Immovable Property Gambit: Impact on Stakeholders

The above titled article was published in the renowned Blue Chip Journal as an Op-Ed in it’s Oct – Dec 2016 edition.

Link to e-edition of the (Blue Chip) publication

Immovable Property Gambit: Impact on Stakeholders

ri-2810-2

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

The recent developments in the Federal Budget and later on in the Finance Act 2016 regarding immovable property shook the realty sector within Pakistan which was taken by surprise. Taxation is not just a mean to fund a Government but also a policy tool to impact the national economy, social behaviors, trends and developing institutions. Unfortunately, in Pakistan the impetus has mostly been on using taxation for filling up the coffers of treasury with seriously negative consequences.

Before proceeding with our topic, this writer will briefly define some of the vital concepts and then move onto the core issue; cover the current taxation regime for the realty sector particularly as governed by the Federal Government before concluding with an analysis of the major impact on key stakeholders including investors, property dealers, general public, traders and the Government.

Key Concepts:

Following are some of the vital concepts which are important to understanding the topic of this write-up:

  • Income Tax – a tax levied on the income of an individual or organization which varies with the level of income and is subject to local laws and regulations.
  • Capital Gains Tax – a tax levied on the gains accumulated on the sale/disposal of capital assets subject to certain conditions
  • Capital Gains – a gain arising on the disposal of a capital asset by a person in a tax year.
  • Depreciable Asset –means any tangible movable property, immovable property (other than unimproved land), or structural improvement to immovable property, owned by a person that —
  • has a normal useful life exceeding one year;
  • is likely to lose value as a result of normal wear and tear, or obsolescence; and
  • is used wholly or partly by the person in deriving income from business chargeable to tax,
  • Filer – a person who has filed his income tax return irrespective of the income and/or tax declared.
  • Non Filer – a person who is not a filer.
  • Capital Assets: – Section 37(5) of Income Tax Ordinance 2001 states:

 “capital asset” means property of any kind held by a person, whether or not connected with a business, but does not include —

  • any stock-in-trade [ ], consumable stores or raw materials held for the purpose of business;]
  • property with respect to which the person is entitled to a depreciation deduction under section 22 or amortisation deduction under section 24; [or]
  • any movable property [excluding capital assets specified in sub-section (5) of section 38] held for personal use by the person or any member of the person’s family dependent on the person[.]

Tax Avoidance Culture:

Unfortunately there is a widespread tax-avoidance culture in Pakistan with people not seeing value or duty in paying due taxes. To put things in perspective, out of a population of 200 million, just over a million taxpayers file returns in Pakistan which comes up to about 0.5% of the population. Even out of this, a large number files Nil tax returns.

Salaried individuals end up paying their due taxes, not by choice but as a result of being bound by the law requiring their employers to deduct the due income tax on their salary in advance.

On the other hand, the rich and powerful segments are either exempt by law (large landowners) or pay miserly taxes as compared to their lifestyles and incomes. This includes influential people from almost all segments of society be it politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, generals, professional or others. This leads to a culture where tax is seen as an unnecessary and avoidable burden instead of a duty and cost of living/doing business.

Reasons for the Prevailing Culture:

There are many reasons for this unfortunate prevailing trend. The key ones are listed below:

  • lack of trust in Government
  • lack of public facilities
  • lack of quality health, education and law and order facilities
  • corruption of Government officials
  • harassment by taxation officials
  • structural issues within the taxation system
  • regressive taxation policies
  • high incidence of taxes on a very low tax base
  • no or minimum tax paying culture by the rich and the powerful
  • culture of law violation
  • perception that it is better and easier to remain outside the documented economy

 

Filer and Non-Filer Differentiation:

To address some of the above issues and in order to entice masses to become part of the documented economy, the FBR and thereby the Government came up with a productive and results-oriented strategy. For the past two years, there’s been a growing policy of differential tax rates for filers and non-filers.

This introduces an incentive for the people to start filing their income tax returns. Moreover, as even a nil return (where no income is reported and/or no tax is due) serves the purpose, this further increases the incentive.

However, due to the issues listed above, a majority of the people believe it to be better to avoid filing returns and becoming part of the system, more so for the fear of harassment by tax officials. So, as outlined many times before, unless structural reforms are carried out within the taxation system, such measures will not achieve the full results they’re aimed at.

The Issue:

Despite the presence of the concept of Fair Market Value in the taxation laws, for too long immovable property has been valued in Pakistan at the rates commonly referred to as the “DC Rates”. These rates are heavily undervalued. For example a property in DHA Lahore maybe selling for PKR 25,000,000 but the DC rates would be around PKR 6,000,000.

As a result of this, the capital gains taxes were either avoided or paid on extremely low values at low rates. This led to the creation of an attractive opportunity for undocumented, untaxed and black money to be “parked” in the realty sector which led to large-scale trading of properties rather than actually building houses and property units despite a serious shortage of over 9 million housing units as per State Bank of Pakistan presenting a huge business opportunity. Although local investors and families did construct housing units but the bulk of the investment went to mere trading to drive up property prices and create non-sustainable profits for the investors.

The size of the black money involved is conservatively estimated at PKR 6 to 7 trillion. Unsurprisingly, due to heavy investments in realty sector, property prices for the past many years sky-rocketed, growing at astronomical but non-sustainable rates, lacking economic fundamentals. This, coupled with the “tax-efficient” black money parking, created a very alluring and largely undocumented investment opportunity as people even started trading “files” without transferring properties in their names to avoid the taxes altogether.

The Initiative:

In view of the issues and strategies discussed above, this year the Federal Government on behest of the FBR decided to move a step further, this time targeting the real estate sector.

Furthermore, with the idea of a massive increase in tax revenues, possibility of bringing part of the seven trillion Rupees wealth within the documented economy and most importantly the pressure for international lenders providing the necessary motivation, the Government decided to take an initiative.

The Finance Act 2016 made an amendment in the Income Tax Ordinance 2001 by introducing the concept of Fair Market Valuation of immovable property by a panel of valuers notified by State Bank of Pakistan, one of the stronger regulators in Pakistan, as taxable value.

Moreover the requisite holding period for Capital Gains Tax exemption was increased from 2 to 5 years and higher rates of Capital Gains Tax were introduced.

Outcry:

This caused severe panic and fear amongst investors, property traders and dealers. Most important for them was the message and the manner in which the new taxation policy was decided without taking them on board. They feared that the intense focus on realty sector would lead to them being asked about their existing wealth and past transactions and consequently they anticipated heavy penalties and tax liabilities on account of the past transactions.

The key issues which made the realty sector anxious were as below:

  • higher taxation
  • hassle and harassment by FBR
  • a valid concern that the valuation by SBP’s valuers would be highly subjective and non-standardized.
  • Section 111 of the Income Tax Ordinance 2001 regarding unexplained income and assets may be invoked regarding past transactions.

This resulted in almost a suspension of property trading and protest preparations across the country.

Capital Flight:

As one would expect, the situation resulted in a capital flight. Besides other destinations, most of the capital flight was destined towards UAE by some of the investors. To put things in perspective, as per Dubai Land Department, Dubai had already seen Pakistanis investing US $ 4.9 billion in last 2.5 years. Now with this increase flight and market panic, the Government feared a melt-down not previously taken into account properly.

