Simple taxes better taxes

November 24, 2017

Former Finance Minister Sir Michael Cullen will chair the working group which is taxed with finding a fairier tax system:

Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Revenue Minister Stuart Nash announced the terms of reference for the group, which will come up with a series of recommendations by February 2019 which the government will then use to inform its policy direction at the next general election. Robertson said he isn’t making a grab for cash. Reforms could be fiscally neutral and he had an open mind on whether a capital gains tax would be necessary.

“The main goal here is to create a better, balanced and fairer tax system for New Zealand,” Robertson said. “Our belief at the moment is that we do not have that.”

The group has been told to consider the economic environment over the next five-to-10 years and how that’s affecting changing business models, demographics and business practices; whether some form of housing, land or capital gains tax would improve the system; whether a progressive company tax with lower rates for small businesses would improve the system and business environment; and what role tax can play in delivering environment benefits. . . 

The group has been told not to look at increasing income tax rates or the rate of GST, inheritance tax, a tax on the family home, or the adequacy of the personal tax system and its interaction with the transfer system. It has been directed to look at technical matters already under review such as international tax reform targeting multinational profit shifting, and the tax department’s business transformation programme.

While the issue of applying GST to goods and services bought online from overseas could be dealt with separately and was not part of the working group’s brief, Robertson said the group could examine exemptions from GST for particular categories of goods. Labour’s coalition partner in government, NZ First, has campaigned for years to remove GST from fruit and vegetables.

Robertson said the group will be able to look at the tax treatment on savings and investment, which has cropped up in previous reviews as an area in need of reform.

The best taxes are simple taxes.

Taking GST off fruit and vegetables sounds simple but it isn’t. If it’s all fruit and vegetables it will include processed ones which might have lots of sugar and salt added. But if it’s only fresh fruit and vegetables luxury imports like pomegranate will be exempt while frozen vegetables won’t.

Our GST is lauded around the world for its simplicity. Once you introduce exemptions it gets complicated, inconsistent and more expensive to administer.

National’s Finance spokesman Steven Joyce says the working group is underwhelming:

“Its Terms of Reference is written so that it will propose one significant thing at the end of it, a Capital Gains Tax,” Mr Joyce says.

“Yet Mr Robertson’s assertion on the current taxation of capital gains in the property market remains incorrect. People who buy and sell houses for a profit have those profits treated as income for tax purposes under the law today.

“So people can only assume once again that his unspoken desire is to introduce a Capital Gains Tax on farms and small businesses.” . . .

“Nothing will come out of this group that Grant Robertson doesn’t want. And all he wants is a recommendation for a Capital Gains Tax.

“Mr Robertson would be better to dispense with the expense to taxpayers and write out his tax policy for the next election when the time comes in the normal manner.”

I’m not opposed to a CGT per se, if it was fiscally neutral through reductions elsewhere. But as with GST, a simple CGT would be a better one.

Once there are exemptions there are loopholes which will be very good for lawyers and accountants but much less so for the aim of balance and fairness.

 

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Higher spending, tax, debt

November 16, 2017

Economists are warning that the Labour-led government’d Debt will be billions more than planned.

. . . In Opposition Labour laid out a fiscal plan which would borrow around $11 billion more than National had proposed, but still cut debt as a share of the total economic output from 24 per cent to 20 per cent by 2022.

The plan formed a major point of contention during the election campaign, as National finance spokesman Steven Joyce was widely mocked for his claim that Robertson’s plan had a major “fiscal hole”.

This is a very good argument for independent costing of party policies before an election.

But bank economists, who monitor the likely issuance of government bonds, are warning of pressure for Treasury to borrow billions more than Labour had signalled because of new spending promises.

ANZ has forecast that Labour will borrow $13 billion more than Treasury’s pre-election fiscal update maintained the former Government would over the next four years, although around $3b of that would go to the NZ Super Fund.

Borrowing to contribute to the super fund is as reckless as borrowing to play the share market instead of paying off a mortgage.

This would see net Crown debt at 23 per cent of gross domestic product, 3 percentage points higher than Labour’s plan.

Outgoing ANZ chief economist Cameron Bagrie said the estimates for new spending were “conservative”, including an assumption that the new $1b a year regional development fund would come entirely from existing budgets. . . 

BNZ senior economist Craig Ebert said the figures were hard to determine so early in the term, but borrowing “could amount to a number of billion dollars” more than Labour had outlined. . . 

During question time in Parliament on Tuesday, Robertson maintained that the Government was sticking to its pre-election debt plan.

