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Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

Since there’s a big debate about whether there should be tax cuts and tax reform in the United States, let’s see what we can learn from abroad.

And let’s focus specifically on whether changes in tax policy actually produce “revenue feedback” because of the Laffer Curve. In other words, if tax rates change, does that incentive people to alter how much they work, save, and invest, thus changing the amount of taxable income they earn and report?

I’ve written about how the Laffer Curve has impacted revenue in nations such as France, Russia, Ireland, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Now let’s go to Africa. In a column for BizNis Africa, Kyle Mandy of PwC explicitly warns that South Africa is at the wrong spot on the Laffer Curve.

At the time of the 2017 Budget in February, a number of commentators, including myself, warned National Treasury and Parliament that the tax increases announced in the Budget, particularly on personal income tax, would likely push tax revenues very close to the top of the Laffer curve, i.e. the point at which tax revenues are maximised and beyond which tax rate increases will actually result in a decrease in tax revenues.

Before continuing with the article, I can’t resist making an important point. The author understands that it is a bad idea to be on the downward-sloping part of the Laffer Curve. As he points out, that’s when tax rates are so punitive that “tax rate increases will actually result in a decrease in tax revenues.”

That’s correct, of course, but it’s almost as important to understand that it’s also a very bad idea to be at the “top of the Laffer Curve.” As noted in a study by economists from the Federal Reserve and the University of Chicago, that’s the point where economic damage is so great that a dollar of tax revenue can be associated with $20 of damage to the private sector.

Now that I got that off my chest, let’s look at some of the details in the article about South Africa.

The evidence…suggests that, in the current environment, South Africa has maximised the tax revenues that it can extract from its citizens and has possibly even gone past that point and is now on the downward slope of the curve. Why do I say this? The last few years have seen significant tax increases… These tax increases saw the main budget tax: GDP ratio increase from 24.5% in 2012/13 to 26% in 2015/16, primarily led by increases in personal income tax. However, since then the tax:GDP ratio has stalled at 26% in both 2016/17 and in the revised forecast for 2017/18. It is not unreasonable to expect that the tax:GDP ratio for 2017/18 may fall below 26% in the final outcome. The stalling of the tax:GDP ratio comes despite significant tax increases in each of 2016/17 and 2017/18 which were expected to deliver ZAR18 billion and ZAR28 billion of additional tax revenues respectively.

Once again, I can’t resist the temptation to interject. That final sentence should be changed to read “the stalling of the tax:GDP ratio comes because of significant tax increases.”

Mr. Mandy concludes his column by warning that the current approach is leading to bad results and noting that further tax hikes would make a bad situation even worse.

…the South African Revenue Service has acknowledged that it has seen a decline in levels of compliance. …So what does all of this mean for tax policy and fiscal policy generally? Simply put, National Treasury have been placed in an invidious position. Increasing taxes further in the current environment could be self-defeating and result in a decline in the tax:GDP ratio. This risk is particularly prevalent insofar as further tax increases in the form of personal income tax are concerned. Increasing the corporate tax rate would further dent investor confidence and economic growth.

The good news is that even South Africa’s government seems to realize there is a problem.

Here are some excerpts from a recent story.

Finance minister Malusi Gigaba has received President Jacob Zuma’s stamp of approval for an inquiry into tax administration and governance at the South African Revenue Service (Sars). According to the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS), tax revenue is expected to fall almost R51 billion short of earlier estimates in the current fiscal year. …The probe also comes amid warnings that further tax hikes could be futile and may even result in a decline in the country’s tax-to-GDP ratio. …National Treasury has introduced various tax hikes over the past few years. The main budget tax-to-GDP ratio increased from 24.5% in 2012/13 to 26% in 2015/16, mainly as a result of higher effective personal income tax rates. But the tax-to-GDP ratio has subsequently stalled at 26% in 2016/17 and in the latest 2017/18 forecast and it is not inconceivable that the final outcome for the current fiscal year could fall below 26%… Gigaba seems to be aware of the dangers of additional tax hikes and warned in his MTBPS that it could be “counterproductive”.

