The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 08th June 2015
(E-Paper (Print Edition): http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-06-08/page-9)
Federal Budget: An Objective View
By: Omer Zaheer Meer
The wait is over. One of the most awaited events of year, the federal budget was announced on Friday, 05th June 2015. The incumbent government has claimed it to be a historic one as all governments do while the opposition saw only red as the oppositions normally do. The reality however lies somewhere in the middle. There have been some positive steps that should be appreciated while others are left to be desired.
To understand the current budget better we need to review the performance of the last fiscal year as per the Economic Survey 2014-15 released by the finance ministry. As per the data released, inflation has reached the lowest level of this decade with substantial improvements in the foreign exchange reserves. This has resulted in State Bank of Pakistan reducing the discount rate at 7%, the lowest in last four decades.
While the issue of sukuk bonds and receipt of loans and donations were a direct result of governmental decisions, the improvements mentioned above were largely due to a key factor not affected by the governmental policies, that was the reduced oil import costs and resultant reduced inflation in the country due to material reduction in oil prices in the international market. Furthermore, manufacturing and agriculture sector which are the prime drivers of economy and employment opportunities haven’t shown the improvements expected. Private sector is sluggish and the cherished dream of the Tax-GDP ratio in line with the developed economies remained a dream.
With this backdrop and an economic growth rate of 4.24% the federal budget 2015-16 was supposed to overcome the shortcomings mentioned above and in several article before. Some key proposals were provided on these pages on Monday, 1st June 2014 in an article titled “Budgetary Dreams”. It was good to see some of the proposals getting implemented like the announcement of rebate on solar-panels and provision of concessionary loans to small farmers for some solar-powered projects. Similarly the incentives to the construction industry and rebates announced for the rice manufacturers are positive steps too. What’s interesting is that incentives announced has been for small farmers owning less than 12.5 acres of landholding, thereby substantiating the perspective that those over this threshold should have been brought within the tax net.
On the other hand, the critical proposals including bringing agricultural sector within the tax net and using the proceeds to subsidize provision of free or low-cost water and electricity to the sector has been ignored. Creating a new body for providing seeds, fertilizers and all other necessities to farmers at discounted prices due to the volume of business with the mandate of buying all crops from the farmers at the Government approved rates and supplying them to various industries and markets, thereby ensuring the farmers getting their dues while the stockists’ induced shortages and inflation getting stemmed out has not been implemented either.
While almost a 14% increase has been announced in the federal budget for education, which must be appreciated, the promised level of 5% of budget still remains a dream. Similarly the research and human resource development proposals have not been incorporated into the budget despite their importance for a modern national economy. As elaborated in previous write-ups, the impact of this allocation may not have been very drastic in terms of volume post 18th amendment but it would have been a strong signal and precedent for the provinces to pursue.
There was a hue and cry over a paltry 7.5% rise in the salaries of federal employees particularly considering the inflation levels. While the finance ministry has defended this citing certain limitations, there is much left to be desired and an increase of at-least 15% was very much realistic and achievable.
However the most shocking oversight was yet again ignoring the proposals of broadening tax base that has been presented to the various ministry officials for over a decade now. Once again the computerized national identity card (CNIC) has not been declared as the National Tax Number (NTN) and Sales Tax Registration Number (STRN) for all citizens. This could not only have made it extremely easy for any Pakistani to start a business having both the NTN and STRN, hence promoting a culture of entrepreneurship but would also have helped broaden the tiny existing tax base as the number of filers and ultimately taxpayers are forecasted to increase with the increasing documented nature of the businesses.
Continuing from this, the proposal of focusing more on a progressive direct tax regime is deferred once again. While there is no substantial change in the ratio of the direct taxes to indirect taxes, the positive reductions on the focus on indirect taxes is missing. The current policy of relying more on indirect taxes in the shape of customs duty, sales tax, federal excise duty, petroleum levy, gas infrastructure cess, natural gas surcharge and others will give rise to inflation and increased productivity costs leading to lower exports and purchasing power. The costs of this policy certainly outweigh the benefits. Similarly the volume over tax rate policy could have helped increase the tax net and the tax to GDP ratio by substantially reducing the tax rates, making it economically feasible to pay taxes instead of using the costly means to avoid them.
Although the budget is supposed to be a benchmark to act as both a planning and a control tool, this has not been the case for quite some time now. With all sorts of mini-budgets and flexible forecasting, the budget has been reduced to a mere constitutional formality that is met every year. Let us hope that the most important proposals not incorporated in the proposed budget may get the attention of our lawmakers and make way into any policy changes.
The author is Director of the think-tank “Millat Thinkers’ Forum”. He is a leading economist, CFA Charterholder, experienced fellow Chartered Certified Accountant and anti-money laundering expert with international exposure who can be reached on Twitter and www.myMFB.com @OmerZaheerMeer or firstname.lastname@example.org