The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 3rd August 2015
(E-Paper (Print Edition): http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-08-03/page-9)
Resolving the Banking Transactions’ Tax Crisis
By: Omer Zaheer Meer
As discussed on these pages before the controversial decision of levying a withholding tax on all banking transactions for non-filers (0.3% till September and increasing to 0.6% thereafter) with the underlying aim of broadening the tax base has not been able to gain acceptance in the presence of serious flaws within the taxation system along-with prevalent corrupt practices. Even if one ignores the increase in the inflationary pressures in the economy and the penalization of ordinary salaried class, the reservations of traders alone are sufficient to make this highly controversial. The disagreement on this matter has now reached a dead-lock between traders and the incumbent Government. So exactly what are their reservations and how can they be possibly addressed? Is there any possible solution for the same?
First of all the withholding tax introduced is more of a transactional tax then an income tax. But more importantly the issue at hand is one of a lack of trust in the system. Not only do the traders fear to be targeted unfairly once they bring themselves in the system to avoid the transactional tax, they haven’t seen the remedial procedures effectively providing relief in an event of witch-hunting by FBR either. Many economists are of the view that introducing new taxes to compensate for FBR’s failures is simply not the answer to Pakistan’s economic and tax woes. The reasons for FBR’s failures are numerous ranging from dissatisfaction amongst FBR’s employees to structural inefficiencies in the taxation system. They’re however not the topic for today and will be discussed at another time.
For now the issue of the trust deficit particularly in the business community is discussed. Besides very high rates of both direct and indirect taxes, the harassment by FBR and blockade of due refunds are often used as tactics by FBR officials to meet their targets. This actually puts off many genuine businessmen who would otherwise like to contribute their dues to the society. Therefore they claim to resort to the alternate in doing charity and stressing that they evade getting within the ambit of the formal documentation to avoid the horrible experiences many of their fellow traders have endured in their dealings with the FBR. None of these issues are of a nature which cannot be positively addressed. Infact this writer has repeatedly proposed several structural reforms including the ones addressing these very issues.
For example the policy of volume over rates can be pursued. It’d entail reducing all the taxation rates to single digits making it economically prohibitive to evade due to the higher costs of engaging professionals as well as fulfilling the demands of the corrupt officials within the tax apparatus. The focus will be to broaden the tax base using indirect taxes for this purpose while direct taxes can be applied on a progressive basis, increasing with the income brackets. If tunnel vision can be shunned then the positive potential of this can be envisioned. Currently less than 0.5% of the population files a return. The number has declined over past four years despite all the “efforts” for broadening the tax base. If this number can be increased to several millions with a consequential increase in the tax base and tax payers, one can envision the positive impact on tax collections.
It’ll be interesting for the readers to know that the honorable finance minister Mr. Ishaq Dar himself used to be a proponent of this proposal during his days of serving the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Surprisingly, now that he’s in a position to actually enforce this much needed reform, he’s shying away from it. Moreover the effective implementation of the relief mechanisms and laws can help assure the tax payer. The time limits for deciding the disagreements should also be enforced. For a change, the tax officials can be trained to respect the tax payer instead of treating them as an assumed criminal. Such measures can go a long way to win over the trust of the taxpayers in the system.
Even in the past negotiations between traders and Government officials, the issue of the undue nuances caused by FBR to genuine businessmen resulting in most businesses staying out of the system to avoid these troubles has been raised. Similarly promises were made with traders to review the exorbitantly high rates of withholding taxes deducted in advance. Some of these taxes are treated as non-adjustable even in case of a loss. Even those that are considered adjustable are extremely hard to recover as the FBR seems to have an unwritten rule regarding refusing even the genuine refunds to loss-making businesses when they need their cash the most. However the same FBR seems content to issue refunds to or defer recovery of tens of millions from influential parties. Such behavior doesn’t instill the trust in the business community.
The latest on this issue is the breakdown of the negotiations between Government and traders resulting in strikes been called and social media campaigns been setup. The reduced rate of 0.3% till September has also been turned down by the business community for the reasons discussed above. A successful strike was already observed with the traders threatening to go all out towards a civil disobedience. Government on the other hand has ordered investigations into the affairs of top leadership of traders.
Possible ramifications of this standoff can be damaging for the national economy and the issue needs to be resolved amicably. One possible solution can involve doing away with this transactional tax and reducing the withholding and sales tax rates immediately pending a review of other structural reforms in return for voluntary registration of a minimum number of businessmen. There are many other possible proposals to this effect too. The ball is now in Governments’ court to decide whether it is serious about introducing reforms to win over the tax payer and broaden the tax base or if it simply believes in coercive measures which may seem beneficial in meeting short-term targets but will surely cause damage in the longer-term.
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