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16 September 2021

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IMF Issues Paper on Digitalization and Taxation in Asia

The International Monetary Fund has issued a departmental paper on Digitalization and Taxation in Asia including the impact of the reallocation of taxing rights under pillar I of the OECD's two-pillar solution for international tax reform, as well as digital service taxes (DSTs) and the extension of VAT to e-commerce and digital services.


Executive Summary

Digitalization in Asia is pervasive, unique, and growing. It stands out by its sheer scale, with internet users far exceeding numbers in other regions. This facilitates e-commerce in markets that are large by international standards, supported by innovative payment systems and featuring major corporate players, including a number of large, home-grown, highly digitalized businesses (tech giants) that rival US multinational enterprises (MNEs) in size. Opportunity for future growth exists, as a significant population share remains unconnected.

Digitalization raises new tax challenges and existing rules can be perceived as unfair. Existing income tax systems have been criticized as failing to confer taxing rights on jurisdictions where highly digitalized businesses have a large base of customers that generate value, but where they have no physical presence. Increasingly digitalized businesses may also have relatively more intangible assets (for example, trademark and patents), which are harder to value and easier to relocate, enabling profit shifting under existing rules. This may especially affect smaller, less developed economies. The nexus of digitalization and tax also goes beyond income taxation, raising issues regarding the effective value-added taxation of digital services, property rights over private information, and the use of digital technology in tax design and revenue administration.

Global tax reform proposals will create winners and losers in the region, although the overall revenue impact is likely to be modest. New taxing rights for market countries at the expense of residence countries, along the lines of proposals discussed under Pillar 1 of the OECD-Inclusive Framework (IF) will change the geographic distribution of tax revenue paid by MNEs in Asia. Investment hubs and low-tax jurisdictions are likely to lose revenue as less profit will be shifted towards them. Countries that do not host the headquarters of large MNEs, but have a large user base of their customers, are likely to gain revenue from the reallocation. Results are more ambiguous for countries that have both a large market and tax residence for large MNEs. For example, the home countries of Asia's tech giants could lose revenue if these firms have to pay more tax in other countries where they are expanding. While the revenue effects are likely to be modest for most countries under current proposals, the rapid pace of digitalization can increase the importance of this revenue reallocation effect over time.

Digitalization is increasing pressure on the century-old international tax framework, which more fundamental reforms could address in the medium term. The reforms currently being considered in the OECD-IF could be a step toward more comprehensive reforms in the future. Systems that are being discussed among tax experts include, for example, formulary apportionment and residual profit allocation. These approaches would cause a much larger reallocation of tax revenue across countries, with the largest losses expected for investment hubs. At the same time, these proposals could deliver considerable simplification and closer alignment of profit attributions to where production and sales take place. Depending on the design, these reforms could also ease the pressure of international tax competition and provide scope for increasing revenue raised from MNEs, including through an increase in CIT rates as desired by countries.

Unilateral tax measures, such as digital services taxes (DSTs), adopted by a number of Asian countries are likely to have small revenue effects. DSTs are simpler in design and implementation than corporate income tax initiatives, but risk introducing distortions of double taxation and trade retaliation. In taxing gross revenue, they are blind to the profitability of the ring-fenced tech giants and therefore less efficient than alternative profit taxation reform options. Countries with domestic tech giants may find a DST less attractive as the income of these firms is already taxed under the existing CIT regime. A relatively narrow gross revenue tax base also results in limited revenue collection—often estimated in the range of 0.01-0.02 percent of GDP, suggesting that the choice to introduce a DST needs to be weighed against other tax reform priorities. That said, revenue from DSTs may have higher buoyancy in the future, given strong growth of digital economic activity, a trend that has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Extending the value added taxes (VAT) to capture e-commerce and digital services more effectively could yield significant short-term revenue and other efficiency gains. Capturing VAT on digitally provided services and e-commerce supplied from abroad will help countries increase revenue unilaterally. Applying VAT consistently on all digital imports also levels the playing field between domestic and foreign suppliers, and between goods and services—thus enhancing efficiency. The expected revenue effects from effectively doing so are greater than from DSTs or the global reform proposal currently under consideration under OECD-IF Pillar 1, in particular when accounting for indirect returns from relying on marketplaces as a third party information source and as collection agents to expand the VAT base. There is scope to leverage administrative reforms in VAT on digital imports to support both the compliance management of residents and the implementation of corporate tax reforms that shift taxing rights to the market country for non-residents.

For many Asian countries, additional efforts in taxation are necessary to meet their revenue mobilization needs. International tax reform towards greater destination-based income taxation in combination with a global minimum tax (Pillar 2 of the OECD-IF) would ease pressures from international tax competition and allow countries to raise corporate income tax rates if desired. Further revenue mobilization efforts might be required to finance future spending needs. These could focus on broadening the tax base by removing tax holidays, exemptions, and other preferential tax treatments. These are common in developing Asia but are often ineffective and inefficient and could even become redundant under a global minimum tax. Digitalization of tax administrations could further help revenue mobilization by addressing tax evasion and widen the tax base for corporate taxes and VAT. Such comprehensive tax reforms, however, go beyond the scope of this paper.

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