Why a Billionaire Tax Doesn’t Make Any Sense for Politicians


In the end everything boils down to it.

In the run up to the annual budget of the union government presented by the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, on February 1, many economic commentators suggested that the government should resort to a one-time billionaire tax.

The idea being that the stock market has rallied big time during the course of this financial year. Hence, while the income of the average Indian has fallen thanks to the economy contracting, the super-rich have become richer.

This one-time tax could fund a lot of extra expenditure in the budget in 2021-22, as the government tried to act as the spender of the last resort in an environment where private spending has slowed down and industrial expansion isn’t happening at the same pace as it was.

If you are the kind who practices first level kind of thinking, this makes perfect sense. The rich have grown richer. So, let’s take money from them and give it to those who need it. It also leads to greater equality, at least in your head. This kind of Robinhood thinking has prevailed for centuries. Hence, there is no reason for it to go away in 2021.

Nevertheless, if you are the kind who practices second level thinking and at the same time thinks about the incentives on offer, you would know that something like this doesn’t make sense and is also unlikely to happen.

Let’s try and understand this pointwise.

1) It is important to understand that billionaires don’t have cash lying around to pay this tax. So, one way they would have raised cash to pay this tax would have been to sell some of their shares. Of course, given the sudden increase in supply of shares in the market could have led to the stock prices falling.

2) Actually, more than the billionaires selling their stake to pay up the tax, the stock market would have seen this move of the government in a negative way and sold off, even before billionaires would have started thinking about how to pay the tax. In fact, in the run up to the budget, the stock market did worry about new taxes and there was a sell off last week. This was its way of telling the government, please, no new taxes. It has been rising this week, since it realized that no news on the tax front is good news.

3) Currently, the government needs the stock market on its side, with its plans to raise Rs 1.75 lakh crore through the disinvestment route next year. And that is only possible if the stock prices continue to remain at high levels. Hence, it would have made no sense for the government to disturb the status quo. If the market would have fallen, it would have impacted the ability of the government to raise the amount of money it wants to through disinvestment. This would have, in turn, impacted its ability to spend.

4) These were the near-term reasons. But there are more issues at play here. Most Indian billionaires finance political parties both on record and off record. In their eyes they are already paying a billionaire tax. A lot of this money finds its way into the economy and is spent, during election time. In that sense, billionaire money is pump priming some part of the Indian economy all the time, given that elections to state governments happen every year.

Of course, no billionaire does this as a social service. They are looking for a quid-pro-quo from the government. That needs to be kept in mind as well.

5) It’s important to look at this entire idea from the point of view of the incentive at play for a politician as well. Politicians exist to win elections. For this they need money, a massive amount of it. They can’t win elections by spending money within the limits set by the Election Commission. Where does this money come from? To a large extent from billionaire businessmen who operate in spaces where they need to deal with government all the time. Hence, why would any politician in his or her right mind try to disturb this equation by irritating the main funders through a high one-time income tax. It just doesn’t make any sense.

6) Finally, a high-income tax, one-time or otherwise, is always a bad idea. One it leads to a narrative of inconsistent tax policy, which the Indian government anyway suffers from. Two, it also leads to high income earners, who can leave the country to leave the country, and move to tax havens. The highest income tax rate in the country currently is greater than 40%. Hence, not surprisingly, a whole bunch of high-income earners have moved or want to move to places like Dubai. This obviously means they no longer pay their income tax in India.

Given these reasons a billionaire tax didn’t make any sense. Having said that, there is a case for clear rationalization of tax rates that is needed. You can’t have a small proportion of the salaried paying the highest marginal rate of more than 40% or even 30%, whereas those who can use the benefit of indexation while paying income tax, not paying any tax at all or a very low rate of tax. This needs to be corrected.



Yesterday, while watching my 12th budget speech, at around noon, I fell asleep. The dozen years of watching long and boring budget speeches finally caught up with me.

