by Gaurav S. Ghosh.
Section 33 is one of the more talked-about provisions of the Finance Act, 2018. This is the section that reintroduces a tax on long-term capital gains (“LTCG”), where the LTCG arises from the transfer of “an equity share in a company or a unit of an equity-oriented fund or a unit of a business unit” (Ministry of Law and Justice, 2018). Under the new law, a tax of ten percent will be liable on all LTCG exceeding INR one lakh, where the LTCG arises from the sale of assets described above held for over a year (Income Tax Department, 2018).
The LTCG tax has come in for scrutiny and criticism in the financial press. Some commentators have predicted negative consequences for small investors (Arora, 2018; Sampath & Thomas, 2018). Others have noted that the tax will lead to double taxation because some securities transactions will bear both the LTCG tax and the already existing securities transaction tax (Sampath & Thomas, 2018; Business Today, 2018). Yet others have pointed out that there is a lack of clarity about the application of the LTCG tax to specific transaction types, including share inheritances, mergers, and initial public offerings (Upadhyay, 2018). The central government has defended the tax by pointing out that it reduces distortions in investment incentives by reducing discrepancies in tax rates across asset classes (The Hindu, 2018; The Telegraph, 2018).
The opinions have been manifold and heterogenous but have been, in the end, no matter how well reasoned, only opinions. There has been a shortage of quantitative economic analysis of the LTCG and its effect on the Indian economy. In this article, we address this gap by presenting our estimates of the impact of the LTCG on the cost of investment in the main sectors of the Indian economy and at the all-India level.
Intuitively, one would expect the LTCG tax to increase the cost of investment since it increases the hurdle rate – the minimum return that an investment project must earn for financial viability – of a project. Consider a simple example where an investment project is financed only by equity and dividends are not distributed. Suppose the investors expect a 7.0 percent post-tax return from the project. Before the LTCG tax, the project would be feasible if it had a pre-tax return of 7.0 percent. Under the LTCG tax, the project feasibility would require a pre-tax return of at least 7.7 percent: 7.0 percent for the investor as capital gains and 0.7 percent for the government as the LTCG tax. The LTCG tax has thus increased the project’s hurdle rate from 7.0 percent to 7.7 percent.
In the example above, the cost of investment increased by the full extent of the LTCG tax. This is not true for a real-world investment whose tax cost is a function of all the taxes associated with the investment, macroeconomic conditions, and the structure of the investment itself. Apart from the LTCG tax, other taxes affecting the investment cost are the corporate income tax and indirect taxes. There are also tax incentives, which may be asset- and sector-specific, that reduce the tax cost of investment. The investment will have a particular distribution of assets – some investments require more transportation assets, others more machinery assets – and this structure too affects the tax cost of investment. This is because each asset has a different tax treatment: if highly taxed assets are a major cost of investment, then the tax cost will be high and vice versa. And macroeconomic conditions like inflation affect the value of benefits like depreciation allowances, and therefore affect the tax cost of investment.
Given the complex relationships that define the tax cost of investment, it is not feasible to predict with certainty what the relationship between the LTCG tax and the cost of investment might be. But two hypotheses might be formulated on the basis of the discussion above. First, the LTCG tax will increase the tax cost of investment; after all, it does increase the cost of project finance. Second, the impact of the LTCG tax will be minor; considering the wide array of factors affecting the tax cost.
Measuring the tax cost of investment requires an adequate modelling framework. The framework should at least have the three following characteristics. First, it should be flexible enough to model the impacts of all taxes and tax incentives on the cost of investment. Second, the model should be well targeted, i.e. it should measure the tax impact on investment, but not non-investment activities. Finally, the model should allow aggregation, such that firm-level data can be used to estimate tax costs at the sectoral or national levels.
One model that meets these criteria is used to measure Marginal Effective Tax Rates (“METRs”). This model uses firm-level and macroeconomic data to estimate the tax wedge on investment, the difference between the pre-tax and post-tax rates of return earned by a marginal investment project. By construction, the METR model only focuses on marginal investment to the exclusion of other aspects of a firm’s business. The METR itself is a function of all taxes and tax incentives levied. These include direct taxes on businesses and investors, indirect taxes on capital purchases, and incentives like accelerated depreciation and tax credits. And the model allows for aggregation from firm-level METRs right up to one national level number.
We have estimated the tax cost of investment using the METR model, which we have developed for India and discussed earlier on this website (see Ghosh & Mintz (2017)). Specifically, we have estimated the tax cost of investment before and after the implementation of the LTCG tax. A comparison of the before and after values provides an estimate of the impact of the LTCG tax on the tax cost of investment.
