Tag Archives: fiscal policy

VAT And China’s Other Taxing Problems

CHINA STARTED TO replace its Business Tax with a value-added tax (VAT) in 2012 when a pilot scheme was launched in Shanghai. VAT has since been steadily expanded, both geographically and sectorally.

Earlier this month, following an executive meeting of the State Council, chaired by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, plans were announced for streamlining the administration of VAT and acknowledging that it has become a universal national tax.

The service sector first saw the tax in May last year when it was applied to property, financial and consumer services sectors. At the same time, VAT was extended fully nationwide.

Authorities say that between then and June, the switch to VAT has saved businesses 85 billion yuan ($12.8 billion) in taxes, providing an important boost to the ‘rebalancing’ of the economy towards consumption. Total tax savings since the pilot scheme started is put at 1.6 trillion yuan.

In July, the four VAT brackets (17%, 13%, 11% and 6%) were reduced to three with the elimination of the 13% bracket. Agricultural products, tap water, publications and several other ‘13%’ goods were moved down to the 11% bracket, though that still leaves more VAT tiers than the international average.

The new plans foresee digitization of the tax system, simplifying procedures for tax filing and switching from physical to electronic versions of the invoices-cum-receipts (fapiao) that serve as legal proof of purchase for goods and services. Fapiao are a key component of enforced compliance with China’s tax law as they compel companies to pay tax in advance on future sales.

The VAT fapiao is also used for tax deduction purposes within VAT, so digitising the whole process should streamline the accounting.

The tax is still referred to as “the VAT reform pilot program” though that status as a pilot looks like ending de jure as well as de facto; the State Council executive meeting also indicated that more detailed national VAT legislation would be forthcoming.

There is more work to be done on standardising it as a national tax. There are still inconsistencies between sectors in the rates applied to the same goods and services. Also, some tax payers are not able to make full VAT deductions. A further issue to address is compliance costs for taxpayers with multiple business locations.

One major issue that a national VAT does not address is how the tax take is shared at the provincial level. (Germany and Japan, for example, use allocation rules based on population and aggregate consumption, respectively.)

However, China has a bigger problem of fiscal redistribution to tackle. The country has the largest share of local government spending in the world, largely because public services and the social safety net (health, education, welfare, etc.) are centrally mandated but delivered and paid for at the local level. Many federal countries decentralise their social insurance system, but China is a rarity in having both its public pension system and unemployment insurance managed at the local level.

Yet, since the fiscal reforms of 1994, provinces and municipalities have negligible revenue raising powers of their own. Further, although 60% of taxes are collected by local government, those taxes are handed over to central government with some to be returned via revenue-sharing and other transfer schemes through rules that are still not completely transparent.

Transfers from the central government were supposed fully to finance local-government deficits since provinces and municipalities were barred from issuing debt.  In practice, however, local governments were given increasingly large unfunded mandates. Because of the prohibition on issuing debt, they resorted to selling land and using off-budget special-purpose vehicles to borrow and spend on infrastructure, starting the infamous local-government debt bomb ticking.

Local governments debt had reached the equivalent of around 40% of GDP by 2015.

A fiscal reform plan was announced in 2016 to address the misalignment, but it will take a comprehensive imposition of taxes such a market-value-based property tax, local surcharges to personal income tax and maybe even an additional provincial-level VAT — though that is difficult technically to administer; few if any countries have pulled it off.

It will also mean converting the pilot scheme for issuing and trading municipal debt started in 2014 when back door borrowing through special-purpose vehicles was banned, into a national muni-bond market. That, in turn, will require broader financial-system reforms.

Those are proceeding at a cautious, measured pace. Short-term stability and state-centric control is the current leadership’s instinctive approach. That may change after the forthcoming Party congress, but, more likely, it will not. In that context, streamlining VAT to puts greater taxation capacity in Beijing’s hands makes political as well as economic sense.


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Steady As She Goes For China’s Economy In 2013

China’s annual two-day closed door economic policy-setting conference has concluded with a cautious weather eye again being cast to the squalls of the global economy next year. Policy will be kept as is, not unexpectedly, but with room for maneuver in both fiscal and monetary policy reserved should the global economy deteriorate.

Rising protectionism, inflation and asset bubbles are listed as the main risks along with the longer running lack of demand in China’s export markets in the rich countries. Beijing will target 7.5% GDP growth for 2013, the same as this year. Monetary policy will remain modestly expansive, with a hand being kept on the bank lending and public spending taps ready to open or close them a turn as necessary. Property controls will remain and the yuan held steady.

The conference seems to have said all the right things about economic reform. The country will push forward with the next stage of economic reforms “with greater political courage and wisdom,” state media reported. That, though, is more difficult to deliver than economic targets.

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China’s Falling Inflation Still Demands Policy Caution

April’s consumer price inflation numbers released Friday follow weak trade and industrial production figures that all point to the slowdown in China’s economy continuing. The question is whether that slowdown is running to plan, or whether it is slowing more rapidly than the authorities would like, and thus requires a policy response to stimulate growth.

Outside commentators are leaning increasingly towards expecting that given the recent sets of monthly economic indicators, particularly those for inflation. The consumer price index (CPI) came in at 3.4% for April, down from March’s 3.6% and below the government’s 4% target for the third consecutive month. Yet, to this Bystander, the central bank’s warning earlier this week that inflation is falling but not yet stable suggests authorities will continue to be cautious about loosening monetary or fiscal policy.

