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Posts Tagged ‘tax evasion’

Avoiding taxes

Tax avoidance has been in the news since the publication of the Panama papers, which show the use of offshore tax havens by rich individuals and companies, partly for tax avoidance, partly for money laundering and other criminal activities – some by corrupt politicians and their associates – and partly to take advantage of lower regulation of financial dealing.

There are many tax havens around the world, including Switzerland, Hong Kong, British overseas territories (such as the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda), Jersey, Singapore and certain US states (such as Arizona, Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming).

Here we focus on tax avoidance. This is the management of tax affairs by individuals or firms so as to avoid or minimise the payment of taxes. Tax avoidance is legal, unlike tax evasion, which is the practice of not declaring taxable income.

In a statement from the White House, directly after the publication of the Panama papers, President Obama spoke about the huge international scale of tax evasion and tax avoidance:

“A lot of it is legal, but that’s exactly the problem. It’s not that [people are] breaking the laws, it’s that the laws are so poorly designed that they allow people, if they’ve got enough lawyers and enough accountants, to wiggle out of responsibilities that ordinary citizens are having to abide by.

Here in the United States, there are loopholes that only wealthy individuals and powerful corporations have access to. They have access to offshore accounts, and they are gaming the system. Middle-class families are not in the same position to do this. In fact, a lot of these loopholes come at the expense of middle-class families, because that lost revenue has to be made up somewhere. Alternatively, it means that we’re not investing as much as we should in schools, in making college more affordable, in putting people back to work rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our infrastructure, creating more opportunities for our children.”

Tax avoidance, whether in tax havens, or through exploiting loopholes in the tax system may be legal. But is it fair?

Various principles of a tax system can be identified. These include:

Horizontal equity People in the same situation should be treated equally. For example, people earning the same level of income and with the same personal circumstances (e.g. number and type of dependants, size of mortgage, etc.) should pay the same level of income tax.
Vertical equity Taxes should be ‘fairly’ apportioned between rich and poor. The rich should pay proportionately more taxes than the poor.
Equity between recipients of government services Under the ‘benefit principle’, it is argued that those who receive the most benefits from government expenditure ought to pay the most in taxes. For example, it can be argued that roads should be paid for from fuel tax.
Difficulty of evasion and possibly of avoidance If it is desirable to have a given tax, people should not be able to escape paying.
Non-distortion Taxes alter market signals: taxes on goods and services alter market prices; taxes on income alter wages. They should not do this in an undesirable direction.
Convenience to the taxpayer Taxes should be certain and clearly understood by taxpayers so that they can calculate their tax liabilities. The method of payment should be straightforward.
Convenience to the government Tax rates should be simple to adjust and as cheap to collect as possible.
Minimal disincentive effects Taxes may discourage people from working longer or harder, from saving, from investing or from taking initiative. It is desirable that these disincentives should be kept to a minimum.

Of course, not all these requirements can be met at the same time. One of the most serious conflicts is between vertical equity and the need to keep disincentives to a minimum. The more steeply the rich are taxed, it is argued, the more serious are the disincentive effects on them likely to be (see the blog post from 2012, The 50p income tax rate and the Laffer curve). Another is between vertical equity and equity between recipients of services. Some of the people most in need of government support are the poorest and hence pay the least taxes.

The crucial question is what is regarded as ‘fair’. What is vertically equitable? According to the second article below, people’s preferred tax rates depend on how information is presented. If information is presented on how much tax is paid by the rich, people generally feel that the rich pay too much. If, however, information is presented on how much income people are left with after paying tax, people feel that the rich still have too much and ought to pay more tax.

The majority of people in the UK feel that tax avoidance, although legal, is morally wrong. According to the results of an HMRC survey in 2015, “the majority (63%) of respondents felt that the use of tax avoidance schemes was widespread. However, the majority (61%) also responded that it was never acceptable to use a tax avoidance scheme. The most frequent reason given as to why it was unacceptable was that ‘it is unfair on others who pay their taxes’.”

In making judgements about the fairness of tax, people generally have inaccurate knowledge about the distribution of income, believing that it is more equal than it really is, and about the progressiveness of the tax system, believing that it is more progressive than it really is. Despite this, they want post-tax income distribution to be more equal.

What is more, although people generally disapprove of tax avoidance, it is the system that allows the avoidance of taxes that they want changing. As long as it is possible to avoid taxes, such as giving gifts to children to avoid inheritance tax (as long as the gift is made more than seven years before the person’s death), most people see no reason why they should not do so themselves.

The following articles look at tax avoidance and people’s attitudes towards it. They are all drawn from The Conversation, “an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.”.

