PTI Govt’s Tax Amnesty:  Past facts and the path forward

Tax Amnesty

PTI Govt’s Tax Amnesty: 

Past facts and the path forward

By:

Omer Zaheer Meer,

CFA (USA), CPFA (UK), FCCA (UK), CA (ICAEW – UK), AMLE (UK)

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Links of Published Versions of Article:

Tax Amnesties in Pakistan:

The first ever and one of the more successful tax amnesty schemes in Pakistan was launched during Ayub Khan’s era in 1958. It resulted in a collection of approximately PKR 1.12 billion which equaled to US $ 0.24 billion approximately and around 71,289 people came within the tax net by making declarations. General Yahya Khan also launched a tax amnesty scheme in 1969 but ended up adding only 19,600 taxpayers with declared assets of just PKR 920 million. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s tax amnesty in 1976 saw the number of people declaring assets decline drastically with assets worth only PKR 270 million declared. The scheme by General Zia’s government was a disaster. The PMLN government’s tax amnesty scheme in 1997 could add assets of PKR 141 million only.

In 2000 General Musharraf’s amnesty resulted in assets declaration of $3 billion approximately and has been the most successful one in terms of revenue collection. Prior to this, in the three tax amnesty schemes by PML- government, only 128 people declared their assets. Later on, PMLN’s 2016 tax amnesty saw just 10,000 declarations and a meager PKR 0.85 billion declared. However, the 2018 amnesty by PMLN was able to garner closer to a $ 1 billion but didn’t result in any significant change in the tax compliance culture. This shows that the disease of tax evasion and the curse of black money has been engulfing Pakistan since its early years.

Recently, there has been a lot of hue and cry over the Assets Declaration Ordinance, 2019 by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Government that is commonly referred to as the “Amnesty Scheme”. The opposition has termed this as an opportunity for the near and dear ones of the Government to whiten their “black monies” which is factually incorrect as the political office holders and those related to them are barred from this scheme. Similarly, the opposition is also claiming it to be a copy of the amnesty scheme introduced by PMLN. As a result of these accusations, there is a lot of confusion as to what exactly is this scheme, is it any different from the last one by PMLN Government and whether it can help the stated objective of helping in the widening of the tax base. Let us briefly examine these questions in this write-up in an objective manner.

 Overview of the Assets Declaration Ordinance, 2019 (The Amnesty):

The above titled ordinance has been promulgated allowing undisclosed, unreported and/or under-reported assets, sales and/or expenditures upto 30th June 2018 and/or the “benami” assets acquired or held on or before the date of declaration to be legally declared for the payment of very low “taxes”.

The Scope is clarified in the section “3” of the ordinance as below:

“Subject to the provisions of this Ordinance, any person may make, on or before 30th June, 2019, a declaration only in respect of any—

  • undisclosed assets, held in Pakistan and abroad, acquired up to 30th June, 2018
  • undisclosed sales made up to 30th June, 2018
  • undisclosed expenditure incurred up to 30th June, 2018; or
  • benami assets acquired or held on or before the date of declaration;”

“The Prime Minister still enjoys tremendous trust in his personal integrity and also retains his charisma, but the general atmosphere of uncertainty is severely damaging”

Important Conditions for the Declaration

  • Any cash held in Pakistan which is to be declared will have to be deposited into the declarant’s bank account(s) and kept in the account(s) till atleast June 30, 2019.
  • Any foreign liquid assets repatriated to Pakistan under the scheme are required to be deposited into declarant’s own bank account(s) locally or invested in Pakistan Banao certificates or any foreign currency denominated bonds, issued by the Federal Government.
  • Any foreign liquid assets declared but not repatriated back to Pakistan under the scheme, in addition to being taxed at higher rate, must be deposited into the declarant’s foreign bank account(s) on or before 30th June 2019.

