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Reassessing the regressivity of the VAT

This paper reassesses the often-made conclusion that the VAT is regressive, drawing on tax microsimulation models constructed for an unprecedented 27 OECD countries. The paper first assesses the competing methodological approaches used in previous distributional studies, highlighting the distorting impact of savings patterns on cross-sectional analysis when VAT burdens are measured relative to income. As argued by IFS (2011), measuring VAT burdens relative to expenditure – thereby removing the influence of savings – is likely to provide a more meaningful picture of the distributional impact of the VAT. On this basis, the VAT is found to be either roughly proportional or slightly progressive in most of the 27 OECD countries examined. Nevertheless, results for a small number of countries highlight that broad-based VAT systems that have few reduced VAT rates or exemptions can produce a small degree of regressivity. Results also show that even a roughly proportional VAT can still have significant equity implications for the poor – potentially pushing some households into poverty. This emphasises the importance of ensuring the progressivity of the tax-benefit system as a whole in order to compensate poor households for the loss in purchasing power from paying VAT. In the broader context of the COVID-19 crisis, the findings of the paper suggest there may be scope in many countries for VAT reform to help address revenue needs, as this revenue may be generated with less significant distributional effects than previously thought. While standard VAT rates are high in many countries, OECD evidence shows that scope exists to broaden VAT bases. Nevertheless, any VAT increases, including VAT base broadening measures that impact the poor, should be accompanied by compensation measures for poorer households, such as targeted tax credits or benefit payments.

Published on August 10, 2020