Sunday, 12 July 2015

It’s the economy, stupid

Thorough economic debate is a phenomenon so seldom witnessed in the public discourse in Poland that any reason seems justified to spark it off. Recently the widespread discussion has been triggered by Mrs Beata Szydło, candidate for the prime minister if PiS wins the autumn parliamentary election, who unfolded key points of her party’s economic agenda. As it often happens ahead of the election, politicians tend to be open-handed in their promises, but this time the generosity might have gone too far, since both politicians and economic pundits have taken the trouble to quantify the promises and check whether the figures hold water…

Politicians of PiS claim their ideas are absolutely feasible and the spending spree they propose will be matched by new sources of budget revenues. Their opponents from the Civic Platform and most experts point out the calculations of PiS are flawed and reckless inclination to throw about money would head Poland towards where Greece is now. Let’s have a look then on how much happiness the Lawful and the Just wish to give Poles if they get hold of power.

1)      Raising tax allowance to PLN 8,000 from current PLN 3,091.
- Truth be told, tax allowance in Poland is one of the lowest in Europe and well below the poverty line, plus it has not been increased along with inflation since 2009. But if are to compare ourselves against other European countries, we also need to take notice of the fact tax rates are higher there than in Poland.
- My proposal is then to simplify the tax system and bring in more effective progression by introducing an even higher tax allowance, let’s say PLN 16,000 and introduce a flat personal income tax rate of 32% (the current highest rate). Thus we would achieve effective tax progression, since the tax rate for an individual would be somewhere between 0% and 32% and increase linearly along with earnings.
- Cost of the proposal estimated by me: 24,400,000 * 18% * (PLN 8,000 – PLN 3,091) = PLN 21,560,328,000
- assumptions: 1) number of personal income tax payers: 24,400,000, 2) marginal tax rate: 18%,
- shortcomings of my assumptions: 1) multiplier effects from higher tax income and GDP growth on account of higher consumption are not taken into account, 2) other tax credits, e.g. child allowance also have been neglected.

2) Giving a child benefit for every second and next child of PLN 500 per month.
- My only question here is how to define the second and next children. Calculations are impeded by unclear definition of a child (until what age your offspring is a child and whether this depends on whether they learn or earn?, on the basis of what criteria the children would be counted – what if a woman has three children with three different men, or the other way round, i.e. a man has children with three different women?)
- I find the very concept ludicrous and see nothing else in it but pure giving away money from the public purse rather than encouraging people to have children.
- Cost of the proposal estimated by me: 10,879,729 * 40% * PLN 500 * 12 months = PLN 26,111,349,600
- assumptions: 1) a child is person aged less than 18 (if students are taken into account the cost would shoot up well above 30 billion PLN), 2) population of Poland is 38,580,600, 28.2% of which are not adults, 3) 40% of children would be eligible for the benefit – this is only an educated guess,
- shortcomings of my assumptions: 1) it is not clear, whether parents of students would also be entitled to benefits, 2) it is not clear when a child is “second and next”, 3) it is very hard to determine how many children would be “co-financed” with this benefit, 4) potential taxation of the benefit (or lack of it, of effects of tax deductions associated with it) is unknown, 5) multiplier effects have been neglected as well.

According to my estimations, only the two proposals would cost the budget around 48 billion  PLN yearly (vs. 29 billion PLN yearly according to calculations by PiS). If you look at the number of assumptions I have made and number of shortcomings I have listed, no wonder figures given by experts vary so much. To be fair, unless you reveal your (simplifying) assumptions and maths behind your calculations, you cannot hope to sound credible to me in the public discourse.

I do not dare to come up with a ballpark figure for the shortfall caused by reversing the pension age increase. The deficit in the government budget (which subsidises the social security system) by 2020 would probably not be substantial, yet thereafter (bear in mind in 2019 Poles either kick PiS out of the politics or it will be as entrenched as Mr Orban’s party in Hungary) outcomes of tampering with the pension age would be disastrous (also because tap with EU money will run dry in 2020).

On the other side of the budget, authors of PiS’ economic agenda point at three core funding sources for the merry expenditure programme.

