Dancing on a Volcano

July 10, 2024

Dancing on a Volcano

July 10, 2024

By Shahid Sattar and Absar Ali

Ten days into the new fiscal year, the FY25 budget is already in disarray.

Amid calls for a nationwide strike, the turnover tax on petroleum dealers was reversed. This was followed by a strike from the All Pakistan Flour Mills Association against newly imposed taxes, while the newly formed Salaried Class Alliance is on the streets Monday through Friday.

After two years of severe economic hardship, the public expected relief and a fairer redistribution of the tax burden. What it received is the exact opposite.

The “tax to GDP ratio” has become a strange obsession, demonstrating a lack of direction, and the government’s unwillingness to reduce its own wasteful expenditures and address structural flaws that have plagued the economy for decades. This is reinforced by the fact that while the tax to GDP ratio is frequently referred to, we never hear about the government expenditure to GDP ratio.

It needs reminding that the tax to GDP ratio is little more than a symptom, not a cause, of deep underlying problems that remain unaddressed to safeguard the ruling elite’s interests. In the same breath where a crushing burden of taxes was announced for the public, and private sector enterprises, there was no reduction in government expenses. Instead, only an increase in allowances and exemptions for the state’s own employees.

Perhaps the state of the country is best explained by the fact that a 30-year-old Assistant Commissioner must use a Rs. 20 million vehicle, accompanied by three guards and two clerks—one to carry his water bottle, another to hold an umbrella over his head—to investigate whether vegetable vendors on the poverty line are overcharging Rs. 20 on a kilo of tomatoes.

Economic growth and public trust are crucial for improving the tax to GDP ratio, and the FY25 Budget misses the mark on both. The World Bank estimates that around 40% of Pakistan’s population lives below the poverty line, with 96% at subsistence level. This indicates a limited capacity for the majority to contribute to the government’s wasteful expenditures and need for boosting incomes to increase revenue collection.

Around 20% of Pakistan’s GDP comes from agriculture, 20% from industry, and 60% from services, of which 20% is wholesale and retail trade. Yet, agricultural income and retailers remain excused from contributing their fair share. This means the government wants to extract taxes worth 15% of GDP from only 60% of GDP, effectively subjecting 40% of GDP to no taxes while the remaining 60% are subject to 25%. While reality is more complex, this simple illustration demonstrates the incentives created for capital and human resources to exit more productive tax-ridden sectors for less productive under-taxed sectors. The result is that the share of GDP that is relatively tax-free will increase, while that being taxed will decrease, leading to an overall reduction in the tax to GDP ratio.

Effective tax policy must be guided by long-term development priorities and a vision for growth. It has been repeatedly emphasized that the lack of productive capacity is the country’s most pressing issue. Because domestic production is neither sufficient to meet domestic demand nor enough to generate exportable surpluses to meet import requirements, there is a persistent shortage of foreign exchange and surplus demand that leads to repeated episodes of devaluation and inflation.


Of the $30.65 billion exported in FY24, about one-third is by only 100 top firms, most of which are in the textile and apparel sector. Moreover, the 10.5% increase in exports compared to the abysmal performance last year is largely due to an increase in exports of unprocessed foods driven by external circumstances. Compared with FY22 exports declined by 6%, with textile exports down 15% from $19.3 billion in FY22 to $16.7 billion in FY24. There is also a reduction in the share of domestic value added as basic industry producing yarn, cloth and other inputs has been wiped out due to prohibitive energy, borrowing and other operational costs, with yarn imports having surged seven times from 2 million KG in July 2023 to 14 million KG in May 2024.


Given these realities and that the country’s gross external financing requirements stand at over $25 billion annually for the next five years, the ratio we should worry about is the export to GDP ratio.

At around 10%, Pakistan has the lowest exports-to-GDP in the region, with Bangladesh at 13%, Sri Lanka at 20%, India at 22%, and Viet Nam at a whopping 94%. In view of these horrid numbers, the government should have prioritized and incentivized productive export-oriented activities with a focus on increasing domestic value addition in exports. Instead, the 1% fixed tax on export proceeds has been changed to a 2% advance tax on turnover adjustable against a 29% tax on profits, not only raising the rate but also adding to the cost of compliance.

To make matters worse, the sales tax exemption on local supplies for export manufacturing has been withdrawn because—according to the Chairman FBR—audits revealed that five companies, out of around 1800 beneficiaries, had misused it. Because the FBR’s incompetence does not permit increased checks and balances, it decided to resort to collective punishment and do away with the entire program instead.

The sales tax exemption on local supplies for export manufacturing was valuable trade facilitation that ensured a level playing field for domestic manufacturers of raw material and intermediate inputs, primarily benefiting SMEs. Its withdrawal removes all incentives for exporters to use domestically manufactured inputs and will cause a further reduction in domestic value addition in exports. These policies are akin to providing protection to imported inputs by making domestically manufactured inputs significantly more expensive.

And it doesn’t stop there; 0% base tariff goods, including critical inputs for textile and apparel manufacturing that are either not produced domestically or in insufficient quantities to meet industry demand, have been slapped with an additional customs duty of 2%. Like the withdrawal of the sales tax exemption, this too will have a disproportionate impact on basic industries, especially SMEs.

Very few firms possess full vertical integration, and the benefits of duty-free import for export EFS do not extend across the entire value chain. For instance, a spinner cannot import under EFS because the yarn they manufacture goes through several stages of value addition—such as weaving, processing, and dyeing—before reaching the final exporter. Despite persistent efforts for a multi-stage EFS with a robust traceability system, it has been actively sabotaged by the FBR.

One of the textile and apparel sector’s main challenges is that around two-thirds of its exports are cotton-based compared to only one-third of international textile and apparel trade. Diversification of exports towards man-made fibre-based products is essential for the industry’s growth and the imposition of the ACD on synthetic/artificial fibres not produced domestically, and the failure to rationalize duties on purified terephthalic acid and polyester staple fibre will prove severely detrimental towards this goal.

When, consequently, investment is diverted from productive export-oriented activities towards less productive and less taxed agriculture and real estate, the same voices will complain that savings aren’t being utilized towards productive activities and that tax collection is not increasing, while conveniently ignoring the fact that it is their tax policies that incentivized such behaviour in the first place.

There is an endless list of regressive measures that the Finance Act 2024 has imposed in hopes of increasing the tax to GDP ratio. However, the two most essential ingredients for this recipe are fostering economic growth and building public trust; the budget fails to achieve either. Instead, it only perpetuates a cycle of fiscal mismanagement and public disillusionment.

Without addressing the underlying structural issues, incentivizing productive activities, and ensuring equitable tax policies, the government is merely setting the stage for further economic decline. The current budget is not a roadmap to recovery but a prescription for continued doom and gloom.




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