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Bitcoin Exchanges seeking clarity over levy of GST

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MUMBAI: Are Bitcoin exchanges required to pay goods and services tax? If they are, what would the rate be? And, will GST be levied on the revenues or operating margins of these exchanges?

India’s top seven Bitcoin exchanges, which include ZebpayUnocoinCoinSecureand BtcxIndia, plan to approach the Advance Authority of Ruling (AAR) for clear answers to these questions, two people with direct knowledge of the matter told ET. AAR is a quasi-judicial body that can decide the applicability of tax rates.

“At least one Bitcoin exchange has already filed an application with the Maharashtra AAR for future tax liability,” said one of the persons cited above. “The tax department is currently researching the concept of Bitcoins are a very complex subject.” Zebpay, Unocoin, CoinSecure and BtcxIndia didn’t respond to queries.

The development follows the income-tax department conducting searches at top Bitcoin exchanges in December. The indirect tax department is already looking at ways in which Bitcoins can be brought under GST. ET reported in December that the indirect tax department had launched an investigation into Bitcoin exchanges operating in India to ascertain the GST rate that can be levied on them. The sales tax department and VAT authorities launched an investigation on the taxability of Bitcoins in the last financial year.

For the exchanges, the rate could depend on what the authorities deem Bitcoins to be — goods, services or currency. If Bitcoin is held to be a currency, there will be no GST. If it’s a good, then a tax of 18% could be levied, and 12% if deemed to be a service.
“The question for many Bitcoin players is whether GST is applicable to the total revenue or on the margins they earn,” said Abhishek A Rastogi, a partner at law firm Khaitan & Co. “This is mainly because the tax authority must give clarity on whether Bitcoin exchanges are selling goods and services, or are mere trading platforms that earn margins.”

AAR DECISION TO DEFINE BIZ MODEL FOR BITCOIN EXCHANGES
According to another government official, who has reviewed the balance sheets of Bitcoin players, their size is quite substantial. “The combined revenue of top seven players would be around Rs 40,000 crore and they operate at about 20% margins,” the official said. “In most cases, whenever there is a ‘buy’ or a ‘sell’ order on their platforms, these exchanges charge huge differences, in the range of about Rs 1lakh.”

 If that’s the case, the indirect tax department could be looking at potential revenue of up to Rs 7,200 crore (if GST is levied at 18%). AAR’s decision will also help establish the business model for Bitcoin exchanges in India, defining the category for cryptocurrencies — goods, services or currency.
“The option of proceeding with advance rulings under GST should be exercised to enable clarity on future tax treatment, more so in cases where existing tax positions are untested,” said MS Mani, partner, Deloitte India. Industry insiders said Bitcoin players, including Indian exchanges, earn their revenue through commissions, transaction fees, or price-arbitrage opportunities. Most of the exchanges allow trading of various cryptocurrencies besides Bitcoins.
Experts said some Bitcoin exchanges have not been forthcoming with their data and have not paid any sales tax or VAT until now. One of the persons cited above said some exchanges had submitted different revenue figures to the sales tax and VAT authorities. “When we compared the annual results and explanations submitted to the sales tax and VAT authorities, they were diametrically opposite,” he said.
Bitcoin is the most popular cryptocurrency that allows online payments between individuals without the involvement of middlemen or financial institutions. Bitcoin prices lost about 4% Thursday evening and were trading at $14,546 a unit, Coindesk data showed.

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