When I woke up at 1.30 pm, I was extremely hassled at having missed the budget speech, only to realise that I hadn’t missed much.

As far as budgets go, the finance minister Arun Jaitley’s fourth budget was a fairly straightforward one. And dear reader, if you haven’t bothered following it up until now, there is nothing more you need to do, than just read this piece.

So, here are the seven most important things that you need to know about the budget:

a) For incomes between Rs 2.5 lakh and Rs 5 lakh, the rate of income tax has been reduced to 5 per cent. Earlier it was at 10 per cent. This would mean that anyone having a taxable income of Rs 5 lakh or more will pay a lesser tax of Rs 12,500.

b) The finance minister also said that he plans to introduce a simple one page tax return form for individuals having a taxable income of up to Rs 5 lakh other than business income. This promise of simplifying the income tax return form has been made in the past as well. Let’s see how properly it is implemented.

c) Data from past income tax returns shows that during the financial year 2013-2014 only 23.7 lakh individuals declared income from house property i.e. rental income. This basically means that most landlords do not declare their rental income while filing their returns.

Now on, any individual paying a rent of greater than Rs 50,000 per month, will have to deduct a tax of 5 per cent at source. As Sandeep Shanbhag, director of Wonderland Consultants, a tax and investment advisory firm, puts it: “It is also proposed to provide that such tax shall be deducted and deposited only once in a financial year through a challan-cum-statement.”

d) In its war against cash, the government has made it mandatory that no transaction above Rs 3 lakh will be permitted in cash. One thing that it missed out on here is the fact that gold worth lower than Rs 2 lakh can still be bought without showing any identity proof. In fact, this is how jewellers converted demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes into gold, on the night of November 8 and November 9, 2016, when the Modi government suddenly demonetised these notes.

e) Currently, a long-term capital gains tax on immovable property or real estate has to be paid, only if it has been held for three years. The capital gains made on any property sold in less than three years is added to the income for the year and taxed at the marginal rate of tax. The government has decided to reduce this holding period to two years. This is good news for those looking to sell homes bought anywhere between two to three years back.

f) The finance minister also said that “the base year for indexation is proposed to be shifted from 1.4.1981 to 1.4.2001 for all classes of assets including immovable property.” What does this mean? While calculating the capital gains on real estate that has been sold indexation benefits are available. Indexation essentially allows the seller of real estate to take inflation into account while calculating his cost price.
If the property had been bought at any point of time before April 1, 1981, the price as on April 1, 1981, would have be taken into account while calculating the capital gains. This date has now been moved to April 1, 2001. This basically means that anyone who had bought property before April 2001, gets the price of April 2001 as the cost price, while calculating the capital gains. In the process, the capital gains made will come down.
As Jaitley put it: “This move will significantly reduce the capital gain tax liability while encouraging the mobility of assets.” What this means in simple English is that more people will be incentivised to pay income tax rather than carry out a part of their transaction in black.

g) The government has also inserted a section into the Income Tax Act which essentially states that: “set off of loss under the head “Income from house property” against any other head of income shall be restricted to two lakh rupees for any assessment year.” What does this mean? If you have a bought a home by taking on a home loan and are living in it, then you don’t need to worry. Currently, a deduction of Rs 2 lakh can be made against other heads of income for paying interest on a home loan. This continues.

As Shanbhag puts it: “Interest paid on housing loan could be set off against other income (say salary) i.e. the loss from house property could be adjusted against salary income to reduce the final tax liability. On second homes, this was much more significant as the entire interest without any limit (after first adjusting against a real rental income or a notional rental income in case the house was not rented) could then be further adjusted against incomes from other heads (like salaries etc).” Thus, the tax to be paid, could be massively brought down.

As Shanbhag further puts it: “Now, this adjustment against other heads of income has been restricted to Rs 2 lakh per year. Any unabsorbed interest can be carried forward but then will be subject to similar restrictions the following year. In one stroke, the tax arbitrage related to the housing sector has vanished.”