“But what we’re not prepared to put up with is a situation where we do not have enough affordable homes, where we have not made contributions to the [NZ] Super Fund, and where an enormous social deficit is growing,” Robertson said.

“In those circumstances a slower debt repayment track is totally appropriate.”

A much more disciplined approach to spending would be wiser.

National took office when the kitty was empty and Treasury was forecasting a decade of deficits.

In spite of the GFC and natural and financial disasters, it returned the books to surplus without a slash and burn approach to social spending.

This government has taken over with plenty of money in the kitty and forecasts of continuing surpluses.

With careful management, it should be able to

Labour and many on the left talk about the “failed policies of the 80s”.

They never look at the cause of the problems which precipitated those radical policies – higher spending, higher taxes and higher borrowing.

Those were the failed policies.

Unless the new government takes a much more careful approach, it will take path New Zealand down that path again.


Moving targets

November 10, 2017

National used yesterday’s question time to attempt to get clarification on the government’s targets for housing and spending.

The answers weren’t helpful:

1. Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH (Leader of the Opposition) to the Prime Minister: What will the specific measurable targets be, if any, that she will use to hold her Government to account?
Hon KELVIN DAVIS (Acting Prime Minister): As Prime Minister, I will hold my Ministers to account for improving the well-being and living standards of New Zealanders.
Rt Hon Bill English: What is the appropriate measure—[Interruption] 
Mr SPEAKER: Order! Sorry, I’m just going to start right now. Who is the member who interjected then? Right, there’s an additional question to the Opposition.
Rt Hon Bill English: What is the appropriate measure we should follow to monitor progress on KiwiBuild where the Government has committed to build 100,000 houses over the next 10 years?
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: We will make decisions on appropriate targets in due course.
Rt Hon Bill English: So does that mean that the current expression of the Government’s commitment, which is “to build 100,000 houses over the next 10 years” does not necessarily mean what most people would take it to mean?
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: We will make and confirm decisions on appropriate targets in due course.
Rt Hon Bill English: Does the Government stand by—[Interruption] 
Mr SPEAKER: Order! The chief Government whip, I think, interjected, or someone around her did. There is a further supplementary to the Opposition.
Rt Hon Bill English: Does the Prime Minister stand by her Government’s commitment to “build 100,000 houses over the next 10 years”?
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: We will make and confirm decisions on appropriate targets in due course.
Rt Hon Bill English: Why did the Government commit to “build 100,000 houses over the next 10 years” if it is now not willing to re-express that commitment in this House?
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: Because the previous Government didn’t build houses.
Rt Hon Bill English: Is it possible that the Government is revising this commitment because of public statements made by the Minister of Housing and Urban Development, that the commitment may involve not building houses but buying existing houses?
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: No. 
Rt Hon Bill English: What other reason could there possibly be for not being willing to restate a commitment made by all its members right though the election campaign to “build 100,000 houses”? What other reason could there be not to make that commitment here today? 
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: We are not revising targets. We will make and confirm decisions on appropriate targets in due course.
Rt Hon Bill English: So is the commitment to build 100,000 houses an appropriate target, or one that is subject to revision or further decisions, or is it one that we should take at its word? 
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: The member will find out in due course. . . 

That sounds like the answer is if there’s a target it’s a movable one.

Hon Michael Woodhouse: Who is correct: the Minister of Housing and Urban Development, who says that there is a fixed commitment to build 100,000 extra houses, or the Prime Minister, who says such a target has not yet been set?
Hon PHIL TWYFORD: Both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Housing and Urban Development have reiterated our policy, which is to build 100,000 affordable homes to restore affordable homeownership to this country. . . 

That’s the policy but what’s the target?

The Reserve Bank also questions the number of houses that will be built:

The Government has announced an intention to build 100,000 houses
in the next decade. Our working assumption is that the programme
gradually scales up over time to a pace of 10,000 houses per year by
the end of the projection horizon. Given existing pressure on resources
in the construction sector, the aggregate boost to construction activity
from this policy will depend on how resources are allocated across public
and private sector activities. The Government intends to introduce a
‘KiwiBuild visa’ to support the supply of labour to high-need construction related
trades. While accompanying policy initiatives may alleviate
capacity constraints to some extent, our working assumption is that
around half of the proposed increase will be offset by a reduction in
private sector activity.

