Slow Out of the Gate

19 August 2015, 20:26

Tax reforms are still under construction in Ukraine. As planned, they should come to fruition with the institution of a fundamentally new tax system starting January 1, 2016. Prior to that, the planned reforms will also have to get a green light from the Verkhovna Rada, which is supposed to get the necessary bill to debate and vote on by the end of autumn. At this time, key elements of this new system are being discussed in expert circles. And although the press is receiving precious little information about the changes to the tax system, tax specialists have already worked up quite a few elements. From them, we can begin to piece together an outline of Ukraine’s future tax system.

The change-It Team

Tax reform is one of the key factors to improving the investment climate, whose potential impact on economic growth in Ukraine is hard to exaggerate. Without any doubt, Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, who has been put in charge of this transformation, understands this very well. She is currently in charge of the Tax Reform Task Force, which is collecting all propositions for changes coming from civil society, analyzing best practice in other countries, adapting them to the circumstances in Ukraine, and working up a model that will work best for this country.

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In effect, the Task Force is where the decisions regarding tax reforms are being made, decisions that will determine how business-friendly the new system is and how effectively it fosters economic development. The way the work of this team is organized so far has a number of pluses and minuses. The first obvious plus is that it includes more than just fiscal experts. Of its 20-odd members, only 3 work in the State Fiscal Service (SFS), another 3 work in the Economy and Finance Ministries, and 5 are members of the Verkhovna Rada. Clearly the Government has learned a lesson from last year’s farce, when the only people involved in changing the Tax Code were from the State Tax Administration and produced a predictable result that effectively included no systemic changes. In short, there is a good chance that the position that President Poroshenko presented in his State of the Nation address before the Verkhovna Rada—that the focus on taxes needed to be switched from their fiscal function to their incentivizing one—will be implemented.

Secondly, the team includes foreign advisors who not only have in-depth understanding of the nature of successful tax reforms in other countries but, such as former Slovak Deputy Premier Ivan Miklos, actually initiated transformations of this nature and personally put them into practice in their own countries. Their experience will clearly stand in good stead.

Thirdly, the task force includes 5 representatives of civil society and the business community, including the largest associations of foreign businesses in Ukraine: the European Business Association (EBA) and the American Chamber of Commerce (ACC). This means that the opinions of both society at large and business in particular will be heard, something that has so far been a very rare occurrence in Ukraine.

Among the flies in the ointment of the Task Forces’ approach, two stand out. For one thing, it also includes two representatives from the IMF, which means that radical reforms that might lead to short-term losses in terms of filling the Treasury but might translate into stronger economic growth in the three- to five-year perspective are not likely to happen. The IMF will not support any initiative that might create additional risks to budget revenues. On the other hand, the representation of foreign businesses in the shape of the EBA and ACC without direct representation of domestic businesses—one might be glad that the oligarchs aren’t represented, although some of the MPs could indirectly be promoting their interests—could result in a concept for the new tax system that is too skewed in favor of foreign business.

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In short, the Tax Reform Task Force’s work could either bring exceptional results or extremely unsatisfactory ones. It includes fiscal specialists who know the system from within, but may not know what it should be like; civil society, which has a good idea of the kind of tax system the country needs, but doesn’t always understand the instruments with which this might be achieved; foreigners who have a good sense of the nuances of the best tax reforms, but do not know much about how things work in Ukraine; deputies who will likely inject some elements of populism, which will likely get the rest of the team up in arms. If all these sides prove to be a good fit, the results should be very good. But if they deliberately become destructive, then none of these groups will be able to launch the right kind of tax reform, no matter how much they might want it.

Pressure points

Ukraine’s new tax system needs to be based on a number principles that work well in other countries, while not rejecting certain principles that acknowledge the way things are in this country.

Paradoxically, some key tax reform success factors are beyond the country’s reach right now. For instance, last year’s Global Competitiveness Report ranked Ukraine 138th among 144 countries for wastefulness—read, embezzlement—in budget spending. The immediate impact of this is that Ukrainians trust neither the government nor government officials and so they don’t pay their lawful taxes, justly arguing that the money won’t be put to proper use anyway. In this kind of situation, even ideal tax reforms will not succeed if the state fails to learn to manage taxpayer contributions in an efficient, thrifty manner, because ordinary Ukrainians will continue to distrust it and not pay taxes.

This means that reforms to the tax system need to go hand-in-hand with reduced budget expenditures, transparent state procurements, and a maximal reduction of corruption among bureaucrats, who are, after all, hired by the public and whose salaries are paid for with taxpayer contributions. For the new tax system to become effective the minute it is launched, Ukraine needs to also complete the lion’s share of other, no less important reforms simultaneously, by the end of this year.

Another cornerstone to effective tax reforms is changing the mentality of tax and customs personnel. As in most developing countries that also have a totalitarian past, people in these professions effectively belong to the policing arm of government, wear uniforms with epaulettes, and so on. Typically, their attitudes fall into two categories: either “All businesses steal from the state whose interests we tirelessly defend, so we put pressure on them…” or “Anything can be arranged for the right sum of money or orders from above.” They have no awareness that they are hired by their society and are supported at public cost—and never did.

