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Posts tagged ‘Income Tax’

Rooting out perverse incentives in GST

Hasmukh Adhia Masterclass

Muscular tactics are paying-off in the Income Tax system. The number of assesses went up by an astounding 25 percent from 37 million in March 2016 to 46 million, by March 2017 and to 63 million by mid-July 2017. The linking of Aadhar-PAN card to bank accounts; the campaign against cash and now the GST, together create desirable institutional incentives for individuals and business to bank their transactions. This provides the “push” factor for enlarging the income tax base of potential assesses.

Transformative GST  

The GST is even better designed to provide desirable incentives for enlarging the indirect tax base. Unlike, Income Tax where “push” factors compel assesses to pay tax on the income revealed via bank transactions, the GST uniquely also has “pull” factors for better tax compliance. The biggest being the facility to set-off GST paid on purchases against GST payable on sale, which reduces the net tax payable. This induces both buyers and sellers to bank their transactions – which is also good for income tax collections.

Transformative, as the GST is, glitches have inadvertently crept in, which go against the grain of positive incentives to prefer banked to cash transactions; increase value addition and boost tax revenues.

But design glitches remain

One such, relates to small service providers with annual revenues of up to Rs 2 million. Those providing services within the state are exempt from both registration and payment of GST up to this limit. But the moment they provide a service across the state borders or to a client abroad, they are compelled to get a GST registration; submit the mandatory three returns per month and much worse, pay GST on their entire revenue stream.

Killing the small cross-border service provider

Individual IT professionals writing code or designing websites routinely get contracted over the internet to provide services to overseas clients or to clients across state borders. Each contract may be as low as Rs 20,000. But all these professionals will need to get registered and incur the transaction cost on submitting monthly GST returns. For these small service providers, the price points are highly competitive. It is unlikely that clients will be willing to part with the 18 percent GST for out of state providers. They will be pushed to get registered and pay the GST themselves or absorb the tax in the price they charge with the GST paid on the purchase by the client.

The net result will be that out- of-state small service providers will become uncompetitive and may stop seeking work outside their states, reducing competition. GST which was meant to create a Pan Indian national market will instead, end up creating intra-state silos for small service providers.

The negative impact is fiscally marginal but it rankles

This design flaw will also impact income tax revenue. Service providers whose annual billing reaches Rs 1.6 million within a state, will refuse out-of-state work of less than Rs 0.5 million because, by increasing their out-of-state billing by up to Rs 0.4 million they end up paying the entire incremental amount as GST.

If 2 million small service providers, ranging from civil contractors, designers to business consultants, refuse additional work due to this reason, the government loses Rs 18 billion as income tax. This calculation assumes a tax rate of 20 percent and the underlying taxable income lost at one half of the amount of work refused.

Protection for local service providers breeds inefficiency

The “infant industry” proposition can be used to justify discouraging cross border services and thereby encouraging small local service providers to ramp up their capacity and fill the gap. This may well be true. But it rankles against the pan-Indian tax framework objective of promoting efficiency and competition. It is also, against the logic of digital India which is meant to enable seamless work across state and international borders.

Whence the pan-Indian market and digital India?

Admittedly lost income tax revenue of Rs 18 billion is small change, in an income tax kitty of around Rs 4 trillion. But it is personally frustrating for small service providers who can see the cross-border opportunity to expand their business but are blocked by the “deadweight” amount of Rs 0.4 million of billing, which equals the GST they would pay by increasing their billing to Rs 2 million, if some part of it coming from cross border contracts.

Have a common GST exemption limit irrespective of location of the client

Is there a way of getting away from this flawed design? Yes, there is. The first option is to extend a common GST exemption limit to all service provision, irrespective of whether it is within state, across state borders or overseas. This immediately removes the “deadweight” of GST becoming payable, the moment a cross border transaction, no matter how small, is made.