It could be the new house target is a movable one because there’s more than a little doubt about the finances:

3. Hon STEVEN JOYCE (National) to the Minister of Finance: Can he confirm it is his intention as Minister of Finance to ensure core Crown expenses do not exceed $81.9 billion in 2017/18, $86.1 billion in 2018/19, $88.2 billion in 2019/20, $91.8 billion in 2020/21, and $96.1 billion in 2021/22, as specified in the Labour Party’s pre-election Fiscal Plan?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON (Minister of Finance): I can confirm that it is my intention for core Crown expenditure as a percentage of GDP to be within the recent historical range. As to the exact figures in the member’s question, I cannot confirm those as, of course, they are subject to detailed Budget decisions and revenue forecasts that are yet to be finalised.
Hon Steven Joyce: Can he confirm that he stands by his statement from 4 September this year, and I quote, “Labour’s Fiscal Plan is robust, the numbers are correct and we stand by them”?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: I can confirm that the Budget that this Government is putting together will be robust and it will deliver on a commitment that this Government has made to ensure that all New Zealanders share in prosperity.
Michael Wood: What else, in addition to managing core Crown expenditure, will guide the Government’s approach to responsible fiscal management?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The Government will observe the Budget responsibility rules as indicated in the Speech from the Throne: namely, delivering a sustainable operating balance before gains and losses; reducing net core Crown debt to 20 percent of GDP within 5 years; and ensuring a fair and balanced progressive taxation system. We will also never forget that the purpose of a strong economy is to give every New Zealander the chance to share in prosperity, and we will never be satisfied while children live in poverty or families sleep in cars.
Hon Steven Joyce: Does he stand by his statement also on 4 September, and I quote, that “Our operating expenses are above the line and are clearly stated.”?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The Budget that this Government will prepare will be clear about what we are spending and where the revenue for that is coming from.
Hon Steven Joyce: So that’s a no. Can I also ask: does he stand by his statement, and I quote, “We have quite clearly put in the spending requirements to meet the promises we have made. Our fiscal plan adds up. We are absolutely clear that we have the money to meet the commitments that we’ve made.”, also on 4 September?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The Government will prepare a Budget that shows how we will pay for the important commitments that we have made to ensure that every New Zealander benefits from economic prosperity.
Hon Steven Joyce: Can the Minister of Finance then confirm that it is not his intention to necessarily ensure core Crown expenditure does not exceed $81.9 billion this current financial year, $86.1 billion in the next financial year, $88.2 billion in 2019-20, $91.8 billion in 2020-21, and $96.1 billion in 2021-22? Can he confirm that’s not his intention, even though it was specified in the Labour Party’s pre-election fiscal plan?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: I can confirm that we will keep Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP in line with the historical range.
Hon Steven Joyce: Can the finance Minister then confirm that he doesn’t at all stand by the numbers he presented in the Labour Party’s fiscal plan prior to the election?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The Government is currently going through the usual process of putting together a Budget. We are absolutely confident that we will deliver a Budget that is in line with the Budget responsibility rules that were outlined in the Speech from the Throne and that will deliver to New Zealanders a fair share in prosperity. As I said in my primary answer, the final numbers are the subject of the normal Budget process. . . 

Hon Steven Joyce: Is he saying that the actual numbers written on the Labour Party’s fiscal plan prior to this election, which he and his colleagues defended vigorously during the election campaign, are no longer relevant? The comments he has made suggest that he will put whatever numbers he likes in front of the public in due course in the next Budget.
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: I have been absolutely clear that the commitment that we have made is that Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP will remain in line with the long-run historical trend. Members on the other side of the House well know that we will now be looking at new revenue forecasts and, indeed, new growth forecasts. They will determine the exact numbers that are presented. But we are very clear on this side of the House: our number add up. . . 

Hon Steven Joyce: Has he noted how often the Reserve Bank mentioned policy uncertainty in their Monetary Policy Statement this morning, and has he considered how his statements in the House this afternoon and his responses to questions will not help with that policy uncertainty when the Reserve Bank was obviously placing some credence on his previous statements about Government expenditure and now he is not even standing by those?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The Reserve Bank Governor noted today that his thinking was preliminary, and, just like the member opposite, when the Half Yearly Economic and Fiscal Update and Budget Policy Statement are released before the end of the year, there will be significant certainty about our spending plans. If the member can’t wait, I’ll make up a special advent calendar for him so that he can count down to the half yearly update.

In opposition you might be able to get away with vagueness, but governments need to be much clearer on its spending plans so that public institutions like Treasury and the Reserve Bank have sufficient information to perform their roles effectively.

