Showing posts with label taxes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taxes. Show all posts

Monday, April 28, 2014

What caught my eye

1. Spain; 2. Indirect taxes; 3. Housing bubbles; 4. Argument cultures.

1. Spain: Foreign investors enthuse over Spanish bonds again (FT), in part because the economy is doing better. But is the recovery real? Edward Hugh comments on the comeback:

Here I will focus on  three issues that strike me in connection with the latest GDP numbers: the stagnation in the export boom, the difficulties being encountered in reducing the deficit and the ongoing deflation issue. The big question still remains: is this a balanced recovery, an export lead one, or simply a government financed one?
He concludes (hardly a spoiler alert):
As I state at the outset, I have no doubt whatsoever that Spain’s economy is undergoing a modest recovery. Even economy minister Luis de Guindos calls it weak, fragile and uneven. Serious doubts exist about the extent to which we are going to see anything resembling a “classic recovery” in Spain, a recovery where solid export growth eventually broadens out into a wider improvement in domestic consumption and investment, even though this is what financial markets increasingly seem to be pricing in. Press headlines have trumpeted the country’s new found growth, but when you dig under the surface and find that most of the latest growth is either accounted for by a sharp DROP IN IMPORTS, or by a CALENDAR ADJUSTMENT IN GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTING, or by the ESTIMATED ARRIVAL OF DEFLATION then the conclusions you draw are hardly reassuring ones.
2. Everyone seems to be raising indirect taxes. Here's a data table by KPMG, and here's a report by Ernst & Young.

3. Where in the world is there NOT a housing bubble? The Washington Post comments on analysis by Nouriel Roubini.

4. What do Japanese and Jewish people have NOT in common? I'm sure you can think of many things, but Noah Smith compares their argument cultures.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Links 20130621: Eurotunnel, UK gov't spending, Switzerland vs. US on tax evasion

1. Does Eurotunnel charge too much? The European Commission thinks so.

The EC said both passengers and freight services are paying over the odds for using the track through the tunnel, which is operated by Eurotunnel. 
Eurotunnel is a private company owned by the investors who paid for and now run the Channel Tunnel. 
Eurotunnel said its charges are "transparent and not excessive." 
The EC has formally called on the British and French governments to look into the pricing structure and to comply with European Union rules against excessive track access charges.
The European Commission said the high prices Eurotunnel charges the train companies get passed onto passengers.
 
The EC also said that freight companies are put off using the Channel Tunnel because of the "excessive" charges, preferring to send their goods by road, which causes traffic congestion and pollution. 
The Commission claims 43% of the Channel Tunnel's capacity is currently unused. 
... 
The European Commission also said that the regulator which oversees the tunnel, the Intergovernmental Commission (IGC) is weak and far from independent. 
The Commission said the IGC "does not have the power to adopt decisions on its own initiative without a complaint". 
The EC added that the IGC is not an independent body, because it is made up of representatives appointed by the UK and French governments. 
In a statement, the European Commission said: "Lack of independence of a rail regulator can lead to failure by the regulator to address complaints by operators in an independent manner or to adopt decisions to force compliance with EU rules and thus can lead to distortions of competition". 
Reacting to the assertions of the Commission, a UK Department for Transport spokesman said that "it is not accepted that the UK has failed to implement the relevant EU rules regarding the Channel Tunnel or that the IGC is not independent".
My question is: charging too much relative to what? The piece does not get into the discussion of whether the company that operates the tunnel is abusing its monopoly power, or exactly what the European Commission means when they say that it's "charging too much." I would love to see a formal report on the subject, including an analysis of the externalities of Eurotunnel usage on continental railway traffic.

2. UK government spending: shrinking.
By 2018 fixed departmental spending—which excludes variable payments such as social security—will have fallen by some £85 billion, or 21%, from its 2009 peak (see chart). Some 400,000 fewer people are now on the state’s payroll than were on it four years ago. By 2018 1m fewer will be. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Britain will have undergone the fifth-largest cuts programme of 29 advanced economies.

Source: The Economist.

3. Switzerland and the U.S. continue to negotiate an arrangement that would enable the U.S. to obtain information on tax evaders who stash assets in Swiss banks.

FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) was passed in the Senate yesterday. The House will discuss the bill later this year.
Under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), the US authorities will, in the future, get banking data of all American citizens (and other people subject to US tax law) who hold assets in Swiss banks.

The law is to come into force at the beginning of 2014.

Under FATCA, the Swiss government opted for a system of cooperation with the US which stops short of an automatic exchange of information, but allows Washington to request information on non-compliant individuals.

Local Swiss banks, pension funds and social security schemes are exempt.

Financial institutions refusing to provide the data risk being excluded from the US financial market.
However, the Swiss parliament has rejected the deal, and thrown the ball back to the government's court to find an alternative deal, presumably one that would infringe less on Swiss sovereignty.
It appears unlikely that the US would accept more years of negotiations to find another solution, while the Swiss government is expected to face legal challenges from bank employees and the Swiss data protection commissioner if it unilaterally allows banks to ignore secrecy laws and hand over information to the US.

