A Brief History of VAT Digitization and the VAT Gap

Sovos
March 31, 2021

VAT accounts for 15-40% of all public revenue globally. We estimate that the global VAT gap – i.e. lost VAT revenue due to errors and fraud – could be as high as half a trillion Euros. The GDP of countries like Norway, Austria or Nigeria are at a similar level and this VAT gap is big enough to significantly impact the economy of many countries. For this reason, tax authorities globally are taking steps to boost lost revenue through VAT digitization.

Up until recently, VAT requirements have traditionally followed three broad categories.

1. Invoice and storage requirements

At a high level, the requirements that apply during the processing of business transactions break down into requirements related to:

  • The form of invoices: Most countries no longer have such requirements but in some cases businesses still use pre-printed paper invoices from the tax authority. This gives the tax authority tight control over invoice numbering and integrity.
  • Minimum content requirements: Most VAT countries only recognise an invoice for VAT purposes if it contains certain information. This would include name of the supplier and buyer, type of supply etc. In addition to VAT and other indirect tax laws, commercial and other laws can also dictate invoice content.
  • Tax determination: For every invoice, suppliers must determine the applicable law and, on that basis, decide the applicable tax rate. Application of certain tax rates also requires reference to an article in the VAT law to be stated on the invoice.
  • Timing: The moment an invoice must be issued is often set by the VAT law.
  • Record keeping: An “original” invoice should be archived by each trading partner. This evidences the underlying supply. Archiving requirements often further specify how long it should be kept, location and specific features – such as human readability – that must be present to ensure auditability.

2. Periodic reporting requirements

These are reports for business transaction data in summary or aggregate form or full data from individual invoices. Historically such reporting requirements have often been monthly, with certain less-common reports being quarterly or yearly.

3. Audit requirements

These occur when, during the mandatory retention period for invoices and other records and books, which is typically seven to ten years, a tax authority request access to such records to assess their correspondence to reports.

The trend toward continuous transaction controls (CTCs)

The requirement types listed above, and their relative importance for both business and tax authorities, have changed significantly in recent years. The overall trend is clearly toward various forms of CTCs.

This radically different mode of enforcement, known as the “clearance model” began in Latin America over 15 years ago. Other emerging economies, like Turkey, followed a decade later. Many countries in Latin America now have stable CTC systems where a large amount of the data required for VAT enforcement is based on invoices and other key data is harvested (and often pre-approved) directly at the time of the transaction.

Europe and other countries went through a stage where original VAT invoices could be electronic without changing the basics of the VAT law enforcement model. This phase of voluntary e-invoicing without process re-engineering is often known as “post-audit” e-invoicing. In a post-audit system, the tax authority has no operational role in the invoicing process relying heavily on periodic reports transmitted by the taxpayer. Being able to demonstrate the integrity and authenticity of e-invoices from the moment of issuance until the end of the mandatory storage period is key for trading partners in post audit regimes.

Largely due to the staggering improvements in revenue collection and economic transparency from countries with existing CTC regimes, countries in Europe, Asia and Africa have also started adopting similar schemes. This rapid adoption of CTCs in many additional countries doesn’t follow the same simple path of quick migration of the early adopters. In fact, as the trend spreads around the world, it’s becoming increasingly clear there will be many different models adding to the complexity and challenges faced by multinational companies today.

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Author

Sovos

Sovos was built to solve the complexities of the digital transformation of tax, with complete, connected offerings for tax determination, continuous transaction controls, tax reporting and more. Sovos customers include half the Fortune 500, as well as businesses of every size operating in more than 70 countries. The company’s SaaS products and proprietary Sovos S1 Platform integrate with a wide variety of business applications and government compliance processes. Sovos has employees throughout the Americas and Europe, and is owned by Hg and TA Associates.
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