“This morning’s Monetary Policy Statement from the Reserve Bank makes numerous mentions of domestic policy uncertainty including ‘uncertainty around tax policy’, uncertainty around the ‘future impact of these policy changes’ and ‘heightened uncertainty regarding the domestic outlook,” Mr Joyce says.

“While the Bank is taking a steady as she goes approach at this point, it is clear that their economic forecasting is affected by a lack of clarity from the new Government as to their fiscal and economic plans.

“This is not a surprise as we are all still yet to see the figures underpinning the coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand First, which was signed over two weeks ago, and we are all still yet to see the Government’s mythical final 100 Day Plan.

“Yesterday’s Speech from the Throne contained 51 new spending commitments, which will put significant pressure on the Government’s spending track and net debt.

“The first Bill In Parliament this week seeks to legislate for $325 million of extra spending, without any reference to how this fits in to the government’s wider spending plan.

“The public will rightly be concerned that the large number of spending promises they have heard about could sacrifice New Zealand’s hard work to get back into surplus and start paying down debt.

“The irony is that in recent years all the economic risks have been offshore. Now just as the world economic outlook is strengthening, all the risk and uncertainty is being generated domestically by the economic opaqueness of the new Government.

“It is time for the Government to be much more transparent and start releasing more details of their fiscal plans.”

It’s possible they haven’t got any fixed ones, like their housing target they’re movable.


Popular yes but will it work?

November 1, 2017

Labour will make residential property ‘sensitive’ which will be a de facto ban on foreign buyers.

Anyone who was not either a citizen or resident of New Zealand would not be allowed to purchase existing homes.

“The Government will introduce an amendment to the Overseas Investment Act to classify housing as ‘sensitive’ and introduce a residency test,” Ardern said in her first post-cabinet press conference. . .

Ardern expected the legislation would be introduced by Christmas and passed in the new year.

“This does not impact our Korean FTA, nor will it impact the TPP – if we pass it before it takes effect,” Trade Minister David Parker said.

“Our underlying ethos here has been that if you have the right to live here long-term you have the right to buy here.”

The ban needed to passed fast because if New Zealand signed up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) without passing the legislation the TPP provisions allowing foreign investment would then effect other trade agreements under “most favoured nation clauses,” effectively taking away the right to do this for good, Parker said. . .

National’s Finance spokesman Steven Joyce describes the proposal as half-cooked:

The first and strangest thing about Labour’s announcement is that it isn’t an actual ban. Putting houses through a sensitive land purchase criteria is definitely bureaucratic but does not constitute a ban on such sales,” Mr Joyce says.

“There are also all sorts of definitional questions. Is an apartment on the fourth floor of a building ‘sensitive land’? Is a two hectare property with two houses on it that’s being sold for development able to be sold to an international investor?

“This proposal would also be a massive compliance cost for house buyers of all types. For example, will somebody with a foreign sounding name have to prove their citizenship to the real estate agent?

“The whole announcement was very strange,” Mr Joyce says. “There has been no paperwork released and the Prime Minister indicated many of the detailed decisions remain to be made.

“This smacks very much as a ‘bright idea’ with absolutely no detail or evidence base behind it. The Prime Minister even spoke as if the Auckland property market was still rapidly appreciating whereas in actual fact it’s been flat to falling for the last year.

“Finally, if the idea gets over all the hurdles, would it actually work in terms of satisfying the concerns of our trading partners? It appears on the face of it that it would treat investors from other countries less favourably than New Zealand investors.

“This is a policy that’s designed to solve a political problem. Evidence in both Australia and here in New Zealand is that overseas buyers don’t have a significant impact on the housing market.”

Eric Crampton writes on the issue at Offsetting Behaviour and asks whether those on work-to-residence visas will be able to buy houses under this policy.

Even if they can, migrants on work visas will be caught by the ban. That will be many of the skilled people we need for jobs that we can’t find New Zealanders willing and able to do.

Liam Hehir also questions whether the proposal would be effective:

. . . Figures released earlier this year showed that home buyers without citizenship or residency accounted for about two percent of transferees. So while it might be effective as a ban, I wouldn’t be holding my breath about it doing much more than the scratching of a populist itch.

This will be popular but will it achieve its aim of making it easier for New Zealanders to buy houses?

Popular policy isn’t always good policy and only time will tell if this will help make housing more affordable without compromising any free trade agreements and deterring skilled migrants from coming here.


Don’t know or won’t tell?

October 31, 2017

Labour is being loud about what it wants to do, but quiet about what it will cost:

New Finance Minister Grant Robertson needs to front up on the new coalition government’s spending plans and not make inaccurate excuses, National Party Finance Spokesperson Steven Joyce says.

