Tax forecasts

One of the memes being pushed by Labour and the Greens is that the 2010 tax package wasn’t revenue neutral. They assert this because tax revenues are lower than was projected. The problem with their arguments is that tax revenues often differ from what was projected, and there is no way of knowing how much is because of changing economic projections, how much is impacted by a policy change and even how much is just because the forecasts are imprecise.

As an example. Let’s say you forecast GST to be $12.5b at 12.5% and you increase GST to $15% and hence forecast GST will bring in $15b. That extra $2.5b of income is distributed back as income tax cuts. But let’s say once GST goes to 15%, the revenue only goes to $14b. Now Labour and the Greens are saying that $1b less is due to the policy change, and hence the tax switch was not fiscally neutral. They argue that it is purely because of the rise in GST that people spent less, and hence less GST was paid. But the drop in GST might just be because of lower economic growth, or a drop off in consumer confidence etc.

To give you an idea of how dramatically forecasts change over time, I’ve collated the forecasts from the last nine fiscal updates. They tell quite a story. Let’s start with total tax revenue.

The last two columns are best to focus on, as we get a full history. This is the total tax take projected for last financial year and the current one.

Back in the 2008 budget Dr Cullen projected $62.1b in tax revenue for 2011/12. Then by the PREFU it had dropped to $61.2b. It further dropped to $58.3b in the DEFU, which takes accounts of National’s election tax cuts. However those changes were compensated by expenditure reductions – mainly KiwiSaver.

A huge drop occurred between 2008 DEFU and the 2009 budget, with tax revenues dropping $4.3b! Now bare in mind it was in the 2009 budget National cancelled its planned tax cuts for April 2010 and April 2011, so it would have been an even bigger drop without that. This change was pretty much all due to the global financial crisis and recession.

By year end forecasts got more positive, going up to $56.6b, and then the tax switch in the 2010 budget projected it to go to $57.4b. However then forecasts dropped again, dropping to $56.7b and then $54.7b.

Now Labour and Greens say that the difference between 2010 Budget and the latest forecasts is all due to the tax switch. But as one can see over time the wider economy is a far bigger factor in tax projections. Recall how in 2009 tax revenues forecast dropped $4.3b even though National cancelled tax cuts.

Now let’s look just at GST.

This shows projected GST revenues only. Note how they from 2008 to 2009 they went from $13.5b down to $11.3b. Then they were projected in 2010 to go up to $15.8b with the increase to 15%. Just six months later Treasury revised that down to $14.0b, but then this year revised up to $15.0b.  This is still lower than originally forecast in 2010, but again no greater than other variances from year to year.

So when Labour and Greens say the tax switch cost $2b, they are making it up. What they are saying is that there has been $2b less tax revenue than projected. But if the tax switch had never happened it is quite possible the drop in tax revenue would have been the same or even greater.

And for the paranoid out there, this is all my research, taken from going through the last nine fiscal updates. No one suggested it to me, helped me with it, or even knew about it. I did it because I got sick of the uncontested claims about the impact of the tax switch.

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