Tax only the incremental revenue above the GST exemption limit

However, this still leaves the problem of expanding billing above Rs 2 million and thereby losing the exemption from GST on the initial Rs 2 million. Adopting the principle of taxing only the incremental amount, as used in the Income Tax, can effectively avoid the perverse incentive for opting for cash based transactions to avoid losing the tax exemption above a billing of Rs 2 million, till billing expands substantially beyond Rs 2.4 million, at which point it would neutralize the additional GST paid and yield a net income increase for the supplier.

Harmonise tax exemptions under IT and GST to reduce reduce the compliance cost 

The best option is to harmonize the exemption limits under GST and income tax. The current income tax regime presumes taxable income at 50 percent of billing, unless shown otherwise. A billing of Rs 0.5 million corresponds to a net taxable income of Rs 0.25 million which is also the maximum limit for income exempt from income tax. Hence the exemption limit for GST could be reduced to Rs 0.5 million from the existing limit of Rs 2 million. But rolling back exemptions is tough. Alternatively, the exemption limit in Income Tax could be increased to Rs 1 million. Enhancing the income tax exemption limit is the preferred option.

The number of income tax assesses increased by 25 percent in 2016-17 over the previous year. In comparison the revenue from Income Tax increased by 18.4 percent. Tax yields are lagging increase in assesses. Efficient tax collection practices would point towards focusing on high value targets rather than cluttering up the system with marginal yield assesses until tax filing systems are vastly more simplified and easy to follow for the average citizen.

This article is also available at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/end-perverse-incentives-for-small-service-providers-in-gst/

The tax collectors’ revolt

ITax

Last week’s “revolt” by senior income tax officers, meeting in Mumbai, against alleged micro management by the Union Revenue Secretary is unlikely to bother the average citizen. If anything, citizens would welcome glitches in tax collection behind which they can hide.

Mind the growing gap

But the revolt deserves attention because it illustrates a growing gap between officers and the political leadership. A similar gap resulted, earlier in 2015, in the extended and emotive agitation by army pensioners, for implementing the principle of One Rank One Pension (OROP). They and serving officers believed that it was a just demand being scuttled by the civil bureaucracy which acts as a gate keeper between the army and the political leadership. The revolt of the tax collectors is the second time that short circuited wires, between the political leadership and field level officers, are being exposed.

Bad strategy but genuine angst

The instrument chosen, by the tax officers, to voice their concerns via a resolution is questionable in terms of its efficacy as is the selection of the flash point for making their case. Unlike the army, income tax officers are no ones’ favourite person. The income tax department is, unfortunately, generally perceived as being self-serving and uncaring of citizen rights. Consequently, an upsurge of public sentiment in their support, as was the case for OROP, is unlikely. More likely, citizens would advocate even harsher disciplinary measures to pull up the department. Collecting tax is a thankless job.

The choice of flash point is similarly questionable — the transfer of a tax officer who allegedly adopted unfair means to boost his end-of-year performance. He issued a huge tax demand on a public sector bank just prior to the annual deadline and then allowed a refund of most of the tax amount immediately thereafter — a cynical “win-win” strategy for both the officer and the bank.

No one could possibly defend the officer’s use of “temporary tax terrorism” tactics. But the summary manner in which he was “punished” by being transferred (not officially a punishment), on the intervention of the Revenue Secretary, seems to have rankled. It does not help matters that the Revenue Secretary is traditionally from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) but exercises oversight over the functioning of the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) under which around 8000 Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officers work. Incidentally there are seven senior officers of the IRS in the CBDT — the apex body for exercising operational control over direct tax administration. But none of them can ever break through the glass ceiling prescribed for them of the rank of a Special Secretary. This is lower than that of the Revenue Secretary, though they get the same pay.

Only empowered agencies perform

In India, we have not developed a culture of equality between field agencies and the secretariat. It is only in the armed forces that the correct equation between the secretariat and the field agency is maintained. This is visible during the republic day celebrations. In the line up to greet the President, the Vice President and the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary stands lower down than the three service chiefs of the army, the air force and the navy. This is how it should be for all field level entities of the government. The officer in the secretariat must never be the person perceived to be in charge of the field level operations. Maintaining the principle of unity of command and responsibility is a pre-condition for efficient functioning within an agency.

