Friday 2 December 2016

Tax and trade barriers

Trump's potential incoming Commerce guy, Wilbur Ross, has a bizarre take on sales taxes. And it might mean that New Zealand should rethink how we treat imports and exports in GST. 
Ross co-authored an economic policy paper that proposed renegotiating NAFTA and included a call for combating the use of foreign consumption taxes that render American-made goods less competitive. Trump echoed the paper’s views in campaign speeches.
The document argued that foreign countries offer a sales-tax rebate on their own goods shipped abroad, but then tax incoming products from the U.S., which does not have a value-added tax. The net effect, he said, is to invite U.S. companies to relocate.
“Like many countries, Mexico has shrewdly exploited the (value-added tax) backdoor tariff to further its competitive advantage,” Ross wrote in the 31-page paper, co-authored in September with University of California business professor Peter Navarro.
“It is thus not surprising that U.S. corporations want to move their factories offshore and then export their products back to the U.S.”
Canada's GST is a mess, but even then it's tough to see how the heck this works. If a US manufacturer makes things in the US and sells in the US, no GST applies because the US has no GST. If it exports to Canada, GST applies on sales in Canada. If the plant moves to Canada and sells in Canada, GST applies on sales in Canada, but not on exports to the US - exactly the same as if it were US-based.

So the whole thing is nuts.

But that's not a constraint on Trumpist economics. And so what should New Zealand think about this? We have a clean GST that's charged on a point-of-consumption basis: imports draw GST (barring the GST-free threshold for low-value imports), but exports are zero-rated.

If a Trump administration thinks that's a trade barrier, they're nuts - but their being nuts doesn't much matter. It can take the WTO a long time to slap back stupid things the Americans decide to do, and who knows whether Trump would agree to pay whatever penalties they'd impose anyway.

But there is a workaround that solves another problem at the same time.

Last year, Seamus found a beautiful solution to local retailer complaints about GST on imports. The retailers association gets real mad about the de minimus threshold for imports. In their view, it makes an unfair playing field. The 15% GST difference is absolutely trivial relative to the cost difference between local retail and direct-to-consumer imports in way too many cases for the de minimus threshold to be distorting things, but doing away with it would serve as a big barrier against imports because there's no clean way of applying at the border without wrecking direct-to-consumer imports.

Except for Seamus's solution.

Seamus reminded us of Lerner symmetry. A tax on imports (like GST) is identical to a tax on exports - they're both taxes on trade, effectively. Long run, imports match exports. So flipping from taxing imports to taxing exports causes a one-off drop in the exchange rate equivalent to the tax, but doesn't mess anything else up. And so he argued that New Zealand should shift to zero-rating imports, which are tough to police at the border anyway, and apply GST to exports. The price of all exports would go up by that 15%, but we face world prices: that means the value of the dollar drops. I'll quote Seamus in full here:
My proposal will not just deal with the distortion that purchases by consumers that are made directly from overseas through on-line retailing receive a favourable tax treatment relative to those that are processed through an importer. It will also deal with a larger distortion in the GST. As it currently stands, the GST applied to imports does not apply to purchases made by New Zealanders while travelling overseas, and similarly the zero-rating of exports does not apply to the sale of services to foreign tourists while in New Zealand. That is, the current GST regime favours overseas tourism by New Zealanders over other imports, and penalises the New Zealand tourism industry relative to other exports.

So here is my proposal: Completely exempt all imports from the GST, and at the same time stop zero-rating exports and require firms to charge GST on all sales, including those to foreigners. Retail New Zealand should be happy, they would no longer be treated in differently from overseas on-line sellers in their tax treatment in New Zealand. And firms selling both overseas and in New Zealand would be happy to no longer have to have separate out sales overseas and domestic sales when filing their tax returns.

This idea runs completely counter to our inner mercantilist instincts, but our instincts don’t cope well with general-equilibrium reasoning. In my experience the greatest eye-opening moment you can give students in economics—the sort of epiphany that has them changing instantly from “this is obviously wrong” to “this is obviously right” is the Lerner symmetry theorem,  which shows that an import tax is exactly equivalent to an export tax. The idea here is that a tax on exports or imports is really a tax on trade. In the long-run, the present value of exports has to equal the present value of imports, as they are just opposite sides of the equals sign in a budget constraint. A tax on exports is a tax on imports, as it shifts resources away from producing for overseas (with the consequent importing from overseas that that allows) to producing for local consumption. (I was told that, during the Muldoon era, Treasury, knowing that it could not pursuade Muldoon to reduce tarrifs encouraged him in his policy of export subsidies, knowing that the latter would counteract the former.)

In a country with a floating exchange rate, the way that the Lerner equivalence theorem would play out if it were to adopt the change from levying the GST on imports to levying it on exports, would be through a depreciation of the currency by the amount of the GST. So sure exporters would have to put up their prices to foreigners in NZ dollars by 15%, but the goods would not seem to be more expensive to foreigners because of the 15% depreciation. Similarly, the 15% GST coming off imports would be offset by the depreciation. In general, therefore, there would be no change, but with a few exceptions. On-line purchases would become 15% more expensive in NZ dollars due to the depreciation with no offsetting change in taxes. Trips overseas would similarly become 15% more expensive, but at the same time, New Zealand would become a far cheaper place for foreigners to visit, again.
It's a clean solution for the online GST / import issue, but seemed politically difficult. If the incoming US administration thinks that zero-rated exports are some kind of trade distortion warranting sanction, though, we could flip to zero-rating imports and taxing exports. Ta-dah. Trump's inner mercantilist will love us for it, and we know it makes no difference. Like Seamus's example on Muldoon.

I thank @TrevorTombe for the pointer. He's a convert to Seamus's beautiful tax idea. You should be too.

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