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Posts Tagged ‘Corporate taxation’

In his latest pivot to jobs and the economy, the President spoke earlier today in Tennessee.

Much of his speech was tax-spend-and-regulate boilerplate, but he did repackage some of his ideas into a so-called grand bargain.

He said he’s willing to cut the corporate tax rate in exchange for a bunch of new spending on things such as infrastructure (he didn’t specify whether it would be “shovel ready” this time) and dozens of “innovation institutes” (as if the notoriously sluggish and inefficient federal government can teach the private sector about being entrepreneurial.

In theory, however, such a deal might be worthwhile. It’s not a good idea to add to the burden of federal spending, of course, but if there’s a big enough reduction in the corporate tax rate, it might be worth the cost.

Worse than France? Worse than Greece?

After all, America has the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world and is ranked 94 out of 100 on other measures of business taxation.

But here’s why it’s important to read the fine print. The President wants to give with one hand and take away with the other. Yes, the corporate tax rate would come down, perhaps from 35 percent to 28 percent, but the White House has signaled that businesses would have to accept higher taxes on new investment (because of bad “depreciation” policy) and on international competitiveness (because of misguided “worldwide taxation” policy).

To cite a very simple example, is it a good deal for companies if the corporate tax rate is lowered by 20 percent but then other changes force companies to overstate their income by 25 percent?

In reality, it’s more complex, with some companies probably coming out ahead and others getting hit with a bigger tax bill.

I dig into some of these details in a debate on Larry Kudlow’s CNBC program.

The moral of the story is that it’s not clear whether the tax system would get better or worse under Obama’s proposal.

And if he wants the “grand bargain” to be a net tax increase, then the odds of seeing an improvement drop from slim to none.

So why trade more spending for – at best – sideways movement on tax policy?

P.S. Republicans hopefully learned important lessons about the risks of tax-hike budget deals from the debacles in 1982 and 1990. But if they need a helpful reminder, this chart from the New York Times reveals that the only successful budget agreement was the one in 1997 that cut taxes.

By the way,

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Mitt Romney is being criticized for supporting “territorial taxation,” which is the common-sense notion that each nation gets to control the taxation of economic activity inside its borders.

While promoting his own class-warfare agenda, President Obama recently condemned Romney’s approach. His views, unsurprisingly, were echoed in a New York Times editorial.

President Obama raised…his proposals for tax credits for manufacturers in the United States to encourage the creation of new jobs. He said this was greatly preferable to Mitt Romney’s support for a so-called territorial tax system, in which the overseas profits of American corporations would escape United States taxation altogether. It’s not surprising that large multinational corporations strongly support a territorial tax system, which, they say, would make them more competitive with foreign rivals. What they don’t say, and what Mr. Obama stressed, is that eliminating federal taxes on foreign profits would create a powerful incentive for companies to shift even more jobs and investment overseas — the opposite of what the economy needs.

Since even left-leaning economists generally agree that tax credits for manufacturers are ineffective gimmicks proposed for political purposes, let’s set that topic aside and focus on the issue of territorial taxation.

Or, to be more specific, let’s compare the proposed system of territorial taxation to the current system of “worldwide taxation.”

Worldwide taxation means that a company is taxed not only on it’s domestic earnings, but also on its foreign earnings. Yet the “foreign-source income” of U.S. companies is “domestic-source income” in the nations where those earnings are generated, so that income already is subject to tax by those other governments.

In other words, worldwide taxation results in a version of double taxation.

The U.S. system seeks to mitigate this bad effect by allowing American-based companies a “credit” for some of the taxes they pay to foreign governments, but that system is very incomplete.

And even if it worked perfectly, America’s high corporate tax rate still puts U.S. companies in a very disadvantageous position. If an American firm, Dutch firm, and Irish firm are competing for business in Ireland, the latter two only pay the 12.5 percent Irish corporate tax on any profits they earn. The U.S. company also pays that tax, but then also pays an additional 22.5 percent to the IRS (the 35 percent U.S. tax rate minus a credit for the 12.5 percent Irish tax).

In an attempt to deal with this self-imposed disadvantage, the U.S. tax system also has something called “deferral,” which allows American companies to delay the extra tax (though the Obama Administration has proposed to eliminate that provision!).

Romney is proposing to put American companies on a level playing field by going in the other direction. Instead of immediate worldwide taxation, as Obama wants, he wants to implement territorial taxation.

But what about the accusation from the New York Times that territorial taxation “would create a powerful incentive for companies to shift even more jobs and investment overseas”?

Well, they’re somewhat right…and they’re totally wrong. Here’s what I’ve said about that issue.