1) The bank tax, to be levied on banks’ assets.
- My comment (disclaimer: I am a banking sector employee and my financial well-being might be jeopardised by the bank tax): such tax should penalise banks and other financial institutions for being involved in operations that do not contribute to well-being of a society, predominantly those which stray from the concept of traditional commercial banking (taking deposits and granting loans). I also wonder what the tax base would be: would those be total assets (including cash, treasury bonds, PPE, etc.), only financial assets, or maybe the tax base would be limited to the loan portfolio and whether there would be any risk weights on assets. Since the banking sector does not enjoy good publicity in Poland (banks have given ample reasons for being held in disregard), the idea of cutting back their mammoth profits with yet another tax should take fancy of many voters. On the other hands, most banks in Poland are controlled by foreign financial groups which have come to terms with the fact banking in Poland is no longer such great gold mine as it used to be. They will pass on the tax onto customers and since they will in unison have to bear the new burden, in unison they will raise fees and commissions for their customers, so in this very particular situation the arguments of PiS that free market and forces of competition will not let banks’ clients feel the impact of the new tax, are a daydream.
- Revenues from the proposal estimated by me: 1,500,000,000,000 * 0.39% = 5,850,000,000 PLN
- Assumptions: 1) total assets of the Polish banking sector: 1.5 trillion PLN (total financial sector’s assets in 2013 of PLN 2.1 trillion * 68% share of banks * 1.05 growth dynamics), 2) tax rate of 0.39% yearly, most often mentioned.
- shortcomings of my assumptions: 1) tax base and scope of entities subject to taxation have not been defined, 2) lower tax rates have been already mentioned by politicians of PiS since they slowly being to realise the bank tax proposal, compounded with relief for CHF-mortgage borrowers, could knock down some of the banks and necessitate a state-funded bail-out for depositors if their foreign owners decide to wash their hands clean of the Polish businesses.

2) Supermarket tax, being a turnover tax levied on retail chains with yearly sales above PLN 1 billion.
- My comments: the big chains of hyper-, supermarkets and discount shops, omnipresent in Poland and by dint of their economies of scale, offering less wealthy Poles an opportunity to buy stuff cheaply, also have become a scapegoat. A frequent argument in the debate on those shops is that taxes they pay are miniscule in relation to their revenues. Indeed, this is true, since most of those chains operate on very thin margins, yet their earnings are high due to scale of activity. For some of those chains, net margin is 1%, i.e. net profit of a company makes up 1% of total sales. Shareholders of such retail chains will have a choice either to increase prices of goods and pass on the tax to clients (more probable) or to wind down their businesses (impracticable). The former option is even more likely to materialise for the same reason as with banks – all big chains will be affected in the same way and therefore will react in the same way.
- Revenues from the proposal estimated by me: 150,000,000,000 * 1% = 1,500,000,000
- Shortcomings of my assumptions: 1) publicly available data I cite are outdated (and thus biased downward) and may not cover all stores, since many companies decide not to disclose how much they earn (also resulting in downward bias), 2) the tax rate is unknown, but might vary from 0.5% to 2.0% according to some proposals.

3) The third and the broadest proposal is to increase the efficiency of tax collection system, curb tax evasion, crack down on illegitimate VAT reclaims. All the ideas are commendable and I wish well anyone who would take up doing so, yet I am sceptical about the effect and also would not dare to estimate the resultant additional budget revenues, nevertheless the figure of 50 billion PLN seems over-optimistic.

