Politics changed, facts haven’t

March 28, 2019

Sir Michael Cullen is being paid $1000 to sell the capital gains tax.

It’s a task made more difficult by records of his views on a CGT  which the parliamentary library holds from his time as an MP:

Stuff reported that although the chairman of the Tax Working Group once called a capital gains tax “extreme, socially unacceptable and economically unnecessary”, he has since changed his mind.

New documents compiled by the Parliamentary Library for the ACT party reveal just how far he shifted since leaving Government in 2008.

The 84 pages of research included every reference Cullen ever made in the House in reference to a CGT between 1987 and 2008. . . 

They include:

. . . “I think it is extremely hard to make that connection between a capital gains tax and the affordability of housing, insofar as there has never been a theoretical argument put forward about a capital gains tax on housing. It is more in the direction of a level playing field around investment; it is not around the notion that it will make houses cheaper. Indeed, it is very hard to see how it would necessarily make houses cheaper,” Cullen said at the time.

On June 20, 2007, when Bill English asked Cullen about explicitly ruling out a capital gains tax, he responded saying: “One of the problems with a capital gains tax – apart from the fact that if it were done, it should apply to all asset classes—is that countries overseas that have capital gains taxes have significant inflation in house prices on occasion”.

Then on June 21, 2007, he was asked about the possibility of combining ring-fencing with a capital gains tax on all investments except the family home, and more Government investment in low-cost rental housing.

He responded saying: “I think it is fair to say that, if one was looking at a capital gains tax, which I am certainly not, it would apply to all asset classes. I think the arguments in favour of such a tax, which probably 20 years ago were quite strong, become much, much less strong in the intervening period of time, for a whole host of reasons. So I think that that is actually not a very worthwhile avenue to explore, not least because it comes, in effect, at the end of a process, rather than trying to address the over-investment at the start of the process”. . . 

He says he was Finance Minister at the time and following the government line.

When asked why he changed his mind, he quoted John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind”.

What facts have changed? It wasn’t a good idea then and it still isn’t, for the same reasons.

As Robin Oliver, former deputy head of Inland Revenue, former Treasury advisor, an expert on the tax system, and one of three dissenters on the Tax Working Group said:

There’s a strong argument for taxing capital gains, as you put it, in theory, the problem is the practicality and of making it work. . .

Kathryn Ryan asked him if, all things being equal and as a tax expert would it be good to do it and her replied:

In the actuality of what you have to do to get such a tax in place, no.

Most of the arguments in favour of a CGT are theoretical ones based on a notion of fairness, whatever that is.

Most of the arguments against it are practical based on facts including that it has done nothing to rein in house prices elsewhere and has led to overinvestment in housing, underinvestment in business, and acts as a handbrake on succession.

The politics have changed but the facts haven’t.

A CGT with exceptions as recommended by the TWG would be expensive to administer, contain loopholes which would only provide work for lawyers and accountants, promote over-investment in housing, stifle investment in productive assets, and result in lower tax revenue in tough times when capital gains fall.


What’s fair?

February 28, 2019

Definitions of fair include: treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination and: without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.

By either of these definitions attempting to make the tax system fairer is doomed. To take a lot more from some people than from others in very similar circumstances is not fair.

There’s rarely a tax the left doesn’t like and it is particularly enamoured of capital gains tax.

A CGT might be fair in theory but as one of the three dissenters to the Tax working Group’s recommendations, Robin Oliver, said, he’s against it in practice.

There’s a strong argument for taxing capital gains, as you put it, in theory, the problem is the practicality and of making it work. . .

Kathryn Ryan asked him if, all things being equal and as a tax expert would it be good to do it and her replied:

In the actuality of what you have to do to get such a tax in place, no.

Oliver is a former deputy head of Inland Revenue, former Treasury advisor and an expert on the tax system whose views should be taken seriously.

He gave several examples in the interview of how the CGT as recommended would not only not be fair but would lead to perverse consequences including making it more attractive for foreigners to invest in New Zealand and for New Zealanders to invest overseas, and for people to hold on to assets and businesses when without the tax they would be better to sell them; and that it would have made little difference to the housing boom.

He also said that the current law on the bright line test has low compliance and we should make current rules work before starting to think of highly punitive  ones.

That would be fair.

 


CGT would hit middle hardest

February 22, 2019

It there’s such a thing as a fair tax, it’s not one based on misplaced envy as the Tax Working Group’s capital gains tax appears to be.