In 2010, the Federal Administrative Court ruled the handover of UBS client data to the US the previous year as illegal. A later and larger data transfer was only allowed after winning parliamentary approval.
US bullying?
But this time around, parliament appears determined not to cave in to perceived US bullying – a stance that has some sympathy from Beckett Cantley.

“The use of US power to undermine the sovereignty and laws of another country - especially an ally - is a dangerous precedent,” he told swissinfo.ch. “It seems to me that the US could have located undeclared offshore bank accounts through any number of less offensive means.”

“The US has extensive capabilities when it comes to tracking the movement of dollars through the world, especially those that move in and out of the US banking system.”

But for former Swiss ambassador Blickenstorfer, there is no room for sentiment in the cut and thrust world of international diplomacy. Larger countries have always thrown their weight around with less powerful counterparts, he said.

“My experience of negotiating with Americans is that they are tough but fair,” he told swissinfo.ch. “Switzerland normally has no reason to have a complex about its small size - it is not just about square metres or population figures.”

“The smaller country usually emphasises that it is also of interest to its larger partner, such as job creation or investments in that country. But in this particular case there is not much we can argue to balance the negotiations.”
Teig Lawrence is convinced that US undeclared money could still be stowed away in offshore bank accounts - including Switzerland - despite some 40,000 people owning up to the US tax authorities during amnesties.

The majority of people who have employed his services to come clean have been those with smaller sized assets rather than multiple million dollar stashes.

"Those people with greater resources generally feel that they have a greater ability to weather the storm," Lawrence told swissinfo.ch. "They are more likely to adopt a wait and see approach."
And here's an article from the American side. Switzerland and the U.S. have been talking about this for years, but it seem's like this year's case involving Swiss bank Wegelin has put some momentum on the issue.

Friday, February 22, 2008

EZer taxes

Imagine if you didn’t have to file a tax return. Imagine if, come T-day, the only thing you needed to do to comply with your tax obligations was to sign a form and mail it. And imagine if this could be done without changing a comma of the tax code. This is not a pipe dream—millions of citizens in different parts of the world already do it.

Austan Goolsbee, professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and head economic adviser to Barack Obama, is proposing to let the Internal Revenue Service, America’s tax man, put together drafts of individual tax returns and mail them to taxpayers. Experts know the system as “Tax Agency Reconciliation” (TAR). Goolsbee has had the good sense to re-baptize as “Simple Return.”

Tax collection agencies receive all the information they need to fill out the returns of many taxpayers. By law, employers and financial institutions send the data to them. The time spent by filers collecting statements, putting the numbers in the right boxes of the tax form, figuring out the standard deductions and exemptions, and calculating the tax bill--not to mention the fees paid to tax prepapers--are thus a waste.

Sweden and Denmark use the system. In Spain, with seven years of TAR experience, some filers can even request and confirm their pre-filled tax returns by sending a text message. Some Spaniards don’t even have to sacrifice precious TV time: they can do their taxes through their interactive, digital TV sets. (I encourage readers who know of other countries in the EZer Club to let me know in the comments or by e-mail. I’d like to make a list. If you respond, please specify whether the country does TAR or exact withholding.)

The obvious benefit of pre-filled tax returns is the time savings for filers. In the U.S., the average compliance time for the 1040EZ form, the simplest there is, is three hours and 46 minutes. The other types of tax form take over ten hours. Goolsbee estimates that, if his Simple Return applied to 40% of taxpayers, it would save 225 million hours and more than $2 billion in fees.

The fiercest opposition to TAR would thus come from tax preparers. Thousands of jobs, they’ll clamor, will be lost. For an economist, this is the easiest criticism to counter. Those jobs are not providing any service other than helping to comply with a pointlessly dense tax code. Let tax shops fold, and their workers will find jobs producing goods and services that actually add to social welfare. Creating employment by keeping an unwieldy tax code makes as little sense as digging a hole in the desert and then employing jobless people to fill it. If only Congress were brave enough to hold this argument against lobbyists… (Regarding this topic, I believe there was a lively discussion in the comments following Steven Levitt’s post . Read my own rant about the broken windows fallacy.)

Mailing pre-filled tax returns is not an intrusion on private business either. As Goolsbee argues, governments allow online filing and provide printed tax tables, and nobody opposes to those services on the grounds that they undermine the tax preparation business.

Receiving a pre-filled return in the mail does feel a bit imposing though. Some people will see TAR as an intrusion on individual freedom. It doesn’t need to be. Individuals will be allowed to scrap the return prepared by the government and fill out a new one. And if the taxpayer ignores the pre-filled return, and doesn’t fill out her own, her taxes won’t be filed, so TAR doesn’t infringe on voluntary compliance. The key is to disclose, every year and to every taxpayer, that the return sent by the government is not a tax bill, but a draft that can be turned into a final return if the individual chooses to do so.