The Exclusions

Importantly, the ordinance or as it is commonly referred to as, the amnesty is not applicable to the following:

  1. holders of public office and their dependents as well as any of their benamidars if applicable,
  2. a public company as defined under clause 47 of section 2 of the Income Tax Ordinance 2001;
  3. matters where proceedings are pending in the court of law,
  4. matters where the proceedings have attained finality under the respective tax laws,
  5. matters where the proceeds or assets involved are derived from a criminal offence,
  6. gold and precious stones,
  7. bearer prize bonds and
  8. bearer assets

TAX RATES AND VALUES

 

Class of Assets/Income/

Expense

 

Value

 

Applicable

Tax Rates

 

Domestic Immovable Properties – Land

Higher of the 150% of value prescribed by the FBR under section 68 of ITO or 150% of DC value

 

1.5%

Domestic Immovable Properties – Constructed Atleast 150% DC value where FBR value has not been notified for constructed property 1.5%
 

Foreign Liquid Assets not repatriated

Higher of the Fair Market Value or cost, determined using  exchange rates prevalent at the  declaration date.

 

6%

 

Foreign Liquid Assets            Actual Value  Repatriated

 

                                4%

 

Unexplained Expenditure

Higher of the Fair Market Value or cost

 

4%

 

Undisclosed Sales                   Actual Value

 

                                 2%

 

All assets except domestic immovable properties

 

                                 4%

Timeline

While the declaration needs to be made by 30th June 2019, the tax can be deposited later by paying additional amount of default surcharge other than the tax rates discussed above, as outlined below:

Default Surcharge

 Sr. No        Time of payment of Tax

 

 

Default Surcharge Rate

1.       01st July 2019 to 30th September, 2019

 

   10%

2.       01st October 2019 to 31st December, 2019    20%
3.       01st January 2020 to 31st March, 20120     30%
4.       01st April 2020 to 30th June, 2020     40%

Miscellaneous Provisions:

Confidentiality

While maintain confidentiality of declarations under the ordinance is required but unlike the Previous Scheme, there are no provisions in the Ordinance for imposition of fine / for imprisonment of any person in breach of confidentiality provisions.

Protection from Prosecution

The contents of the “amnesty” declaration(s) cannot be admitted as evidence(s) against the declarants(s) for the purpose of any proceedings relating to imposition of penalty or for the purpose of prosecution under any law.

 Anti-Abuse Provision

An important anti-abuse provision, which was not included in the previous scheme by PMLN is that the declarants won’t be able to claim any allowance, credit or deduction in respect of the assets declared and incorporated in the books in consequence of such declaration. In simple terms, this would mean positive impact re tax compliance in future.

Key differences as compared to the PMLN’s Amnesty:

Below are the key differences of this current “amnesty” scheme as compared to the PMLN Government’s amnesty scheme:

  1. The requirement to deposit any cash in local or foreign bank accounts would mean that the fraudulent declaration made by exaggeration with the hopes of continuing the mal-practices in future with having the “buffer” of excess declared cash to “cover” the future revenue streams would end.
  2. The anti-abuse provision discussed above.
  3. Inclusion of broader categories of income streams, assets, expenses and sales within the scope.
  4. More impetus of fairer and market values as evident from 150% of FBR or DC values’ requirements mentioned above.
  5. Comparatively higher rates of tax.
  6. Introduction of timeline for “late” payments with default surcharges.
  7. Lack of penal clause in case of the breach of confidentiality.
  8. Some of the exclusions.

 The reservations, impact and the way forward:

There is a well supported argument that any amnesty, generally speaking sends out a wrong message to the masses and businesses in particular as effectively the wrongdoers ends up getting a better deal without any severe reprimand. This has psychological and practical ramifications for compliance in the long term.

However, at times the economic situation does require the use of such schemes. There were other better options to achieve the stated goals of this scheme. However, there are certain things which are positive about this scheme including the requirements to deposit the cash in the bank, the focus on fair market values, introduction of later payments with default surcharges and the anti abuse provision. Certainly, there is always room for improvement and this scheme could have been made even better.

The most important challenge however would be to address the uncertainty. While, Prime Minister Imran Khan still enjoys tremendous trust in terms of his personal integrity and also retains his charisma, the general atmosphere is one of uncertainty which is severely damaging. Unfortunately, this is mostly stemming from an un-accountable media spree of speculations and negative reporting in general baring a few exceptions. To make the point, let us recall that the last amnesty by the PMLN Government only really took off when the CJP announced that the court was not to review it leading to the confidence of the potential declarants. So firstly, this uncertainty needs to be curbed for this scheme to be successful.

