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Archive for the ‘Corporate tax’ Category

I have a love-hate relationship with corporations.

On the plus side, I admire corporations that efficiently and effectively compete by producing valuable goods and services for consumers, and I aggressively defend those firms from politicians who want to impose harmful and destructive forms of taxes, regulation, and intervention.

On the minus side, I am disgusted by corporations that get in bed with politicians to push policies that undermine competition and free markets, and I strongly oppose all forms of cronyism and coercion that give big firms unearned and undeserved wealth.

With this in mind, let’s look at two controversies from the field of corporate taxation, both involving the European Commission (the EC is the Brussels-based bureaucracy that is akin to an executive branch for the European Union).

First, there’s a big fight going on between the U.S. Treasury Department and the EC. As reported by Bloomberg, it’s a battle over whether European governments should be able to impose higher tax burdens on American-domiciled multinationals.

The U.S. is stepping up its effort to convince the European Commission to refrain from hitting Apple Inc. and other companies with demands for possibly billions of euros… In a white paper released Wednesday, the Treasury Department in Washington said the Brussels-based commission is taking on the role of a “supra-national tax authority” that has the scope to threaten global tax reform deals. …The commission has initiated investigations into tax rulings that Apple, Starbucks Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. received in separate EU nations. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has written previously that the investigations appear “to be targeting U.S. companies disproportionately.” The commission’s spokesman said Wednesday that EU law “applies to all companies operating in Europe — there is no bias against U.S. companies.”

As you can imagine, I have a number of thoughts about this spat.

  • First, don’t give the Obama Administration too much credit for being on the right side of the issue. The Treasury Department is motivated in large part by a concern that higher taxes imposed by European governments would mean less ability to collect tax by the U.S. government.
  • Second, complaints by the US about a “supra-national tax authority” are extremely hypocritical since the Obama White House has signed the Protocol to the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which effectively would create a nascent World Tax Organization (the pact is thankfully being blocked by Senator Rand Paul).
  • Third, hypocrisy by the US doesn’t change the fact that the European Commission bureaucrats are in the wrong because their argument is based on the upside-down notion that low tax burdens are a form of “state aid.”
  • Fourth, Europeans are in the wrong because the various national governments should simply adjust their “transfer pricing” rules if they think multinational companies are playing games to under-state profits in high-tax nations and over-state profits in low-tax nations.
  • Fifth, the Europeans are in the wrong because low corporate tax rates are the best way to curtail unproductive forms of tax avoidance.
  • Sixth, some European nations are in the wrong if they don’t allow domestic companies to enjoy the low tax rates imposed on multinational firms.

Since we’re on the topic of corporate tax rates and the European Commission, let’s shift from Brussels to Geneva and see an example of good tax policy in action. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report about how a Swiss canton is responding in the right way to an attack by the EC.

When the European Union pressured Switzerland to scrap tax breaks for foreign companies, Geneva had most to lose. Now, the canton that’s home to almost 1,000 multinationals is set to use tax to burnish its appeal. Geneva will on Aug. 30 propose cutting its corporate tax rate to 13.49 percent from 24.2 percent…the new regime will improve the Swiss city’s competitive position, according to Credit Suisse Group AG. “I could see Geneva going up very high in the ranks,” said Thierry Boitelle, a lawyer at Bonnard Lawson in the city. …A rate of about 13 percent would see Geneva jump 13 places to become the third-most attractive of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

This puts a big smile on my face.

Geneva is basically doing the same thing Ireland did many years ago when it also was attacked by Brussels for having a very low tax rate on multinational firms while taxing domestic firms at a higher rate.

The Irish responded to the assault by implementing a very low rate for all businesses, regardless of whether they were local firms or global firms. And the Irish economy benefited immensely.

Now it’s happening again, which must be very irritating for the bureaucrats in Brussels since the attack on Geneva (just like the attack on Ireland) was designed to force tax rates higher rather than lower.

As a consequence, in one fell swoop, Geneva will now be one of the most competitive cantons in Switzerland.

Here’s another reason I’m smiling.

The Geneva reform will put even more pressure on the tax-loving French.

France, which borders the canton to the south, east and west, has a tax rate of 33.33 percent… Within Europe, Geneva’s rate would only exceed a number of smaller economies such as Ireland’s 12.5 percent and Montenegro, which has the region’s lowest rate of 9 percent. That will mean Geneva competes with Ireland, the Netherlands and the U.K. as a low-tax jurisdiction.

Though the lower tax rate in Geneva is not a sure thing.

We’ll have to see if local politicians follow through on this announcement. And there also may be a challenge from left-wing voters, something made possible by Switzerland’s model of direct democracy.

Opposition to the new rate from left-leaning political parties will probably trigger a referendum as it would only require 500 signatures.

Though I suspect the “sensible Swiss” of Geneva will vote the right way, at least if the results from an adjoining canton are any indication.

In a March plebiscite in the neighboring canton of Vaud, 87.1 percent of voters backed cutting the corporate tax rate to 13.79 percent from 21.65 percent.

