[2904] Reintroducing GST now means austerity

Is this the right time to reintroduce the GST?


It is definitely the wrong time to reintroduce the GST at the previous rate of 6%.

Why is it the wrong time?

Because in time when economic growth is dropping off the cliff, having GST at 6% is essentially having an austerity program. It will exacerbate the situation. If you are worried about government finance, remember, government finance is not the economy. Do not forget that.

Why is it an austerity?

The current SST level is approximately equivalent to 4% of GST. Possibly slightly higher than 4% as the new SST has been improved to cover new items. Having GST at 6% is effectively a tax hike from the status quo.

And a tax hike in time of economic slowdown will make the downturn worse. A tax hike is austerity.

How about GST at 4%?

No. Just do not mess with it at this time. There will be an appropriate time to do so. Do not be so noob about it.


[2903] The 2015 revenue diversification was not due to GST per se

Because this entry is long, I will say it upfront: the diversification of 2015-2018 at its core was due to:

  1. Collapse in crude oil price, with Brent dropping from around $110 per barrel in early 2015 to about $40 per barrel by late December 2015. Half of the reduction in petroleum share of government revenue was due to the drop in petroleum prices, not GST.
  2. Higher taxes. The other half was due to higher taxes that came in the form of GST. Here, it is crucial to understand the difference between GST as a taxation system and the rates imposed. It is not GST per se that helped with the diversification. It was the higher tax rate. Indeed, the same could be imposed with SST with changes in tax rates.


The TL;DR version

Now that crude oil prices have collapsed, there are growing public concerns over the state of government revenue and louder talks for revenue diversification. Some groups have blamed the state that the government finds itself in now on the abolition of the GST.

They cite the 2015-2018 revenue diversification trend when the GST was in force, and the increased petroleum revenue share in 2018-2019 when the GST was no longer in place, as proofs that GST helped with diversification. And from there, their policy recommendation is clear: bring the GST back.

But such blaming and policy recommendation are simplistic. They breeze through the logic behind it without close inspection, and ending up misreading history and the factors at play. Needless to say, the policy recommendation problematic, at least it is made without eyes wide open.

Their logic is largely driven by reading the following chart while ignoring all the context:

A simple reading with GST firmly in mind (GST was introduced in 2015 to replace SST) would suggest GST was entirely responsible for the government’s reduced reliance on petroleum income, hence diversification of income. This is indeed the claim made.

But there were more than GST at play and the full context needs to be assess properly instead of being lazily stated via tweets.

Let us go through these two items in greater detail.

1: Falling share of petroleum income was due to fall crude oil prices

The first thing we need to realize is that the so-called diversification achieved in 2015 was in large part due to the drastic collapse of crude oil prices.

The best way to prove this is to go back to the 2015 Budget that provided a clearer picture how GST was supposed to diversify government revenue:

To do this, we need a 2-step comparison.

First, we need to compare the actual 2014 revenue share versus the budgeted 2015 revenue share to truly understand how much GST (we deal with the per se rationale in the next section) was planned to contribute to diversification. One as to remember that the 2015 Budget and all of its documents were prepared and released before the crude oil price dropped in a spectacular fashion by more than halving in less than 10 months.

Second, we need to compare the budgeted 2015 revenue share versus the 2015 actual revenue share. This will allow us to see how much of the diversification was due to collapse in crude oil prices, instead of GST per se.

To make it clearly, below is the items that need to be compared:

  1. Actual 2014 revenue share
  2. Budgeted 2015 revenue share
  3. Actual 2015 revenue share

First comparison. Judging from difference between actual 2014 revenue share and the 2015 budgeted figures, the plan was to diversify away from petroleum revenue by 4.3 percentage points (30.0% minus 25.7%). But remember, the collapse of crude oil prices had not been accounted for the 2015 budget. The assumed average Brent crude oil prices for 2015 made by the Najib administration was $105 per barrel, a start difference from the actual average price of $53 per barrel.

Second comparison. The drastic drop in petroleum prices put the 2015 Budget out of whack. So, instead contributing 25.7% of total government revenue, petroleum income share went down to 21.5% instead. (BN supporters had wrongfully claimed that the reduction of petroleum contribution from 30.0% to 21.5% had all been due to GST.) But as you can see, about half of that reduction was due to petroleum price collapse and nothing to do with GST. Meanwhile, SST/GST share grew above projection only because petroleum revenue fell. To double down on the argument, the 2015 actual total government revenue fell to 0.7%. That was how much petroleum was important to the government, even with GST in place.

The point here is that, collapse in petroleum price had a bigger role that many GST proponents cared to admit. In fact, many denied it altogether.

