On the Threshold: Smallness and the Value-Added Tax

Satterthwaite, Emily Ann

Three-quarters of the world’s population live in a country in which a valueadded tax (VAT) is collected on sales of goods and services. The registration threshold determines which businesses—typically as measured by their annual revenues—remain exempt from the obligation to register for and collect VAT on their sales. Among VAT economists, there is broad consensus that setting thresholds higher rather than lower (such that more rather than fewer businesses are exempt) increases the economic efficiency of a VAT. Despite these high stakes and the longstanding expert consensus in favor of high thresholds, real-world thresholds vary widely and skew low, even within OECD and European countries. This article leverages the insights of the economic model to address an issue that lies outside of it but is central to lawyers and policymakers: fairness. Numerous studies show that smaller businesses’ costs of complying with the VAT are disproportionately higher than those of larger businesses. To the extent that lower-income entrepreneurs internalize those costs or pass them on to lower-income consumers, there is a vertical equity rationale for raising thresholds. Moreover, in the (typical) context in which small firms are more common than large firms, setting thresholds higher rather than lower—while also offering small suppliers an election to voluntarily register—can reduce the competitive unfairness of drawing an arbitrary line among similarly-situated firms. Under such conditions, higher registration thresholds can improve both the fairness and the efficiency of a VAT.


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Columbia Journal of Tax Law

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April 20, 2018