Finance Act 2015-16: Dissecting major reforms – II

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 21st July 2015

(E-Paper (Print Edition)http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-07-21/page-9)

(Onlinehttp://nation.com.pk/business/21-Jul-2015/finance-act-2015-16-dissecting-major-reforms-part-ii)

Finance Act 2015-16: Dissecting major reforms – II

Prof Dp

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

We’ll continue to discuss some important reforms carrying on from where we left in the first part on the above topic on 13th July and conclude the write-up today. The need for a structural overhaul has been lauded for years now. While many concrete proposals for reforms continue to fall on deaf ears, a few have been implemented in the finance act. This indeed is commendable and something to expand upon.

In our budget proposals we have suggested the relevant authorities to allow the use of CNIC as both the NTN (National Tax Number) and STRN (Sales Tax Registration Number) on these pages. Section 181 has now declared that for individuals the CNIC will be used as the NTN. Although it is only for individuals as of now but it is a step in the right direction. By removing the hurdles in tax registrations by allowing the above mentioned proposal not only can the FBR expand the tax-net but also assist in promoting the entrepreneur culture by removing unnecessary formalities.

Similarly another positive reform has been introduced in section 114 of the Income Tax Ordinance 2001. The requirement of obtaining prior approval from the Commissioner for filing a revised return is now dispensed away with if the revised return is filed within 60 days of filing of the original return. This would remove the long-standing complaint of many tax payers faced when a genuine mistake resulted in tax losses to them.

Yet another change introduced via Finance Act 2015-16 is regarding the income earned from property. Now, any expenditure incurred whether wholly or exclusively for the purposes of deriving rental income including the administration and collection charges shall be admissible as allowable expense with a cap of 6% of rent chargeable. While it’s a positive move it is certainly not sufficient considering the levels of inflation increasing the repairs and maintenance as well employee costs.

Moving onto another significant change we’ll briefly discuss Section 37A and Division VII of Part 1 of the First Schedule dealing with Capital Gains Tax on securities disposed off. A revised status of tax on Capital Gains on disposal of ‘securities’ under section 37A has been prescribed as below:

         Holding period                            Tax Year

                                                            2016     2015

  • < 12 months                               15%      12.5%
  • 12 months to < 24 months          12.5%   10%
  • 24 months to < 48 months            7.5%     0%
  • > 48 months                                  0%        0%

This revision is multi-dimensional. Firstly the rates have been revised upwardly while at the same time the holding period for taxable gains has also been increased. This enhancement of holding period will effectively apply retrospectively as gains for holding period between 24 to 48 months which were exempt from tax prior to Finance Act 2015 will now fall under taxable incidence. The motivation for this is to incentivize investors to hold onto their investments for longer while at the same time trying to balance off avoiding disillusioning the small investor. How much has the finance ministry succeeded in this will only be reliably known with the passage of time and the results of the stock markets.

Next up is an extremely important issue with serious ramifications. Minimum tax on service companies is that hotly contested issue. Under pressure from international lenders, Government of Pakistan decided to introduce a controversial insertion in section 153 few years back. The way this was done raised serious questions as there were arguments that despite an existing section dealing with the issue the insertion was done against the prescribed way and even leaving the existing provisions intact, hence creating a gulf of confusion. Furthermore a series of conflicting SROs were then issued further complicating the matter.

As per the insertion introduced, despite the existing section 113 dealing with minimum tax on service companies, the corporate service companies were made liable to a minimum tax. What this meant was that even if any company in the sector incurred losses they’d not be able to claim a refund of any tax already paid by them. The reason this is problematic is that service companies particularly during startup years are susceptible to losses. This led to calls of review and resulted in Clause 79 in Part IV of the Second Schedule being added to clarify the matter and declare that minimum tax would not be liable on service companies. The implication was in effect from tax year 2012 onwards.

The initial proposal in finance bill 2015 was to clarify the matter since 2009 but instead the government decided to introduce the minimum tax on service companies from tax year 2015 onwards while the clause 79 mentioned above was also deleted. This has led to serious reservations by corporate sector and is part of the package being negotiated between finance ministry officials and traders.

Furthermore a minimum tax of 2% has been levied on land developers. This 2% shall be levied on the value of the land as notified by the authorities for stamp duty. This would increase the revenues for the exchequer and can be seen as an indication of the policy direction.

We hope that the policy makers would also consider our other proposals in future budgets for the betterment of economy and that these write-ups have been enlightening to our readers. We shall continue to apprise our readers on relevant developments in the future too.

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

Advertisements

Budget, Taxation and Reforms – Blue Chip July 2015, 11th Anniversary Edition

The following article has been published in the renowned “Blue Chip” journal as an exclusive Op-Ed on Economy in its 11th Anniversary Edition published in July 2015.