The oil prices slowly improved over the years, and you could see this in the increase in petroleum share in 2017 relative to 2016.

2: Higher tax, not GST per se, helped diversification

Now that we have determined that half of the reduction of petroleum contribution to government revenue from 2014 to 2015 was due to the collapsing petroleum prices instead of anything to do GST, we now can move on to the second point. That is, it was higher tax rate that helped the diversification, not GST per se.

This is a corollary from the old fact that we know and released by the previous government. That is, 4% of GST was equivalent to the current level of SST. With the GST introduced at 6%, this suggests that there was an effective 2 percentage points increase in consumption tax rate. It does not matter what form the tax hike came in, but the switch from SST and GST involved a tax hike worth 2 percentage point.

Indeed, the same increase in indirect tax revenue could be achieved with a hike in SST rates. There is always an equivalence between SST and GST.


So as you can see, stripped down to the very components of the revenue diversification of 2015, it was not the GST per se that contributed to it. Half of the diversification was purely due to collapse on petroleum prices and the rest very likely due to tax hike, and not the GST itself.

And this before accounting for refunds that were unpaid, which points to the fact that the GST net collection was lower than whatever reported under the cash-basis format that the government used.

Before I end, I would like state that I am pro-GST. I made this clear when reviewing Pakatan Harapan’s 2018 manifesto. And in fact, to accommodate the anti-GST sentiment (really, anti-tax hike sentiment) I had proposed that the GST rate be reduced to 4% from 6%. But the abolition promise was hard to overturn, and it was the price to pay for institutional reforms Malaysia badly needed after years of abuse.


[2891] SST did bring (core) prices down in September 2018

The shifts from SST to GST, and back to SST were controversial. There were debates on its effects on inflation and living costs. While the GST introduction led to a one-time rise in price level and that, I think, has not been widely disputed, the effect of SST reintroduction on price level has been more contentious. Pro-government camp would would claim that SST reintroduction did bring prices down, while the opposition would disagree, and citing various examples where prices went up (both real and made-up instances).

Did SST bring prices down?

The answer, on aggregate, is yes. Here is the main chart central to my argument. This chart shows core price level.

In April 2015 when the GST was introduced, prices went up by 1.19% month-on-month (after adjusting for seasonality). And in June-September 2018 when the SST was reintroduced, prices fell by 1.32% month-on-month (also after adjusting for seasonality).

Now, the long explanation.

Core prices instead headline prices

There are various factors affecting prices. It can be difficult to extract and isolate each factor out. But the official core inflation series does a relatively good job filtering out various factors, most notably items with volatile prices affected by seasonality. This cancels the noise (enough) that we can see price effects of tax regime changes.

Using core prices as our starting point, did the SST bring prices down?

Month-on-month versus year-on-year

The answer, again is yes… from month-on-month perspective.

This section is a bit dry and digresses into discussion on measurement. You might want to skip this as skipping it would not hurt the “yes” explanation by too much. If you are not skipping, let us move on with the agenda.

Month-on-month is a better way to observe things than year-on-year. This is because there are multiple significant supply-induced for the past few years. For instance, because of the SST which was reintroduced in September 2018, we would have to wait until September 2019 until its effects on prices disappear from year-on-year perspective. These changes make year-on-year unreliable as a change measurement. If we insist on using year-on-year as a measurement for policy purpose, we will risk making the wrong call based on a massive structural break, never mind the 12-month recognition lag.

Year-on-year does control for seasonality, unlike month-on-month and that is its strength. But it is not great at handling (structural) breaks in series. And as far as consumer prices are concerned, Malaysia has experienced too many breaks at least since 2015 when the GST was implemented. The last big break was in February 2019 when petrol and diesel prices were capped at its current ceiling. I expect one or two more major breaks in the next 12 months.

This is why there is a need to move from year-on-year to seasonally-adjusted month-on-month (or quarter-on-quarter whenever relevant) measurement. Seasonally-adjusted month-on-month addresses problems of structural breaks and seasonality, which makes it better than year-on-year by a mile.

Additionally, changes in a series could be seen immediately through month-on-month. This significantly removes the problem with recognition and policy lags.

Our familiarity with year-on-year and stubbornness to move away from it is part of the reason why too many people panicked over “deflation” earlier this year, when in fact, it was just a mathematical artefact arising from a massive structural break, or two, or three.

Effect of shift to GST in April 2015

Now that is out of the way, we can start directly discuss about how GST changed the price level.

The raw month-to-month price change in April 2015 was 1.28% (below is just the month-to-month change for the chart above).

But how do we know whether the 1.28% was fully due to GST?

