Review of Inland Revenue’s Annual Report for 2022-23

Review of Inland Revenue’s Annual Report for 2022-23

  • How did Inland Revenue fare during the year?
  • What challenges lie ahead for it and the incoming minister of revenue, whoever that might be?

This is the first year under the leadership of new Commissioner of Inland Revenue, Peter Mersi, who took over from Naomi Ferguson on 1st July 2022. It’s worth noting that Inland Revenue hasn’t had the easiest of 12 months. It did finalise its Business Transformation programme in the June 22 year, but during that period it was tied up very heavily with this and then the various COVID support programs. Those have wound down in the June 2023 year, but it got landed with the Cost of Living Payments program, which the last Government introduced in its May 2022 budget.

At first sight, the structure of the Annual Report seems similar to that of previous years, but there are several subtle differences in the presentation and layout and in the department’s apparent focus. Overall, the report feels a lot more readable and digestible than in previous years.

One of the first signs of a change of approach is the lack of reference to a mission statement. Instead, there’s a clear emphasis on Inland Revenue’s role and the benefits for everyone that it delivers. As one of the online bookmarks to the Annual Report notes, “the tax and social policy system is a major national asset which underpins the well-being of all New Zealanders.”  Under the headline, “We deliver three long term outcomes for Aotearoa New Zealand” page ten of the report summarises these long-term outcomes as Revenue, Social policy payments and Collaboration.

A more collaborative approach

Now, the last point about collaboration is interesting because this is a point picked up in other places in the report. In fact, the reference to collaboration is new. The word was never used in last year’s report, but this year it is a clear theme and I think it’s a welcome development. The report also talks about partnerships noting,

“We work with many other parties to help manage and run the tax and social policy systems such as tax agents, employers, KiwiSaver providers, financial institutions and community groups such as Citizens Advice Bureau.”

The report also references the international cooperation, such as with the OECD and tax agencies in other jurisdictions. And it notes that it exchanges financial account information under the Common Reporting Standards and the automatic exchange of information with almost 100 jurisdictions. As I’ve said in previous podcasts, the depth and extent of the international information sharing exchanges that go on are not well understood by taxpayers. In fact, probably are underestimated by many.

Reviewing last year’s report, I thought Inland Revenue had a bit of a bumpy relationship with tax agents, but I noted Peter Mersi was busy meeting representatives of professional bodies, clearly with the intention of addressing this particular point. And on the ground as tax agents we can see there’s been progress in this field, and we feel that there’s a definite shift in the attitude towards ourselves with greater cooperation.

It’s also made clear in the report that Inland Revenue sees tax agents as a vital part of the tax ecosystem.

This is a very welcome development in my mind and, as I said, mirrors what we’re experiencing on the ground. We certainly would like more support, such as easier phone access and definitely an updated playlist when we are put on hold. There are only so many times in the day I can hear Sierra Leone.

Overview of report

As I said, there’s a fresher feel to this year’s report which looks better organised and more readable for the general reader. If you’re wanting to dip into the report, page 11 sets out a good overview and then pages 14 to 38 summarise its work. There’s plenty of graphics and it’s very readable.

99% of income tax, GST and employment information returns are filed digitally, pretty near identical to the June 2022 results. It currently costs $0.43 to collect every hundred dollars of tax revenue. Back in 2015, that figure was $0.80 per hundred dollars of tax revenue.

Investigations and assurance – a mixed bag

I’m always interested about specific programs Inland Revenue has been running in the compliance space and I think this is a bit more of a mixed bag. According to the report it “identified or assured $973 million in revenue through our interventions.”  This covers a number of initiatives. There is reference, for example, to advanced pricing agreements, which are prepared by multinationals in relation to agreements between a New Zealand subsidiary and its offshore affiliates. The idea is to make sure that Inland Revenue is satisfied that the transfer pricing regulations have been met and revenue is not being stripped out of New Zealand. Apparently 92 multinationals have active advance pricing agreements as of 30th June representing tax assured of about $440 million a year.

Real-time reviews

One of the other great things that the Inland Revenue has got as a result of business transformation, is the ability to pretty much live track applications that are being made. This topic is probably worth a podcast on its own to explain its capability. We understand from Inland Revenue presentations that it very carefully watched what was going on when applications for COVID support payments were being made.