So I fully expect voters in Geneva will make a similarly wise choice, especially since they are smart enough to realize that high tax rates won’t collect much money if the geese with the golden eggs fly away.

Failure to agree on a competitive tax rate in Geneva could result in an exodus of multinationals, cutting cantonal revenues by an even greater margin, said Denis Berdoz, a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Geneva, who specializes in tax and corporate law. “They don’t really have a choice,” said Berdoz. “If the companies leave, the loss could be much higher.”

In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

Now let’s understand why the development in Geneva is a good thing (and why the EC effort to impose higher taxes on US-based multinational is a bad thing).

Simply stated, high corporate tax burdens are bad for workers and the overall economy.

In a recent column for the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute consider the benefits of a less punitive corporate tax system.

They start with the theoretical case.

If the next president has a plan to increase wages that is based on well-documented and widely accepted empirical evidence, he should have little trouble finding bipartisan support. …Fortunately, such a plan exists. …both parties should unite and demand a cut in corporate tax rates. The economic theory behind this proposition is uncontroversial. More productive workers earn higher wages. Workers become more productive when they acquire better skills or have better tools. Lower corporate rates create the right incentives for firms to give workers better tools.

Then they unload a wealth of empirical evidence.

What proof is there that lower corporate rates equal higher wages? Quite a lot. In 2006 we co-wrote the first empirical study on the direct link between corporate taxes and manufacturing wages. …Our empirical analysis, which used data we gathered on international tax rates and manufacturing wages in 72 countries over 22 years, confirmed that the corporate tax is for the most part paid by workers. …There has since been a profusion of research that confirms that workers suffer when corporate tax rates are higher. In a 2007 paper Federal Reserve economist Alison Felix used data from the Luxembourg Income Study, which tracks individual incomes across 30 countries, to show that a 10% increase in corporate tax rates reduces wages by about 7%. In a 2009 paper Ms. Felix found similar patterns across the U.S., where states with higher corporate tax rates have significantly lower wages. …Harvard University economists Mihir Desai, Fritz Foley and Michigan’s James R. Hines have studied data from American multinational firms, finding that their foreign affiliates tend to pay significantly higher wages in countries with lower corporate tax rates. A study by Nadja Dwenger, Pia Rattenhuber and Viktor Steiner found similar patterns across German regions… Canadian economists Kenneth McKenzie and Ergete Ferede. They found that wages in Canadian provinces drop by more than a dollar when corporate tax revenue is increased by a dollar.

So what’s the moral of the story?

It’s very simple.

…higher wages are relatively easy to stimulate for a nation. One need only cut corporate tax rates. Left and right leaning countries have done this over the past two decades, including Japan, Canada and Germany. Yet in the U.S. we continue to undermine wage growth with the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

The Tax Foundation echoes this analysis, noting that even the Paris-based OECD has acknowledged that corporate taxes are especially destructive on a per-dollar-raised basis.

In a landmark 2008 study Tax and Economic Growth, economists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) determined that the corporate income tax is the most harmful tax for economic growth. …The study also found that statutory corporate tax rates have a negative effect on firms that are in the “process of catching up with the productivity performance of the best practice firms.” This suggests that “lowering statutory corporate tax rates can lead to particularly large productivity gains in firms that are dynamic and profitable, i.e. those that can make the largest contribution to GDP growth.”

Sadly, there’s often a gap between the analysis of the professional economists at the OECD and the work of the left-leaning policy-making divisions of that international bureaucracy.

The OECD has been a long-time advocate of schemes to curtail tax competition and in recent years even has concocted a “base erosion and profit shifting” initiative designed to boost the tax burden on businesses.

In a study for the Institute for Research in Economic and Fiscal Issues (also based, coincidentally, in Paris), Pierre Bessard and Fabio Cappelletti analyze the harmful impact of corporate taxation and the unhelpful role of the OECD.

…the latest years have been marked by an abundance of proposals to reform national tax codes to patch these alleged “loopholes”. Among them, the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting package (BEPS) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is the most alarming one because of its global ambition. …The OECD thereby assumes, without any substantiation, that the corporate income tax is both just and an efficient way for governments to collect revenue.

Pierre and Fabio point out that the OECD’s campaign to impose heavier taxes on business is actually just a back-door way of imposing a higher burden on individuals.

…the whole value created by corporations is sooner or later transferred to various individuals, may it be as dividends (for owners and shareholders), interest payments (for lenders), wages (for employees) and payments for the provided goods and services (for suppliers). Second, corporations as such do not pay taxes. …at the end of the day the burden of any tax levied on them has to be carried by an individual.

This doesn’t necessarily mean there shouldn’t be a corporate tax (in nations that decide to tax income). After all, it is administratively simpler to tax a company than to track down potentially thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of shareholders.

But it’s rather important to consider the structure of the corporate tax system. Is it a simple system that taxes economic activity only one time based on cash flow? Or does it have various warts, such as double taxation and deprecation, that effectively result in much higher tax rates on productive behavior?

