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VAT, Tariffs, and Withholding: Border Taxes and Informality in Developing Countries

  • Michael Keen

This paper explores the implications of a distinctive feature of the value added tax (VAT) that is stressed by practitioners but essentially ignored by theorists: that it functions, in part, as a tax on the purchases of informal operators from formal sector businesses and, not least, on their imports. It stresses too the potential importance of the creditable withholding taxes that are levied by many developing countries-which have also been ignored. If both of these instruments are optimally deployed, it is shown, then the usual prescription that a small economy should not deploy tariffs remains valid even in the presence of an informal sector; and indeed a simple strategy is established-generalizing the standard prescription developed in models without informality-for deploying these instruments so as to preserve government revenue and increase welfare in the face of efficiency-improving tariff cuts. Conditions are established under which a VAT alone is fully optimal, precisely because it is in part a tax on informal sector production. But they are restrictive: more generally, an efficient tax structure requires deploying both a VAT and withholding taxes.

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Paper provided by International Monetary Fund in its series IMF Working Papers with number 07/174.

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Length: 30
Date of creation: 01 Jul 2007
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:imf:imfwpa:07/174
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  1. Diamond, Peter A & Mirrlees, James A, 1971. "Optimal Taxation and Public Production: I--Production Efficiency," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 61(1), pages 8-27, March.
  2. James E. Anderson, 1997. "Trade Reform with a Government Budget Constraint," Boston College Working Papers in Economics 348., Boston College Department of Economics.
  3. Jose Scheinkman & Aureo de Paula, 2007. "The Informal Sector," 2007 Meeting Papers 117, Society for Economic Dynamics.
  4. Keen, M. & Ligthart, J.E., 2004. "Coordinating Tariff Reduction and Domestic Tax Reform under Imperfect Competition," Discussion Paper 2004-78, Tilburg University, Center for Economic Research.
  5. Keen, Michael & Mintz, Jack, 2004. "The optimal threshold for a value-added tax," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(3-4), pages 559-576, March.
  6. Knud Jørgen Munk, 2006. "Tax-tariff reform with costs of tax administration," Economics Working Papers 2006-14, School of Economics and Management, University of Aarhus.
  7. John Piggott & John Whalley, 2001. "VAT Base Broadening, Self Supply, and the Informal Sector," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(4), pages 1084-1094, September.
  8. Newbery, David M., 1986. "On the desirability of input taxes," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 20(3), pages 267-270.
  9. Emran, M. Shahe & Stiglitz, Joseph E., 2005. "On selective indirect tax reform in developing countries," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 89(4), pages 599-623, April.
  10. Roger Gordon & Wei Li, 2005. "Tax Structure in Developing Countries: Many Puzzles and a Possible Explanation," NBER Working Papers 11267, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Baunsgaard, Thomas & Keen, Michael, 2010. "Tax revenue and (or?) trade liberalization," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 94(9-10), pages 563-577, October.
  12. Aureo de Paula & Jose A. Scheinkman, 2007. "The Informal Sector, Second Version," PIER Working Paper Archive 07-035, Penn Institute for Economic Research, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania, revised 17 Oct 2007.
  13. Michael Keen & Johanna Elisabeth Ligthart, 1999. "Coordinating Tariff Reduction and Domestic Tax Reform," IMF Working Papers 99/93, International Monetary Fund.
  14. Hatzipanayotou, Panos & Michael, Michael S. & Miller, Stephen M., 1994. "Win-win indirect tax reform : A modest proposal," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 44(1-2), pages 147-151.
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