Negotiations:

This led to the Government initiating a series of negotiations aiming at reaching a middle ground with the key stakeholders as the consequences seemed to be more than those predicted by the decision makers.

After a series of repeated rounds of negotiations, a compromise was reached between the Government and the key stakeholders, which was implemented by way of an Ordinance.

Settlement:

The compromise reached resulted in the current position which is as below:

  • FBR in consultation with the representatives of various organizations from the realty sector has agreed valuation for major towns. These valuations are above the DC rates but still much below the current market valuations.
  • These FBR valuations will be used as a basis for taxation of immovable property. Where these are not available, the DC rates will continue to be used. FBR will revise these rates from time to time.
  • The holding period for exemption from CGT is reduced from 5 to 3 years with the CGT charged at different rates in three slabs for each of the holding period.
  • A differential treatment has been introduced for immovable property acquired before or on and/or after 1st July 2016.
  • Exemptions from CGT and Advance Income Tax on immovable property, for families of Shahuda and Government officers have been introduced.

Compromise on Fair Market Valuation:

The amendment to introduce State Bank of Pakistan’s approved valuators has been amended in favor of valuations issued by FBR in consultations with key stakeholders and giving FBR the powers to revise these rates in future too.

FBR issued 22 SROs covering valuations for residential and commercial properties in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Gujrat, Jhang, Bahawalpur, Sahiwal, Hyderabad, Jhelum, Rawalpindi, Multan, Sukkur, Quetta, Abbottabad, Peshawar, Sialkot, Mardan, Gujranwala, Sargodha, Gwadar and Faisalabad effective from 31st July 2016.

These have been divided into 3 categories:

  • Residential (including flats)
  • Commercial Area
  • Industrial Area

4 measuring parameters have been used for different areas based on per:

  • Acres
  • Marlas
  • Square Yards
  • Square Feet

Compromise on Holding Period:

The holding period required for exemption from Capital Gains Tax has been reduced from the proposed five (5) years to three (3) years.

Compromise on CGT Rates:

The new table of Capital Gains Tax rates is as below:

Exemptions and Reductions:

For immovable property allotted to the following persons, the CGT would be 0% irrespective of the holding period:

  • A seller, if the seller is dependent of:

(i) a Shaheed belonging to Pakistan Armed Forces; or

(ii) a person who dies while in the service of the Pakistan Armed Forces      or the Federal and Provincial Governments; and

(b) to the first sale of immovable property which has been acquired or allotted as an original allottee, duly certified by the official allotment authority.”

Moreover, Capital Gain Tax have been reduced by 50% in case of first sale of immovable property acquired or allotted to ex-servicemen and serving personnel of Armed Forces, Federal and Provincial Governments, being original allottee of the property and duly certified by the allotment authority.

Calculating CGT:

Gain arising on the disposal of immovable property by a person in a tax year (none after holding for three years), shall be chargeable to tax in that year under the head Capital Gains at the rates specified in Division VIII of Part I of the First Schedule.]

The gain (and thereby the CGT) arising on the disposal of a capital  asset by a person shall be computed in accordance with the following formula, namely:–

(A – B) x T, where

A         is the fair market value as determined under sub-sections (4) or (5) of Section 68 of INCOME TAX ORDINANCE 2001; and

B         is the cost of the asset.

T         is the applicable CGT rate

For the purposes of determining component B (the cost of the asset) of the formula amount shall be included in the cost of a capital asset for any expenditure incurred by a person –

  • that is or may be deducted under another provision of Income Tax Ordinance 2001; or
  • that is referred to in section 21 (Deductions not allowed).

NB: Any selling expenditures and ancillary costs of acquisitions are included in B.

Current Immovable Property Taxation Regime:

Currently both federal and provincial governments have levied their taxes on the realty sector.

The federal taxes (impacted by the changes introduced) are as below:

  • Advance Income Tax (Adjustable) on Buyer (Section 236K of INCOME TAX ORDINANCE 2001)
  • Advance Income Tax (Adjustable) on Seller (Section 236C of INCOME TAX ORDINANCE 2001)
  • CGT (Section 37 & 38 of INCOME TAX ORDINANCE 2001)
  • Fair Market Value (Section 68 of INCOME TAX ORDINANCE 2001)
  • Unexplained Income or Assets (Section 111 of INCOME TAX ORDINANCE 2001)
  • Valuation of Assets (Rule 228 of Income Tax Rules 2002)

The provincial taxes (unaffected by the changes discussed) are as below:

  • CVT (Capital Value Tax)
  • Stamp Duty
  • Property Registration Fee
  • Transfer of Immovable Property Tax (TMA)

Federal vs Provincial Domains:

The matter of levying taxes on realty sector is controversial as post 18th Amendment Capital Gains Tax has effectively fallen in the Provincial domain whereas trading income remains in the Federal domain. However, FBR is of the view that this is well within their domains.

The matter is currently in litigation and decision of the honorable courts will have a serious impact on the future outlook.

Out of Sight Real Issue:

More important than CGT rates or holding period is the classification of income earned from the realty sector. Investors frequently trading properties may find themselves in a tougher spot re taxation as their gains will likely be classified as income from business which is taxed at much higher rates.

Therefore, the classification of the gains from realty should have been taken up as a more important priority than Capital Gains Taxes.

Clearing Misunderstandings:

  • While proceedings cannot be initiated under Section 122 of the Income Tax Ordinance 2001 as per decision of Honorable SCP (2009 PTD 1279), Commissioners Inland Revenue can ask to explain the source of any explained income or asset (investment made in immovable property) on the basis of other information (undisclosed bank account, property, e.t.c.)
  • Hence this section can be applied and is a major concern for those affected.
  • Opportunity to be heard and provide and explanation are given
  • So practically, section 111 of INCOME TAX ORDINANCE 2001 may still be invoked.

Valuations for the Purposes of Section 111 of ITO:

FBR’s valuation tables are to be used for the purposes of Section 111 (Unexplained Income or Assets) of Income Tax Ordinance 2001. Where not notified by FBR, the valuation of Immovable property for the purposes of Section 111 shall be as below:

in the case of open plot, the value determined by the development authority or government agency on the basis of the auction price in respect of similar plots in the area where the plot in question is situated or in case where such value is not determined, the value fixed by the District Officer Revenue or provincial authority authorized in this behalf for the purposes of stamp duty;

in the case of agricultural land, the value equal to the average sale price of the sales recorded in the revenue record of the estate in which the land is situated for the relevant period or time; or

in the case of constructed immovable property, value shall be determined at the fair market value as defined in section 68 or the value fixed by the District Officer (Revenue) whichever is higher.