With real-time reviews, if Inland Revenue sees something which on the face of it, looks incorrect it can take immediate action to defer payment or put that application under additional scrutiny before it’s paid out. According to Inland Revenue’s report, real time review of returns stopped, “$145 million of incorrect or fraudulent refunds or of or tax deductions at the time of filing”. Real-time reviews mean if a person is filing online and is constantly correcting a return and it appears this is because the person is after a certain result that will be identified by Inland Revenue for review.

International compliance

As I mentioned earlier, Inland Revenue is party to over 100 international information sharing agreements. According to the report Inland Revenue it received more than 600 voluntary disclosures over the last three years, resulting in more than $74 million in omitted overseas income now being assessed. That’s a bit of a surprise in my view and is probably on the low end in my view. We see quite a bit of movement in this area with people coming forward when they realise they haven’t complied with their obligations and we help them make the right declarations and pay the correct amount of tax.

In fairness this was an area, prior to the pandemic where in the wake of the introduction of the Common Reporting Standards on the Automatic Exchange of Information Inland Revenue was gearing up to throw quite a bit of resources at perceived non-compliance. Of course, that all went sideways, but with things sort of settling back down to a new normal, we may see Inland Revenue activity pick up again depending on resourcing.

Scope for more investigation work?

$397 million of the $973 million “assured” in the year stemmed from investigation work. Comparisons are not clear, but it appears well down on previous years. So, this is an area for improvement.  By a perhaps slightly unfair comparison, the Australian Tax Office recently announced that it had picked up and collected an additional A$6.4 billion in the year to June 23 as a result of its tax avoidance taskforce.

This was a specific ATO initiative which scrutinised the tax returns and outcomes of the largest 1100 businesses and multinational groups in Australia to verify that they were paying the right amount of tax.

I expect Inland Revenue looked at that program and considered what lessons and opportunities a similar program might present. But it should be said that the Australian economy being bigger it also presents more opportunities for the ATO. The other thing about the Australian economy in transfer pricing terms, is it’s further up the value chain. In other words, more value can be created and captured in Australia, whereas New Zealand is more typically a price taker. Nevertheless, I think there’s room for improvement in the investigation space.

Increase in outstanding tax debt

As of 30th June, the total amount of general tax and Working for Families debt amounted to $5.8 billion. That’s up $600 million from the June 2022 year. At year end more than 524,000 taxpayers had a tax payment that was overdue although 315,000 owed less than $1,000.  During the year Inland Revenue wrote off or remitted $754 million of debt compared with $689 million in 2022.

$231 million of the $754 million written off related to penalties and interest for taxpayers affected by COVID 19. In the wake of the pandemic if a taxpayer fell into debt as a result of COVID 19 Inland Revenue adopted a sympathetic view and was prepared to write off interest and penalties on such debt.

The rise in debt is a concern, but it’s a reflection of a number of things going on, not least of which the fact the economy is slowing down. Consequently, there are 44,000 more taxpayers with tax debt than in 2022. As ever, Inland Revenue’s working with those in debt to set up arrangements to pay off the debt. As I’ve said many times previously, if you’re in debt approach Inland Revenue and if you show serious intent to deal with the debt, it is generally willing to enter into an arrangement.  

During the year they entered into 163,000 such debt arrangements. That’s up nearly 20% on the 140,000 for the previous year. As of 30th June 2023, there were still 77,000 active arrangements involving tax and student loan debt, which covered about $1.6 billion or just over a quarter of all debt.

Incidentally, on the measurement of tax debt to tax revenue, tax debt is about 5% of tax revenue, which isn’t bad by international comparisons, and certainly is an improvement on the 2013 year when it was nearly 10%.

More legal action

Inland Revenue also started to play harder with defaulters. It threatened legal action or issued notice of legal proceedings against 2850 taxpayers and 35% of those promptly settled in full or set up an arrangement. It’s also issued a thousand statutory demands involving other defaulters. I think we can continue to see expect to see the level of legal action continue to rise during in the current year.

