In his Budget on 29 October, the UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced a new type of tax. This is a ‘digital services tax’, which, after consultation, he is planning to introduce in April 2020. The target of the tax is the profits made by major companies providing social media platforms (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), internet marketplaces (e.g. Amazon and eBay) or search engines (such as Alphabet’s Google).
Up to now, their profits have been very hard to tax because the companies operate in many countries and use accounting techniques, such as transfer pricing (see the blogs Disappearing tax revenues: how Luxembourg saves companies billions and Starbucks pays not a bean in corporation tax, thanks to transfer pricing), to declare most of their profits in low-tax countries, such as Luxembourg. One way of doing this is for a company’s branches in different countries to pay the head office (located in a tax haven) a ‘royalty’ for using the brand.
The proposed digital services tax is a 2% tax on the revenues earned by such companies in the UK. It would only apply to large companies, defined as those whose global revenue is at least £500m a year. It is expected to raise around £400m per year.
The EU is considering a similar tax at a rate of 3%. India, Pakistan, South Korea and several other countries are considering introducing digital taxes. Indeed, many countries are arguing for a worldwide agreement on such a tax. The OECD is studying the implications of the possible use of such a tax by its 36 members. If an international agreement on such a tax can be reached, a separate UK tax may not go ahead. As the Chancellor stated in his Budget speech:
In the meantime we will continue to work at the OECD and G20 to seek a globally agreed solution. And if one emerges, we will consider adopting it in place of the UK Digital Services Tax.
The proposed UK tax is a hybrid between direct and indirect taxes. Like corporation tax, a direct tax, its aim is to tax companies’ profits. But, unlike corporation tax, it would be harder for such companies to avoid. Like VAT, an indirect tax, it would be a tax on revenue, but, unlike VAT, it would be an ‘end-stage’ tax rather than a tax on value added at each stage of production. Also, it would not be a simple sales tax on companies as it would be confined to revenue (such as advertising revenue) earned from the use in the UK of search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces. As the Chancellor said in his speech.
It is important that I emphasise that this is not an online-sales tax on goods ordered over the internet: such a tax would fall on consumers of those goods – and that is not our intention.
There is, however, a political problem for the UK in introducing such a tax. The main companies it would affect are American. It is likely that President Trump would see such taxes as a direct assault on the USA and could well threaten retaliation. As the Accountancy Age article states, ‘Dragging the UK into an acrimonious quarrel with one of its largest trading partners is perhaps not what the Chancellor intends.’ This will be especially so as the UK seeks to build new trading relationships with the USA after Brexit. As the BBC article states, ‘The chancellor will be hoping that an international agreement rides to his rescue before the UK tax has to be imposed.’
- How do multinational digital companies avoid profit taxes (corporation tax in the UK)?
- Explain how a digital services tax would work.
- Why is a digital services tax likely to be set at a much lower rate than a profit tax?
- Explain the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion.
- Would it be possible for digital companies to avoid or evade such taxes?
- Is there a possibility of a prisoners’ dilemma game in terms of seeking international agreement on such taxes
- How does a digital services tax differ from a sales revenue tax
Oil prices have been plummeting in recent months. Indeed, many commentators are saying that this is the major economics news story of 2014. In June 2014 Brent crude was around $112 per barrel. By December the price has fallen to around $60 – a fall of 46%. But what are the implications for fuel prices?
Just because the crude oil price has fallen by 46%, this does not mean that prices at the pump should do the same. Oil is priced in dollars and the pound has depreciated against the dollar by just over 7% since June, from around £1 = $1.69 to around £1 = $1.57. Thus in sterling terms, crude oil has fallen by only 42%.
More significantly, the cost of crude is a relatively small percentage of the price of a litre of petrol. At a price of 132p per litre (the July average price), crude accounted for around 27% of the price, or around 36p per litre. At a price of 114p per litre, the price in late December, crude accounts for around 19% of the price, or around 21.5p per litre. The largest element of price is fuel duty, which is charged at a flat rate of 57.95p per litre. In addition there is VAT at 20% of the pre-VAT price (or 16.67% of the retail price). Finally there are the refining, distribution and retail costs and margins, but these together account for only around 16p per litre.
