POLITICS

On Wealth taxes (continued)

Charles Collocott on international experiences, land tax, and lessons for SA

Wealth Taxes IV: International Experience (Description)

Introduction

This brief consists of three sections. The first lists countries that currently impose wealth taxes (WT) with a brief description of each system. The second is a list OECD countries that have imposed wealth taxes in the last 20 years. The last section lists the nine countries which have abandoned WT. Where available, the reasons are given.

Countries currently imposing wealth taxes

There 15 countries that currently impose WT. These are listed below alphabetically with a brief description of each. [1]

Algeria

WT will be introduced in 2018 for residents assessed on a worldwide basis and applies to property with a net worth higher than DZD 50 million (US$ 435 000). Information on WT rates is not yet available. Tax credits will apply when an individual has paid a similar tax on non-Algerian assets. Nonresidents will pay WT on property located in Algeria.

Argentina

WT of 0.5% for 2017 (down from 0.75% for 2016 and to be further reduced to 0.25% for 2018) is levied against personal property over ARS 950 000 (US$ 47 500) (increased from ARS 800 000 for 2016 and to be further increased to ARS 1 050 000 for 2018). Nonresidents are charged the same as locals. Corporate WT also applies, at 0.25% on the net equity where the shareholder is a nonresident or a resident individual. Companies have a right to request reimbursement from the shareholder.

Bangladesh

A progressive income tax surcharge is levied according to net wealth, with a minimum levy of BDT 3k.

Net wealth

Rate on income tax

BDT 22.5m to BDT 50m

10%

BDT 50m to BDT 100m

15%

BDT 100m to BDT 150m

20%

BDT 150m to BDT 200m

25%

Above BDT 200m

30%

BDT 22.5 million is equivalent to US$ 270 000.

Colombia

WT is payable for 2015-2018 at progressive rates between 0.125% and 1.5%, though expected to be eliminated by 2019.

Corporate WT applies for 2015 to 2017 on entities with equity exceeding COP 1 million

(US$ 35 000). The corporate WT will be reduced over the period, with a max of 1% (from 1.15% for 2015) and 0.4% for 2017.

Dominican Republic

WT of 1% for all individuals conducting business in the Republic.

France

In October 2017, the French Parliament under Emmanuel Macron adopted a package of measures for 2018 that included scrapping the wealth tax on everything except real estate. The ISF in its 2017 form is presented below.

WT, or Impôt sur la solidarité fortune (ISF), are levied progressively against households (rather than individuals) at the following rates:

Net wealth

Rate

EUR 800k to EUR 1.3m

0.5%

EUR 1.3m to EUR 2.57m

0.7%

EUR 2.57m to EUR 5m

1%

EUR 5m to EUR 10m

1.25%

above EUR 10m

1.5%

800 000 Euro is equivalent to US$ 985 000.

For residents the tax is imposed on worldwide assets, subject to treaty provisions. Some assets are exempt and small deductions for dependents are allowed. Couples are obliged to make a joint declaration whether they are married or not. Assets held by children below the age of 18 must also be included in the calculation. Nonresidents must pay WT on their assets located in France, unless exempt under a tax treaty. French financial investments owned by nonresidents are exempt.

France’s WT allowances include the following:

A discount is permitted for properties with sitting tenants, dependent on the nature and duration of the letting.

Business assets are in general excluded.

Antiques over 100 years old, works of art, classic cars, the value of artistic, industrial and literary rights are also exempt.

Investors in small or medium sized European companies can have 50% of the investment deducted for wealth tax purposes.

Reductions are allowed for 50% of donations to nonprofit organization up to a limit of EUR 45k.

A wealth tax ceiling limits total French and foreign taxes to 75% of income.

Hungary

Hungary introduced, in January 2010, a wealth tax on luxury watercraft, aircraft and high performance passenger cars.

Italy

Financial assets held abroad by a resident are taxed at 0.2%. Immovable property outside Italy owned by residents is taxed at 0.76% of the original cost or market value.

