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Archive for May 22nd, 2020

In the world of tax policy, big-picture issues such as tax reform can capture the public’s attention (should we junk the IRS, instance, and adopt a flat tax?).

People also get very interested if politicians are threatening to grab more of their money.

But many tax issues are tedious and boring, even if they involve important issues.

Today, we’re going to discuss another one of the sleep-inducing tax issues – how to account for business losses.

This arcane issues has been attracting a bit of attention because the big coronavirus-driven emergency package included some changes to the tax treatment of such losses (making it easier to reduce overall tax liabilities by balancing losses in some years with profits in other years).

That upset two left-leaning members of Congress, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who editorialized in USA Today about the changes.

…tucked into its 880 pages were Republican-inserted tax provisions…that..allow certain investors…to cut their tax bills by shifting losses to prior tax years. …Large corporations were also authorized to convert losses from two years before the pandemic into immediate tax refunds. Businesses with losses when the economy was growing are rewarded for poor management or adverse market conditions that had absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic. …let’s reverse the damage. We are offering legislation to unwind this massive tax giveaway, to recover the lost revenues… Giant special interest tax breaks were not needed before and certainly have no place during a pandemic.

Is this right? Did a handful of GOP politicians insert a special favor for their friends in the business community?

For what it’s worth, I’m sure the answer to both questions is yes. Politicians are a very self-interested group and I’m sure there were dozens of provisions in the legislation that qualified for that type of criticism.

I’m interested, however, in whether the provisions moved policy in the right direction or the wrong direction.

Kyle Pomerleau with the American Enterprise Institute explains why the changes were desirable.

The liberalized treatment of losses is not a bailout and does not provide special treatment of certain industries. Loss deductions are an essential part of a well-functioning income tax. Businesses typically make multi-year investments. Those investments may lose money in some years make money in other years. The ability to either carry back losses to offset previous years’ taxes or carry forward losses to offset future taxes ensures that the tax system accurately measures income. Without loss deductions, a tax system would be biased against risky investment. …In the future, lawmakers should consider permanently liberalizing the treatment of losses.

Nicole Kaeding made similar arguments for the National Taxpayers Union.

The provision at hand, a loosening of net operating loss rules, isn’t cronyism. Instead, it reflects Congress’s priority of helping affected individuals and businesses weather our economic crisis by smoothing out “lumpy” tax burdens over time. Net operating losses (NOLs) are key features of the tax code. Tax years, calendar years, and business profitability don’t always align. Net operating loss provisions help smooth profits and losses across tax years to ensure that businesses are taxed on their economic income, not an accounting byproduct. …many have argued that it made little sense for Congress to revise loss rules for 2018 and 2019, when the virus wasn’t a consideration. In the abstract, that concern makes sense but policymakers were concerned about providing immediate liquidity to firms. A 2020 NOL doesn’t help a firm until they file their 2020 tax return in 2021. But allowing carrybacks for 2018 or 2019 allows firms to access capital quickly by amending their previous returns and claiming a refund.

For what it’s worth, I addressed this topic back in 2016 because it became a controversy in that year’s presidential campaign.

I didn’t pretend to know whether Trump was doing the right thing or wrong thing with his tax returns, but I made the argument that a fair and neutral tax system should have carry-forward rules.

Indeed, the business side of the flat tax expressly includes such provisions.

For what it’s worth, households used to have the option for “income-averaging,” which basically meant they could lower their overall tax rate by spreading a spike in income over several years.

A difference between households and businesses, though, is that businesses can suffer losses, while the worst thing that happens to a household is when income drops to zero.

The bottom line is that income averaging for people would be a helpful provision in the tax code, but carry-forward rules for businesses are a necessary provision.

P.S. That last sentence assumes goal is a tax system that is designed to extract money while imposing the smallest-possible amount of damage on economic efficiency.

At the risk of stating the obvious, a simple and fair tax system is not the goal of most politicians. In public, they prefer using the tax code as a tool for class-war demagoguery, and in private, they use it as a vehicle for auctioning off special provisions to their cronies.

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