The Cherished Dream of Budget

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 1st June 2015

(E-Paper (Print Edition)http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-06-01/page-9)

(Onlinehttp://nation.com.pk/business/01-Jun-2015/the-cherished-dream-of-budget)

The cherished dream of budget

 (Budgetary Dreams)

Prof Dp

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

“I have a dream”. These were the famous words uttered at a junction of history which saw a drastic change in the United States of America. With the budget looming around the corner, this scribe too has a dream to share with the readers.

The dream starts with the federal budget of Islamic Republic of Pakistan having just been announced. There are widespread celebrations across the country, for many of the promised reforms have been delivered with path for a longer term change laid down. Pakistan Muslim League’s government has fulfilled its commitments despite some very challenging circumstances. Some of the major reforms and steps taken along-with their justifications, as outlined by the finance minister Mr. Ishaq Dar are detailed below.

Tax Facilitation: Several steps have been taken to reform the taxation system and structures. Firstly the computerized national identity card (CNIC) has been declared as the National Tax Number (NTN) and Sales Tax Registration Number (STRN) for all citizens. This has not only made it extremely easy for any Pakistani to start a business having both the NTN and STRN, hence promoting a culture of entrepreneurship but is also expected to help 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.

Corporate and Agricultural Exemptions: Furthermore exemptions on various businesses as well as the agricultural sector have been withdrawn. This is expected to generate substantial additional revenue as these sectors constitute 30 to 40 percent of national economy as per various studies. These sections have previously been out of the tax net without any substantial benefit to the GDP despite the relaxation. Therefore the Government has now decided to instead facilitate the farmers to increase the productivity as outlined below while ensuring the agricultural sector is brought within the tax-net.

Tax Volume over Margin: Moreover to make taxation less cumbersome and support the initiatives aimed at broadening of the tax base, the strategy of volume over margin has been pursued in that the tax rates have been drastically cut for both individuals and businesses to the lowest level in the entire region. This has not only positioned Pakistan as one of the most tax-attractive destinations in the region with substantial forecasted investments expected to create job opportunities in the country particularly in the power, agriculture and textile sectors but has also created an incentive for businesses and individuals to pay their due taxes, being less cumbersome than the cost of avoiding it with the threat of stringent possible penalties.

Free electricity & water for Agriculture: Another long-awaited major reform to turnaround the ailing economy in an agricultural country has also been taken. Keeping in view of the fact that the Indian Punjab’s output and productivity has been surpassing Pakistan’s and contributing materially to the Indian economic strategy, the Ministry of Finance has given its strategic vision to place Pakistan as the agricultural leader in the region. Water and electricity are declared free for agriculture for those farmers having small holdings or renting the land. The taxes raised from agricultural sector are mostly reserved to fund this initiative.

Further Agricultural Reforms: Furthermore a new body has been created to buy all crops from the farmers at the Government approved rates and supply them to various industries and markets, thereby ensuring the farmers will get their due while the stockists’ induced shortages and inflation can be stemmed out. Furthermore all seeds, fertilizers and other necessities can be brought through this body at discounted rates which has already listed all major quality suppliers in its approved lists. The volume of potential business has motivated suppliers to offer discounted rates in the hopes of additional business increasing their profitability and helping them expand, in turn creating more job opportunities.

HR development & Educational Reforms: To promote the culture of learning and human resource development, the listing criteria of stock exchanges now includes a requirement for the companies to annually spend atleast 1% of their total revenue on the education and/or professional trainings of their workers. Also, new non-corporate businesses spending more than 2% of their turnover on the education and training of their workers are offered tax rebates. These steps are topped up by an increased budgetary allocation of 5% to the education. The impact of this allocation is not very drastic post 18th amendment but is a strong signal and precedent for the provinces to pursue.

Further reforms to support HR development, Education & Entrepreneurship: Supporting the drive for education and entrepreneurship, Government has required all banking institutions to lend interest-free, atleast 5% of their total business to students and startups without any guarantees. To provide assurances to the banks, a fund has been launched backed by insurance to provide monthly returns to the banks to compensate for the loss of interest income while the fund along-with the insurance serves to act as a guarantee for abnormal bad debts in this sector.

Short-term Energy Reforms: Besides the CPEC and other energy projects, to address the severe energy shortage in the shorter term, the solar energy sector has been given a tax-break for five years with a requirement to cap margins at 15%, in order to ensure the benefits of the cost reduction will be passed on to the masses. This step is expected to assist in resolving the severe energy shortage problem in the shorter term as the cost of setting up solar energy systems has been one of the biggest hindrances in its widespread use despite Pakistan’s climate been extremely conducive for it. Furthermore windmill energy sector has also been extended the same favor to capitalize on its potential for cheap electricity generation with minimal initial investment and running costs.

It was here, that this writer woke up. The sadness on missing many more positive reforms engulfed me but the realization struck that this is the same sadness that engulfs every Pakistani post budget every year. Let’s hope and pray that this year will be different.

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 omerzaheermeer@hotmail.co.uk

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Pak economy: curing cancer with anti-fever medicines?

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 4th May 2015

(E-Paper (Print Edition)http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-05-04/page-9)

(Onlinehttp://nation.com.pk/business/04-May-2015/pak-economy-curing-cancer-with-anti-fever-medicines)

Pak Economy: Curing Cancer with Anti-Fever Medicines?