More new hires

The key to any organisation is its people. And after the upheaval of business transformation which saw Inland Revenues workforce fall by 25% between June 2018 and June 2022 this is the first year since June 2015 that there were actually more new hires than exits. Inland Revenue’s total workforce rose by a net 203 persons, or 5.2% to 4,130. Staff turnover was 10.1%, which is a big improvement on last year’s 18.7%.

As for the profile of Inland Revenue, two thirds of its workforce are women. The average age of staff is 45.3, with an average length of service of 13.7 years. Now, the length of service has fallen in recent years, but it’s an improvement on the 11.1 years’ average service in the June 2014 year.

How much does all of this cost?

What’s interesting is that Inland Revenue didn’t spend all the appropriations it received from the Government for the year. The appropriations budgeted for the year was $735 million, but it actually only spent $691 million. That underspend of $44 million was partly due to challenges recruiting staff in the tight labour market and the timing of residual transformation activities. That underspend is going to be transferred to the current year subject to confirmation by ministers.

The operating expenditure on contractors and consultants fell to $42 million from $75 million in the previous year. And apparently the ratio of contractors and consultants operating expenditure to workforce spend was 10.3% this year, compared with 17.6% now.

Last year I noted that the Department had devolved authority to Madison Recruitment Ltd to provide extra staff, which didn’t terribly impress me because I think delegating authority outside the public service is not something a revenue authority should do lightly.

Inland Revenue engaged Madison Recruitment again in June 2022 to provide contingent labour to help with the roll out of the Cost of Living Payment scheme and wrap up of the COVID 19 support work. This engagement finished on 16th December 2022.

Areas for improvement

There are three specific areas where I think there is potential for improvement. Firstly, underspending by $44 million even allowing for a tight labour market is a bit of a concern. And so, I’d want to make sure that the appropriations are fully utilised to build the appropriate capacity.

And on this I would just say that during the election campaign, National campaigned on cuts to civil service and Inland Revenue is one of those departments identified for savings. As I’ve noted, Inland Revenue has lost a quarter of its staff since 2018.  In fact, if you look at the numbers National used for their policy, you can see that the increase in Inland Revenue’ spend since 2018 was 20%, whereas inflation since June 2018 is 23.4% (based on the Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator).

In other words, Inland Revenue has not been increasing its staff and spend above inflation. The Business Transformation program has delivered quite a lot and the report has some very interesting commentary on this. The estimated cumulative reduction in compliance costs for SMEs is thought to be around $925 million. The cumulative additional Crown revenue was expected to be $1.86 billion for the year and next year it projected a $2.8 billion. Internal Revenue is achieving its goals, but there’s always room for improvement. If the incoming Government’s finances are going to be tight which is what we’ve heard, it seems odd to be proposing reductions for a department which is actually very efficient and which gets a very good return on investment.

Getting better returns on investment

That said two of the areas where added investment measures return between $7 or more per dollar invested would be investigative capacity and debt management. In the area of debt management generally, we appear to be in the downside of the economic cycle so debt is bound to rise and to some extent there’s little Inland Revenue can do about that.

Student Loan debt a major area for concern

But there is an area where I think Inland Revenue really should and could be doing a lot more, and that’s in the student loan debt sector because the numbers are really quite large. The total amount of student loan debt rose by over 10%. And it’s particularly increasing in relation to overseas based borrowers.

Inland Revenue ran a specific campaign in May this year to remind those overseas based borrowers who had missed payments due on 31st March. It contacted nearly 75,000 such borrowers resulting in over 3000 instalment arrangements. But at this stage, the amount of overdue student loan debt now stands at $2.2 billion and over $2 billion of that is overseas based borrowers.

And this is where Inland Revenue does not seem to be as on top of the issue as it should be. I talked previously about the agreement with the Department of Internal Affairs in relation to child support. The same information sharing agreement is used to track down student loan debtors. During the year Inland Revenue received nearly 237,000 contact records from the Department of Internal Affairs. Through cross-checking its records for overseas based student loan defaulters, it managed to get hold of 88 defaulters resulting in 108 payments totalling $16,421. That’s pretty average, to put it mildly.

Time to rethink the Student Loan scheme?

