One sign that post-COVID-19 normalcy is slowly coming to the tax world is that tax authorities are increasingly being accused of launching or seeking unwarranted investigations of taxpayers. Eighteen months or even a year ago, when liquidity was paramount during the height of the pandemic lockdowns, tax authorities across the world quietly backed away from tax enforcement, giving taxpayers some grace in a difficult time. But in some countries, the grace period appears to be over.
In New Zealand, the Inland Revenue Department is seeking contact information for high-net-worth individuals so it can follow up with inquiries about their financial affairs. That hasn’t been received well by the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union, which recently accused the department of conducting fishing expeditions that could keep the rich from moving to or investing in New Zealand.
In the United States, the Biden administration received significant blowback when it released a bank reporting proposal that would have obligated financial institutions to report data on business and personal accounts with over $600. A second iteration that would have increased the reporting threshold to $10,000 didn’t fare much better. The idea was ultimately cut from a massive budget package winding its way through the government.
The South African Revenue Service, which recently beefed up its high-net-worth unit, is reportedly assigning specific staff to each high-net-worth taxpayer to engage in ongoing dialogue, reminiscent of private banking relationships, according to a report in South Africa’s BizNews.
Overall, this activity is a sign that governments are beginning to shift to the pandemic recovery phase instead of remaining in the pandemic emergency phase. Recent budget and legislative proposals issued in various countries back this up.
Yet the tax transition to recovery has not been as smooth or decisive as previous phases: It has been more hesitant and cautious because policymakers continue to grapple with taxpayer trust issues and slow economic recovery. This is particularly true with excess profits (windfall taxes) and wealth taxes, both of which have generated a lot of discussion.
Where Are We Now?
As a refresher, tax responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have generally followed three phases. The first was about liquidity and enabling taxpayers to keep cash on hand. Many tax administrations achieved this by allowing deferred tax payments, issuing faster tax refunds, increasing business deductions, and allowing taxpayers to shift losses to other years. In that phase, taxing authorities relieved taxpayer burdens and scaled back on enforcement.
The second phase was about maintaining liquidity and starting to ease into restructuring, which requires a careful balance between maintaining taxpayers’ access to cash and instating gradual and reasonable tax increases that do not impede growth or anger taxpayers.
Finally, there is what the World Bank calls phase 3: resilient recovery. This phase is about trust. According to the World Bank, if taxpayers think their lawmakers have been evenhanded and fair over the course of the pandemic by providing adequate relief when needed, then this phase’s needed tax hikes and tax base expansions will have the greatest likelihood of public acceptance.
Windfall Taxes Are Still Rare
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many questioned whether countries should rely on windfall taxes to pay for pandemic-related support and recovery. There has been a lot of debate, but few takers. Malaysia stands out as one of the first countries to adopt a pandemic-related windfall tax.
COVID-19 battered Malaysia’s economy. In 2020 the country suffered a 5.6% decline in GDP — its worst economic contraction since the Asian financial crisis of 1997. The good news is that the economy is expected to steadily recover over the next year as part of the overall global economic recovery. But riding these economic coattails may not be enough for Malaysia, which has struggled with chronically low tax revenue collection.
In the run-up to the country’s October budget release, Deputy Finance Minister Yamani Hafez bin Musa said the government was considering a number of tax measures to fund recovery, “including taxing the profits on stock investments and imposing higher tax rates on a one-off basis on companies that generated extraordinary profits during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
The government made good on that promise October 29 when it released a souped-up $80 billion budget, its largest ever, which features a controversial one-time windfall profit tax. Effective 2022 corporations will pay a 33% corporate tax rate on profits over MYR 100 million (about $24 million). The first MYR 100 million will be taxed at the regular 24% corporate tax rate. The government expects that a few hundred companies will cross the windfall threshold.
Malaysia did not arrive at this decision lightly, but there is precedent. Crude palm oil producers have been subject to the Windfall Profit Levy Act (Act 592) since 1999. The act imposes a tax on profits exceeding a crude palm oil market price of MYR 2,500 per ton for Malaysia’s peninsula and MYR 3,000 per ton for the states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Since its inception, the tax has generated MYR 4.1 billion in revenue, so expanding it and imposing it on other sectors was not a giant leap and reflects feedback garnered from various stakeholders.
Underscoring that strategy, the government refrained from hiking the windfall profit tax on crude palm oil producers. Instead, it increased the profit threshold by MYR 500 for peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak, according to Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz.
But the initial response from industry was one of general displeasure; the country’s benchmark stock index, the FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI, fell 2% on the announcement, and some economists are warning that consumers will bear the cost of the tax. All told, Malaysia presents a case study for other countries considering similar measures.
In Canada, the manufacturing and extractives industries — mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction — performed handsomely in 2020. If the government imposed an excess profits tax on large companies that performed the best during the pandemic, they would bear the largest burden, according to data from Canada’s parliamentary revenue estimator.
The country’s New Democratic Party, which sits to the left of the ruling Liberal Party, has been the most consistent advocate for an excess profits tax.
In April New Democratic Party member of Parliament Peter Julian asked the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer to estimate how much an excess profit tax on the most profitable companies during the pandemic would raise, using the country’s previous World War II-era excess profits tax as a model.
When Canada imposed an excess profits tax during WWII, it calculated the average yearly profits that companies earned between 1936 and 1939 and levied a 100% tax on anything exceeding that figure. Using that formula, the parliamentary budget officer investigated what would happen if Canada, which has a 15% corporate tax rate, doubled the rate on excess profits.
