Thursday, January 29, 2009

Prove the case or drop the tax

Prove the case or drop the tax

Finance Minister Flaherty hasn't done his research on income trusts

Diane Francis,
Financial Post
January 24, 2007

The only fair resolution to the Tory income-trust mess is to compensate every investor who held onto, or bought, income trusts after Stephen Harper uncategorically promised they would remain untouched eight months ago.

That, or they must abandon their proposed tax on existing trusts.

The stupidity of this trust tax is why the issue hasn't and won't go away. It's why Opposition parties have correctly forced a hearing for next month at the finance committee in the House of Commons.

Personally, I am offended by the actions and attitude of rookie Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

He was twice a rookie for: (a) not crafting an income-trust reform that would respect his Prime Minister's promise to leave existing income trusts alone; and (b) for not doing his homework in an area that he obviously doesn't understand - - thus the fact that he has parroted a number of obvious inaccuracies.

On the first gaffe, Mr. Flaherty should have known there were dozens of alternatives that would have stopped the proliferation of income trusts and, at the same time, surgically reformed existing ones without damaging investors. This is what the Americans and Australians did when they embarked on reforms.

But Mr. Flaherty did not do his research. He could not have because he said publicly that the Americans and Australians had shut down all their trusts except for real-estate ones. That's totally wrong.

The U.S. energy/infrastructure trust sector is now equivalent in size to 20% of the entire Toronto Stock Exchange, or more than US$480-billion. Whoops.

Then there's the tax leakage myth.

Department of Finance officials convinced, and gave Mr. Flaherty, the false information that registered retirement savings plans (RRSPs) and pension payments were tax-exempt. Too bad they aren't.

So the question that begs an answer is, why didn't this Finance Minister know this was untrue? Is it because he is not an investor and won't rely on his RRSP like 70% of Canadians must? Instead, he and his spouse are professional politicians with defined-benefit pension plans.

Another piece of "work" cited by government officials that tax leakage was an issue was done by Toronto academic Jack Mintz, who has been going around ever since distancing himself to paying customers on Bay Street from this research.

So there you have it: an academic allegedly unwilling to publicly come out defending or recanting as well as civil servants and a minister who apparently don't even understand how RRSPs or the tax system operates.

It's little wonder we have this mess -- which comes to my last, and possibly most important, point for the House of Commons committee members to consider and pursue.

About the only excuse I can think of to account for this $30- billion mistake is that securities laws prevented Flaherty from talking with knowledgeable industry sources ahead of time. There were leaks when the Liberals looked at income trusts and the Tories made an unholy fuss about that.

But that doesn't matter. Mr. Flaherty had plenty of experts to consult outside the Department of Finance, which has been gunning for this tax for ages.

If he wanted to understand the nature of RRSP and pension tax treatments, he could have called former finance minister Michael Wilson, who invented RRSPs in the 1980s

He is now on the government payroll as U.S. Ambassador and, therefore, securities law safe.

More important, Flaherty could have, and should have, picked up the phone and called the most knowledgeable man in the country -- Bank of Canada governor David Dodge.

If he did not do that, it's recklessness. If he did, and didn't listen, he was irresponsible. If he listened and rejected, then he had better tell the committee why the man who really runs the economy was wrong last summer when he defended income trusts after a bank study.

Here is what Dodge said in 2006:

"The work we have done in terms of capital markets, per se, is that probably, on balance, income trusts make capital markets somewhat more complete and somewhat more efficient," Dodge told a news conference held as part of the bank's quarterly economic outlook. The bank studied trusts.

"Limited evidence suggests that income trusts may enhance market completeness by providing diversification benefits to investors and a source of financing to firms that might not otherwise have had access to markets," the bank's study said.

That's why it is no wonder people who understand capital markets are furious.

Now, firms like PriceWaterhouseCoopers and various prestigious money-management firms are joined in the Canadian Association of Income Trust Investors.

And their bottom line is the same as mine. This Finance Minister must prove his case or drop the tax.

"If the government's actions cannot be fully substantiated by independent experts with proven expertise in the workings of the Canadian capital markets, then our Association will be calling for the repudiation of the Tax Fairness Plan in the name of fairness and good governance."

It all proves that being Finance Minister of Canada requires a lot more sophistication and a lot more experience than just paying bills, cutting costs and tinkering with local taxes as a provincial treasurer.

© 2008 The National Post Company. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution, transmission or republication strictly prohibited.


Loraine Lamontagne said...

You mean, the Finance Minister is not the guy who signs all the cheques?

Just kidding! But not that long ago, the National Puss' editorial board would write that - and seriously...

Ms. Francis' article is music to my ear.

I am still shocked by this tax on income trusts - I know so many people who have been affected negatively by this.

Dr Mike said...

This article was written over 2 years ago & it is still as relevant today as it was then.

Incredible , two years have gone by & still nothing done to correct this madness.

Two years & billions of lost savings that could have been spent on goods & services in this country.

Two years & countless trust takeovers resulting in billions of lost tax revenue.

Two years of hounding the Liberal MPs to do something .

Two years & nothing done.

A gift has been handed to the Liberals in their quest to regain power & still nothing.

Makes a person wonder why--I hate to think any black thoughts but why?????

Dr Mike.