The subject of Venture Capital has been debated widely over the past few years in Australia. The current debate surrounding changes to the Capital Gains Tax (CGT) regime in Australia to encourage the development of a venture capital industry is commendable. There are however, arguments that other more elegant mechanisms could be used to encourage investment in high potential ventures. This is not arguing against reform of the CGT, but research in the US by Professor Poterba from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pointed to reductions in the US Capital Gains Tax in 1978 and 1981, not having the stimulation effect on venture capital that many believed. Professor Poterba argued the strong growth in the venture capital industry in the US may have had more to do with issues such as the relaxation of investment rules for pension funds, than with reductions in the CGT rate. Therefore alternative or complementary mechanisms to the reform of the CGT should be investigated when determining how the venture capital industry in Australia should be stimulated.
Whilst the venture capital industry in Australia is small in comparison to other countries, it is also limited in its geographical spread. An example of this is the Innovation Investment Fund (IIF) initiative, which has five licensed funds. All funds are located on the East Coast and the experience is that these funds are in the main not willing to consider investments outside their immediate geographical area. This fact is not so much a criticism of the funds - they are making investment decisions based on proven commercial experience - rather it is an indication of a need for government to do more as a catalyst of the development of resources and expertise in venture capital in areas other than two or three of the major population centres.
Our preferred position in relation to Government assistance for innovative companies is for open access programs such as the 125 per cent Tax Concession for R&D (the concession). This is the preferred route over discretionary schemes such as the R&D Start program which places the Government in the position of picking winners. A discretionary system lacks certainty from a taxpayer’s perspective, can take a significant amount of company resources both internally and externally to present the company case, and can be subject to various political influences beyond the control of the taxpayer.
However we have focused our efforts on examining the concession and its shortfalls. We have put forward a suggestion in relation to how the concession could form part of the new GST regime.
Shortfalls in the effective delivery of the concession
Historically, the concession has been an effective incentive that has been embraced by business over a long period. Business has generally found the incentive effective notwithstanding the somewhat cumbersome administration process. It is widely accepted that the concession has achieved the aim of encouraging R&D in Australia.
In 1996, the concession was reduced from 150 per cent to 125 per cent together with a number of legislative changes in specific areas of R&D expenditure. These moves effectively halved the tax benefit whilst simultaneously increasing the administrative burden to claimant companies.
With the reduction in the concession, companies have looked at the costs and benefits of:
- undertaking R&D;
- undertaking the R&D in Australia; and
- claiming the concession.
Larger companies will often benefit more from the concession as a consequence of the nature and size of the R&D undertaken whilst also having the resources to more adequately deal with the compliance burden.
The converse is often true for smaller companies. The reduced benefit available may delay R&D activities, restrict the scope of activities or lead to a decision not to proceed at all. The cost of preparing a claim may seriously erode any taxation benefit arising. This has been alleviated in recent times with a move to reduced reporting requirements for smaller claims.
For start-up companies and those in tax losses, there is a cost incurred in preparing a claim for the concession with no immediate cash benefit. There is of course a deferred benefit by way of carry forward tax losses, but the ability to utilise these may not arise for a number of years. One way around this is to implement the Bureau of Industry Economics recommendation of paying the tax benefit of 9 cents in the dollar.
It is this feature of the concession we urge further consideration of and offer our ideas below as a potential solution.
This is an edited version of a paper submitted to the Innovation Summit on behalf of Ernst and Young,
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