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In short, reform needs to not just filter out the personnel in the State Fiscal Service, within reasonable limits that still need to be determined, but the entire tax system needs to include mechanisms that ensure that both ordinary Ukrainians and businesses are protected from the arbitrariness of tax and customs officials. This means reducing contact between taxpayers and inspectors to a minimum, reducing the number of inspectors, so that they are busy doing their job and not wandering around collecting bribes, setting legal limits on the timeframe and number of inspections, both planned and irregular, and other measures.

The main purpose of tax reform is obvious: reducing tax pressure on business. But this can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Macroeconomically, too much of GDP goes to tax revenues and social contributions in Ukraine, leaving both business and ordinary citizens with fewer financial resources. This deficit makes it impossible for the economy to recover properly.

Taxing competition figure clearly illustrates that, among Central and Eastern European countries, those that put a smaller share into taxes and fees generally develop faster. This is the main macroeconomic factor that needs to be taken into account as Ukraine reforms its tax system. This makes Ukraine’s tax system uncompetitive even at the regional level, never mind globally, when investors have plenty of countries to choose from among Ukraine’s neighbors, with their less burdensome tax systems. To change this around, Ukraine needs to reduce the tax burden to 7-8% of GDP or about 20-25% less than what it is now.

This means radically reducing budget spending in two main areas. The volume of embezzled or poorly spent public funds needs to be radically diminished—although this alone would not be enough—, which can only happen with radical, all-encompassing reforms. Certain state functions need to be eliminated (making education and healthcare largely private and pay-as-you-go is one option) and build the state on a liberal basis. This second option was not common in Ukraine and certain diehard paternalists, of whom Ukraine has its fair share, only need to hear the whisper of such an option to immediately set up a huge hue and cry. Ukraine really must make a choice for itself: either paternalism and the eternal cycle of poverty, or a smaller state and a booming economy. There is no “third way.”

Globally, the situation looks something like this. Based on the 2015 Doing Business Index, the indicator for “Paying taxes” puts Ukraine 105th out of 189 countries; for “International trade,” Ukraine is a dismal 154th, suggesting that the Customs Service needs even greater reforms. Moreover, the tax rating indicates that businesses in Ukraine pay an average of five payments a year, spend 350 hours to complete any number of reports for the payment of taxes, and are taxed 52.9% on profits. In countries in the top places, such as Qatar and the UAE, taxes are paid quarterly, reports take 41 and 12 hours to complete, and the profit tax rate is 11.3% and 14.8%. The top 30 countries, which is where Ukraine should find itself in another five years according to Strategy 2020, end with Brunei, a tiny southeast Asian country where businesses make 27 payments a year, spend 93 hours to fill out declarations and make payments, and pay 15.8% on their profits. These key points make it clear that Ukraine needs to reduce the amount of time and money spent on taxes severalfold. Only then will the country’s investment climate become globally competitive. If we consider the corruption component and include the money spent building the palaces that the Tax Administration has built itself in just about every county of Ukraine—to say nothing of the personal palaces that tax officials have built for themselves—, the room for improving efficiency through tax reforms is virtually unlimited.

Constructive concepts

At this point, the tax reform bill is under constant negotiation. consolidates all the latest information and posts suggested changes from 10 different parties, some of whom have presented 2-3 documents. Some of the proposed innovations have been unanimously supported by all the participants and these will most likely go through in the end.

Most of the experts and quite a few of the business owners agree that the administration of taxes is a much bigger problem in Ukraine than high tax rates. In other words, the way tax inspectors interact with taxpayers needs to be reformed far more than taxes per se or tax rates. This, in fact, is the most complicated aspect of reforms and the most challenging task facing Ukraine’s reformers. In order to attain a balance that would prevent individual tax officials from interpreting legislation as they please, to demand a bribe or to power trip, while taxpayers get to pay a fair rate, the system needs to be changed from within. At the same time, it has to be “sequestered” from the process in order for its flaws to be seen from the outside. To expect any one individual to be able to do all this is unrealistic. And that’s why the Task Force needs to bring together professionals from different spheres.

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One group of experts proposes adopting the Estonian model of profit tax. The essence of it is to not tax the entire profits of a company but only those that are distributed as dividends and other payments. This immediately removes a number of problems. Firstly, if the owner puts everything earned into growing the business, then no taxes are owed. This is good for the company and it stimulates economic growth. Secondly, the issue of double taxation is resolved, where the company first pays profit tax and then is taxed again on dividends. Thirdly, there’s no reason to hide profits or move them offshore because as long as they aren’t distributed, they aren’t taxed. In the worst case, they aren’t used for investment but lie around in the corporate bank accounts, that is still good for the domestic banking system. Fourthly, this effectively eliminates the need for tax accounting, simplifying the entire system. Specialists from the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR) have promoted the radical notion of eliminating tax accounting altogether by instituting the Estonian style of profit tax.