Towards a more nerdy Secretariat  

nerd

The job of the secretariat is to assist the Minister in parliamentary work. It is perverse to adorn secretariat positions with high level administrative powers. The nuts and bolts of administration must be outsourced to the concerned agencies created specifically for the purpose. The role of the secretariat must shrink. The example of Minister for Railways, Suresh Prabhu, is worth emulating. One of the first things he did, on assuming charge, was to delegate away most of the operational powers, centralized in his office, to the Regional General Managers. A secretariat officer enhances value, not by banging people on their heads, but by skillfully using an insider’s appreciation of the operating environment and superior analytic skills to facilitate the functioning of field agencies. Making officers in field agencies perform better is squarely the job of the head of the concerned agency.

In a more evolved work environment, the secretariat is where policy and legislation is formulated. The field agency is where programmes are fleshed out and operations monitored for results. The relationship between the two must not be hierarchical as it inevitably is today. Policy formulation and programme implementation are two entirely different albeit symbiotic specialisations. There must be give and take between the two. One way of ensuring this is to make the heads of both the secretariat and the field agency of equal rank. Indeed, this is one way a Minister — who often might not be well acquainted with her charge — gets a rounded perspective of the issue at hand.

The bottom line is that, whilst the Mumbai IRS officers have chosen their battle badly, their cause, as indeed the cause of all other specialised government agencies and cadres, needs deeper consideration.

We should be moving over to a new governance architecture which values specialisation and extends equal opportunities to all cadres, particularly those which already exist in the Union government. IAS officers, unlike officers from the IRS, are on deputation from the state government cadres to the Union government. The IRS is a home grown, central government cadre. The logic for not letting the IRS manage its own house is questionable. Inserting an IAS officer between the political leadership and the IRS seems an archaic and inefficient way of managing the vital tax function.

The manner in which a majority of the senior positions in the Union government are “reserved” for the IAS is archaic because it does not recognise the heightened role for specialisation in modern administration. Law, Tax, Public Finance, Infrastructure, Human Development, Industry and Trade, Natural Resource Management, Defence, Security and Intelligence are all stand-alone disciplines in which practitioners spend their entire working lives. It is inconceivable that value can be added in policy formulation; program conceptualisation or project implementation, without the relevant experience and skill.

Lift the glass ceiling for specialized central services

Inflection points are always graphically depicted by glass ceilings getting smashed. Institutional wisdom lies in removing glass ceilings as soon as they develop cracks and well before they are smashed by the force of change.

smash

 

The budget of small things

jaitley 2015

(photo credit: dailymail.uk.co)

February is when the Indian Finance Minister (FM) gets flooded with unsolicited help from well-wishers on how to get his job done of presenting the Union government’s annual budget on the 28th.

This time, the flood is a Tsunami as a consequence of the Delhi state assembly electoral debacle for the BJP on the 10th February. Some fears are imagined. Others are real.

BJP only for the rich?

The BJP has traditionally been a party which works well with the private sector. If viewed through a “zero-sum” filter, this strategy could be perceived as working against the immediate interests of the poor. The classic example is whether electricity supply should be subsidized and if so to what extent and in what manner and whether the private sector’s bottom line concern for profitability can be consistent with an electricity subsidy for customers?

The “Davos mafia”- banks, big business and “growth” fundamentalists are keeping a hawks eye on everything the FM now says to detect signs of his wavering from the hard path of economic reforms announced by him last year. Their expectation is that he will resort to “populism” to placate the poor, with an eye on the nearing state elections in Bihar.

Will Bihar drive the budget?

The BJP cannot afford to lose Bihar. Doing so will surely crack the political invincibility of PM Modi. Some believe it is already dented by an ill-advised, last minute tactic in Delhi of pitting the PM versus Kejriwal, even though it was known as early as January 15th when the elections were announced, that the BJP was unlikely to win.  None of this environment is of the FMs making. But it hampers him greatly in being bold, outspoken and visionary on economic reforms- as he has shown an inclination to be.

