The IMF suggests a CGT and gets rebuffed.

The IMF suggests a CGT and gets rebuffed.

  • Bright-line test red flags
  • How to tax wealth
  • IMF and Climate Change Commission suggest changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme are needed.

Like a never-ending Groundhog Day, every International Monetary Fund report on the New Zealand economy suggests tax reforms would promote efficiency.  For example,

“There is a sense that the asset allocation in New Zealand households has a bit too much emphasis on housing versus other investments. We think a capital gains tax at the margin would help.”

That was IMF Mission Chief Thomas Helbling in 2017.

This year, the IMF Mission noted:

“…tax policy reforms are needed to promote investment and productivity and growth increase, increase the progressivity of income tax and mobilise additional revenue in response to long term fiscal challenges. To achieve these objectives, reforms should combine comprehensive capital gains tax, land value tax and changes to corporate income tax.”  

And invariably the IMF’s conclusions are usually followed by a fairly dismissive response from the Minister of Finance of the day.

In 2002 it was the late Sir Michael Cullen responded to that year’s report: “The IMF’s credibility is not assisted by the fact that it tends to apply the same policy template regardless of the country’s circumstances”.  This year Nicola Willis’s retort was “There are some things that are certain in life, death, taxes and the IMF recommending a capital gains tax.”

Associate Minister of Finance David Seymour also weighed in commenting. “I see the IMF again saying, oh, you need a capital gains tax. Every country has one. The only countries that don’t have one are New Zealand and Switzerland. But I say let’s be more like Switzerland.”

However, I’m not so sure that this was quite the zinger he hoped because as someone mischievously pointed out on Twitter, Switzerland has a wealth tax and a $59 per hour minimum wage in Geneva.

Deputy Prime Minister and former Treasurer Winston Peters was apparently not available for comment.

de-facto capital gains tax – the bright-line test

Now, amidst all of the commentary about the IMF’s suggestions, one of the things that came up time and again is that in many ways, we do have a de-facto capital gains tax, except we don’t call it that.  The bright-line test is an example of the approach that we’ve adopted, which has been ad hoc and responsive based on the government of the day’s policies at the time.

As you may recall the bright-line test was brought in with effect from 1st October 2015 by the National Government and it then applied to disposals within two years. In March 2018 the Labour Government introduced a five-year period and in 2021 it was increased a 10-year period. And so, a quite confusing scenario has developed as to which bright-line test applies because some of the exemptions have changed over time as well, particularly in relation to the main family home.

In one way, therefore, the reduction of the bright-line test back to two years again from 1st July is to be welcomed because it is clarifying and simplifying what has become an incredibly complicated area.

Tax Red Flags: More than just the bright-line test to be considered

The bright-line test and taxation of land has plenty of red flags when together with the excellent Shelley-ann Brinkley and Riaan Geldenhuys and moderator Tammy McLeod, I made a presentation about tax red flags on Tuesday to the Law Association. (Formerly the Auckland District Law Society). My thanks again for the invitation to present and to my excellent co-presenters, we had a very lively session talking around this.

In short when you drill into our current land taxation rules, they are very incoherent. The bright-line test is a backup test. It applies if none of the other land taxing provisions apply. And this is something that tripped up people before the bright-line test was introduced and will continue to do so even now it’s been reduced down to two years.

For many people, the particular issue to watch out for is the question of subdivision. If you own a property and undertake a subdivision within 10 years of acquisition it may still be caught under the existing rules, outside of the bright-line test. And in some cases, you may be caught by the combination of the provisions with the associated persons test which deem transactions to be taxable if at the time you acquired the land you were associated with the builder, dealer, or developer in land.

Sometimes the tax charge can be triggered way past the 10-year timetable since acquisition.  That’s particularly the case in relation to a disposal of property where building improvements have been carried out. That particular provision, section CB 11 of the Income Tax Act, deems income to arise if a person disposes of land and

 “within 10 years before the disposal”, the person or an associate of the person completed improvements to the land and at the time the improvements were begun, the person or an associated person carried on a business of erecting buildings. Note, the reference to “within 10 years before the disposal.”  So, you may have owned that land for considerably longer than 10 years and yet still be subject to the provision.

Just a pro tip for anyone thinking ‘Great, with a two year bright-line test coming in, I can now sign a sale and purchase agreement, make sure settlement takes place after July 1st and it’s not going to be subject to the bright-line test.’ That’s not the case. The sale point for the bright-line test in that case is when the sale and purchase agreement is signed and not when settlement happens. I had at least one client get caught by that very provision because they went for a long settlement thinking that got past the two year period. It didn’t, and it is another case of always seek advice on transactions involving land, because as I’ve just outlined, the provisions are complicated.

Could a capital gains tax be ‘simpler?’

And this was the point we reinforced during our seminar. There is a lot of complexity already in our tax system around the taxation of land and in my view, in some ways a capital gains tax would actually clear away a lot of that uncertainty. It’ll become clearer that, broadly speaking, if you buy something, and you sell it subsequently, any gain will be taxable.

Now, how the gain is calculated and the rate at which it’s taxed are two different things. But often in the debate around the capital gains tax, those two things get conflated to run as an argument against the taxation of capital gains.

In my view, the point still remains that we have a confusing hotchpotch approach to taxing capital gains and at some point, grasping the nettle with a CGT as suggested by the IMF and also the OECD, would ultimately perhaps be a better approach.

Incidentally, doing so would be consistent with the well-established principle we have of the broad-based low-rate approach. There’s nothing to say that by broadening the tax base, we could not hold tax rates at current levels or even lower. Bear in mind that the when the last tax working group recommended the capital gains tax, it was intended to keep to help keep the top tax rate at 33%.

Watch out for trustees on the move across to Australia

One of the other issues that came up in our Tax Red Flag Seminar was the question of trustees, and beneficiaries and settlors moving cross-border, particularly to and from Australia. That is something all three of us are seeing quite a bit of and it is something to watch out for as a key red flag.

The IMF on how to tax wealth

If there is a certain repetitiveness to the IMF’s discourse about taxing capital, it’s part of a global discourse on the topic. Earlier this month the IMF released a How to Tax Wealth note. These how to notes are “intended to offer practical advice from IMF staff members to policy makers on important issues.” And this this was a very interesting read as you might expect.

The IMF’s How to Tax Wealth note neatly coincided with the release of the UBS/Credit Suisse, Global Wealth Report for 2023. According to the report, in 2022 New Zealand ranked sixth in the world with an average wealth of US$388,760 per adult. On the basis of median adult wealth per adult, again in U.S. dollars, we ranked 4th behind Belgium, Australia and Hong Kong, with a median wealth of US$193,060.

Incidentally, these rankings were after a very sharp fall from 2021 levels, where New Zealand was only behind Sweden in the biggest loss in wealth per adult.