Moldova

WT of 0.8% is levied against individuals who own real estate in Moldova (excluding land), the estimated value of which is MDL 1.5m (US$ 90 000) or above and an area of 120 mor more.

Netherlands

The Dutch WT is known as Box 3 and is levied against savings, property and investments. The exemption level is €25k (US$ 31 000) , with tiers in place for assets under €75,000, €75k-975k and over €975k. Effective rates rise progressively for each successive band: 0.86%, 1.4% and 1.6% respectively. There are no capital gains taxes.

Norway

WT of 0.85% levied against net wealth exceeding NOK 1.48m. Real estate assets are estimated to approximately 50% of the market value and 25% if it is the taxpayer's primary residence for tax purposes, as is the net wealth of married couples living together is aggregated.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudi WT known as Zakat is levied on the net worth of all business registered in Saudi Arabia at a rate of 2.5%.

Spain

WT is levied against property owned by taxpayers at a rate established by each autonomous region, which ranges from 0.2% to 2.5%. WT is not levied in Madrid.

Switzerland

WT is levied against wealth exceeding specific thresholds that vary by canton. WT rates too vary by canton.

Uruguay

WT is levied against all types of legal entities and business enterprise owners at a rate of 1.5%. Only assets located or economically used in Uruguay are taxable.

OECD and other countries that have imposed wealth taxes in the last 20 years

ColombiaHungary, Iceland, Italy, Slovenia and Spain.

Countries which used to have wealth taxes but abandoned them

Below is a list of the ten countries which have abandoned WT. Where available the reasons are given.

Austria

Abandoned in 1994 due to high administrative costs, low revenue, problems with asset valuation and the liberalization of capital flows. [2] & [3]

Denmark

Abandoned in 1995 due to high administrative costs, low revenue, problems with asset valuation and the liberalization of capital flows. [2] & [3]

Finland

Abandoned in 2006 due to high administrative costs, low revenue and problems with asset valuation. [1]

Germany

Abandoned in 1997 due to high administrative costs, low revenue, problems with asset valuation and the liberalization of capital flows. [2] & [3] Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court went as far as to declare the net wealth tax as unconstitutional. Its reasoning was premised on the concern that different valuations for different kinds of property were in violation of equality of law principles. Such differences and inconsistencies were manipulated by taxpayers who sought to minimise the tax burden within the letter of the law. [4]

Iceland

Abandoned in 2005 due to high administrative costs, low revenue, savings disincentive [5] and inefficient resource allocation. [6]

WT was seen as a savings disincentive because for instance, if a taxpayer’s net wealth increased by 5 percent, a wealth tax of 1.45 percent is akin to a 29 percent tax on the 5 percent annual return. Regards inefficient resource allocation, Iceland’s taxpayers were more likely to leverage their assets to avoid the net wealth tax and this was partly responsible for Iceland’s well known debt woes.

Iceland reintroduced the WT in 2010 and it expired in 2015. It was reintroduced to try and stem the harmful effects of the financial crisis. There is no clear indication whether this worked as intended.

India

Abandoned in 2015 due to high administrative costs, low revenue and a disproportionate compliance burden on taxpayers. [7]

Ireland

Abandoned in 1977 due to high administrative costs, low revenue, failure to improve horizontal equity of the tax system as well as failure to reduce inequality. [8]

Slovenia

Abandoned in 2006.

Spain

Abandoned in 2007 due to high administrative costs, low revenue and problems with asset valuation. [2] It was reintroduced in 2012 to try and stem the harmful effects of the financial crisis. There is no clear indication whether this worked as intended.