Statistical flights of fantasy

It does not help that the Indian Statistics establishment has further queered the pitch by an ill-timed release of a new formula for calculating GDP which shows that the UPA government was doing fairly well on growth (6.9%) even in its last year (2013-14) accompanied by reduction in the trend rate of inflation (consumer price index) to 9.5% from 10.2% the previous year.

This raises the bar for the FM in FY 2015-16 to unrealistic levels in growth (>8.5 %?) and possibly also inflation expectations (<5% ?).

The dilemma of the FM is that if he follows a tough approach to economic efficiency he gets branded as heartless and gutless if he doesn’t.

Privatization can soften the subsidy cuts

Privatization of our clunky 277 publicly owned industrial companies; poorly governed 7 public insurance companies and 27 banks is a no-brainer to calm both the heart and the gut of the FM.

The share of publicly owned companies in the Indian stock market capitalization is 48%. If more of them were publicly listed this proportion would increase further.

The capital gains from privatizing- selling at least a 50% plus 1 share in publicly held equity to private investors is sufficient to meet the existing annual aggregate subsidy outlay of around Rs 4 lakh crores (USD 66 billion) for the next five years till 2020 with linked fiscal benefits from tax revenue on higher growth and profitability of these entities. Associated economic benefits like more jobs and employment would be additional.

The FM has the choice of either being fiscally profligate or remaining cautiously courageous whilst perturbing the entrenched interests which feed-off the public sector; a small proportion of unfit employees who would lose their secure jobs; petty contractors who have developed a nexus with public sector contracting authorities and Trade Union leaders. None of these are part of the 300 million poor people of India. Nor are they part of 90% of the workforce, which operates in the unorganized sector as contract labour.

The FM would be well advised to err firmly on the side of “financeable equity”. This objective points him to generate additional revenues to finance selected tax breaks and subsidies.

Here are three suggestions that could set the tone of the FY 2015-16 budget.

Metric of administrative efficiency

First, the FM should announce that this government intends to demonstrate its credentials of being an efficient administration by collecting more revenues from the existing taxes despite offering selective tax relief. This fits well with the already publicized drive against “black money” and the return of undeclared foreign assets of Indian national, residents.  This also reassures tax payers that the government intends to retain stability and predictability in the tax regime.

There is nothing like burning ones bridges to bring out the best in oneself. The FM did this last year by taking up the challenge of meeting a 4.1% Fiscal Deficit target for this year and 3.6% of GDP for the next. He should carry through this resolve now without opting for the “lazy” alternative of using the new, inflated GDP data to project a rosy revenue estimate.

Surplus income with small tax payers boosts demand

Second, the FM should demonstrate the government stated preference for “small government”; private finance lead investment and the market.

One equitable way of doing this is to leave more income in the hands of the small tax payer by increasing the income tax-free level from Rs 2 Lakhs per year (USD 3300) to Rs 5 Lakhs (USD 8200). This simple measure takes 90% of the existing assesses (around 29 million in numbers) out of the tax net but impacts only 10% of the revenue.

Pancaked, indirect taxes on consumption (customs/excise; sales tax; municipal taxes) drain 50% of the disposable income of such tax payers in any case, so there is an equity view point also along with the argument for the greater efficiency of a more focused and selective tax effort.

Increase tax revenue equitably and efficiently

India’s tax revenues need to be increased by at least 1% point of GDP but not by continually “milking” the narrow tax base available historically. This approach is neither efficient nor does it build political credibility amongst the tax victims –the salaried middle class. Imposing a new, low tax with a huge tax base as on stock or commodity market transactions and siphoning off a part of the windfall due to the crash in oil prices could be two such option.

Extending income tax to the creamy layer with huge agricultural assets on a presumptive basis is a must. Tax free agricultural income is the easiest refuge for rebranding “black money” as “white”. This loop hole needs to be stamped out.