Income Tax on Builders:

The taxes on builders and developers by FBR are different. A tax is levied on the profits and gains of a person deriving income from the business of construction and sale of residential, commercial or other buildings at the rates  specified  below (Division VIIIA of Part I of the First Schedule):

(A) Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad (B) Hyderabad, Sukkur, Multan, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Sahiwal, Peshawar, Mardan, Abbottabad, Quetta (C) Urban Areas not specified in A and B
For commercial buildings
Rs. 210/ Sq Ft Rs. 210/ Sq Ft Rs. 210/ Sq Ft
For residential buildings
Area in Sq. ft Rate/ Sq. Ft Area in Sq. Ft Rate/ Sq. Ft Area in Sq. Ft Rate/ Sq. Ft
Up to750 Rs. 20 Up to750 Rs. 15 Up to 750 Rs. 10
751 to 1500 Rs. 40 751 to 1500 Rs. 35 751 to 1500 Rs. 25
1501 & more Rs. 70 1501 and more Rs. 55 1501 and more Rs. 35


Income Tax on Developers:

Similarly a fixed tax is levied on the profits and gains of a person deriving income from the business of development and sale of residential, commercial or other plots at the rates below (Division VIIIB of Part I of the First Schedule):

(A) Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad (B) Hyderabad, Sukkur, Multan, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Sahiwal, Peshawar, Mardan, Abbottabad, Quetta (C) Urban Areas not specified in A and B
For commercial Plots
Rs. 210/ Sq Yd Rs. 210/ Sq Yd Rs. 210/ Sq Yd
For residential Plots
Area in Sq. Yd Rate/ Sq. Yd Area in sq. Yd Rate/ Sq. Yd Area in Sq. Yd Rate/ Sq. Yd
Up to 120 Rs. 20 Up to 120 Rs. 15 Up to 120 Rs. 10
121 to 200 Rs. 40 121 to 200 Rs. 35 121 to 200 Rs. 25
201 and more Rs. 70 201 and  more Rs. 55 201 and more Rs. 35


Common themes of Tax on Builders & Developers:

  • It shall be computed by applying the relevant rate of tax to the area of the residential, commercial or other plots for sale.
  • The above tables applies to projects undertaken for development and sale of residential, commercial or other plots initiated and approved after the 1st July, 2016.
  • The aim is to introduce an “incentive” to declare real value of immovable property as the taxes by builders and developers are “fixed” by area, though one can argue as to the attractiveness of this “incentive”.

Major impact on key stakeholders:

As a result of the measures introduced by the Federal Government discussed above, the realty market in Pakistan has become stagnant. There has been capital flight and some correction in prices in a few areas. Let us briefly analyze the impact upon each of the major stakeholder group identified in the beginning:

Investors:

The investors are the one hit hard if not the hardest. They’ve virtually stopped further investments into the realty sector and most are holding onto their existing investments, pursuing a wait and see policy in the hopes of an impending amnesty scheme, expected to ease off the fears and therefore the pressure on the real estate market.

Property Dealers:

The magnitude of the property deals and thereby the business, for property dealers fell significantly. There are still some needs based transactions but not at the levels prior to July 2016.

Moreover, as many property dealers were also acting as investors or partial investors, they’re also negatively impacted in that area too.

General Public:

The impact on general public is more complicated. There are those that were involved in the business of or held immovable properties and are negatively impacted by the current situation.

However, with a shortage of nine million housing units as per SBP and the bulk of realty investment going in trading rather than actual construction, further fuelling the price bubble of property beyond economically justifiable fundamentals, the current pressure on realty sector is viewed with a sense of relief.

The masses hope that if the trend continues, ultimately the trading investors will have to liquidate their investments and move away which can lead to a down-ward correction in the property prices. Furthermore, hopefully atleast part of the investment may end up in the actual construction sector addressing the severe shortage of housing units in the country.

Traders/Businesses:

Ordinary traders are also impacted in more than one ways. Firstly the drop in realty sector’s attractiveness may open up more capital access for other business opportunities.

However, as there is a possibility of a snowball effect in the economy, if not properly managed the negative effects can spillover from the realty sector into other economic areas too.

Last but not the least, many of the traders are themselves invested in the realty sector too which makes them exposed to the same concerns as other investors.

Government:

The Federal Government is hoping to achieve several goals. They believe if there is a proper implementation, their initiatives can lead to the following:

  • down-ward adjustment in immovable property prices making them relatively affordable for masses
  • increased taxation revenue for the Government
  • investment diversion towards more “productive” segments such as construction and other businesses within the country due to the realty sector losing its’ previous attractions and the other sectors becoming more economically viable for investors

Proposal:

In order to achieve the desired purposes of an increase in the tax base and a better documented economy along-with a focus on actual construction of housing units rather than just mere trading of plots, the Federal Government should:

  • bring structural reforms within the taxation regime
  • do away with the overwhelmingly subjective powers of tax officials in favor of objective ones
  • follow volume over margin policy by introducing a single digit tax rate to minimize the cost of tax avoidance
  • introduce tax rebates and a tax-free period for the construction sector
  • address the fears of the stakeholders positively to bring them on board
  • run a campaign to educate masses about the importance of taxation backed by actions to tax the rich and the powerful

Another Amnesty:

There’s been news of another impending amnesty scheme doing rounds in the power corridors. The aim is to address the concern of the property investors re past transactions and unexplained income and assets. The basic structure of such a scheme is proposed to allow whitening of the past wealth by paying a meager single digit tax.

However, it may meet the same fate as the now infamous “Voluntary Tax Compliance Scheme” launched for traders earlier this year if it does not address the key concerns of the realty sector stakeholders. They are currently more in favor of the new law applying to future transactions and blanket amnesty re all past transactions without any cost to them.

How things pan out in the future will depend a lot on this scheme and how things shape up. Only time will tell if the boom in the realty sector is over or the powerful investors and stakeholders in this key sector of economy will be back with a bang!

The author is Managing Partner of Millennium Law & Corporate Company and 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 and can be reached at ozmeer@mlcc.pk

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Budget 2016: Reforms vs Jugglery

The following is the original draft of the research article published in the renowned “Blue Chip” journal as an Op-Ed  in its July – September 2016 Edition.

Link to e-edition of Blue Chip:  http://www.bluechipmag.com/index.php/governance-234/251-reforms-vs-jugglery

Budget 2016: Reforms vs Jugglery

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By: Omer Zaheer Meer

The budget for financial year 2016-17 was unveiled amidst the usual accolades from the treasury benches and criticism from the opposition. As is the norm in political debates, mostly the balance was lost to prejudices and rationale took a back seat. There were a few exceptions though.

In line with the rational expectations, this research write-up will analyze whether the shortcomings that needed to be addressed in the budget including structural reforms in the taxation system, pursuing a progressive regime, introduction of economic reforms and improvements in controversial laws hampering the economy were actually addressed. In addition to examining if that was the case, recommendations to resolve the problems will also be briefly discussed.

The Numbers:

Mr. Ishaq Dar, the finance minister, proudly announced many positive indicators from the economic survey as below:

GDP growth                                                4.71 % vs a target of 5.1%

Tax-to-GDP ratio                                     8.4%

Population under the poverty line   29.50%

Inflation                                                      2.82%

Tax to GDP ratio                                       10.50%

Fiscal deficit                                               4.30%

Budget deficit                                              3.40%

Proportion of GDP spent on Health     0.42%

Literacy Rate                                              60.00%

Per capita income                                       $ 1,561

Foreign exchange reserves (billion)     $  21.6

Public debt Rs. 19,168 billion (Rs. 5,769 billion foreign and Rs. 13,399 billion domestic)

Luck, not wisdom?

All these indicators showed improvements compared to the previous fiscal year. However, the improvements have been largely due to the significant reduction in global petroleum products’ prices and the resulting savings.

It is unfortunate that the structural reforms and/or economic policies did not come into play when they’re needed the most. The rich dividends from the massive lucky break of a crash in global petro products did not translate into effective reforms delivering relief to the masses.