Most nations unfortunately go with the latter approach (with place such as Estonia and Hong Kong being admirable exceptions). And that’s why, as Pierre and Fabio explain, the corporate income tax is especially harmful.

…the general consensus is that the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the corporate income tax is much higher than the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the personal income tax… This is due to the corporate income tax generating additional distortions. … Calls by the OECD and other bodies to standardize corporate tax rules and increase tax revenue in high-tax countries in effect would equate to calls for higher prices for consumers, lower wages for workers and lower returns for pension funds. Corporate taxes also depress available capital for investment and therefore productivity and wage growth, holding back purchasing power. In addition, the deadweight losses arising from corporate income taxation are particularly high. They include lobbying for preferential rates and treatments, diverting attention and resources from production and wealth creation, and distorting decisions in corporate financing and the choice of organizational form.

From my perspective, the key takeaway is that income taxes are always bad for prosperity, but the real question is whether they somewhat harmful or very harmful. So let’s close with some very depressing news about how America’s system ranks in that regard.

The Tax Foundation has just produced a very helpful map showing corporate tax rates around the world. All you need to know about the American system is that dark green is very bad (i.e., a corporate tax rate that is way above the average) and dark blue is very good.

And to make matters worse, the high tax rate is just part of the problem. A German think tank produced a study that looked at other major features of business taxation and concluded that the United States ranked #94 out of 100 nations.

It would be bad to have a high rate with a Hong Kong-designed corporate tax structure. But we have something far worse, a high rate with what could be considered a French-designed corporate tax structure.

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If you get into the weeds of tax policy and had a contest for parts of the internal revenue code that are “boring but important,” depreciation would be at the top of the list. After all, how many people want to learn about America’s Byzantine system that imposes a discriminatory tax penalty on new investment? Yes, it’s a self-destructive policy that imposes a lot of economic damage, but even I’ll admit it’s not a riveting topic (though I tried to make it culturally relevant by using ABBA as an example).

In second place would be a policy called “deferral,” which deals with a part of the law that allows companies to delay an extra layer of tax that the IRS imposes on income that is earned – and already subject to tax – in other countries. It is “boring but important” because it has major implications on the ability of American-domiciled firms to compete for market share overseas.

Here’s a video that explains the issue, though feel free to skip it and continue reading if you already are familiar with how the law works.

The simple way to think of this eye-glazing topic is that “deferral” is a good policy that partially mitigates the impact of a bad policy known as “worldwide taxation.”

Unfortunately, good policy tends to be unpopular in Washington. This is why deferral (and related issues such as inversions, which occur for the simple reason that worldwide taxation creates a huge competitive disadvantage for U.S.-domiciled companies) is playing an unusually large role in the 2016 election and concomitant tax debates.

Consider the tax controversy involving Apple. The CEO does not want to surrender money that belongs to shareholders to the government.

Apple CEO Tim Cook struck back at critics of the iPhone maker’s strategy to avoid paying U.S. taxes, telling The Washington Post in a wide ranging interview that the company would not bring that money back from abroad unless there was a “fair rate.”

Since the discussion is about income that Apple has earned in other nations (and therefore about income that already has been subject to all applicable taxes in other nations), the only “fair rate” from the United States is zero.

That’s because good tax systems are based on “territorial taxation” rather than “worldwide taxation.”

Though a worldwide tax system might not impose that much damage if a nation had a low corporate tax rate.

Unfortunately, that’s not a good description of the U.S. system, which has a very high rate, thus creating a big incentive to hold money overseas to avoid having to pay a very hefty second layer of tax to the IRS on income that already has been subject to tax by foreign governments.

Along with other multinational companies, the tech giant has been subject to criticism over a tax strategy that allows them to shelter profits made abroad from the U.S. corporate tax rate, which at 35 percent is among the highest in the developed world.

“Among”? I don’t know if this is a sign of bias or ignorance on the part of CNBC, but the U.S. unquestionably has the highest corporate tax rate among developed nations.

Indeed, it might even be the highest in the entire world.

Anyhow, Mr. Cook points out that there’s nothing patriotic about needlessly paying extra tax to the IRS, especially when it would mean a very punitive tax rate.

…a few particularly strident critics have lambasted Apple as a tax dodger. …While some proponents of the higher U.S. tax rate say it’s unpatriotic for companies to practice inversions or shelter income, Cook hit back at the suggestion. “It is the current tax law. It’s not a matter of being patriotic or not patriotic,” Cook told The Post in a lengthy sit-down. “It doesn’t go that the more you pay, the more patriotic you are.” …Cook added that “when we bring it back, we will pay 35 percent federal tax and then a weighted average across the states that we’re in, which is about 5 percent, so think of it as 40 percent. We’ve said at 40 percent, we’re not going to bring it back until there’s a fair rate. There’s no debate about it.”

Cook may be right that there’s “no debate” about whether it’s sensible for a company to keep money overseas to guard against bad tax policy.

But there is a debate about whether politicians will make the law worse in a grab for more revenue.

Senator Ron Wyden, for instance, doesn’t understand the issue. He wrote an editorial asserting that Apple is engaging in a “rip-off.”

