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Government Decides on FY 2011 Tax Reform Outline [ 2011.01.04 ]

[NewsJapan.net] The government on December 16 decided on a tax reform outline for fiscal 2011 (April 2011–March 2012) characterized by a lowering of the effective corporate tax rate, a measure aimed to bring deflation to an end and expand job opportunities, and larger levies on individuals, in particular high-income people and the wealthy. The Ministry of Finance explained that companies as a whole will enjoy 580 billion yen in lowered taxes while individuals will pay 490 billion yen more, resulting in a net tax cut of 90 billion yen (The Nikkei, December 17).

Objectives of Ending Deflation, Expanding Employment, and Correcting Inequalities

The effective corporate tax rate, the major focal point of the tax reform outline this time, will be cut by about five percentage points from the current level of 40.69% (local tax included), which is much higher than in other major countries, to 35.64%. Voices were heard within the government calling for the range of the tax reduction to be smaller because of the revenue shortage, but Prime Minister Naoto Kan decided on the rate with a view to expanding domestic investment and employment and ending deflation by boldly reducing the corporate tax. The business sector has long been calling for a corporate tax cut to make Japan more competitive in terms of the cost of doing business. It will be the first corporate tax cut in Japan in 12 years.

In the individual sector, on the other hand, people in higher income brackets and the wealthy will be required to bear higher taxes from the viewpoint of rebuilding government finances and correcting income disparities. Measures include a reduction in the amount of income tax deductions and heavier inheritance taxes. In a press conference on December 16, Prime Minister Kan stressed, “We are asking well-off members of the public to bear a larger burden, but [the corporate tax reduction] will increase employment and the number of regular workers, thus correcting inequalities” (Yomiuri Shimbun, December 17).

Prior to the cabinet decision on the tax reform outline, Prime Minister Kan held talks with Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura to strongly request efforts by the business community to boost domestic investment and employment, since companies will benefit from the reduced corporate tax. While basically welcoming it as a good first step, however, businesses are mixed in their evaluation of the tax cut. Some corporate executives say the reduction is insufficient and still leaves the Japanese rate much higher than that of other major countries. Others argue that it should be up to companies what to do with the extra money made available by the tax cut. It is said that major Japanese companies are already awash with surplus cash amounting to upward of 200 trillion yen (Bank of Japan statistics, as of the end of March 2010).

Editorial Commentaries in Major Newspapers

On December 17 all of Japan’s major newspapers carried editorials on the tax reform outline. They uniformly expressed concern about the fact that the outline this time has put off a full-fledged revamping of the tax system, including a consumption tax hike.

The Yomiuri editorial commented, “The Tax Commission failed to get into any discussions on the tax system itself, relying only on makeshift reforms aimed at making ends meet through tax increases and cuts. Discussions on the consumption tax hike had been ‘off-limits’ politically. We are left with the impression that the panel’s discussions jumped about in utter confusion without an overall picture of drastic tax system reform in sight.” It also stated, “We think Kan’s decision to go for the five-percentage-point cut is quite appropriate. . . . [But] this cut should be no more than a first step. It alone will not be enough to ensure Japanese business firms can compete well on the global stage. The government should aim to cut the rate further in future tax system reforms. How companies will spend the extra cash in their pockets is up for debate. If firms save this money and do not invest it in domestic plant and equipment or to boost employment, the point of the tax cut will be lost.”

The Asahi Shimbun editorial observed, “Individuals with relatively high incomes will bear the brunt of the tax increase. The government may be criticized for simply taking the path of least resistance in crafting the plan for tax hikes. But it should be acknowledged that the plan has the merit of improving some structural problems with the tax code.” Meanwhile, it also remarked, “Since the Kan administration has not laid out an overall vision for a sweeping reform of the tax code, including a consumption tax hike, it cannot even come up with rough ideas about how to secure funds for its key policy initiatives and about how the burden will be shared among the people. The tax system is an important foundation for the well-being of the people. If the government lacks clear future visions for society and the tax system, it cannot possibly map out a viable future for the social security system.”

The Mainichi Shimbun editorial declared, “It has become more evident than ever that the gimmick of making both ends of the books look like meeting is approaching its limits. Hidden fiscal assets that have been utilized for that purpose are no longer dependable. In the meantime, all of the postwar baby boomers are reaching a senior age, accelerating the expansion of the budget for pension and health care. We can no longer afford to keep postponing an overhaul of the tax system, including a raise of the consumption tax.”

The Nikkei editorial stated, “It is a mistaken policy to force people with higher income to bear the brunt of the income tax hike. That will undermine popular willingness to work harder in order to earn a higher income. It will also work against attracting talented foreigners to come to work in Japan. On the other hand, the consideration given to reducing the corporate tax burden and reinvigorating financial markets deserves credit.” It went on, “The difference in corporate tax rates compared with European and Asian countries will still remain sizable. . . . It should be cut further in the future.” The Nikkei added, “In order to cover the increasing social welfare costs, a hike in the consumption tax is unavoidable and an overall tax reform to review income and corporate taxes is essential. The government and the ruling parties say they will come up with a reform plan in the middle of next year, but their attitude of continually avoiding measures that would involve a further burden makes us doubtful.”

The Sankei Shimbun editorial commented, “The outline of next fiscal year’s tax reform worked out by the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan features measures that are heavily geared to higher taxes as a whole. In conclusion, while its direction may be called generally appropriate, much of the public presumably will not embrace the way the increased taxes are going to be spent. Although the consumption tax has been left unchanged, the reform touches on a wide range of items unseen in recent years, such as personal income, assets, corporate taxation, and the introduction of an environment tax, and it is characterized by a trend toward higher taxation except the corporate tax.”

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