Tax exemptions are rarely the most efficient tool available to foster private investment

For many countries in the developing world, tax exemptions are considered a crucial instrument for stimulating private local investment and, mainly, attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows. According to the point of view that promotes tax expenditures as a convenient tool for achieving these goals, these exceptions eventually lead to job creation, and an increase in exports and growth. However, their success in this matter is not completely clear.

The existence of tax exemptions has been widely criticised for many valid reasons. Most of the studies in this subject show that they are rarely the most efficient tool available to foster private investment and that they might lead to weaker tax systems which could compromise the state´s capacity to do economic and social policies. According to Chuck Marr and Brian Highsmith, in the US “if tax expenditures were classified as spending rather than tax benefits, they would constitute the single largest category of federal spending — consuming more resources annually than Social Security”. In addition, tax exemptions do not appear to be the best tool to achieve a more progressive tax system as the spending is tilted toward high-income earners, although they are the group of individuals least likely to need financial persuasion in order to engage in the kind of activities that tax expenditures are generally designed to promote.

So, the question is ‘what can the G20 do in this matter?’

And the answer is ‘plenty’. It is undeniable that the G20 plays a crucial role in most international economic decisions nowadays, and G20 leaders taking a stand on this subject can make the difference. In this sense, the G20 should lead the standardization process by establishing a regular G20 policy dialogue on this matter, facilitating technical cooperation and developing international backup guidelines that emphasise and explain the differences with other available policy options. This will not only be useful for the G20 members, but it will also be helpful for all of the countries that currently do not have the capacity to design and/or implement their own standards from scratch.

Some critics of tax exemptions argue that they often encourage competitive behaviour among developing countries, since each country has the incentive to give further exemptions in order to ensure and increase investments. This could lead to a sort of ’race to the bottom’ among developing countries, which reduces the potential positive effects of the investment. This is why it would be desirable for the G20 to support current initiatives fostering cooperation, coordinating and encouraging global partners and regional specialist organizations, and promoting technical cooperation among them. In this sense, a great start would be strengthening regional tax cooperation agencies as they can help promote better practices at this level. These organizations should share the information they already have regarding tax expenditures and coordinate their efforts in the future in order to enhance data collection, and also exploit the existing opportunities for cross learning between partner organizations.

Finally, it is important to notice that most G20 finance minister’s statements and agreements regarding tax cooperation refer to the OECD BEPS agenda (and the MPA before that) and, therefore, are exclusively focused on multinational companies. In this sense, a broader approach would be desirable, as in many countries individual exemptions constitute an important share of tax expenditures (in the US, for instance, in 2015 90% of the tax exemptions went to individuals).


Magalí Brosio

Economic Development External Consultant

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