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Posts Tagged ‘Capital Gains Tax’

Back in the 1960s, Clint Eastwood starred in a movie entitled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

I was thinking that might be a good title for today’s post about some new research by Michelle Harding, a tax economist for the OECD. But then I realized that her study on “Taxation of Dividend, Interest, and Capital Gain Income” doesn’t contain any “good” news.

At least not if you want the United States to be more competitive and create more jobs. This is because the numbers show that the internal revenue code results in punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

But it’s not newsworthy that there’s a lot of double taxation in America. What is shocking and discouraging, however, is finding out that our tax code is more punitive than just about every European welfare state.

This is the “bad” part of today’s discussion. Indeed, the tax burden on dividends, interest, and capital gains in America is far above the average for other industrialized nations.

Let’s look at some charts from the study, starting with the one comparing the tax burden on dividends.

OECD Study Dividend Tax Rates

As you can see, the United States has the dubious honor of having the sixth-highest overall tax rate (combined burden of corporate and personal taxes) among developed nations.

Though maybe we should feel lucky we’re not in France or Denmark.

The next chart looks at the tax burden on capital gains.

OECD Study Cap Gains Tax Rates

Once again, the United States has one of the most onerous tax systems among OECD countries, with only four other nations imposing a higher combined tax rate on capital gains.

By the way, if you want to know why this is a very bad idea, click here.

Last but not least, let’s look at the tax burden on interest.

OECD Study Interest Tax Rates

I’m sure you’ve already detected the pattern, but I’ll state the obvious that this is another example of the United States being on the wrong side of the graph.

So the next time you hear somebody bloviating about Americans being too short-sighted and not saving enough, you may want to inform them that there’s not much incentive to save when the IRS gets a big share of any interest we earn.

Not that any of us are getting much interest since the Fed’s easy-money policy has created an atmosphere of artificially low interest rates, but that’s a topic for another day.

Let’s now move to the “ugly” part of the analysis.

Some of you may have noticed that the charts replicated above are based on tax laws on July 1, 2012.

Well, thanks to Obamacare and the fiscal cliff deal, the IRS began imposing higher tax rates on dividends, capital gains, and interest on January 1, 2013.

And because of the new surtax on investments and the higher tax rates on dividends and capital gains, the United States will move even further in the wrong direction on the three charts.

I don’t know if that means we’ll overtake France in the contest to have the most anti-competitive tax treatment of dividends and capital gains, but it’s definitely bad news.

Oh, and let’s add another bit of “ugly” news to the discussion.

The OECD study didn’t look at death tax rates, but a study by the American Council for Capital Formation shows that the United States also has one of the world’s most punitive death taxes.

Even worse than France, Greece, and Venezuela, which is nothing to brag about.

I don’t want to be the bearer of nothing but bad news, so let’s close with some “good” news. At least relatively speaking.

It’s not part of the study, but it’s worth pointing out that the overall burden of taxation – measured as a share of GDP – is higher in most other nations. The absence of a value-added tax is probably the most important reason why the United States retains an advantage in this category.

Needless to say, this is why we should fight to our last breath to make sure this European version of a national sales tax is never imposed in America.

P.S. One of the big accounting firms, Ernst and Young, published some research last year that is very similar to the OECD’s data.

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Back in September, I shared a very good primer on the capital gains tax from the folks at the Wall Street Journal, which explained why this form of double taxation is so destructive.

I also posted some very good analysis from John Goodman about the issue.

Unfortunately, even though the United States already has a very anti-competitive system – as shown by these two charts, some folks think that the tax rate on capital gains should be even higher.

And it looks like they’re going to succeed, either because we go over the fiscal cliff or because Republicans acquiesce to Obama’s punitive proposal.

But this won’t be good for American competitiveness. Here’s some of what my colleague Chris Edwards just wrote about the issue.

Capital Gains Rates US v OECDNearly every country has reduced tax rates on individual long-term capital gains, with some countries imposing no tax at all. …If the U.S. capital gains tax rate rises next year as scheduled, it will be much higher than the average OECD rate. …Capital gains taxes raise less than five percent of federal revenues, yet they do substantial damage. Higher rates will harm investment, entrepreneurship, and growth, and will raise little, if any, added federal revenue. …Figure 1 shows that the U.S. capital gains tax rate of 19.1 percent in 2012 is higher than the OECD average rate of 16.4 percent.  These figures include both federal and average state-level tax rates on long-term capital gains. Next year, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts will push up the U.S. rate by 5 percentage points, and the new investment tax imposed under the 2010 health care law will push up the rate another 3.8 percent. As a result, the top U.S. capital gains tax rate will be 27.9 percent, which will be far higher than the OECD average. The federal alternative minimum tax and other provisions can increase the U.S. capital gains tax rate even higher.