Excess profits would be those made in 2020 by firms that earned over C $10 million in revenue for at least one year between 2016 and 2020 and exceeded their expected 2020 profits, which the office calculated using each company’s average profit margin between 2014 and 2019.
If Canada followed this formula, it could raise C $7.9 billion, according to the office’s estimates. That said, there’s very little indication that an excess profits tax is on the table. The measure wasn’t included in the country’s 2021 budget, released in April.
It was resurrected as a campaign point during the September general election, but the New Democratic Party, which has long held a minority of seats in Parliament, underperformed in the election. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instead wants to rely on increased tax enforcement on businesses and the wealthy and to raise corporate tax rates on large financial institutions to 18%.
Before COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic, the U.K. Labour Party suggested the country should implement a windfall profits tax on oil companies. As the pandemic progressed, other stakeholders issued broader calls for a general business windfall tax.
In March the House of Commons Treasury Committee briefly analyzed the idea of a business windfall tax in a sprawling report, “Tax After Coronavirus,” that considered the country’s options for both COVID-19 recovery and general tax reform. Lawmakers asked private industry and civil society about the feasibility and wisdom of a windfall tax and emerged from the discussion skeptical about the future of a U.K. tax.
“There are downsides to a windfall tax, including its potentially retrospective nature. There would also be complexities, including the difficulties of identifying sectors to which any such tax should apply, ensuring that such a tax is fairly targeted at firms which have benefited excessively within those sectors, and identifying the element of a firm’s profits which could be reasonably attributed to excessive profits generated by the pandemic,” the report said.
The committee thought a windfall tax would be troublesome, but it also left the door open, adding that it might not “be impossible to introduce a windfall tax in certain circumstances in the future, if that was the political choice made.”
Wealth Taxes Gain More Traction
During the COVID-19 pandemic the ultrawealthy flocked to Singapore from all around the world, seeking a sophisticated, low-tax refuge in a time of chaos. But they wound up bringing chaos of their own, driving real estate prices to all-time highs amid a frenzy to put down roots.
According to Bloomberg, Singaporean authorities have been quietly asking high-net-worth individuals and the business community their opinions on wealth taxation. On one hand, the government is loath to disrupt the multimillionaire pilgrimage, but on the other hand, growing wealth inequality within the country may require creative wealth taxation, according to the head of Singapore’s central bank.
That creativity could arrive in the form of a property gains tax or inheritance tax — neither of which Singapore has — according to Ravi Menon, managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He shied away from proposing a net wealth tax, which historically has not performed well around the world.
In early November MP Jamus Lim offered the first concrete proposal: a graduated net wealth tax between 0.5 and 2% imposed on individual net worth in excess of SGD 10 million (about $7.4 million). Net wealth above SGD 10 million and up to SGD 50 million would be taxed at 0.5%, and wealth above SGD 50 million and up to SGD 1 billion would be taxed at 1%. Anything above SGD 1 billion would be assessed at 2%.
Latin America has embraced wealth taxation more than any other region during the pandemic, with several countries, including Bolivia and Argentina, introducing or expanding wealth taxes.
The next country to watch in the region is Colombia. In April lawmakers there introduced, as part of a broader tax reform package, legislation for a one-off wealth tax that would apply a 1% tax on net assets over the equivalent of $1.3 million and 2% on net assets over the equivalent of $4 million. The tax would apply in 2022 and 2023. However, the reform package was subsequently revised following public protest, and the wealth tax component was omitted. It is unclear where the idea stands.
Meanwhile, Belgium thought the COVID-19 pandemic presented a good opportunity to resurrect its controversial wealth tax on securities accounts. A securities tax was scrapped in 2019 after a Belgian high court found that it violated EU legal principles of equality and nondiscrimination and deemed it unconstitutional.
The country’s Constitutional Court found that the 0.15% tax contained some discriminatory exclusions, like real estate certificates, without a solid justification. The court also found that the tax applied unequally because individuals who own a share of an account can potentially avoid the tax if their share exceeds €500,000.
This time around, Belgium is applying a blanket tax on all securities accounts worth over €1 million — unlike the previous version, there are no exemptions. The government says the proceeds will be used to fund healthcare, but it remains to be seen whether this new provision will also be subject to legal challenge.
In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons Treasury Committee explicitly rejected the idea of an annual wealth tax, citing design and administration challenges as well as the fact that several other countries have abolished their wealth taxes because of administrative difficulties. As for a one-off wealth tax, the committee didn’t fully write off the idea, noting that “it could be used to raise significant revenue.”
The idea of a one-off tax has been floating around ever since a group of economists from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Warwick formed an independent wealth tax commission to evaluate the country’s revenue-raising options. In a December 2020 report they estimated the country could raise £260 billion over five years if it taxed individual wealth over £500,000 at a 1% rate and would raise £80 billion if it taxed wealth over £2 million.
There are design concerns with that proposal. It would likely hit middle-income earners because “wealth” for purposes of the tax would include main home values. There also are concerns over retrospectivity.
Beyond that, some worry that a one-off wealth tax would simply open a Pandora’s box if the tax is imposed and succeeds because the government could very well impose it again. For now, wealth tax conversations in the United Kingdom remain academic: The measure failed to make it into the U.K. annual budget, released October 27.
A similar phenomenon happened in Germany when the center-left Social Democratic Party, which won a plurality in the country’s recent parliamentary election, vowed to resurrect the country’s wealth tax, which had been struck down over constitutionality concerns. But because the Social Democratic Party lacks a governing majority, it is seeking a coalition with two other parties — the Alliance 90/The Greens and the Free Democratic Party — and has decided to abandon the wealth tax to make a coalition possible. So it remains an academic topic, perhaps to be resurrected at a later date.