The government has basically plugged a loophole. Hence, now irrespective of the number of home loans that an individual has, the set off cannot be more than Rs 2 lakh.

The column originally appeared in Bangalore Mirror on February 2, 2017

Why Chidu can’t do a Warren Buffett in the budget

Vivek Kaul
The legendary investor Warren Buffett wrote an
editorial in the New York Times sometime in August 2011 where he made an interesting point. In 2010, his income and payroll taxes came to around $6.94million. While that might sound like a lot of money, but Buffett had paid tax at a rate of only 17.4%. This was lower than any of the 20 other people who worked in Buffett’s office in Omaha, Nebraska. The tax burdens of his 20 employees mounted to anywhere between 33-41% and it averaged around 36%.
So Buffett was paying $17.4 as tax for every $100 that he earned. On the other hand his employees were paying more than double tax of $36 for every $100 that they earned. Of course that was not right.
But why was this the case? This was primarily because Buffett’s employees were paying tax on the salary they earned by working for Buffett. Buffett was making money primarily as long term capital gains on selling shares and he was paying tax on that.
The tax rate on income from salary was much higher than the tax rate on income from long capital gains made on selling shares. This benefited the rich Americans like Buffett. The richest 10% of the Americans own 80% of the stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange as well as the NASDAQ. Buffett wants this to be set right by making the rich pay higher taxes.
In India there has been talk about making the rich pay higher taxes as well. C Rangarajan, a former RBI governor, and an economist who is known to be close to both the prime minister Manmohan Singh and finance minister P Chidambaram, had remarked in January earlier this year “
We need to raise more revenues and the people with larger incomes must be willing to contribute more.”
Chidambaram himself has advocated this school of thought when he said “We should consider the argument whether the very rich should be asked to pay a little more on some occasions.”
So does taxing the rich make sense? It is not a simple yes or no answer. Allow me to explain. Like is the case in the United States, even in India different kinds of incomes are taxed at different rates.
Income from salary is taxed at the marginal rate of 10/20/30 percent whereas long term capital gains from selling shares/equity mutual funds is tax free. Short term capital gains from selling shares/equity mutual funds is taxed at 15%.
Interest earned on bank fixed deposits and savings accounts is taxed at the marginal rate of tax. So is the income earned from post office savings schemes and the senior citizens savings scheme. In comparison dividends received from shares is tax free in the hands of the investor.
Long term capital gains on debt mutual funds are taxed at 10% without indexation or 20% with indexation, whichever is lower. Indexation essentially takes inflation into account while calculating the cost of purchase. Let us say an investor buys a debt mutual fund unit at a price of Rs 100. A little over a year later he sells it at Rs 110. Let us say the inflation during the course of that year was 8%. Hence, his indexed cost of purchase will be Rs 108 (Rs 100 + 8% of Rs 100).
In this case the capital gains would be Rs 2 (Rs 110 – Rs 108) and he would end up paying a tax of 40 paisa (i.e. 20% of Rs 2). Hence, a 40 paisa tax is paid on capital gains or an income of Rs 10 (Rs 110 – Rs 100), meaning an effective income tax rate of 4% (40 paisa expressed as a percentage of Rs 10).
In case an individual had invested Rs 100 in a fixed deposit paying an interest of 10%, he would have earned Rs 10 at the end of the year as interest from it. On this he would have had to pay a minimum tax of 10%(assuming he earns enough to fall in a tax bracket) because interest earned from a fixed deposit is taxed at the marginal rate of income tax. Whereas as we saw in case of a debt mutual fund the effective rate of income tax came to around 4%.
Along similar lines long term capital gains from sale of property is taxed at 20% post indexation. So the effective rate of tax is much lower in case of capital gains made on selling property as well. In fact, even this tax need not be paid if one buys capital gains bonds or another property within a certain time frame. And given that a large portion of property transactions are in black, the effective rate of income tax comes out even lower.
The point I am trying to make is that the modes of income for the rich like share dividends, capital gains from selling shares, equity mutual funds, debt mutual funds or property for that matter, are taxed at lower effective income tax rates, in comparison to the modes of investment of the aam aadmi. 