Online Version Link: Blue Chip Article on Economy

Budget, Taxation and Reforms

Prof Dp

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

There were many positive indicators announced by the honorable finance minister, Mr. Ishaq Dar in his latest budget speech. The first one was the growth rate of 4.24% in 2014-15. Despite missing the target growth rate of 5.1% in last fiscal year, it is still a healthy sign when compared to the mere 3% from 2008 to 2013. The significant drop in inflation from 12% to 4.6% was also phenomenal. Fiscal deficit is expected to be brought down to the level of 5% of GDP from the previous level of 5.5%. However, all these were largely due to the significant reduction in global oil prices and the resulting deflation effects rather than the structural reforms and/or economic policies of the policy makers.

Furthermore, the foreign remittances to Pakistan showed an extravagant increase of 16.14%, which is the highest in the region and should be exceptional by any standards. However it would warrant further examination into the origins of the funds as the controversial law sanctioning no tax or questions about origins on foreign remittances has long made the foreign remittances route a heaven for money laundering and legitimizing black money. 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.

In view of the above, it was rational to expect the shortcomings 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. Whether that was the case is examined below along-with some recommendations

As for the reforms in the taxation system, the proportion of indirect and direct taxes has not changed substantially. This alone though is not sufficient as indirect taxes lead to a regressive system where not only are the rich and poor paying equal amount but unequal proportion of their incomes as taxes but it also causes inflation. This results in higher production costs, which leads to declining exports due to the loss of cost competitiveness and missed opportunities.

The government, in its defence points out to the existing trust deficit between the taxpayer and the taxmen which has created a tax avoidance culture in Pakistan. However there is a reason that all developed economies rely more on direct taxes to negate the disadvantages of indirect taxes which far outweigh the benefits to the national exchequer. The approach of using indirect taxes to fill-up government’s coffers has serious negative ramifications.

To make this clear, take the example of fuel. Upto 30% had been routinely charged as an indirect tax on every liter compared to only 13% in the USA. 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. 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.

Furthermore the pay-rises are not proportionate to inflation. Only a 7.5% increase has been proposed in the federal budget. This forces people towards unfair means or rely on expensive credit in order to make their ends meet. Similarly finance requirements of businesses also increase. The resulting hyper-inflationary environment and decreased purchasing power leads 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 hyper-inflation drags the already weak economy further back in Pakistan’s case.

It is therefore recommended that the policy makers should seriously consider pursuing a progressive tax regime where wealthy segments of the society are taxed more. 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. For example, it’s been suggested to the authorities before that the agriculture sector should be taxed at a reasonable rate, 5%-7% for landowners with holdings over 12.5 acres and the revenue raised should be used to subsidize the water and electricity for the agriculture sector. This would enhance the yield and therefore the GDP. To summarize, the proportion of direct taxes should be increased and reliance on indirect taxes should be minimized. While some exemptions have been withdrawn in the finance bill which is commendable, more needs to be done in this regard.

Also some structural reforms in the taxation system can go a long way to assist the authorities in meeting their revenue targets. One good step is the current budgetary proposal to allow computerized national identity card (CNIC) number to be used as the National Tax Number (NTN). However the proposal for using the CNIC number as Sales Tax Registration Number (STRN) for all citizens has been ignored. Together both these steps could not only make it extremely easy for any Pakistani to start a business having the requisite tax registrations and thereby promoting a culture of entrepreneurship but would also 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.

Another key reform could have been to decrease the tax rates to make it more feasible to pay taxes with stringent penalties and cost of avoidance acting as a deterrent. 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 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.

Similarly the controversial law allowing foreign remittances to be brought to Pakistan without having to declare the source of origin or pay any taxes has more disadvantages than the benefits it brings. Let’s elaborate this further. As mentioned before, Pakistan saw an increase of 16.14% in foreign remittances from $12.89 billion to $ 14.97 billion in the last fiscal year. What’s interesting is that the remittances in the entire region have seen a much humble growth. Also, the work profile and the resultant pay scales of ex-pats Pakistanis have not been changed drastically. Furthermore, the inflation and cost of living has actually declined for the relatives of ex-pat Pakistanis as per the figures revealed by the finance ministry. Considering all this and the various studies conducted in the past, it can be safely said that a huge chunk of the foreign exchange remittances are actually the black money laundered and then brought back to legitimize the funds and that too tax-free. Now infamous model Ayan Ali is a case in point. We don’t know for sure how many Ayans are currently doing what she was caught for. It is therefore high time that the finance ministry officials give this a serious thought and atleast consider introducing checks about origins of finances to control and curtail the illegal economy hampering Pakistan’s economic development rather than actually assist it for some short-term gains at the cost of longer-term losses.

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 reforms culminating into a fairer economic policy can provide the necessary environment to harness the economic potential of Pakistan.

