Today’s Business Page looks back not over the past year but to some fifteen years ago when on January 8, 1994, Ram & McRae (then Christopher L. Ram & Company) jointly with Ernst & Young Caribbean hosted a seminar ‘Managing for ecomomic recovery.’ Among the persons who made presentations were then Senior Finance Minister Asgar Ally, the regional and international partners of Ernst & Young and Robert McRae and myself from Ram & McRae. With tax reform again being discussed at the national level I thought it appropriate to republish extracts from my presentation at that seminar on the topic ‘Tax reform: a vehicle for economic recovery.’ Some time over the next month or so Business Page will review developments since then and offer suggestions on steps which may seem necessary at this stage.
Role of taxation
Taxation is a major tool of economic management. Properly used it can play a significant role in fixing prices, allocating resources and alleviating social problems by redistribution of income. In the distant days of cheap oil and cheap money, however, serious mis-allocations and distortions were allowed to develop because of poor fiscal and monetary management.
Reality confronted the world and tax reform throughout most of the decade of the ’80s and early ’90s has been a popular cry in many countries of the world transcending continents, economic and political systems and different levels of economic development. In the metropolitan countries most notably the USA and the United Kingdom, the political directorate used tax reform as a way to marshal support for supply side economics, an experiment which emphasised policy measures to affect aggregate supply or potential output.
Across the other side of the world, the Asian tigers had as the objective of their reform increasing the revenues of their nontraditional sectors, a more effective income redistribution, removal of tax-induced incentives for waste and inefficiency and reduction in the transaction cost of transferring resources from the private and public sectors.
In the case of most of the developing countries the thrust for reform has largely been dictated by international lending agencies often in the role of a doctor administering to a sick patient. Unfortunately many of the prescriptions have largely followed wholesale copying of the changes in the metropolitan countries.
Although it is unreasonable to expect government to finance development expenditures while controlling the deficit and reducing inflation, there is little sympathy for administrations which increase taxes. In any case it is certainly not possible to finance development outlays of the public sector by depending entirely on regressive taxes, particularly since there is concentration of income and wealth in the hands of a small proportion of the population. It is unfortunately true that this situation is usually exacerbated in the process of economic development.
It is usual in considering tax reform to examine the level of taxation in the country and to compare this with other countries. Table 1 [not reproduced] shows that of a random selection of fourteen countries, Guyana ranks number three among the highest taxed countries, well ahead of places like Singapore, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, USA, UK and Korea. The ratio for Guyana is almost certain to be unreliable for at least three reasons not all of which move in the same direction:
1. The development of a culture in which tax evasion became a normal part of everyday life; this was particularly acute among the self employed persons in respect of their compliance with the income tax laws and the business community both in relation to income taxes and custom duties.
2. Guyana is rated among the hyper-generous countries in the world: A vast array of tax concessions have been granted to a host of interest groups who have therefore benefited to the tune of unquantifiable millions. If the taxes otherwise due were not forgiven then the Tax/GDP ratio would have been even higher.
3. Estimates of the unreported, unofficial economy suggest that that sector may be as large as the reported economy.
The issue of tax reform
Tax reform in any country cannot be carried out successfully without a clear recognition of the problems facing the country, an understanding of the direction in which it wishes to go and the policies to be pursued in getting there. Taxation is merely an instrument of economic policy and development and the beneficial consequence of taxation requires a clear and cohesive policy.
The discussion of tax reform is concerned as much with the structure of taxes both direct and indirect as it is about the level of taxation. As we have said before, where the figures are unreliable the measurement of the level is in any case meaningless. Tax reform must not be seen only as a revenue matter but as part of the control of the national budget. This therefore raises the issue of expenditure control about which I will just say that the structure of central government expenditure is such that most of the expenditure is at least fixed and cannot be reduced.
Taxation will always be the main source of revenue to most developed countries where the increasing expectations of a long suffering people demand increased not less revenues. However, the introduction of any additional taxes including those resulting from changes in rates or allowances only serve to penalise further those groups, most notably the employed persons and law abiding importers and manufacturers, who comply with the law. A case clearly exists for reform both for improvements in the tax structure and additional revenues. Such reforms should ensure that additional revenues are raised with very little adverse effect.
Tax reform includes winners and losers. The losers are often likely to be those with the greatest resources to resist and defeat reforms. Accordingly popular support, consultation and communication are vital to the reform process.
In seeking change, it must be recognised that the existing tax system is the product of decades of social, political and economic legislation and behaviour. Whilst it may be ideal in a tax reform package to go back to the drawing board and reconstruct all the laws and practices this is impossible to achieve for several reasons:
● the existing tax system significantly influences current business patterns, relative prices, property values and legitimate vested interest;
● the will hardly exists among politicians whose planning horizon extends only to the next elections;
● the technical and other resources are seldom ever available; and
● the opposition from vested interests and even tax administrators.
There is no such concept as an ideal model tax system which is applicable to all countries at a particular time or for any one country all the time. Tax reform is more a process of adapting to changing social, political and economic demands and priorities rather than a swift movement towards a desired goal.
Experience elsewhere suggests that efficient reform is best achievable by a series of incremental methods rather than by any comprehensive one time reform.
Tax evasion affects both the Customs and the Inland Revenue Department and although the instances at the Customs Department seem to draw more media attention, the situation among certain groups of income tax payer is perhaps not much better. Although Table 1 [not reproduced] suggests that Guyanese are an overtaxed nation a comparison of the taxes paid by the self employed persons and those paid by employed persons suggests that there must be massive tax evasion by the self employed group. It seems strange that this group which includes professionals, farmers, restaurant and night club operators, traders and unincorporated businesses pays income tax equivalent to 0.44% of the total tax revenue of the country.
Laws exist for dealing with tax evasion but the resources available to the revenue authority are clearly inadequate to deal with the apparent scale of this practice. It is not a matter of laws or penalties for these are already extremely severe. The administrative capability to deal with this crisis must be enhanced by better staffing, training and salaries.
I believe that the bringing together of the two revenue departments under a single umbrella would lead to much more significant revenue collection through co-ordination.
The economy’s structure of financial institutions and procedures will need to be reshaped to aid in tax enforcement. Faceless transactions must be prohibited; an independent and skilled accounting profession must be fostered; specialised law tribunals must be set up to handle tax cases and corruption by public officers must be dealt with firmly.
The system has so far not adapted well to the abolition of the tax exit certificate, the untraceable movement of foreign exchange through the cambio system, and the increasing incidence of short term contractors, consultants and temporary workers.
While some of these recommendations will be unpalatable to many, the danger to society as a whole cannot be dismissed. Concentration of wealth among a small percentage of the society may on the surface appear to be attractive to those benefiting. At some point however, the inequity will result in social backlash from which no one can escape unscathed.