Interestingly, none of the critics of the PiS-designed giving-away scheme has noticed a crucial causation, namely the more money citizens have in their pockets, the higher the money supply. Growth in money supply, if not accompanied by proportionate growth in output, results in increased inflation. This in turn, assuming the central bank is independent, leads to higher interest rates with all consequences…

And interestingly, hypocrites from PiS, who allegedly care so much about the poorest, do little to redistribute wealth from those well-off. The proposal to reinstate the third tax bracket has been declined, probably to appease Mr Gowin (who has finally fallen into place and does not bring discredit on PO), yet this decision does not matter much, since those who potentially could be affected by signing the third tax bracket into law do not pay the personal income tax at all. 32% marginal tax rate affects in Poland the upper-middle class, around 2% of all personal income tax payers, those are usually senior managers at corporations, whose positions are too low to make them eligible for a managerial contract. Most of the people who really earn a lot (above 300,000 PLN before tax per year) are not employed under regular job contracts, but are sole proprietors who perform a contract for their employer. Outcomes for the state budget – marginal tax rate is 19% rather than 32%, social security contributions they pay are miniscule (in return they will receive a tiny pension benefit, but with such earnings would who cares?), same as health service system contributions. Taxes might be low for actual entrepreneurs, but the practice of paying corporate income taxes by corporate executives who are not entrepreneurs and do not risk their own money to develop their business ought to be finally put to an end!

My grandfather’s neighbour gives him outdated issues of Fakt, the leading Polish tabloid. Yesterday, while at my grandpa’s I grabbed one such paper and found this article… Maybe what Mr Sienkiewicz (cynically) says is the key to the door:

Przeciętny Kowalski patrzy na te autostrady, estakady, na ten dworzec, na cokolwiek innego… Jego podstawowe pytanie jest: a co ja z tego kurwa mam?! Gdzie jest ten pieniądz u mnie w portfelu? A nie że ma wypierdolonego orlika przed oknami, bo on ma w dupie tego orlika, podobnie ma tę autostradę w dupie! Bo dla niego jest pytanie o efekt rozbudzonych aspiracji, jak się rozbudziło aspiracje, to są pewne konsekwencje. Najpierw są takie aspiracje, aby państwo było bardziej umyte i bardziej przypominało to, co ma na Zachodzie albo co sobie wyobraża. A potem się aspiracje przesuwają do własnego portfela. I jest pytanie, co ja z tego mam.

Yes, Poland has remarkably moved ahead in terms of infrastructure. I travel a lot around the country these days and appreciate the possibility to get to Gdansk or Krakow by train within 3 hours, enjoy driving new motorways and expressways, but the progress has little impact on the standard of living of an average Pole. I follow the “Decrepit Poland” page on facebook. Authors of the page publish several photos a day to give lie to the propaganda story Poland has been ruined and needs to be rebuilt from scratch. Photos show progress, but are selective; round the corner beautiful market square gives way to dilapidated houses and inhabitants of provincial towns now care more how much they can buy in a shop for money they earn than whether the centre of the town has been refurbished.

Recent travels make me also wonder whether I also live in an ivory tower, how much I have in common with ordinary people living in Zgierz where I was on Friday. How much do I have in common with inhabitants of Wałbrzych where I’m heading tomorrow. Origins of PiS recent surge in support and PO’s waning popularity is the former’s ability to at least pretend they are close to ordinary people.


Michael Dembinski said...

We civilise. It is inconceivable that today a party could ever win an election by being racist, sexist or homophobic. No party would gain any kind of acceptance on a platform of 'brudasi won, baby do garów i cioty do gazu'. Yet the economic equivalent of this type of ignorant thinking is still with us. To look at the effects, look at Argentina or Venezuela, or indeed Brazil. Populist politicians bullshit their electorate into believing that a vote for them will make the poor richer. "Vote for me and I'll take money from the rich man, and give it to you, O poor man; there are many more like you in our democratic country than rich men".

When I hear some of the promises made by PiS, I lament more than ever the untimely death of Tadeusz Mosz, who did so much to popularise economic knowledge in Poland. He'd have shown up the populists' promises for the ignorant crowd-pleasing slogans for what they are - and their long-term effects on the economy.

We've come too far in 25 years to let the ignoramuses ruin our economy now

student SGH said...

Well, in social terms we have made several steps ahead, yet the recent discussion on vitro brings out impression that our Polish backwater is still way behind European standards. If you can hear from an educated man children from in-vitro are born disfigured, there's still some way to go.

Tadeusz Mosz was doing a great job, yet the target group which needs economic literacy the most is, I'd argue, immune to heritage of Mr Mosz