…the heart of this mess is the big dog of tax rip-offs – tax deferral. This is the rule that encourages American multinational corporations to keep their profits overseas instead of investing them here at home, and it does so by granting them $80 billion a year in tax breaks. This policy…defies common sense. …some of the most profitable companies in the world can put off paying taxes indefinitely while hardworking Americans must pay their taxes every year. …that system creates a perverse incentive to keep corporate profits overseas instead of investing here at home.

I agree with him that the current system creates a perverse incentive to keep money abroad.

But you don’t solve that problem by imposing unconstrained worldwide taxation, which would create a perverse incentive structure that discourages American-domiciled firms from competing for market share in other nations.

Amazingly, Senator Wyden actually claims that making the system more punitive would help make America a better place to do business.

…ending deferral is a necessary step in making sure…the U.S. maintains its position as the best place to do business.

Wow, this rivals some of the crazy things that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said.

Though I guess we need to give Wyden credit for honesty. He admits that what he really wants is for Washington to have more money to spend.

Ending deferral will also generate money from existing deferred taxes to pay for rebuilding our country’s crumbling infrastructure. …This is a priority that almost all tax reform proposals have called for.

By the way, can you guess which presidential candidate agrees with Senator Wyden and wants to impose full and immediate worldwide taxation?

If you answered Hillary Clinton, you’re right. But if you answered Donald Trump, that also would be a correct answer.

This is a grim example of why I refer to them as the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of statism.

Though to be fair, Trump’s plan at least contains a big reduction in the corporate tax rate, which would substantially reduce the negative impact of a worldwide tax system.

The Wall Street Journal opines on the issue and is especially unimpressed by Hillary Clinton’s irresponsible approach on the issue.

Mrs. Clinton is targeting so-called inversions, where U.S.-based companies move their headquarters by buying an overseas competitor, as well as foreign takeovers of U.S. firms for tax considerations. These migrations are the result of a U.S. corporate-tax code that supplies incentives to migrate… The Democrat would impose what she calls an “exit tax” on businesses that relocate outside the U.S., which is the sort of thing banana republics impose when their economies sour. …Mrs. Clinton wants to build a tax wall to stop Americans from escaping. “If they want to go,” she threatened in Michigan, “they’re going to have to pay to go.”

Ugh, making companies “pay to go” is an unseemly sentiment. Sort of what you might expect from a place like Venezuela where politicians treat private firms as a source of loot for their cronies.

The WSJ correctly points out that the problem is America’s anti-competitive worldwide tax regime, combined with a punitive corporate tax rate.

…the U.S. taxes residents—businesses and individuals—on their world-wide income, not merely the income that they earned in the U.S. …the U.S. taxes companies headquartered in the U.S. far more than companies based in other countries. Thirty-one of the 34 OECD countries have cut corporate taxes since 2000, leaving the U.S. with the highest rate in the industrialized world. The U.S. system of world-wide taxation means that a company that moves from Dublin, Ohio, to Dublin, Ireland, will pay a rate that is less than a third of America’s. A dollar of profit earned on the Emerald Isle by an Irish-based company becomes 87.5 cents after taxes, which it can then invest in Ireland or the U.S. or somewhere else. But if the company stays in Ohio and makes the same buck in Ireland, the after-tax return drops to 65 cents or less if the money is invested in America.

In other words, the problem is obvious and the solution is obvious.

But there are too many Barack Obamas and Elizabeth Warrens in Washington, so it’s more likely that policy will move in the wrong direction.

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What’s the best measure of the tax burden on the U.S. economy?

Is it the amount of money that we’re forced to surrender to the knaves in Washington (i.e., the difference between our pre-tax income and post-tax consumption)?

Or is it the loss of economic output caused by high tax rates, distorting preferences, and pervasive double taxation (i.e., policies that reduce our pre-tax income)?

The answer is both.

But even that’s not sufficient. There’s another very big part of the tax burden, which is the complexity caused by a 75,000-page tax code that imposes very high compliance costs on taxpayers. In other words, the tax (as measured by time, resources, and energy) we pay for the ostensible privilege of paying taxes.

And this compliance tax is enormous according to new research from the Tax Foundation. The report starts with some very sobering numbers.

…In 1955, the Internal Revenue Code stood at 409,000 words. Since then, it has grown to a total of 2.4 million words: almost six times as long as it was in 1955 and almost twice as long as in 1985. However, the tax statutes passed by Congress are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tax complexity. There are roughly 7.7 million words of tax regulations, promulgated by the IRS over the last century, which clarify how the U.S. tax statutes work in practice. On top of that, there are almost 60,000 pages of tax-related case law, which are indispensable for accountants and tax lawyers trying to figure out how much their clients actually owe.

It then measures the burden of this convoluted system for taxpayers.

According to the latest estimates from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Americans will spend more than 8.9 billion hours complying with IRS tax filing requirements in 2016. This is equal to nearly 4.3 million full-time workers doing nothing but tax return paperwork. …in dollar terms, the 8.9 billion hours needed to comply with the tax code computes to $409 billion each year in lost productivity, or greater than the gross product of 36 states… The cost of complying with U.S. business income taxes accounts for 36 percent of the total cost of the entire tax code, at $147 billion. Complying with the individual income tax costs another $99 billion annually.