That is a difficult question, really. But because it is core prices, significant amount of items susceptible to large volatile changes are out of the picture. Food items and fuel are out. Yet, there is still a problem. Our problem is that the core CPI is not seasonally-adjusted (as far as I understand it). In order to control for seasonality, we need to look at March-April change in other years and use that as a correction factor.

Here, we get into another problem, the official core series does not go to far back. Publicly, core series begins in 2015.

Nevertheless while keeping that in mind, April price change in 2016, 2018 and 2019 were either 0.08%, or 0.09% (in April 2017, prices rose 0.26%. I do not know why, and I am too tired to find out. So I am going to close my eyes and consider it as a outlier and pray hard. Please do not shoot me). To control for seasonality, we take the 1.28% and subtract 0.09% (the April average change in 2016, 2018 and 2019) from it. Through this, we can claim that the April price change due to GST—as far as core prices and the seasonality I have accounted for concerned—is 1.19%.

In short, GST quite possibly raised core price level by 1.19% month-on-month. Yes, GST did raise price level.

Effect of shift to SST in June-September 2018

Now, this part is not so straightforward because the transition from GST to SST lasted for 4 months. In 2015, there was an immediate transition from SST in March to GST in April. But in 2018, the GST was effectively abolished in June 2018 and was replaced with a 3-month tax-free period. The SST only came in September 2018.

As a result, direct comparison between the SST-GST shift (April 2015 core CPI), and GST-SST shift (September 2018 core CPI) could not be made. There are at least two reasons:

  1. First, in June 2018 when the GST was abolished, core price level dropped 1.43%. And it was a drop from GST regime to no tax period. This number does not help us answer our original question, which is whether SST brought prices down.
  2. Second, when the SST was reintroduced in September, core price level rose by 0.60%. This also does not help answer the question.

So, how could we make it comparable?

This chart shows the problem, and the adjustment required from price level perspective to make a fair comparison (blue is actual, red is adjusted).

The adjustment is: calculate the difference between May 2018 core price level (GST prices) with September price level (SST price level), while ignoring the free-tax period completely. Do this and we would get a price drop of 0.59%.

This is how it looks like in month-on-month changes (blue is actual, red is adjusted).

However, just like the SST-GST shift, we need to control for seasonality. And the average May-September change for 2015, 2016 and 2017 is 0.73%. The variance is not that big: for transparency, it was 0.72%, 0.79% and 0.68% rise for 2015, 2016 and 2017 respectively.

Controlling for seasonality, that means the GST to SST shirt brought core price level down 1.32% (that is -0.59% plus -0.73%).

Conclusion: SST brought core price level down

As a summary, after accounting from seasonality:

  1. SST-GST shift raised core price level by 1.19%
  2. GST-SST shift cut core price level by 1.32%

Some comment on the results: I had expected the SST-GST and the GST-SST shifts to bring prices up and down by about the percentage point. Right now, there is a difference because I think there are still some important factors that have not been controlled. It is possible that one of them could be forex rate.

Caveat and other business

There is a important clarification here. These results do not mean core prices in September 2018 when the SST was reintroduced were lower than core prices in May 2015. Between May 2015 and September 2018, headline and core prices rose for a variety of reasons. Rather, the two changes in 2015 and 2018 were one-time changes, or structural break in core price series. You could see this from the price level charts above.

This brings us to inflation. The remarkable thing is, at least from the naked eyes, inflation (in the sense of general rise in prices) remains largely the same throughout the changes. Another way to say is that, the slopes of the lines (GST and SST) are about the same. What happened was a shift in price level, which is what this whole post shows.

And finally, I want to show you this chart.

The black-shaded area was caused by GST (specifically, GST at 6% minus GST at 4% – GST at 4% has been cited as the equivalent of SST around 2014-2015). If GST were never introduced, core price level would likely have be lower by that shaded area.

Economics Politics & government

[2866] Cut it to 4%, instead of abolishing GST altogether

Two of Pakatan Harapan’s ten big promises are the abolition of GST (returning to the SST regime) and the reintroduction of fuel subsidy.[1] While I can agree with most of its other proposals that include credible investigations into various financial scandals besetting the Barisan Nasional government, I oppose these two policies.

With respect to the GST, I think there is a better way to get what Pakatan Harapan seeks to achieve: cut the GST rate to as low as 4% from the current 6%. This policy is equivalent to abolishing the GST without actually abolishing it.

To make sense of why they — abolishing the GST versus cutting the GST rate — are effective equivalent, we have to understand two things.

