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One slogan that is not raised enough by the economic or political agents in the country is 'taxpayers ko izzat do'. The matter cannot be overemphasized. The sheer size of informal economy in Pakistan dwarfs that of our peers by any stretch of imagination. Various estimates substantiate this claim. One important indicator is the currency in circulation, i.e., money revolving outside the banking system. That number is growing at a faster pace than the overall monetary aggregate growth for the past five years. In the process, numerous taxes have been imposed on non-filers, various amnesty schemes were offered and interest rates were kept high for some time. But none of these carrot and stick strategies is working to make a serious dent on the growing cash in circulation.

Banking deposits (demand and time liabilities) are currently at Rs14.7 trillion, while the currency in circulation (cash in the market) is Rs6.2 trillion. Cash holding thus is 42 percent of the banking deposits. The ratio was 29 percent in FY15. Apart from these, $8 billion foreign currency deposits are with banks. Applying the same ratio of cash at 42 percent, $3.4 billion worth of foreign currency cash holding could be the case. There is some thinking at policy levels to incentivize people to bring this foreign currency cash holding into the system.

Since FY16, the WHT tax in banking transactions was imposed and generally WHT for non-filers was increased relative to filers at the transaction stage. The opportunity cost of non-filing has increased. Yet, people are ready to pay higher tax at transaction stage, but are not willing to come under documentation net. Some say that it's the harassment or fear of FBR that keeps people at bay.

Several amnesty schemes were offered in the past five years. However, none of these was enough to curb the enthusiasm of cash holders. There was some success in these schemes; but the ratio of cash holding to bank deposits kept on growing.

Higher interest rates in 2019 could not lure cash holders to bring the money into the system. Another problem is that even majority of the deposits are insensitive to interest rates. Around 35 percent of banking deposits are current (checking) accounts - zero interest is being paid irrespective of market rate. Add 37 percent of saving accounts where returns are low - especially in case of Islamic deposits. The fixed deposits are a mere 21 percent - and very sensitive to interest rates. Thus, the monetary policy transmission is effectively impacting 15 percent of money supply. Therefore, any change in interest rates has a limited impact on savings through deposit creation.

Then there is a threat of cash being stolen or destroyed. For example, recent rains in Karachi have washed out lockers floor in a few bank branches. The general assumption is that most of the cash (especially foreign currency) is kept in the lockers. Then last week, there was fire in a plaza in Lahore and news reports suggest that some amount of cash was destroyed due to the fire. Those who stash cash at home take the added risk of loss due to accident.

All these elements of opportunity cost are not enough to compensate the perceived benefits of holding cash. The government can come up with other options. One is to increase efforts to digitize the economy by lowering the cost of digital transactions and by giving tax invectives on digital transactions and building digital infrastructure. Some more incentives can be offered for bringing cash into the system. New sticks can be offered by imposing a ban on cash holdings in bank lockers - technological tools can be used to check cash in the lockers without opening them.

Bringing this cash in Pak Rupee and foreign currency to banking system is one of the biggest challenge government faces today. The perceived cost of documentation for many is too high. That is why neither higher interest rates nor higher taxes on non-filers are working. The culture of tax collecting agencies (especially FBR) must change. The trust deficit between the government and taxpayer must also be reduced. For that overall public service delivery (governance) and FBR's way of operation has to improve. All easier said than done though.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020

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Ali Khizar

Ali Khizar is the Head of Research at Business Recorder. His Twitter handle is @AliKhizar

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