Taiwan faces a rising national deficit and increasing government debt, so it is reasonable that the government proposes new taxes. However, the government has reiterated that it has no plan to re-impose a capital gains tax on investment income, be it from stock or property sales. This shows it is still not ready to create a fair taxation environment.
On Thursday, the Chinese-language United Evening News reported that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) had allegedly discussed with Minister of Finance-designate Christina Liu (劉憶如) potential adjustments to the nation’s tax system, including the introduction of a capital gains tax on investment profits.
Although it was just media speculation about the “possibility” of such tariffs, both Liu and Financial Supervisory Commission Chairman Chen Yuh-chang (陳裕璋), as well as Presidential Office officials, immediately said the report was inaccurate. They said the matter was still under consideration and there was no rush by the government to implement a capital gains tax without consulting the public.
The question is whether the immediate denials reflected the market’s anxiety over the government’s plan to address the tax exemption on capital gains — one of the most contested issues in the nation’s tax system — or if the reaction showed officials’ fear of repeating the experience of Shirley Kuo (郭婉容), whose announcement of a capital gains tax on securities transactions in 1988, when she was minister of finance, caused the stock market to plummet for 19 consecutive days, or that of Wang Chien-shien (王建煊), who quit as minister of finance in 1992 because he wanted to levy the land value increment tax based on the actual transaction price rather than the officially assessed land value.
Of course, reform is painful and tax reform especially hard. That is why tax experts, academics and the media have been discussing the idea of capital gains tax on and off since the government shelved the capital gains tax on securities in 1990. The good news is that through the years, an increasing number of people have been willing to consider the idea that investors could pay tax on capital gains, but deduct investment losses from taxable income.
The occasion of the appointment of a new finance minister is a good time for a serious discussion of how to promote a more equitable society through fairer taxation, including the capital gains tax.
On Friday, Liu said that once she assumes her new post, she plans to convene a national tax reform committee to draft new tax policies. Liu also said she welcomed suggestions to improve the nation’s financial health, but she made clear that she would not impose a capital gains tax on securities transactions during her term. If Liu meant it and if the government were to deliver on its promise of narrowing the gap between rich and poor, then a capital gains tax deserves public discussion, like a windfall tax or other measures that can enlarge the nation’s tax base and promote fairer taxation rates.
Even so, the idea of convening another national tax reform committee could terrify many people, as not long ago a similar tax reform committee publicly criticized itself as being nothing but a rubber-stamp body for the government’s tax-cut policy, and for helping to widen the nation’s wealth gap and increase government debt.