Why a ‘pointless’ tax cut really counted

7th November, 2009

Dear Economist,
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer reduced value-added tax from 17.5 per cent to 15 per cent as an incentive for consumers to spend, there was a widespread view that the reduction was too small to be of use. Now that we are approaching the time when VAT returns to 17.5 per cent, some retailers say that the increase will have a negative impact. This doesn’t sound logical, but is it true?
Andrew Hewett, Hertford

Dear Andrew,

I remember the complaints well: how is a 2.5 per cent cut in the price of goods going to boost spending? (Let us leave aside the facts that while the cut was 2.5 percentage points, it was actually only 2.1 per cent; that not all goods are liable for the tax; and that some retailers decided to increase pre-tax prices rather than reduce post-tax prices.) And in truth, the VAT cut, while billed as a “stimulus”, was tiny compared with the vast government deficit.

My own view is that people are price-sensitive, so the modest VAT cut probably had a modest effect, the increase will reverse that effect, and the details will be so small that we will never know for sure.

Is it logical to claim that the cut was pointless but the rise is significant? The motive for the claim is obvious enough. And it may be justified. The switch each way caused a fixed cost: menus had to be printed, staff trained, accounts re-counted and tills reprogrammed. It is reasonable, and perhaps true, to say that the benefits for businesses of the VAT cut were swallowed by the costs of adjustment. The VAT rise, and a second round of adjustment costs, simply adds injury to the insult.

Psychology may be at work too. Behavioural economists believe in “the endowment effect”, a tendency for people to overvalue the status quo. The VAT cut seemed trivial until retailers got used to it. Now they regard it as indispensable.

Also published at ft.com.

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