The key reforms outlined above, if properly implemented with a focus to rely on and develop indigenous capabilities, can resolve the current enigma facing the treasury. With the above actually implemented, there is no reason, why Pakistan cannot stand on its own feet and become an economic hub not only for the region but the whole world. Let us hope that our representatives 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”. 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

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

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

Is FBR’s incompetence hurting economy? (by failing genuine Taxpayers)

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 27th April 2015

(E-Paper (Print Edition)http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-04-27/page-9)

(Onlinehttp://nation.com.pk/business/27-Apr-2015/fbr-s-incompetence-hurting-economy)

FBR’s incompetence hurting economy

Prof Dp

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) is a semi-autonomous federal institution that is responsible for auditing, enforcing and collecting revenue for the government of Pakistan. It’s one of the most critical components of the revenue collection apparatus in Pakistan. As such it is supposed to be the pinnacle of professionalism, discipline and support to tax payers. Whether this is really the case shall be examined in this write-up. About couple of weeks ago, Chairman FBR invited this writer, while representing ACCA (UK) and LTBA at a historic pre-budget seminar that was organized with the collaboration of ICAP, ICMAP, ACCA, LTBA, PTBA, LCCI and several other Tax Bars, to send him proposals about the issues in and reforms for FBR. Below is a brief overview from this perspective.

Currently there are approximately 800,000 active income taxpayers out of a population of roughly 200 million in Pakistan. This is a meager 0.4% of the total population. On the other hand every Pakistani is paying indirect taxes on whatever they consume. The lack of trust of the taxpayer on the system and the resulting regressive taxation policies are a big hindrance in the attainment of an optimal taxation system. We’ve often discussed the problems with the taxation policies in Pakistan and proposed practical solutions. Frankly speaking there is only so much FBR can do in this regard since the policies are often driven by the IMF, World Bank and/or the political interests of the rulers. However the areas where FBR can and should play a very effective role are not in the best of states either and that is simply unfortunate.

Considering the tiny tax base it was only natural for FBR to attempt to broaden it. However the way they went about it is unprofessional to say the least while messing up a good endeavor big time. Recently notices claiming no existing tax registration based on “economic activities”, usually citing vehicle purchases were sent out to masses. Sounds positive? 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, which is unfortunately becoming a norm of late. Missing out on the records already held by FBR simply reinforces the misconceptions amongst the tax payers that FBR is out to bother already registered tax payers instead of acting as a facilitator and initiating genuine drives to catch tax evaders.

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 broaden the tax base such as bringing agricultural income and other exempt sections 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 ears 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.

To underline the vast difference in the workings of FBR and similar bodies in developed countries, Let me share a personal experience with the readers to illustrate the significant gulf in the international standards and the ones practiced in our beloved country. While working in UK, I needed to change my tax code. For ease of understanding you can say it was like claiming a tax refund and I was not even a British national. It took me one phone call to UK’s HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) during my office lunch hour to get it done by the end of the lunch. Yes, just in less than an hour. Now compare it to the experience of a genuine tax payer in Pakistan who is ridiculed and abused for even genuine works. Presumptive and advance taxes are collected but when it is time to issue refunds in line with the law, actual due refunds are held for months and even years despite completion of all legalities and verification. What is worst is that in most cases the FBR officials verbally accept the cases as genuine but claim that due to the pressure to meet revenue collection targets they are unable to follow the law and deliver the tax payer their due right.

The problem manifests from the nepotism and non-professional attitudes of some officers who treat tax-payers with utmost contempt instead of the dignity they deserve. Un-realistic targets setup by higher-ups then further aggravates the matters with coercive, non coordinated and even illegal measures used by certain sections within FBR. The widespread corruption within the department further worsens the matters.

It’d be reasonable to point out that although PRAL (Pakistan Revenue Automation (Pvt) Ltd) does mess up things at times, many of its’ positive endeavors were blocked for fears of eradicating corruption using different pretexts by certain sections of FBR. For example, PRAL once finalized a completely automated system of issuing refunds to tax payers with even an online payment instrument. Naturally there was a huge hue and cry. The project was dumped and the corrupt manual practices continue to date.

Now as if all this was not enough, even the laws governing the whole taxation system are made mockery of within FBR by several officers undermining the good work and efforts undertaken by their more professional colleagues. Just ask any genuine tax payer or tax practitioner about the treatment meted out to them by most FBR officials and you’d be shocked. Due to limited space, this topic will have to be continued in future write-ups.

As for now, perhaps the policy makers and senior FBR officials should consider this dire situation seriously to rectify all the serious problems within FBR. If they fail to do so, the next time they complain about low proportion of tax payers in Pakistan as compared to UK or other developed countries, they should realize that they only have themselves to blame.

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