If a company can save money by building widgets in Ireland and selling them to the US market, then we shouldn’t be surprised that some of them will consider that option.  So does this mean the President’s proposal might save some American jobs? Definitely not. If deferral is curtailed, that may prevent an American company from taking advantage of a profitable opportunity to build a factory in some place like Ireland. But U.S. tax law does not constrain foreign companies operating in foreign countries. So there would be nothing to prevent a Dutch company from taking advantage of that profitable Irish opportunity. And since a foreign-based company can ship goods into the U.S. market under the same rules as a U.S. company’s foreign subsidiary, worldwide taxation does not insulate America from overseas competition. It simply means that foreign companies get the business and earn the profits.

To put it bluntly, America’s tax code is driving jobs and investment to other nations. America’s high corporate tax rate is a huge self-inflected wound for American competitiveness.

Getting rid of deferral doesn’t solve any problems, as I explain in this video. Indeed, Obama’s policy would make a bad system even worse.

But, it’s also important to admit that shifting to territorial taxation isn’t a complete solution. Yes, it will help American-based companies compete for market share abroad by creating a level playing field. But if policy makers want to make the United States a more attractive location for jobs and investment, then a big cut in the corporate tax rate should be the next step.

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American companies are hindered by what is arguably the world’s most punitive corporate tax system. The federal corporate rate is 35 percent, which climbs to more than 39 percent when you add state corporate taxes. Among developed nations, only Japan is in the same ballpark, and that country is hardly a role model of economic dynamism.

But the tax rate is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s also critically important to look at the government’s definition of taxable income. If there are lots of corrupt loopholes – such as ethanol – that enable some income to escape taxation, then the “effective” tax rate might be rather modest.

On the other hand, if the government forces companies to overstate their income with policies such as worldwide taxation and depreciation, then the statutory tax rate understates the actual tax burden.

The U.S. tax system, as the chart suggests, is riddled with both types of provisions.

This information is important because there are good and not-so-good ways of lowering tax rates as part of corporate tax reform. If politicians decide to “pay for” lower rates by eliminating loopholes, that creates a win-win situation for the economy since the penalty on productive behavior is reduced and a tax preference that distorts economic choices is removed.

But if politicians “pay for” the lower rates by expanding the second layer of tax on U.S. companies competing in foreign markets or by changing depreciation rules to make firms pretend that investment expenditures are actually net income, then the reform is nothing but a re-shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Now let’s look at President Obama’s plan for corporate tax reform.

*The good news is that he reduces the tax rate on companies from 35 percent to 28 percent (still more than 32 percent when state corporate taxes are added to the mix).

*The bad news is that he exacerbates the tax burden on new investment and increases the second layer of taxation imposed on American companies competing for market share overseas.

In other words, to paraphrase the Bible, the President giveth and the President taketh away.

This doesn’t mean the proposal would be a step in the wrong direction. There are some loopholes, properly understood, that are scaled back.

But when you add up all the pieces, it is largely a kiss-your-sister package. Some companies would come out ahead and others would lose.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to measurably improve incomes for American workers. In a competitive global economy, where even Europe’s welfare states recognize reality and have lowered their corporate tax rates, on average, to 23 percent, the President’s proposal at best is a tiny step in the right direction.

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Since the Clinton Administration turned out to be much more market-oriented than either his GOP predecessor or successor, this isn’t quite a man-bites-dog story.

Nonetheless, it is still noteworthy that Elaine Kamarck, a high-level official from the Clinton White House, has a column on a left-of-center website arguing in favor of a pro-growth, supply-side corporate tax reform.

Here’s some of what she wrote.

Not only have the OECD countries reduced their corporate tax rates over the years to an average of 25 percent — members of the OECD are starting in on yet another round of cuts. Canada and Great Britain, two of our closest trading partners, are moving in this direction. America has the second highest corporate tax rate of any of the developed nations. We can’t sit by while our competition is changing. A 2008 report by economists at the OECD found that the corporate income tax is the most harmful tax for long-term economic growth. A 2010 World Bank study demonstrated that corporate tax rates have a “large and significant adverse” effect on investment. And investment and economic growth equals jobs. Wage data from 65 countries over 25 years shows that every one percent increase in corporate tax rates leads to a 0.5 to 0.6 percent decrease in wages.

There are things in the rest of the article that rub me the wrong way, but I agree with everything in the above passage, as I explain in this video.

The thing that’s most striking about Ms. Kamarck’s article is that she acknowledges the link between corporate tax rates and workers’ wages, thus agreeing with me – at least implicitly – about “trickle-down economics” and the deleterious impact of double taxation.

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Another American company has decided to expatriate for tax reasons. This process has been going on for decades, with companies giving up their U.S. charters (a form of business citizenship) and redomiciling in low-tax jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Ireland, Switzerland, Panama, Hong Kong, and the Cayman Islands.

