Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Why is the Irish “average wage” in the OECD Taxing Wages so low?

A few weeks ago the OECD published the 2018 update of their Taxing Wages publication.  There is plenty in the report worth chewing over but one minor issue that arises is the level of the “average wage” benchmark used for Ireland.

OECD Taxing Wages Average Wage Ireland 2000-2017

It doesn’t really appear to be anything too noteworthy.  It rises fairly rapidly up to 2008 (the figures are nominal so no account is taken of inflation), drops in 2009, has been edging upwards for the past three or four years or so, and is put at €36,800 for 2017.

But what about when we look at it in a comparative context?  OK, an international comparison  isn’t as straightforward as looking at a single country through time but we can overcome some issues if we look at countries that share a common currency. 

Here are the nominal average wages used for 2016 for a group of euro-area countries.

  • Netherlands €50,120
  • Germany €48,300
  • Belgium €46,528
  • Austria €45,073
  • Finland €43,716
  • France €37,906
  • Ireland €35,430

So, we still haven’t adjusted for prices but some of the gaps here are very large.  Is the nominal average wage in Ireland 27 per cent lower than Germany and 29 per cent lower than The Netherlands?

The OECD also has an Annual Wages publication which uses aggregate data from the national accounts to work out an average wage.  As the notes say:

Average annual wages per full-time equivalent dependent employee are obtained by dividing the national-accounts-based total wage bill by the average number of employees in the total economy, which is then multiplied by the ratio of average usual weekly hours per full-time employee to average usually weekly hours for all employees.

So what does this tell us?  Here are the 2016 averages from this dataset.

  • Ireland €51,336
  • Netherlands €46,709
  • Belgium €43,097
  • Austria €41,421
  • Finland €41,209
  • Germany €38,302
  • France €36,809

Of the selected group Ireland has gone from last to first with a 44 per cent rise in the estimated annual average wage as measured using the national accounts versus that used in Taxing Wages.  For most of the other countries the difference is only a few per cent – bar Germany where the national accounts show an average that is over 20 per cent lower.  Still by far the greatest absolute difference is for Ireland.

So,what explains it?  Perhaps it is coverage.  The national accounts cover the entire economy where the Taxes Wages figure is derived from NACE sectors B to N, i.e. the business economy which excludes state-dominated sectors such as education and health. But this coverage is the same for all countries.

The answer lies in the annex of the Taxing Wages report

Table A4 shows the method used to calculate the average wage.  One piece is the type of workers covered.  There are columns which show whether supervisory or managerial workers are included.  There are 36 countries covered in Taxing Wages and 34 of them include both of these types of workers, many of which we can assume would be in the top half of the earnings distribution. 

Which countries do not have them included when the average is calculated? Turkey and Ireland.

Part-time workers are another category that get varying treatment across countries.  Some countries leave them out altogether and only include full-time employees when working out the average.  Other countries include them but do so on a full-time equivalent basis such that their earnings are included but are scaled up as if they were a full-time employee.  There are six countries who include part-time employees in the calculation but do so on the basis of their actual annual earnings as part-time workers.

In their notes the OECD say:

The worker is assumed to be full-time employed during the entire year without breaks for sickness or unemployment.  However, several countries are unable to separate and exclude part-time workers form the earnings figures (see Table A.4). Most of them report full-time equivalent wages in these cases.  In four countries (Chile, Ireland, Slovak Republic and Turkey), the wages of part-time workers can neither be excluded nor converted into full-time workers (for example, an OECD Secretariat analysis of available Eurostat earnings data for selected European countries has show that include part-time workers reduces average earnings by around 10%).

So, the Irish figures used in Taxing Wages exclude supervisory and managerial staff, and include part-time workers on an unadjusted basis. 

What would the Irish figure be if it was estimated in line with the practice for most other countries?  Figures on that basis are available from Eurostat’s Structure of Earnings Survey though it is only available every four years.  The averages (with part-time employees given on a full-time equivalent basis) for sectors B to N are given as:

  • 2002: €33,320
  • 2006: €40,761
  • 2010 : €42,111
  • 2014: €44,700

This would put Ireland pretty much in the middle of the set of countries used above. 

Would it make a difference if the 2017 average wage used for Ireland was €45,000 rather than €36,400?  It probably would.

The OECD show that a single person on the average wage in Ireland has taxes and social insurance deductions of just under 20 per cent of their gross wage.  If this calculation was done using an average of €45,000 then the deductions would be 25 per cent of gross wage. 

This is part of an infographic the OECD used to promote the publication of Taxing Wages

OECD Taxing Wages Infographic

The OECD average is given as 25.5 per cent for 2017 and Ireland is included in the group of “low-tax” countries with tax rates for a single worker on the average wage of less than 20 per cent.  If an average wage was used that better reflected the actual outcomes in Ireland, in line with the methods used for other countries, then Ireland would be pretty much bang on the OECD average and would not be flagged (literally) on such infographics. 

Such a change would probably have limited impact on the estimated progressiveness of the Irish income tax system but it would change the range of values that are currently included in the analysis.  The OECD analysis extends up to earners on 167 per cent of the average wage.  This is around €60,000 with the average currently used but would be €75,000 if that was increased to the value proposed here.

If €45,000 was used for the Irish average wage (which the available data would support) then Ireland would not be down towards the bottom of charts like this.  This calculator puts the tax rate on a single person earning €45,000 in 2017 at 25 per cent.

OECD Taxing Wages Tax Rate on Average Wage

If a more realistic average wage was used, Ireland would pretty much be the same as the OECD average (and rise maybe ten places higher) in the above chart.  So why is such an unrepresentative average wage used for Ireland in this important report?

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