Figure 1: METRs before and after implementation of the LTCG tax
Source: Own calculations
METRs in the main sectors of the Indian economy and at the overall all-India level are shown in Figure 1. These sectors together comprised 96.5 percent of all investment in the Indian economy in FY2015-16 (Prowess, 2018). Each sector in Figure 1 has three data points. The left-hand column is the METR before the LTCG tax was reinstated, i.e. LTCG tax rate = 0.0 percent. The right-hand column is the METR after the LTCG tax was reinstated, i.e. LTCG tax rate = 10.0 percent. The line shows the change in the METR after the imposition of the LTCG tax.
The results indicate that the LTCG tax has increased the tax cost of investment – as measured by METRs – in all sectors of the Indian economy. The only exception is the agriculture sector, which is the beneficiary of multitudinous direct and indirect tax exceptions. These combine to ensure that the LTCG tax has no effect on the agriculture METR.
Overall, at the all-India level, the METR has increased from a pre-LTCG-tax value of 20.3 percent to a post-LTCG-tax value 21.1 percent: implementing an LTCG tax of 10.0 percent has yielded a 3.9 percent increase in the METR. This is equivalent to an elasticity of 0.03 in the neighbourhood of the LTCG tax rate. One may infer that the METR is barely sensitive to the LTCG tax rate.
The minimal response of the METR to the LTCG tax is confirmed by the result in Figure 2, where a METRs are plotted for a sequence of the LTCG tax rates. Increasing the LTCG rate from zero to 20.0 percent only increases the METR from 20.3 percent to 21.9 percent, an increase of 8.1 percent. The relationship between the LTCG tax and the METR is roughly linear (the relationship is slightly convex, but this is not very evident in Figure 2).
Figure 2: Relationship between the METR and the LTCG tax
Source: Own calculations
Coming back to Figure 1, we see heterogeneity in the METR change at the sectoral level where – not counting agriculture – the change in METRs range from 1.8 percent in the “other” sector to 7.8 percent in manufacturing. The largest [smallest] METR changes are in the sectors with the lowest [highest] METRs. In other words, the LTCG tax has the greatest [smallest] impact on METRs in sectors where investment is least [most] burdened by taxes. The sectors most affected by the LTCG are manufacturing and transportation, which have the lowest METRs. Manufacturing has a low METR because of generous tax depreciation allowances on machinery. The low METRs for the transportation sector depend on firms charging GST under the forward charge mechanism. If the reverse charge mechanism were used, then the METR is much higher because of significant blocked input tax credits. The least affected sectors – “other” and finance” – are also those with the highest METRs. These sectors suffer high METRs because of adverse asset compositions. Overall, it seems that the LTCG tax reduces tax load discrepancies across sectors by a small amount, and thereby contributes marginally to a levelling of the playing field for investment.
In summary, the following can be said about the impact of the LTCG tax on investment incentives in the country. First, the overall relationship between the LTCG tax and the tax cost of investment (as measured by the METR) is positive, but weak. Since the LTCG tax does not change the METR in any significant way, one may infer that it will not affect investment decisions to any significant degree. Second, there is some heterogeneity at the sector level, with sectors with hitherto low METRs worse affected by the LTCG tax change than sectors with high METRs. The LTCG tax therefore makes a (very) small contribution in levelling the playing field for investment. This second result provides weak support for the government’s contention that the LTCG tax will reduce investment distortions (The Telegraph, 2018), although the mechanism differs from that suggested in the referenced article.
Arora, I. (2018, Mar 14). Government receives requests to drop planned long-term capital gains tax.
Business Today. (2018, Feb 05). How LTCG tax affects mutual fund investors.
Ghosh, G., & Mintz, J. (2017, Nov 23). Measuring the pre and post GST tax cost of investment.
Income Tax Department. (2018). Tax on Long-Term Capital Gains, Income Tax Department, Ministry of Finance, New Delhi.
Ministry of Law and Justice. (2018). The Finance Act, 2018 (No. 13 of 2018), Ministry of Law and Justice (Legislative Department), New Delhi.
Prowess. (2018). [cross tabulation of data].
Sampath, A., & Thomas, S. (2018, Feb 09). Long-term capital gains tax on equity: Will it scare away small investors?.
The Hindu. (2018, Feb 06). For more equity: on long-term capital gains tax.
The Telegraph. (2018, Feb 06). LTCG exemption for equities was a risk for small investors, govt says.
Upadhyay, P. (2018, Feb 19). Union budget 2018: Long-term capital gains tax - the unanswered questions.
Gaurav S. Ghosh is an economist and Senior Manager at Ernst & Young LLP