Once bitten, twice shy:

Once bitten, twice shy is a reality of life. The opposition, citing the previous example of Mr. Dar’s ministry when forging the numbers resulted in Pakistan having to pay penalty to international institutions, questioned the authenticity of these numbers. For example the inflation figure raised serious eyebrows and it was queried that what were the constituents and the changes in them from last year, used to calculate this figure. Leaving this debate for now, let’s examine some key figures, policies and analyze the impact on Pakistanis.

Foreign Trust’s Status Issue – Shadow of Panama:

A controversial amendment has been proposed in the Income Tax Ordinance, 2001 by way of an explanation to include foreign trusts within the ambit of trusts.

This amendment has serious implications regarding offshore trusts involving Pakistani citizens. Currently, in case of local trusts, the beneficiary is only required to disclose the interest in the wealth statement on receipt of benefit from the trust which is then considered as a dividend and taxed accordingly on receipt basis.

It is surprising that a Government pursuing positive policy re differentiation between filers and non-filers with stated aim of documenting the economy would chose to encourage non-documentation. Some detractors and particularly the opposition benches connect this to the ongoing Panama Scandal.

Proposed Solution:

In line with the state policy of economic documentation, an amendment should be made to require disclosure of interests in all trusts including foreign and local in the wealth statement at the time of filing the return.

This should give rise to greater transparency.

Let us examine some sector specific matters before proceeding into the analyses of other general areas:

Textile and five export oriented sectors:

Let’s move forward with a positive measure. The export of manufactured goods largely drives from five main sectors – textile, leather, sports goods, surgical goods and carpets. These five sectors are proposed to be a part of the zero-rated regime with the objective of “no tax, no refund”. Local sale of the finished products shall however be charged to Sales Tax at 5%. This is a partially good move of the Government.

As exports are generally zero-rated, the proposed regime, earlier introduced in 2004, effectively provides zero rating for inputs used in manufacturing of export sector goods.

Previously, same regime was withdrawn on account of abuse of the zero-rating regime in respect of good having multiple uses. However this time no refund policy means that the manufacturers would suffer with the input tax becoming their cost of business resulting in higher costs to be either borne by them or passed onto the customers while competing in a highly cost-competitive global market.

Most manufacturers do not have an integrated unit covering all processes from start to finish in Pakistan and stuff like packing materials, e.t.c. has to be purchased.

Proposed Solution:

Appropriate checks should be put in place to ensure the system will not be abused while allowing input tax adjustment as the local sale has already been brought within the ambit of taxation.

Measures for Agricultural Sector:

Agricultural sector is vital for Pakistan’s economy as it constitutes 21% of the GDP while employing 42.3% of the workforce.

The Government has introduced some positive relief measures for the Agricultural sector which had taken a severe hit particularly the cotton sector which declined by a drastic 28% in the last fiscal year.

While the reduction in the prices of fertilizers and electricity for agricultural tube wells along-with Rs. 10 billion subsidy are good steps they do not address the root-causes of the severe decline in the agricultural sector.

There have been no reforms or steps announced to address the major issues of:

  • Import of low quality and cheap agricultural produce from India
  • Issues of availability of quality seeds and the problematic imported seeds causing infertility in various belts
  • Lack of proper crop management system resulting in a crises both in the case of bumper crops and shortfall
  • Middle-men and mills taking advantage of the farmers who often are left with little more than the costs of production, discouraging them from cultivating certain crops
  • Lack of a proper flood management system where every other year make-shift arrangements are undertaken after heavy losses by flooding (once again no properly funded schemes announced to address this issue)
  • Lack of proper water storage facilities like “Kala Bagh Dam” and smaller “shorter-term completion” dams to address the growing issue of acute water shortages particularly for the tail lands. While funds have been announced for some dams like Diamer Bhasha, they’re long-term in nature and simply not sufficient.

Proposed Solution:

Structural reforms should be undertaken to address the core issues identified above in order to support the agricultural sector.

Also some key reforms in the taxation policy are required for this sector. The proposed reform should be undertaken along-with the policies volume over margin and increased impetus on direct taxation The agriculture sector should be taxed at a reasonable rate for large landlords with holdings over 12.5 acres, say 5%-7% and the revenue raised should be used to subsidize the water and electricity for the agriculture sector. This would enhance the yield, subsidize the worst hit small farmers and therefore help grow the GDP.

The detractors’ argument that there isn’t any income for feudal having large landholdings doesn’t stand. For if there is no income, they won’t have to pay any tax and if there is, as evident from their lavish lifestyles and tens of millions in bank accounts, then the due contribution to the sector and country in form of a low tax rate needs to be collected. Moreover, the other two reforms mentioned above will ensure that net impact on the sector will be lower as more direct taxes will help reduce the inflation and cost of production, creating opportunities for increased output and thereby GDP growth.

Services Sector:

Another vital sector for the economy is the services sector which has been one of the growth areas generating employment opportunities in the country.

While the good news is that the services sector exceeded the growth target, there were still core issues left unattended. Also, providers of IT services and IT enabled services, as defined in Clause (133) of Part I of Second Schedule, are also proposed to avail rationalized Minimum Tax Regime, subject to fulfillment of prescribed conditions. However, again this should be extended to all service providers.

One good step announced was that the FED on certain services which are now subject to provincial sales tax has been proposed to be withdrawn. This was merited post 18th amendment with the provinces in charge of sales tax on services.

However the core issue of leaving the minimum tax on services un-adjustable (Section 153(1)(b) ) of the Income Tax Ordinance 2001) has been left unresolved. This minimum tax is levied regardless of whether the service provider is profitable or loss-making. In case of the later, this tax will be paid from the capital reserves, effectively becoming a loss penalty on those investing in the services sector. This is an unfair burden while already having in place a turnover tax under Section 113 of the Income Tax Ordinance 2001 has created cost-competitiveness issues for the sector.

What this does is to increase the cost of business for the service sector, discouraging new entrants and SMEs by increasing the cost of capital and thereby assisting the existing players in creating a cartel.

As if that was not enough, a proposal has been made to withdraw them adjustment of input tax paid to provincial revenue authorities, effectively converting that into a cost for the business and creating liquidity issues.

Proposed Solution:

In the presence of Section 113 already dealing with minimum tax on turnover, the minimum tax should not be applicable on companies providing services. These should be subject to the normal tax regime (by reinstating the deleted clause 79, Part IV of Second Schedule).

As a minimum, this minimum tax should be made adjustable against future tax liabilities. This would have a net positive impact on the treasury in terms of increased revenues over the long term as the business eco-system will improve resulting in healthier growth in the sector translating into increased GDP and more tax monies into the coffers of the treasury.

As mentioned before, services sector has been one of the largest growing employer and contributing to national economy as well as the treasury. This should help expand the sector leading to improved revenue collections in the long term.

Health & Education:

Societies and modern economies are built upon social structures particularly education and health services. Unfortunately both have been severely neglected. Even the developed economies of the world with adequate infrastructure continue to spend a lion’s share on these areas but not so in Pakistan.

Only 0.42% of the GDP has been spent on health in the last fiscal year. Similarly, less than 1.75% has been falling under the head of education.

This is despite a severe crisis in both these sectors within the country. The biggest testament to the dismal condition of both these core areas of the society is the fact that anyone who can afford does not rely on the public health and education systems including the ruling elite itself.