Secondly, the relevant authorities need to run public campaigns and demonstrate that they have the information gained via OECD multilateral convention about Pakistani residents’ offshore accounts and are further strengthening the mechanism to launch a compliance drive immediately following the amnesty. Announcement of such a compliance drive with details of the penalties and timeline, widely publicized in the print and electronic media as well as on social media and along-with the curbing of the uncertainty can and will lead to the success of this scheme.

 The writer is a leading economist and tax expert who holds five top professional finance, investment and accountancy qualifications CFA (USA), CPFA (UK), FCCA (UK), CA (ICAEW, UK) & Anti-Money Laundering Specialization along-with substantial experience and represents Pakistan on Global Tax Forum while sitting on the boards of several think-tanks. His profile can be accessed at: https://omerzaheermeer.wordpress.com/about

Technocrats Crises in PTI Government: Problems & Solutions

Links of Published Versions of Article:

Technocrats Crises in PTI Government:

Problems & Solutions

 By:

Omer Zaheer Meer

CFA (USA), CPFA (UK), FCCA (UK), ACA (ICAEW – UK), AMLE (UK)

Prelude:

The economy of Pakistan is in a quagmire with many naysayers painting a doomsday scenario. They’d like you to believe that rock bottom has been hit and there’s no way out. But that’s not true. The change promised by Prime Minister Imran Khan is very much deliverable. His famous and often quoted claim of a 100% increase in taxation revenues is practical and achievable. The solutions are there, out-of-box solutions which “Status  Quo” advisors & bureaucrats would never be able to conceive and/or want to implement. Read on to know more about it.

The fortune and the misfortune:

PM Imran Khan is very lucky as he has a repute of being extremely honest, hardworking and well-meaning. Even his political opponents admit this in private and try to criticize him by attacking his currently deputed team(s). It is a strange predicament for the reasons outlined below.

PTI is also very fortunate political party as it has accumulated the finest of talented Pakistanis including lot of able and proven technocrats. These are the same people who used to stay away from even casting their votes let alone getting indulged in politics. But to his credit, PM Imran Khan changed their way of thinking and made them believe in change. To appreciate the magnitude of this blessing, just realize this that even Zulifqar Ali Bhutto or our great Quaid e Azam did not have as many talented people at their disposal. They had to make do with whatever was available. Our father of the nation himself termed the people he had in his team as mostly “khote sikke”.

There is however a problem. There is no bridge between the PM and the talented people in PTI with the same fire in their hearts as him and the same faith in his vision and leadership as he do.

During its opposition years, the PTI established a shadow cabinet by the name of “National Policy Council”. It had different teams, each headed by a top technocrat to work on the challenges for specific key ministries

Nearer the Church, farther from God:

While, PM Imran Khan is working tirelessly to make things happen and for this looking everywhere to bring in people with technical expertise, for some unknown reasons, the same is overlooked within his party. The insiders within PTI circles confide that the appointments being made are largely based on groupings sans any merits with people having no technical expertise been nominated on highly technical positions in contradiction to the PM’s own vision.

Non-technocrat political workers can and should be accommodated in thousands of non-technical positions. The technical positions however should be left for the technical members of PTI for these positions not only demand highly specialized skill sets but will also determine the outcome and legacy of PM Imran Khan’s government.

There should be a mechanism to identify and link the technocrats within PTI with the leadership in a non-partisan manner. Perhaps, some neutral technocrat within PTI would be best suited for this endeavor to avoid groupings and factions impacting the process.

The three keys to success:

There are three key requisites for success in achieving the PM’s dream of reforms. Normally the discussions about reforms and particularly the keenly discussed topic of reforming the revenue authorities and infrastructure, focuses on competency of key personnel, which is certainly important. What’s missing though, are couple of other equally vital bits.  They’re:

  • party affiliation so there is belief in the vision of the PM and
  • out of box thinking of a doer

The Enigmatic Resemblance:

There’s an uncanny resemblance between the untapped Pakistan with all the gifts of the nature, be it gold, copper, oil, coal, e.t.c. or the unexplored potential of tourism and PTI as a political party filled with all these untapped gifted professionals waiting to be utilized for the good of the country. This resemblance is enigmatic.

