Goldman Sachs avoiding the 50p rate proves the folly of cutting it too soon

The 45p rate gets an artificial boost while 50p is made worse in comparison.

Goldman Sachs is considering whether to defer bonuses for its employees into the new tax year, starting 6 April, in order to avoid the 50p tax rate.

The Guardian's Jill Treanor reports:

A number of banks are known to have considered whether to make the move, which would save their top employees thousands of pounds. But City sources believe many of them have rejected the idea to avoid any negative publicity in the wake of the row surrounding corporation tax paid by Starbucks in the UK.

The Wall Street firm – which publishes its full year results on Wednesday and tells staff their bonuses for 2012 shortly afterwards – is not thought to be considering changing the way the bonuses for 2012 are handed out. The proposal being considered would benefit parts of bonuses deferred from the years 2009, 2010 and 2011, which are due to be handed to staff this year in the form of shares.

The move underlines the lack of evidence available that the 50p rate actually hurt revenues. HMRC's analysis in March last year determined that the optimal tax rate was 48 per cent, a figure which 1) didn't justify cutting the rate to 45 per cent and 2) was only derived due to a specific statistic – TIE, taxable income elasticity – being given a value of 0.45. Given studies cited by HMRC for TIE showed it being anywhere from -0.6 to 2.75, there's rather a lot of uncertainty in that analysis.

But the bigger problem for evidence of the tax cut's effects is that, in cutting the 50p rate so rapidly, the Chancellor destroyed the possibility that we might actually get some useful data. The most effective way to avoid the tax is to shift income forward or backward. As a result, the first year it was in operation revealed that £6.6bn of taxable income had been shifted forward by a year; and we now know that this year, the last it will be in operation, a significant chink of income will be shifted back to the 2013/14 tax year.

Add in the fact that even HMRC assumed that some income in 2011/12 will have been declared in 2009/10, and some more will have been coincidentally forestalled to 2012/13 (when it could be forestalled further to 2013/14), and it is clear: there has not been a single year when a "normal" amount of tax was paid at the 50p rate. Every year it was in operation will have resulted in an artificially depressed take.

Similarly, the 45p rate will, for the first few years of its operation, have an artificially boosted take. It will look far more effective at discouraging tax avoidance than it actually is.

Consider this a warning, then: 2014 will see a lot of attempts to misuse data to prove a point. Don't take it at face value.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.