Greece capital controls have silver lining: more tax revenues

Greece capital controls have silver lining: more tax revenues

On the third floor of the beleaguered finance ministry in central Athens, officials in one department have a reason to smile.

An unintended consequence of the decision to impose capital controls last June is that Greeks are signing up for credit and debit cards in historic numbers — leaving an electronic trail for tax collectors in a country known for rampant tax evasion.

It's a rare bit of sunlight in an otherwise dark financial landscape. Over six years of crisis, Greece's economy has shrunk by a quarter and government revenues have slumped.

Greece's emergency lenders have insisted on an overhaul of the tax collection system — long known as one of the most flawed in Europe — as a condition of 290 billion euros in EU and IMF bailout funding.

"Apart from the hindering of imports and other market distortions, capital controls have had a positive impact as they drove more consumers to use plastic money," said Nikos Giannagas, an adviser to the deputy finance minister.

The controls, which restricted the amount of cash that can be withdrawn from banks to 420 euros a week, were imposed last June to halt a flight of deposits that threatened to collapse the banking system.

More than 50 billion euros left banks from November 2014 to July last year on fears the country could crash out of the euro, forcing them to resort to borrowing from the European Central Bank and the Bank of Greece.

After the controls, more than 1.8 million debit cards were issued in the second half of 2015 in a population of just 11 million, according to figures from Greece's largest lender, National Bank.
Installations of card-readers in small businesses, from restaurants to stores, jumped 15 percent in the same period.

A 9.5 percent rise in sales tax revenue in the second half of 2015 is due partly to the shift to cashless spending, Giannagas said.

Tasos Tsakalos, owner of Alfiere cafe in Athens' posh Kolonaki district, confirmed many more customers now prefer to pay for their coffee and wine with plastic.

"The use of debit and credit cards is up about 25 percent after the limits," he said.

A few blocks away, sales staff at women's boutique Badoo had seen a similar trend.

"There was a surge in card payments after the capital controls. It is tapering off slowly, but overall it's up around 20 percent in our shop," said saleswoman Eva Iliopoulou.

Out of the shadows

Greece has long struggled with the widespread practice of tax evasion, which ends up putting a disproportionate amount of the tax burden on those who cannot conceal their true incomes – mostly salaried earners and pensioners.

The self-employed under-report incomes and small businesses often do not issue receipts and occasionally pocket value-added tax instead of handing it over to the state, which is impossible to do for electronic transactions.

Trends that shift activity away from the shadow economy, estimated at a quarter of national output, improve recorded GDP, boost tax revenue and lead to a fairer system for taxpayers.

The government plans to build on the gains made since June.

It already mandates that cash cannot be used for purchases worth more than 1,500 euros and requires taxpayers to produce receipts equal to 10 percent of their income if they want to qualify for a basic tax break.

In addition, the ministry plans to require that a share of the receipts produced are for cashless transactions. Giannagas could not say when the change would occur but said it will be soon.

National Bank economist Nikos Magginas said the increased use of credit and debit cards was behind a strong increase in reported private consumption last year.

"Higher cashless payments translate into a direct shift in spending from the shadow to the formal economy, improving GDP and the fiscal situation," he said.


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