I am genuinely very surprised to see New Zealand rating so highly for both average wealth and median wealth.  On the other hand this Credit Swisse/UBS report is another example of why there’s a great debate going on around the taxation of wealth not just here, but globally.

And this IMF How to Tax Wealth note is instructive in its approach. It starts by making a very obvious point, how much to tax wealth is a distinct question from how to tax wealth. The note argues that:

“returns to capital generally should be taxed for equity and possibly efficiency reasons. and that in many countries, wealth inequality and better tax enforcement strengthen the case for higher effective taxation than in the past.”

Now the IMF doesn’t make any particular proposal about a specific level of tax, the note is basically about ‘here are things you should consider.’ But on the question of wealth taxes, it does come down pretty much against them noting,

“Improving capital income taxes tends to be both more equitable and more efficient compared with replacing them with net wealth taxes. Countries hence should prioritise improving capital income taxation over considering the introduction of wealth taxes”.

Then it talks about – in terms of strengthening capital taxes – addressing loopholes, notably the under taxation of capital gains in many countries. There’s a passing comment, that perhaps you can use a one-off net wealth tax or maybe apply it to very, very high wealth levels.

Time for inheritance tax?

But the Note also concludes “taxing capital transfers through gifts or inheritance provides another opportunity to address wealth inequality.” The IMF comments that the efficiency costs of such taxes are modest, and notes that “inheritance taxes are better aligned with redistribution than estate taxes, since exemptions and rate structures can account for the circumstances of the heirs.”

What really makes the New Zealand tax system unique is not the absence of a capital gains tax because, as David Seymour pointed out, other countries don’t have that, namely Switzerland. It’s the complete absence of taxes on the transfer of wealth, which has been the case now since 1992. That’s what makes New Zealand unique – we have no general capital gains tax together with no estate or gift or wealth taxes.

And this is an area where I think a lot more consideration needs to go into because as the IMF noted, we’ve got fiscal challenges ahead, and where might the revenue be raised from to meet those challenges.

The IMF and Climate Change Commission suggest changes to the ETS

And finally, back to the IMF again. It concluded its mission report by noting that “New Zealand’s ambitious climate goals call for major reforms,” and it referenced the Emissions Trading Scheme, having helped limit net emissions by encouraging robust reductions and removals, particularly from afforestation.

But the IMF then went on to say that “significant reforms” are going to be needed to meet domestic and international targets, and these include reducing the number of available units in the ETS, pricing agricultural emissions and strengthening the incentives for gross emissions reductions within the ETS. The IMF finally note that given the ambition of New Zealand’s first nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement, the use of international mitigation i.e.; buying credits from offshore, is likely to be required.

Now the IMF report was a week after the Climate Change Commission, and pretty much said the same thing, and advised the coalition government they should halve the number of ETS units on offer in each of the next six years. The last ETS auction did not go brilliantly. That has a flow on effect in that by reducing the amount of income from emission trading unit sales, it’s going to limit crown revenue for tax cuts.

Vale Rod Oram

It’s interesting to see a confluence of opinion happening here and an appropriate time to remember the late Rod Oram someone who was a very strong environmental journalist. I was fortunate enough to know him all too briefly after we met at a panel discussion. We’d planned on him appearing as a guest on the podcast. Sadly, with his passing that will never happen now, and our thoughts go out to his family and friends.

And on that note, 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.

Hints that the new 39% trustee tax rate might not apply to all trusts.

Hints that the new 39% trustee tax rate might not apply to all trusts.

  • What connects Pillar One and Pillar Two with the collapse of Newshub?
  • New draft Inland Revenue guidance on employee share schemes.

Today (Monday) I was (virtually) at the Accountants and Tax Agents Institute of New Zealand (ATAINZ) annual conference which, like last week’s International Fiscal Association, (IFA) Conference, was opened by the Minister of Revenue, the Honourable Simon Watts. The Minister repeated much of what he had said to the IFA conference about supporting the Generic Tax Policy Process, his wish for simplification in the tax system and improving compliance being a main driver. As the focus at the IFA conference is very much on tax policy his comments were very welcome.

By contrast, at the ATAINZ conference, the focus is slightly different because the audience there was comprised of tax agents, and we’re more focused on operational matters. So, when it came to Question Time, there were quite a number of questions around operational aspects of Inland Revenue. One of the first questions that was asked was what was going to happen with the trustee tax rate, which you may recall is proposed to rise to 39% under a bill presently before the Finance and Expenditure Committee.

Now we’re expecting to hear back from that fairly soon, but during the week the Minister of Finance, Nicola Willis, hinted that some form of carve-out might be happening, in that the 39% trustee tax rate might not apply to all trusts. So naturally, some questions were directed at the Minister seeking clarification on this point.

He wasn’t able to give more guidance, simply saying that we will have to wait until the Finance and Expenditure Committee reports back, which is expected next week. The Minister got told it is a rather frustrating scenario because we’ve got the run up to the end of the tax year on 31st March, and we will be wanting to plan payments for dividends and other distributions in before then. Unfortunately, the issue remains a bit of a grey area for the moment.

More trusts file tax returns in New Zealand than in the United Kingdom

There’s a couple of statistics that highlight the scale of this issue. According to Inland Revenue for the 2022 income year (typically the year ended 31st March 2022), the number of trusts and estates which filed a tax return totalled 237,226. That’s actually a decrease of more than 19,000 from the prior year.

It so happens that I came across statistics from the UK’s HM Revenue and Customs about the number of trust tax returns that are filed there. And according to the equivalent tax year to 5th April 2022, HMRC received 141,500 returns.

Just pause and think about that. In absolute terms, more trust and estate tax returns are filed in New Zealand than in the UK, despite the UK, with its population of some 67,000,000 being almost 13 times greater than here. So actually, on a per capita basis, it would point to the fact, for every trust tax return that’s filed in the UK, there would appear to be close to 21 filed here. The tax rate for trusts is therefore a big issue in relative and absolute terms and that’s why the tax community and trust community are really keen to get this matter resolved as quickly as possible.

What evidence is available points to the fact that for most trusts – once you include the associated families and beneficiaries that are in there – their income would not exceed $180,000, the threshold at which the 39% top tax rate kicks in. But there is a small and significant group, about 11% according to Inland Revenue, that do receive a very large amount of income. So that’s something we’d like to see resolved soon and hope it’s in time for us to get clients advised and ready for the new tax year changes.

Interestingly, on the other comments the minister made to both the IFA and the ATAINZ conferences about Inland Revenues regulatory stewardship review of fringe Benefit Tax which it did in 2022, it’s clear that there is likely to be a focus on this issue from Inland Revenue on greater audit activity. This is something promoted under the Coalition agreement. What extra resources Inland Revenue is going to have and the full direction that it’s going to take going forward are probably only going to become clearer after the Budget on 30th May. Which, as the Minister pointed out, was not that far off in reality.

