There is much discussion in Sri Lanka since the last Budget about increases in taxation and its impact on individuals (specially the middle class). There’s even some suggesting of a brain drain of skilled professionals looking for greener pastures resulting from that. Since all my previous Notes explored ways of improving individual financial situation through personal financial management, investments, retirement planning etc., I thought it opportune to explore (in this Note 6) the issue of taxation on long term, individual Wealth creation. As income level of an individual increases over time, the issue of taxation and tax planning becomes critically important. In fact it’s so important, many relocate from one tax jurisdiction to another to avoid paying (not evade taxes which is illegal) excessive taxes or to simply reduce your tax liability (and increase your savings). As far as SL migrants to the West are concerned, people are migrating from a relative low tax regime (admittedly with poor public infrastructure and services) to a high tax (high cost) environment!!! If one is migrating (may be for a limited time period) to tax free (or very low) Dubai or similar country/jurisdiction or migrating for reasons other than economic (political, security etc.) reasons however, a case or justification can be made.
To give some macro background and context to the discussion on Taxation, Taxes in any country is generally applied or imposed by governments mainly in three broad areas of economic activity.
- Income – Corporate or Individual – the fairest way to collect taxes but often difficult for governments in the developing world as the institutions and systems are weak and inefficient
- Consumption – Sales taxes, VAT, Customs/Import Duty etc. – easier for governments to collect as there is little room for consumers to avoid but regressive in nature (unfair on the lower income groups) as it’s not linked to the income. Unfortunately, the bulk of GoSL revenue is derived from this tax category.
- Wealth – Mainly Capital Gains Taxes (CGT), Inheritance Taxes, Property Taxes
At the Macro level it’s also essential to keep in mind, other than in oil rich countries, all other governments rely on Taxation to provide good/high quality infrastructure and public services. Some countries like Denmark annually collect as high as 45% of its GDP in Taxes while SL collects only 8%!!! OECD average is 33%. Tax collection in most other middle income countries are in the 20s. So unless a country has oil wealth/revenue, high quality public infrastructure and services (seen in the West) come at a price often hidden or disguised (ie Consumption Taxation). As they say, there is no free lunch.
Also if you examine the case in Sri Lanka vis a vis the rest of the World, 80% of government revenue is raised from easy to collect Consumption related taxes and Wealth related taxes are very low or non-existent. So many consumer items (specially the imported ones) ranging from F&B items to Vehicles are expensive/out of reach for locals earning in Rupees. Many individuals/businesses who should be paying income tax escape paying their fair share of taxes because the government is unable to capture them in the tax net. It’s a well known fact that there are less than 1mn Tax Payers in the country (of 21 mn). It is also well known that many high income earners in the country from Businessmen to Professionals such as Tuition Masters, Doctors, Lawyers etc. pay no (not in the Tax Net at all) or very little Income Tax. So I would strongly argue the government should rationalize tax collection efforts by reducing consumption related taxes and increase the income related tax net or tax base and take a serious relook at Wealth related taxes especially Property Taxes and CGT to create a fairer society and bring SL on par or closer with other countries in Asia and the World. The natural question for the GoSL is to ask “ if someone is not in the tax net, where would that person/entity park/invest those extra funds?” The answer is often in Real Estate (Land, Apartments etc.) and in the Jewellery, Stocks etc. to a lesser extent. So it makes sense to tax Property (worth over Rs. 30 mn or so) at a higher rate.
Let us look at or compare some taxes or tax rates in SL with other countries around the World to put things in perspective from the Tax Payers’ or Individual Citizens’ perspective. Remember the principle of taxation is generally based on the “Residence” of the individual. If an individual resides in a country more than 182 days in a tax year/calendar year, that individual comes under the tax jurisdiction of that location (In the case of an entity or corporate body where its incorporated). Also tax avoidance (using loopholes, exemptions etc) is legal and Tax evasion (not declaring all your income to the Tax authority) is illegal in many jurisdictions, even a criminal offence in some countries.
To do a meaningful comparison among various countries, one has to take into account different cost structures or Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) among countries. Roughly speaking earnings of $1000 a month in Colombo can be compared to earning of $3000/month in Dubai and approximately $ 4000/month in Melbourne or London. Exceptions to the Rule do exist such as even with high taxes and other cost of living conditions, it would be easier or affordable to have a decent vehicle in most countries other than in SL due to high import taxes on vehicles (which is admittedly an aspiration of many middle class Sri Lankans). On the other hand in SL it would be more affordable to have domestic help (ie Nanny, Cook, Gardner, Cleaner, Driver etc) than in those countries. I doubt those who are eager to migrate from SL to greener pastures of the developed world/West (mostly English speaking western countries) take Taxes in those countries into account when they make the decision to migrate. Also in a digital world where many jobs can be done remotely or on line and incomes can be derived from multiple sources and in multiple currencies, it is advisable to be in a low tax jurisdiction (not to mention a low cost location) which in turn help build Wealth in the long run. In spite of the recent tax increases in SL, I would argue income tax in SL is still not high ($1000/Rs.350,000 monthly income is effectively taxed at 15% or Rs.52000) compared to many developed countries (destination for most SL migrants) and things like Property Taxes (Municipality Rates in SL) are still extremely low as they are not calculated on market price of Property including Land value (in SL only the House or Building is considered) like in most other countries.
Let us now consider some differences in Taxes and it’s impact on Individual incomes, expenses, lifestyles and Wealth using real life examples and figures given below.