Sweden

Abandoned in 2007 due to high administrative costs, low revenue, problems with asset valuation, [2] capital flight and inconsistencies in the treatment of private wealth and operating assets which lead to inefficient and inequitable outcomes. [4]

Notes

[1] https://dits.deloitte.com/#TaxGuides

[2] OECD Wealth Tax Review, 2014

[3] Taxation of Financial Intermediation: Volume 235 edited by Patrick Honohan, 2003 

[4] eJournal of Tax Research, To Rich to Reign In? Chatalova and Evans 2013, p445

[5] http://freedomandprosperity.org/2007/publications/the-iceland-tax-system-key-features-and-lessons-for-policy-makers/#12

[6] eJournal of Tax Research, To Rich to Reign In? Chatalova and Evans 2013, p448

[7] http://www.charteredclub.com/wealth-tax/

[8] The Economic and Social Research Institute, The Irish Wealth Tax, Sandford and Morrissey, 1985, pg 148 - 152

***

Wealth Taxes V: International Experience (Case Studies)

Introduction

This brief provides a short summary of the experience of four countries with wealth taxes: The United Kingdom, France, Sweden and India.

The United Kingdom

In 1974 the Labour Government came to power in the UK committed to introducing an annual wealth tax. It left office without doing so. The following section is a brief description of the events.

1974-79 saw significant change in the UK’s political and economic climate. In ’76 the Labour government required the IMF to halt a run on the pound. Unsustainable inflation was linked to public spending unmatched by revenue and social spending that had taken place since 1945 ran unchecked. Trade union power peaked in 1974 with the capacity to shape economic policy, rendering the strategy of provoking a recession to check wage inflation unacceptable. To win trade union trade union agreement to wage constraint the Labour party agreed, before elections, to measures that would ‘fundamentally redistribute income and wealth’. This included an annual tax on wealth.

The main basis of Labour’s tax policy until 1979 were taken from a book by Nicholas Kaldor, published in 1955 on behalf of the Royal Commission to review tax policy. Kaldor argued that for tax to be fair it must take account of the taxpayer’s capacity to pay (a rational for wealth tax discussed in Brief 2). Thus in 1974 Labour included wealth tax in the Party Manifesto. The idea however attracted critics not just from Conservatives but also from those who were sympathetic to some kind of redistribution of wealth. The critics argued that administrative costs and the difficulty of measuring an individual’s wealth made it impractical. The Labour Party did not take up these ideas.

A major wealth tax brief was written and awaited the incoming Labour Chancellor Denis Healey in ’74. The brief gave broad outlines, concluding that such a tax was feasible and that government should move quickly to implement it to limit capital flight and avoidance.

Up to now there was little Treasury input, but from April 1974 Treasury began to look more carefully at the practical problems and potential wider economic impact. Opposition from external interest began to emerge. Owners of country houses and the museums and the art world prompted a rethink of the treatment of such property as ‘national treasures’. Other matters that worried Treasury were the weakness of the economy, rising inflation and the threat to the pound.

In July 1974 it was decided that the Green Paper on tax that contained within it wealth taxes be debated by a Select Committee of the House of Commons. Once the debate reached the Select Committee the government began to lose the initiative. The Conservative members opposed, obstructed and delayed and Labour failed to put together convincing replies. Ultimately this resulted in the Chancellor proposing to the Prime Minister that the legislation for a wealth tax be postponed until 1977. The postponement was agreed.

Over the next year the cuts in public spending and the IMF loan took over Treasury’s concerns. While there was some concern around how the unions might react should the wealth tax be abandoned, it was the concern on the markets’ reaction to wealth taxes that triumphed. In June 1976 the idea of wealth taxes was abandoned. [1]

Labour Chancellor Denis Healy’s own reflection was that the idea of a wealth tax was a mistake:

‘’Another lesson was that you should never commit yourself in Opposition to new taxes unless you have a very good idea how they will operate. We had committed ourselves to a Wealth Tax: but in five years I found it impossible to draft one which would yield enough revenue to be worth the administrative cost and political hassle.” (Healey 1989, p404)