What this means is that the 46% cut in oil prices has led to a cut in petrol prices of only around 14%. If petrol prices were to reach £1 per litre, as some commentators have forecast, crude oil prices would have to fall to under $40 per barrel.
Although petrol and diesel prices have fallen by a smaller percentage than oil prices, this still represents a significant cut in motoring and transport costs. It also represents a significant cut in costs for the petrochemical industry and other industries using large amounts of oil.
For oil-importing countries this is good news as the fall in the oil price represents an increase in real incomes. For oil importing countries, and especially those such as Russia and some OPEC countries where oil constitutes a large proportion of their exports, it is bad news. We explore these effects in Part 2.
UK petrol prices hit four-year low BBC News, John Moyland (10/12/14)
Petrol prices plunge ahead of Christmas holidays Belfast Telegraph (19/12/14)
Petrol price plummet – could fuel drop to below a pound a litre in the New Year? Channel 5 News on YouTube (17/12/14)
UK motorists benefit from petrol price drop Financial Times, Michael Kavanagh (23/12/14)
Petrol to drop to £1 a litre, says Goldman Sachs The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (9/12/14)
Oil prices: How low will they go in 2015? International Business Times, Shane Croucher (22/12/14)
Plummeting oil price may lead to petrol falling below £1 a litre RAC news (17/12/14)
Pump Prices: Cheap Petrol Comes With A Warning Sky News (19/12/14)
Data and information
Fuel prices in Europe Drive Alive (20/12/14)
Weekly road fuel prices Department of Energy & Climate Change (23/12/14)
Prices at the pump – why are they falling and will this continue? ONS (18/12/14)
Fuel Prices Explained RAC
UKPIA Statistical Review 2014 United Kingdom Petroleum Industry Association
- Why does the price of petrol fluctuate less in percentage terms than the price of crude oil?
- What factors will affect whether UK petrol prices fall to £1 per litre?
- If crude oil prices fell by 20%, in which of these two cases would there be a bigger percentage fall in petrol prices: (a) petrol price currently 140p; (b) petrol price currently 110p? Explain.
- Distinguish between a specific tax and an ad valorem tax. Which of these is (a) fuel duty; (b) VAT? Illustrate your answer with a supply and demand diagram.
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for petrol and diesel? Is the long-run elasticity likely to be higher or lower than the short-run elasticity? Explain.
- Distinguish between demand-pull and cost-push inflation. Given that oil price changes are correlated to inflation, would you characterise recent falls in inflation as reductions in demand-pull or cost-push pressures, or both: (a) in a specific oil-importing country; (b) globally?
The ONS has just released its annual publication, The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income. The report gives data for the financial year 2012/13 and historical data from 1977 to 2012/13.
The publication looks at the distribution of income both before and after taxes and benefits. It divides the population into five and ten equal-sized groups by household income (quintiles and deciles) and shows the distribution of income between these groups. It also looks at distribution within specific categories of the population, such as non-retired and retired households and different types of household composition.
The data show that the richest fifth of households had an average pre-tax-and-benefit income of £81,284 in 2012/13, 14.7 times greater than average of £5536 for the poorest fifth. The richest tenth had an average pre-tax-and-benefit income of £104,940, 27.1 times greater than the average of £3875 for the poorest tenth.
After the receipt of cash benefits, these gaps narrow to 6.6 and 11.0 times respectively. When the effect of direct taxes are included (giving ‘disposable income’), the gaps narrow further to 5.6 and 9.3 times respectively. However, when indirect taxes are also included, the gaps widen again to 6.9 and 13.6 times.
This shows that although direct taxes are progressive between bottom and top quintiles and deciles, indirect taxes are so regressive that the overall effect of taxes is regressive. In fact, the richest fifth paid 35.1% of their income in tax, whereas the poorest fifth paid 37.4%.