- If one earns $100,000 in London or Dubai, the person who lives in Dubai is $38,000 better off every year (than in UK due to Taxes) and over 10 years, this can translate into $500,000 extra accumulated saving (without counting the returns from investments etc.).
- About 6 months ago at the height of Oil prices ($120 a Barrel in the global market), UK was selling a 95 Octaine Liter at Sterling 2/Liter and SL was selling the same product at Sterling 1/Liter (Rs.450/-). What do you reckon the difference is? Largely due to Consumption taxes in UK. Similar result if one were to consider a Pint of Beer (or most other consumer items) at a Pub/Mall in the UK and in SL.
- I have a friend in LA who pays $3000 a month ($36000/year) in Property Taxes on his $ 2mn Property (Garbage collection is an additional fee!!). This roughly works out to 1.7% of Property Tax (in most countries Property Tax ranges between 0.3% to 2.5%) on the market value of the Property every year. Some countries have a lower rate for inherited property or the primary property one is living in and higher rate for any additional or investment Properties. Many other examples from all over the world can be given. I challenge the reader (who happen to own Property) in SL to calculate his Municipality Rate as a percentage of the current market value of his/her Property (including the Land) and compare with the above % range. An Apartment in Colombo City which is worth Rs.100 mn today is paying only about Rs. 40,000 a year or 0.04% in Municipality Rates. In my case (old renovated House), it is only about 0.002% annually!!!!
- Elon Musk (of Tesla, Twitter etc.) made some $ 11 bn in Capital Gains last year from the sale of Tesla shares while still a resident of California. The CGT on that was 50%!!! (37% Federal CGT and 13% CA State CGT). In the Colombo Stock Market, a similar transaction generating even billions of Rupees in Capital Gains for an Investor will attract zero CGT from the GoSL!!! Btw Mr. Musk sinced moved to Texas where the State CGT is zero.
- NHS Consultant Doctor in UK who earns Sterling 150K to 170K a year pay upwards of 40% in Income Taxes not to mention the high indirect Consumption/Sales Taxes, Property Taxes etc. as demonstrated above. Similar situation exists in any other developed country like Australia or Canada. You can ask a Doctor/Lawyer friend of yours in SL who has a sucessful private practice, how much (%) of their actual earnings they pay in taxes. Or simply look at their lifestyles and you might get the answer.
- In Japan Inheritance Taxes can go as high as 60% of the Wealth transferred to the next generation. In UK it can range from 20-40%. In SL there is no such thing as Inheritance Tax (it was abolished in the 80s).
These are some of the real life, actual examples that came to my mind. The big difference lies in Income related taxes (poor/narrow tax base as well as lower rates), Capital Gains Tax, and Property Taxes. Compare/contrast any number of jurisdictions or compare SL situation with Dubai and a developed country such as US, UK or Australia (favorite destinations for SL migrants) in order to highlight the impact of taxes on standard of living as well as what one can potentially save/invest in order to build long term wealth. Artificial Intelligence-assisted ChatGPT will quickly do a better job in comparing these figures and rates. The following matrix will give a quick evaluation of pros and cons in each location.
|Taxes||Public Infrastructure/Services||Individual Freedoms and Rights||Weather throughout the Year|
|Developed Countries||High||High Quality||High||Seasonal|
|Middle Eastern Countries/Dubai||Low/Zero||High Quality||Varies – Restrictive||Hot|
|Countries that offer Long Term Visas||Low/Medium||Medium to High||Acceptable||Relatively Warm|
In conclusion/summary the general thrust of my argument is as follows;
- At a macro level (from GoSL perspective) application of Taxation principles and efficiency of Income Tax collection in SL needs a radical rethink and overhaul to increase the overall tax collection from current 8% of GDP to at least 18% without hurting the lower and middle income/wealth groups. This should be done by shifting the tax focus from Consumption based taxation to Wealth based taxation as well as widening the Income Tax base where no one (specially in the high income groups) escapes the income tax net. Public trust in the government (with responsible handling/spending of Tax money) needs to be restored.
- Taxes in SL are significantly lower than in developed countries but a place like Dubai where there are few or no Taxes but high quality public infrastructure and services offer best of both worlds or take the top spot.
- There is a noticeable and growing global trend where many individuals (including many retirees) in high cost/high taxes Countries seek to relocate to other low cost, low taxes countries/locations such as Portugal, Indonesia, Thailand, Peurto Rico, Panama, Mexico etc. etc. (many of these countries now offer long term Visa schemes) precisely to enjoy a better quality of life/standard of living while enjoying warmer weather/beaches etc. The emerging Digital Economy and opportunities it represents make such movements (for individuals with right skills) and aspirations increasingly achievable (many countries now offer digital nomad visa schemes, even permanent residency visas etc). For Sri Lanka as a country, this trend maybe an opportunity to counter or somewhat reverse/mitigate the effects of brain drain that is taking place.
- Sri Lankans understandably migrating to the West (Australia, Canada, EU, UK, USA etc.) hoping for a better life or better standard of living may often be entertaining a misplaced dream. Working 10-20 years in Tax Free middle east may be a far better option. If one pays attention to legally avoiding (not evading) high Taxes/Tax liability and opportunities they present to increase one’s savings over time and direct those savings to Investments with decent returns (ie create Wealth), one can look forward to a comfortable and early retirement in any number of places (or in your home country/country of your birth where you are a first class citizen) that offer residence to individuals with some accumulated wealth.