France

Wealth tax has been prominent in French politics for over 30 years. In 1982 President François Mitterand introduced the Impôt sur les grandes fortunes (IGF), a progressive wealth tax topping out at 1.5% on assets above 10 million francs. When Mitterand’s party lost control of parliament, the new government, headed by Jacques Chirac, repealed the law in 1987. That decision was considered partly responsible for Mitterand’s re-election. In 1989, Mitterand brought back the tax in modified form of the Impôt sur la solidarité fortune (ISF). The ISF had more bands but a lower top rate, going up to 1.1% on assets above 20 million francs. [2]

In October 2017, French Parliament under Emmanuel Macron adopted a package of measures for 2018 that included scrapping the wealth taxes on everything except property assets. For the sake of this series of briefs however we will continue to look at the ISF in its 2017 form.

Due to the high wealth tax threshold and a large range of exemptions and deductions, the French wealth tax has a narrow base compared to other such systems. The ‘fiscal household’ applies the same threshold to couples (married or not) as singles. Cumulative income and wealth taxes are capped at a proportion of income. The purpose of the cap is to address concerns about ability to pay for high wealth – low income households. [4] Assets held by children below the age of 18 must also be included in the calculation.

The National Audit Office for Tax Situations (DNVSF) within the tax administration handles the tax matters of high net worth individual (HNWI) taxpayers subject to wealth taxes. The DNVSF comprises 13 audit teams, task forces (Brigades de Vérifications), and one planning team (Brigade de Programmation). The planning team gathers information on (potential) taxpayers to be audited and determines which one will be subject to a tax audit. [3]

As discussed in the third brief of this series, the ISF has had unintended consequences. A 2008 study titled The Economic Consequences of the French Wealth Tax, by Professor Eric Pichet of Kedge Business School, found that France loses around 5 billion Euros in tax revenue a year because of people leaving to avoid the wealth tax. Pichet goes further to say this capital flight could cost at least 0.2% of annual GDP due to a decrease in investments.

Since 2000, France has experienced a net outflow of around 60 000 millionaires. Vincent Lazimi, a partner at law firm Vaslin Associés, says “There has been an acceleration of departures from France due to the unstable nature of the policy (wealth tax).” [6]

Lastly, it is debatable whether the yield from France’s wealth taxes has been significant. In 2016 it brought in around €5bn, which less than 2 percent of total tax revenue or 0.2 percent of GDP. [7]

Sweden

Swedish wealth taxation was introduced in 1911 and abolished in 2007.

Wealth taxation levied against owners of family firms and individual wealth was introduced in Sweden in 1911 by the 1910 Ordinance of Income and Wealth Taxation. The 1910 reform conferred an important role to the ability-to-pay principle. A second motive was to compensate for the erosion of other tax bases and growing government financing needs. Likewise, several types of wealth tax were introduced during and between the World Wars in order to fund the military. Finally, beginning in the early 1930s the wealth tax was motivated as a means of redistribution.

From 1911 to 1919 the wealth tax was a marginal tax on the combined income and wealth tax motivated by the notion that current income from wealth could be taxed more heavily than labor income. The marginal rate varied between 1.7 and 6 percent.

From 1920 to 1938 combined income and wealth tax schedules were revised and made flexible. The structure of the new state tax system – tax brackets, base amounts and marginal tax rates – was fixed, but the effective total tax rates were now flexible. Politicians determined rates annually, thus allowing for easy upward and downward adjustments in the state income and wealth tax rates in accordance with perceived “needs”. These marginal tax rates varied from 0.5 to 8 percent.

A separate wealth tax was introduced in 1934, alongside the income and wealth tax. It applied until 2007. The income and wealth tax was abandoned in 1947 for two reasons: (i) to attain greater simplicity, and (ii) an increasing awareness of its disincentive effects when marginal tax rates were becoming much higher. The separate wealth tax levied rates of between 0.1 and 0.5 percent on different brackets directly on net wealth. The introduction of the separate wealth tax in 1934 also entailed an upper limit rule prohibiting levying wealth taxes on asset values exceeding 25 times taxable income. A tax floor was also implemented, stipulating that the wealth tax must never be reduced below the tax due on half of taxable wealth.