I’m glad that there’s a recognition that higher taxes would backfire, but that’s not going to fix any problems.

The pressure for higher taxes will be relentless unless the South African government begins to control spending. The government should adopt a constitutional spending cap, which would alleviate budget pressures and create some “fiscal space” for lower tax rates.

But I’m not confident that will happen, particularly if the International Monetary Fund gets involved. Desmond Lachman, formerly of the IMF and now with the American Enterprise Institute, writes that the country is in trouble.

South Africa is in trouble. Per capita income has been in decline for several years and its economy is in recession for the second time in eight years. Unemployment remains at over 27%. Meanwhile, the rand is floundering on the foreign exchange market… In view of the favourable global economic environment, the country’s predicament is even more troubling. Interest rates have rarely been lower and capital flows to emerging markets have seldom been stronger. …If South Africa’s economy is performing poorly in this environment, it will probably struggle even more when central banks start to normalise their interest rate policies and when the global economic environment becomes more challenging.

He has the right description of the problem, but I’m worried about his proposed solution.

IMF assistance can hasten restoration of confidence. …An IMF programme would not be popular politically within South Africa but the government does not appear to have any realistic alternative.

Simply stated, the IMF has a very bad track record of pushing for higher taxes.

That doesn’t necessarily mean its bureaucrats will push for bad policy in South Africa, but past performance sometimes is a good predictor of future behavior.

For what it’s worth, the IMF is fully aware that the burden of government has been increasing. Here’s a blurb from the most recent Article IV report on South Africa.

During the past few years, the share of both revenues and expenditures continued its rising trend. The size of general government in South Africa is one of the highest among international peers at a similar level of development. Primary expenditures rose by 1.5 percentage points of GDP between 2012/13 and 2015/16, owing primarily to public enterprise-related transfers (0.8 percent of GDP, including a 0.6 percent of GDP equity injection for Eskom in 2015/2016) as well as relatively generous wage agreements combined with an increase in consolidated government employment (0.3 percent of GDP). In recent years, including the 2017 budget, higher personal income taxation has been the main tax  policy instrument to collect revenue combined with higher excise rates.

And here’s a section of the data table showing the expanding burden of both taxes and spending.

Unfortunately, the IMF never says that this growing fiscal burden is a problem. Instead, the focus is solely on the fact that spending is higher than revenue. In other words, the IMF mistakenly fixates on the symptom of red ink instead of addressing the real problem of excessive government.

So if the bureaucrats do an intervention, it almost certainly will result in bailout money for South Africa’s politicians in exchange for a “balanced” package of spending cuts and tax increases.

But the spending cuts likely will be either phony (reductions in planned increases, just like they do it in Washington) or will quickly evaporate. But the higher taxes will be real and permanent. Just like in most other nations where the IMF has intervened. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Speaking of misguided international bureaucracies, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development already has been pushing bad policy on South Africa. The bureaucrats even brag about their impact, as you can see from this Table in the OECD’s recent Economic Survey on South Africa.

The OECD is happy that income tax rates have increased and that there’s more double taxation on dividends, but the bureaucrats are still hoping for a new energy tax, expansion of the value-added tax, and more property taxes.

They must really hate the people of South Africa. No wonder the OECD is known as the world’s worst international bureaucracy.

I’ll close by noting that the country’s problems are not limited to fiscal policy. The country is only ranked #95 by Economic Freedom of the World. And it was as high as #46 in 2000.

Instead of pushing for higher taxes, that’s the problem the OECD and IMF should be trying to fix. But given their track record, that’s about as likely as me playing centerfield next year for the Yankees.

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There are many reasons why I’m not a big fan of the United Nations. Like other international bureaucracies, it supports statist policies (higher taxes, gun control, regulation, etc) that hinder economic development and limit human liberty by increasing the burden of government

Some people tell me that I shouldn’t be too critical because the U.N. also helps poor people with foreign aid. Indeed, the U.N. has a very active project to encourage rich nations to contribute 0.7 percent of their economic output to developing nations.