Like the symbols, the cures of the diseases are also similar. PTI, just like Pakistan, needs to explore its untapped resources of great minds of technocrats within.

The Reworked Bhutto Solution:

Despite all his ills and issues, Bhutto is normally billed as a genius; some even call him an evil genius for that matter. Irrespective of which side of the divide you are, one thing is for sure that the man knew politics and ground realities of South Asia.

Isn’t it astounding that almost four decades after his demise, he’s still alive in the hearts of millions despite all that unruly and disastrous stuff that has been done in his name, more so in Sindh than elsewhere? What is the magic about him then? Well there are a few. We’ll be discussing briefly the one concerning the topic at hand.

Bhutto famously appointed PPP workers at all key positions claiming that as people voted for his party to implement the agenda, only those loyal to that agenda can help achieve that. He questioned the loyalty and “merits” of the bureaucracy, e.t.c. He did go overboard to the extreme of appointing people solely on the basis of this criterion, leading to often incompetent or illiterate persons on key positions. Still, lessons derived from this can be used to put in motion the “reworked Bhutto solution”.

PTI’s Technocrats:

The solutions should simply involve using a mechanism to identify top quality technocrats within PTI and appointing them at key positions to implement PM Imran Khan’s vision. Care must be taken to ensure that technical competence, relevant experience, out of box thinking, knowledge of the local workings and a proven track record are there. It is vital that the processes be built and run by able technocrats within PTI and not those bound to oblige their groups sans merit.

FBR’s new Chairman:

Just this week, the new Chairman of FBR was announced and notified amid much hue and cry. Mr. Zaidi, a respected Chartered Accountant having no known previous affiliation with PTI and an ex Cabinet Member of the Caretaker Sindh Government setup primarily nominated by the PPP, was the choice. This speaks volume about the problem we’ve been discussing.

The idea was that someone “neutral” and “competent” from the private sector must be tried, having already tried both customs and income tax group officials as well as bureaucrats from other segments, without anyone delivering the “success” and “reforms” desired. However it resulted in two major issues.

The first problem stems from the manner in which this was executed. It’s hard to imagine how nobody was able to point out the famous “Ali Arshad Hakeem” case and take the then incumbent Chairman FBR as well as the board members into confidence before the announcement.

PM Imran Khan, being his bold and confident self, did the best possible to salvage a dire situation.

More importantly, this perfectly showcases the issue of being “nearer the church, farther from God”. The appointment practically meant that PTI felt it did not have anyone of a caliber matching Mr. Zaidi let alone be better. With all due regards to Mr. Zaidi, that is not the case and this is why PTI needs to get its house in order.

PTI National Policy Council Revenue Team:

During its opposition years, PTI established as shadow cabinet by the name of “National Policy Council”. It had different teams, each headed by a top technocrat to work on the challenges for specific key ministries. I was honored to Chair the “Revenue Team”.

Link of National Policy Council Notification

As Chairman of this team, I should disclose that PTI had a full fledge Revenue team working on reforms agenda which continuously and successfully assisted the leadership for several years including during the tough period of being in opposition. The work involved besides other areas, identifying both the major issues and their solutions concerning our taxation framework. Some of the proposals were even shared with other countries in a similar state of affairs as Pakistan at Global forums and these were hugely appreciated. This untapped treasure of PTI should be utilized and implemented. The details of such proposals shall be shared in my future write-ups so keep watching this space.

 Omer Zaheer Meer is a leading economist and tax expert who holds five top professional finance, investment and accountancy qualifications including anti-money laundering specialization along-with substantial experience and represents Pakistan on Global Tax Forum. His profile can be accessed at: https://omerzaheermeer.wordpress.com/about

 

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

RI 2810 2

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

Budget: An Objective View

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 08th June 2015

(E-Paper (Print Edition)http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-06-08/page-9)

(Onlinehttp://nation.com.pk/business/08-Jun-2015/budget-an-objective-view)

Federal Budget: An Objective View

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

The wait is over. One of the most awaited events of year, the federal budget was announced on Friday, 05th June 2015. The incumbent government has claimed it to be a historic one as all governments do while the opposition saw only red as the oppositions normally do. The reality however lies somewhere in the middle. There have been some positive steps that should be appreciated while others are left to be desired.