Despite the long period of enactment in Sweden, wealth taxes were never particularly important as a source of revenue for the government. Aggregate wealth tax revenues never exceeded 0.4 percent of GDP in the postwar period and amounted to 0.16 percent of GDP in 2006. [8] Wealth taxes were finally abolished in 2007 due to the low revenue as well as high admin costs, difficulties with asset valuation, [9] capital flight and inconsistencies in the treatment of private wealth and operating assets which lead to inefficient and inequitable outcomes. [10]

India

Indian wealth taxation was introduced in 1957 and abolished in 2016.

Wealth taxes in India were levied at one percent of net wealth above a certain threshold (Rs 30m being the latest, equivalent to US$ 460 000) and applied to individuals, Hindu undivided families (HUF) and companies. Eligibility was further determined on the basis of nationality and residence status. [11] Assets included in the calculation of wealth taxes were buildings, cars, jewelry, urban land, cash above Rs 50 000, yachts boats and aircraft. [11]

In 2015 the Indian finance minister Arun Jaitely told attendees at an event hosted by Columbia University in New York that “The practical experience [of wealth taxes] has been it’s a high cost and a low yield tax”. Jaitely argued that wealthy consistently undervalue assets that would have been eligible for the wealth tax. The tax only produced roughly 10.1 billion rupees worth of revenue or 0.07% of GDP in the 2014-15 period. In an attempt to simply the tax system, the Indian government replaced the wealth tax with a 2% surcharge on incomes above Rs 10m rupees in 2016. [12]

Notes

[1] A Wealth Tax Abandoned: The Role of the UK Treasury, Glennerster 2012, p1 -12

[2] https://qz.com/279900/a-short-history-of-frances-battles-over-taxing-the-wealthy/

[3] Wealth Under The Spotlight, Ernst and Young 2015, p20

[4] Scenarios and Distributional Factors of a Household Wealth Tax in Ireland, Lawless and Lynch 2016

[5] https://dits.deloitte.com/#TaxGuides

[6] https://www.ft.com/content/19feb16a-1aaf-11e7-a266-12672483791a

[7] Swedish Wealth Tax, 1911 – 2007, Rietz and Henrekson 2017

[8] OECD Wealth Tax Review, 2014, p1

[9] eJournal of Tax Research, To Rich to Reign In? Chatalova and Evans 2013, p445

[10] Settlement Commission under Direct Tax Laws in India: a critical study, Singh 2013, p159

[11] https://qz.com/354860/sorry-piketty-india-is-scrapping-its-wealth-tax/

[12] https://qz.com/354860/sorry-piketty-india-is-scrapping-its-wealth-tax/

***

Wealth Taxes VI: Land Tax

Introduction

In April 2017, the Davis Tax Committee (DTC), established by the Minister of Finance in 2013, called on the public for written submissions on possible wealth taxes for South Africa. The DTC noted that South Africa currently has three forms of wealth transfer tax, namely estate duty, transfer duty and donations tax, which combined bring in about 1% of total government revenue. The DTC called on public submissions on the desirability and feasibility of the following possible wealth taxes:

A land tax,

A national tax on the value of property (over and above municipal rates), and

An annual wealth tax

Annual wealth taxes have been dealt with extensively in the previous five briefs of this six part series, and this brief deals with land and a national tax on property with a focus on the former.

In the beginning of this year the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform released what it called the 2017 Land Audit Report. Within the Report was a proposal for a land tax in order to finance a new land reform fund. Bizarrely, while land tax has been advocated by some of the history’s most celebrated economists, from Adam Smith to Henry George, the Report relied on a 2014 blog post by UK economist Joe Sarling who graduated from university in 2009.

Definition

Administered at a national government level, a land tax in its general form is a tax on the unimproved or site value of land and is paid by the owner. Property taxes on the other hand tax both the value of the land and any improvements to it.