Articles
Explainer: what are ‘tax havens’? The Conversation, Tommaso Faccio (5/4/16)
When it comes to tax, how do we decide what’s fair? The Conversation, Stian Reimers (8/4/16)
Six things a tax haven expert learned from the Panama Papers The Conversation, Ronen Palan (6/4/16)

Documents
The Panama Papers The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
Exploring public attitudes to tax avoidance in 2015: HM Revenue and Customs Research Report 401 HMRC, Preena Shah (February 2016)
2010 to 2015 government policy: tax evasion and avoidance HMRC/HM Treasury (8/5/15)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between tax avoidance and tax evasion.
  2. Give some examples of tax avoidance.
  3. Look through the various principles of a tax system and identify any conflicts.
  4. What problems are there in having a highly progressive tax system?
  5. What is a ‘shell company’? How can it be used to avoid and evade taxes?
  6. What are bearer shares and bonds? Why were they abolished in the UK in 2015?
  7. What legitimate reasons may there be for a company or individual using a tax haven?
  8. To what extent might increased transparency in tax affairs discourage individuals and companies from engaging in aggressive tax avoidance?
  9. What light does/can behavioural economics shed on people’s perceptions of fairness?
  10. How might the use of absolute amounts or percentages influence people’s thinking about the fairness of a tax system? What implications does this have for politicians in framing tax policy?
  11. In the principal–agent problem, where the principals are the tax authorities and the agents are taxpayers, why does asymmetric information arise and why is it a problem? How do the tax authorities seek to reduce this problem?
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The G20 Summit

This weekend, Australia will play host to the world’s leaders, as the G20 Summit takes place. The focus of the G20 Summit will be on global growth and how it can be promoted. The Eurozone remains on the brink, but Germany did avoid for recession with positive (just) growth in the third quarter of this year. However, despite Australia’s insistence on returning the remit of the G20 to its original aims, in particular promoting growth, it is expected that many other items will also take up the G20’s agenda.

In February, the G20 Finance Ministers agreed various measures to boost global growth and it is expected that many of the policies discussed this weekend will build on these proposals. The agreement contained a list of new policies that had the aim of boosting economy growth of the economies by an extra 2% over a five year period. If this were to happen, the impact would be around £1.27 trillion. The agreed policies will be set out in more detail as part of the Brisbane Action Plan.

As well as a discussion of measures to promote global growth as a means of boosting jobs across the world, there will also be a focus on using these measures to prevent deflation from becoming a problem across Europe. Global tax avoidance by some of the major multinationals will also be discussed and leaders will be asked to agree on various measures. These include a common reporting standard; forcing multinationals to report their accounts country by country and principles about disclosing the beneficial ownership of companies. It it also expected that the tensions between Russia and Ukraine will draw attention from the world leaders. But, the main focus will be the economy. Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott said:

“Six years ago, the impacts of the global financial crisis reverberated throughout the world. While those crisis years are behind us, we still struggle with its legacy of debt and joblessness…The challenge for G20 leaders is clear – to lift growth, boost jobs and strengthen financial resilience. We need to encourage demand to ward off the deflation that threatens the major economies of Europe.”

Many people have protested about the lack of action on climate change, but perhaps this has been addressed to some extent by the deal between China and the USA on climate change and Barak Obama’s pledge to make a substantial contribution to the Green Climate Fund. This has caused some problems and perhaps embarrassment for the host nation, as Australia has remained adamant that despite the importance of climate change, this will not be on the agenda of the G20 Summit. Suggestions now, however, put climate change as the final communique.

Some people and organisations have criticised the G20 and questioned its relevance, so as well as discussing a variety of key issues, the agenda will more broadly be aiming to address this criticism. And of course, focus will also be on tensions between some of the key G20 leaders. The following articles consider the G20 Summit.

Articles
Ukraine and Russia take center stage as leaders gather for G20 Reuters, Matt Siegel (14/11/14)
The G20 Summit: World leaders gather in Brisbane BBC News (14/11/11)
G20: Obama to pledge $2.5bn to help poor countries on climate change The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg (14/11/14)
G20 in 20: All you need to know about Brisbane Leaders summit in 20 facts Independent, Mark Leftly (13/11/14)
G20 leaders to meet in Australia under pressure to prove group’s relevance The Guardian, Lenore Taylor (13/11/14)
Australia PM Abbott accuses Putin of bullying on eve of G20 Financial Times, George Parker and Jamie Smyth (14/11/14)
G20: David Cameron in Australia for world leaders’ summit BBC News (13/11/14)
G20 summit: Australian PM Tony Abbott tries to block climate talks – and risks his country becoming an international laughing stock Independent, Kathy Marks (13/11/14)
Incoming G20 leader Turkey says groups must be more inclusive Reuters, Jane Wardell (14/11/14)
Behind the motorcades and handshakes, what exactly is the G20 all about – and will it achieve ANYTHING? Mail Online, Sarah Michael (14/11/14)
Is the global economy headed for the rocks? BBC News, Robert Peston (17/11/14)

Official G20 site
G20 Priorities G20
Australia 2014 G20
News G20

Questions

  1. What is the purpose of the G20 and which countries are members of it? Should any others be included in this type of organisation?
  2. What are the key items on the agenda for the G20 Summit in Brisbane?
  3. One of the main objectives of this Summit is to discuss the policies that will be implemented to promote growth. What types of policies are likely to be important in promoting global economic growth?
  4. What types of policies are effective at addressing the problem of deflation?
  5. What impact will the tensions between Russia and Ukraine have on the progress of the G20?
  6. Why are multinationals able to engage in tax evasion? What policies could be implemented to prevent this and to what extent is global co-operation needed?
  7. Discuss possible reforms to the IMF and the G20′s role in promoting such reforms.
  8. Should the G20 be scrapped?
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Disappearing tax revenues: how Luxembourg saves companies billions

An investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has revealed how more than 1000 businesses from 340 major companies from around the world have used Luxembourg as a base for avoiding huge amounts of tax. Many of the companies are household names, such as Ikea, FedEx, Apple, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Dyson, Amazon, Fiat, Google, Accenture, Burberry, Procter & Gamble, Heinz, JP Morgan, Caterpillar, Deutsche Bank and Starbucks. Through complicated systems of ‘advanced tax agreements’ (ATAs), negotiated with the Luxembourg authorities via accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), companies have used various methods of avoiding tax.

