Nothing is forever, except change. The wise words of Buddha proclaim the undeniable truth that the only thing constant is change. Life is a process of becoming; thus, we should always keep ourselves abreast with the changing times. After all, progress is impossible without changing the status quo.
For most of us, the beginning of the New Year is a time to restart, reboot, and reassess our personal goals. As the first month of 2019 unfolds, it is high time to revisit the resolutions we’ve set — how far we’ve come and our rooms for growth. For the government, now is the time to reevaluate existing policies or reform laws to meet new exigencies. As taxpayers, it is important to know the recent developments in order to thrive and survive amidst the demands of our dynamic everyday life.
A little more than a year ago — on Jan. 1, 2018 to be exact — the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Act took effect. Being the first package of the Comprehensive Tax Reform Program (CTRP), TRAIN 1 introduced a lot of significant changes. Among its purposes was to raise revenue for the government’s social services and infrastructure programs. TRAIN 1 reduced personal income taxes after 20 long years of non-adjustment of tax rates; but it imposed higher excise taxes on automobiles, petroleum products, tobacco, sugar-sweetened beverages and other non-essential goods. The legislators intended that with the people’s support, all these reforms will ultimately result in lower prices, more job opportunities and a brighter future for each and every Filipino.
Literally and figuratively, the TRAIN came to pass accompanied with much noise. Heated discussions ensued in both chambers of Congress. Some advocates say it arrived as a Godsend and was timed perfectly. Others claimed it was hurriedly enacted, without the ordinary taxpayer being duly informed of its many implications. Being the most recent and comprehensive economic legislation by far, the public sought to better understand the law and its impacts – on take-home pay, prices of goods and services, and consumer spending patterns. As a response, several developmental and business organizations — including professional services firms such as P&A Grant Thornton — organized seminars on the law and the latest implementing regulations from the Bureau of Internal Revenue, to educate Filipinos on the relevant amendments.
Before the implementation of the TRAIN Law, its detractors theorized that the increase in petroleum prices would cause a domino effect and, ultimately, lead to an increase in the prices of goods and services, falling on the shoulders of consumers, especially the poor. Lo and behold, the rise in prices of everyday commodities was very much felt since the beginning of 2018. Burdened by the price shock, there was an uproar from citizens seeking the suspension of the law. While it is true that the TRAIN Law was not all to blame, we cannot discount the inability of ordinary people to afford rice, not to mention softdrinks, alcohol, and cigarettes, and the fuel necessary for daily transportation. For someone who drives almost daily, I could very well imagine how taxi drivers might be dealing with gasoline prices that spiked to a record-breaking P60.87 in October. Mothers and homemakers found themselves on the front lines as their household budgets bought fewer and fewer groceries. Restaurants started skimping on portion sizes or simply charged more.
Although the individual income tax brackets have finally been adjusted and augmented by the TRAIN Law, they were accompanied by a whopping surge in inflation. In October, inflation hit 6.7%, moving even further away from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ target range of 2-4% for 2018. Although the causes include world oil prices or other forces, it is clear that the rise in inflation was partly caused by TRAIN. Adding fuel to the fire, whereas the higher excise taxes target the rich, the increase in prices hurt the poor the most. Hence, the wide gap between the rich and the poor remains.
The question now is: Did TRAIN 1 attain its objectives? Or more specifically for the individual: Was the increase in net income due to the decrease in income tax rates enough to counter the higher inflation rate and increase in prices? The answer lies in whether or not there has indeed been an improvement in the effective purchasing power of Filipinos. Purchasing power is an important indicator of the economic condition of the nation. All else being equal, inflation decreases the amount of goods or services one is able to purchase; and reduced purchasing power leads to a decrease in living standards. It is hoped that the tax reforms will produce more benefit than harm, and that such advantages will trickle down to ordinary people sooner. Periodically reviewing the effects of the law is key, along with efficient execution, to ensure that tax collection is indeed put to good use.
Notwithstanding its drawbacks and the appearance to most consumers that the promise of the TRAIN law holds no water, Budget Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno denied a report that the government has failed to reach its target revenue collection for 2018. He ruled out halting the implementation of the TRAIN law, saying that measures are in place to temper the harmful impact of higher prices. Suspension then is out of the question. For most of 2018, Mr. Diokno and President Rodrigo R. Duterte rejected calls to review the controversial tax reform law, saying it is needed for economic growth. Then, there was a change of heart sometime in October. The government announced, albeit with initial reluctance, that the P2-increase in fuel excise tax scheduled in January 2019 will be suspended. At that point, world oil prices noticeably dropped, as global supply outstripped demand. The suspension of the TRAIN Law was lifted.
Now, we welcome the New Year with the second tranche of the TRAIN Law. On Thursday, Jan. 10, the Department of Energy (DoE) announced that 444 retail stations nationwide are now imposing the second wave of excise taxes on petroleum products, as mandated by the TRAIN Law. The DoE expects other gas stations to follow suit in February.
On a more positive note, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that headline inflation decelerated to 5.1% in December. The peso, which had been weakening against the dollar last year, slightly recovered on the first and second weeks of January. Gasoline prices receded to P45.50 per liter. The performance of the Philippine Stock Exchange improved and reflected growing business and investor confidence.
Let us then choose to be grateful for these recent, positive developments and have faith that the government will remain vigilant in closely monitoring the imposition of taxes vis-à-vis the prices of basic goods and commodities. Let us hope that the President and his economic advisers will act more responsively to address the concerns of the ordinary taxpayer in light of the ever-changing times, especially punctuated by volatile crude oil prices.
It is essential to always know the changes in our tax laws, and the corresponding consequences, not only to ensure compliance and avoid risks, but also to assert our constitutional rights as citizens. And together, let us pray that the tax reforms this year, moving forward, would lead us to a more equitable and fast-growing Philippine economy conducive to a life worth living.
Aleli Carissa D. Gimena is an associate of the Tax Advisory and Compliance Division of P&A Grant Thornton.
As published in BusinessWorld, dated 15 January 2019