How smart choices on taxation can help close the growing fiscal gap
The growing fiscal gap has policy makers in a difficult position. Swift action in a few areas can help them improve the operational efficiency of fiscal systems.
By Aurélie Barnay, Jonathan Davis, Jonathan Dimson, and Marco Dondi – Governments around the world have implemented a range of fiscal and debt measures to fund policy initiatives over recent decades. As a result, tax revenues as a proportion of GDP have risen four percentage points across Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries since 1980. However, many governments remain inadequately funded. Despite higher tax revenues, spending is rising faster than income, leading to widening budget deficits and higher levels of debt.
Four distinct trends are playing out: increasing automation in the workplace, leading to pressure on employment; the evolution of global trade through the proliferation of e-commerce and digital business, raising questions over cross-border taxation; rising self-employment; and an aging population. Each of these could further widen the fiscal deficit in the years ahead. Moreover, we see all four accelerating, placing policy makers in an ever-tightening fiscal bind.
Basic economics provides two options for balancing the books: either increase revenues or decrease spending.
The bottom line for governments is that there are no easy answers. Whether they seek to increase taxation or boost efficiency, they are likely to face headwinds. Still, decisive and rapid action is essential to optimize tax collections and keep pace with an inevitable rise in demand for services.
Tax revenues in OECD countries have risen slightly over the past 35 years. However, spending has risen more, leading to widening deficits that governments have bridged with debt. OECD tax revenues were 34 percent of GDP in 2017. Because of tax deficits and the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, the average ratio of gross debt to GDP rose from 66 percent of GDP in 1995 to 88 percent in 2017.
Sources of tax revenue have remained stable over time. Over three decades, personal income and consumption together accounted for 82 to 89 percent of revenues. The biggest single contributor was payroll and income tax, accounting for 50 to 55 percent of revenues (even though the contribution of personal income tax declined by nearly 7 percentage points). Consumption and excise duties remain little changed at 32 to 34 percent of revenues.
More people are working for themselves, either as a contractor to several companies or a single company. This emerging gig economy accounts for an estimated 28 percent of EU and US employment. The proportion would rise to 46 percent if everyone had their preferred working arrangement, according to MGI research.
However, the gig economy creates challenges for tax authorities. First, independent workers are generally less compliant than their employed peers, and in some countries are required to pay less taxes. Evidence from the US suggests that workers subject to limited information reporting, such as the self-employed, have an around 50 percentage point lower rate of tax compliance than traditional workers. There are also ongoing legal debates in some jurisdictions over whether gig economy workers are employees for the purposes of worker classification and social security contributions.
Governments can close the widening gap between revenues and expenditures in a variety of ways through tax revenues, nontax revenues, and spending optimization. In addition, some governments are either implementing or considering approaches based on monetary finance.
The gap between government revenues and spending has widened and is likely to continue to do so. The onus, then, is on tax authorities to act now. more>