Taking the period from 1977 to 2012/13, inequality of disposable income (i.e. income after direct taxes and cash benefits) increased from 1977 to 1988, especially during the second two Thatcher governments (1983 to 1990) (see chart opposite). But then in the first part of the 1990s inequality fell, only to rise again in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, with the Labour government giving greater cash benefits for the poor, inequality reduced once more, only to widen again in the boom running up to the banking crisis of 2007/8. But then, with recession taking hold, the incomes of many top earners fell and automatic stabilisers helped protect the incomes of the poor. Inequality consequently fell. But with the capping of benefit increases and a rise in incomes of many top earners as the economy recovers, so inequality is beginning to rise once more – in 2012/13, the Gini coefficient rose to 0.332 from 0.323 the previous year.
As far as income after cash benefits and both direct and indirect taxes is concerned, the average income of the richest quintile relative to that of the poorest quintile rose from 7.2 in 2002/3 to 7.6 in 2007/8 and then fell to 6.9 in 2012/13.
Other headlines in the report include:
Since the start of the economic downturn in 2007/08, the average disposable income has decreased for the richest fifth of households but increased for the poorest fifth.
Cash benefits made up over half (56.4%) of the gross income of the poorest fifth of households, compared with 3.2% of the richest fifth, in 2012/13.
The average disposable income in 2012/13 was unchanged from 2011/12, but it remains lower than at the start of the economic downturn, with equivalised disposable income falling by £1200 since 2007/08 in real terms. The fall in income has been largest for the richest fifth of households (5.2%). In contrast, after accounting for inflation and household composition, the average income for the poorest fifth has grown over this period (3.5%).
This is clearly a mixed picture in terms of whether the UK is becoming more or less equal. Politicians will, no doubt, ‘cherry pick’ the data that suit their political position. In general, the government will present a good news story and the opposition a bad news one. As economists, it is hoped that you can take a dispassionate look at the data and attempt to relate the figures to policies and events.
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13 ONS (26/6/14)
Reference tables in The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13 ONS (26/6/14)
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, Historical Data, 1977-2012/13 ONS (26/6/14)
Rates of Income Tax: 1990-91 to 2014-15 HMRC
Inequality is on the up again – Osborne’s boast is over New Statesman, George Eaton (26/6/14)
Disposable incomes rise for richest fifth households only Money.com, Lucinda Beeman (26/6/14)
Half of families receive more from the state than they pay in taxes but income equality widens as rich get richer Mail Online, Matt Chorley (26/6/14)
Rich getting richer as everyone else is getting poorer, Government’s own figures reveal Mirror, Mark Ellis (26/6/14)
The Richest Households Got Richer Last Year, While Everyone Else Got Poorer The Economic Voice (27/6/14)
- Define the following terms: original income, gross income, disposable income, post-tax income, final income.
- How does the receipt of benefits in kind vary across the quintile groups? Explain.
- What are meant by the Lorenz curve and the Gini coefficient and how is the Gini coefficient measured? Is it a good way of measuring inequality?
- Paint a picture of how income distribution has changed over the past 35 years.
- Can changes in tax be a means of helping the poorest in society?
- What types of income tax cuts are progressive and what are regressive?
- Why are taxes in the UK regressive?
- Why has the fall in income been largest for the richest fifth of households since 2007/8? Does this mean that, as the economy recovers, the richest fifth of households are likely to experience the fastest increase in disposable incomes?
Why are 43 companies in the pub and restaurant sector in the UK donating over a £1 million to an 86 year old Frenchman who claims to work a 70 hour week? Jacques Borel has led an interesting and varied life which has included activities such as helping the French resistance in the 2nd world war and opening the first take-away hamburger restaurant in France in 1961. In 2001 he started a campaign to get the European Union to allow member states to reduce the rate of VAT applied to food and drink sold in the pub, hotel and restaurant industry. Organisations such as JD Wetherspoon, Heineken and Pizza Hut are backing his attempts to persuade the UK government of the benefits of this policy.
