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:
||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.
||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.
||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.”.
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)
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)
- Distinguish between tax avoidance and tax evasion.
- Give some examples of tax avoidance.
- Look through the various principles of a tax system and identify any conflicts.
- What problems are there in having a highly progressive tax system?
- What is a ‘shell company’? How can it be used to avoid and evade taxes?
- What are bearer shares and bonds? Why were they abolished in the UK in 2015?
- What legitimate reasons may there be for a company or individual using a tax haven?
- To what extent might increased transparency in tax affairs discourage individuals and companies from engaging in aggressive tax avoidance?
- What light does/can behavioural economics shed on people’s perceptions of fairness?
- 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?
- 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?
Back in October, we looked at the growing pressure in the UK for a sugar tax. The issue of childhood obesity was considered by the Parliamentary Health Select Committee and a sugar tax, either on sugar generally, or specifically on soft drinks, was one of the proposals being considered to tackle the problem. The committee studied a report by Public Health England, which stated that:
Research studies and impact data from countries that have already taken action suggest that price increases, such as by taxation, can influence purchasing of sugar sweetened drinks and other high sugar products at least in the short-term with the effect being larger at higher levels of taxation.
In his Budget on 16 March, the Chancellor announced that a tax would be imposed on manufacturers of soft drinks from April 2018. This will be at a rate of 18p per litre on drinks containing between 5g and 8g of sugar per 100ml, such as Dr Pepper, Fanta and Sprite, and 24p per litre for drinks with more than 8g per 100ml, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Red Bull.
Whilst the tax has been welcomed by health campaigners, there are various questions about (a) how effective it is likely to be in reducing childhood obesity; (b) whether it will be enough or whether other measures will be needed; and (c) whether it is likely to raise the £520m in 2018/19, falling to £455m by 2020/21, as predicted by the Treasury: money the government will use for promoting school sport and breakfast clubs.
These questions are all linked. If demand for such drinks is relatively inelastic, the drinks manufacturers will find it easier to pass the tax on to consumers and the government will raise more revenue. However, it will be less effective in cutting sugar consumption and hence in tackling obesity. In other words, there is a trade off between raising revenue and cutting consumption.
This incidence of tax is not easy to predict. Part of the reason is that much of the market is a bilateral oligopoly, with giant drinks manufacturers selling to giant supermarket chains. In such circumstances, the degree to which the tax can be passed on depends on the bargaining strength and skill of both sides. Will the supermarkets be able to put pressure on the manufacturers to absorb the tax themselves and not pass it on in the wholesale price? Or will the demand be such, especially for major brands such as Coca-Cola, that the supermarkets will be willing to accept a higher price from the manufacturers and then pass it on to the consumer?
Then there is the question of the response of the manufacturers. How easy will it be for them to reformulate their drinks to reduce sugar content and yet still retain sales? For example, can they produce a product which tastes like a high sugar drink, but really contains a mix between sugar and artificial sweeteners – effectively a hybrid between a ‘normal’ and a low-cal version? How likely are they to reduce the size of cans, say from 330ml to 300ml, to avoid raising prices?
The success of the tax on soft drinks in cutting sugar consumption depends on whether it is backed up by other policies. The most obvious of these would be to impose a tax on sugar in other products, including cakes, biscuits, low-fat yoghurts, breakfast cereals and desserts, and also many savoury products, such as tinned soups, ready meals and sauces. But there are other policies too. The Public Health England report recommended a national programme to educate people on sugar in foods; reducing price promotions of sugary food and drink; removing confectionery or other sugary foods from end of aisles and till points in supermarkets; setting broader and deeper controls on advertising of high-sugar foods and drinks to children; and reducing the sugar content of the foods we buy through reformulation and portion size reduction.
Sugar tax: How it will work? BBC News, Nick Triggle (16/3/16)
Will a sugar tax actually work? The Guardian, Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett (16/3/16)
Coca-Cola and other soft drinks firms hit back at sugar tax plan The Guardian, Sarah Butler (17/3/16)
Sugar tax could increase calories people consume, economic experts warn The Telegraph, Kate McCann, and Steven Swinford (17/3/16)
Nudge, nudge! How the sugar tax will help British diets Financial Times, Anita Charlesworth (18/3/16)
Is the sugar tax an example of the nanny state going too far? Financial Times (19/3/16)
Government’s £520m sugar tax target ‘highly dubious’, analysts warn The Telegraph, Ben Martin (17/3/16)
Sorry Jamie Oliver, I’d be surprised if sugar tax helped cut obesity The Conversation, Isabelle Szmigin (17/3/16)
Sugar sweetened beverage taxes What Works for Health (17/12/15)
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for sugary drinks in general (as opposed to one particular brand)?
- How are drinks manufacturers likely to respond to the sugar tax?
- How are price elasticity of demand and supply relevant in determining the incidence of the sugar tax between manufacturers and consumers? How is the degree of competition in the market relevant here?
- What is meant by a socially optimal allocation of resources?
- If the current consumption of sugary drinks is not socially optimal, what categories of market failure are responsible for this?
- Will a sugar tax fully tackle these market failures? Explain.
- Is a sugar tax progressive, regressive or proportional? Explain.
- Assess the argument that the tax on sugar in soft drinks may actually increase the amount that people consume.
- The sugar tax can be described as a ‘hypothecated tax’. What does this mean and is it a good idea?
- Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a tax on sugar in soft drinks with (a) banning soft drinks with more than a certain amount of sugar per 100ml; (b) a tax on sugar; (c) a tax on sugar in all foods and drinks.