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Fairness is desirable but not at any cost and  it’s best achieved by helping the poor up not pulling the better-off down, especially when those who will be hit hardest are those with modest investments, not the really wealthy, and worse still, they’d be hit by one of the most penal CGTs in the world:

The Tax Working Group’s report released today proposes a broad-based top rate of 33% capital gains tax (CGT).

The New Zealand Initiative argues in a new policy note, The Pitfalls of CGT, that headline rate would immediately push New Zealand to the top of the international CGT rankings among industrialised economies, just behind Denmark and Finland.

“The proposal is conspicuous by a lack of exemptions and concessions around business investment, so a full rate would arguably qualify New Zealand’s CGT regime as one of the harshest in the world,” said Dr Patrick Carvalho, Research Fellow and author of the note.

“Worse, given New Zealand’s recognisably low-income tax thresholds by international standards, a new CGT would disproportionately hit middle-income earners already struggling to invest for retirement.”

“New Zealand should be cautious about siren calls for a top-ranking CGT. Trying to punch above our weight can sometimes place us in the wrong fight category,” concludes Dr Carvalho.

A good tax would foster investment that would help businesses grow, produce more and employ more.

A good tax would encourage and reward thrift and delayed gratification.

A good tax would improve productivity and promote growth.

The CTG as proposed would do the opposite.

New Zealand needs foreign investment because we don’t have enough of our own capital. The CGT would aggravate that by making investing overseas more attractive than investing domestically:

The Tax Working Group (TWG) proposals released this morning would skew New Zealand investors away from local assets, distort the KiwiSaver market and mangle the portfolio investment entity (PIE) regime if introduced, according to the founder of the country’s largest direct-to-consumer managed fund platform.

Anthony Edmonds, InvestNow founder, said while the TWG final report includes some welcome reforms, overall the capital gains tax (CGT) recommendations would add cost, complexity and confusion to New Zealand’s relatively efficient managed funds market.

“For example, the TWG’s plan to increase tax on New Zealand shares by applying CGT while leaving the fair dividend rate (FDR) tax for offshore shares unchanged would naturally drag capital offshore at the expense of local assets – at a time when New Zealand needs to fund major infrastructure projects,” Edmonds said. “In trying to discourage people from investing in residential property, the TWG has created a tax disincentive for Kiwi shares, which can only distort investment allocation decisions.”

Essentially, the TWG recommendation to tax unrealised capital gains on PIE funds marks a return to the ‘bad old days’ when Kiwis paid more tax on managed funds than direct share investments. . .

Concern over the housing shortage is one of the motivating factors for a CGT but It won’t improve home affordability in the long term:

Bindi Norwell, Chief Executive at REINZ says: “In the short-term there may be some initial relief in house price affordability as investors look to sell their property to avoid paying CGT. This may create opportunities for first home buyers.

“However, in the long term it’s likely to push house prices up as people look to invest more money in the family home, as there will be less incentive to invest in rental properties or other forms of investment e.g. equities.

“This will also have a flow on effect for the rental market with fewer rental properties available for tenants, thereby further pushing up weekly rental prices when they are already at an all-time high.

“The report even recognises that any impact on housing affordability could be small, therefore, we question whether all of the administrative burden and cost to implement GCT is worth it? Especially as CGT coming at the end of a raft of legislative changes the housing market has faced recently including the foreign buyer ban, ban on letting fees, insulation, healthy homes and ring fencing. . .

A tax that results in fewer and more costly rentals and more expensive homes is not a good one.

Nor is a tax that is fatally flawed:

Today’s Tax Working Group report recommendation for a new capital gains tax will not address residential housing affordability but it will penalise business owners and create costly complexity in our tax system, meaning it is fatally flawed, according to Business Central.

“New Zealand’s tax system is envied worldwide. The proposed capital gains tax increases compliance costs without boosting productivity,” says Business Central Chief Executive John Milford.

“Business Central agrees with the conclusions of the minority view on the Tax Working Group.

“A capital gains tax is just another cost on business, nothing more. . .

It would hit small and medium businesses hardest:

Key areas of the Tax Working Group Final Report released today were disappointing, says Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Leeann Watson. . . 

Ms Watson says the proposed capital gains rules should not be implemented because of the significant impact on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

“We support the Government’s review to ensure that our tax system is fit for purpose for a changing business environment. However, there is very real concern that taxing both shares and business assets under a comprehensive capital gains tax regime would create double taxation.

“This could disadvantage New Zealanders owning shares in New Zealand and create inconsistencies around overall taxation on investment.”

