The 2018 Federal Budget made it clear that the Government believes too many people are moving into higher marginal tax rates. For example, in the Personal Income Tax Plan, it says:
“The plan begins with permanent tax relief to middle and lower income earners, to encourage and reward working Australians and to assist with cost of living pressures. Under Step 2, the plan will help protect incomes earned by Australians from bracket creep. The third step will make personal taxes simpler and flatter to ensure more Australians are paying lower taxes on every extra dollar they earn.”
Sounds like not only a plan, but a set of principles. It appears that the Government regards it as self-evident that marginal tax rates are too high and this is a bad thing.
Centrelink Pension Income Test
After a long campaign the then Government agreed in 2009 to increase the rate of the age and other pensions paid to single people to improve the standard of living for the recipients. However, in order to limit the cost of this increase they also increased the rate of taper (ie the reduction in payments as income increases) under the income test from 40% to 50%. This is effectively a marginal tax rate and it exceeds the highest marginal tax rate on income that has applied for many years. Governments since 2009 have done nothing to change this position.
Apparently, high marginal rates of tax are bad for working people earning an income, but not so for those in retirement or otherwise receiving a Centrelink pension.
Centrelink Pension Asset Test
A 50% effective marginal tax rate under the income test for age and other Centrelink pensions is mild compared with the effect of the increase from $1.50 per fortnight for each $1,000 to $3.00 per fortnight in the taper under the Asset Test which was introduced by the current Government effective 1 July 2017. The taper under the Pension Asset Test is now so steep that the effective marginal rate for a single homeowner with assets between $253,750 and $552,000 and for a homeowner couple between $380,500 and $830,000 exceeds 100%.
Many superannuation funds are now producing estimates of the income (from superannuation, other savings and Centrelink pensions) which a member can expect to receive in retirement. For people whose assets at retirement are expected to lie within the range of the Asset Test taper, the projections indicate that expected income in retirement could be lower if they increase their savings. Their age pension will reduce by more than the income they receive from any increase in their savings (whether within or outside superannuation).
Alternately, in retirement, spending money (on travel, a home or elsewhere or by giving some away within Centrelink limits) within this range of assets will actually increase income. The age pension will increase by more than the income lost on any capital amount spent or gifted.
The impact of deeming rates
For many years, age and other Centrelink pensions have been subject to both income and assets means tests. If a pensioner’s income from other sources or assets, as defined, exceeds specified minimum amounts the rate of pension is reduced.
In the case of the income test, financial assets, as defined, are assumed to earn a deemed rate of return for the income test. Currently the deemed rate of return on financial assets is 1.75% for the first $50,200 for a single pensioner and the first $83,400 for a pensioner couple. Financial assets above these amounts are deemed to earn 3.25%. The lower deeming rate is based on holding this amount in an at-call or cash account at a bank or other financial institution. The higher deeming rate is based on these amounts earning a higher return by being invested on a longer-term basis including shares and property.
This suggests that 3.25% is a reasonable figure to use as the income received by a pensioner on assets within the range of the Asset Test taper. So, an additional $1,000 in assets within the range of the asset test taper will earn 3.25% or $32.50 per year in income and result in a reduction in the pension of $78 per year ($3 per fortnight). This is effectively a marginal tax rate of 240%. The previous taper of $1.50 per fortnight per $1,000 in assets reduced the amount of pension by $39 per year, and this was already an effective tax rate of 120%.
More penal marginal tax rates
Over the years the taper under the Assets Test for Centrelink pensions has always represented a penal effective marginal tax rate. This was recognised in 2007 when the rate of taper was reduced from $3.00 per fortnight for each $1,000 to $1.50. The higher deeming rate at that time was 5.5%. The reduction in the rate of taper reduced the effective marginal tax rate from 142% to 71%. This still exceeded the highest marginal rate of tax on income.
In practice for a short time after, 2007 is the only period in the last 20 years that the taper under the Assets Test represented an effective marginal tax rate that was under 100%. The reduction in interest rates to an unprecedented low level after 2008 has meant that the effective marginal tax rate represented by the taper under the Assets Test was already over 100% even before the increase from $1.50 to $3.00 per fortnight per $1,000.
The assets taper means that a pensioner with assets (savings) within the range of the taper in the Assets Test can increase their total income by spending some of their savings on travel, home renovations or (within Centrelink limits) gifts to their family.
Coming back to Budget 2018
Recapping from the opening quotation in Budget 2018:
“The plan begins with permanent tax relief to middle and lower income earners, to encourage and reward working Australians and to assist with cost of living pressures.”
Must be no need to encourage and reward pensioners and retirees faced with cost of living pressures.
Graham Horrocks is an actuary specialising in financial planning and superannuation, and a former General Manager, Research & Quality Assurance, with Ord Minnett. Since 1999, he has been an independent financial adviser. The article was reviewed by Geoff Walker, former Chief Actuary at the State Bank of New South Wales.