If we are looking at where to put extra resources, then there’s something else we need to think about in this area. Just adopting a big picture approach here maybe we should ask whether in fact the student loan scheme is achieving what we want. I came across a graph in the Financial Times which noted that English graduates leave university with far more debt than those in other developed countries, including the US. English graduates were leaving with debt in excess of USD50,000 (NZ$85,000). New Zealand graduates are just below the US with USD26,232 or NZ$45,550 on graduation.

And we have a large diaspora with over a million Kiwis overseas. We have a large amount of overseas student loan debt, but we also have a skills shortage. I just wonder whether as well as trying to find a better way to manage that debt we should be thinking more about encouraging people who’ve taken on student debt to stay here to meet those skills gaps maybe through debt moratoriums.

I would say overall for Inland Revenue it’s been a good year mostly, a difficult one at times, but it’s done a good job. However, I think the issue of debt management needs to be addressed swiftly and be properly resourced.

Well, that’s all for this week. I’m Terry Baucher and you can find this podcast on my website or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening and please send me your feedback and tell your friends and clients. Until next time, kia pai to rā. Have a great day.

How Inland Revenue could do more to help spot businesses in trouble and better manage debt

How Inland Revenue could do more to help spot businesses in trouble and better manage debt

  • Use of money interest rates set to rise
  • Upstart Nation, the Startup Advisors Council suggests changes to the tax system in a key report

New Zealand has undoubtedly entered a slowdown economically and that’s flowing through to lower tax receipts leading to claims this week of the Governments being in a big fiscal hole. According to the Companies Office’s latest statistics for the quarter ended 30th June 2023, there were 461 liquidator appointments in the quarter.

That’s 47.8% up on the 312 for the same quarter last year.

As Professor Lisa Marriott noted in an article late last week, the ripple effect of companies going into liquidation is considerable, particularly for unpaid suppliers and employees.  Her research suggests that Inland Revenue could be doing a lot more to share information about businesses that are failing. According to Professor Marriott Inland Revenue is actually less proactive than some comparable overseas government agencies such as the Australian Tax Office.

Inland Revenue initiates more than 60% of liquidations in the average year, and that sometimes happens after quite a considerable period of non-payment of key taxes such as GST and PAYE. For example, $2.6 billion or over 54% of the $4.8 billion owed to Inland Revenue as of 30th June 2022 represented GST and what it terms “employment activities” (i.e. PAYE and KiwiSaver contributions).

(Inland Revenue June 2022 Annual Report)

Professor Marriott’s research points to non-payment of these particular taxes as being a very early warning sign of businesses running into trouble. Picking up overseas initiatives she suggests three particular responses could be adopted here to help businesses be aware that a particular business they may be dealing with may represent a credit risk.

For example, in Ireland, Revenue Ireland produces a quarterly list of tax defaulters which identifies the name, address, occupation and the amount of tax owed.  This is triggered when the debts exceed €50,000 or approximately $90,000.

Another option would be as the Australian Tax Office does, to advise credit rating agencies that a business has tax debts. This happens if the amount owed exceeds A$100,000 and is more than 90 days overdue.

A third option and one the Tax Working Group looked at, is following another Australian initiative and making business directors personally accountable for unpaid tax through Director Penalty Notices. These are issued in relation to the Australian equivalent of PAYE, GST and KiwiSaver. Once a Director Penalty Notice has been issued, it can only be cancelled by full payment of the tax debt within 21 days or some other action such as commencing winding up proceedings.  If no action is taken, then the director becomes personally liable, effectively sidestepping creditor protection and limited liability issues.

These are sensible suggestions, but in my view perhaps another thing Inland Revenue could do would be to be much more proactive in managing debt, particularly in relation to GST and PAYE. I occasionally get involved with helping taxpayers who have fallen behind with their tax payments. And there’s invariably a couple of common points in every case.

Common problems with tax debt

Firstly, Inland Revenue’s present policy of charging interest and late payment penalties doesn’t seem particularly effective to me. In fact, arguably, I’d say it counterproductive.

Debt builds up very quickly and consequently, at a remarkably low level somewhere between $10 and $20,000, the taxpayers often just feel defeated and basically give up. At this point they haven’t engaged with Inland Revenue and all they see is just the amount owed going up and up and up resulting in a sort of death spiral procrastination spiral. 