The report provides data for 50 provisions of the tax code. In the interest of brevity, here are the 10-most expensive features of the internal revenue code.

The overall $147 billion compliance cost for businesses is enormous, particularly when you consider that corporate tax revenue for Uncle Sam this year is estimated to be $329 billion. So companies have a double-whammy of enduring the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate, and they have to spend lots of money for the pleasure of that punitive system.

Another part that grabbed my attention is “Form 4562” dealing with depreciation. If you care about good policy and stronger growth, businesses shouldn’t even have to depreciate. Instead, we should have a policy of “expensing,” which is simply the common-sense approach of recognizing costs in the year they occur. So firms are paying a $23 billion-plus tax for the privilege of a policy that already punishes them for investing. Amazing.

And don’t forget the death tax, which also makes the top-10 list. The Tax Foundation points out that the compliance cost basically doubles the burden of that horrible and unfair levy.

The estate and gift tax, which will only collect approximately $20 billion in federal revenues this year, has a compliance cost of $19.6 billion.

What a mess.

So what’s the answer?

Simply stated, we should rip up the entire internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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Imagine if you had the chance to play basketball against a superstar from the NBA like Stephen Curry.

No matter how hard you practiced beforehand, you surely would lose.

For most people, that would be fine. We would console ourselves with the knowledge that we tried our best and relish he fact that we even got the chance to be on the same court as a professional player.

But some people would want to cheat to make things “equal” and “fair.” So they would say that the NBA player should have to play blindfolded, or while wearing high-heeled shoes.

And perhaps they could impose enough restrictions on the NBA player that they could prevail in a contest.

But most of us wouldn’t feel good about “winning” that kind of battle. We would be ashamed that our “victory” only occurred because we curtailed the talents of our opponent.

Now let’s think about this unseemly tactic in the context of corporate taxation and international competitiveness.

The United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world, combined with having the most onerous “worldwide” tax system among all developed nations.

This greatly undermines the ability of U.S.-domiciled companies to compete in world markets and it’s the main reason why so many companies feel the need to engage in inversions.

So how does the Obama Administration want to address these problems? What’s their plan to reform the system to that American-based firms can better compete with companies from other countries?

Unfortunately, there’s no desire to make the tax code more competitive. Instead, the Obama Administration wants to change the laws to make it less attractive to do business in other nations. Sort of the tax version of hobbling the NBA basketball player in the above example.

Here are some of the details from the Treasury Department’s legislative wish list.

The Administration proposes to supplement the existing subpart F regime with a per-country minimum tax on the foreign earnings of entities taxed as domestic C corporations (U.S. corporations) and their CFCs. …Under the proposal, the foreign earnings of a CFC or branch or from the performance of services would be subject to current U.S. taxation at a rate (not below zero) of 19 percent less 85 percent of the per-country foreign effective tax rate (the residual minimum tax rate). …The minimum tax would be imposed on current foreign earnings regardless of whether they are repatriated to the United States.

There’s a lot of jargon in those passages, and even more if you click on the underlying link.

So let’s augment by excerpting some of the remarks, at a recent Brookings Institution event, by the Treasury Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Tax Affairs. Robert Stack was pushing the President’s agenda, which would undermine American companies by making it difficult for them to benefit from good tax policy in other jurisdictions.

He actually argued, for instance, that business tax reform should be “more than a cry to join the race to the bottom.”

In other words, he doesn’t (or, to be more accurate, his boss doesn’t) want to fix what’s wrong with the American tax code.

So he doesn’t seem to care that other nations are achieving good results with lower corporate tax rates.

I do not buy into the notion that the U.S. must willy-nilly do what everyone else is doing.

And he also criticizes the policy of “deferral,” which is a provision of the tax code that enables American-based companies to delay the second layer of tax that the IRS imposes on income that is earned (and already subject to tax) in other jurisdictions.

I don’t think it’s open to debate that the ability of US multinationals to defer income has been a dramatic contributor to global tax instability.

He doesn’t really explain why it is destabilizing for companies to protect themselves against a second layer of tax that shouldn’t exist.

But he does acknowledge that there are big supply-side responses to high tax rates.

…large disparity in income tax rates…will inevitably drive behavior.

Too bad he doesn’t draw the obvious lesson about the benefits of low tax rates.

Anyhow, here’s what he says about the President’s tax scheme.

The President’s global minimum tax proposal…permits tax-free repatriation of amounts earned in countries taxed at rates above the global minimum rate. …the global minimum tax plan also takes the benefit out of shifting income into low and no-tax jurisdictions by requiring that the multinational pay to the US the difference between the tax haven rate and the U.S. rate.

The bottom line is that American companies would be taxed by the IRS for doing business in low-tax jurisdictions such as Ireland, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Bermuda.

But if they do business in high-tax nations such as France, there’s no extra layer of tax.