The purported logic at least in case of long term capital gains from shares being tax free is that it will encourage the so called retail investor/small investor to invest in the stock market and thus help entrepreneurs raise capital for their businesses. But that as we all know has not really happened. And essentially this regulation has been helping those who already have a lot of money. What I fail to understand further is why should investing in a debt mutual fund like a fixed maturity plan (which works precisely like a fixed deposit does and matures on a given day) be more beneficial tax wise vis a vis investing in a fixed deposit?
As we saw in the earlier example a fixed deposit investor pays minimum tax at the rate of 10% on the interest earned. He could even pay an income tax as high as 30% . On the other hand a debt mutual fund investor pays an effective tax at the rate of 4%, irrespective of which marginal rate of income tax he falls under. Why should that be the case?
I think we need to move towards a more equitable income tax structure where various modes of income, at least those earned through investing, should be taxed at the same rate. For starters indexation benefits which are currently available on debt mutual funds and sale of property should also be available when calculating the tax on interest earned on fixed deposits and savings accounts. Inflation doesn’t only impact those investing in debt mutual funds and property, it also impacts those who invest in bank fixed deposits and savings accounts.
Further long term capital gains on selling shares/equity mutual funds should be taxed at marginal rates with indexation benefits being taken into account. That would make the tax system more equitable than from what it currently is.
It would also amount to the rich paying more tax without introducing a higher tax rate or a surcharge of 10% on the highest marginal rate of 30%(which would mean an effective rate of 33%), as is being suggested currently.
Several experts are against this move and I partly agree with them. As an article in the India Today points out “Economist Surjit S. Bhalla argues that there is no real rationale for taxing the top income segment any further. Bhalla uses official data to show that the top 1.3 per cent of income taxpayers in India already account for 63 per cent of total personal tax revenue. In comparison, in the US, the top 1 per cent of taxpayers contribute just 37 per cent of total income taxes.”
That’s a fair point against higher taxes for the rich. But what we really need to know is what is the effective rate of income tax being paid by the rich? Is the situation similar to Buffett’s America, where Buffett pays an effective income tax of 17.4% whereas his employees pay an average tax of 36%? Only the Income Tax department can answer that.
Having said that, I don’t see India moving towards a more equitable income tax structure. In order to do that long term capital gains on selling stocks which is currently at zero percent would have to be done away with. And that would mean long term capital gains on stocks being taxed in a similar way as debt mutual funds/property currently are.
Hence, stock market investors would end up paying some income tax. And that as we have seen in the past, this is something they don’t like. Any attempt to tax them is met by mass selling and the stock market falling.
A falling stock market would mean that dollars being brought in by foreign investors will stop to come or slowdown. When foreign investors bring dollars, they sell those dollars to buy rupees, which they use to invest in the stock market in India. This perks up the demand for the rupee leading to its appreciation against the dollar.
A stronger rupee would mean a lower oil import bill. Oil is bought and sold internationally in dollars. If oil is worth $110 per barrel, and one dollar is worth Rs 55, it means India pays Rs 6050 per barrel ($110 x Rs 55) of oil. If one dollar is worth Rs 50, it means India pays a lower Rs 5500 per barrel ($110 x Rs 50) of oil.
Lower oil imports would help control our current account deficit which is at record levels. It would also help control our fiscal deficit as the government forces the oil marketing companies to sell products like kerosene, cooking gas and diesel at a loss and then compensates them for the loss. It would also help oil companies control their petrol losses.
This is a dynamic that Chidambaram cannot ignore. He will have to keep the foreigners and the stock market investors happy to ensure that the stock market keeps rising. Meanwhile, the rich will continued to be taxed at lower effective rates.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on February 21, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])