The second common factor in dealing with clients in this scenario is that the situation has been allowed to carry on and develop over a long period of time. These businesses have been going through a slow decline before Inland Revenue finally steps in and decides either to liquidate it or impose some other form of action to recover the outstanding amounts.

One of those actions is the use of “Deduction Notices”. These enable Inland Revenue to go to a customer of a defaulting taxpayer and require them to withhold a certain percentage of any payment they may make to the defaulting taxpayer, and instead pay it over to Inland Revenue.  Most often Deduction Notices are issued to employees and often in relation to unpaid child support. But they can be used in other circumstances. In one case I saw a Deduction Notice applied was 100%, although I’m not entirely certain what was meant to be achieved by issuing such a notice.

Adopting the measures suggested by Professor Marriott would take some time to go through the full consultation and legislative process. Although these are tools Inland Revenue perhaps could consider adopting, given the current rise in liquidations, I consider it needs to be taking action sooner rather than wait for these additional options.

Harden up Inland Revenue?

One of the things it ought to do is toughen up its own performance measures in relation to the management of debt. Each year in its annual report Inland Revenue will publish its performance measure results broken down by various sectors. For the year ended 30th June 2022, it achieved seven out of nine measures that it set in relation to the management of debt and on file returns.

But critically, one of the measures where it fell down was the percentage of collectable debt over two years old. The target for the year was 40% or less and in fact it achieved 40.5%, just above its target. That, by the way, was a considerable improvement on the 51.7% achieved for the year to June 2021.

But I would suggest that the 40% target is actually too generous. Inland Revenue really should be looking to drive that down to 20% or less. In fact, looking at this measure, it used to include student loan debt and Small Business Cashflow Scheme debt, but they were taken out and the debt target was then reduced from 50% to 40%.

(As an aside, student loan debt is a particular problem where I think Inland Revenue inaction has allowed very large sums of debt built up with people going overseas as the main issue here. But Inland Revenue, to my mind, has not been quick enough to develop the tools it needs to keep on top of that particular issue, which means often applying to overseas tax agencies for details of defaulting taxpayers.

I think it’s picking up its efforts in this space, but the scenario perhaps shouldn’t be allowed to develop to the extent it did. I’ve recently come across a case where the taxpayer left over 20 years ago but basically Inland Revenue has only now really started to take action to collect the outstanding debt.)

The other thing that’s also noticeable from Inland Revenue’s June 2022 annual report is that it did not actually spend the full amount allocated to it from the relevant budget appropriations.

Some questions for Inland Revenue

The amount allocated was just over $92 million, but in fact Inland Revenue underspent by $2.5 million for the year.  A couple of questions I have about this are how did that happen and what’s being done to improve the performance and make sure that the funds allocated are effectively used? (I note that for the year to June 2023, there was an increase in the appropriations.) 

It will be interesting to see how that’s played out when we see the annual report later this year. This debt management issue, by the way, points to something I’ve mentioned in previous podcasts – has Inland Revenue’s Business Transformation program deprived it of some capacity in key areas?  Inland Revenue has reduced its staffing by more than 25% of your staff and not all of that might be dead wood no longer needed because of the upgrade. I think vitally important staff have gone from key areas such as investigations. And it may be that debt management is another area where key personnel have been allowed to go and the gap has been allowed to develop as a consequence.

As I said, it will be interesting to see the annual report later this year. But in summary, I’d have to agree with Professor Marriott, there’s plenty of room for improvement. 

More interest rate rises…

Moving on, a key weapon for Inland Revenue in ensuring payment of tax debts is the ability to charge use of money interest on unpaid tax debt.  The current rate is a fairly chunky 10.39%. But as of 29th August, the day after the next provisional tax payment date, the rate will increase to 10.91%. (Incidentally, the rate payable for overpaid tax will also rise, and that goes from 3.53% to 4.67%).

It is necessary for Inland Revenue to have a tool such as an interest charge for unpaid tax. Otherwise, people would just not take any action. But I think that is only one of the tools in its arsenal, as I just mentioned it really does need to back this up with greater enforcement and earlier interventions.

At the same time, Inland Revenue and tax advisers can all work together and let people know that when you take proactive steps on tax debt, you will find Inland Revenue is much more prepared to work with taxpayers in default than people might imagine. This has always been my experience. You front foot these issues with Inland Revenue, and you will find they will be prepared to work with you and your clients unless they are actually dealing with a serial defaulter.