I generally respond to these (in some cases) well-meaning folks by explaining that there’s a big difference between good intentions and good results. If you examine the evidence, it turns out that redistribution from rich nations to poor nations is just as counterproductive as redistribution within a society.

An article in The Economist succinctly summarizes the issue. It starts with the rationale for foreign aid.

After the second world war, a new “development economics” came to dominate policymaking…, often at the urging of international institutions such as the World Bank. It argued that poor countries were victims of a vicious circle of poverty… The answer? Rich countries should provide the capital, in the form of foreign aid. …poor-country governments should plan their economies and…competition should be restricted through monopoly rights and barriers to foreign trade.

It then describes the revolutionary thinking of the late Peter Thomas Bauer, a Hungarian-born British economist who said the developing world needed economic freedom rather than handouts.

Lord Bauer set out alternative theories that, from the 1950s to the 1970s, were heresy. …Opportunities for private profit, not government plans, held the key to development. Governments had the limited though crucial role of protecting property rights, enforcing contracts, treating everybody equally before the law, minimising inflation and keeping taxes low.

Moreover, Bauer explained that foreign aid generally had a negative effect because it put resources in the hands of government, thus leveraging more statism. Which is the last thing these nations needed.

Aid politicised economies, directing money into the hands of governments rather than towards profitable business. Interest groups then fought to control this money rather than engage in productive activity. Aid increased the patronage and power of the recipient governments, which often pursued policies that stifled entrepreneurship and market forces. Indeed, aid had proved “an excellent method for transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.”

Writing for the U.K.-based Spectator, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson explain that foreign aid has a very poor track record.

The idea that large donations can remedy poverty has dominated the theory of economic development — and the thinking in many international aid agencies and governments — since the 1950s. And how have the results been? Not so good, actually. Millions have moved out of abject poverty around the world over the past six decades, but that has had little to do with foreign aid. Rather, it is due to economic growth in countries in Asia which received little aid.

Meanwhile, the nations getting the most handouts have remained mired in poverty.

In the meantime, more than a quarter of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa are poorer now than in 1960 — with no sign that foreign aid, however substantive, will end poverty there. …huge aid flows appear to have done little to change the development trajectories of poor countries… Why? …economic institutions that systematically block the incentives and opportunities of poor people to make things better for themselves, their neighbours and their country. …The problem is that their aspirations are blocked today…by extractive institutions. The poor don’t pull themselves out of poverty, because the basic ability to do so is denied them.

What exactly are “extractive institutions”?

At the top of the list would be bad government policy, which creates a system in which politicians, bureaucrats, and insiders get unearned wealth via corruption and cronyism.

The authors give some powerful examples.

To understand Syria’s enduring poverty, you could do worse than start with the richest man in Syria, Rami Makhlouf. He is the cousin of President Bashar al-Assad and controls a series of government-created monopolies. He is an example of what are known in Syria as ‘abna al-sulta’, ‘sons of power’. To understand Angola’s endemic poverty, consider its richest woman, Isabel dos Santos, billionaire daughter of the long-serving president. …every major Angolan investment held by dos Santos stems either from taking a chunk of a company that wants to do business in the country or from a stroke of the president’s pen that cut her into the action.

I’d also include the wealthy Venezuelans who have used socialism as a vehicle to enrich themselves while impoverishing ordinary people.

To be sure, we have examples of insider favoritism and undeserved wealth in rich nations, but it’s a matter of degree. Cronyism is an undesirable feature of our economy, but it’s a defining feature of nations in the developing world.

So what does all this mean?

Acemoglu and Robinson basically reach the same conclusion as Lord Bauer.

When aid is given to governments that preside over extractive institutions, it can be at best irrelevant, at worst downright counter-productive. …Many kleptocratic dictators such as Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko have been propped up by foreign aid.

Now let’s shift from looking at nations where failure has been subsidized by foreign aid and instead consider the success stories of economic development. Are there any lessons we can learn?

