Friday, June 6, 2014

The new value-added tax (VAT) proposal

Budget 2014/2015: Answering the questions on VAT

Last week, the prime minister of The Bahamas delivered his budget communication to the House of Assembly. As expected, the speech and details of the aforesaid communication attracted a lot of attention from the Bahamian people as we sought information and clarity on the plans of the government for the new fiscal year. Chief among our interests in the communication was the specific details on the proposed value-added tax (VAT) regime.

There is no doubt that we now possess more information on how VAT will be implemented in The Bahamas and some level of certainty has been provided to the private sector and the Bahamian public as a whole. In this piece, we take a look at what we now know, analyze some initial commentary and responses, as well as determine the questions that ought to be answered as we move toward the implementation of VAT.

The government’s position

After over a year of extensive deliberations, engagement of myriad experts, multiple reports commissioned by the various stakeholders and sometimes emotional debates on fiscal and tax reform, the government has specified that VAT will be introduced at one single rate of 7.5 percent effective January 1, 2015.

The announced positions were driven by consultations with the private sector and other stakeholders and reflected compromises on the part of the government after having proposed a standard rate of 15 percent, a special rate of 10 percent and an implementation date of July 1, 2014.

Additionally, it is anticipated that fewer exemptions than originally proposed will be granted and the Ministry of Finance will have the necessary resources by October 1, 2014. In this regard, the government ought to be commended for keeping its promise of working with the private sector and taking their concerns into consideration in making the final decision.

The new VAT proposal also entails a VAT-inclusive pricing system to simplify price comparisons by consumers and more favorable procedures for accounting and tax credits, as well as refunds to accommodate small businesses.

Based on the lower rate at which VAT will be introduced, there will not be a wide-scale reduction in import duties and excise taxes during this budget cycle. However, the government has indicated its willingness to revisit these taxes in the next fiscal year as The Bahamas moves closer to accession to the World Trade Organization.

The impact of VAT on government finances

The acknowledgment of the importance of curbing government expenditure and the deficient nature of our current tax system in the budget communication is welcomed.

It is hoped that this will translate into a calculated and focused effort to ensure a more efficient allocation of taxpayers’ funds and the effective collection of taxes by the government going forward. This is vital as the fiscal predicament of our country cannot and should not be addressed solely from the revenue side. The government must remain resolute in the implementation of its fiscal consolidation plan.

It was noted in the budget communication that tax revenue as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) for The Bahamas is expected to be about 17.1 percent in 2013/14 which is significantly lower than the global average and lags behind the regional norm.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average tax to GDP ratio in OECD countries was 34.6 percent in 2012. While this suggests that we have the capacity to increase tax yield to meet the demands on government, the rise ought to be gradual and calculated to ensure sustained economic growth and to avoid a distortion of the economy.

That being said, VAT is expected to only slightly enhance revenue yield by 1.5 per cent of GDP in 2014/15 based on the date of implementation, while other revenue measures outlined in the communication are expected to increase revenue by 2.7 percent of GDP in 2014/15 with a resultant improvement in overall tax yield as a percentage of GDP from 17.1 percent to 19.8 percent.

Are there any winners or losers?

It was recently reported that the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in its Caribbean Region Quarterly Bulletin had suggested that The Bahamas has “further worsened its potential” to be downgraded by one or two notches by international credit rating agencies due to the postponement of the implementation of VAT.

This report highlights the potential risks to the maintenance of our investment-grade rating and further drives home the point that has been reiterated over the last two years – that we need to urgently address the fiscal challenges confronting us as a nation.

The positive side in this discussion is that as we now know that VAT will definitely be implemented at the specified rate at a specific date; this should dispel any doubts in the minds of international rating agencies as to whether we will be proceeding with tax reform. When combined with the downward trajectory of our GFS deficit evidenced by a reduction in the GFS deficit to 5.4 percent of GDP in 2013/14 compared with 6.3 percent for 2012/13, international rating agencies should be comforted that the government is committed to fiscal reform; after all S&P had indicated earlier that our overall fiscal plan will guide any decisions on revisions to The Bahamas’ rating.

Against this backdrop, it is obvious that we cannot approach the issues of fiscal and tax reform from a win or lose perspective based on the interest group we belong to. Rather, we must seek the best formula and optimum strategy to address an issue of significant implications for our commonwealth.

It is difficult sometimes to understand the rationale for certain commentaries that appear to ignore this reality. The decision of the government not to carry out any wide-scale reduction of custom duties with the implementation of VAT, while it has invoked some commentary, could be understood in the initial implementation phase of VAT. It is often said that the devil you know is better than the angel that you don’t; hence, the government must exercise prudence and conservatism so as not to further worsen the country’s fiscal position in the event that actual revenues from VAT are not in line with projections.

The other important details

Now that we have the most important details on VAT, there is other specific information that should be provided as soon as possible to enable proper preparation for the new tax system. It is important that the full list of exemptions (which are expected to be fewer than initially proposed) is released.

In this regard, the discussions with sectors that will be impacted by this new proposal should be expedited by the government. While we do not expect wide-scale reductions in custom duties, the planned reductions should be communicated to stakeholders and the general public in a timely manner to allow for the necessary internal changes.

Industry-specific guidelines on VAT would also be very helpful in simplifying the information contained in the VAT legislation and assist businesses with VAT compliance.

Concurrently and in the lead-up to the implementation date, more information should be provided on the reforms to the social welfare system aimed at minimizing the impact of VAT on lower income families.

Finally, the proposed public education campaign which will entail private sector involvement must now commence without delay. The clock is ticking and even though it seems like we have a lot of time before VAT implementation, there is much work to be done.

• Arinthia S. Komolafe is an attorney-at-law. Comments on this article can be directed to 

June 03, 2014