For example, yesterday I was speaking with someone who’d run into some difficulties and had gone to Inland Revenue. They had been very pleasantly surprised by how proactive Inland Revenue had been in working with them on sorting out their unpaid tax. I could see clearly see that they felt a lot happier about the position. They still owed money, but they were in a position where they knew there was a way forward. 

The key lesson is if you’re in trouble with Inland Revenue over unpaid debt, talk to it and your advisers and then you’ll hopefully get better results.

Incidentally, the rate of prescribed rate of interest for calculating fringe benefit tax on employer provided loans and some other measures is also being increased with effect from the quarter starting 1st October. From that date, the rate will rise from its current 7.89% to 8.41%.

Upstart Nation? Changing the tax system to boost startups

And finally this week, an interesting report called Upstart Nation from the government’s Start-Up Advisory Council.

This has been the business group looking at how to improve the rate of startups and develop more startups into major companies. On 1st August it released its report which included suggestions regarding changes to the tax system to help boost startups.

The report’s objective to “present a comprehensive strategy aimed at transforming New Zealand into a thriving hub for innovative UpStarts”.  The Council identified four primary pillars as key: Capital Capability, Connectivity and Culture. Specific recommendations were made by the Council for each of those pillars to address identified gaps and leverage opportunities.

It had ten recommendations which it felt “will have the greatest impact on our ecosystem”.

Interestingly, three of those recommendations involve changes to the tax system. The first was wanting changes around the taxation treatment of share options and employee share option programs (ESOPs) in particular.

Generally, the current position is a taxable gain arises on the exercise of the options. The Council thinks it would be more appropriate to move that taxing point to when the underlying shares relating to those options are sold. ESOPs are intended to attract and retain investors and key employees as the business grows. Accordingly, hitting them with early tax charges ahead of when they actually can realise their position is a bit of an impediment.  There are also questions around the compliance costs involved in getting accurate valuations in what is often an illiquid market.  I hear this quite a bit.

Another was specific incentives to promote investment in UpStarts and venture funds in is some form of deduction for such investments. The Council recommends officials carefully review the Australian and UK tax concession schemes and develop something tailored to the New Zealand setting. In particular, they were looking at the Australian Early Stage Innovation Company scheme, which provides a deduction for an investment and a capital gains tax exemption.

The council suggests a deduction of maybe up to 30% of the capital invested directly in an UpStart or UpStart venture fund capped at $200,000 a year. That’s an interesting suggestion and one worth considering even though it probably won’t be accepted by fiscally prudent governments.

An urgent issue with the foreign investment fund regime

The third suggestion included in the top ten recommendations was to “Ensure international and returning Kiwi talent isn’t captured by double taxation under our foreign investment funds regime.”  This issue almost exclusively affects American investors and employees with overseas investments. Once their four-year transitional residence exemption expires and the foreign investment fund (FIF) regime takes full effect, they are essentially taxed on an unrealised basis. At the same time, because America requires all its citizens to file tax returns, they are still subject to tax there and in particular capital gains tax. 

This is something I’ve discussed with a number of clients. Although they can claim foreign tax credits in America in relation to the FIF tax payable, it often exceeds the equivalent amount of US tax payable on the realised gains. They are therefore accruing a tax liability, which in some cases they can never fully offset.  In effect, they feel they are facing a double tax charge. 

The Council recommended “this issue be investigated under urgency with a view to removing FDR on people caught under this double tax conundrum to ensure we can attract and retain them in New Zealand”.

I agree this needs reviewing. We hear frequently we are in the business of attracting talent here. In this particular case, we have an issue (somewhat ironically, a by-product of not having a comprehensive capital gains tax) which potentially hinders getting vitally important migrants.

You could argue that not this particular issue doesn’t just affect investors in the startup sector, but also any American citizen or returning New Zealanders who have acquired American citizenship or a Green Card and are among the groups of skilled migrants such as doctors or other specialist engineers, etc.  This is a real impediment we need to consider.

Well, that’s all for this week. I’m Terry Baucher and you can find this podcast on my website or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening and please send me your feedback and tell your friends and clients. Until next time, kia pai to rā. Have a great day.