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New tax breaks cause confusion, enforcement issues

New tax breaks enacted last year are causing confusion for taxpayers and enforcement problems for the Internal Revenue Service, according to a government report issued Thursday, the deadline for filing individual returns.

As of March 5, the IRS erroneously gave out $24.2 million in Making Work Pay tax credits, according to the report by J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration. The IRS issued a total of $25 billion worth of the credits during the period, for an error rate of less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

The IRS also erroneously issued about $4.7 million in tax credits meant for people who bought plug-in electric cars. The new tax breaks were enacted as part of the massive economic recovery package passed last year.

“Our report concludes that the IRS is having a mixed filing season this year,” George said. “On the one hand, they are having difficulty implementing many of the changes created by the passage of the laws designed to stimulate the economy. On the other hand, the news is not all bad as the IRS is detecting and stopping more erroneous refunds this year.”

The report covers returns processed as of March 5. At the time, the IRS had received about 61 million returns. The agency expects to receive about 140 million individual returns this year.

“Any time you have major tax changes you will see some confusion over it,” said IRS spokesman Terry Lemons. The IRS is doing “everything we can” to work through problems and process returns quickly.

The stimulus package enacted last year presented many challenges for taxpayers and the IRS, making an already complicated tax system even more complex. There were tax credits for qualified families who buy new homes or make energy improvements to existing ones, as well as tax breaks to help pay college tuition or buy new cars.

The Making Work Pay tax credit was President Barack Obama’s signature tax break in the package. It provides individuals with up to $400 and couples up to $800.

The homebuyer tax credit was so popular that Congress extended and expanded it in November. Buyers who have owned their current homes at least five years are eligible, subject to income limits, for tax credits of up to $6,500. First-time homebuyers — or people who haven’t owned homes in the previous three years — can get up to $8,000. To qualify, buyers have to sign purchase agreements before May 1 and close before July 1.

The IRS expects half the people claiming the homebuyer credit not to include proper documentation, such as a settlement statement, and that will delay refunds, according to the report.

As of April 2, the average refund was $2,950, up about $255 over last year, Lemons said. The fastest way to get a refund: file electronically and have the refund deposited directly into a bank account, which takes about 10 days.

Refunds can take six to eight weeks for last-minute filers who use paper returns and receive checks, Lemons said.

China finds $84bn local government debt irregularities

National Audit Office said breaches included “irregular credit guarantees”, “irregular collateral” and “fraudulent and underpayment of registered capital”.

There are growing concerns about the amount of bad loans being held by local governments.Official figures show they held debt of 10.7tn yuan ($1.7tn; £1.1tn) in 2010.

“The State Council is studying proposals to enhance local government debt management and to address fiscal and financial risks,” the audit office said in the report.
‘Again and again’
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A lot of the local debt will be absorbed by the central government”
Michael Pettis Peking University

Local governments have been borrowing money from Chinese banks to fund projects aimed at maintaining economic growth.

According to the China Banking Regulatory Commission, local governments took up 80% of total bank lending in China at the end of 2010.

However, analysts said that although the lending had helped to spur investment and boost growth, it was now weighing on local governments.

“Whenever you look at lending that spurs growth miracles, it starts off with an increasing ability to pay the debt,” Professor Michael Pettis of Peking University told the BBC.

“But in every case that ability fades. That is the process that is happening in China,” he explained. “We are going to see stories like this again and again.”
Easing burden?

In October last year, China allowed four local governments to sell bonds for the first time in 17 year. It was hoped the sale would help them pay their loans.

However, the central government put a limit on the amount of bonds the local governments could issue despite the fact that there was a lot of interest among investors.

According to the Xinhua news agency, Shanghai’s bond sale received bids for three times the amount of bonds on offer.

As a result, many of the local governments still have sizeable debts and while the central government may let them raise money, it may also have to take further measures to solve the problem, analysts said.

“A lot of the local debt will be absorbed by the central government,” said Mr Pettis of Peking University.

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Tablets, e-readers closing book on ink-and-paper era

SAN FRANCISCO: Tablet computers and electronic readers promise to close the book on the ink-and-paper era as they transform the way people browse magazines, check news or lose themselves in novels.

Online retail giant Amazon has made electronic readers mainstream with Kindle devices, and Apple ignited insatiable demand for tablets ideal for devouring online content ranging from films to magazines and books.

In 2011, digital books earned about $3.2 billion in revenue, an amount that the combined momentum of e-readers and tablets is expected to triple to $9.7 billion by the year 2016, according to a Juniper Research report.

Readers are showing increased loyalty to digital books, according to the US Book Industry Study Group (BISG).

Nearly half of print book buyers who also got digital works said they would skip getting an ink-and-paper release by a favorite author if an electronic version could be had within three months, a BISG survey showed.

“The e-book market is developing very fast, with consumer attitudes and behaviors changing over the course of months, rather than years,” said BISG deputy executive director Angela Bole.

Concerns about e-book reading are diminishing, with people mainly wishing for lower device prices, according to the survey.

Owning e-readers tended to ramp up the amount of money people spent on titles in what BISG described as a promising sign for publishers.