The worst country is Denmark, at 42 percent, followed by France (32.5 percent), Finland (32 percent), Sweden and Ireland (both 30 percent), and the United Kingdom and Norway (both 28 percent).

Every other developed nations will have a capital gains tax rate below the United States level. And even some of those above the U.S. level often have provisions that spare many taxpayers from this pernicious form of double taxation.

Some countries have exemptions for smaller investors. In Britain, for example, individuals can exempt from tax the first $17,000 of capital gains each year. Eleven OECD countries do not impose taxes on longterm capital gains, nor do some jurisdictions outside of the OECD, such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Thailand.

The nations on the list that don’t tax capital gains are Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Korea, Switzerland, and Turkey.

I’m not surprised to see Switzerland on that list since that nation has some very sensible fiscal policies. And the Netherlands, notwithstanding its welfare state and long-run fiscal challenges, is very focused on global competitiveness.

But who would have thought Greece had any good policies?!? Or Belgium? Though maybe that’s one of the reasons why many successful French taxpayers are choosing that nation as a refuge.

Heck, even Russia has abolished its capital gains tax.

In his paper, Chris also gives a good explanation of the underlying tax theory in the capital gains tax debate. Simply stated, the statists like the “Haig-Simons” approach because it justifies class-warfare tax policy.

To maximize growth, we should “tax the fruit of the tree, but not the tree itself.” That is, we should tax the flow of consumption produced by capital assets, not the capital that will provide for future consumption. A Haig-Simons tax base—which includes capital gains—taxes the tree itself.  Why does a Haig-Simons tax base garner support if it is impractical and anti-growth? It appears to be because the liberal idea of “fairness” includes heavy taxation of high earners. Since high earners save more than others, they would be taxed heavily under a Haig-Simons tax base. …Today, many economists favor shifting from an income to a consumption tax base… Under a consumption tax base, savings would not be double-taxed, and capital gains would not face separate taxation because the cashflow from realized gains would be taxed when consumed. With regard to “fairness,” a Haig-Simons tax base penalizes frugal people and rewards the spendthrift. That’s because earnings are taxed a second time when saved, while immediate consumption does not face a further tax. That makes no sense because it is frugal people—savers—who are the benefactors of the economy since their funds get invested in the new businesses and new capital equipment that generates growth.

The right approach is to have a “consumption tax base,” which simply is another way of saying that income shouldn’t be taxed more than one time (as shown in this flowchart).

My video elaborates on all these issues and explains why the right capital gains tax rate is zero.

Writing about the death tax yesterday, I mentioned that it also is a perverse form of double taxation. And just as with the death tax, it’s worth noting that all the major pro-growth tax reform plans  – such as the flat tax or national sales tax – also have no capital gains tax.

It’s bad enough when the IRS gets to tax our income one time. They shouldn’t be allowed more than one bite of the apple.

P.S. Chris makes a very important point about higher capital gains taxes collecting little, if any revenue. Simply stated, there’s a large Laffer Curve effect since investors can choose not to sell an asset if the tax penalty is too high.

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One of the principles of good tax policy and fundamental tax reform is that there should be no double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Such a policy promotes current consumption at the expense of future consumption, which is simply an econo-geek way of saying that it penalizes capital formation.

This isn’t very prudent or wise since every economic theory agrees that capital formation is key to long-run growth and higher living standards. Even Marxist and socialist theory is based on this notion (they want government to be in charge of investing, so they want to do the right thing in a very wrong way – think Solyndra on steroids).

To help explain this issue, the Wall Street Journal today published a very good primer on taxing capital gains.

The editors begin with an uncontroversial proposition.

The current Democratic obsession with raising the capital gains tax comes from a mistaken belief that the preferential rate applied to the sale of a family business, farm or financial asset is a “loophole” that mainly benefits the rich.

They offer three reasons why this view is wrong, starting with a basic inequity in the tax code.

Far from being a loophole, the low tax rate applied to capital gains is beneficial and fair for several reasons. First, under current tax rules, all gains from investments are fully taxed, but all losses are not fully deductible. This asymmetry is a disincentive to take risks. A lower tax rate helps to compensate for not being able to write-off capital losses.

Next, the editors highlight the unfairness of not letting investors take inflation into account when calculating capital gains. As explained in this video, this can lead to tax rates of more than 100 percent on real gains.

Second, capital gains aren’t adjusted for inflation, so the gains from a dollar invested in an enterprise over a long period of time are partly real and partly inflationary. It’s therefore possible for investors to pay a tax on “gains” that are illusory, which is another reason for the lower tax rate.

