Picture: 123RF./LE MOAL OLIVIER
Picture: 123RF./LE MOAL OLIVIER

Personal income tax now accounts for two-thirds of the taxes on incomes and profits as corporate tax’s share has dwindled over the past two decades. It is now closer to 10% of GDP.

In good years, personal tax bands should be adjusted with inflation to avoid a real increase in people’s tax.

Yet even in February 2018, long before anyone realised the depth of our fiscal hole, there was only partial relief with a 3.1% increase in the rebates. This raised a further R6.8bn.

In the current budget, finance minister Tito Mboweni went further by not adjusting the income tax brackets at all, which is expected to raise a further R12.8bn.

Absa Wealth strategist Craig Pheiffer calls this a stealth tax as, strictly speaking, nothing is being raised. "It will certainly be much less visible and obviously painful than the 29c increase in the fuel levy."

But it is useful change: R12.8bn is enough to cover the budget for technical and vocational education and training. The only concession has been that the tax threshold has been increased from R78,150 to R79,000.

Investec Asset Management deputy MD Nazmeera Moola says this is the smallest adjustment she has seen in her career.

She adds that bond issuance, the main alternative form of finance, has been low.

The government is nonetheless paying R209bn in interest, or R1bn every working day.

"Last year any efforts to give reasonable relief were stymied by free higher education. This year it was Eskom."

The net effect is that everybody under 65 will end up with the princely sum of a R153 tax reduction, those aged 65 to 74, R234, and those 75 or over, R261.

Personal income tax, at R553bn, will almost equal corporate tax (R230bn) and VAT (R360bn) combined.

Moola says the December revenue data showed disappointing collection, particularly of personal and corporate tax. "There is very little room to raise taxes. After years of tax increases, more recent hikes in tax rates have led to much lower-than-expected increases in tax collection as the economy is under such strain."

More than a quarter of all income tax is paid by just 110,000 people, and almost half of the 14-million registered taxpayers pay no tax.

Mboweni makes no apologies for the redistributive nature of the budget as the wealthy fund the poorer provinces and municipalities.

But the cash cow is running empty. With lower bonus payments and lower wage settlements, the personal income tax take, once so dependable, has disappointed. And more recently, job losses in the private sector have not been offset by growth in the civil service.

Mboweni has revised down his forecast of expected tax revenue for the year to February (about to conclude) by R15.4bn even from the October medium-term budget forecast, primarily because of VAT rebates, not personal tax.

And in the coming year he expects revenues of R1.58-trillion (about a third from personal income tax) — but spending will be R1.83 trillion.

Johann Els, chief economist at Old Mutual Investment Group, says the negligible personal tax relief will not be good for the consumer, and by extension for the stock market.

"But at least it was not a pre-election giveaway budget. There is so much emphasis on the Eskom crisis that I am not sure anyone’s taking much notice of other issues. And at least there is some tough talk on that issue."

The silver lining would be if the budget also marked the start of a more responsible government, Moola says.

Mboweni said the aim is to shave R27bn off the civil service wage bill. Or, as he put it: "To allow older public servants who want to do so to retire early and gracefully."

It will save a relatively modest R4.8bn in the 2019/2020 financial year, but it will increase to R7.5bn in 2020/2021 and R8bn in 2021/2022.

The government also aims to use personal taxes to accelerate inclusive economic growth and create jobs, to improve the education system and fight corruption.

This part of the speech might have read like an election manifesto, but the personal tax proposals won’t win any votes.

A handful of people will be leaving the tax net because of the increase in the tax threshold, but many more South Africans will end up in higher brackets.

And higher taxes will help pay for some modest but welcome increases in social grants, with an extra R80 per month for old age, war veterans, disability and care dependency grants.

National health insurance (NHI) might be the next big project to lead to higher taxes.

Moola says the costs to implement NHI would swamp the budget, but she expects it to be implemented over a long time.

But unlike, say, pensions, it is not just about finance. There needs to be vast improvements in the public health system and progress will need to be measured.