Adam Smith and Henry George

Adam Smith called for a tax on land in book five of Wealth of Nations. His rationale was that the rents earned from land “are a species of revenue which the owner, in many cases, enjoys without care or attention of his own” and are “owing to the good government of the sovereign.” He further postulates that “Though part of this revenue should be taken from him to defray the expenses of the state, no discouragement will thereby be given to any sort of industry.”

Henry George, who rose to fame in the United States after publishing Progress and Poverty in 1879, agreed with Adam Smith. George stated that the value of unimproved land is unearned and comes from the demand for a fixed amount of land. Furthermore, because the value of unimproved land is unearned, a tax on the land’s value will not affect productive behaviour. George specifically argues for a “single tax” in this regard. This single tax would be on the unimproved value of land and that this could provide the entire required government revenue. The plausibility of this latter point is beyond the scope of this brief.

However, the value of land is clearly not wholly determined by good government alone. It is also created by improvements in the surrounding land, which is more often effected by private individuals and businesses, rather than government. A tax on the land’s value is really a tax on its productive potential resulting from the improvements to land in the surrounding area. [1]

Other rationales for land tax

Some argue that a land tax will:

  1. Encourage the productive use of under-utilised land.

  2. Put pressure on land prices making land more readily available for redistribution. [2]

  3. Raise government revenue.

  4. Related to (3),

    1. land tax is administered on an immovable asset making avoidance is extremely difficult, and

    2. because land owners already pay municipal rates, the administrative burden may be manageable.

Potential issues

Agricultural costs will increase which will be passed onto the consumer in the form of higher food prices and/or incentivizing food imports, harming the poor in particular.

A land tax over and above municipal property taxes could prove confiscatory for owners unable to generate enough income to cover both taxes. Some people, especially the elderly, might find that their land value may have increased considerably as a result of market movement, yet they may be cash poor. Upward pressure on total land taxes could force such people out of their homes.

Overall tax in South Africa is already high by middle income country standards. In 2014, government revenue (excluding grants) was 30.6% of GDP, compared with an average of 21.0% for all middle income countries [3]. Further taxes may drive down returns and viable investments generally specifically large scale property development.

There can be little doubt that ‘double taxation’ – a national land tasx over and above municipal rates - will be met with strong resistance, and failure to pay will add to overall government debt. At 30 September 2017, total debt owed to municipalities stood at over R143 billion due defaults by rate payers and consumers of municipally provided services.

Suggestions have been made for rebates on municipal taxes for national land taxes paid. This will result in no increase in tax revenue for all tiers of government combined. It will redistribute revenue from municipalities to national government. Furthermore, it would muddy the political choice at the local level about what municipal services to provide. Setting tax rates at the local level places accountability for tax decisions at the local level. Lastly, municipalities might simply increase their rates to make up for the loss in revenue. [3]

A land tax on rented residential property will put pressure on landlords who will pass on the additional cost to the already financially strained middle class. [4]

Conclusion

Unlike many other forms of wealth tax, there is nothing an individual can do to avoid a land tax apart from disposing of the land. A new land tax, which creates an additional liability for owners, reduces the market price of affected land by the expected present value of the taxation stream. Nonetheless, land taxes have their disadvantages. Implementation of a land tax would need to be carefully considered, as the downside risks may outweigh the potential benefits.

Notes

[1] http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/bios/George.html

[2] /documents/why-the-proposed-wealth-taxes-wont-work--irr

[3] World Bank Development Indicators

[3] International Handbook on Land and Property Taxation, Bird and Slack, p33

[4] http://charteredwealth.co.za/effects-proposed-wealth-tax-south-africa/

***

Wealth Taxes VII: Lessons For South Africa

Introduction

According to the World Inequality Lab, of which Thomas Piketty is an executive member, in South Africa the top 1% of earners held 8.8% of SA's wealth in 1987, and had increased their share to 19.2% by 2012. And in 2017 an Oxfam report found that just three South African billionaires held more wealth than the country’s bottom half combined. The Oxfam figures however date from January 2017, before the Steinhoff debacle wiped out a significant portion of Christo Wiese's wealth. [1]

Due a decrease in GDP over recent years, compounded by inefficiencies in government, the South African fiscus has experienced a decrease in revenue collection and currently finds itself with a shortfall of around R50 bn.