Well, if you look at the ranking from Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll see that the formerly poor East Asian jurisdictions that are now rich also have something else in common. They rank very high or somewhat high for economic freedom

In other words, there is a recipe for growth and prosperity. Nations that restrain the size of government and allow markets to flourish enjoy growth.

Which is exactly the message of this video.

By the way, you don’t need perfection to get climb out of poverty. China still doesn’t rank very high in Economic Freedom of the World, but it has improved its position over the past few decades and that has helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty. Same with India.

Yes, both nations are capable of much stronger growth with further improvements in policy, but it’s nonetheless good news that there’s been considerable improvement.

Let’s address one more issue that arises in the debate about foreign aid.

Professor Noah Smith of Stony Brook University, in a column for Bloomberg, debunks the myth that poverty in the developing world is a legacy of colonialism.

…the stolen-wealth theory is wrong. Oh, it’s absolutely true that colonial powers stole natural resources from the lands they conquered. …the stolen-wealth theory is wrong…because the theory doesn’t explain the global distribution of income today. …The easiest way to see this is to observe all the rich countries that never had the chance to plunder colonies. Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Japan had colonial empires for only the very briefest of moments, and their greatest eras of development came before and after those colonial episodes. Switzerland, Finland, and Austria never had colonies. And South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong were themselves colonies of other powers. Yet today they are very rich. They did it not by theft, but by working hard, being creative, and having good institutions.

Amen. And notice that he also mentions the tiger economies of East Asia.

P.S. Given what I wrote the other day about the statist proclivities of the OECD, here’s an item that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Even though South Africa already has an excessive burden of government, the Paris-based bureaucracy wants that nation to impose even higher taxes to fund even bigger government.

I’m not joking. The OECD just put out a document entitled, “How can South Africa’s tax system meet revenue raising challenges?” and here are some blurbs from the abstract.

…considerable revenues will be needed in the years ahead to expand social spending and infrastructure in order to raise growth and well-being. …there is some scope to raise further revenue, particularly through broadening the base of these taxes further. …An important additional source of revenue is environmentally related taxes.

Yup, you read correctly. The bureaucrats at the OECD want people to believe that South Africa’s main challenge is that government isn’t big enough. Heck, they actually want readers to believe that a more bloated public sector will “raise growth and well-being”.

Huh, bigger government is associated with more growth?!? I guess that’s why Singapore is so poor and Cuba is so rich.

What’s especially remarkable about the OECD’s anti-empirical approach is that fiscal policy is where South Africa get its lowest score in Economic Freedom of the World. It’s almost as if the tax-loving bureaucrats at the OECD are trying to keep that country from prospering.

And we’re subsidizing this nonsense to the tune of about $100 million per year.

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When asked about the most worrisome statistic for a nation, I don’t say it’s the top marginal tax rate, even though I think class-warfare taxation is very poisonous for long-run economic performance.

Nor do I say it’s the burden of government spending relative to private economic output, even though the size of the public sector gives us a good idea of the degree to which labor and capital are being poorly allocated.

I don’t even say that a nation’s score in the Economic Freedom of the World index is the most important number, even though that’s the best and most comprehensive measure of the quality of a country’s economic policy.

My answer, for what it’s worth, is that a nation is doomed when a majority of its people decide that it is morally and economically okay to live off the labor of others and want to use the coercive power of government to make it happen.

For lack of a better term, we can call this a country’s Dependency Ratio, and it’s a measure of eroding social capital. To what degree, in other words, has the entitlement mentality replaced the work ethic and the spirit of self reliance?

But before continuing further, I want to provide two important caveats.

1) The Dependency Ratio is not the percentage of households that get money from the government. That’s an important number, to be sure, but it includes people who get money but don’t have an entitlement mentality. A good example is that Social Security recipients in America get checks from Uncle Sam, but only because they had no choice but to pay into the system and did not have the freedom to use that money instead for a personal retirement account. In many if not most cases, they don’t see themselves as part of a “takers” coalition.