Although such measures are legal, they have denied other countries vast amounts of tax revenues on sales generated in their own countries. Instead, the much reduced tax bills have been paid to Luxembourg. The result is that this tiny country, with a population of just 550,000, has, according to the IMF, the highest (nominal) GDP per head in the world (estimated to be $116,752 in 2014).

So what methods do Luxembourg and these multinational companies use to reduce the companies’ tax bills? There are three main methods. All involve having a subsidiary based in Luxembourg: often little more than a small office with one employee, a telephone and a bank account. All involve varieties of transfer pricing: setting prices that the company charges itself in transactions between a subsidiary in Luxembourg and divisions in other countrries.

The first method is the use of internal loans. Companies lend money to themselves, say in the UK, from Luxembourg at high interest rates. The loan interest can be offset against profit in the UK, reducing tax liability to the UK tax authorities. But the interest earned by the Luxembourg subsidiary incurs very low taxes. Profits are thus effectively transferred from the UK to Luxembourg and a much lower tax bill is incurred.

The second involves royalty payments for the use of the company’s brands. These are owned by the Luxembourg subsidiary and the overseas divisions pay the Luxembourg subsidiary large sums for using the logos, designs and brand names. Thus, again, profits are transferred to Luxembourg, where there is a generous tax exemption.

The third involves generous allowances in Luxembourg for losses in the value of investments, even without the company having first to sell the investments. These losses can be offset against future profits, again reducing tax liability. By transferring losses made elsewhere to Luxembourg, again usually by some form of transfer pricing, these can be used to reduce the already small tax bill in Luxembourg even further.

Tax loopholes offered by tax havens, such as Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands and the Channel Islands, are denying exchequers around the world vast sums. Not surprisingly, countries, especially those with large deficits, are concerned to address the issue of tax avoidance by multinationals. This is one item on the agenda of the G20 meeting in Brisbane from the 12 to 16 November 2014.

The problem, however, is that, with countries seeking to attract multinational investment and to gain tax revenues from them, there is an incentive to reduce corporate tax rates. Getting any binding agreement on tax harmonisation, and creating an essentially global single market, is likely, therefore, to prove virtually impossible.

Webcasts and videos
Luxembourg Leaks: Tricks of the Trade ICIJ in partnership with the Pulitzer Center (5/11/14)
Luxembourg ‘abetted’ companies in avoiding taxes France 24, Siobhán Silke (6/11/14)
Tax deals with Luxembourg save companies billions, says report Deutsche Welle, Dagmar Zindel (6/11/14)
Luxembourg: the tax haven and the $870m loan company above a stamp shop The Guardian, John Domokos, Rupert Neate and Simon Bowers (5/11/14)
Luxembourg leaks: nation under spotlight over tax avoidance claims euronews (6/11/14)
Northern and Shell used west Dublin address to cut Luxembourg tax bill on €1bn The Irish Times, Colm Keena (6/11/14)
The ATO’s global tax avoidance investigation ABC News, Phillip Lasker (9/11/14)
Pepsi, IKEA Secret Luxembourg Tax Deals Exposed TheLipTV, Elliot Hill (9/11/14)

Articles
Leaked Docs Expose More Than 340 Companies’ Tax Schemes In Luxembourg Huffington Post, Leslie Wayne, Kelly Carr, Marina Walker Guevara, Mar Cabra and Michael Hudson (5/11/14)
Luxembourg tax files: how tiny state rubber-stamped tax avoidance on an industrial scale The Guardian, Simon Bowers (5/11/14)
Fact and fiction blur in tales of tax avoidance The Guardian (9/11/14)
companies engaged in tax avoidance The Guardian, Michael Safi (6/11/14)
The Guardian view on tax avoidance: Europe must take Luxembourg to task The Guardian, Editorial (6/11/14)
G20 leaders in the mood to act on tax avoidance after Luxembourg leaks Sydney Morning Herald, Tom Allard (6/11/14)
Scale of Luxembourg tax avoidance revealed economia, Oliver Griffin (6/11/14)
EU to press Luxembourg over tax breaks amid fresh allegations BBC News (6/11/14)
Luxembourg leaks: G20 alone can’t stamp out tax avoidance The Conversation, Charles Sampford (7/11/14)
‘Lux leaks’ scandal shows why tax avoidance is a bad idea European Voice, Paige Morrow (8/11/14)
EU to Probe Luxembourg’s ‘Sweetheart Tax Deal’ with Amazon International Business Times, Jerin Mathew (7/10/14)

