You'll never walk alone

Jun 22, 2020

Originally published on Business Post, 31 May 2020

The Japanese government is delivering generous one off relief payments to residents of Japan as part of a package of measures to lift its economy following the coronavirus pandemic. 


Japan, among the developed nations, has had one of the less stringent lockdowns with many businesses operating more or less as normal, except for the hospitality and tourism industries.  This per capita, no questions asked, lump sum is attractive but it is something of an outlier in the context of international economic responses.  One of the more striking aspects of government bailouts across the world has been their similarity of approach– cuts-and-pastes of policies between one jurisdiction and the next.  Now, as countries emerge from the restrictions, patterns of effectiveness of different types of government support for business are emerging.


Like Ireland, many countries used their Revenue Authority as a primary channel for economic relief.  Tax systems have the dual benefit of holding records on the entire business community (at least in theory) along with automated processes.  Few developed economies do not at this stage have highly automated systems for payroll tax collection and sales tax collection and this infrastructure has been widely used to pay funds to support employment.  New Zealand is of course a paradigm of how to deal with the pandemic, and has gone one step further.  The New Zealand Inland Revenue also delivers cheap loans to struggling businesses and the amount of the loans is predicated on the number of employees in the business.


Wage subsidy schemes like the Irish scheme have been introduced in the likes of Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and New Zealand.  Not all employment support schemes have been an unqualified success.  Some countries are finding that emergency coronavirus benefits for workers who have been made unemployed trump the benefits of staying in employment.  Complexity and claimant publicity in Canada have turned out to be significant disincentives for take up, similarly to the rumblings in this country when the scheme was first announced here.  Reaction to the UK’s Job Retention Scheme to date seems to have been largely positive, but their scheme is only a few weeks old.


Countries are also exploring ways of getting more cash into troubled business.  Germany is looking to revise some of its tax rules so that losses in this pandemic year can be set against more profits already taxed in earlier years, resulting in refunds.  New Zealand is considering allowing estimates of likely losses in 2021 to be used to trigger tax refunds now.  In another echo of the Irish experience, Germany is scoping a new low rate of VAT for its restaurant sector.



It seems that in many countries, direct welfare benefits paid to individuals have not just undermined attempts to subsidise businesses to secure employment, but created issues of their own.  There has already been some debate in this country as to how recipients of the pandemic unemployment payment will account for the tax due on those payments at the end of the year.  In Germany it is unclear if individuals receiving comparable benefits to our Pandemic Unemployment Payment will be obliged to file tax returns; normal German tax administration procedures suggest that they will.  On the other hand the peculiarities of the Australian system are such that many individuals will look to file tax returns early to secure refunds of income tax overpaid. 


Revenue authorities in different parts of the world are thus facing the prospect of a flood of taxpayer activity either because of refunds due or obligations to be met.  That's something that could well happen here too, unless Revenue devise and publish processes to simplify compliance for all those workers facing tax liabilities arising either from the pandemic unemployment payment, or from wage subsidies which were not subject to PAYE.


Future problems are accruing.  It's not just Ireland that is proposing to “warehouse” tax debt, but in every country where there has been tax debt deferral, these liabilities will ultimately have to be paid.  Countries are tending to replace the pandemic business liquidity crisis with a business debt crisis.  As long as that continues, there is little prospect of rapid business recovery.  Businesses which are currently being kept on artificial life support through subsidies, loans and tax deferrals will hit a wall when these dry up.  In Australia, the talk is already of an “insolvency cliff”, as troubled small businesses have up to now been shielded by a nationwide ban on liquidations.


This week the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council was calling for an “adjustment” to the national finances but in fact are championing Austerity 2.0.  Yet if we do too much to hinder a return to previous levels of consumption, many businesses will be consigned to a limbo of business stagnation.  When the crisis hit, few jurisdictions had the time and space to look at models implemented in other countries before they introduced their own systems for pandemic relief. 


Now it is different.  While we can’t afford to follow the Japanese example, we can benefit from experiences in other countries, and learn from the ones that are getting it right.


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