The bottom line is that the U.S. tax code would be used to encourage bad policy in other countries.

Though Mr. Stack sees that as a feature rather than a bug, based on the preposterous assertion that other counties will grow faster if the burden of government spending is increased.

…the global minimum tax concept has an added benefit as well…protecting developing and low-income countries…so they can mobilize the necessary resources to grow their economies.

And he seems to think that support from the IMF is a good thing rather than (given that bureaucracy’s statist orientation) a sign of bad policy.

At a recent IMF symposium, the minimum tax was identified as something that could be of great help.

The bottom line is that the White House and the Treasury Department are fixated at hobbling competitors by encouraging higher tax rates around the world and making sure that American-based companies are penalized with an extra layer of tax if they do business in low-tax jurisdictions

For what it’s worth, the right approach, both ethically and economically, is for American policy makers to focus on fixing what’s wrong with the American tax system.

P.S. When I debunked Jeffrey Sachs on the “race to the bottom,” I showed that lower tax rates do not mean lower tax revenue.

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I’m a bleeding heart libertarian in that I get most upset about statist policies that make life harder for disadvantaged people so that folks with more money can get undeserved goodies.

  • For instance, I despise anti-school choice leftists because they value political support from teacher unions more than they value opportunity for poor kids.
  • And I get very agitated that about the Export-Import Bank, which is a form of corporate welfare that transfers money from the general population to the rich.

Another example is occupational licensing, which occurs when politicians require newcomers to jump through expensive and/or time-consuming hoops before getting “permission” to provide a good or service. These licensing rules create unjust profits for established businesses by hindering competition, and they are especially burdensome for poor people, all of which is explained in this superb video from the Institute for Justice.

But if there’s a sliver lining to that dark cloud, it’s this image that I will add to my collection of libertarian humor. To be fair, I don’t know if it counts as purely libertarian humor, but I saw it on Reddit‘s libertarian page and it definitely makes the right points.

If you like libertarian humor, both pro and con, click here, here, and here for other examples.

P.S. Let’s close by sharing some good news on a serious topic.

Unlike the short-sighted politicians in the United States, the crowd in Australia seems a bit more level-headed on the issue of competitive corporate taxation. Here are some excerpts from a story in the U.K.-based Guardian.

The Turnbull government has given big business exactly what it wants – a substantial tax cut. It has also extended the Abbott government’s small business tax package by giving small and medium businesses more tax cuts and incentives. …“Our corporate tax rate is high by international standards and well above the average for OECD countries and those in the Asian region,” the budget papers say. “This will make Australian companies more internationally competitive in a tough global market place.” The government plans to cut the corporate tax rate significantly, from 30% to 25%. …The cut will be phased in over 10 years… The treasurer, Scott Morrison, says treasury modelling suggests the measures will grow the economy by 1% over the long term. He says they will lead to higher living standards, via increased business investment and more jobs.

I certainly don’t think “significantly” is a word to describe a modest five-percentage-point reduction in the rate, but kudos to Aussie politicians for moving in the right direction. I also like the part about “treasury modelling,” which suggests that the Australians also have a sensible approach on the issue of static scoring vs. dynamic scoring.

So perhaps now you can understand why Australia is my choice if (when?) the welfare state collapses in the United States (though I’m still of the opinion that the Swiss are the world’s most sensible people).

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My opinion on taxing corporate income varies with my mood.

When I’m in a fiery-libertarian phase, I want to abolish taxes on corporate income for the simple reason that all income taxes should be eliminated. Heck, I would also eliminate October 3 from the calendar because that’s the awful day in 1913 that the income tax was signed into low.

But when I’m going through a pragmatic-libertarian phase, I grudgingly accept that my fantasies won’t be realized and focus on incremental reform. And that means I want a simple and fair system like the flat tax, which is based on the principle that all income should be taxed, but only one time and at one low rate.

And that means corporate income should be taxed.

That being said, while it may be appropriate to tax corporate income, that does not mean the U.S. corporate income tax is ideal.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that all of these problems can be solved with a flat tax, which would rip of the current corporate income tax and replace it with a very simple, low-rate system that properly measures income (i.e., expensing and territorial taxation) and taxes it only one time (i.e., no double taxation).

By the way, corporate income can be taxed without a corporate income tax. Simply tax the income when it is distributed to shareholders (the people who own the company) instead of taxing it at the business level. The goal, of course, is to make sure it no longer gets taxed twice.

A good business tax system isn’t a fantasy. Jurisdictions such as Estonia and Hong Kong have business tax systems that are very close to the aforementioned ideal. And it goes without saying that jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands. are even better since they fulfill my dream of no income tax whatsoever.

With this background on good business tax policy, let’s now look at some contentious issues and see how they should be addressed.

We’ll start with the kerfuffle over companies that don’t pay tax, a controversy that was triggered by a somewhat disingenuous report from the Government Accountability Office.

One of the takeaway headlines from the GAO report is the supposedly startling revelation that 70 percent of corporations paid no tax.

But Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute explained the real story, which is that they didn’t pay tax because they didn’t have profits.