Agricultural income tax is a tax resource reserved for the State governments. But the Union Government could incentivize States by offering a higher share of GST to states willing to introduce agricultural income tax. This would be in the spirit of efficient, equitable, cooperative federalism.

Third, the Jan Dhan Yojna for financial inclusion has opened 125 million new bank accounts during the last few months. The bulk of these accounts remain dormant. But despite such caveats, this is a good scheme. Recent work, including by Thomas Piketty illustrates that personal wealth is the biggest asset in incremental wealth creation. Why not extend then, albeit in a small measure, the key to wealth creation to the poor also?

Endow the poor for wealth creation

Dhan” (wealth) is an asset-something you own. It is a pre-condition for wealth creation. Why not open bank or Post Office accounts for the poor also? Of course the poor have no surplus to put into a bank. But the government can fill this gap by depositing Rs 10,000 (USD 164) into each of the bank accounts of all “poor” account holders as a 10 year fixed deposit from which only the interest income would be available to the account holder till maturity. To narrow the ambit and the financial implication of the scheme initially, only poor women and poor senior citizens (the most marginalized of the poor) could be eligible.

Fiscal fundamentalists will deride this measure as irresponsible in an environment when subsidies have to be contained, if not reduced. There are two reasons why their apprehensions are unfounded.

First, the small value of the deposit and its unavailability for withdrawal for 15 long years reduces the attractiveness of the scheme for would be scammers. The annual interest earned of Rs 800 (@8%) per account is not enough to attract fraud but sufficient to keep a genuinely poor person interested in the account as a source of additional income. For the Bank this provides a pool of valuable long term resources for their Treasury operations.

Second, the fiscal outlay, whilst significant, is not unmanageable. The likely pool of “poor” women and senior citizens would be around 200 million. If full coverage is targeted over a three year period, an annual budgetary allocation of around Rs 70,000 crores (only 18% of the existing aggregate allocation for subsidies) would be required. The spread effect, both political and economic, is hugely significant.

In comparison, the Union government alone spends an estimated Rs 4 lakh crores (USD 66 billion or 4 % of GDP) on subsidies. Much of this outlay is either lost in transit to the beneficiary (as in food subsidy- refer to Ashok Gulati, India’s brilliant agricultural economist) or the targeting of the subsidy is so vague (fertilizer and energy subsidies) as to benefit the poor only marginally. A “wealth and income transfer” scheme aided by the Unique Identification mechanism, where available, is likely to be more efficient and effective.

The recent developments in Southern Europe and now in Delhi should convince Mr. Jaitley that “demonstrated equity and inclusion” as a “brand” is in. Citizens do appreciate a tough “reforms” stance. But it must be balanced by effective instruments for income transfers to the poorest of the poor.

Winning Aged Votes via Budget 2015

old man

(photo credit: http://www.gettyimages.com)

For the small, timid investor and retirees, Provident Funds and Postal Savings were the investment vehicles of choice till 2000. Interest rate liberalization resulted in a progressive decrease in interest levels on long term deposits from 12% to 8.5% per annum.

The reform was sensible. Government could not afford to subsidize the growing gap between what Provident Funds assured investors and what they earned from investments-mostly in Government debt. This strategy also aligned with the objective of growing stock markets by incentivizing small investors to divert their savings to equity.

THE AGED BORE THE BRUNT OF INTEREST RATE REFORM

What the government forgot or disregarded, was that fixed return investments are the natural and appropriate choice for the aged, small investor, who treasures liquidity; safety and simplicity in transactions; characteristics typical of deposits and debt investments. Not everyone can be like Warren Buffet-the Sage of Omaha, who remains an equities guru, at age 83.

Consequently the negative impact of financial reforms has been borne by those who were least capable of doing so- the aged, retiree without an inflation indexed pension. There were two reasons why this happened.

First, high inflation, higher than the nominal interest earned, has reduced “real (inflation adjusted)” returns from interest to negative. If the interest earned is 8% per annum whilst retail inflation is 9% per annum, the investor is earning no “real” return at all. Instead she is paying an “implicit”, additional 1% on her investment to the government as “Inflation Tax”

Second, even on such negative real return, “explicit” income tax is levied at the applicable rate on the nominal return further reducing the real return to the investor and enhancing the “Inflation Tax” paid to the government.