The value-added tax or VAT presents an entirely different set of problems. Some in the Task Force think it should be dropped altogether, because it is the source of the most abuse and provides ample opportunities for corruption. But this is not so simple. According to Eurostat, the EU statistics agency, Central and Eastern European countries the VAT or its equivalent ranged from Slovakia’s 21% to Croatia’s 35% of all tax revenues and social contributions ranged from 6,4-12.6% of GDP. In other words, this tax is typically a budget filler. Ukraine is very much in line with its neighbors here, as in 2014 VAT revenues were 24.9% of all tax revenues, while social contributions were 8.9%. So, while the VAT can be replaced by some similar tax, such as a turnover tax, but it cannot be dropped altogether without serious consequences. In a country where the tax base for direct taxes, such as corporate profit tax and personal income tax, is exceptionally unstable and amorphous, especially at a time of crisis, indirect taxes perform a critical function as a budget revenue stabilizer. Of course, such a move will not change the fact that the state needs to find ways to spend less money on compensation fictional VAT refunds, properly organize its compensation to legitimate exporters, and ensure that the VAT is paid properly, that any schemes to abuse it are eliminated, and so on. Task Force experts have a number of proposals in this regard.

The paradox with the VAT in Ukraine is that of the UAH 139 billion that was collected in 2014, UAH 107bn came from products imported into Ukraine and only UAH 31bn from those manufactured in Ukraine: UAH 81bn paid by domestic manufacturers, less UAH 50bn compensated to exporters. In other words, if this were 50 years ago, the budget could get the same result by simply instituting the necessary import duty. Since Ukraine is now a member of the WTO, this option is no longer available, as Ukraine is obligated to trade with the entire world at a customs duty rate that is no higher than 5%. With EU countries, Ukraine will soon have to trade without any tariff barriers whatsoever, as part of the deal in the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement.

Ukraine can use this to its advantage, of course. By putting the main emphasis on the VAT and reducing income and profit taxes, Ukraine can make imports more expensive relative to the inexpensiveness of domestically manufactured goods, since production cost will now include fewer tax payments for payroll deductions and profit tax. This should incentivize domestic manufacturers and even make them more competitive on world markets, if payroll and profit taxes remain noticeably lower than in Ukraine’s competitors. The only “but” is that 11-12% of the VAT tax base is lost due to evasion. If the rate were raised to more than 20%, the share of those evading payments would grow sharply and the real tax base will shrink. How can the VAT collection system be set up to avoid this is an issue that experts still need to think about.

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If Ukraine wants to build an economy of the future, based on services and knowledge, then the new tax system cannot survive without the VAT or some other indirect tax.[A1]  The problem is that such economies are centered on human capital, not on physical capital or goods, and human capital is too mobile for tax administrators and its products are often quite amorphous. In this case, it’s hard to effectively tax production and salaries, but consumption is much easier—provided that there is sufficient oversight of sales. Provided that it functions properly, the VAT can help reach this objective.

Ukraine’s Consolidated Social Contribution (CSC) also needs to be changed. It’s too cumbersome for business, even taking into account those changes that were already in effect since the beginning of 2015. As a consequence, salaries are paid out in envelopes everywhere and the use of sole entrepreneurs[1] has shrunk away. At one point, the Minister of Social Policy stated that nearly UAH 200bn in salaries was hidden in Ukraine. In reality, a number of indicators suggest that this sum is likely 1.5-2 times more. This requires radical action. Nova Kraina, a civic platform, has proposed an interesting option: to cap the CSC at the level of the current rate, say 40% of the minimum wage. If it turns out to be true that the shadow economy is about 50% of official GDP in Ukraine—and this opinion is very widely shared—bringing it out of the shadows would completely compensate for any loses from the income taxes of those who earn more. This is effectively a regressive tax that does present some risks for the state budget, so it needs some more working up. Still, similar calculations indicate that budget revenue losses will be relatively small, while the impact on the tax base will be definitely positive. And once the economy begins to recover, the Government can raise the minimum wage and get more revenue from all those who left the shadow economy behind.

One of the boldest propositions is to set up a system of individual tax accounts at banks where a percentage of the money coming to a commercial entity’s accounts will be set aside automatically. At first glance, this seems very compact and revolutionary, so it merits consideration. Whether it also contains loopholes for evading taxes remains to be studied.

Judging by the overall quantity and quality of the propositions being presented, the debate over the tax reform concept is anything but shallow. Whether this results in an effective, compact and easy tax system, only time will tell. But the main question is whether the country’s leadership will find the political will to implement this system. Given who was appointed to head the State Fiscal Service[2], there are some doubts about this.


[1] SPD is an individual registered as a “subject doing business” so to speak.

[2] After announcing an open contest for the position where dozens of experienced market-oriented candidates applied, the Cabinet of Ministers appointed Roman Nasirov, a Bloc of Petro Poroshenko MP and head of the Parliamentary Tax and Customs Committee. Nasirov is believed to be a comfortable figure for all political forces and someone who will not clamp down their revenues from corruption in tax and customs systems

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