What will be the effect of raising tax allowances – the threshold at which people start paying income tax? The Coalition government in the UK has a policy of raising the threshold to £10,000 by 2015/16. As a step on this road, the present plan is to raise the threshold from £7475 in 2011/12 to £8105 in 2012/13. The Liberal Democrats, however, are urging the Chancellor to raise allowances more quickly.
The government maintains that raising the personal allowance is progressive – that it will give relatively more help to the poor. New research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, however, casts doubt on this claim. The IFS demonstrates that the benefits will be unevenly distributed, with the greatest benefits going to middle-income families where more than one person works but where no-one earns the higher tax rate. The poorest people – those earning below the threshold – will gain nothing at all.
Read the following articles and the IFS report and establish just who would benefit by a rise in the tax threshold and whether or not the move could be described at ‘progressive’.
Tax move ‘benefits better-off’ Independent, Joe Churcher (9/3/12)
Raising tax threshold would benefit rich more than poor, says IFS MyFinances.co.uk (11/3/12)
Rise in income tax threshold would help the rich Financial Times, Vanessa Houlder (9/3/12)
Budget 2012: raising the personal tax allowance threshold isn’t fair Guardian blog, Heather Stewart (9/3/12)
A £10,000 personal allowance: who would benefit, and would it boost the economy? IFS, James Browne (March 2012)
- Define the term ‘progressive tax’.
- For what reasons might raising the personal tax allowance (a) be progressive; (b) not be progressive?
- How does eliminating child benefit for any families where either parent earns the higher tax rate affect the progressiveness of raising income tax thresholds?
- What additional measures could be taken to ensure that raising tax thresholds was progressive across the whole income range and for all households?
Divided we stand is the title of a new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its sub-title is “Why inequality keeps rising”. The report shows how the gulf between rich and poor has widened in most countries, both developed and developing. As the introduction states:
In the three decades prior to the recent economic downturn, wage gaps widened and household income inequality increased in a large majority of OECD countries. This occurred even when countries were going through a period of sustained economic and employment growth.
The report analyses the major underlying forces behind these developments. Its conclusion is that inequality looks set to continue widening, especially with the worldwide economic slowdown and rise in unemployment. However, the report says that “there is nothing inevitable about growing inequalities. Globalisation and technological changes offer opportunities but also raise challenges that can be tackled with effective and well-targeted policies.”
So just what is the extent of inequality? How has it changed over time? And what can be done to reduce inequality? The webcast produced by the OECD to accompany the report looks at the problem, and the report and articles look at what can be done about it.
Record inequality between rich and poor OECD (5/12/11)
Governments need will to fix growing inequality Times Colonist (Canada), Paul Willcocks (8/12/11)
Capitalism defies the laws of gravity Sydney Morning Herald, (7/12/11)
UK pay gap rises faster than any rich nation – OECD The Telegraph, (5/12/11)
The Income Inequality Boom: It’s Real and It’s Everywhere The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (6/12/11)
Income inequality growing faster in UK than any other rich country, says OECD Guardian, Randeep Ramesh (5/12/11)
OECD inequality report: how do different countries compare? Guardian datablog (5/12/11)
Inequality in Britain: faring badly in an unfair world Guardian (5/12/11)
OECD calls time on trickle-down theory Financial Times, Nicholas Timmins (5/12/11)
Wage inequality ‘getting worse’ in leading economies BBC News, Adam Fleming (5/12/11)
OECD Report and Documents
Governments must tackle record gap between rich and poor, says OECD OECD Press Release (5/12/11)
Divided we Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising – Introduction by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, at Press Conference OECD (5/12/11)
Divided we Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising – 4-Page Summary of Report (5/12/11)
An Overview of Growing Income Inequalities in OECD Countries: Main Findings OECD (5/12/11)
- Why may inequality be seen as a ‘bad thing’ for society as a whole and not just the poor?
- Does it matter for the poor if rich people’s incomes grow at a greater rate than those of the poor so long as the incomes of the poor do indeed grow?
- Explain what is meant by the Gini coefficient. What has happened to the Gini coefficient over the past few years across the world?
- Are there any common explanatory features in the economies of those countries where income inequality is growing rapidly? Similarly, are there any common explanatory features in the economies of those countries where income inequality is not growing, or growing only very slowly?
- What are the causes of rising inequality?
- Identify policies that can be adopted to tackle growing inequality.
- What problems arise from policies to reduce inequality by (a) reducing inequalities in disposable income; (b) providing more free services to all, such as healthcare and education? How might these problems be mitigated?
There has been much discussion recently on the use of fiscal policy to combat recession. What measures should be used? How effective will they be? How will the resulting large budget deficit be brought back into balance in the future?
But what are the microeconomic implications of all the tax changes? Are the changes fair? What implications do they have for incentives? Perhaps it’s time for a completely fresh look at the structure of our tax system – a system that has been changed piecemeal over the past years to meet short-term macroeconomic and political goals. Can it be redesigned to meet the two microeconomic goals of efficiency and equity? The following article looks at what form a redesigned tax structure might take.
Our tax system is a mess. But Darling has a chance to fix it. (Peter Wilby) Guardian (11/4/09)
- In what ways does the present tax system fail to meet the goals of (a) fairness through redistribution and (b) creating appropriate incentives?
- Explain what is meant by “The whole system has been framed by Tory thinking to assist social engineering, Tory style”.
- Provide a justification and critique of the reforms proposed in the article.