 Prof Dp

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

Due to some personal engagements, a write-up dated 22nd March 2015 by Mr. Ejaz Wasti, a gentleman working for finance ministry, questioning my 16th March 2015 article published in The Nation, titled “IMF-Driven policies: Destroying Economy & inciting revolts?” missed my attention. Recently it was brought to my notice. The initial thought was to let it be but the lack of substance all but forced this scribe to pen this piece in the hopes that it may be taken not as a rebuttal but as constructive feedback aimed at helping the decision makers improve for the betterment of our beloved Pakistan. For, while we appreciate the positive endeavors of our policy makers as evident from the past articles of this writer, pointing out the shortcomings is also our moral obligation.

Unfortunately Mr. Wasti ignored important questions raised in the original article of 16th March and instead focused on inking a column seemed to have been compiled in a rush. What’s more tragic is that just days afterwards the denial penned by the gentleman, World Bank as well as Asian Development Bank issued damning reports vindicating this writers’ perspective while blowing off the lid of the misconstrued arguments of the finance ministry employee/consultant. It’d therefore be surprising to see how any neutral economist could possibly justify the worst growth rate in the region even below the likes of Afghanistan and Bhutan as outlined by the above mentioned reports?

It’s tragic that the stats often shared by certain quarters of the ministry reminds us of Mr. Shaukat Aziz who pursued similar gimmicks, building an economy on a bubble rather than on solid foundations of increasing GNP and GDP by focusing on national output. Remember, Shaukat’s bubble got busted not long after the end of his Government. This time around we don’t want a similar “feat” from a Government famous for its economic achievements.

Coming back to the 16th March write-up, some of the major questions were left unanswered including the fact that why the whole 500 billion payment to IPPs was made in one go without ensuring the availability of the loudly trumpeted “40%” unused capacity? Why the payment of this huge sum was not done in installments with ensuring availability of additional capacity in the national power system at the release of each tranche, particularly considering Pakistan went to IMF for a $ 6.7 billion installment based bailout package, 75% of which was paid to IPPs?

Furthermore, I humbly dare to question why has the circular debt again reached Rs. 600 billion, surpassing the previous level? Would it not have been better to focus on structural reforms and cutting the line losses as proposed earlier by this writer instead of treating it as a matter of wounded ego?

Furthermore as to the claims of adding 1700 MW “additional” capacity in the system by “IPPs”, can Wasti provide any evidence to this since it has not even been claimed by the IPPs or even the finance ministry represented by him. Having said that, the claims of forensic audits and verification by Ministry of the huge payments are commendable and should be released to the public, but the question of bypassing AG office was still left unanswered.

Next the scribe from finance ministry referred to income tax notices issued with the aim to broaden the tax base. Perhaps he should spare some time to check the ground realities. Never mind, let us try to assist our decision makers here.

Recently notices claiming no existing tax registration based on “economic activities”, usually citing vehicle purchases were sent out to masses. Sounds good? Hang on, what if it’s shared with you that many of those receiving these notices were not only tax payers already registered but paying millions in Income Taxes annually? This exemplifies a total lack of coordination within the systems and functions of FBR. Missing out on the records already held by FBR simply reinforces the misconceptions that Government policies are to bother the already registered tax payers and not to act as a facilitator or initiator of genuine drives to catch tax evaders. Instead of helping the underlying objective, the manner in which this drive is performed is actually pushing genuine tax payers on the brink of undesirable actions.

What’s tragic is that while on one hand such steps are undertaken citing the need to broaden the tax base but on the other hand proposals with huge potential to achieve a larger tax base such as brining agricultural income within the tax net as well as allowing use of CNIC as National Tax Numbers (NTN) and Sales Tax Registration Numbers (STRN) have been falling on deaf years for almost a decade now. Of late, there has been news that CNIC may finally be allowed as NTN. If done, this will be a step in the right direction.

Similarly the question about the petrol crises was also conveniently ignored. While repeating the point outlined by this writer that the incumbent Government did pass on some of the benefit of reduction in Oil prices in international market owning to political pressures, he again preferred to ignore the question of how much? As per last available data, Government of Pakistan amassed a benefit of $ 2 billion by the price reduction and as per most mainstream studies (as the government has not shared the exact data), not more than a quarter of this was passed on to the people of Pakistan. Perhaps the finance ministry can share exact data about this to enlighten us all in this regard.

To sum it up, let’s examine an extract from my original 16th March article: “While we can give some space to government’s economic team citing the tough challenges they inherited and are facing, what is unfortunate though is that even the steps possible within the ambit of Finance Ministry are not taken ……. the painful but obvious fact remains that the necessary reforms required to revamp the tax system and structures are not been followed either. Instead of extending the tax base by bringing in Agriculture and other exempt areas in the tax net the existing base is being taxed more along-with higher indirect taxes imposed on the common citizen, both of which are disastrous in the long run. Had we actually taken the tough but necessary decision to broaden our tax base and executed proper financial management especially in the power circular debt payment we would not need to go to the IMF. The lack of these reforms has led to exorbitant borrowings, with the internal borrowings alone reaching the mark of a trillion.”

With this, let’s conclude by asking whether those officials representing the present Government will review the IMF driven economic policies and carryout the necessary reforms while providing relief to the ordinary citizens or will they continue to focus more on short-term cosmetic measures without any bearing to the economic condition of a common man? Perhaps even more important is the question whether these officials have the stomach to digest constructive criticism and engage positively to ensure beneficial proposals for the national economy?

Links to both articles are as below:

http://nation.com.pk/business/16-Mar-2015/imf-driven-policies-destroying-economy

http://nation.com.pk/business/22-Mar-2015/pak-economy-the-right-perspective

The author is Director of the think-tank “Millat Thinkers’ Forum”. He is a leading economist, chartered financial analyst, fellow chartered certified accountant and certified anti-money laundering expert with international exposure who can be reached on Twitter and www.myMFB.com @OmerZaheerMeer or omerzaheermeer@hotmail.co.uk