Presumably in light of the above factors (increasing inequality and decreasing tax revenue), in 2016 the South African Minister Finance, Pravin Gordhan, asked the Davis Tax Committee (DTC) to investigate the feasibility of a wealth tax in South Africa. The DTC took submissions from the public in early 2017 but is yet presented its findings.

Drawing upon the experiences of other countries as discussed in briefs II to V, this brief summarises the lessons that can be learned for South Africa.

Net wealth taxes for South Africa?

Empirical evidence suggests that currently it is difficult to conceive a wealth tax that will likely benefit South Africa.

On combating inequality, in all the studies from countries that have imposed a wealth tax in the past, there is no proof that inequality had lessened as a result of wealth taxes. And in France where wealth taxes are still imposed, equality has kept growing. Thus the implementation of a wealth tax in South Africa in hope that it’ll lessen inequality appears misguided.

However, Scandinavian countries offer interesting insights. The majority of these countries have abandoned wealth taxes and yet they boast some of the most economically equal societies globally. This seems little or anything to do with fiscal policy and more to do with a societal buy-in to social democracy and comparatively high levels of union participation.

As a potential source of government revenue, for all countries that have imposed or currently apply wealth taxes, the collection figures have been at the very low end. As discussed in brief II, this is due to the inherent high costs of wealth tax of collection as well as the related high levels of avoidance and evasion. All the 10 countries listed in brief IV that have abandoned the wealth tax cited low revenue as the primary reason.

Judge Dennis Davis of the DTC is quoted as saying “I would be very surprised if a wealth tax brought in more than R5 bn a year.” [2] In line with experiences elsewhere, this would come to 0.44% of total revenue for the 2016/17 tax year.

Only when or if government policy and technology adapt sufficiently to address implementation difficulties will wealth taxes become worthwhile. However, the natural dynamics between taxpayer behaviour and government policy makes this highly unlikely. Taxpayers do what they can to try avoid taxes and government responds with policy changes to try curtail the avoidance. Thus policy generally, if not always, plays catch up to taxpayer behaviour. Similar logic applies to technology. While technological improvements have brought down the cost of asset valuation and given authorities new tools to track asset flows, technology has also exponentially increased the mobility of financial assets, resulting in ratepayers constantly being able to invent new ways to avoid and evade taxes. So much so, that the mobility of modern capital has been cited by several governments as one of the reasons for abandoning wealth taxes.

The ancillary arguments for wealth taxes, such as improving tax equity, reducing tax avoidance and encouraging efficient resource use, are all based on theory with no definitive empirical support.

The empirical evidence that does exist indicates the drawbacks of wealth taxes. These include a far heavier burden on the middle class than the rich, an overall decrease in tax revenue from ratepayer emigration, capital flight, increased debt to reduce net wealth, an increase in required rates of return on investments, lower entrepreneurship and as mentioned above, the complexities of administration, high cost of collection and low revenue.

Conclusion

Not surprisingly, the major driving force behind the implementation of wealth taxes in recent times has been politics. In a society as economically divided as South Africa, it is easy to imagine how politicians would be able to effectively use wealth taxes to leverage the feeling of solidarity and wish for equality among the majority of citizens in order to gain political support. The real economic effects however will be the opposite of the intended effects, and South Africa society as whole, not just the rich, will most likely be poorer for it.

Ultimately, if the government is to make an impact on inequality, and if treasury is to increase revenue, they should not allow themselves to be led up the garden path of wealth taxes.

By Charles Collocott, Researcher, 6 April 2018

Notes

[1] Fin24

[2] Moneyweb