The chain reaction that would cause a hard landing to the economy is a property bubble burst causing the local government debt bubble to burst, triggering a banking crisis, triggering a financial crisis, triggering an economic crisis, triggering a social crisis. Managing down the property bubble, as the first line of defense, has been the policy priority.  It has has some success in lowering home prices and reining in speculative building. Year-to-date property investment, at 18.7% is down from 34% in the same period a year earlier. But that growth rate still shows how much more there is to do.

If that doesn’t provide policymakers with reason for caution, then the suicide bombing of a government office in Yunnan earlier this week over an allegedly uncompensated land seizure, unusually prominently reported if only the most dramatic of increasingly common violent protests over land evictions, provides them with a stark and tragic reminder of what lies at the other end of the chain if the property bubble isn’t let down in a controlled way.

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April’s PMI Points To China’s Growth Slowdown Moderating

The flash (preliminary) HSBC purchasing managers’ index (PMI) for April came in at a two-months high of 49.1, 0.8 points higher than the final reading for March and reversing a five-months decline. Any number below 50 signals contraction; above, expansion. So factory activity remains sluggish, but not as sluggish as in recent months.

The HSBC index is weighted towards export-dependent small- and medium-sized manufacturers, and usually shows a lower number than the official PMI, which better reflects the activity at large companies.  The April number suggests that the increased bank lending that the central bank has allowed over the past month or so, even for small companies, is having some effect on moderating the slowdown in growth. The contraction in new orders is slowing and exports orders increase to a three-months high reflecting the modest recovery being seen in the U.S.  Even though the latest PMI figure will helping to ease concerns of a sharp slowdown in growth, we expect the central bank to remain measured about further easing of both monetary and fiscal fronts.

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China Formally Switches Monetary Policy To What It Already Is

The newly announced switch from the current “moderately loose” monetary policy to that old favorite, “prudent”, next year is no more than a formal anointment of what has been going on for months: the withdrawal of the 4 trillion yuan ($600 billion) monetary stimulus to combat 2008’s global financial crisis to be replaced by the 2010 focus on the battle against inflation. The statement followed a Politburo meeting reviewing the new 5-year plan that starts next year.

Easy credit led to a lending boom that the central bank is now striving to rein in through reduced loan quotas, interest rate hikes and increases in banks’ reserve requirements. At the same time it has been introducing measures to reduce the demand for property, the final destination of much of the new lending. Yet inflation hit a 25-month high of 4.4% year-on-year in October and is expected to have been higher in November, way above the target of 3% and despite moves to reverse food price rises which account for about a third of the inflation number.

The brakes are being applied but not too abruptly. Growth has been slowed to 9.6% year-on-year in the third quarter, down from 10.3% in the second and 11.9% in the first. Beijing won’t want to see the economy decelerating for much longer, and will want to see it remaining robust enough to absorb further interest-rate rises and increases in banks’ reserve ratios. The Politburo left policymakers plenty of room to fine tune: macro-regulation should be more “targeted, flexible and effective” while fiscal policy  should be “proactive”, the statement said. Proactive fiscal policy might just mean the introduction of a property tax, as a new IMF Working Paper recommends.

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China’s Economy in 2010: Steady And Uneasily As She Goes

This year’s Economic Work Conference, the annual top-level economic policy meeting, was as much about politics as economics, though that can be said most years. Creating socially stabilizing jobs was the focus, not that China is alone in that, and particularly rural jobs to absorb the migrant labor left jobless by the slump in the export manufacturing sector.

Few concrete policy details have emerged from the closed door meeting yet; they rarely do immediately but there was a broad commitment to keep the stimulus going in what will be the final year of the current five-year plan and last full year of the Hu-Wen leadership. Monetary policy will be kept loose, despite the central bank having being gently reining that in for some months. Fiscal policy will be “proactive”, which presumably means an extension of tax breaks that have been so beneficial to industries such as car making and to a lesser extent export manufacturers. In particular, more public money will be pumped into the countryside to raise demand there and thus the need for local jobs.

But as a sign of the fragility of the reaccelerating of growth seen this year, industries suffering from overcapacity will continue to see excess production capacity stripped out, under the guise of modernization and consolidation, much as we have been seeing with energy intensive and polluting industries over the past several years. New industrial investment will be kept “moderate”, according to Xinhua‘s post-meeting report.

If anything, industrial overcapacity is getting worse, especially in steel and cement making. That is not what should be being seen if recovery was on a solidly sustainable footing. And it goes to the heart of the problem China faces in growing its way out of a slowdown through investment spending, the central planner’s go-to policy response.

It is unsustainable and becomes an increasingly inefficient way to grow. Other countries might end up building bridges to nowhere, but in China state spending flows through state-controlled banks to state-owned enterprises and thus potentially deflationary industrial overcapacity.

Switching spending from investment to consumption, as we have noted before, is no easy task. Joblessness is one of the political costs of not being able to do so. Next year will see more expensive tending to the symptons and not enough curing of the underlying disease. Investors haven’t priced that into equities yet, but they will, possibly the hard way.


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