The companies that choose to expatriate usually fit a certain profile (this applies to individuals as well). They earn a substantial share of their income in other countries and they are put at a competitive disadvantage because of America’s “worldwide” tax system.

More specifically, worldwide taxation requires firms to not only pay tax to foreign governments on their foreign-source income, but they are also supposed to pay additional tax on this income to the IRS – even though the money was not earned in America and even though their foreign-based competitors rarely are subject to this type of double taxation.

In this most recent example, an energy company with substantial operations in Asia moved its charter to the Cayman Islands, as reported by digitaljournal.com.

Greenfields Petroleum Corporation…, an independent exploration and production company with assets in Azerbaijan, is pleased to announce that the previously announced corporate redomestication…from Delaware to the Cayman Islands has been successfully completed.

Because it is a small firm, the move by GPC probably won’t attract much attention from the politicians. But “corporate expatriation” has generated considerable controversy in recent years when involving big companies such as Ingersoll-Rand, Transocean, and Stanley Works (now Stanley Black & Decker).

Statists argue that it is unpatriotic for companies to redomicile, and they changed the law last decade to make it more difficult for companies to escape the clutches of the IRS. In addition to blaming “Benedict Arnold” corporations, leftists also attack low-tax jurisdictions for “poaching” companies.

Libertarians and conservatives, by contrast, explain that expatriation is the result of an onerous tax system that imposes high tax rates and requires the double taxation of foreign-source income. Expatriation is the only logical approach if companies want a level playing field when competing in global markets.

I cover this issue (and also explain that the Obama Administration is trying to make a bad system even worse) in the video below.

My recommendation, not surprisingly, is that politicians fix the tax code. Unfortunately, politicians prefer the blame-the-victim game, so they attack the companies instead of solving the underlying problem (and then they wonder why job creation is anemic).

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General Electric has received a lot of unwelcome attention for paying zero federal income tax in 2010, even though it reported $5.1 billion in U.S. profits. This is a good news-bad news situation.

The good news is that GE’s clever tax planning deprived the government of revenue. And I’m in favor of just about anything that reduces the amount of money that winds up in the hands of the most corrupt and least competent people in America (a.k.a., the political class in Washington).

The bad news, though, is that politicians can engage in borrow-and-spend vote-buying behavior, so depriving them of revenue doesn’t seem to have much impact on the overall burden of government spending.

Moreover, there are good ways to cut taxes and not-so-good ways to cut taxes. Special loopholes for politically powerful companies and well-connected insiders are unfair, corrupt, and inefficient.And I’ve already written about GE’s distasteful track record of getting in bed with politicians in exchange for grubby favors.

Ideally, we should junk the corrupt internal revenue code (and the corporate side of the tax code makes the personal tax code seem simple by comparison) and replace it with a simple and transparent system such as the flat tax.

That way, all income would be taxed since loopholes would be abolished, but there would be a very low tax rate and no double taxation.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is one of the best economic and policy journalists on the scene today, and this excerpt from his column explains what is right and wrong about GE’s tax bill.

GE allocates hundreds of talented minds to attempts at lowering taxes. I don’t blame GE for that. It’s probably worth it — which is exactly the problem. In a world with a simpler tax code — or better yet, with no corporate income tax — GE would spend those resources creating something of value. Again, this is a case where government creates a chasm between what’s profitable (gaming tax law) and what’s valuable for society. Also, this story demonstrates once again how Big Government hurts small business much more than it affects Big Business, which can afford to figure out a way around taxes.

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Here’s a video arguing for the abolition of the corporate income tax. The visuals are good and it touches on key issues such as competitiveness.

I do have one complaint about the video, though it is merely a sin of omission. There is not enough attention paid to the issue of double taxation. Yes, America’s corporate tax rate is very high, but that is just one of the layers of taxation imposed by the internal revenue code. Both the capital gains tax and the tax on dividends result in corporate income being taxed at least two times.

These are points I made in my very first video, which is a good companion to the other video.

There is a good argument, by the way, for keeping the corporate tax and instead getting rid of the extra layers of tax on dividends and capital gains. Either approach would get rid of double taxation, so the economic benefits would be identical. But the compliance costs of taxing income at the corporate level (requiring a relatively small number of tax returns) are much lower than the compliance costs of taxing income at the individual level (requiring the IRS to track down the tens of millions of shareholders).

Indeed, this desire for administrative simplicity is why the flat tax adopts the latter approach (this choice does not exist with a national sales tax since the government collects money when income is spent rather than when it is earned).

But that’s a secondary issue. If there’s a chance to get rid of the corporate income tax, lawmakers should jump at the opportunity.

