The debates on taxation are reigniting. The country faces a narrow and not so clear path but will have to confront its taxation regime soon, there is absolutely no way of getting around that fact. Unlike other commentators, I believe that the options are wider than being espoused, even if not all positive, and the impetus for change will be “internal” rather than “external”. While confronting the tax regime does not necessarily means a change from a regressive to a more progressive one, there are attendant public policy matters that on careful analysis will lead to or will emerge because of that confrontation.
In March of this year, I wrote an extensive piece under the heading “A Taxing Affair Ahead”. The latter portion of that piece dealt with the matter of taxation policy and the pressures that could influence a shift to include the implementation of income/corporation tax. Since then an election has come and gone and available information suggest, with greater certainty, that there is little or no desire for exploring any other forms of taxation, despite whatever compelling reasons might exist. The big question is whether this position is tenable and if not what flexibilities are available to the country in the face of this reluctance.
I wrote in March “In the heights of the crisis, a prominent economist first raised the idea of the possibility of The Bahamas entering into an IMF arrangement. The response then of the Governor of the Central Bank is very instructive. In seeking to assuage the tension created by that statement he declared that before creditors get hurt taxes will be levied (paraphrase). Prominent commentators have out-rightly stated that there is a need for income tax or lament the inequity of the current regressive tax regime or the inadequacy of the current regime in financing government programs. There have been questions posed to policy makers as to whether income tax will be (or at least should be) considered. It would appear that at least in certain quarters the conversation around income taxes is becoming a bit more comfortable and definitely more serious.”
The excitement has since died down with a general acceptance that a structural adjustment program off the cards. In my mind, the fundamental issue on which the matter of taxation should turn has not changed. The country has a massive debt burden, narrow fiscal space and very limited government revenue compared to its debt obligations, weakening national infrastructure and increasing demands for public goods and services. The Prime Minister foreshadowed this when he stated the desire to increase government revenue to 25% of GDP. Taking into consideration that approximately 18% of government revenues goes to service debt. Considering that over $2B in principal debt repayment is due within a short time horizon and the current budget deficit remains largely unfunded. The question that ought to be troubling our minds is not whether the EU/US/OECD will force the country to adopt corporation tax but rather where will the funds come from to honour these obligations, run the country sustainably, invest in infrastructure for future growth and secure resiliency to stave of the perennial vulnerabilities it faces.
Back in March I stated, “It is my view that despite the lack of direct responses from the political directorate, the time is here for a real shift in the tax regime. The current circumstances [the economic realities of the country] would dictate that we take hold of the “boogeyman bag” [taxation], so as not to bring greater harm to a very vulnerable segment of poor persons. Nevertheless, even if that bag is rejected there may be increases in some other areas if the larger concerns surrounding debt default and entrance into structural programs are to be circumvented. I believe that the near term, the future of The Bahamas rests significantly in the strategic moves that will be made over the next few months. It is for this reason that I cite the obvious “election season” given the propensity for shifts in policy positions or delays in making decisions which may be inconsistent with the desired outcomes of parties. It is easy to accept that in close proximity to an election the likelihood of tax increases becomes difficult to imagine.” Leading into the election both major political parties stated unequivocally that there would be no tax increases with the eventual victor, The PLP, promising to reduce VAT. This signals very clearly how the political directorate is reading the Bahamian appetite for new taxes of any form. The subsequent implementation of the VAT reduction though should be instructive. The reality is that, with an eye on the deficit, any tax movements that reduces revenue is not on the cards, it’s simply not in the interest of the country at this time to deplete any revenue source.
The challenges are real and difficult. One have to honestly and objectively accept that the critical mass of debt; the emergence of external pressures; the consistent debilitating trends in downgrades and the tension between party objective and what is in the best interest of the country have placed enormous pressure of the policy makers to create a balance. I opined back then “It is also easy to accept that any administration shepherding the change to income tax, or foreshadowing the same, is likely to suffer a significant level of disfavor from the citizenry. The possibility therefore of any movement in this area, within the next twelve months, is therefore minuscule. Note however that none of the major parties will explicitly state that income tax is off the table. Any such declaration would be out rightly irresponsible and lacking in careful forethought. The players are aware and therefore, while I believe they will work hard to find ways of not going this route, will not be definitive in excluding the option. Ultimately, regardless of the changes to the level of tax levied under the current system it suffers important weaknesses to be able to sit squarely on the four principles of a good taxation system - fairness, certainty, convenience and efficiency. Commentators, policy makers and others readily state that the current tax regime is inequitable. We readily accept this and the fact that it is also insufficient, either in absolute terms or because of the level of effectiveness in its administration. A regressive tax regime in an environment where economic scarcity (persons suffering longer term from economic fallout) is prominent will always fail to meet the fairness (equitable) criteria.”