Investigative Project
Luxembourg Leaks: Global Companies’ Secrets Exposed The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (5/11/14)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between tax avoidance and tax evasion. Which of the two is being practised by companies in their arrangements with Luxembourg?
  2. Explain what is meant by transfer pricing.
  3. Do a search of companies to find out what parts of their operations as based in Luxembourg.
  4. In what sense can the setting of corporate taxes be seen as a prisoner’s dilemma game between countries?
  5. Discuss the merits of changing corporate taxes so that they are based on revenues earned in a country rather than on profits.
  6. What type of agreement on tax havens is likely to be achieved by the international community?
  7. Is it desirable for companies to be able to offset losses against future profits?
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A 50p top tax rate: more or less money for the government?

The UK Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has announced that, if Labour is returned to power in the next election, it will bring back the 50% top rate of income tax (see also). This will apply to incomes over £150,000.

But will this raise more tax revenue? The question here concerns incentive effects. Will the higher rate of income tax discourage work by those earning £150,000 or encourage tax avoidance or tax evasion, so that the total tax take is reduced? The Conservatives say the answer is yes. The Labour party says no, claiming that there will still be an increase in tax revenue.

The possible effects are summed up in the Laffer curve (see The 50p income tax rate and the Laffer curve). As the previous post stated:

These arguments were put forward in the 1980s by Art Laffer, an adviser to President Reagan. His famous ‘Laffer curve’ (see Economics (8th edition) Box 10.3) illustrated that tax revenues are maximised at a particular tax rate. The idea behind the Laffer curve is very simple. At a tax rate of 0%, tax revenue will be zero – but so too at a rate of 100%, since no-one would work if they had to pay all their income in taxes. As the tax rate rises from 0%, so tax revenue would rise. And so too, as the tax rate falls from 100%, the tax rate would rise. It follows that there will be some tax rate between 0% and 100% that maximises tax revenue.

As Labour is claiming that re-introducing the 50% top rate of income tax will increase tax revenue, the implication is that the economy is to the left of the top of the Laffer curve: that, at current level of income, the curve is still rising.

Work by HMRC, and published in the document The Exchequer effect of the 50 per cent additional rate of income tax, suggested that the previous cut in the top rate from 50% to 45% would cut revenue by around £3.5 billion if there were no incentive effect, but with the extra work that would be generated, the cut would be a mere £100 million. This implies, other things being equal, that a rise in the rate from 45% to 50% would raise only a tiny bit of extra taxes.

However, the HMRC analysis has been criticised and especially its assumptions about the incentive effects on work. Then there is the question of whether a rise in the rate from 45% to 50% would have exactly the reverse effect of a cut from 50% to 45%. And then there is the question of how much HMRC could reduce tax evasion and avoidance.

The following article from the Institute for Fiscal Studies examines the effects. However, the authors conclude that:

… at the moment, the best evidence we have still suggests that raising the top rate of tax would raise little revenue and make, at best, a marginal contribution to reducing the budget deficit an incoming government would face after the next election.

But there is also the question of equity. Putting aside the question of how much revenue would be raised, is it fair to raise the top rate of tax for those on high incomes? Would it make an important contribution to reducing inequality? This normative question lies at the heart of the different views of the world between left and right and is not a question that can be answered by economic analysis.

50p tax – strolling across the summit of the Laffer curve? Institute for Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson and David Phillips (Jan 2014)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between tax evasion and tax avoidance.
  2. How would it be possible for a rise in tax rates to generated less tax revenue?
  3. Could policies shift the Laffer curve as opposed to merely resulting in a move along the curve?
  4. What is meant by ‘taxable income elasticity (TIE)’? What are its determinants?
  5. Is the taxable income elasticity at the top of the Laffer curve equal to, above or below zero? Explain.
  6. Why did the Office for Budget Responsibility chairman, Robert Chote, conclude that, whatever the precise answer, we were ‘strolling across the summit of the Laffer curve’?
  7. Explain why ‘there is little additional evidence to suggest that a 50p rate would raise more than was estimated by HMRC back in 2012′.
  8. What contribution can economists make to the debate on the desirability of reducing inequality?
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Co-operation needed to avoid evasion

At a cost of €1 trillion to EU states, tax evasion is undoubtedly an area in need of attention. With government finances in deficit across the world, part of the gap could be plugged by preventing tax revenues from going unpaid. Well-known companies and individuals have been accused of tax evasion (and avoidance), but part of the problem is the existence of countries that make such activities possible.

Tax havens not only offer favourable tax rates, but also have in place regulations that prevent the effective exchange of information. That is, they are able to keep the identity and income information of depositors a private affair and are not required to share that information with other governments. This means that other tax authorities are unable to demand the tax revenue from income earned, when it is held in some of these countries. This can deprive the government’s coffers of substantial amounts of money.