How the end of Newshub and the OCED international tax deal are connected

The news that Newshub’s operations will end with effect from 30th June was a big shock to the media community. As someone who has occasionally appeared on various Newshub programmes, my sympathies go out to all those affected. And I do hope that some means is found to keep the operation going, although it has to be said, it’s very doubtful at this point. I’ve always found in all my dealings with journalists of whichever organisation, they have always been incredibly professional, and I’ve appreciated that. And so, as I said, this is not a great day for journalism, and has also been pointed out, it’s not actually a great day for democracy as a whole.

Now one of the many excellent sessions at last week’s IFA Conference was an American perspective on Pillar One digital services tax and Pillar Two, the proposed international tax agreements, which have been under negotiation for some time. The taxation of the tech giants such as Facebook and Google is a key part of Pillar One and Pillar Two, and that’s the connection with the collapse of Newshub.

Newshub is no longer financially viable according to its owners, Warner Brothers, because of collapsing advertising revenues. A couple of days after the Newshub announcement, its competitor TVNZ reported an operating loss of $4.6 million for the six months to 31st December 2023. TVNZ noted that its advertising revenue fell from $171.3 million in the six months to December 2022 to $146.8 million in the six months to December 2023, against a background of rising costs.

So where is that advertising going? Well, most of it is going offshore. From what we can pick out from the financial statements of Google and Facebook New Zealand for the year ended 31 December 2022, it would appear that close to $1.1 billion during those years was paid to offshore affiliates in so-called service fees. Now that’s a substantial amount of money, and those transactions are entirely legitimate under the present tax rules. But it has to be said, even if 10% of that $1.1 billion were to stay in New Zealand, it would be a significant boost to the industry. And arguably the difference between Newshub’s operations continuing and being closed.

The offshore advertising and the service fees and the whole issue around the taxation of tech companies, point to the pressure building on the tech companies because New Zealand is not alone on this. Over in Australia Meta, the owner of Facebook, has said it’s no longer going to go through with the deal to pay news companies who were providing content on its websites.

The presentation at the IFA Conference kept coming back to a key point that I’ve always believed, which is tax is inherently political. The French were one of the first drivers of change in this space but obviously the American companies, which would be the most affected, pushed back by putting pressure on the American government to respond. And so even though the Generic Tax Policy Process tries to depoliticise tax policy as much as possible, ultimately governments are elected with certain political objectives, and those will often trump best tax policy, and that’s just a fact of life.

A digital services tax to help media?

The whole question of the impact on democracy and journalism of Newshub’s closure is beyond this podcast. But the pressure will now mount on the Coalition Government to consider what steps it can do to help the media. On the other hand, the Public Interest Journalism Fund was highly controversial.  

Does that mean that there may need to be a change in tax policy to perhaps try and claw back some of the revenues going offshore through, for example, a digital services tax which is controversial and hated by the tech companies? Does the Government press hard for a resolution to Pillar One and Pillar Two?  Or does Newshub just get shut down and we have to live with the consequences of that? Whatever, pressure will be building for the Government to take some form of action. Watch this space to see whether any such action results in amended tax policy.

Inland Revenue consultation on employee share schemes

Moving on to more routine matters, Inland Revenue has released several draft consultations on employee share schemes. The taxation of employee share schemes underwent major reforms in 2018. Subsequently, there’s been a number of questions to Inland Revenue about how the law applies in certain scenarios and how it interacts with other regimes such as PAYE and FBT.

Inland Revenue has therefore released six items – five draft interpretation statements and one draft Questions We’ve Been Asked, each focusing on a specific aspect of employee share schemes. This has been done rather than producing one single interpretation statement, so that people can more easily focus on the topic of particular interest to them.  Alongside this, Inland Revenue has produced a four-page reading guide briefly summarising what each interpretation statement/QWBA addresses.

This is slightly unusual but it’s an indication of the complexity involved.  Employee share schemes are used by a lot of companies and particularly small growth companies in the growth phase where they don’t have cash but want to attract and keep key employees as they expand until the ultimate goal, whether it’s ultimately a share market listing or perhaps a sale to a larger company.

The first interpretation statement is one of the more important ones, as it considers what represents an employee share scheme. The critical issue is when does the share scheme taxing date arise? That’s often a critical issue because one of the things about share schemes which causes difficulties is if there’s a mismatch between when the tax is due, but when cash might be available for the person who’s being taxed to actually pay the tax due.  In fact, another of the drafts looks at the questions about an employer’s PAYE, student loan and KiwiSaver obligations where an employer wants to fund the tax cost on an ESS benefit provided in shares.

Another important draft reviews what happens with the ACC, PAYE and KiwiSaver obligations, when the employee share scheme benefit is paid in cash rather than shares. The draft concludes cash-settled ESS benefit is an “extra pay” under the general definition of extra pay and therefore a PAYE income payment, regardless of whether an employer elects to withhold PAYE in respect of the benefit.

Of the other draft consultation items, topics covered include what deductions are allowable for employers in respect of employee share schemes, and what is the treatment of dividends that are paid on shares held by a trustee for an employee share scheme. 

Overall, this is very useful guidance and I do like Inland Revenue’s approach of issuing separate interpretation statements rather than consolidating all the items in a single item which would be close to 150 pages. Consultation is open until 26th April.

Thanks Chris

And finally, this week, Chris Cunniffe, CEO of Tax Management New Zealand (TMNZ) for 12 years, has just stepped down from his role. He made a brief presentation at the ATAINZ conference, explaining it coincided with the 44th anniversary of the start of his tax career at Inland Revenue.  We’ve worked with Chris and his team at TMNZ for many years, helping our clients save tens of thousands of dollars. Chris has also been a past guest on the podcast. We wish him all the very best for the future.

And on that note, 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.

Highlights of this year’s International Fiscal Association conference;

Highlights of this year’s International Fiscal Association conference;

  • A suggestion for the new Minister of Revenue about tax simplification; and
  • What tax tattoo would you have?

The International Fiscal Association (IFA) tax conference is one of the premier tax conferences in the year as it is attended by most of the very senior tax specialists in the country together with senior Inland Revenue officials. Somehow, they also let me in as well.

The primary focus is on tax policy, and the conference is held under Chatham House rules, which means that comments that are made by officials cannot be directly attributed. Notwithstanding this you still get an indication of where officials’ thinking might be heading.

This year’s conference had a particularly interesting agenda covering topics ranging from, the use of trusts, international GST, the treatment of embedded royalties, limited partnerships, to a US perspective on the OECD’s international tax agreement process. It concluded with what was probably the highlight of the whole conference ‘What makes a tax good system?’ which we’ll discuss later.

Introducing Simon Watts

Traditionally the conference is opened by the Minister of Revenue the Honourable Simon Watts. A qualified paramedic, he had once worked at Inland Revenue as an intern before he moved on to later became a tax consultant with one of the Big Four firms. Coincidentally, the Commissioner of Inland Revenue Peter Mersi was also attending his first IFA conference. It was therefore interesting to see how they interacted, and they both explained to the audience how they felt they were progressing.

