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Archive for the ‘Singapore’ Category

Singapore has been in the news because one of the Facebook billionaires has decided to re-domicile to that low-tax jurisdictions.

Some American politicians reacted by blaming the victim and are urging tax policies that are disturbingly similar to those adopted by totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Maybe they should go on one of their fancy junkets instead and take a visit to Hong Kong and Singapore. Even with first-class airfare and 5-star hotels, taxpayers might wind up benefiting if lawmakers actually paid attention to the policies that enable these jurisdictions to grow so fast.

They would learn (hopefully!) some of what was just reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook  co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s recent decision to give up his U.S. citizenship in favor of long-term residence in Singapore has drawn fresh attention to the appeal of residing and investing in the wealthy city-state and other parts of Asia, where tax burdens are significantly lighter than in many Western countries. …Some 100 Americans opted out of U.S. citizenship in Singapore last year, almost double the 58 that did so in 2009, according to data from the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. …The increase of Americans choosing to renounce their citizenship comes amid heated tax debates in the U.S. Many businesses and high-income individuals are worried…[about]…tax increases in future years.

It’s not just that America is moving in the wrong direction. That’s important, but it’s also noteworthy that some jurisdictions have good policy, and Hong Kong and Singapore are always at the top of those lists.

The Asian financial hubs of Singapore and Hong Kong, on the other hand, have kept personal and corporate taxes among the lowest in the world to attract more foreign investment. Top individual income-tax rates are 20% in Singapore and 17% in Hong Kong, compared with 35% at the federal level in the U.S., according to an Ernst & Young report. The two Asian financial centers have also been praised by experts for having simpler taxation systems than the U.S. and other countries. …The tax codes are also more transparent so that many people don’t require a consultant or adviser.

Keep in mind that Hong Kong and Singapore also avoid double taxation, so there’s nothing remotely close to the punitive tax laws that America has for interest, dividends, capital gains, and inheritances.

One reason they have good tax policy is that the burden of government spending is relatively modest, usually less than 20 percent of economic output (maybe their politicians have heard of the Rahn Curve!).

No wonder some Americans are shifting economic activity to these pro-growth jurisdictions.

“The U.S. used to be a moderate tax jurisdiction compared with other countries and it used to be at the forefront of development,” said Lora Wilkinson, senior tax consultant at U.S. Tax Advisory International, a Singapore-based tax services firm that specializes in U.S. taxation laws. Now “it seems to be lagging behind countries like Singapore in creating policies to attract business.” She said she gets at least one query per week from Americans who are interested in renouncing their citizenship in favor of becoming Singaporeans. …Asian countries offer a business climate and lifestyle that many find attractive: “America is no longer the Holy Grail.”

That last quote really irks me. I have a knee-jerk patriotic strain, so I want America to be special for reasons above and beyond my support for good economic policy.

But the laws of economics do not share my sentimentality. So long as Hong Kong and Singapore have better policy, they will grow faster.

To get an idea of what this means, let’s look at some historical data from 1950-2008 on per-capita GDP from Angus Maddison’s database. As you can see, Hong Kong and Singapore used to be quite poor compared to the United States. But free markets, small government, and low taxes have paid dividends and both jurisdictions erased the gap.

Wow, America used to be 4 times richer, and that huge gap disappeared in just 60 years. But now let’s look at the most recent data from the World Bank, showing Gross National Income for 2010.

It’s not the same data source, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable, but the 2010 data shows that the United States has now fallen behind both Hong Kong and Singapore.

These charts should worry us. Not because it’s bad for Hong Kong and Singapore to become rich. That’s very good news.

Instead, these charts are worrisome because trend lines are important. Here’s one final chart showing how long it takes for a nation to double economic output at varying growth rates.

As you can see, it’s much better to be like Hong Kong and Singapore, which have been growing, on average, by more than 5 percent annually.

Unfortunately, the United States has not been growing as fast as Hong Kong and Singapore. Indeed, last year I shared some data from a Nobel Prize winner, which showed that America may have suffered a permanent loss in economic output because of the statist policies of Bush and Obama.

What makes this so frustrating is that we know the policies that are needed to boost growth. But those reforms would mean less power for the political class, so we face an uphill battle.

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The latest issue of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report contains some rather damning information about government incompetence in the United States.

America ranks only 68th in the “Wastefulness of Government Spending” category (page 373) and 49th in the “Burden of Government Regulation” category (page 374).

Singapore, by contrast, ranks first in both of those categories. So is anyone surprised, then, by this chart showing that Singapore’s economy grew rapidly between 1950 and 2008?

Indeed, the World Bank’s 2010 data shows that Singapore has surpassed the United Stated, with per-capita GDP of $54,700 compared to $47,020 in America.