Even as per the glossy figures of the National Economic Survey 2015-16, these areas are facing the following major issues:

  • 1,038 people to be attended by 1 doctor
  • 1 bed for the treatment of 1,613 people
  • 178 women out of every 100,000 die during child-birth due to inadequate medical facilities
  • High infant mortality rate
  • The claimed 60% literacy rate practically only refers to someone being able to “write” their names

Proposed Solution:

Atleast 5% and 6% of GDP should be allocated to education and health with ensuring the funds are not re-allocated to other heads during the year and actually spent on the development of these core areas currently in an abysmal state.

Having analyzed some key sectors, let us now move onto the important policy and other general areas:

Direct vs Indirect Taxes:

Currently, there are several types of indirect taxes levied within Pakistan including:

  • Customs Duty,
  • Sales Tax,
  • Federal Excise Duty,
  • Petroleum Levy,
  • Gas Infrastructure Cess,
  • Natural Gas Surcharge, e.t.c.

The proportion of indirect taxes to total taxation revenue remained largely the same as below:

Total Taxation Revenue
2015-16 2014-15
Rs in Billions Rs in Billions
Direct Taxes
           Income Tax 1539.00 1308.00
           Workers’ Welfare Fund 17.00 14.00
1556.00 1322.00
Indirect Taxes
           Sales Tax 1437.00 1230.00
           Customs Duty 413.00 349.00
           Federal Excise Duty 213.00 201.00
           Petroleum Levy 150.00 135.00
           Natural Gas Surcharge 35.00 32.00
           Gas Infrastructure Cess 145.00 145.00
           Others 7.00 6.00
2400.00 2098.00
Total Tax Revenue (TTR) 3956.00 3420.00
% of Direct Tax to TTR 39.33 38.65
% of Indirect Tax to TTR 60.67 61.35

As evident from the above table, there is a heavy reliance on indirect taxes which are supposed to be used as a tool to expand tax base and not to be used as a cash-cow to generate lion’s share of the taxation revenues.

All this focus on indirect taxation leads to inflationary pressures in the economy as increased prices translates into increased cost of production, services and living. The resulting impacts are hyper-inflationary in nature as there is a multiplicative rather than an additive element in the inflation passed-on at every level. This results in higher costs of doing business, which leads to declining exports and GDP due to the lack of cost competitiveness and missed opportunities.

Taxing the poor, funding the rich:

Moreover, while direct taxes are levied at higher rates to the income of those earning more, indirect taxes, on the other hand actually heavily tax those earning less.

To elaborate, let’s consider a feudal lord earning tens of millions in tax exempt income who pays the same amount and a very low proportion of tax compared to his total income on daily use items such as a bottle of milk as compared to his driver who pays the same amount of sales tax and thereby a higher proportion of his income as tax to the treasury. This is effectively a system where the poorer segments of society pay a higher proportion of taxes to fund the richer segments and the state.

Proposed Solution:

This increased reliance on indirect taxation is large due to the inability of the Government to widen the tax net instead of pursuing the policy of increasing the burden of indirect taxes on those already been heavily taxed.

What is astounding is why the Government is reluctant to use the databases of various Government institutions as well as the withholding tax database showing those people who have paid higher withholding tax rates of non-filers to expand the tax base.

Consider the magnitude of such a move and we haven’t even talked about the 3 million plus people living lavish lifestyle and not paying any income tax as per multiple FBR Chairmen. The solution is simple, a serious drive to expand the tax base using various databases and not ill-conceived amnesty schemes.

High Rates of Taxes:

Pakistan’s tax-to-GDP ratio is one of the lowest in the region. Despite increase in taxation revenues, it was a mere 8.4%, in comparison to:

  • India 14%
  • Sri-Lanka 13%
  • Indonesia 15% and
  • Malaysia 14%

One of the key reasons for this is the existing high taxation rate policy in Pakistan with tax rates being one of the highest in the region. This results in increased burden on those within the tax net and a lack of incentive to widen the tax base effectively.

To elaborate this point, consider existing rate of Sales Tax at an average of 17% in Pakistan, one of the highest in the region as compared to:

  • 36% in India
  • 10% in Indonesia and
  • 6% in Malaysia

Proposed Solution:

A policy of volume over margin should be pursued. As per some studies, the cost of tax evasion in Pakistan ranges between 6-8%. The number of income tax return filers (just filing returns and not those paying some tax) is just over a million.

If the tax rates are brought down to single digit and ideally within the range of tax evasion costs, along-with the structural reforms proposed in this research article, the filers’ base can be increased to 15-20 million. The net impact would be surplus revenue with a highly documented economy.

The increase in the tax base would more than compensate for the loss from lower rates. Currently Pakistan has one of the lowest tax bases and tax-to-GDP ratios in the region. If implemented this proposal can turn this around and increase them both substantially.

In order to address the reservations of some sections of bureaucracy in this regard, this can be launched as a pilot project in industry/city with a thin revenue contribution.

Mr. Ishaq Dar’s blast from the past:

It may be worth mentioning here that during a recent pre-budget event at the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), I was informed that this proposal of “volume over margin” was proposed by Mr. Dar during his tenure as President of the LCCI.

It may be pertinent to remind our honorable finance minister to recall and implement the reform, he himself used to support and which the majority of professionals and technocrats in the country believe to be a key element in readdressing the issues facing our economy.

Taxation policy lacking purpose:

The purpose of an effective taxation policy is not just to gather maximum revenue in the short-term but to create policies to drive a positive business eco-system where cost of doing business is reduced increasing competitiveness and creating employment opportunities resulting in expanding GDP and thereby greater taxation revenues for the treasury. Unfortunately a mirror image policy seems to be in place in Pakistan.

Proposed Solution:

A progressive tax regime where wealthy segments of the society are taxed more should be pursued with increased focus on direct taxes and volume over margin.

  • Withdrawing exemptions

Moreover large landowners and the various exempt sectors must be brought within the tax-net and the revenues raised should be utilized to subsidize the weaker segments of society and to support reforms.

  • Structural Reforms within FBR

Also some structural reforms as outlined below in the taxation system can go a long way to assist the authorities in meeting their revenue targets:

  • Resolving issues within IRIS to make it more user friendly
  • Integration of Federal and Provincial Revenue Authorities’ systems
  • Reducing the discretionary powers vested in FBR officials and shifting towards an objective criteria based approach
  • Developing the existing policy of differential tax treatments and incentives for filers while penalizing non-filers
  • Introducing impact on economic sectors (GDP development) along with collections target as a performance evaluation criteria for FBR functionaries
  • Ensuring time limits specified in laws are adhered to
  • Facilitating the tax payers
  • Resolving the outstanding refunds issue positively
  • Introducing confidence by establishing a swift response complaint resolution cell to deal with corruption and harassment of tax payers
  • Ensuring no post remains vacant for more than a week to avoid delays in resolving tax-payers issues arising out of transfers, postings and additional charges, e.t.c.
  • Tax Reforms

In addition, to restore the faith of the taxpayers a multi-dimensional tax reforms agenda which has been constantly recommended by this writer must be implemented, where:

  • Taxpayers are encouraged and incentivized for paying taxes.
  • Taxpayers are facilitated by making the process easier and fairer, focusing on maximum automation in order to stem out corruption.
  • Instead of increasing the tax rates the tax net is constantly widened.
  • More focus is given to direct taxation.
  • Meaningful tax rebates and reliefs are introduced for the less able sections of the society.
  • A system of proportionate taxation is adopted with more affluent contributing more to the treasury.
  • Certain exempt sectors are brought into the tax-net (subsidies can be given for assisting any under-pressure areas/products).
  • Tax rebates and incentives are introduced to encourage foreign/local investments in key sectors with tax-breaks for transfer of technology, e.t.c. as may be required in a particular sector.
  • Tax money is actually spent on public welfare and infrastructure projects, which will improve the spending capacity and the business environment in Pakistan.
  • The massive corruption in public contracts/projects, now routinely in the range of 40-50% of tender values, is eradicated for better and efficient use of public money through revamping the pay and accountability structures.