In 2000, the OECD produced a report naming so-called ‘uncooperative tax havens’, including Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein and Liberia. Since then, all nations on this list have pledged their cooperation and been removed and in a recent step, Andorra has announced a proposal to implement its first ever income tax. This move is partly in response to pressures from EU governments to tackle tax evasion. Furthermore, talks between the finance ministers of tax havens, such as Switzerland and Liechtenstein have been agreed with the aim of improving the flow of bank account information and thus combating tax evasion. The Council of the European Union said:

The decision represents an important step in the EU’s efforts to clamp down on tax evasion and tax fraud”

Countries, such as Switzerland (a non-EU member) are likely to find requests for information difficult to ignore, if they want to have access to EU financial markets. However, any concessions on information provision will come at a significant cost for a country that has long regarded its banking secrecy as an ‘honourable policy.

Reforming policy on tax havens is essential, not only to help tackle tax evasion and thus government deficits, but also to generate investment into countries that don’t offer such favourable tax rates. Investors naturally want to invest in those countries with low tax rates and as such, could it be that countries like the UK suffer from a loss of investment and that the only way to encourage it is to offer similarly low tax rates? International agreement is certainly needed to tackle the worldwide issue of tax evasion and at the moment, it seems as though pressure is building on secretive countries. The following articles consider this controversial issue.

Clock ticks on Swiss banking secrecy BBC News, Imogen Foulkes (21/5/13)
Andorra bows to EU pressure to introduce income tax The Telegraph, Fiona Govan (2/6/13)
Andorra to introduce income tax for first time BBC News (2/6/13)
Andorra to introduce income tax for the first time Economy Watch (3/6/13)
Swiss have no choice but to bow to US ultimatum – Ackermann Reuters, Katharina Bart> (3/6/13)
Austria out front as EU zeroes in on tax evasion The Budapest Times (29/5/13)
EU to start talks with non-EU countries on tax evasion BBC News (14/5/13)

Questions

  1. What is tax evasion?
  2. Using game theory, explain why an international agreement on tax evasion might be needed?
  3. When an income tax is imposed in Andorra, what will be the impact on government revenues?
  4. How might the labour supply incentive change once an income tax is imposed?
  5. How do tax havens affect investment in other countries?
  6. Is there an argument that countries such as the UK should cut its tax rates to encourage investment?
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Debating a possible mansion tax

There has been considerable discussion recently about whether the government should introduce a property tax on high value properties. The government, finding it difficult to reduce the public-sector deficit and yet determined to do so, is looking for additional measures to reduce government expenditure or raise tax revenue.

But would it favour a mansion tax as a means of raising additional revenue?

The imposition of such a tax is favoured by both Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party. It is strongly opposed, however, by Conservatives. But just what would such a tax look like and what are the arguments for and against it?

One alternative would be to impose a one-off tax on property valued over a certain amount, such as £2 million. Alternatively it could be levied only for as long as the government is seeking to make substantial inroads into the deficit.

Another would be to add one or more bands to council tax. At present, council tax in England is levied in 8 bands according to the value of a person’s property. The highest band is for property valued over £320,000 in 1991 prices, with the amount of tax due for each band varying from local authority to local authority. (Average UK house prices in 2012 are 135% higher than in 1991.) In Scotland the bands are lower with the top band being for property valued over £212,000 in 1991 prices. In Wales, there is an additional band for property valued over £424,000, but properties are valued in 2003 prices, not 1991 prices.

With low top bands for council tax, people in mansions end up paying the same as people in much more modest property. It would be relatively easy to add additional bands, with the top band applying only to property worth, say, over £1 million or more.

The arguments in favour of a mansion tax are that it is progressive, relatively easy to collect, hard to evade and with minimal disincentive effects. The arguments against are that it would make the tax system ‘too progressive’, would not necessarily be related to an individual’s ability to pay and could have substantial disincentive effects.

The progressiveness of the UK tax system is illustrated in the chart, which looks at the proportion of income paid in direct, indirect and all taxes by quintile groups of households – that is, households grouped into five equal sized groups ranked from lowest to highest gross income. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The following articles look at the debate as it has raged over the past few weeks. Try to unpick the genuine arguments from the political rhetoric!

Articles
Clegg Says U.K. Could Apply Mansion Tax ‘in Five Seconds’ Bloomberg, Robert Hutton (25/9/12)
Two thirds back mansion tax on £1m homes Metro, Tariq Tahir (8/10/12)
Mansion tax would ‘tackle inequality’ This is Tamworth (27/9/12)
Council tax: the easy way to make mansion-dwellers pay Guardian, Simon Jenkins (25/9/12)
Rich must pay fair share in tax BBC Andrew Marr Show, Nick Clegg (23/9/12)
We will get mansion tax on £2 million homes through next budget, promise Lib Dems The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (25/9/12)
Trying to tax the wealthy not worth the price The Scotsman, George Kerevan (31/8/12)
Tax on wealth is true to Tory principles Financial Times, Janan Ganesh (24/9/12)
How would Clegg’s emergency wealth tax work? Guardian, Hilary Osborne (29/8/12)
Labour considers mansion tax on wealthy Financial Times, George Parke (5/9/12)
Conservative conference: Cameron rules out ‘mansion tax’ BBC News (7/10/12)
Don’t make wealth tax a habit Financial Times, Howard Davies (29/8/12)
George Osborne blocks mansion tax, but insists wealthy will pay more The Telegraph, Robert Winnett (8/10/12)
Why George Osborne had to kill the mansion tax The Spectator, Matthew Sinclair (7/10/12)
David Cameron rules out mansion tax and plans further welfare cuts Guardian, Hélène Mulholland (7/10/12)
Viewpoint: Would a wealth tax work? BBC News, Mike Walker (29/8/12)
For all the claims made about wealth taxes, it’s not correct to say the rich are paying their fair share Independent, Jonathan Portes (2/10/12)