The Minister began by reiterating his commitment and that of the Government, to the Generic Tax Policy Process, GTPP, the open consultative process that has been a keystone of New Zealand tax policy for almost 30 years. He was aware that the business community and the tax community had become a little concerned that there was not enough certainty in the tax system as projects were being developed. In particular, he referenced the design of a wealth tax that was undertaken by the last Government but never followed through.

He wants to make sure that there is a strong degree of certainty within the tax system, so he supports the GTPP. Notwithstanding that, there will be times such as around the Budget policy process where the GTPP will be sidelined, and consultation will only begin in earnest when the budget measures are announced.

It’s also clear, he’s been getting himself up to speed very quickly. He referenced the long-term insights briefing, the Inland Revenue prepared in 2022 on the impact of tax on foreign investment and productivity. He also referenced the regulatory stewardship review of fringe benefit tax (FBT). Following on the Minister’s remarks and comments made by the Commissioner of Inland Revenue, I think we could expect to see more action following up the FBT stewardship review maybe in terms of greater enforcement but also in terms of simplification of the tax and compliance.

The Coalition Government’s is still under development, but the focus will be on tax simplification and reducing compliance costs. That’s not unexpected, and from what officials are saying, they’re all very heavily invested at the moment in working on those areas and meeting the pressures of the Government’s 100-day programme.

Bright-line test and commercial building depreciation changes confirmed

He confirmed that the bright-line test period will revert to two years with effect from 1st July 2024. From that date sales of bright-line property will not be taxed under the bright-line test, if the property has been held for two or more years. (Other tax rules may still apply). He also confirmed that commercial building depreciation will no longer be available from the start of the 2024-25 tax year.  

The timing of the withdrawal of commercial building depreciation is possibly going to be controversial. The Minister confirmed it would be from the start of the 2024-25 tax year. For most taxpayers, that is 1st April 2024 so it’s a future impact. However, for what we call early balance, date payers such as those with a 31st December 2023 balance date their new tax year started on 1st January. Therefore, from that date they can longer claim depreciation on commercial buildings.

That I think is slightly controversial in that there’s a retrospective effect to it, obviously, and it may mean some tweaking around provisional tax payments. But the policy has been outlined previously. We’ll see the relevant legislation and more detail in due course maybe around the time of the budget policy process announcement towards the end of March.

(Interestingly, the issue of 39% rate for trustees didn’t actually come up in discussions with either the Minister of Revenue or the Commissioner of Inland Revenue). Apparently, the Finance Minister’s wish for a 6.5% reduction of costs is still on the table although the effect of this may be counter-balanced by the increased funding for audit activities.

The Minister came across as someone wanting to listen. He also holds the Climate Change portfolio, and he sees quite an overlap with Revenue because they’re both seen as financial portfolios. He mentioned that a lot of emphasis is developing in the climate change area around climate finance, which apparently is going to be a focus at this year’s COP 29 Conference, which will be held in Azerbaijan.

I had the impression he’s already across a lot of aspects of the portfolio and from comments from the Commissioner and others, he’s following up on past Inland Revenue asking if “we’ve done this, where are we with it? Let’s move it forward” which is good to hear.

The uses of trusts – trouble ahead?

Trust specialist Vicki Ammundsen regaled the audience with often hilarious tales of some of more extreme situations she’s encountered in her role as a trust lawyer and as a trustee. But amidst all the laughs, a serious point was made time and again: trusts are mostly established and used for non-tax reasons. However, they are not always administered well and in some cases she felt many people had set up trusts for the wrong reasons or completely incorrect reasons and had failed to understand how they would operate.

She also thought there was probably very pretty widespread, if accidental non-compliance with the impact of overseas resident trustees and the treatment of distributions to overseas resident beneficiaries. Her comments echo my own view on what’s happening in the trust space. I would also agree with Vicky that we’re likely to see more and more trusts wound up as people realise that something that was possibly useful 30 years ago is no longer relevant, and in fact the same objectives can now be achieved by holding assets outside trust.

One point she raised, which I found very relevant in relation to some decisions coming out of the Jersey Tax Court which ruled trustees should not be equalising distributions to beneficiaries to account for asymmetric tax treatment. This may arise when one beneficiary may get a distribution which is tax free in their jurisdiction, but another one has to pay tax on a similar distribution, because they live in a different tax jurisdiction. The Jersey Court’s view is that beneficiaries make a choice to live overseas, and other beneficiaries should not be indirectly affected by that. It’s an interesting point to make because issues around distributions to overseas beneficiary is something that’s going to be coming more to the fore in the future. Right now it’s an area I’m receiving more enquiries around.

Embedded royalties and the PepsiCo case, an Australian precedent?

“Embedded royalties” might sound strange, but this Australian decision is potentially very significant. To cut a very long story short, PepsiCo the American soft drinks company signed an exclusive bottling agreement with an Australian company Schweppes Australia Pty Limited. Under the agreement Schweppes Australia would make payments for concentrate which it would then turn into soft drinks such as “Pepsi”, “Mountain Dew” and “Gatorade”.

The Australian Tax Office (the ATO), which has always had a reputation for being pretty aggressive in the transfer pricing space, decided to take a case against PepsiCo on the basis that some part of those payments represented an embedded royalty. That portion was therefore subject to the Australian equivalent of non-resident withholding tax even though the payments by Schweppes Australia were actually made to another Australian company, which was a subsidiary of PepsCo. Last November the equivalent of the High Court ruled in favour of the ATO.

It’s a very interesting case, but the key point which emerged in the session was that the overlap between Australian and New Zealand legislation was strong enough that maybe Inland Revenue here might be tempted to take a similar case. (There was another aspect about Australia’s Diverted Profits Tax that’s not relevant here). The decision has been appealed and it’s thought likely PepsiCo might choose to settle. But it’s interesting to see what happens in Australia because we do tend to watch closely what’s happening with the ATO and transfer pricing.  

Tax system oversight – the Australian experience

Speaking of the ATO, one big difference between New Zealand and Australia is that there are more bodies involved in tax oversight of the system in Australia. There’s the Australian Board of Taxation and then there is the Inspector General of Taxation, who also is the Tax Ombudsman for Australia.

The current Inspector General of taxation and Taxation Ombudsman for Australia, Karen Payne, presented on how these two bodies were created and what had been the experience so far. This is a particularly interesting topic for myself because I wrote a paper for the last tax working group on the issues around a tax ombudsman.   

She also referenced the American experience with their Taxpayers Advocate Service raising the question whether such an independent office also be an advocate for taxpayers. This could partly resolve the disparity in powers and resources between the tax authority and the ordinary taxpayer. As Karen Payne noted, many of the clients of the partners at the conference are big enough and ugly enough to look after themselves in a dispute. But the general public isn’t, so that’s a question that comes through when considering the role of a taxpayer Ombudsman/advocate.