To understand the current budget better we need to review the performance of the last fiscal year as per the Economic Survey 2014-15 released by the finance ministry. As per the data released, inflation has reached the lowest level of this decade with substantial improvements in the foreign exchange reserves. This has resulted in State Bank of Pakistan reducing the discount rate at 7%, the lowest in last four decades.

While the issue of sukuk bonds and receipt of loans and donations were a direct result of governmental decisions, the improvements mentioned above were largely due to a key factor not affected by the governmental policies, that was the reduced oil import costs and resultant reduced inflation in the country due to material reduction in oil prices in the international market. Furthermore, manufacturing and agriculture sector which are the prime drivers of economy and employment opportunities haven’t shown the improvements expected. Private sector is sluggish and the cherished dream of the Tax-GDP ratio in line with the developed economies remained a dream.

With this backdrop and an economic growth rate of 4.24% the federal budget 2015-16 was supposed to overcome the shortcomings mentioned above and in several article before. Some key proposals were provided on these pages on Monday, 1st June 2014 in an article titled “Budgetary Dreams”. It was good to see some of the proposals getting implemented like the announcement of rebate on solar-panels and provision of concessionary loans to small farmers for some solar-powered projects. Similarly the incentives to the construction industry and rebates announced for the rice manufacturers are positive steps too. What’s interesting is that incentives announced has been for small farmers owning less than 12.5 acres of landholding, thereby substantiating the perspective that those over this threshold should have been brought within the tax net.

On the other hand, the critical proposals including bringing agricultural sector within the tax net and using the proceeds to subsidize provision of free or low-cost water and electricity to the sector has been ignored. Creating a new body for providing seeds, fertilizers and all other necessities to farmers at discounted prices due to the volume of business with the mandate of buying all crops from the farmers at the Government approved rates and supplying them to various industries and markets, thereby ensuring the farmers getting their dues while the stockists’ induced shortages and inflation getting stemmed out has not been implemented either.

While almost a 14% increase has been announced in the federal budget for education, which must be appreciated, the promised level of 5% of budget still remains a dream. Similarly the research and human resource development proposals have not been incorporated into the budget despite their importance for a modern national economy. As elaborated in previous write-ups, the impact of this allocation may not have been very drastic in terms of volume post 18th amendment but it would have been a strong signal and precedent for the provinces to pursue.

There was a hue and cry over a paltry 7.5% rise in the salaries of federal employees particularly considering the inflation levels. While the finance ministry has defended this citing certain limitations, there is much left to be desired and an increase of at-least 15% was very much realistic and achievable.

However the most shocking oversight was yet again ignoring the proposals of broadening tax base that has been presented to the various ministry officials for over a decade now. Once again the computerized national identity card (CNIC) has not been declared as the National Tax Number (NTN) and Sales Tax Registration Number (STRN) for all citizens. This could not only have made it extremely easy for any Pakistani to start a business having both the NTN and STRN, hence promoting a culture of entrepreneurship but would also have helped broaden the tiny existing tax base as the number of filers and ultimately taxpayers are forecasted to increase with the increasing documented nature of the businesses.

Continuing from this, the proposal of focusing more on a progressive direct tax regime is deferred once again. While there is no substantial change in the ratio of the direct taxes to indirect taxes, the positive reductions on the focus on indirect taxes is missing. The current policy of relying more on indirect taxes in the shape of customs duty, sales tax, federal excise duty, petroleum levy, gas infrastructure cess, natural gas surcharge and others will give rise to inflation and increased productivity costs leading to lower exports and purchasing power. The costs of this policy certainly outweigh the benefits. Similarly the volume over tax rate policy could have helped increase the tax net and the tax to GDP ratio by substantially reducing the tax rates, making it economically feasible to pay taxes instead of using the costly means to avoid them.

Although the budget is supposed to be a benchmark to act as both a planning and a control tool, this has not been the case for quite some time now. With all sorts of mini-budgets and flexible forecasting, the budget has been reduced to a mere constitutional formality that is met every year. Let us hope that the most important proposals not incorporated in the proposed budget may get the attention of our lawmakers and make way into any policy changes.