But the point of this post isn’t to decide whether Singapore is richer than the United States. Instead, the moral of the story is that small government and free markets are a recipe for strong growth and rising levels of prosperity.

By the way, the Global Competitiveness Report relies on survey data to prepare its rankings, so I’m a bit skeptical of the findings. American politicians are experts at wasting money and imposing senseless red tape, to be sure, but is America really worse than Ghana and Azerbaijan?

That being said, perceptions are important. And since the overall burden of government has rapidly climbed during the Bush-Obama  years, low scores of some kind are deserved.

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I’m in Singapore for two days to help fight the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a statist international bureaucracy based in Paris. The OECD has something called a global tax forum, the purpose of which is to harass so-called tax haven in hopes of coercing them into acting as tax collectors for Europe’s decrepit welfare states. Here’s the executive summary from the memo I wrote, which warns low-tax jurisdictions that the OECD may push even harder to undermine fiscal sovereignty because of fears that a GOP takeover of Congress will make it more difficult to push for tax harmonization policies in the future.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has an ongoing project to prop up Europe’s inefficient welfare states by attacking tax competition in hopes of enabling governments to impose heavier tax burdens. This project received a boost when the Obama Administration joined forces with countries such as France and Germany, but the tide is now turning against high-tax nations – particularly as more people understand that such an approach inevitably leads to Greek-style fiscal collapse. Looming political changes in the United States will further complicate the OECD’s ability to impose bad policy. Because of these developments, low-tax jurisdictions should be especially wary of schemes to rush through new anti-tax competition initiatives at the Singapore Global Forum.

The good news is that nothing dramatic took place on the first day of the two-day conference. the OECD continued to bully low-tax jurisdictions to sign information-sharing agreements and the low-tax jurisdictions kept asking for double-taxation agreements so they could get some benefit in exchange for weakening their human rights/financial privacy laws. The OECD and high-tax nations have been ignoring these requests for a two-way street, thus continuing their bad-faith behavior.

For more information on this issue, here’s a link to my video on tax competition, and here are a handful of TV appearances where I discuss the issue. This is a challenging issue to debate, so I’d welcome feedback on which arguments you think are most effective.

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After being in 1st place in 2007 and 2008, America dropped behind Switzerland in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report in 2009. The 2010 ranking was just released, and the United States has tumbled two more spots to 4th place, behind Switzerland, Sweden, and Singapore. I’m not a complete fan of the World Economic Forum’s methodology (the Economic Freedom of the World rankings are the best measure of sound economic policy), but it’s almost surely a bad sign when a country moves down in the rankings.  The timing of the fall will lead some to blame Barack Obama, and I certainly agree that his policies are making America less competitive, but Bush also deserves blame for increasing the burden of government and compromising America’s economic vitality. Here’s a blurb from the Associated Press.
The U.S. has slipped down the ranks of competitive economies, falling behind Sweden and Singapore due to huge deficits and pessimism about government, a global economic group said Thursday. Switzerland retained the top spot for the second year in the annual ranking by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum. It combines economic data and a survey of more than 13,500 business executives. Sweden moved up to second place while Singapore stayed at No. 3. The United States was in second place last year after falling from No. 1 in 2008.

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Got back yesterday from a quick trip to Singapore (though anything that involves 18 hours in a plane – one way – is not exactly quick). I don’t really have any profound personal observations about the country since I spent every spare moment working on a healthcare paper and never left my hotel, but this was my third or fourth trip so I can make two big-picture observations.

1. Small government works – Singapore is not a truly laissez-faire nation since government consumes more than 20 percent of GDP and there is a back-door form of industrial policy thanks to government control of the allocation of the money generated by private saving for retirement and health care. But it still is one of the world’s most free-market jurisdictions according to Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom. It started as a poor jurisdiction and is now a rich one. The tax code is progressive, but the top tax rate is just 20 percent, so people are not punished for creating wealth.

2. Diversity works when government does not create hostility and resentment – Singapore is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world. The population is comprised of Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Whites. To my knowledge, there are no significant racial or ethnic problems. Everyone is too busy making money and government doesn’t create resentments by favoring one group over the other. Seems like other nations could learn something.

Last but not least, a general gripe about government. Why is there a requirement, at least in some airports, to go through security when arriving on one flight before going on another? After flying 7 hours from Singapore to Tokyo (which, of course, required going through security), I then had to shuffle for 30 minutes in a line to get my laptop X-rayed again. Did the bureaucrats think I somehow acquired a bomb on the flight? This happens, for reasons that are not clear, at a few other airports. Does anyone know why, other than to provide jobs for more bureaucrats?

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