Karen Payne also referenced the fact that in certain certain circumstances the Australian Commissioner of Taxation has the power to take some remedial actions, in other words say, “We got this wrong and here’s how we wish to remedy it”. She noted that the Australian Commissioner of Taxation has exercised this power that seven times. On the other hand, even though the Commissioner of Inland Revenue here has a similar power, it’s never been exercised. Overall, a very interesting session on what oversight should be in place and the issues involved in setting up that oversight.

International GST, Aotearoa New Zealand leading the way?

On international GST policy, a couple of interesting notes that came out of that one, was that generally speaking in New Zealand has been a world leader in this GST space. We have one of the broadest GSTs in the world which because of much broader reach represents 30% of the total tax revenue. This is above most other countries with GST or Value Added Tax (VAT) system where it generally represents about 20% of the overall tax take.

Around the world, the average VAT/GST rate is 19.2%, whereas ours is lower at 15%. Our GST is a classic example of a very popular topic, the broad based, low rate (BBLR) approach to taxation, where a broader tax makes lower tax rates possible which just about every tax practitioner, including myself, will endorse.

Economics and the environment

We had an economic update from Michael Firth of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund. Several interesting snippets came out of session including that barely 10% of the total funds of the Super Fund are currently invested in New Zealand. Of greater importance when looking ahead to consider the impact of climate change on GDP, the outlook isn’t particularly good. In fact, every forecast seems to make previous ones look over-optimistic even if the best policy response is adopted and we do everything to lower emissions by 2050. The climate change implications around tax policy are how we’re going to fund dealing with the physical effects of climate change.

Alternative tax raising options

Michael Firth’s session led into a very interesting presentation from Young IFA about alternative options for raising revenue. The Young IFA presentation referenced the Treasury Briefing to Incoming Minister, which shows that core expenses are rising and unless changes are made, there’s going to be a growing and unsustainable deficit, the cost of which will be borne by younger generations, hence their particular interest on the topic.

Young IFA deliberately excluded capital gains tax but looked at three areas, windfall profits and a wealth tax. By OECD measurements our environmental taxes are at the the lower end of the scale, but how you define environmental taxes is elastic so once Road User Charges and Fuel Excise Duties are included, we are nearer to the OECD average.

In any case many environmental taxes are mostly behavioural in that they are levied with the aim of changing behaviour so that less of that particular activity happens. This means so they’re not actually long term sustainable because if they work as they should then revenue should decline over time.

Young IFA discussed the suggestion made in 2021 by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment for a departure tax which reflects the environmental cost of flying internationally. Essentially three bands would apply, Australia and the Pacific Islands, Asia and long-haul flights to the US, Europe etc., The Parliamentary Commission for the Environment suggested it could raise about $400 million annually, based on a similar approach taken by UK passenger duty. However, $400 million although welcome still isn’t a game changer.

Windfall taxes?

What about a windfall profits tax? These target profits caused by extraordinary events. But they’re temporary, retrospective in effect and intended to correct behaviour. They’ve been used internationally the UK has had a long running bank surcharge to pay for the Global Financial Crisis bailouts.

When Treasury considered a windfall profits tax it estimated a 1.4% surcharge would raise about $230 million per annum rising to close to $700 million based on a 4.2% rate. However, forecasting can go awry when the UK recently introduced a windfall tax on the fossil fuel sector that only raised about 60% of what was expected.

Wealth tax?  No thanks

On wealth taxes it would be fair to say that the audience and to be fair, the Young IFA presenters themselves, were not sold on the idea, because of the complexity, whether it would raise much revenue and concerns about capital flight. The work of Thomas Piketty around wealth taxes is often cited, but as someone from the floor noted he suggests a wealth tax should be applied on a global basis. This would then deal with the question of capital flight. As Young IFA pointed out when Norway recently raised its wealth taxes, there was some capital flight with some rich Norwegians moving overseas in response.  

Although Young IFA and the audience were not sold on the merits of a wealth tax, I think it will still be raised as option because questions about wealth inequality will keep coming up and politicians being politicians see the appeal in an apparently simple solution to the problem.

What makes a good tax system?

The conference ended with a panel discussion on what makes a good system. The panellists were three of the most experienced tax practitioners in the country: Rob McLeod, Robin Oliver and Geof Nightingale. Rob chaired the 2001 McLeod Review, whilst Robin as a Deputy Commissioner at Inland Revenue worked with both the McLeod Review and the 2009-10 Victoria University of Wellington Tax Review before being a member of the Sir Michael Cullen chaired Tax Working Group.  Geof Nightingale was a member of both the Victoria University of Wellington Tax Review and the Cullen Tax Working Group.

As you would expect with such a fantastic panel, it was a very lively session which deserves a whole podcast for itself. We had quotes from Dylan Thomas “Do not go gentle into that cold dark night (of bad tax policy)” and also Hunter S Thompson ‘Never turn your back on fear. It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed.’

Rob, Robin and Geof expressed varying degrees of confidence in the New Zealand tax system although acknowledging it was under some strain. All three noted the primary purpose of a tax system was to raise money for the government at the lowest practical economic cost.  

There was less unanimity around whether income redistribution really was a key role for a tax system. To some this was a distraction from good tax policy as it leads to distortions but to another panellist it was an inevitable part of modern tax systems. Determining the right level of government expenditure was important, at around 30% of GDP the present system raised sufficient funds but above that level the pressure would mount.

All three were mostly positive that the present system could raise the desired revenue but noted there isn’t a lot of low-lying fruit around. Rob McLeod referenced his time working in Australia and the complexities of the capital gains tax. He also mentioned in passing the work done on the Risk-free Rate of Return method as a possible alternative means of taxing housing. Time and again each emphasised the focus should be on keeping the tax policy process and objectives as clear as possible.

Unsurprisingly, all three favoured the BBLR broad-based low-rate approach. They recognised that divergence from this principle is causing strain in the system now. 30 years ago, the company, trustee and top individual tax rates were aligned at 33%. Now this disparity between 28% for a company and Portfolio Investment Entities and 39% for individuals was causing strain. Overall, it was a great ending to an excellent conference all round.

A suggestion for simplifying the tax system and reduce compliance

Moving on, as previously noted, the Minister of Revenue said the Government was committed to simplification. And the limited partners session raised an issue about whether the various withholding tax rules apply to a limited partnership. The policy intent might be that it shouldn’t happen, but there’s an argument it technically should. Either way some clarification would be useful. (Apparently a draft consultation on various limited partnership tax issues is happening at the moment).

This got me thinking about another area where I think simplification would be helpful, the question of non-resident withholding tax on interest payments made by New Zealand tax residents to an overseas bank in respect of interest payable on an overseas investment property. Those interest payments might be made from a UK bank account to the relevant UK bank lender. However, because they’re being made by a New Zealand resident taxpayer to a non resident, the UK bank lender, then non-resident withholding tax should be deducted.  (Worth noting the UK lender’s terms will not accept having tax deducted from the payment which must be grossed up for this purpose).  

