Personal Income Tax

Personal Income Tax
Any discussion of personal income tax in developing countries must start with the observation that this tax has yielded relatively little revenue in most of these countries and that the number of individuals subject to this tax (especially at the highest marginal rate) is small. The rate structure of the personal income tax is the most visible policy instrument available to most governments in developing countries to underscore their commitment to social justice and hence to gain political support for their policies. Countries frequently attach great importance to maintaining some degree of nominal progressivity in this tax by applying many rate brackets, and they are reluctant to adopt reforms that will reduce the number of these brackets.
More often than not, however, the effectiveness of rate progressivity is severely undercut by high personal exemptions and the plethora of other exemptions and deductions that benefit those with high incomes (for example, the exemption of capital gains from tax, generous deductions for medical and educational expenses, the low taxation of financial income). Tax relief through deductions is particularly egregious because these deductions typically increase in the higher tax brackets. Experience compellingly suggests that effective rate progressivity could be improved by reducingthe degree of nominal rate progressivity and the number of brackets andreducing exemptions and deductions. Indeed, any reasonable equity objective would require no more than a few nominal rate brackets in the personal income tax structure. If political constraints prevent a meaningful restructuring of rates, a substantial improvement in equity could still be achieved by replacing deductions with tax credits, which could deliver the same benefits to taxpayers in all tax brackets.
The effectiveness of a high marginal tax rate is also much reduced by its often being applied at such high levels of income (expressed in shares of per capita GDP) that little income is subject to these rates. In some developing countries, a taxpayer's income must be hundreds of times the per capita income before it enters the highest rate bracket.
Moreover, in some countries the top marginal personal income tax rate exceeds the corporate income tax by a significant margin, providing strong incentives for taxpayers to choose the corporate form of doing business for purely tax reasons. Professionals and small entrepreneurs can easily siphon off profits through expense deductions over time and escape the highest personal income tax permanently. A tax delayed is a tax evaded. Good tax policy, therefore, ensures that the top marginal personal income tax rate does not differ materially from the corporate income tax rate.
In addition to the problem of exemptions and deductions tending to narrow the tax base and to negate effective progressivity, the personal income tax structure in many developing countries is riddled with serious violations of the two basic principles of good tax policy: symmetry and inclusiveness. (It goes without saying, of course, that tax policy should also be guided by the general principles of neutrality, equity, and simplicity.) The symmetry principle refers to the identical treatment for tax purposes of gains and losses of any given source of income. If the gains are taxable, then the losses should be deductible. The inclusiveness principle relates to capturing an income stream in the tax net at some point along the path of that stream. For example, if a payment is exempt from tax for a payee, then it should not be a deductible expense for the payer. Violating these principles generally leads to distortions and inequities.
The tax treatment of financial income is problematic in all countries. Two issues dealing with the taxation of interest and dividends in developing countries are relevant:
  • In many developing countries, interest income, if taxed at all, is taxed as a final withholding tax at a rate substantially below both the top marginal personal and corporate income tax rate. For taxpayers with mainly wage income, this is an acceptable compromise between theoretical correctness and practical feasibility. For those with business income, however, the low tax rate on interest income coupled with full deductibility of interest expenditure implies that significant tax savings could be realized through fairly straightforward arbitrage transactions. Hence it is important to target carefully the application of final withholding on interest income: final withholding should not be applied if the taxpayer has business income.
  • The tax treatment of dividends raises the well-known double taxation issue. For administrative simplicity, most developing countries would be well advised either to exempt dividends from the personal income tax altogether, or to tax them at a relatively low rate, perhaps through a final withholding tax at the same rate as that imposed on interest income.

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