First, consumers essentially face the end prices only. It is the end prices that matter to them, regardless of tax regimes. If the SST regime had been maintained and its rate hiked to 20% from its previous 6%-10% rates, consumers would have still felt the pain of rising prices. It does not take a GST for that statement on pain to be true.

Second, there is an equivalent GST rate to the old SST one. From my understanding, 4% GST rate is the same to the old 6%-10% SST rate. We know this because at 4% GST rate, government GST revenue would have been the same as its SST revenue (we call this revenue-neutral). In other words, the tax burden faced by residents in Malaysia collectively would remain unchanged if the GST rate had been introduced at 4% back in April 2015. To put it yet in another way, if the GST rate had been implemented at 4% instead of 6% in 2015, consumers would not have faced the price pressures they suffered in 2015-2016. Theoretically at 4%, there would have been no inflation attributable to the taxation system change.

Once we understand these two factors, we can immediately reframe the 2015 introduction of the GST as a tax hike, from 4% to 6%.

So, instead of abolishing the whole GST system altogether, Pakatan Harapan, if it comes to power, should cut the GST rate to 4% at minimum. That in effect will undo the 2015 tax hike and achieve the same effect as abolishing the GST from the perspective of the consumers, given that only the end prices matter.

I think this is the best way to acknowledge and to address the pain many felt during GST implementation, while keeping the benefits of having a transparent and efficient taxation system.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

My fear of returning to the old SST way is that it could lead to an inflationary pressure worse than what we experienced in 2015 and 2016 (discounting the collapse of energy prices). The SST suffers from double taxation problem, unlike the GST. This has the potential of creating a cascading effect throughout the supply chain. Such a large rise in price level would be disastrous to a Pakatan government that campaigned not just against GST, but more importantly, a coalition that campaigned against rising living costs. To prevent such inflation from happening, a SST rate lower than 6%-10% might be needed, which would be a big hit to government revenue (essentially cutting the equivalent GST rate to below 4%).

This is another point to consider: government revenue. There is pressure to increase government revenue for social services, at a time when Malaysian society is ageing, unless you believe in a strict libertarian understanding of the state, which is not the norm in Malaysia. Under current situation, I think Malaysia can afford to loosen up its deficit ratio, but taxes could only be cut so low.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — Pakatan Harapan (PH) says it will only take 100 days for it to put into place 10 major policy changes if it is voted into government in the 14th general election. [Pakatan pledges to fulfill 10 promises within 100 days of GE14 victory. Kamles Kumar. The Malaysian Insight. March 7 2018]

Economics WDYT

[2865] Guess the 4Q17 Malaysian GDP growth

It is the final GDP release before the year goes to the dogs! The Department of Statistics will announce the fourth quarter figures tomorrow at noon. Before that, let us play a game:

How fast do you think did the Malaysian economy expand in 4Q17 from a year ago?

  • 4.5% or slower (13%, 3 Votes)
  • 4.6%-5.0% (13%, 3 Votes)
  • 5.1%-5.5% (22%, 5 Votes)
  • 5.6%-6.0% (43%, 10 Votes)
  • 6.1%-6.5% (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Faster than 6.5% (9%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 23

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For some context, the year 2017 was a pretty good year for GDP growth. It came after a pretty bad two-year period that in large part caused by the GST-shock to the economy.

But the fourth quarter growth is unlikely to be faster than the 6.2% yearly expansion we experienced in the July-September period. The third quarter was the peak and it was extraordinary. Even the 5.8% year-on-year growth in the second quarter now seems slightly on the high side.

You could see that industrial production has taken a break from the pace it grew for much of last year. Hot export and import growth are tapering off, with the volume index growing at a more modest pace now. There will be no more double-digit growth in the near future. Improving foreign exchange rates for the ringgit (with the exception against the Euro) will also keep export growth from flying off as it did from December 2016 to November 2017. Money supply growth is stabilizing after climbing for much of 2017 from a trough.

Change in government spending would be super-interesting this time around since the general election is just around the corner. Other GDP components like consumption and investment would likely expand at a rate not too different from the recent quarters.

Whatever the fourth quarter GDP growth would be, the first nine-month strong growth has translated well in the labor market. Seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate fell to 3.3% in December after staying at 3.5% for the longest time. So, consumption growth seems sustainable and okay in light of labor market improvement.

This happens at a time when core inflation has also fallen, suggesting potential output for the economy may have risen up, which is good news. As a result, unemployment rate could probably drop further with little impact on demand-pull inflation. I think this may also mean another rate hike by the central bank might be unnecessary this year, if things go as it is now.

Oh, happy lunar new year. Given how things are happening with the dogs here in Malaysia, I already cannot wait for the year of the pig. Too oinking exciting.