 

Minimum Tax on Turnover of Loss Making Businesses:

Presently, a minimum tax on turnover has to be paid under Section 113 of the Income Tax Ordinance, 2001 except for by companies having gross loss (turnover less allowable expenses before depreciation and other inadmissible expenses).

It has now been proposed to extend this to even those entities incurring gross loss. Needless to say this will discourage startups and SMEs as the cost of doing business would rise. Surprisingly, the net impact on the business eco-system and the national economy are being ignored here.

Solution:

The proposed amendment should be withdrawn and the rate of turnover tax should be reduced to facilitate the businesses. Instead the focus should be on other reforms discussed to increase the tax base and document the economy.

Legalized Money Laundering Scheme:

Section 111(4) of the Income Tax Ordinance 2001 has long been a bone of contention between the proponents and detractors. The controversial law sanctions no tax or questions to be asked about origins on foreign remittances making this route a heaven for money laundering and legitimizing black money.

To elaborate, a corporate business paying 32% (proposed 31%) tax can instead go under the radar and use illegal money transfer services to transfer and bring back the illegal proceeds under the above mentioned sections at a cost of 2-4%. This creates a huge incentive to doge the system, legally.

Traditionally the professionals have been arguing to abolish this section while the Government arguing its’ necessary to facilitate foreign remittances.

While legitimate foreign remittances are a great support for developing economies like Pakistan’s, the use of the above mentioned law for legalizing the black money actually costs more to the economy in terms of the lost revenue and the impact of black businesses on related industries.

Proposed Solution:

We therefore propose a different middle ground. An addition should be made to this section requiring disclosure of the source of income with evidence such as payslip, tax return, e.t.c.

This should not cause any concern to any legitimate business or employee; however Ayan Alis won’t find it easy to manipulate this lacuna anymore. To facilitate investment in the short-term, an exemption from source disclosure can be given for investment in some sectors. However such a provision should be a one-off and short-term in nature.

 

Pay Increments and Government Borrowing:

Furthermore the pay-rises are not proportionate to the increase in the actual costs of living. Only a 10% increase has been proposed in the federal budget compared to the massive increases the lawmakers awarded themselves shortly before.

Such imbalance between cost of living and earning forces people towards unfair means or on relying on expensive credit in order to make their ends meet. Similarly, the extensive borrowing by the Government in the local market results in lesser finance being available for businesses.

Together, these may result in a hyper-inflationary environment and decreased purchasing power that can lead to higher interest rates which negatively impacts the businesses as many otherwise viable projects become non-feasible. The declining business output results in lower employment opportunities which coupled with the limited money-supply puts recessionary pressures on the market. This ultimately results in the devaluation of the currency which in turn translates into increased foreign debt. As a result, financing costs of the foreign debts increases leading to a higher proportion of GDP being spent on debt financing. All this combined with the inflation drags the already weak economy further back in Pakistan’s case.

 

 

Harmonization Issues:

The conflicts between various provincial revenue authorities and between them and the federation resulting in double taxation of services owing to classification and jurisdiction disputes should be resolved to create a business-friendly environment and facilitate the tax-payers.

At present there are serious conflicts between the various taxation bodies in Pakistan including FBR (Federal Board of Revenue), SRB (Sindh Revenue Board), PRA (Punjab Revenue Authority) and KPRA (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Revenue Authority) which need to be clarified in order to facilitate a friendly business eco-system in Pakistan which in turn should translate into bigger size of the cake resulting in bigger pie of revenue for the treasury.

Conclusion:

As this writer has stressed repeatedly over the years, Pakistan has been blessed with all kinds of terrains and weathers, fertile lands, valuable natural resources, a high proportion of population been young and hardworking with cheap labor availability. A fairer system of taxation coupled with some key structural reforms culminating into a fairer economic policy can provide the necessary environment to harness the economic potential of Pakistan.

The proposals outlined above can largely resolve the current issues facing the treasury. The caveats are proper implemented with a focus to rely on and develop indigenous capabilities,

Pakistan has both the potential and the ability to stand on its own feet and become an economic hub not only for the region but the whole world with the above reforms put in place along-with the ongoing CPEC mega plan.

Let us hope that our representatives will give this all a serious thought while passing the amendments to the federal budget.

The author is Director of the think-tank “Millat Thinkers’ Forum” and Managing Partner at Millennium Law & Corporate Company. He is a leading economist, CFA Charterholder, experienced fellow Chartered Certified Accountant and anti-money laundering expert with international exposure and can be reached at ozmeer@mlcc.pk

Privatization: Cure or Disaster for Pakistan?

The following is the original draft of the article published in the renowned “Blue Chip” journal as an Op-Ed  in its April – June 2016 Edition.

Privatization: Cure or Disaster for Pakistan?

Prof Dp

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

Preamble:

Privatization of public enterprises and organizations is one of the hotly debated and contentious economic issues facing Pakistan today. While some term it as a solution to Pakistan’s economic woes, others simply paint it as an attempt to sell national assets for peanuts. The reality perhaps lies somewhere in between. Public enterprises are those that are owned by governments and thereby the public at large. They include government owned/controlled corporations.

Privatization is a somewhat controversial phenomenon in Pakistan. It is commonly defined as the transfer of ownership of state owned assets from a government to a non-state entity. It is also described as the transition from a publicly traded and owned company to a company which is privately owned and no longer trades on a stock exchange publicly. However our focus is on the privatization of state owned enterprises.

Privatization Commission:

The incumbent government in Pakistan had constituted a privatization commission to administer the privatization efforts. The commission has shortlisted 31 institutions to “sell” atleast “partially” but with a transfer of control and management including the likes of PIA which resulted in quite a storm of protests lately.

Pro-privatization:

On the face of it, some of the arguments of the proponents of privatization appear to be sound and make sense. Privatization is put forward as a solution to the economic challenges faced by the government of Pakistan by some economists backed by the likes of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB).

  • It’s pointed out that a government’s primary function is to run the state affairs and it should focus on facilitating the businesses by creating a favorable environment instead of running businesses itself.
  • The strongest argument put forward by the supporters of privatization is that “white elephants” in the shape of loss generating public sector enterprises (PSE) are actually costing the national exchequer billions of Rupees annually which can and must be saved and instead spent on public welfare.
  • Another strong argument for the advocates of privatization of publicly owned entities is the supposed increase in efficiencies resulting from private ownership driven by a focus on profit maximization.