To fairness, certainty, convenience and efficiency I added sufficiency. There is no argument about the current tax regime. It is dominantly regressive and consequently it is always going to be inequitable by nature. Other principles in The Bahamas are arguable. Convenience has certainly improved and is improving, we are fully aware of why we pay certain taxes and the basis of payments. Efficiency though remains questionable. Are we at our best in administration of the existing tax regime therefore guaranteeing optimal effect? Based on ongoing public pronouncements the answer appears to be no and would therefore affect the sufficiency argument. Is the country leaving significant amounts on the table, uncollected, improperly collected, collected and leached? However that pans out the result of our perennial deficits suggest clearly that government revenue and consequently the regime, as currently structured, is insufficient to meet the country’s needs. It is for this reason, following recent record deficits, that I posit the idea that the internal drivers for reform of the tax regime are much stronger than the suggestions of external bodies.
These were my views in the March piece “Chief amongst the challenges faced by the country are debt and threats by external organizations. The state of the country’s debt draws our attention to what could emerge should there be no rebound. As noted above there have been important questions raised by many about the sustainability of the country’s debt. With national revenues where they are today and the challenges we have (temporary but there will be lingering effects) creditor’s well-being will at least put adverse pressure on the provision of other public goods and services. In other words, creditors must be paid first as the country will never jeopardize its credit rating by defaulting on debt. That simply does not happen in this region. In the recent budget presentation, it was revealed that government revenue to GDP is in the region of 14%. This is relatively low, definitely an impact of the downturn. However, historically the Bahamas has always lagged its peers in this metric. The longstanding, and recently renewed, discussion has been the need to increase that to 20% [PM recently stated 25%]. If this is correct and necessary, the question is how we will get there. One thing I am confident of is that we should all start getting prepared to pay a little bit more. The only way to get there, in the face of all we have discussed to this point, will be through new taxes, and unless it can be shown that more effective administration can and will produce the difference between the two yields.”
With debt servicing eroding the productive capacity of the current narrow revenue space, and likely to increase, we have to come to grips with where we go from here. The path to increase taxation yields is obvious. Recent pronouncements by two influential commentators, James Smith and Gowon Bowe, are instructive, important but largely externally focused. Given my observation that the Bahamian psyche is conditioned to readily reject external pressures it is may be useful to turn the conversation inward for greater effect. To Gowon Bowe’s point failing to protect the financial services industry, to have a clear strategy for the inevitable broadening of any external initiative will ultimately result in reduced revenue. Further, the inability to generate higher levels of government revenue will place debt ratings at risk and increase roll over risk, which if we were to admit it is already very high. The regressive tax regime appears to be unsustainable for the future but a progressive one will be highly disruptive to the country’s value proposition, the main concern of James Smith. Note though that we must accept that the ability to fund the current and any future deficit holds direct influence from the willingness to demonstrate a broadening of tax revenue.
While there is influence, observe carefully that I state none of the preceding points from the perspective of the EU/US/OECD 15% minimum corporation tax initiative. This is all about where The Bahamas is and what needs to be done to protect and fix The Bahamas. These are concerns that must actively occupy our minds as a country. We must accept that the decisions are not easy by any means. We must further accepts confronting them is an ideal but not mandatory. However, we must also agree and accept that the consequences of whatever actions are taken, or not taken, hold very serious implications for the ambitions of a recovered, resilient and sustainable economy. As an economic organism, everything must and will balance in the end. The simple accounting formula is instructive here - income less expenditure equals surplus/ (deficit). In the case of the country, every point in this formula is dictated by public policy, whether explicit or derived. I anticipate that despite the vicious balance act required the administration will make the policy adjustments that best serves the country.
In Part II, I will consider specifically the major points made in the recent debate around the EU 15% Minimum Corporation Tax Initiative.
© Hubert Edwards 2021
Hubert Edwards is the Principal of Next Level Solutions Limited (NLS), a management consultancy firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hubert specializes in governance, risk and compliance (GRC), Accounting and Finance. NLS provides services in the areas of enterprise risk management, internal audit and policy and procedures development, regulatory consulting, anti-money laundering, accounting and strategic planning. This and other articles are available at www.nlsolutionsbahamas.com.