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The General Government

The share of general government expenditure (including capital outlays) in GDP rose from 23 percent in 1973 to 46 percent in 1990 (see table 5, Appendix). On the revenue side, the upward trend was less pronounced: the share increased from nearly 23 percent in 1973 to 39.2 percent in 1990. From a modest surplus before the revolution in 1973, the government balance swung to a wide deficit of 12 percent of GDP in 1984, declining thereafter to around 5.4 percent of GDP in 1990. Significantly, both current expenditures and capital expenditures roughly doubled their shares of GDP between 1973 and 1990: government current outlays rose from 19.5 percent to 40.2 percent, capital outlays from 3.2 percent to 5.7 percent.

Apart from the growing investment effort, which included capital transfers to the public enterprises, government expenditure patterns since the revolution reflected rapid expansion in the number of civil servants and pressure to redistribute income, mainly through current transfers and subsidies, as well as burgeoning interest obligations. The category "current transfers" nearly tripled its share of GDP between 1973 and 1990, from under 5 percent to 13.4 percent, reflecting the explosive growth of the social security system, both with respect to the number of persons covered and the upgrading of benefits. Escalating interest payments on the public debt from less than half a percent of GDP in 1973 to 8.2 percent of GDP in 1990 were the result of both a rise in the debt itself and higher real effective interest rates.

The narrowing of the government deficit since the mid-1980s and the associated easing of the borrowing requirement was caused both by a small increase in the share of receipts (by two percentage points) and the relatively sharper contraction of current subsidies, from 7.6 percent of GDP in 1984 to 1.5 percent of GDP in 1990. This reduction was a direct consequence of the gradual abandonment by the government of its policy of curbs on rises in public utility rates and food prices, against which it paid subsidies to public enterprises.

Tax reform--comprising both direct and indirect taxation--was a major element in a more comprehensive effort to modernize the economy in the late 1980s. The key objective of these reforms was to promote more efficient and market-oriented economic performance. Beyond considerations of efficiency, a good tax system also should be simple (i.e., easy to administer), fair, and transparent.

Prior to the reform, about 90 percent of the personal tax base consisted of labor income. Statutory marginal tax rates on labor income were very high, even at relatively low income levels, especially after the revolution. The large number of tax exemptions and fiscal benefits, together with high marginal tax rates, entailed the progressive erosion of the tax base through tax avoidance and evasion. Furthermore, Portuguese membership in the EC created the imperative for a number of changes in the tax system, especially the introduction of the value-added tax (VAT-- see Glossary).

Reform proceeded in two major installments: the VAT was introduced in 1986; the income tax reform, for both personal and corporate income, became effective in 1989. The VAT, whose normal rate was 17 percent, replaced all indirect taxes, such as the transactions tax, railroad tax, and tourism tax. Marginal tax rates on both personal and corporate income were substantially cut, and in the case of individual taxes, the number of brackets was reduced to five. The basic rate of corporate tax was 36.5 percent, and the top marginal tax rate on personal income was cut from 80 percent to 40 percent. A 25-percent capital gains tax was levied on direct and portfolio investment. Business proceeds invested in development projects were exempt from capital gains tax if the assets were retained for at least two years.

Preliminary estimates indicated that part of the observed increase in direct tax revenue in 1989-90 was of a permanent nature, the consequence of a redefinition of taxable income, a reduction in allowed deductions, and the termination of most fiscal benefits for corporations. The resulting broadening of the income tax base permitted a lowering of marginal tax rates, greatly reducing the disincentive effects to labor and saving.

Data as of January 1993

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Portugal Table of Contents