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

IMF-driven Policies: Destroying Economy

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 16th March 2015

(E-Paper (Print Edition): http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-03-16/page-9 )

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

IMF-driven Policies: Destroying Economy & inciting Revolts

 Prof Dp

 By: Omer Zaheer Meer

Pakistan is going through an economic slump; some would even argue a meltdown. With rampant lawlessness, terrorism, rising inflation and severe electricity and gas load management especially for industry, the economy is in dire need of a revival. Many of these problems were inherited by the incumbent administration from the previous PPP government with the economy on the verge of collapse. It was against this backdrop that the PMLN government decided to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $ 6.7 billion loan.

The IMF offered a package based on austerity, asking to cut subsidies in a very short duration, seeking reduced public spending and privatization of national institutions like PIA in addition to devaluation of Pak Rupee.

These measures led to unbearable levels of inflation, making an already tough situation worse. Even the prime constituency of the incumbent Government, the business community has been protesting but at the end of the day they will still be able to simply pass on the effects to the consumer. It’s the masses that would ultimately be hit the hardest. With the industry already in tatters due to the energy crisis, law and order situation and ever increasing input costs, they are shifting base overseas resulting in a flight of local capital. The gigantic increases in the power tariffs until recently were serving to worsen an already dire situation for the local industry. On the other hand national institutions, instead of being revamped and properly managed are being planned to be sold off in non-favorable conditions when they could end up being sold for peanuts.

POL products are treated as a cash-cow for revenue generation, ignoring the super-inflationary effects of increases in their prices. It is indeed ironic that while the prices in international market fell, the benefit was only partially passed on to the consumers in Pakistan and that too owing to the political pressure from the opposition of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

While the IMF program may serve to stabilize the national exchequer in the longer term, the economic opportunity costs, resulting unemployment and the high risk of an economic meltdown makes it a non-prudent choice. Instead it is pretty obvious that Pakistan’s economy requires an impetus, a stimulus to revive the economic activity and not the program agreed with the IMF.

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. There seems to be a lack of understanding and political will to actually carryout the reforms necessary to resuscitate the failing economy.

Financial management and transparency is one such area. I’ve written before that the manner in which the circular debt of app PKR 500 billion was paid to private power generators and similarly the funds released for Petrol import earlier this year were astounding to say the least. There were no audits, no checks and no proper incentives negotiated for the masses. Whether right or wrong, some sections of the intelligentsia believe these crises to be manufactured, aimed at getting around the checks and balances in order to oblige party financiers and key supporters.

For example, despite claims of around 40 % unused capacity of private power companies, un-tapped owing to the outstanding circular debt, the promised increase in the electricity generation was never delivered despite payment of the same. Pakistan had to approach IMF for $ 6.7 billion to be released over several years, while 75% of that amount was distributed to private power companies without any verification as if it was an immaterial amount. What’s more, the genie of the circular debt in the power sector is back to haunt the nation again.

We must ask the finance ministry why no proper audits were performed? Why could we not negotiate with the power companies the terms for payments in four or six installments with the next installment payable only on achieving an additional power generation as agreed? Furthermore, there has been no effective national energy conservation drive or campaign to cut the line losses to the minimal possible. Similar mismanagements resulted in the infamous petrol crises too.

Furthermore, 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 borrowing with the internal borrowings alone reaching the mark of a trillion.

Alarmingly, there are noises about a very powerful industrialist from Punjab with stake in the power sector besides others, dictating the economic policies of the current government. On the backdrop of this, a list of public sector power companies was also announced for privatization. Guess where are they based? Yes, all of them are based in Punjab. The Prime Minister needs to take corrective measures. As a minimum the finance ministry should be directed to undertake independent forensic audits into all future payments as well as those made till now including circular debt payments to the power companies in addition to the implementation of other measures to ensure transparency. Corruption scandals of the likes of the last PPP Government should not be tolerable anymore. This, along with tough decisions to extend the tax base with a focus on direct instead of indirect taxation and proper financial management can still lead to a turn-around.

The biggest question is will the present Government review its IMF driven economic policies and carryout the necessary reforms while providing relief to the ordinary citizen or will it continue to focus exclusively on temporarily filling up the coffers of the national exchequer without any bearing to the economic condition of a common man and risk a revolt? It should remember empty stomachs breed anarchy.

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