This may not seem like an important issue today, but just wait ’til Bernanke gets to QE24 and assets are rising in value solely because of inflation.

The final – and strongest argument – is that any capital gains tax is illegitimate because it is double taxation. I think this flowchart is very helpful for those who want to understand the issue, but the WSJ’s explanation is very good as well.

Third, since the U.S. also taxes businesses on profits when they are earned, the tax on the sale of a stock or a business is a double tax on the income of that business. When you buy a stock, its valuation is the discounted present value of the earnings. The main reason to tax capital investment at low rates is to encourage saving and investment. If someone buys a car or a yacht or a vacation, they don’t pay extra federal income tax. But if they save those dollars and invest them in the family business or in stock, wham, they are smacked with another round of tax.

There’s also good research to back up this theory – some produced by prominent leftists.

Many economists believe that the economically optimal tax on capital gains is zero. Mr. Obama’s first chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, wrote in the American Economic Review in 1981 that the elimination of capital income taxation “would have very substantial economic effects” and “might raise steady-state output by as much as 18 percent, and consumption by 16 percent.”

Summers is talking about more than just the capital gains tax, so his estimate is best viewed as the type of growth that might be possible with a flat tax that eliminated all double taxation.

Nobel laureate Robert Lucas also thinks that such a reform would have large beneficial effects.

Almost all economists agree—or at least used to agree—that keeping taxes low on investment is critical to economic growth, rising wages and job creation. A study by Nobel laureate Robert Lucas estimates that if the U.S. eliminated its capital gains and dividend taxes (which Mr. Obama also wants to increase), the capital stock of American plant and equipment would be twice as large. Over time this would grow the economy by trillions of dollars.

So why aren’t these reforms happening, either the medium-sized goal of getting rid of the capital gains tax, or the larger goal of junking the corrupt internal revenue code for a simple and fair flat tax?

A big obstacle is that too many politicians believe in class-warfare tax policy, even though lower-income people are among the biggest victims when the economy is weak.

For more information, here’s my video explaining that the right capital gains tax rate is zero.

P.S. Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t make a Laffer Curve argument for a lower capital gains tax. The main reason is because I have no interest in maximizing revenue for the government. I simply want good policy, which is why the rate should be zero.

P.P.S. I also didn’t bother to make a competitiveness argument, mostly because the WSJ’s editorial didn’t focus on that subtopic. But check out this post to see how Obama’s policy is putting America at a significant disadvantage.

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A good tax system (like the flat tax) does not impose extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.

I’ve tried to emphasize this point with a flowchart, and I’ve defended so-called trickle-down economics, which is nothing more than the common-sense notion that investment boosts wages for workers by making them more productive.

But if you doubt this relationship, just take a look at this chart posted by Steve Landsburg.

(H/T: Cafe Hayek)

That’s an amazingly powerful relationship. Wages for workers are very much tied to the amount of capital that’s invested. In other words, capitalists are the best friends of workers.

Something to think about with the President proposing big increases in the double taxation of capital gains. And something to consider since he wants America to have the highest level of dividend double taxation in the industrialized world.

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The silly debate about the “Buffett Rule” is really an argument about the extent to which there should be more double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Politicians conveniently forget that dividends and capital gains get hit by the corporate income tax. And since America now has the developed world’s highest corporate income tax rate, it’s adding insult to injury to tax the income again. Actually, it’s adding injury to injury!

No wonder Ernst and Young found that the United States has a very anti-competitive system for taxing dividends and capital gains. (perhaps it’s time to copy the clever British campaign against punitive double taxation)

If you believe in fairness, the right capital gains tax rate is zero. John Goodman of the National Center for Policy Analysis, has a good explanation.

Income tax time is an appropriate moment to go to the heart of President Obama’s complaint about the taxes Warren Buffett and other rich people pay, or don’t pay. What the president is really complaining about is that the tax rate on capital gains is too low. But there is a more basic question to be asked: why tax capital gains at all?

That’s a very good question, because a capital gain isn’t income. It’s an asset that has increased in value. But the tax only applies on the gain if you sell the asset.

But why does an asset, such as shares of stock, rise in value? According to finance research, asset prices rise in value when there’s an expectation that there will be a greater after-tax stream of future income. But that income will be taxed (at least once!) when it materializes, so why tax it before it even happens? John hits the nail on the head.

The companies will realize their actual income and they will pay taxes on it. If the firms return some of this income to investors (stockholders), the investors will pay a tax on their dividend income. If the firms pay interest to bondholders, they will be able to deduct the interest payments from their corporate taxable income, but the bondholders will pay taxes on their interest income. Here is the bottom line: There is no need for the IRS to tax the bets that people make along the way — as stock prices gyrate up and down. Eventually all the income that is actually earned will be taxed when it is realized and those taxes will be paid by the people who actually earned the income.