Theoretically this is the correct treatment, but it involves an enormous amount of compliance and I think there’s also a massive amount of non-compliance because the policy is both unknown and seems counter-intuitive to a lay person.  (It would be fun to see the Commissioner, or some MPs, try explaining to a person they must withhold tax on the interest payment they make from a UK bank account to another UK bank). This is an area where there’s a great deal of complexity and I don’t think the policy when the withholding tax rules were set up in the late 1980s was intended to catch such situations. (Separately, it’s another area where some thresholds have not been updated for inflation in some time). In summary it’s a ripe area for simplification. Over to you Minister.

What tax tattoo would you get?

And finally, what tax tattoo would you get? This was one of the less serious topics discussed at the IFA Conference and yes, alcohol was involved. For me, the winning suggestion was to tattoo Generic Tax Policy Process on one set of knuckles and BBLR Board Based Low Rate on the other, which puts a rather nice tax spin on Robert Mitchum’s sinister preacher in The Night of the Hunter.

That’s all for now. 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.

What’s ahead in 2024?

What’s ahead in 2024?

  • Inland Revenue guidance on the new 39% trustee rate
  • Briefing the Minister
  • Tax credits or threshold adjustments?

The Finance Minister signed off 2023 rather like a Shortland Street season finale, leaving us all guessing as to the exact extent of the proposed tax cut package and when it might apply. We were told at the Half Year Economic Fiscal Update Mini-Budget on 20th December we could expect more details shortly. But now it’s February and we’re no wiser. It now appears likely we’ll have to wait until the Budget in May for full details.

A 39% trustee tax rate?

On the other hand, the business of government carries on and we will know early next month whether the coalition government will proceed with increasing the trustee tax rate to 39%. That’s when the Finance and Expenditure Committee reports back on the Taxation (Annual Rates for 2023-24, Multinational Tax, and Remedial Matters) Bill. This is the annual tax bill currently before Parliament which proposed the increase to 39%. It must be passed by 31st March.

The FEC heard oral submissions last week, and I note that (previous podcast guest) John Cantin thinks it’s most likely that the tax rate will go ahead. This is even though such evidence as we’ve seen suggests that a 39% tax rate for trusts probably represents over taxation of many trusts once the wider family context is considered.

I tend to agree with John that the rate increase will go ahead, in part because it is a base protection measure as it aligns the trustee rate with the top individual tax rate. But also, the Government will probably be grateful for some additional revenue to counterbalance the lost revenue from the proposed tax threshold adjustments. That said, I know a number of submissions proposed that some sort of de minimis threshold is introduced, and the rate of 39% will only apply on the excess.

Inland Revenue’s view on tax planning for the new 39% rate

Meantime, and rather helpfully, Inland Revenue released last Friday some high-level guidance about how it might perceive taxpayer transactions and structural changes ahead of a rate change. General Article GA 24/01 proposed increase in the trustee tax rate to 39% has been released in response to requests since the rate was proposed for guidance on how Inland Revenue might perceive some transactions.

GA 24/01 contains several examples of possible transactions and how Inland Revenue would view the transaction. The first example is a company owned by a trust which changes its dividend paying policy. Inland Revenue considers a company is entitled to change its dividend paying policy and while taking into account the funding needs of shareholders and applicable tax rates, it “is unlikely without more (such as artificial or contrived features) to be tax avoidance.”

The example then notes Inland Revenue might have concerns if the company could pay a dividend by crediting shareholder current accounts, but “objectively has no real ability to pay those credit balances if it was to be liquidated.” In other words, the company tries to pay a dividend ahead of the trustee rate increase but doesn’t have the funds to pay the dividends in cash in full.

Another example is of a trustee choosing to wind up a trust. Again, GA 24/01 suggests such a step is “unlikely without more (such as artificial or contrived features) to be tax avoidance.” GA 24/01 also looks at the question of trustees investing in Portfolio Investment Entities instead of other available investment options. The advantage here is that the maximum rate applicable to Portfolio Investment Entities is 28%   Again, Inland Revenue concludes such a step is unlikely without artificial or contrived features to be tax avoidance.

That said, Inland Revenue is going to continue to gather information on trusts and something it has said would be of concern to it is where income is allocated to a beneficiary taxed at a lower rate, and then instead of actually being paid out or being fully available to the beneficiary, is resettled back on the trust. In effect, the beneficiary has not benefited from the distribution.

The allocation of income to a beneficiary, where the beneficiary actually doesn’t know of an allocation or has no expectation of receiving the income together with replacing dividend income with loans “in an artificial manner”, are other alternatives which would concern Inland Revenue if there’s no real commercial reality behind the arrangement.  And then artificially altering the timing, ie: bringing forward or deferring any taxable deductible payment, particularly it’s linked to existing contractual terms or practise for the date of payment.

These are just a number of scenarios which might play out. And clearly Inland Revenue’s watching. As I said, we really won’t know what the state of play will be until early next month when the FEC reports back, and when it does, we’ll let you know. But as I said, the expectation I have is we should see that tax rate increase.

The Tax Principles Act may be gone but its first draft report lives on

Moving on, one of the first things the coalition government did was repeal the controversial Tax Principles Act. Nevertheless, the draft report that was due to be produced under the Tax Principles Act has been proactively released and it makes for some interesting reading.

The report gives a background as to why it’s being prepared, its reporting obligations, and it explains what are the tax principles that were measured. These were included in the Act – efficiency, horizontal equity, vertical equity, revenue integrity, compliance and administration costs, flexibility and adaptability and certainty and predictability. Incidentally, a lack of certainty and predictability was one of the objections that was made about the Tax Principles Act because didn’t go through the full generic tax policy process.

Inland Revenue was required to assess the principles, against four measurements:

  • Income distribution and income tax paid;
  • Distribution of exemptions from tax and of lower rates of taxation;
  • Perceptions of integrity of the tax system, and
  • Compliance with the law by taxpayers.

The report has lots of interesting graphs including the taxable income distribution for individuals for the 2022 tax year which shows a wee spike around the $180,000 mark.

I think that’s rather revealing even if there are apparently only 4,000 individuals involved. But still for those taxpayers you may need to have a good explanation of what’s going on.

There’s a graph showing how average tax rates rise as income rises. This graph tops out at $300,000, by which point the average tax rate has risen to 32.3% for someone of that income.

But what I thought was quite interesting were the graphs looking at the average tax rates from 2012 to 2022. In particular the graphs illustrated the effect of inflation combined with the non-adjustment of thresholds. That’s an issue I’ve talked about frequently and threshold adjustments we think will be at the core of the Government’s proposed tax relief package expected to be rolled out later this year.