Data
House price data links Economics Network
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2010/2011 ONS (26/6/12) (see especially Tables 2 and 3 and Table 26 for historical data)

Questions

  1. Explain the distinction between direct and indirect taxes, and between progressive and regressive taxes. For what reasons do the poor pay a higher proportion of their income in indirect taxes than the rich?
  2. What forms can a tax on wealth take?
  3. How progressive are taxes in the UK (see the ONS site in the Data section above)?
  4. Assess the arguments in favour of a mansion tax.
  5. Assess the arguments against a mansion tax.
  6. What type of wealth tax would be hardest to evade?
  7. What are the likely income and substitution effects of a wealth tax?
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Haven knows the answer to this taxing question

The UK has always been an attractive place for investment, as foreign companies look to cities such as London for stable investment opportunities. This provides not only jobs and output, but also tax revenue for the government. However, one drawback is the lost tax revenue through tax avoidance schemes and big businesses say that if the UK is to remain competitive it needs to look at cutting taxes and bureaucracy.

In recent months, we have seen cases of individuals being prosecuted for tax evasion and more recently in the USA, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have been criticized by the Senate for allegedly moving an estimated £13bn to offshore accounts. (Microsoft and HP deny any wrong-doing). It is cases like this that provide an argument for governments to cut business rates and avoid losing business and jobs to other tax havens. Lord Fink, who is a Director of Firms located in a variety of tax havens said:

’I don’t see why the UK should not compete for jobs that at present are going to the Cayman Islands’

Tax havens are obviously attractive to firms, as they provide a means of retaining more of a firm’s earnings and hence their profits. By offering a much lower rate of tax than countries such as the UK, they help to ease the tax burden on wealthy individuals and investors in hedge funds, along with many others.

The question is, do these lower tax rates discourage investment into the UK and thus would a relaxation of Revenue Customs’ rules mean an increase in inward investment and the other positive things that this would bring? Or would a decrease in tax rates for wealthy investors send the wrong message?

In a time of austerity, tax cuts for the rich are never going to be a popular policy – at least not amongst the ‘non-rich’ – in truth, the majority of the population. Furthermore, many simply see tax havens as morally wrong – or as George Osborne put it ‘morally repugnant’. The use of them provides the better off with a means of paying less to the taxman, whilst the worse off continue to pay their share.

The controversy surrounding tax havens is perhaps even more of an issue given the size of the public-sector deficit. With tax havens being used by those who should be paying the most, tax revenues are lower than would be the case without tax evasion and avoidance. Is this adding to the burden of basic rate tax payers?

This doesn’t help the gap between government expenditure and revenue, which has contributed to the largest amount of UK public-sector borrowing in August 2012 since records began. Net borrowing reached £14.4bn, as things like corporation tax receipts fell and benefit payments rose. Money that should go in to the government’s coffers is undoubtedly making its way into tax havens, but does that also mean that jobs are making their way out of the country? If tax rates in the UK were cut, cities such as London may become even more attractive places to invest, which could potentially create a much needed boost for the economy. But, at what cost? The following articles consider the controversy of tax havens.

Microsoft and HP rapped by US Senate over tax havens BBC News (20/9/12)
Morally repugnant tax avoiders can rest easy under David Cameron Guardian, Tanya Gold (21/9/12)
Britain could prevent the use of tax havens by ending ‘archaic’ business rules Telegraph, Rowena Mason (21/9/12)
UK public-sector borrowing hits record high of £14.4bn BBC News (21/9/12)
The top Tory who wants to make Britain a tax haven for millionaires Guardian, Martin Williams and Rajeev Syal (20/9/12)
Make UK a tax haven to attract investment from millionaires, urges Tory treasurer Mail Online, Daniel Martin (21/9/12)
Microsoft saved billions using Irish tax havens Irish Times, Genevieve Carbery (21/9/12)
Microsoft, HP skirted taxes via offshore units: U.S. Senate Panel Reuters, Kim Dixon (21/9/12)
Danny Alexander says tax avoidance ‘adds 2p in every £1 to basic tax rate’ Independent, Oliver Wright (24/6/12)

Questions

  1. What are the key features of tax havens?
  2. Briefly explain the arguments in favour of tax havens and those against. Think about them from all points of view.
  3. Explain the way in which a cut in UK tax rates could create jobs and how the multiplier effect may provide a boost for the UK economy.
  4. If tax rates were cut, how might this affect an individual’s decision to work? What about an individual’s decision to invest? Use indifference analysis to help explain your answer.
  5. How does tax avoidance and evasion affect public sector borrowing? Is there any way a cut in tax rates on foreign investment could improve the government’s finances?
  6. Do you think there is any truth in the argument that the UK is losing out to other countries because of its higher tax rates? Is a reduction in tax rates necessary to help us compete?
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Dodging the taxman

Let’s face it – no-one likes paying tax! After all, to see your monthly pay decline by £1000 through taxation and national insurance has got to hurt. Yet, taxation and national insurance contributions are essential sources of government revenue to finance benefits and public and merit goods.