Ms Watson says a capital gains tax would be unlikely to achieve the desired outcome for business.

“There is concern around the effect for capital markets in a capital constrained economy with a long-term savings deficit. Adding further tax on the savings and investment of those New Zealanders in the middle-income bracket won’t drive the deepening and broadening of the capital base that we need for business investment, which is higher productivity and wages.

“While the impetus behind the changes are aspirational, there is little to indicate they would significantly reduce overinvestment in housing or increase ‘tax fairness’. In addition, there is concern that additional administration costs and investment distortions could outweigh any benefits and potentially discourage much-needed investment and innovation by locking businesses into current asset holdings.

“It is vitally important that we remain competitive as a country and are not continuing to add further compliance for business and in particular small business, who represent 97% of all businesses in our economy.”

Ms Watson says there needs to be a viable business case for any changes to the current tax system.

“There seems to be a real focus on ‘fairness’ in the system design, as opposed to revenue-building, so we need to be careful that any tax changes are for the right reasons and are backed by a clear, practical and sustainable business case. We currently have a fairly simple and efficient tax system that should be kept and better enforced, with changes to specific rules where needed.” . . 

The costs of a good tax would not outweigh the benefits:

The Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) says the key issue in the Tax Working Group’s proposal released today is that the cost of its capital gains tax rules will outweigh any benefits.

Chief executive Brett O’Riley says any gains from such a broad-based capital gains tax would be eaten up by administration and other costs, leaving little revenue.

“Fundamentally the proposed capital gains rules don’t address the Tax Working Group’s objectives of reducing over-investment in housing and increasing tax fairness,” he says.

Mr O’Riley is also concerned that capital gains tax on business assets could discourage investment and innovation, locking businesses into their current asset holdings. He says there are other policy settings that could be changed to increase investment in different asset classes, away from property.

“I also fail to see how taxing growth on the value of assets from the proposed commencement date of 1 April 2021 would work, because it would be open to conflicting valuations,” he says. “It could also act as a further disincentive to growth when New Zealand already has issues with business not growing from SME’s into larger scale operations and a CGT may also limit the availability of capital to reinvest in businesses as smaller businesses face an additional tax bill.

“It’s difficult to see any benefits for the business community from implementing the proposed capital gains tax rules, as taxing both shares and business assets appears to be double taxation,” says Mr O’Riley.

It is relevant to note that a number of the Tax Working Group do not favour its recommendations on capital gains tax. The minority view summary is available here

One reason for dissension was compliance costs:

Former IRD Deputy Commissioner Robin Oliver was one of the 11 in the Tax Working Group.

Along with two others from the group, he believes the costs and bureaucratic red tape involved in adopting all the capital gains options outweigh the benefits.  

“We didn’t agree that this was in the best interest of the country to go the full extent, particularly in the business area, taxing share gains which result in double taxation,” he said.

“To get a valuation for all business assets in all parts business and all business will easily cost over a billion dollars in compliance costs. The amount of revenue you’ll get is relatively minor.”

As for taxing shares, Mr Oliver said it would result in New Zealanders who invest in New Zealand companies paying more tax when foreigners investing in New Zealand companies will pay no more tax. Furthermore, New Zealanders investing in foreign companies will pay no more tax.

“The obvious conclusion is New Zealanders will own less New Zealand companies and more foreign companies, and foreigners will own our companies,” he said. . . 

The proposed tax is no panacea for fairness:

Deloitte tax partner Patrick McCalman warns that a CGT is not a panacea for tax fairness.

“At one level, there is an attractiveness in the argument that a ‘buck is a buck’ and everyone should bear the same tax burden on every dollar earned. However, when one delves into the detail of the design, other issues of fairness emerge,” says Mr McCalman.

“For example, is it fair that property could pass on death without an immediate CGT cost, while gifts made during one’s life would be taxed? For family businesses, wouldn’t it be more productive to be able to pass assets from generation to generation before death,” he says.

“Accordingly, we need to be cautious as to how much ‘fairness’ a CGT will introduce. It may simply change where the ‘unfairness’ is perceived to sit within the tax system, creating new tax exemptions that would distort where investments are made.”

Complicating matters further is the political dimension. And MMP only exacerbates the political difficulty and increases the likelihood of whatever ultimately sees the light of day being less coherent from a policy perspective. . . 

