VAT and Consumer Behaviour

Aug 06, 2020


Originally posted on The Business Post, 2 August 2020

VAT and Consumer Behaviour

Increases in VAT usually pass the acid test of tax policy – the extraction of the most amount of money with the least amount of complaint.  Compared to an income tax increase, the general population rarely gripes about increases in VAT rates.  Hiking the standard rate of VAT of 21% to 23% in 2012 generated hardly any noise compared to the introduction of USC and the reduction of allowances and credits the previous year.  So will people really notice the VAT decrease of 23% to 21% in the July Jobs Stimulus? 

VAT is a truly European tax in that the rules are devised in Brussels and then implemented in EU member countries.  It is Brussels that decides that the maximum rate of VAT cannot exceed 25%. .  European rules tell us that a box of teabags is charged 0% VAT, but a cup of tea in a café is charged 13.5% VAT while a tin of iced tea in the supermarket is charged 23% VAT.  There’s little enough any Irish government can do to tinker with the VAT system, except make marginal rate adjustments. 

VAT is a major contributor to the Irish Exchequer.  In 2019, over €15 billion was collected in net VAT receipts which is more than one quarter of the total tax receipts for that year, yet it is a notoriously blunt instrument of public policy.  No VAT is charged on the clothes of the children whose parents are on social welfare, but no VAT is charged either on the clothes of the children of high earners.  Maybe that’s why governments avoid using it for public policy purposes unless you include the now defunct 9% rate of VAT for the hospitality sector.   

So it was all the more surprising that the July stimulus knocked two percentage points off the main VAT rate.  The cost of this measure is €440 million, which is a little less than 10% of the total value of the package.  This estimate for the cost of this six month VAT reduction period is in line with Revenue estimates for good years.  In a moribund economy the Department of Finance seems to expect a spending spree.  Remember too that the 23% rate only applies to about half of the items or services we buy.  The rest are charged at lower rates or are exempt.

Outside of the retail sphere, the education sector and the banking sector pay sizeable amounts because their activities are largely VAT exempt.  These sectors cannot recover the VAT they pay on purchases because they don’t charge VAT on their sales.  In the main VAT is therefore a consumption tax ultimately falling on the consumer.  So will the VAT reduction boost sales of clothing, alcohol, electrical and other household goods and luxury foodstuffs which fall into the 23% VAT category?  

It might not, even if businesses pass on the VAT rate reduction to their customers.  Despite suggestions otherwise from some political quarters, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe was quite clear that the 2% reduction should be passed on to consumers.  That's not going to make a huge difference for many items because the value of a 2% VAT reduction approximates to about €1.60 for every €100 spent.  It only becomes a different story if you go out to buy a big-ticket item like a car, where the VAT saving could perhaps insure it for a year.

There is no law obliging traders to reduce their prices because there has been a reduction in the VAT rate.  As long as they charge the correct amount of VAT at the correct time, they can take whatever margin they wish.  Past history however suggests that small VAT reductions like the current 2% reduction tend not to get passed on to consumers.  Part of the rationale when the 9% rate of VAT on hospitality was introduced was that a full 4.5% reduction to the normal 13.5% rate would be visible and palpable and therefore consumers would expect to see the difference.

So even if it is passed on, a 2% VAT reduction may be inadequate to drive additional volumes of consumer spending.  In terms of business benefit it might have been better to apply the projected €440 million cost towards reducing the vast amounts of VAT debt currently being warehoused against the day when businesses can finally pay their tax liabilities.  Given that the EU state aid restraints are temporarily lifted, that €440 million could have been targeted, for example, specifically to forgive some of the historical VAT due from the SME sector.  

The July jobs stimulus was good.  Ministers and their officials alike did well to deliver what in effect is a full scale national budget in the space of few weeks.  The purpose and rationale of many of the measures like the extension of the wage subsidy, the extension of the pandemic unemployment payments, and the extinguishing of commercial rates is readily apparent.  The object of this VAT reduction is not as clear.

I've never seen a tax reduction I didn't like.  However, many consumers may not notice this tax reduction and many businesses could benefit more from this element of the jobs stimulus if the cost of the VAT reduction was diverted to reducing their current and not their future tax debts.

Dr Brian Keegan is Director of Public Policy at Chartered Accountants Ireland