However, with so much attention given to the UK’s ‘culture of dependency’, many people are increasingly angry with having to pay so much in taxation to see it being spent by the government on individuals who in some cases choose not to work and at the same time seeing other rich people paying so little in taxation. The increase in the top rate of tax received a lot of coverage. Although it did make the tax system more progressive, there were many concerns that it would lead to lower growth, a lack of innovation and enterprise and increased tax evasion and avoidance, as the super-rich were being hit with phenomenal tax bills. The post on the 50p income tax available here is worth looking at again to think about the effect that taxes have on incentives.

The issue of tax avoidance is by no means new, but with a large budget deficit in the UK, tax avoidance by the super-rich has become something that everyone has an opinion on. The average household has seen its income squeezed more and more, as the government continues its efforts to cut the deficit. The fact that the super rich are avoiding sometimes millions in taxation, while the average household struggles to pay even the basic rate of tax, creates a rather contentious issue. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, has said that the basic rate of tax could be cut by 2p in the pound if tax avoidance came to an end. He commented to the BBC’s Sunday Politics Programme that:

‘We have to make sure that everybody, especially the rich and famous, are paying their fair share of tax…These sorts of schemes that save wealthy people potentially tens of millions of pounds in tax, they are paid for by everybody else… If we could narrow the tax gap in this country by a quarter we could reduce income tax for every basic rate payer by 2p in the pound.’

This would clearly have some very positive effects on some of the poorest people living in the UK.

There is a variety of tax avoidance schemes available and the one receiving the most attention at present is the Jersey-based K2 scheme, which Jimmy Carr and others are thought to be using. The Public Accounts Committee will be reporting on the problem of using private companies to pay salaries, as a means of avoiding income tax and national insurance contributions.

If tax avoidance could be stopped, or at least reduced, then not only could basic rate tax payers benefit, but it might go some way to cutting the budget deficit, giving the government more flexibility in stimulating the economy. According to HMRC, tax avoidance and evasion cost the economy some £42 billion – enough to pay off one-third of Britain’s budget deficit.

The following articles consider the problem of tax avoidance and then try answering the questions on the issue of taxation.

Five-point plan to curb tax cheating by big firms and super-rich Guardian (27/6/12)
Stop tax dodgers or there will be ‘riots on the streets’, warns top lawyer designing new anti-avoidance rules Mail Online, Julian Gavaghan (26/6/12)
Danny Alexander describes aggressive tax avoidance as ‘morally repugnant’ Guardian, Patrick Wintour (24/6/12)
Basic tax ‘could be cut by 2p’ if avoidance ended BBC News(24/6/12)
Danny Alexander says tax avoidance ‘adds 2p in every £1 to basic tax rate’ Independent, Oliver Wright (24/6/12)
Make tax returns public, urges peer The Press Association (28/6/12)
Tax officials reveal scale of probe Financial Times, Jim Pickard (27/6/12)

Questions

  1. What are the key principles of a good tax system?
  2. Explain how taxation affects the incentive to work?
  3. What is the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance?
  4. Using indifference analysis, illustrate the effect of a cut in the basic rate of income tax. How does it affect the decision to work more or less? You should consider the income and substitution effects in your answer and which rate of tax (if any) an individual is paying.
  5. Why is tax avoidance of such concern at the moment? Think about the current state of the economy.
  6. What are taxes and national insurance contributions used to pay for?
  7. To what extent do you think tax avoidance is a natural consequence of any tax system?
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The 50p income tax rate and the Laffer curve (update)

Recently there have been calls from business leaders and Conservative politicians to scrap the UK’s 50% income tax rate, which is paid on taxable incomes over £150,000. The 50% income tax rate is thus paid by top earners, who comprise around just 1% of taxpayers.

And yet the government receives about 30% of income tax revenue from this 1% – and this was before the introduction of the 50% rate in April 2010. (In fact, with the marginal national insurance rate of 2%, top earners are paying an effective marginal rate of 52%.)

One argument used by those who favour reducing the 50% rate is that the rich would pay more income tax, not less. There are four reasons given for this. The first is that people would be encouraged to work harder and/or seek promotion if they knew they would keep more of any rise in income. The second is that fewer rich people would be encouraged to leave the country or to relocate their businesses abroad. The third is that more people would be encouraged to work in or set up businesses in the UK. The fourth is that there would be less temptation to evade taxes by not declaring all income earned or to find clever ways of avoiding tax.

These arguments were put forward in the 1980s by Art Laffer, an adviser to President Reagan. His famous ‘Laffer curve’ (see Economics (8th edition) Box 10.3 or Economics (7th edition) Box 10.4) illustrated that tax revenues are maximised at a particular tax rate. The idea behind the Laffer curve is very simple. At a tax rate of 0%, tax revenue will be zero – but so too at a rate of 100%, since no-one would work if they had to pay all their income in taxes. As the tax rate rises from 0%, so tax revenue would rise. And so too, as the tax rate falls from 100%, the tax rate would rise. It follows that there will be some tax rate between 0% and 100% that maximises tax revenue.