To be sure, TAR would not eliminate the need to file a tax return for everybody. People who itemize their deductions, or who don’t have all their earnings reported to the government by a third party, cannot use the pre-filled form. Goolsbee estimates that, at most, 40% of all taxpayers could benefit from a TAR system; and that’s only if the Alternative Minimum Tax is reformed. In Spain, 30 to 40 percent are eligible. Taxpayers who don’t qualify tend to file more complicated tax returns, and thus spend more time and money on filing, than those who are eligible. So the benefits of TAR go mostly to people with low-to-middle income or simple household finances, who spend most of their tax preparation time (or money) gathering and filling out documents, not mining the tax code for deductions.

The best way to reduce the cost of compliance for everyone is to simplify the tax code. This can be done by scrapping the income tax as we know it today, or by eliminating tax deductions, exemptions, and exceptions for special groups. But such changes face even taller political obstacles than TAR. So, since the tax-instructions booklet is not going to get thinner any time soon, let your tax man deliver a pre-filled return—and spend some more quality time with your TV.

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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Questioning the virtues of the flat income tax

This Thursday I attended a seminar by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, where one of the speakers presented “Will America become a French-style welfare state?” Cato’s answers to that question and to its normative counterpart were no surprise. What sounded out of tune was the claim that a flat tax will keep government growth in check. And that got me thinking that, maybe, we expect too much from it.

A flat tax is not necessarily more efficient

Strictly speaking, a flat income tax consists of a uniform tax rate on earnings. Everyone pays a given percentage of their taxable income, period. The flat tax eliminates the disincentive to work created by graduated tax rates, and reduces the payoff from tax avoidance shenanigans. Lower, flatter marginal tax rates thus raise total revenue. It’s as if the IRS adopted the latest Coca Cola mantra: “You give a little love and it all comes back to you.” But bigger tax revenues mean a bigger government. And a bigger government means bigger distortions, from larger farm subsidies and expanded welfare programs for example. It also means larger mismanaged health and education systems.

A subtler point is that governments seem to be less politically constrained to raise a uniform tax rate than a progressive one. For evidence we can look at a flat income tax the US has used since 1917 – we call it the Social Security (SS) tax. In 1955, the rate paid by workers was only 1.7 percent, but it more than quadrupled to 7.7 percent by 2006. On the other hand, the average income tax rate for a four-person family with median income was 5.7 percent in 2006 as well as in 1955. (See Chart 1.) Yes, the income tax increased till the early 1980s and then decreased. But that’s my point: the flat-rate SS tax has never decreased.





Chart 1 (click to enlarge)


Between 1962 and 2006 the ratio of social insurance taxes to GDP more than doubled; its income tax counterpart, on the other hand, didn’t change. (Revenue figures here, GDP data here.) Who’s to say that a flat income tax wouldn’t spiral up the same way the flat SS tax did?

I’m not sure what the reasons for this lack of political restraint are when it comes to jacking up the SS tax rate. Economists themselves may have contributed to it, by cheering on flat taxes on the grounds of economic efficiency. (Still, this doesn’t explain why the government didn’t offset those raises with reductions of the inefficient progressive income tax.)

In a political vacuum, a flat tax is more efficient than a progressive one. We just don't happen to live in one of those.

A flat tax is not necessarily simpler

As a reader of The Economist put it one time: “Computing a progressive income tax requires a subtraction, a multiplication and an addition. Computing a flat tax eliminates the addition.” A flat tax can be as complicated as one wants – it all depends on how many steps it takes to calculate taxable income.

A simple tax, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be a flat tax. Republican candidate Fred Thompson reports the Wall Street Journal.

The proposed system is voluntary. Tax filers would be allowed use the current tax code instead. But who in his right mind would do that? Well, probably a few wealthy people with lots of loopholes to exploit. The vast majority, I reckon, would choose the simple tax – maybe even if they were saving a few bucks with the old one. And this is the great tragedy of our current tax code. It provides incentives to hire tax consultants, buy tax preparation software, and spend countless hours trying to figure out which deductions tax filers can use. In terms of tax savings, the return on all that labor is small or negative. Give taxpayers the mere option to bypass the mess, and you’ll wipe out all that waste.

We don’t know whether a flat income tax promotes growth

Gung-ho advocates routinely bring up evidence from countries that have implemented the flat tax. Aside from the tiny islands of Jersey and Guernsey, and the city of Hong Kong, all these countries are in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). (See map; the light-blue countries will introduce the flat tax in 2008, except for Poland, which is still thinking about it.)

Most, if not all of them, experienced increases in macroeconomic growth, tax revenues, tax compliance and investment. It just so happens that those countries went through a lot of other reforms. For example, they improved on the protection of property rights and the enforcement of contracts.

They also slashed the corporate tax rate. But Ireland has attracted massive investments and has grown very rapidly by providing a business-friendly environment and offering ultra-low corporate tax rates. And it doesn’t use a flat-rate income tax. (To his credit, Mr. Thompson does want to cut the corporate tax rate to 27 percent from 35 percent.)

Finally, some of them joined the European Union or were about to do so when they implemented the tax. In general, governments took many deliberate steps to attract foreign investment. Hence empirical studies by the IMF have had a very hard time estimating the effect of the flat-rate tax.


Libertarians and economists push for flat taxes on the grounds of efficiency, simplicity and economic growth, sometimes without much empirical support. Once you let those fizzy claims dissipate, the flat tax looks rather… well, flat.

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