World Bank’s checklist for successful Privatization:

Some of the vital requirements for successful privatization as per none other than the World Bank itself are outlined below. One can judge how almost all of them are lacking in the case of Pakistan, hence the case of past disasters giving a lesson to look elsewhere for solutions. The relevant extract with seven points is shared below:

  1. Privatization works best when it’s part of a larger program of reforms promoting efficiency. New Zealand, the U.K., Mexico, and Chile are all successful privatizers. Their privatizations were accompanied by reforms to open markets, remove price and exchange rate distortions, and encourage the development of the private sector through free entry. Revenue maximization should not be the primary goal of privatization. Far better to eliminate monopoly power and unleash potentially competitive activities than to boost the sales price by divesting into protected markets. Also it is far better to create regulations to protect consumer welfare than to maximize price by selling into an unregulated market.
  2. Regulation is critical to the successful privatization of monopolies. In the sale of Chile Telecom, everybody won–consumers, labor, government, buyers–and the productive efficiency of the company increased as a result of a well-developed, well-administered regulatory framework.
  3. Countries can benefit from privatizing management without privatizing the ownership of assets. Management contracts, leases, and concessions have been successfully used the world over, particularly in sectors where it is difficult to attract private investors. In Côte d’Ivoire, the leased water company improved technical efficiency, increased new connections, became more efficient in billing and collection of receivables –and reduced the number of expatriate employees by 70%. But because a change in ownership is usually needed to lock in performance gains, private management arrangements are likely to work best when they are a step toward full privatization.
  4. The sale of large enterprises requires considerable preparation. Successful privatizations of large enterprises have entailed breaking them into competitive and marketable units (in East Germany, Argentina, and Mexico), bringing in dynamic private sector managers (in many telecom and airline sales around the world), settling past liabilities, and shedding excess labor (in steel and railways in Argentina). Successful privatizing governments also assiduously avoided large new investments for plant modernization and equipment, since getting the private sector to finance and manage these investments was itself a major reason for privatization.
  5. Transparency is critical for economic and political success. Mexico and the Philippines made the sale of enterprises transparent by adopting competitive bidding procedures, developing objective criteria for selecting bids, and creating a clear focal point with minimal bureaucracy to monitor the overall program. A lack of transparency can result in political backlash, as in the early days of privatization in Poland, or even bring the process to a halt, as in Guinea.
  6. Governments must pay special attention to developing a social safety net. In Tunisia, generous severance packages encouraged voluntary departures and reduced the need for outright dismissals. In many countries–most recently in Eastern Europe and Central Asia–employee ownership schemes, unemployment benefits, and retraining-redeployment programs are being developed to ease the social costs of privatization.
  7. In changing the public-private mix in any type of economy, privatization will sometimes be less important than the emergence of new private business. Countries can freeze or restrain the expansion of public enterprises and encourage the growth of a dynamic private sector through free entry, as happened in Korea and appears to be happening in China.

Privatization issues in Pak:

However once we start to dig deeper the situation is not as simple as it may appear at first, more so in Pakistan’s context. First of all a successful privatization exercise has some pre-requisites like those listed above including a conducive environment with investors’ confidence, a strong government able to enforce the agreements, proper selection of non-vital PSE’s and a fair process carried out in a transparent manner. Sans this, privatization cannot turn-around the state of PSE’s or the economy. Pakistan’s past experiences are a testament to this.

Once again the incumbent government is focused on privatization but unfortunately is ignoring the vital pre-requisites. The faulty selection of profitable and strategically vital entities, the extreme haste in the proceedings, missing policy guidelines, a lack of clarity and transparency in processes, non-conducive investment atmosphere and a less-than-desirable track record all warrants caution in examining the proposed solution of privatization.

Amidst the noise of overhauling loss-leaders, several profitable institutions are also earmarked for privatization, which besides funneling billions to the treasury are also providing products/services at cheaper rates to the public as compared to the private sector in the international market.

  • One such example is the Oil and Gas Development Company Limited (OGDCL) which generated a profit of billions of Rupees in last few years while providing the gas at heavily reduced prices as compared to those offered by the private sector in international market.

 

  • Another example is Pakistan State Oil (PSO) generating an after-tax net profit of approximately PKR 21,818,000,000 in the year 2014, a 72.36% increase from the previous financial year. Recently in 2015, it posted after-tax net profit of PKR 6,936,000,000 despite slump in petroleum prices and margins globally.

Privatizing such institutions would not only lead to loss of billions to the exchequer but also an increase in the comparatively cheaper prices currently offered to the masses.

Past Privatization Experiences:

Moreover, while all the pro-privatization arguments have their merits and some may even sound convincing theoretically, one needs to consider the local context to appraise the potential outcomes.

Past experiences can always serve as good benchmark to begin with when deriving objective conclusions. Unfortunately for the proponents of privatization in Pakistan, the above mentioned pro-privatization arguments do not seem to hold merit in the case of Pakistan, based on past experiences of privatized entities. A brief discussion of some key examples below will help us elaborate this observation.

 

 

PTCL:

A case in point is the handing over of PTCL control to Etisalat by the Musharraf regime in which a minority shareholder effectively got all of PTCL for a paltry sum to be paid in installments still partially outstanding.

  • What is iconic is the fact that Etisalat itself is a PSE of UAE. This means that while as per the proponents of privatization “state cannot run vital services”, however it is believed that a foreign state owned enterprise can come to Pakistan and do the same. This nullifies one of the strongest pro-privatization arguments.

 

  • As for the privatization of PTCL, the control was transferred for a paltry stake of 26%.

 

  • And just to analyze how effectively has this privatization venture gone we should realize that the same PTCL which was generating profits of billions of PKR started reporting heavy losses despite increased tariffs and with a falling standard of customer service often complained about. Just recently, PTCL has started reporting some profits.

 

  • Moreover, the initial investment was allowed to be made in installments with a material amount ($ 800 million) still outstanding.

 

  • This is in effect tantamount to allowing a foreign Government owned entity to buy a state asset of Pakistan for peanuts, make heavy funds transfer to its’ home country, not bother to invest in infrastructure and service quality as required and not even pay the agreed upon sum.

This can be labeled as a one-off badly executed privatization transaction as claimed by proponents of privatization including the honorable Mr. Zubair Umar, Chairman of Privatization Commission. So let us briefly touch upon couple of other privatization experiments in Pakistan.

KESC:

The now infamously inept KESC was also privatized with high hopes of a turnaround with substantial investments forecasted by the new private stakeholders in decaying infrastructure.

  • Unfortunately none of the expectations have been met and instead it has become a much bigger white elephant requiring continuous rescue by the government while the new private owners continue to remit their profits abroad.

 

  • The efficiency has gone down. Their failure to even invest in the necessary infrastructure and maintenance has lead to undue load-shedding over and above that necessitated by load-management.

 

  • Infact, rather than investing in the infrastructure, the news within the business community is that the private party has sold the premium copper wires replacing them with cheap stuff resulting in increased line losses and breakdowns.

Unfortunately this disastrous privatization has also become a bigger strain on public resources then before privatization, still requiring continuous rescue injections by the government. The new private owners however continue to happily remit their profits abroad.

MCB:

If the above still did not convince you, then to put things in perspective let us also recall the privatization of MCB to Mian Mansha led Nishat Group, undoubtedly amongst the strongest business conglomerates in Pakistan.