2) From a practical perspective, the Dependency Ratio is a good concept, but I’m not aware of a methodologically sound way to calculate a nation’s entitlement mentality. And there’s definitely not good data for purposes of doing international comparisons (though this polling data suggests that the problem is much more severe in nations such as France than it is in the United States). So you have to rely on imperfect proxy measures, such as the share of households getting payments, the size and cost of the bureaucracy, and overall social welfare spending.

I’ve shared all these thoughts because they give the necessary background for today’s main topic, which is South Africa’s dismal economic future.

Take a look at this very depressing chart that appeared in my Twitter feed. It shows what has happened over the past five years in South Africa’s labor market.

This isn’t good news. The number of bureaucrats has risen dramatically while there’s been no growth in the number of people working in the economy’s productive sector.

If this trend continues, it’s only a matter of time before South Africa suffers economic collapse. You can’t have an ever-growing class of people living off a non-growing pool of taxpayers.

However, I realize that the chart only shows five years of data, so it could present a misleading view of trends in the country, particularly if there are policy reforms in other areas that might offset the damage of expanding bureaucracy.

So let’s look at other economic sources to confirm whether South Africa is moving in the wrong direction.

I mentioned above that the Economic Freedom of the World has the best data on the quality of a nation’s economic policy. Here’s South Africa’s performance.

The good news is that South Africa enjoyed a big jump in economic freedom between 1990 and 2000, which isn’t too surprising since the morally abominable Apartheid regime relied on heavy levels of government intervention. Ending that system was a key step in economic liberalization.

But the bad news is that there’s been no improvement since that time. Indeed, South Africa’s score has declined. The fall in the absolute score is minor, but bigger problem is that the nation’s relative score has suffered a big drop. If you look at the blue bars on the bottom, you can see that South Africa had the world’s 36th-freest economy in 2003, but it’s now down to having the world’s 88th-freest economy.

In other words, other nations have moved policy in the right direction while South Africa has been stagnant.

Since I’m a fiscal policy economist, I also looked at what’s been happening to the burden of government spending in South Africa.

As you can see, this chart (based on IMF data) shows that government outlays (left axis) have jumped significantly since the turn of the century.

And since government grew faster than the private sector (violating the Golden Rule), the overall burden of government spending increased (right axis) even when measured as a share of economic output.

I don’t know if the additional spending has been used to pay for additional bureaucrats, social welfare programs, infrastructure, education, or the military.

I suspect all of the above, which helps to explain why South Africa’s fiscal policy score from Economic Freedom of the World has dropped from 6.45 to 5.45 (on a 1-10 scale) since 2000.

More important, I also suspect that the net result is to have lured lots of additional people into government dependency.

That doesn’t bode well for South Africa’s future.

P.S. On a different topic, we have a couple of updates on the politicized and corrupt behavior at the IRS.

First, we have another case of misplaced email messages. Here’s an excerpt from an AP report.

On Friday, the IRS issued a report to Congress saying the agency also lost emails from five other employees related to the probe, including two agents who worked in a Cincinnati office processing applications for tax-exempt status. …The IRS blamed computer crashes for all the lost emails.

Gee, how convenient.

I wonder if the IRS will allow me to claim lost data next time I have a tax dispute?

Second, it’s understandable that the IRS is anxious to hide its internal communication because what does get released shows a partisan and malevolent bureaucracy.

The day that former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner publicly apologized for using “inappropriate criteria” to delay tax exemptions for Tea Party groups, she told her colleagues that they were being “beaten up by the press for all the wrong reasons.” …The documents show Lerner’s efforts to persuade Treasury auditors that there was no institutional bias at the IRS, the agency’s attempts to head off a damaging investigation with a pre-emptive apology, and Lerner’s pep talk to her staff after the apology. …The idea for a public apology to head off the audit came at least a month before. Lerner was set to give a speech at Georgetown University and was “begging” for some newsworthy information, IRS chief of staff Nikole Flax said in an e-mail. “We may want to use it to burst a bubble,” said then-acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller in response. He later joked that Lerner could use the speech to “apologize for undermanaging.”

Amazing. The bureaucrats laughed about their efforts to terrorize people and distort the political process.

The only real solution is sweeping tax reform so the IRS loses almost all its power.

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