“Mr Robertson has done two long-form interviews over this weekend and yet New Zealanders are still none the wiser about the cost of the coalition’s programme and the impact on their back pockets.

“Saying that he won’t reveal the numbers because he didn’t have access to the public service to prepare them as he did on TV3’s The Nation, is just not good enough,” Mr Joyce says.

“All parties in post-election coalition negotiations were given access to the public service to cost their commitments so that excuse just doesn’t wash.

“That sounds like someone who simply doesn’t want to reveal the numbers.

“He’s either had them costed and doesn’t like what they add up to, or not had them costed. Either way it’s not a reassuring start.

“New Zealand’s healthy government accounts are the product of the hard work of millions of Kiwis. They are entitled to know how much has gone out of their collective pockets in the process of forming this government.

“They also have a right to know whether the new government’s spending plans in actual dollars will match the cast-iron commitments Labour repeatedly made before the election.

“Mr Robertson is already acknowledging his budget is ‘very tight’ and ‘ambitious’.

He needs to front up quickly with the cost of this coalition.”

Whether it’s fair or not, Labour is perceived to be weak on  financial literacy. This silence on costs adds evidence to that perception.

Either they know and won’t say, which begs the question, what are they hiding?

Or they simply don’t know, which is irresponsible and incompetent.

The outgoing National-led government left the government books in a very healthy state with plenty in the kitty and forecasts of on-going surpluses.

The incoming government either can’t work out how much they’re planning to spend, or have worked it out and won’t tell us, both of which are unacceptable.


More tax and bigger budget hole

September 14, 2017

Labour has been frightened into saying it won’t implement any recommendations of its tax working group until after the 2020 election.

But a Labour led government would still add the water,  regional fuel and visitor taxes; reverse the income tax cuts that every party but Labour voted for; and bring farming into the ETS.

And if they don’t introduce new taxes their Budget will have a bigger hole.

A Taxpayers’ Union media release points out:

The Taxpayers’ Union says Labour can’t have it all ways, pointing out that Labour’s manifesto is costed at $23 billion over the next Parliamentary term, second only to New Zealand First.

“Labour have done the right thing in committing to put any capital gains or land tax to the vote,” says Jordan Williams, the group’s Executive Director. “But without new revenue, and having promised new spending of $13,287 per New Zealand household, Labour need to explain what spending they’ll cut in order for Grant Robertson to keep to the Party’s debt targets.”

“Two plus two doesn’t equal five.  Labour can’t credibly promise to hike spending, keep to their debt limits, but also say they won’t hike taxes.  It just doesn’t add up.” . . 

The only way to spend more without taking more in tax is to increase debt.

Labour’s fiscal plan shows it would reduce debt more slowly than National would.

The plan also had a hole, unless you believe a Labour-led government would run zero Budgets.

Ruling out a Land and Capital Gains Tax in the next term is the right thing to do but it will make the hole in Labour’s budget bigger.

 


Labour’s plan too tight to work

September 6, 2017

The varied opinions on the size of the hole in Labour’s budget remind me of the one-liner if you lay every economist in the world end to end you’d still not reach a conclusion.

However, while there is debate on the size of the hole, there is agreement that Labour’s fiscal plan is too tight to work.

Pattrick Smellie writes:

Labour’s numbers are nothing like as compromised or wrong as Joyce claimed, but it requires some heroic assumptions about Labour’s ability to control all spending outside health and education to believe the numbers it’s published.

In other words, Joyce has claimed a worst case scenario. Robertson is claiming best case.

On that basis, it’s entirely reasonable to split the difference in the interests of trying to explain what’s at stake here, and to conclude that Labour’s forecasts will turn out to be anything between $4b and $6b short of its published fiscal plan, should it form a government after September 23.

If Labour turns out to be a spendthrift government, then Joyce’s alleged $11.7b miscalculation could prove to be too little.

Alternatively, if Labour turns out to be an unexpectedly tight-fisted government in a time of endless forecast Budget surpluses, its spending under-estimation might be far less than my punt of a $4b to $6b shortfall. . .

Looking at Labour’s record, its  policies and the threat of more taxes, could anyone have any confidence that it would be tight-fisted?

It has fought tooth and nail against every single efficiency National has introduced over the last nine years. It can’t be trusted to ntroduce more efficiencies.

Even if the leopard changed its spots it is irresponsible to leave nothing in the kitty for inevitable expensive eventualities.

We’ve had natural and financial disasters in the last few years, only fools would bet on no more in the next few.


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