VAT is paid when goods and services are purchased and is normally included in the price advertised by the seller. It generates a significant amount of money for the UK government and it is estimated that it will raise £102 billion in 2012-13 – the third biggest source of revenue after income tax and national insurance contributions. It is applied at three different rates in the UK – a standard rate of 20%, a reduced rate of 5% and a zero rate i.e. 0%. This may sound straightforward but in reality the tax is extremely complicated as previously discussed in articles on this website . For example most basic or staple items of food sold in shops are zero rated. However there are some rather bizarre exceptions. For example a packet of potato crisps is subject to the standard rate of VAT whereas tortilla chips are not. The standard rate is applied to a packet of Wotsits whereas a zero rate is applied to a packet of Skips!
The campaign headed by Mr Borel focuses on the discrepancy between the zero-rate applied to most food items purchased from a shop and the standard rate applied to food purchased in restaurants or cafes. For example, if you buy a Pizza from a supermarket then you don’t pay any tax on this purchase, whereas if you eat a pizza in a restaurant the standard 20% rate of VAT is applied. Mr Borel is lobbying the UK government to reduce the rate of VAT paid in pubs and restaurants from the standard rate of 20% to the reduced rate of 5%. One reason why so many UK companies are willing to offer him financial support is because of his success in getting governments in other countries such as Germany, Belgium, Finland and France to adopt this policy.
In a recent radio interview Mr Borel was asked to make his case for the proposed reduction of VAT in the UK. He claimed:
I have a commitment from 125 chains of hotels, restaurants and independents to use 60% of the reduction in VAT to lower prices so that would be a 7.5% decrease in price. When you decrease price by that magnitude you will see an increase in customers of 10-12% and you will be forced to hire new staff. In our best case scenario, we plan to create 670,000 jobs in three years.
When asked in another interview why the hospitality sector should be favoured more than others he replied that:
It would create more jobs in a minimal amount of time…you cannot do that with any other industry.
One obvious drawback of the policy would be the loss of revenue for the UK government. Some estimates have suggested that the loss of VAT receipts would be between £5.5 and £7.8 billion. However it has been claimed that over time the impact of the change on government finances would be zero. In response to the proposed tax cut a Treasury spokesman commented:
Any reduced rates would make a significant impact on revenue and, as a significant proportion of spending in these areas is by UK residents, any increase in activity in these areas would largely be at the expense of other consumer spending.
Jacques Borel: VAT cut for pubs Morning Advertiser on YouTube (18/5/11)
Industry VAT campaigner Jacques Borel appears on Radio Four’s Today and Radio Five Propelinfo (24/4/13)
French veteran in fight to cut pub VAT Financial Times, Christopher Thompson (5/6/12)
The fiscal impact of reduced VAT rates VAT Club Jobs (22/4/13)
Pub and restaurant groups pay 86-year-old Frenchman £1m to convince UK government to cut VAT The Mail on Sunday, Sarah Bridge (20/4/13)
French veteran seeks British jobs boost with VAT Reuters (17/1/13)
- In his radio interview Jacques Borel claims that if firms pass on 60% of the cut in VAT this would cause a 7.5% reduction in prices. Explain why this is the case. Clearly outline any assumptions you have made in the analysis
- If 60% of the reduction was passed on by firms through lower prices, what do you think would happen to the money generated from the other 40% of the reduction?
- Using a demand and supply diagram illustrate the proposed reduction in the rate of VAT on the hospitality industry. Make sure your diagram is drawn in such a way that it clearly illustrates producers passing on 60% of the tax reduction in the form of lower prices.
- Assuming that the hospitality industry was very competitive, what impact would a reduction in VAT have on consumer surplus, producer surplus and deadweight welfare loss?
- Explain any assumptions you have in your answer to question 3 about the price elasticity of demand and supply.
- Using the figures provided in the radio interview is it possible to calculate the price elasticity of demand. Try making the calculation and clearly explain any assumptions you have made.
- Explain why the reduction in VAT might have no net effect on government finances in the long run?
- What factors determine the price elasticity of supply? What assumption is Mr Borel making about the price elasticity of supply in the hospitality industry compared to other industries when he makes the claim that jobs would be created quickly?
- Outline some of the arguments against cutting the rate of VAT.