The deal was done at a fraction of the fair value of the tangible assets of MCB let alone considering the value of the brand and goodwill. Obviously such moves do not boost confidence particularly when the same group’s head attends important government policy meetings, finance the largest party of the country sitting in government and is said to be interested in getting “good” deals on more national assets at the expense of the nation.

Some of these notions can be avoided by ensuring proper mechanisms in place with transparency that masses can see and put their faith in.

Pressure from lending “partners”:

It is therefore interesting to observe that most of the countries in IMF and World Bank lending programs initiate destitution programs even when it is not conducive to the economic excellence due to lack of necessary requisites including strong regulatory monitors. Pakistan’s policy makers unfortunately seem to be treading a similar path.

The common knowledge within economic circles is that the pressure emanating from the terms of the IMF package accepted by Pakistan is the prime reason behind the hasty privatization attempts. This undue urgency leading to lack of planning should be avoided.

The government needs to ensure it is not selling off profitable and strategically vital PSE’s in the name of privatization for short-sighted capital injections at the cost of long-term stability and revenues. Furthermore institutions providing vital services to the masses should not be on the wish-list of the potential sell-offs either.

Privatization’s not a blanket solution:

Continuing further, it would be interesting for the proponents of privatization to read the following extract from a World Bank report on privatization:

“Most privatization success stories come from high-income and middle-income countries. Privatization is easier to launch and more likely to produce positive results when the company operates in a competitive market, and when the country has a market-friendly policy environment and a good capacity to regulate. The poorer the country, the longer the odds against privatization producing its anticipated benefits, and the more difficult the process of preparing the terrain for sale ……………………………. 

Privatization is not a blanket solution for the problems of poorly performing SOEs. It cannot in and of itself make up totally for lack of competition, for weak capital markets, or for the absence of an appropriate regulatory framework.”

Ground Realities:

One need to realize that the ground realities of Pakistan are very different from the dynamics of some developed markets where privatization has been more successful. In all the above discussed privatization episodes in Pakistan, not only has the government of Pakistan lost revenues from healthier dividends and resulting taxes, it has also lost by falling share prices of its remaining stake in these entities. The public has suffered a deteriorating service and higher prices.

Moreover the economic detractors of privatization argue that the vital services needs to be efficiently provided by the state in addition to the fact that privatization does not have a very bright history in third world countries. The question then is as to what could be an effective solution to deal with the loss-leading white elephants within the realms of the public sector?

Also, unfortunately the past experiences of privatization in Pakistan does not support the leading argument for privatization advocates that since the private sector is driven by profit, the efficiency and performance of institutions is supposed to improve in private hands. As discussed before, be it PTCL or KESC, not only did their profits but also the standard of their services too nose dived in private hands. It maybe that the private owners mint personal profits but that seems to be sans the necessary investments and benefits expected from the destitution program.

 

Challenges:

The interesting challenge in this regard is as to why the government cannot possibly introduce effective checks and balances along with incentives to ensure a turnaround they expect from private entities.

Moreover, in developed countries strict legislation has been introduced to ensure avoidance of the common pitfalls of privatization, protecting the interests of all shareholders and safeguarding the continuation of service(s). Same needs to be done in Pakistan to address the issues already facing us from past privatization ventures which effectively handed over whole PSE’s for a paltry minority stake in ownership.

Plan of Action:

Going forward, a proper plan of action is needed for loss generating entities like PIA, Pakistan Railways, e.t.c. With a proper plan and political will there is no reason why the government cannot introduce checks and balances along with necessary incentives to induce a turnaround they expect from private investors.

While some proponents of the privatization point out the previously failed attempts at turning-around of state institutions, they conveniently ignore that the major reasons of failure were undue interference, political appointments and misappropriation by government officials which can all be avoided.

Successful Turnaround:

The success stories like the successful turnaround of a loss-making steel mill into a profitable enterprise are also conveniently forgotten. The same institution is again in ruins but can revert to its’ past standards.

The privatization proponents also choose to set aside the fact that if enterprises like PIA are privatized, which have the highest ratio of employees per aircraft of almost 500 compared to international standards of fewer than 150; it will still lead to layoffs and resulting backlash which can be better handled within the realms of a public sector restructuring.

Moreover, the core problem for PIA is the heavy debt financing costs which is crippling it financially. This was discussed in details in a previous research article by this writer on these pages earlier.

New Age Phenomenon:

  • With regards to the privatization debate, there has been an interesting economic phenomenon in the making for the past few decades with public sector enterprises turning towards efficiency based corporate models while still ensuring the provision of cost-effective services/products to the local populace.

 

  • They then expand into foreign territories and use their capital bases to derive profits which are funneled to grow the organization and subsidize the local population. A case in point is Etisalat, a public sector enterprise from UAE currently controlling a privatized public sector enterprise PTCL in Pakistan.

 

  • This is phenomenal as it nullifies all the arguments of pro-privatization proponents in Pakistani context as a foreign public sector enterprise is now controlling the major section of telecommunications services in Pakistan.

Restructuring, not Privatization:

Unfortunately, Pakistan has been the laboratory to test extremes of economic perspectives in Nationalization and Privatization when the cure for its’ economic woes lie somewhere in between as outlined below:

 

  • Establishment of an independent and empowered restructuring institution (RI) to overhaul PSEs can make the restructuring process less resented compared to a private venture while still ensuring provision of cost-effective quality services to the masses from a revenue-generating asset of the nation.

 

  • Competent professionals at top positions based solely on merit to run the PSE’s with introduction of a system of appropriate checks and balances run by professionals. Performance based packages can be offered spurring motivation and ensuring excellence via improved performances.

 

  • This can be further elaborated in that all successful private businesses hire top-notch professionals at lucrative packages with performance based pays. The results are professionally run and highly profitable ventures. There is no reason why the services of similar professionals cannot be engaged by Government which can even convert PSEs into Public Corporations which, while still adhering to Government regulations will be allowed to follow professionalism, efficiency and mechanics of a modern enterprise.

Conclusion:

To sum it up, privatization alone cannot be termed as the solution to all of Pakistan’s economic woes. Moreover, an out of box thinking is required to spearhead us out of the economic abyss we’re currently in.

We can begin with focusing on creating an environment conducive to doing business while strengthening the institutions and regulatory environment. Meanwhile, what is critically required by the proposed RI as discussed above is to:

  • place top professionals of utmost integrity at the key positions based solely on merit to run the PSE’s

 

  • introduce a system of appropriate checks and balances run by professionals whose life is driven by measuring performance against goals, spurring motivation and ensuring excellence via improved performances.

 

If for some reasons a privatization is still deemed necessary in some instances then:

  • a hurried privatization without a proper policy, appropriate selection of PSE’s and laws safeguarding the national interests as well as protecting the masses should be avoided as it will only lead to less efficiency by investors with conflicting interests, more unemployment, resulting lawlessness, inflation, loss of revenues and government bailouts.

 

  • appropriate selection of non-vital and loss making PSEs along-with stringent laws safeguarding the national interests as well as protecting the masses should be ensured.

 

  • the process should be transparent and properly outlined with ground work done to attract best possible investments. This can help reduce lower efficiency by private investors, increased unemployment, inflation, loss of revenues and forced government bailouts as witnessed in the past.

By following the above proposals in letter and spirit, there is no reason why we cannot turnaround the PSE into national assets once again.

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