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Recently the ALP announced a policy (effective 1st July 2019 in the event they win the next Federal election) that removes the payment of excess imputation credits to shareholders receiving franked dividends where the tax payable on their income is less than the imputation credit available. The imputation credits effectively become a negative income tax, returning cash to the shareholder as a refund af taxation they haven’t paid.

Disclosure: my own retirement funds are held in a self-managed superannuation fund, which takes advantage of this refund to bolster its income and which is squarely in the firing line of this proposed change. In short, if it happens my future retirement income is likely to be reduced to some extent.

My first thoughts were that is was logical that if there is no tax liability on income, then the recipient of the income can’t be due a refund on tax they haven’t paid (or more likely that the imputation credits are greater than any tax liability – the excess of credits over liability are the “refund” under discussion). The more income that is based on franked dividends, the more likely there is to be an excess credit. Likewise, if a retiree is receiving income from a complying pension fund, that income is tax-free, making any imputation credits an excess, currently refunded.

After reading some of the submissions to a Parliamentary Inquiry into the proposal (most of which, not surprisingly, were unsupportive), I have come to the conclusion that your view of the matter probably hinges on your view of who owns the profits of companies who pay franked dividends, and of course, self-interest. Most of the submissions argued that those profits belonged to the shareholders, and that the tax paid on them by the company was in actual fact paid on behalf of those shareholders (see for example, the Australian Investors Association submission (PDF)). This has some basis – when applying the imputation credits, a shareholder’s income is “grossed up” to include the applicable tax paid on the earnings (with the balancing impact of the tax already paid by the company subtracted when calculating the tax payable by the shareholder). This view then holds that if the tax “prepaid” by the company on behalf of the shareholder, plus the tax paid on any other income the shareholder receives, exceeds the amount of tax payable on their total income they are due a refund of the excess.

The flipside of this is the view that shareholders and companies, while connected, act independently of one another. This view holds that since shareholders cannot directly control the amount of profit declared or dividend paid (or the ratio of dividend to profit), and are not liable for any corporate losses, the company pays the level of tax that it deems appropriate entirely on its own behalf (which will consider the reaction of shareholders), and any benefit accruing to shareholders by virtue of that tax paid is at the discretion of legislators, who can alter existing legislation to achieve policy outcomes they see as desirable. Part of the ALP’s thinking on this is around intergenerational equity and “budget repair”; while I think the arguments around Federal budget/surplus are misdirected, I can sympathise with the taxation equity argument, as retirement-age Australians are currently taxed much less heavily than they were in previous decades, and the taxation burden falls more heavily on working-age taxpayers as a result.

Opposition to the ALP policy from retirees and those close to it is entirely understandable, and predictable. There will be some negative impact on their incomes, and there is some truth to the argument for long-term predictability in the retirement savings regime, given the planning horizons in effect.

In the end, though, there are strategies that can be deployed to counter the effects of the policy changes to minimise their negative impact; and it’s true that most of the impact will be on wealthier retirees. A full review of taxation, particularly in relation to retirement funding, would possibly surface some better approaches than current ALP policy, but the political will seems absent. What we are left with is what the Grattan Institute’s submission (PDF) to the enquiry describes as a “second-best” solution:

In a world where there is no appetite for wholesale tax reform, where the government faces a long-term budget challenge, and where the income tax burden on working Australians continues to rise, a policy that indirectly requires richer older Australians to contribute may be the best we can do. Labor’s policy is secondbest policy in a third-best world.

So yes, I’m ambivalent. The situation is still somewhat hypothetical (while they are currently favoured, there is no certainty that the ALP will win the next Federal election, nor is it guaranteed that they will either seek to or be able to pass their declared policy, and I have no plans for imminent retirement) but there is little doubt that there will be some impact on my retirement income, probably negative. But on balance, and while a more comprehensive review and reformation of retirement-savings legislation would conceivably produce a better policy and some longer-term predictability to the regime, I still find it hard to argue that I should be quite so well-treated in taxation terms that I get a refund for tax not paid, particularly when it comes from my children’s pockets, and particularly when I have the opportunity to adjust my investment strategy to minimise its impact.

In short the answer is a qualified “Yes” …


[Update] Removed the remark about the tax coming from my kids’ pockets … there maybe an imbalance in the taxation burden across generations (but that’s a different discussion), but taxation ≠ Government revenue, so no “shortfall” in my tax liability actually has an impact on the Federal Government’s ability to fund public services.

There’s been a bit of discussion on social media since the Coalition’s framing of the changes as a “pensioner tax”, with some of the most ridiculous examples of the type of “hardship” caused from people with tax-free incomes of $160,000pa … it’s been a while since we’ve seen such egregious bullshit on display from a political party – must be an election coming 🙂