The report notes between 2012 and 2017, the average tax rate for the most common regularly employed worker increased by 0.1 percentage points. Not too bad. But from 2017 to 2022 it increased by 1.2 percentage points. That’s quite a more significant example. Overall, in the period between 2012 and 2017 it rises from 14.9% to 15% and then rose between 2017 and 2022 to 16.2%.

This is the fiscal drag (or bracket creep) I discussed with Susan Edmunds of Stuff. It’s been an issue for quite some time. As wages rise faster, they drag persons on average incomes into a higher tax bracket.  It will be interesting to see how the Government addresses it, and I’ll talk about that in a few minutes.

There’s plenty of other material to consider. There’s an interesting stat that the top decile of taxable income earners paid 44% of personal income tax. The report notes that the same group earned 33% of total income and suggests this is a better indicator of progressivity in the tax system than the fact that 44% of tax is paid by the top decile.

The arguments will rage around the progressivity and fairness, David Seymour of the Act Party for one has been talking about this area. Overall, there’s a lot to consider in the report.  Interestingly, in the note to Cabinet regarding the repeal of the Tax Principles Act, the new Minister of Revenue Simon Watts suggested that much of this data could be made separately available, perhaps as part of Inland Revenue’s annual report. I hope we do see that, because for some time I’ve felt that the discussion around bracket creep, fiscal drag and thresholds has been sort of sidelined because governments have been not too keen to discuss it in great detail.

Briefing the Minister

Mentioning the new Minister of Revenue Simon Watts, another report released last Friday was the Briefing to the Incoming Minister. I think some of the data that’s been included in this draft report under the Tax Principles Act, would normally go into the Briefing for Incoming Minister.

What I found interesting in the Briefing was Inland Revenue’s discussion around where it’s at and the effect of the completion of the Business Transformation Programme which has allowed it to “deliver significant cost savings”. For example, the Briefing notes the amount of revenue collected for the year ended 30 June 2023 grew by 62.5% compared with the year ended 30 June 2016, the last full year before transformation began. Over the same period, the number of Inland Revenue full-time equivalents reduced by 29%.

There’s been a lot of talk about government cuts for the public sector, but I think the Briefing subtly, or not too subtly, you might say, raises a good question – if an organisation has managed to reduce its headcount by 29% and its funding is not tracked with inflation since 2017, which appears to be the measure for the basis of these public spending cuts, why would you add further cuts?

My view would be, and I think I wouldn’t be alone in thinking this amongst tax practitioners, is that Inland Revenue is under a bit of strain. We know it probably needs to boost its investigations efforts. So why it should be on the chopping block when it’s already done much of what any government would want it to do – more with less. But we’ll see how that plays out.

I thought the amount of commentary in the Briefing around the question of funding this point was quite interesting. It notes that for the year, to June 2024, the department gets about $800 million a year. And at October 31st 2023 its workforce was 4,231. Whereas back in June 2016 it was 5,662. And by the way, the report also notes the department has planned for taking a $13.9 million reduction for the year to June 2025, which was announced by the previous government in August 2023.

According to the Briefing funding would be running around about $700 million going forward, but then adds something the government should probably pay attention to.

“Our primary cost pressures in out years will be remuneration and inflationary cost pressures on technology as a service contracts, accommodation, leases and other operating costs. We are currently developing options for meeting these costs and we’ll report back to you on these matters.”

I know speaking as an employer and along with other colleagues, finding staff is difficult at the moment, so that puts pressure on salaries, obviously. And Inland Revenue is not immune to that because it needs to pay near market rates to attract good quality people, because as the gamekeeper, so to speak, it needs to match the poachers on the other side. Like so much in the year ahead it will be interesting to see how the Minister settles in and what happens with Inland Revenue’s funding.

The shape of things to come – tax credits or threshold adjustments?

And finally, coming back to what lies ahead, as I mentioned at the start, the Half Year Economic Forecast Update left us none the wiser as to the nature of the threshold adjustments, which we think are going to happen. In that gap. David Seymour of ACT has come forward and talked about the ACT policy, which is to simplify the tax rate structure down from the current five rates down to three, with a top rate of 33%. This is moving back to the rate structure which applied from 1989 through to 2008. Basically, until 1 April 2000 (when the 39% rate was introduced) there were two main rates with a tax credit adjustment for low-income earners.

David Seymour talked about tax credits similar to the existing Independent Earner Tax Credit. But as I told RNZ while the concept’s not uncommon, there’s still the issue we discussed earlier. What about adjustments for inflation and keeping the true value of that, otherwise lower rate/ lower income earners will face higher effective marginal tax rates.

There’s also a certain complexity with tax credits. The thing about applying thresholds across the board to everybody, it’s pretty straightforward. Whereas with tax credits, if there’s a claim process that’s involved, not everybody will claim that. It introduces a bit of complexity at the bottom end, which Inland Revenue’s Business Transformation was determined to do the opposite in order to try and make it as easier for most taxpayers to comply.

As mentioned, we have the independent earned tax credit, but it starts cutting out at $44,000 and then drops out at $48,000 once income crosses that threshold. We’ll have to wait to see what happens and in the meantime there will be plenty of debate ahead. We will bring all of those developments to you as usual.

In the meantime, that’s all for now. 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.

This week, more on the Coalition Government’s tax policies and the accelerated restoration of interest deductibility.

This week, more on the Coalition Government’s tax policies and the accelerated restoration of interest deductibility.

  • To raise revenue, why not tax marijuana?
  • Several Inland Revenue Technical Decision Summaries illustrate the perils of omitting income.

More details have emerged about the Coalition’s tax plans with a surprising twist that changes to interest deductibility for residential property investors have effectively been backdated to 1st April this year. Like many others when I was discussing this last week, I assumed that the reference to 2023/24 was to the Government’s financial year ending 30 June 2024 and the increase to 60% deductibility would kick in from 1st April 2024. (National’s own workings released during the Election use a 30 June year-end).

But this week the ACT Party clarified the increase in deductibility to 60% is in effect for the current income year, ending on 31st March 2024. So effectively, it’s backdated to the start of the year on 1st April. That caused a wee bit of a stir, because something of this nature hasn’t been done in a while. I can’t recall a new government coming in and announcing a tax measure effectively having a retrospective effect.

The change accelerates the restoration of full interest deductibility. It means that from 1st April 2024, interest deductibility will rise to 80% and then will be fully 100% deductible from 1st April 2025. So, within the next 16 or so months, it will be restored to full deductibility.  However, as CTU Chief Economist Craig Renney pointed out this acceleration adds another $900 million over the forecast period to the cost of restoring interest deductibility.

Changes to provisional tax?

One of the practical implications of the change is an interesting debate around what action landlords who are provisional taxpayers should take. Such landlords would have paid the first instalment on 28th August. This would have been done based on either 110% of the residual income tax for the 2022 tax year, or 105% of the residual income tax for the 2023 tax year. In both cases, the interest deductibility proportion was higher, so the change might not have an effect. On the other hand, interest rates were lower in both years, particularly in 2022.

