The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 27th July 2015
(E-Paper (Print Edition): http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-07-27/page-9)
Minimum & Banking Transactions’ Tax
By: Omer Zaheer Meer
With the stated aims of supporting the entrepreneurship culture, facilitating businesses and increasing the numbers within the ambit of formally documented economy, one would expect steps by policymakers to incentivize the masses to this effect. Notwithstanding several positive developments, some recent steps have actually served in contradiction of the above aims of the incumbent Government.
Before diving into the specifics let’s briefly discuss some important building blocks. First of all, most of the modern economies have moved away from been solely or greatly based upon agriculture or manufacturing to a greater focus on service sector, then be it financial, IT, educational, telecommunication or other services within this sector. Even those with a large base of agriculture or manufacturing have modernized to include service industry as a significant part of their overall GDP. It is therefore essential for a successful modern economy to promote service sector with the underlying GDP growth and employment opportunities acting as prime motivators. Similarly in a country like ours where, as per some studies, the black monies and illegal economy outweigh the documented formal one, reforms are required to incentivize people to come within the ambit of documented economy.
With the above been clarified let us move onto some extremely important issues with serious ramifications for our economy. First up a minimum tax on service companies has been levied from fiscal year 2015-16. But what does a minimum tax mean? For our tax dilettante readers, it means that the advance tax paid by service companies will not be refunded in the event of them ending up in losses at the financial year end. This is not only unjust but would have serious negative implications for the service sector growth. Moreover it also has the potential to entice this sector towards “creative accounting” to avoid paying any more taxes then the minimum they have to since they will not be getting any refunds due to them in the past in their hour of need.
This “creative accounting” argument was actually floated as an initial reason for attempting to introduce the minimum tax on service sector several years ago under pressure from international lenders. This was done in a controversial manner despite an existing section of the Income Tax Ordinance 2001 already dealing with the minimum tax on companies. The matter led to serious misgivings from the tax payers and after long heated debates the last finance bill included a proposal to restore the original position before the controversial insertion in section 153. The original position was that any tax paid in advance was adjustable against the final tax liability. Unfortunately at the last moment the policy makers again succumbed to certain pressures and instead introduced the minimum tax. In doing so the long term impact on tax net and GDP growth was ignored in favor of the short term cash accumulation to meet annual targets.
Several responsible officials have shared in private that this amendment was based on the underlying assertion that all mobile companies, a sub-sector within the service industry, were preparing falsified accounting records to avoid due tax and thereby causing losses to the national exchequer. Even if we accept the notion, this observation was based upon a sub-sector only and it was therefore inherently unjustified to “punish” an entire sector for that. Moreover this was equal to declaring that since some- murderers are able to deceive with the judicial system therefore all accused from now on would have a body part amputated as a presumed minimum punishment. Not very just, is it?
Instead an overhaul of the system with effective implementation along-with introduction of stringent penal clauses would have served the purpose more effectively. Last but not the least, even the existing audit provision, if implemented properly was sufficient to deal with the problem. We therefore propose and expect the policy makers to review this matter positively with a strategic view of expanding the GDP and broadening the tax-base rather than diminishing it. Volume over margin is the way forward for a progressive taxation regime.
Next up is perhaps the most controversial issue of the imposition of advance tax on banking transactions by non-filers. After a lot of uproar from the business community, the negotiations with finance ministry officials resulted in the concession that the levy of 0.6 percent withholding tax was reduced to 0.3 percent till end of September 2015. Any non-filers after that date would be liable to the rate of 0.6 percent again. However, a section of business community has rejected this and is planning to force a change by strikes and protests.
While the underlying aim seems fairly positive in that the non-filers are incentivized to come within the ambit of documented economy, there are certain qualifications to that. Firstly many individuals particularly salaried ones get their tax deducted at source and as such do not file income tax returns. This is despite them paying more than their due shares of taxes if all the indirect taxes on their consumption are taken into account. A lack of awareness and the bureaucratic difficulties within our taxation apparatus are the biggest reason for this trend. Secondly the lack of trust in the authorities and Governments by the business community is a big barrier.
Some of the concerns leading to the lack of trust are seemingly genuine and warrant corrective actions. A case in point is the undue relief given to influential tax payers while the ordinary one having to waste material resources in order to get their genuine rights like refunds due to them. Moreover the undue nuances caused to even genuine businessmen by certain elements within the taxation apparatus cements the belief that it’s beneficial to stay out of the system to avoid these troubles. Moreover taxing every transaction over Rs. 50,000 at 0.6%, when aggregated, takes the total cost to inexplicable levels making it attractive to avoid banking channels for those not bound to. The crux is that trying to impose a reform like taxing banking transactions without addressing the inherent limitations and problems of the taxation system may not be the most effective way to address the issue of widening the tax-net and should be re-considered.
The author is Director of the think-tank “Millat Thinkers’ Forum”. He is a leading economist, CFA Charterholder, experienced fellow Chartered Certified Accountant and anti-money laundering expert with international exposure who can be reached on Twitter and www.myMFB.com @OmerZaheerMeer or firstname.lastname@example.org