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I’ve already commented on the Democrats deciding to wait until after the election before figuring out what to do about the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. This was a remarkable development since failure to extend these pieces of legislation means a big tax increase next January. But this doesn’t mean the Democrats are sitting on their hands. The President has a proposal to significantly increase the tax burden on American companies that compete in world markets, and Democrats on Capitol Hill think this is a winning political issue. They think higher taxes will encourage companies to keep more jobs in America, and they hope voters agree. But as the Wall Street Journal opines, this is a recipe for undermining the competitiveness f American companies. This means fewer jobs, and probably less tax revenue.

…the President’s plan reveals how out of touch Democrats are with the real world of tax competition. The U.S. already has one of the most punitive corporate tax regimes in the world and this tax increase would make that competitive disadvantage much worse, accelerating the very outsourcing of jobs that Mr. Obama says he wants to reverse. At issue is how the government taxes American firms that make money overseas. Under current tax law, American companies pay the corporate tax rate in the host country where the subsidiary is located and then pay the difference between the U.S. rate (35%) and the foreign rate when they bring profits back to the U.S. This is called deferral—i.e., the U.S. tax is deferred until the money comes back to these shores. Most countries do not tax the overseas profits of their domestic companies. Mr. Obama’s plan would apply the U.S. corporate tax on overseas profits as soon as they are earned. This is intended to discourage firms from moving operations out of the U.S. …Mr. Obama believes that by increasing the U.S. tax on overseas profits, some companies may be less likely to invest abroad in the first place. In some cases that will be true. But the more frequent result will be that U.S. companies lose business to foreign rivals, U.S. firms are bought by tax-advantaged foreign companies, and some U.S. multinational firms move their headquarters overseas. They can move to Ireland (where the corporate tax rate is 12.5%) or Germany or Taiwan, or dozens of countries with less hostile tax climates. We know this will happen because we’ve seen it before. The 1986 tax reform abolished deferral of foreign shipping income earned by U.S. controlled firms. No other country taxed foreign shipping income. Did this lead to more business for U.S. shippers? Precisely the opposite. According to a 2007 study in Tax Notes by former Joint Committee on Taxation director Ken Kies, “Over the 1985-2004 period, the U.S.-flag fleet declined from 737 to 412 vessels, causing U.S.-flag shipping capacity, measured in deadweight tonnage, to drop by more than 50%.” …Now the White House wants to repeat this experience with all U.S. companies. Two industries that would be most harmed would be financial services and technology, and their emphasis on human capital makes them especially able to pack up and move their operations abroad. CEO Steve Ballmer has warned that if the President’s plan is enacted, Microsoft would move facilities and jobs out of the U.S.

I’ve commented on this issue before, but I think the best explanation is in this video, which makes the key observation that American tax law may be able to discourage U.S. firms from building factories in other nations, but that simply means that companies from other countries will be able to take advantage of those opportunities.

A lot of Democrats, at least in private, admit that going after “deferral” is bad policy. But this makes the current proposal especially disgusting. People in the White House and on Capitol Hill know it will hurt jobs and reduce competitiveness, but they don’t care. Or at least they put political ambition before doing what’s right for the American people.

If they really cared, the would fix what’s wrong with the current system. A very effective way to encourage more jobs and investment in America is to lower the corporate tax rate, which is the point I made in the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s first video.

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The President presumably does not want to destroy jobs, but I explain in this Cato podcast that this will be the result if he succeeds in further tilting the playing field against American multinationals.

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It is somewhat disconcerting that every single European welfare state – even France and Sweden – has a lower corporate tax rate than the United States. But embarrassment is the least of the problems. The real issue is that a high corporate tax rate means it is more likely that jobs will migrate to nations that don’t treat companies as milk cows to nourish big government. As Investor’s Business Daily explains, a high corporate tax rate means less investment:

Four more developed nations have cut their corporate tax rates this year. Yet the U.S. sticks with second-highest corporate rate among OECD nations. This puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Only Japan, at 39.54%, has a higher corporate rate than the U.S., which at 39.1% is a bit lower than last year but still far higher than the average (26.29%) of the 30 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations. That average was brought down from 26.55% after the Czech Republic, Sweden (yes, the country where soft socialism has supposedly been perfected), Canada and South Korea cut their rates. …High corporate rates are unwanted — or should be unwanted — because they put a drag on a nation’s capital stock. An economy needs investment to increase jobs and pump productivity. High corporate tax rates repel rather than attract foreign companies and can even send domestic firms overseas. Capital flows easiest where the resistance is light. This is not our fantasy but an outcome that’s been observed in the real world. In 2003, economists Ruud de Mooij and Sjef Ederveen found that if a country cuts its corporate rates by a single percentage point, it can expect to boost capital investment by about three percentage points.

The Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s first video also addressed these issues. And while the production values and quality leave a bit to be desired, the message is very timely.

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