What I think you’ll almost certainly see is taxpayers will be keen to understand the impact of the change and how it will affect their provisional tax. My general view would be to pay on 15th January as normal, but then have a really close look before the final instalment on 7th May next year when you should have a fairly good idea of your likely tax liability for the year.

Still there are options to perhaps consider reducing the next amount of provisional tax. And some will take advantage of that. Of course, the risk comes that you may have to pay use of money interest at 10.93%. Although tax pooling can help with that.

What else is now clear?

The release of the Government’s 100 day, 49 point action plan makes clear the Auckland Regional fuel tax is to be abolished and increases to the fuel excise duty will not go ahead. No surprises there as National campaigned on these initiatives. The Clean Car Discount is set to go by the end of this year.

A $900 million bigger hole

As I mentioned earlier, one of the fallouts of the change in the timing of the restoration of full interest deductibility for residential property is an extra blow out by $900 million dollars. One of the apparent means of meeting that gap is the rollback of smokefree legislation, which was set to be world leading. Ironically, several countries seem to have decided to follow our previous example.

The smokefree changes have caused quite a stir. Bernard Hickey in his daily substack The Kaka said that Treasury had estimated that using a 3% discount, smoke free legislation would cut public health costs by $5.25 billion. But that’s now being kicked down the road.

We’ll know more about progress on other measures to fill this gap when the Half Year Economic Fiscal Update, and the promised Mini-Budget are announced on 13th December.

Time to legalise and tax marijuana? The Colorado example.

But if we are looking at the question of raising taxes, or essentially getting more tax revenue from tobacco excise duty, then I’m going to pick up a point that I’ve had for some time and ask why not legalise and tax marijuana. Now, yes, there was a referendum which voted against that. But referendums are not binding on governments. I also think there are second order benefits of legalisation including putting a hole in organised crime’s finances.

At present 24 states in the United States of America have now legalised or decriminalised marijuana. One of those is Colorado, which has a population of just over five million, more or less identical to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Colorado legalised marijuana in 2014 and have been taxing it since then. The taxes comprise the state sales tax (2.9%) on marijuana sold in stores, the state retail marijuana sales tax (15%) on retail marijuana sold in stores, and the state retail marijuana excise tax (15%) on wholesale sales/transfers of retail marijuana. In addition, Colorado also has fee revenue coming in from licensing and application fees.

Colorado’s Department of Revenue publishes monthly marijuana tax reports, and between February 2014 and October this year it has collected over US$2.5 billion from marijuana taxes. That’s over NZ$4 billion.

However, whether you are taxing smoking or marijuana, long term, the revenue should decline to nil, because ultimately we want people to not smoke because of the health order benefits. You can see this in Colorado’s marijuana tax revenue which rises quite steadily initially but then since mid-2021, it has started to fall away. This is probably the second order effects of people stopping smoking altogether.

But anyway, on average, the tax take is settling down to about US$300 million a year which is roughly $500 million New Zealand dollars. That’s actually a not insubstantial amount of revenue. 

So that’s the Colorado example. I’m not going to say it’s going to happen here under the new Government. But you never know. Henry Kissinger died yesterday, and the relevance of that is that he was the one who coined the phrase “Only Nixon could go to China” which opened the door to a US rapprochement with China.

The phrase means bold leadership could surprise people by doing the unexpected. Bear in mind, back in 2015, John Key and Bill English surprised everyone by introducing the bright-line test. The point by referencing Kissinger and Nixon, two of the nastier people of the 20th Century, is that a bold and welcome change of direction can come from an unexpected source.

Revision of the bright-line test – when?

Speaking of the bright-line test, it isn’t specifically mentioned in the 49-point first 100 days action plan the Government announced on Thursday. I imagine we’ll get the timeline for revision at the Half Year Economic Fiscal Update.

“Overlooked” some income? The clock never stops ticking for Inland Revenue

This week Inland Revenue released five Technical Decision Summaries with a common theme relating to disputes over omitted income and penalties. To recap, Technical Decision Summaries are anonymised summaries of adjudication decisions made by a unit within Inland Revenue’s Tax Counsel Office as part of the formal dispute process between Inland Revenue and taxpayers.

The facts vary slightly in each summary, but all involve some form of income diversion/suppression which was picked up by an Inland Revenue review. For example in TDS 23/18 the taxpayer was the sole director and shareholder of Company B which carried on a retail business. The taxpayer also held 49% of the shares in Company A which operated a retail business. Y, who was married to the taxpayer, was Company A’s sole director and held the remaining 51% of its shares. The Taxpayer was also a settlor, trustee, and beneficiary of a Trust which was involved in property investment. (This is a fairly common structure in my experience.)

The Taxpayer filed income tax returns showing wages from which PAYE had been deducted and shareholder salary from Company B and income from the Trust. But on review by Inland Revenue, it appeared that money from Company B had been deposited into the taxpayer and his wife’s personal accounts partner and then used to pay personal expenses and to fund a property major purchase made by another company. These deposits had not been declared as income.

Inland Revenue proposed taxing this income and included a shortfall penalty for tax evasion. The shortfall penalty for tax evasion is 150% of the tax that’s been evaded, although in this case it will be reduced by 50% because of previous good behaviour.

What is also of note here and the other four Technical Decision Summaries is that the four-year time bar period for many tax returns had passed in respect to some of the years in dispute. (Generally, Inland Revenue can’t increase an assessment if it’s more than four years after the end of the tax year in which the relevant return was filed). The taxpayers tried to rely on the time bar rule but Inland Revenue argued it did not apply because of tax evasion and omission of income.

And that is how it panned out. The Tax Counsel Office’s Adjudication Unit ruled there is assessable income and the time bar provision is not applicable because of tax evasion and/or omission of income. Accordingly, the shortfall penalties also applied.

As I mentioned the other Technical Decisions Summaries involved similar issues and had similar outcomes. In TDS 23/16, there was a further problem for the taxpayer in that they were trying to make a subvention payment, to offset losses. And that was also turned down because of a lack of common shareholding.

There are some good lessons from these summaries, primarily if you don’t declare income, don’t try and rely on the time bar to stop Inland Revenue looking at earlier years. As the summaries make apparent it’s very clear Inland Revenue has the power under sections 108 and 108A of the Tax Administration Act 1994 to assess older years that would normally be time barred. In such circumstances, shortfall penalties for tax evasion will almost always apply.

“A really good idea”

As I mentioned last week one of the things that was surprising about the Coalition’s tax policies is the additional resources for Inland Revenue’s audit and investigation activities. On TVNZ’s Q+A last Sunday Minister of Finance Nicola Willis said that she welcomed the proposal which she thought “was a really good idea.”

We’ll only know exactly how much extra funding Inland Revenue is going to get in the Budget next May. But for the moment, you can expect Inland Revenue to be cranking up its investigation activity, and you can expect to see a lot more shortfall penalties kicking in.

And on that note, 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.