What hurts even more is that dividend income is tax free but interest is taxed. There is a theoretical logic to this asymmetry. Dividends are paid out of the post-tax profit of a corporate. Since tax has already been paid by the corporate, on this value stream, it need not be paid again by the shareholder. Unlike dividend, interest paid by a corporate to a depositor is a “cost” and is set-off against revenue to reduce its taxable profit. Since no tax is paid by the corporate on this value stream the taxman is right to charge tax on interest in the hands of the receiver

Notwithstanding the soundness of this general principle, a solid case exits for exempting interest from income tax.

First, timid, small savers, particularly the aged, have no alternative financial instruments for investing their savings.

Financial pundits may counter that such investors should invest in the risk averaging, Mutual Funds available in the market. But Mutual Funds (MF) themselves tend to shift from equity into debt based investments in a stock market downturn, as happened during 2008 to 2013 (SEBI Annual Report 2013-14). After deducting administration costs, the returns available to MF investors, are not significantly higher that what they could get themselves from deposits.

It does not help that the Indian Stock Market, like other emerging markets, is highly volatile. In 2013 volatility in the Indian stock market was 17% as compared to 11% for the DOW and 12% for the FTSE (Bloomberg-2014). Volatility dissuades aged, timid, small savers from such stock market based instruments, since they have a strong preference for certainty of nominal return.

Second, Inflation management in an open, developing economy, hugely dependent on energy import is tricky. Our record, whilst much better than Latin America, is nevertheless worrisome for an aged person dependent on a fixed income. The government has demurred in offering inflation indexed, real interest rate, saving instruments for retail investors. Possibly the financial risks associated in offering such an investment are considered too high. How then can one expect an aged retiree to bear the inflation risk?

NARROWLY TARGETED TAX BENEFITS

Clearly, the universe of aged Indians are not all under privileged or timid or naïve investors. The cynical could well ask why should the likes of Rahul Bajaj- the illustrious, Indian industrialist, age 76 need special exemptions on interest income or for that matter senior government pensioners or retired senior employees of the formal private sector.

We hold no brief for them since they can look after themselves. In any case it is unlikely that this set allocates a significant proportion of their savings to fixed return deposits. They don’t need to since they have their inflation indexed pensions as a fall back.

Our plea is for the junior level retirees from the formal sector and all retirees from the informal sector. Assuming that 90% of the 62 million aged (5% of population above the age of 65-2011 census) are retirees from informal employment and further assuming that 30% of these-mostly in urban areas- have no income other than from savings, the target beneficiaries would be around 17 million aged people.  Most of these may not even be income tax payees. Those who are taxable would probably pay tax at the lowest tax bracket of 10%.

Consequently, the exemption is narrowly targeted at the deserving and is unlikely to result in significant loss of tax revenue.

POLITICALY CORRECT

There is widespread expectation that the FM would raise the tax free income level from Rs 3 Lakh (for senior citizens) towards Rs 5 Lakhs per year. This is a welcome but generalized benefit and not a specific benefit for the 17 million aged, lower middle class, urban retirees – all of whom are voters.

The BJP has been unfairly targeted for being tardy on social protection. The 2014 national election generated heated debate between “callous growth” and “virtuous equity”- a falsely projected zero-sum choice.

Expectedly, the FM will seek to correct this impression in the 2015 budget. But it is tough to implement efficient social protection schemes on a tight budget. Even efficient, rich, developed economies struggle to walk the thin line between providing perverse incentives to beneficiaries to become economic drop-outs and ensuring the adequacy of social security.

In the meantime, please Mr. FM, spare a thought for the average, pension-less, retiree from the informal sector. Save her from the perils of sinking her savings in unregulated “high return chit funds” in desperation, just to make her two ends meet. Exempting interest earned by individuals from Income Tax is a good way of doing this. There is no better “win-win” than this.

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