The Distributional Effects of Value-Added Taxes in OECD Countries
Most OECD countries’ value-added tax (VAT) systems apply reduced VAT rates to a selection of expenditure items in order to achieve distributional goals, and – to a lesser extent – social, cultural and employment-related goals. This thesis investigates the distributional effects of the VAT in OECD countries, and the merits of using reduced VAT rates to achieve distributional goals. The research adopts a microsimulation modelling approach that draws on household expenditure microdata from household budget surveys for an unprecedented 27 OECD countries. A consistent microsimulation methodology is adopted to ensure cross-country comparability of results. Non-behavioural VAT microsimulation models are first built to examine the overall distributional impact of the current VAT systems in each country. The research assesses the competing methodological approaches used in previous studies, highlighting the misleading effect of savings patterns on cross-sectional analysis when VAT burdens are measured relative to income. Measuring VAT burdens relative to expenditure – thereby removing the influence of savings – is found to provide a more reliable picture of the distributional impact of the VAT. On this basis, the VAT is found to be either roughly proportional or slightly progressive in most of the 27 OECD countries examined. Nevertheless, results for a small number of countries (Chile, Hungary, Latvia and New Zealand) highlight that broad-based VAT systems that have few reduced VAT rates or exemptions can produce a small degree of regressivity. Results also show that even a roughly proportional VAT can still have significant equity implications for the poor – potentially pushing some households into poverty. Behavioural VAT microsimulation models are then built for 23 OECD countries to investigate whether reduced VAT rates are an effective way to support poorer households, and whether the use of targeted cash transfers would be more effective. The behavioural microsimulation methodology follows the Linear Expenditure System based approach of Creedy and Sleeman (2006). Complementing this approach, a Quadratic Almost Ideal Demand System (QUAIDS) is estimated specifically for New Zealand, thereby providing the first estimates of a QUAIDS model based on New Zealand data. Simulation results show that, as a whole, the reduced VAT rates present in most OECD countries tend to have a small progressive impact. However, despite this progressivity, reduced VAT rates are shown to be a highly ineffective mechanism for targeting support to poorer households: not only do rich households benefit from reduced rates, but they benefit more in aggregate terms than poor households do. When looking at reduced VAT rates applied to specific products, results are found to vary considerably. Reduced VAT rates specifically introduced to support the poor (such as reduced rates on food consumed at home and domestic utilities) are generally found to have a progressive impact, though rich households still receive a larger aggregate benefit than poor households. In contrast, reduced VAT rates introduced to address non-distributional goals (such as reduced rates on restaurants, hotels, and cultural and social expenditure) often have a regressive impact. Additional simulation results show that an income-tested cash transfer will better target support to poorer households than reduced VAT rates in all countries. Furthermore, even a universal cash transfer is found to better target poorer households than reduced VAT rates. However, results also show that it is very difficult for an income-tested cash transfer to fully compensate all poor households for the removal of reduced VAT rates. This is due to the significant variation in the underlying consumption patterns across households. While a small number of poor households lose out from replacing reduced VAT rates with targeted cash transfers, those that receive support are instead determined by income and family characteristics as opposed to consumption tastes – thereby increasing horizontal equity. Furthermore, many households are lifted out of poverty as revenue previously transferred to richer households is now transferred to poorer households. These results empirically confirm the theoretical expectation that, where available, direct mechanisms (whether via the income tax or benefit system) will better achieve distributional goals than reduced VAT rates. Countries that currently employ reduced VAT rates to achieve distributional goals should therefore consider removing these reduced rates and adjusting their income tax or benefit systems to achieve these distributional goals instead. Countries should also consider removing reduced VAT rates aimed at non-distributional goals where a more effective instrument is available to achieve the particular policy goal. At a minimum, the merits of these reduced VAT rates should be reassessed in light of their negative distributional impact.