The Deloitte paper raises several questions about fairness:

At one level there is an attractiveness in the argument that a “buck is a buck” and everyone should therefore bear the same tax burden on every dollar earned. However, when one delves into the detail, other issues of fairness emerge including new tax exemptions which would distort where investments are made – in effect, in seeking to create fairness, the proposal creates a number of layers of unfairness. For example:

    • With a CGT applying at full rates with no inflation indexation, is it fair that someone who buys an asset is taxed on the full amount of any gain when part of that gain is simply inflation? How will they be able to re-invest in a new asset if the inflation element is taxed?
    • Is it fair that the family home and artwork are excluded but most other property is not? Consider a plumber who has a $500,000 house and a $500,000 commercial building who would be taxed on the disposal of the commercial building. Should they have instead bought a $1,000,000 house, rented a business premise and enjoyed a tax free capital gain?
    • Is it fair that that investors in New Zealand shares would pay tax on capital gains but investors in foreign shares would continue to be subject (as they are presently) to the 5% FDR rate (even if gains are less or more)?
    • Is it fair that small business (turnover less than $5 million) could sell assets and defer the CGT bill if they reinvest the proceeds, while medium and larger size business cannot?
    • Is it fair that property could pass on death without an immediate CGT cost but gifts made to children during one’s life would be taxed?
    • Is it fair that there are proposed tax reductions for KiwiSaver to compensate for CGT but not for other forms of investment?

At one level, true fairness can only exist if all asset classes and forms of remuneration are subject to the same tax rate. But even then, anomalies will always arise. . . 

The proposed tax would be especially bad for farming and farmers:

Federated Farmers has said from the outset that a capital gains tax is a mangy dog, that will add unacceptably high costs and complexity.

“There is nothing in the Tax Working Group’s final report, released today, that persuades us otherwise,” Feds Vice-President and Commerce spokesperson Andrew Hoggard says.

“A CGT would make our well-regarded tax system more complex, it will impose hefty costs, both in compliance for taxpayers and in administration for Inland Revenue, and it will do little or nothing to ease the housing crisis.”

It is notable that even the members of the working group could not agree on the best way forward, with three deciding a tax on capital gains should only apply to the sale of residential rental properties and the other eight recommending it should be broadened to also include land and buildings, assets, intangible property and shares.

“Federated Farmers believes that the majority on the tax working group have badly under-estimated the complexity and compliance costs of what they’re proposing, and over-estimated the returns.”

The recommended ‘valuation day’ approach to establishing the value of assets, even with a five-year window, will be a feeding frenzy for valuers and tax advisors, “and just the start of the compliance headaches for farmers and other operators of small businesses that are the driving force of the New Zealand society and economy. . .

Farm succession is difficult enough as it is.

A CTG would make it harder still and encourage older farmers to hold on to their farms. That would lead to more absentee ownership and leasing with less investment in improvements as happens in other countries.

New Zealand doesn’t have a lot of many wealthy people and while those relatively few would pay more with the CGT as proposed, if their accountants and lawyers didn’t help them find ways to minimise their liability, they’d still be wealthy.

The many small business owners and more modest investors would not. They’d have the reward for their hard work and thrift cut back and lose enough of the value of their investments to hurt – unless they’d invested in art, cars or yachts which would be exempt.

That sends the message that such luxuries are good while investing in businesses and productive assets is not.

Where’s the fairness in that?


Tax on entrepreneurship, innovation and risk taking

September 4, 2014

Capital gains taxes haven’t worked to keep property prices down in other countries and it will push up prices here:

Labour’s capital gains tax, won’t do what David Cunliffe says it will, according to the Taxpayers’ Union, backed up by a former Deputy Commissioner of Inland Revenue, Robin Oliver.

Taxpayers’ Union Executive Director Jordan Williams says, “Labour are misleading taxpayers if they think a CGT will be a panacea for the housing market. Mr Cunliffe is wrong to say that current tax law does not tax property speculators.”

“Income tax already applies to speculators, builders and developers. Taxing the rest of the market can’t possibly bring down prices.”

Robin Oliver, says, “Under an Australian type Capital Gains Tax a person choosing between investing in a business or buying an even more expensive home will have an increased tax incentive to invest in the home. Gains on the home will be tax-free, gains on the business will be taxable and it will be difficult to use any capital losses the business makes. The playing field is clearly tilted towards home ownership rather than risking money in a business creating jobs.”

Williams says, “Ultimately, Labour’s capital gains tax is a tax on entrepreneurship, innovation and risk taking.”

Simple taxes are better taxes and they shouldn’t incentivise investment in non-productive assets like homes over productive ones like farms and other businesses.

 

 


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