Those arguing that a cut in the top rate of income tax would increase tax revenue are arguing that the 50% rate is beyond the peak of the Laffer curve. But this is an empirical issue. In other words, to assess the argument you would need to look at the evidence as, theoretically, the peak of the Laffer curve could be below or above 50%. Indeed, some argue that the peak is more likely to be at around 75%.

The following podcasts and articles consider the arguments. As you will see, the authors are not all agreed! Consider carefully their arguments and try to identify any flaws in their analysis.

Update
On 27 June 2012, Arthur Laffer appeared on the BBC Today Programme to discuss the Laffer curve and its implications for UK income tax policy. You can hear it from the link below

Podcasts
Should the 50p tax rate be ditched? BBC Today Programme, John Redwood and Paul Johnson (3/3/12)
Arthur Laffer: Tax rate should ‘provide for growth’ BBC Today Programme (27/6/12)

Articles
Where’s the High Point on the Laffer Curve? And Where Are We? Business Insider, Angry bear Blog (3/3/12)
Tax cuts: we can have our cake and eat it The Telegraph, Ruth Porter (22/2/12)
‘Scrap the 50p tax rate’ say 500 UK entrepreneurs Management Today, Rebecca Burn-Callander (1/3/12)
The Laffer Curve Appears in the UK Forbes, Tim Worstall (22/2/12)
Memo to 50p tax trashers: Laffer Curve peaks at over 75 per cent Left Foot Forward, Alex Hern (1/3/12)

Questions

  1. Explain how a cut in income tax could lead to an increase in tax revenue.
  2. Distinguish between the income effect and the substitution effect of a tax cut. Which would have to be bigger if a tax cut were to increase tax revenue?
  3. If, in a given year, the top rate of tax were raised and tax revenue fell, would this prove that the economy was now past the peak of the Laffer curve?
  4. What would cause the Laffer curve to shift/change shape? To what extent could the government affect the shape of the Laffer curve?
  5. If the government retains the 50% top tax rate, what can it do to increase the revenue earned from people paying the top rate?
  6. What other objectives might the government have for having a high marginal income tax rate on top earners?
  7. Investigate the marginal income tax and national insurance (social protection) rates in other countries. How progressive are UK income taxes compared with those in other countries?
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Plugging the tax gap

There is a huge hole in public finances that needs to be filled and protestors are arguing that part of the deficit can be financed by companies that manage to avoid or indeed evade taxation. Sunday 30th January was marked by many as the day of action against this alleged tax avoidance by companies who choose to register in so-called tax havens. These countries offer much lower tax rates and hence provide an attractive environment for companies and savers.

However, protests by the campaign group Uncut have been targeting companies such as Boots, Vodafone and Top Shop, accusing them of depriving the UK economy of billions of pounds of tax revenue, which could be used to plug the hole in Britain’s finances and put the economy on the road to recovery. While these concerns have been around for a long time, they have been brought to the forefront by the government’s spending cuts in areas such as higher education, public sector pensions and the planned closures of libraries. There are numerous strikes planned by workers facing job losses, pay cuts and pension cuts. However, George Osborne has said:

“I regard these people as the forces of stagnation, when we are trying to get the British economy competitive again, moving forward again.”

With more and more spending cuts expected and households being squeezed could this tax avoidance really fill the gap? It is not known how much tax revenue is lost through tax avoidance and evasion, but HM Revenue and Customs estimated that the size of the tax gap could lie somewhere between £3.7 billion and £13 billion. The Commons Public Accounts Committee estimated a gap of £8.5 billion and the TUC at around £12 billion. A pretty wide divergence on estimates I grant you, but an indication of the sheer volume and value of tax avoidance that takes place. Clamping down on this may not plug the hole, but it would certainly help!

Analysis: UK Uncut- The true costs of tax avoidance Ethical Corporation 2009 (28/1/11)
Tax protestors stage Boots sit-in The Press Association (30/1/11)
Weekend of protests planned over tax cuts Guardian, Matthew Taylor and Jessica Shepherd (28/1/11)
Unions are “forces of stagnation”, says Osborne BBC News (28/1/11)
Day of action against tax avoiders The Press Association (28/1/11)
Firms’ secret tax avoidance schemes cost UK billions Guardian, Tax Gap Reporting Team (2/2/09)

Questions

  1. Why is the UK running such a large budget deficit?
  2. What is the point of tax avoidance?
  3. What are the arguments for companies such as Boots registering in other countries? Are these reasons ever in the interests of consumers?
  4. How are companies able to reduce their tax burdens by registering in countries like Switzerland?
  5. Why does George Osborne argue that trade unions and strike action are the ‘forces of stagnation’?
  6. What are the costs of striking to (a) workers, (b) consumers, (c) firms and (d) the economy?
  7. Would clamping down on tax avoidance be of benefit to the UK economy in the short and long run?
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