Amen. John is exactly right. He’s making the same arguments I put forward in my video on capital gains taxation.

By the way, the capital gains tax isn’t indexed for inflation. So if you bought an asset 30 years ago and it’s doubled in value, you’ve actually lost money after adjusting for inflation. Yet the IRS will tax you. Sort of adding injury to injury to injury.

Finally, I like how John closes his column.

…why not avoid all these problems by reforming the entire tax system along the lines of a flat tax? The idea behind a flat tax can be summarized in one sentence: In an ideal system, (a) all income is taxed, (b) only once, (c) when (and only when) it is realized, (d) at one low rate.

In this awful period leading up to tax day, isn’t it nice to at least dream of a tax system that is simple, fair, and non-corrupt?

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As discussed yesterday, the most important number in Obama’s budget is that the burden of government spending will be at least $2 trillion higher in 10 years if the President’s plan is enacted.

But there are also some very unsightly warts in the revenue portion of the President’s budget. Americans for Tax Reform has a good summary of the various tax hikes, most of which are based on punitive, class-warfare ideology.

In this post, I want to focus on the President’s proposals to increase both the capital gains tax rate and the tax rate on dividends.

Most of the discussion is focusing on the big increase in tax rates for 2013, particularly when you include the 3.8 tax on investment income that was part of Obamacare. If the President is successful, the tax on capital gains will climb from 15 percent this year to 23.8 percent next year, and the tax on dividends will skyrocket from 15 percent to 43.4 percent.

But these numbers understate the true burden because they don’t include the impact of double taxation, which exists when the government cycles some income through the tax code more than one time. As this chart illustrates, this means a much higher tax burden on income that is saved and invested.

The accounting firm of Ernst and Young just produced a report looking at actual tax rates on capital gains and dividends, once other layers of tax are included. The results are very sobering. The United States already has one of the most punitive tax regimes for saving and investment.

Looking at this first chart, it seems quite certain that we would have the worst system for dividends if Obama’s budget is enacted.

The good news, so to speak, is that we probably wouldn’t have the worst capital gains tax system if the President’s plan is enacted. I’m just guessing, but it looks like Italy (gee, what a role model) would still be higher.

Let’s now contemplate the potential impact of the President’s tax plan. I am dumbfounded that anybody could look at these charts and decide that America will be in better shape with higher tax rates on dividends and capital gains.

This isn’t just some abstract issue about competitiveness. As I explain in this video, every single economic theory – even Marxism and socialism – agrees that saving and investment are key for long-run growth and higher living standards.

So why is he doing this? I periodically run into people who are convinced that the President is deliberately trying to ruin the nation. I tell them this is nonsense and that there’s no reason to believe elaborate conspiracies.

President Obama is simply doing the same thing that President Bush did: Making bad decisions because of perceived short-run political advantage.

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Never let it be said I back down from a fight, even when it’s the other team’s game, played by the other team’s rules, and for the benefit of the wrong person.

And that definitely went through my mind when U.S. News & World Report asked me to contribute to their “Debate Club” on the topic of “Should Mitt Romney pay higher taxes?”

I’m not a Romney fan, and it irks me to defend good tax policy on behalf of someone who is incapable and/or unwilling to make the same principled arguments.

But my job is to do the right thing and bring truth to the economic heathens, so I agreed to participate. And I’m glad I did, because it gave me a chance to try out a new argument that I hope will educate more people about the perverse impact of double taxation.

Let me know what you think of this approach, which asks people whether they would think it would be fair if they couldn’t take credit for withheld taxes when filling out their 1040 tax return.

Capital gains taxes and dividend taxes are both forms of double taxation. That income already is hit by the 35 percent corporate income tax. So the real tax rate for people like Mitt Romney is closer to 45 percent. And if you add the death tax to the equation, the effective tax rate begins to approach 60 percent.  Here’s a simply analogy. Imagine you make $50,000 per year and your employer withholds $5,000 for personal income tax. How would you feel if the IRS then told you that your income was $45,000 and you had to pay full tax on that amount, and that you weren’t allowed to count the $5,000 withholding when you filled out your 1040 form? You would be outraged, correctly yelling and screaming that you should be allowed to count those withheld tax payments.  Welcome to the world of double taxation.

By the way, if you like my argument, feel free to vote for my entry, which you can do on this page.

I won my previous debate for U.S. News, so I’m hoping the keep a good thing going. As they say in Chicago, vote early and vote often.

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