest.com.au, is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

Michael West, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New tax treaty will close loopholes that allow multinationals to avoid tax


Miranda Stewart, Australian National University

Australia, with another 70 countries, has signed a multilateral treaty to create more coherence in fighting tax avoidance by large multinational corporations. The Multilateral Convention to Implement Treaty Measures to Prevent Base Erosion and Profit Shifting, or BEPS Convention, aims to close loopholes in the international tax system that result from differences in individual country tax systems.

Countries are fiercely protective of their own tax sovereignty and claim the right to set their own company tax rate and base. But this can result in lower company tax around the globe, as multinational enterprises can move capital investment to lower tax jurisdictions and take advantage of tax havens to reduce their global tax bill. This latest treaty will help to overcome this problem.

Since the global financial crisis, nearly a decade ago, the G20 countries have tried to reform international tax with a Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project. Australia has been a strong supporter of the BEPS project since it started, including as chair of the G20 in 2014.

This project resulted in 15 actions that were endorsed by the G20 in 2015. The signing of this tax treaty implements action number 15 to amend existing tax treaties to limit international tax planning.

The other BEPS actions aim to strengthen enforcement, remove inconsistencies in national tax rules, enforce disclosure of corporate tax profits in havens and encourage sharing of tax information between country revenue agencies.

Australia can’t go it alone on international tax

International tax cooperation remains critical and this BEPS Convention enables an anti-abuse framework to be embedded in Australia’s treaty network.

In the last century, countries around the world have negotiated bilateral tax treaties, producing a network of thousands of treaties. Australia alone has about 45 bilateral income tax treaties.

The main goal of bilateral tax treaties has been to prevent double taxation of international business where it operates in more than one country. But the terms of tax treaties can also be used to minimise tax. For example, a company may have significant business sales in a country – like Google in Australia – but under a treaty rule, it may not be treated as having a business presence there.

How does the BEPS Convention amend tax treaties?

Without this multilateral convention, it could take decades for countries to renegotiate these bilateral tax treaties. Where countries sign up, the new rules will take effect as soon as each country has ratified the convention.

The BEPS Convention is the first ever multilateral tax treaty that modifies substantive tax rules. Even the speed of signing the BEPS Convention is unprecedented: from treaty mandate to signature has been only 18 months. Most multilateral treaties take much longer, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been in negotiation for more than nine years (and may not ever be agreed).

A leading British tax lawyer observed that the BEPS Convention is “not tax peace in our time”. But it is still significant.

The convention inserts a new anti-abuse rule which states that tax treaties are not to be used to abuse national tax laws, if a taxpayer uses a treaty rule for the principal purpose of reducing its tax liability in a country. The convention will also make changes to prevent mismatches in treaty tax rules and to end the artificial avoidance of a business tax presence in a country, for example by using a separate company to do its operations under a contract.

To push governments to resolve tax disputes, the convention inserts an arbitration clause into treaties. If two countries cannot resolve a treaty dispute, then after two years (and if no court case is on foot), it will go automatically to an independent arbitrator who can make a decision that binds the governments and taxpayer. Its controversial and many countries may not agree to arbitration but Australia has signed up to it.

Australia has adopted most of the BEPS Convention measures, as being consistent with its current tax treaty policy. But many countries, including Australia, will need to enact domestic legislation to bring the convention into law.

Once countries sign up, the treaty changes will take place immediately – this could amend as many as 30 of Australia’s treaties.

The future international tax architecture – but without the US?

The BEPS Convention was signed by more than 70 countries. This includes leading signatories such as China, Germany (the current G20 Chair), the United Kingdom, France and Japan and also several low tax financial centres like Singapore and Ireland. But the United States did not sign.

The US failure to sign is hardly surprising. It comes one week after President Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s another example of the US retreating from multilateral cooperation on issues affecting all nations.

The US also did not sign the Tax Administrative Convention, now with 111 country members, which provides the legal basis for the country by country exchanges of information about global profits for billion dollar companies, including with the Australian Tax Office. Instead the US insisted on “going it alone” with its Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA regime, which demands foreign countries provide data on US citizens.

Many US tax treaty provisions are in line with the BEPS Convention. But surely that misses the point of multilateralism in tax or any other field of global concern. Instead, we see China is taking a leading role in multilateralism. It is unclear what the US stance will mean for international tax in the longer term. However, this treaty will give some help to other countries aiming to tax global profits of US multinationals, including Google, Apple and Uber, while those companies lobby for the US to reform its own company tax laws.

The ConversationThe pace of international tax change is usually glacial and most country co-operative efforts go nowhere. The BEPS Convention provides, for the first time, an international legal architecture for future multilateral tax reform.

Miranda Stewart, Professor and Director, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Full response from the AiGroup for a FactCheck on how Australia’s top tax rates compare internationally



File 20170516 11956 1dw3xht
original.

Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

In relation to this FactCheck on the AiGroup’s Innes Willox’s statement that Australia has “one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world”, a spokesman for the AiGroup sent the following sources and comment: The Conversation

Innes was referring to top marginal tax rates. Data for 2016 show that Australia has a relatively high top marginal tax rate (49%) but not the highest among OECD countries (Sweden is top, at 60%). The rub is that our top marginal rate cuts in at a relatively lower level of income than most other OECD countries (2.2 times our average wage).

Chart created by AiGroup using OECD data.
AiGroup/OECD
Chart created by AiGroup using OECD data.
AiGroup/OECD

The spokesman also sent a screenshot from an OECD report titled Revenue Statistics 2014 – Australia:

A screen shot from the OECD report Revenue Statistics 2014 – Australia.
OECD

Sunanda Creagh, Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.