The government’s tax policy over the last two years has largely fallen short of its intended revenue targets, and is contributing to the contraction of the economy, economist and lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Dr Vaalmikki Arjoon told Business Day.
For the first six months of fiscal 2017, tax revenue was $13.2 billion — nine percent lower than the same period in fiscal 2016. In fiscal 2016, projected tax revenue was $40.8 billion, but instead earned $29.7 billion — a shortfall of 27.2 percent.
This despite increases in the Green Fund Levy and the Business Levy; the introduction of the seven percent “online shopping tax”; the “millionaire’s tax” of an additional 25 percent tax on income over $1 million; and the introduction of VAT on yacht-in-transit equipment, which was vehemently contested by the yachting industry and subsequently removed — all announced in the 2017 Budget presentation.
“The country was already at a point where the economy was contracting so the consumption expenditure (consumer spending) and investment expenditure (capital spend by firms) were already declining,” Dr Arjoon said.
Increasing taxation, then, would have caused further contraction in the economy since an increase in taxation would have naturally exacerbated already rising costs of doing business, with spill-over effects resulting from firms downsizing either through reduced inventory, layoffs or other cost cutting measures.
These policies have stifled the business sector, reduced competitiveness and increased uncertainty, Dr Arjoon said.
“Coupled with current state of economy, this has reduced confidence. Businesses will pull back and either watch and wait for some signs of recovery or there will be capital flight where they choose to invest outside of Trinidad and Tobago,” he said.
The conversation now needs to switch from taxation to expenditure, said Wade George, Caribbean Tax Managing Partner for Ernst & Young.
“I don’t think there is more room for greater taxation without really damaging the economy or slowing it down completely,” George said. “You can’t tax your way out of a recession.”
There is a limit to how much the government can raise taxes in terms of what the country can take and what the population can absorb.
“I don’t think we’ll see much more taxes in the new Budget, but there are other things the government can substitute — for example reducing or removing subsidies on fuel and making utility prices more market driven,” he said.
There is some leeway for the government in terms of existing or announced taxation policies, he noted, for example, the reintroduction of the Property Tax and even a higher value added tax.
“Almost every country has some form of Property Tax. And Trinidad and Tobago has one of, if not the lowest VAT rate in the entire region. These would be the easiest tax policies to sell if they needed to,” George said.
In fiscal 2016, the government had expected to earn $12.4 billion from VAT, but only earned $7 billion. For fiscal 2017, the amount collected in the first six months is $2.8 billion or 22 percent lower than the same period in the previous year.
The population would, however, likely demand improved efficiency and value for money should tax rates increase.
“There is no connection for people between the payment and return or value for money, and this is something the government has to address. Once you see it translate into something of value then you might have an easier time converting it a cost you are willing to pay,” George said.
In the early 2000s, during the latest energy boom, since so much government revenue came from that sector, government expenditure “didn’t feel like your money,” he suggested.
Now that the energy sector can’t contribute, citizens have to step up, and now they want to know how their money is being spent.
“A large part of the noise isn’t the tax itself but how it is being used,” George contended.
Fundamental to the process, however, is tax collection management.
“It’s inefficient,” Dr Arjoon said bluntly, adding that the proposed Revenue Authority needs to be implemented as a priority.
Businesses are evading taxes, and this is a disadvantage for the Government.
“We need to pay attention to the collection process. Trade ‘misinvoicing’, for example, (where firms deliberately misstate the value of their export cargo as less than it is worth) has cost the country US$33.6 billion in just over a decade. We are losing revenue and leaking foreign exchange,” Dr Arjoon said.
George agreed that to a large extent, inefficiency is the bane of tax collection process, with the current systems at Board of Inland Revenue, the country’s tax collection agency, not the most client and consumer friendly.
“The motivation is not there, nor systems for management and accountability. There is very little in terms of clear guidelines for interaction with the public for issues around collection. The system needs a complete transformation,” he said.
He noted that, just as the country has heard several times before, the Revenue Authority will likely be raised in the Budget — and despite the difficulty in finding a bipartisan solution to tax reform, it has to be done.
“It has to be done correctly. This is not the first time tax reform has ever been done. It’s not like you can’t find a model out there,” he said.
Other views on taxation
Christopher Alcazar, President of the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturer’s Association:
“We are very much in support of the Revenue Authority of Trinidad and Tobago.
Rather than raise the tax rate, collect from those that are falling through the cracks. That is where we can make up the shortfall.
“The problem for manufacturers is we are trying to be more competitive so we can export and obviously, taxes don’t help. We’ve had discussions with the Minsters of Finance (Colm Imbert) and Trade (Paula Gopee-Scoon) and made proposals to the Ministries. (Imbert) did not make any promises but the discussions were promising.
The manufacturing sector employs nearly 60,000 people across the country. We hope our concerns have been noted and the Budget brings positive news to manu¬facturers to help pull us out of this lull.”
Dr Thackwray Driver, Chief Executive Officer of
the Trinidad and Tobago Energy Chamber:
“The number one issue for us is the Supplemental Petroleum Tax. This is a tax on revenue, not profit and kicks in as soon as prices go above US$50 a barrel. Per¬versely, oil companies are better off if the price stays below US$49.
For smaller operators, especially those who operate on tight margins, this causes a negative cash flow situation. When prices are in this US$50 range, people aren’t willing to invest in oil production. We don’t mind taxes on profits, but not on revenue.
The Ministry of Finance is aware. The International Monetary Fund has also made some short term recommendations for incremental change that we think can be implemented during a transitional period (while reform is being considered).
Property tax on facilities is also something we would like clarified. In principle, I don’t have a problem with property tax but in the current climate it’s probably not the best thing to be doing. There is also the lack of clarification about how the value of an asset will be calculated. What is the formula? There has been no proper communication from the Government.
The speed of VAT refunds is also something that can really affect cash flow, again for the smaller companies with tight margins. Bigger companies can probably buffer but for a service company or contractor it puts them in a difficult cash flow situation.
We understand the government has its own cash flow problems but it makes hard for smaller operators.”