In 2012, out of 1.6 million corporate tax returns, only 51% were returns that had positive “net incomes,” and only 32% were returns that had positive “incomes subject to tax.” …“income subject to tax” allows companies with positive “net incomes” to claim an additional deduction as a result of prior-year operating losses. These losses can be carried forward to offset taxable incomes in years when firms are making a profit or have positive net incomes; this is known as a net operating loss deduction (NOLD). For 2012, the data show that approximately 20% of companies with positive “net incomes” (or profits) claimed a net operating loss deduction resulting in a zero tax liability.

There’s a bit of jargon in that passage, but the main thing to understand is that companies get to use losses from one year to offset profits from another year, which means – for all intents and purposes – that the government’s definition of taxable income does a better job of measuring profits over a longer period of time.

Here are some more details.

…the data shows two things: first, the GAO claim that 70% of companies paid no income tax is largely because more than 50% of these companies had zero profits or net incomes, and therefore they had zero tax liability. Secondly, some of these currently “profitable” (positive net income) companies have experienced large losses in prior years. For these companies, the NOL deduction allowed them to reduce their tax liability to zero. …The intent of this provision is, for example, to avoid a company with 5 years of consecutive operating losses of $20 million each having to pay income tax in year 6 simply because it realizes income of $20 million in that year. The principle underlying NOLD is intended to allow companies to get out of the hole of accumulated losses before the government can start claiming…the company’s income.

Her conclusion is completely sensible and appropriate.

…the GAO clearly acknowledges that the reason 70% of companies are paying no taxes is because they are either not currently profitable or they are able to offset taxes because of prior-year losses.

The Tax Foundation also has weighed in on this issue.

…the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on corporate income taxes, which found that 19.5 percent of “profitable large corporations” paid zero corporate income taxes in 2012. …Should you be…outraged…about the number of U.S. corporations that pay no corporate income tax? In fact, there is good reason to think that many of the corporations that the GAO identifies as “profitable” did not actually earn a profit. In such cases, it would have been a mistake to collect corporate income taxes from these companies.

Echoing the explanation from Ms. Mathur, the Tax Foundations makes the same point about current year profits being offset by prior years’ losses, but also add a few additional reasons why “profitable” companies aren’t paying tax.

…some of the corporations that were categorized as “profitable” by the GAO in 2012 did not actually earn positive profits in the United States. …To the extent that some of the “profitable” corporations in the GAO report earned only foreign profits, rather than domestic profits, it is entirely reasonable that these corporations should not be subject to any U.S. corporate tax burden.

Particularly since they already are paying lots of tax on their foreign-source income to foreign governments.

There’s also the issue of depreciation, which journalists always have a hard time understanding.

…when calculating a corporation’s economic profit, it is appropriate to treat the entire cost of an investment as a current year expense. …imagine a corporation with $1 million in operating profits and $2 million in investment costs. Depending on how much of the investment the corporation treats as a current-year expense, the corporation could be making a large profit, no profit, or negative profit.

The bottom line is that you have look closely at how government defines “profit” to correctly ascertain whether companies are somehow avoiding taxation.

And in most cases, you’ll discover that the firms that don’t pay tax are the ones that don’t actually have income, properly defined.

…some U.S. corporations with positive book income might have negative taxable income: not because of any tricks or loopholes, but simply because the tax code operates under different accounting rules. …there are real, legitimate reasons why a “profitable” corporation would not and should not be required to pay corporate income taxes in a given year.

Now let’s return to the issue of double taxation, which occurs when income is taxed at the business level and then a second time when distributed as dividends to shareholders.

The Tax Foundation nicely summarize the issues in a new study, including some much-deserved focus on how this creates a bias for debt.

…income that is earned by corporations and funded by equity (stocks) is subject to a double tax: once on the corporate level, when it is earned, and once on the shareholder level, when it is distributed as dividends. The double taxation of equity-financed corporate income leads to several major economic distortions. It encourages investors to shift their investments from corporate to non-corporate businesses, leading to a less efficient allocation of capital. Furthermore, it incentivizes corporations to fund their operations with debt, rather than equity, leading to excessive leverage.

The solution, needless to say, is something called “corporate integration,” which is simply a wonky way of saying that income should be taxed only one time.

Corporate integration refers to a set of proposals to standardize the taxation of business income across legal forms and methods of financing. The chief advantage of corporate integration is that it would end the double taxation of equity-financed corporate income… The principle of tax neutrality – that a tax system should neither encourage nor discourage specific economic decisions – is embraced by public policy scholars throughout the political spectrum. Corporate integration – taxing all business income at the same top rate, regardless of the legal form of the business or how the income was financed – would minimize the economic distortions created by the U.S. tax code and conform to the principle of neutrality.

Here’s a chart showing how neutrality is violated by double taxing income that is generated by equity. Once again, there’s a bit of jargon, but the main thing to understand is that companies deduct interest payments they make to bondholders, so there’s a tax at the household level but no tax at the business level. But they can’t deduct dividend payments, which effectively means the company is taxed on that money in addition to the household paying tax as well.

The Tax Foundation helpfully suggests how this inequity could be resolved. Allow companies to deduct dividend payments, just as they now deduct interest payments.

Perhaps the simplest way to integrate the corporate and individual tax codes would be to tax dividends received by individuals at ordinary income rates and allow corporations to deduct all of their dividends paid.

Incidentally, this would basically mean that there’s no longer a corporate income tax, though (as discussed above) all corporate income would still be taxed (at the household level).

Let’s close by looking at two pieces of legislation and applying the lessons we’ve learned.

Congressman Devin Nunes (R-CA) has legislation that would address many of the problems outlined above. Here’s how the Tax Foundation describes his plan.

Major elements of his plan are: Cutting the corporate income tax to 25 percent; Limiting the top tax rate on non-corporate business income to 25 percent; Allowing businesses to deduct investment costs when they occur (full expensing); Eliminating most business tax credits and many deductions; Moving to a territorial tax system like most developed nations; …Applying the same tax-rate limitation to individuals’ interest income as now applies to their capital gains and dividend income; and Eliminating the individual and corporate alternative minimum taxes (AMTs).

Wow, that’s fixing many of the problems outlined above.

But here’s the catch. To make the numbers add up, he gets rid of the bias for debt. But he does it by adding a second layer of taxation to interest income rather than abolishing the second layer of tax on dividend income.

The Nunes plan would not let nonfinancial businesses deduct interest payments, but would not tax them on interest receipts. It would generally not allow individuals to deduct interest payments, except that home mortgage interest would remain deductible, and it would apply the same tax-rate limitation to individuals’ interest income as to dividends (top rate of 20 percent). These changes would have a mixed effect on tax biases. On the one hand, they would lessen the tax distortion at the corporate level between debt and equity financing. Because debt is riskier than equity (debt payments are legally required regardless of business cash flow), corporate businesses would be better able to weather economic adversity if the tax system did not push them so strongly toward debt financing. On the other hand, the changes would mean that corporate returns financed through debt would be taxed at both the corporate and individual levels, as is now the case with corporate equity.

For what it’s worth, the Tax Foundation projects that Cong. Nunes’ plan would be very beneficial to growth and job creation, so the benefits of the good reforms are much larger than the harm associated with extending double taxation to interest payments.

That sounds right to me, particularly when you include the fact that companies will make sounder decisions once there’s no longer a bias for debt.

Last but not least, let’s review some recent legislation from Congressman Tom Emmer (R-MN).

Here’s what Americans for Tax Reform wrote about his proposal.

Currently, the U.S. corporate rate is the highest amongst the 34 country Organisation for Economic Development (OECD). At 39 percent, it far exceeds the OECD average rate of 25 percent, and is even further behind developed countries like Ireland, Canada, and the U.K. which have rates of 20 percent or less. The CREATE Jobs act would fix this by reducing the U.S. corporate rate to five points below the OECD average and creating a process by which the U.S. rate is regularly reviewed to ensure economic competitiveness. …bringing the rate below the OECD average would have strong and immediate effects. A 20 percent U.S. corporate rate could create more than 600,000 jobs, increase GDP by 3.3 percent, and increase wages by 2.8 percent over the long-term, according to the Tax Foundation.

P.S. Here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that describes some of the warts associated with the corporate income tax.

P.P.S. If you think my video is a bit amateurish, it’s because it was a first-time experiment and originally wasn’t going to be released. But once it was finished, we figured it was adequate. And I think it compares well to some corporate tax videos put together by other groups.

P.P.P.S. For those worried about corporate inversions, it’s worth noting that the types of reforms listed above would make companies far less likely to re-domicile in other jurisdictions.

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I wrote recently about the Pfizer-Allergan merger and made the case that it was a very sensible way to protect the interests of workers, consumers, and shareholders.

That’s the good news.

Why? Because companies should be allowed to engage in a do-it-yourself form of territorial taxation to minimize the damage caused by bad tax policy coming out of Washington.

The bad news is that the White House, with its characteristic disregard of the rule of law, promulgated a regulation that retroactively changed existing tax law and derailed the merger.

Now the White House has produced an infographic designed to bolster its case against inversions, which I have reprinted to the right.

You can click on this link to see the full-sized version, but I thought the best approach would be to provide a “corrected” version.

So if you look below, you’ll find my version, featuring the original White House document on the left and my editorial commentary on the right.

But if you don’t want to read the document and my corrections, all you need to know is that the Obama Administration makes several dodgy assumptions and engages in several sins of omission. Here are the two biggest problems.

  1. No acknowledgement that the U.S. corporate tax regime drives inversions because of high rates and worldwide taxation.
  2. A bizarre and anti-empirical assertion that money is spent more productively by governments compared to the private sector.

And here’s the entire “corrected” infographic.

The bottom line is there aren’t any “loopholes” being exploited by inverting companies.

Instead, there’s a very anti-growth American tax system that makes it very difficult for American-domiciled firms to compete in global markets.

The solution is a simple, low rate flat tax.

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