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Posts Tagged ‘Tax Reform’

The federal income tax is corrosive and destructive. It’s almost as if a group of malicious people decided to deliberately design a system that imposes maximum damage while also allowing the most corruption.

The economic damage is not only the result of high tax rates and pervasive double taxation, but also because of loopholes that exist to bribe people into making economically unwise decisions.

These include itemized deductions for mortgages and charitable contributions, as well as the fringe benefits exclusion and the exemption for municipal bond interest. And there are many other corrupt favors sprinkled through a metastasizing tax code.

But there’s a strong case to be made that the worst loophole is the deduction for state and local taxes. Why? For the simple reason that it encourages, enables, and subsidizes bad policy.

Here’s how it works. State and local lawmakers can increase income taxes or property taxes and be partially insulated from political blowback because their taxpayers can deduct those taxes on their federal return.

And it’s a back-door way of giving a special break to upper-income taxpayers because the deduction is more valuable to people in higher tax brackets.

Let’s look at an example that’s currently in the news. Democrats in the Illinois state legislature want a big increase in the personal income tax. If they succeed and boost taxes by an average of $1000, high-income taxpayers who take advantage of the deduction may only suffer a loss of as little as $600 since their federal tax bill may fall by almost $400.

For politicians, this is an ideal racket. They can promise various interest groups $1000 of goodies while reducing take-home pay by a lesser amount.

Let’s review some recent commentary on this topic.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue last weekend.

Chuck Schumer aspires to raise taxes on every rich person in America, save one protected class: coastal progressives. …Like many other Democrats, he’s apoplectic about a plan to end the state and local tax deduction. …One goal of tax reform is to reduce unproductive tax loopholes, and ending the state and local deduction would generate revenue to finance lower rates: The deduction is worth about $100 billion a year… About 88% of the benefits in 2014 flowed to taxpayers who earn more than $100,000, while 1% went to those who earn less than $50,000. California alone reaps nearly 20% of the benefit…and a mere six states get more than half. …The folks underwriting this windfall are in Alaska, South Dakota, Wyoming and other places without a state income tax. …Eliminating the deduction would be a powerful incentive for Governors to cut state taxes on residents who are suddenly exposed to their full liability. …killing the state and local deduction would pay a double dividend: The first is creating a more equitable tax code with a broader base and lower rates. The second is spurring reform in states that are long overdue for a better tax climate.

Writing earlier this year for National Review, Kevin Williamson was characteristically blunt.

It’s time for…blue-state…tax increases that would fall most heavily on upper-income Americans in high-tax progressive states such as California and New York. …eliminate the deduction for state income taxes, a provision that takes some of the sting out of living in a high-tax jurisdiction such as New York City (which has both state and local income taxes) or California, home to the nation’s highest state-tax burden. Do not hold your breath waiting for the inequality warriors to congratulate Republicans for proposing these significant tax increases on the rich. …allowing for the deduction of state taxes against federal tax liabilities creates a subsidy and an incentive for higher state taxes. California in essence is able to capture money that would be federal revenue and use it for its own ends, an option that is not practically available to low-tax (and no-income-tax) states such as Nevada and Florida. It makes sense to allow the states to compete on taxes and services, but the federal tax code biases that competition in favor of high-tax jurisdictions.

And Bob McManus adds his two cents in an article for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

Voters in all heavy-tax, high-spending states have no one to blame for their situation save themselves. At a minimum, it seems clear that deductibility—by softening the impact of federal taxation—encourages outsize state and local spending. States that take advantage of deductibility—mostly in the Northeast and on the West Coast—are in effect subsidized by states that have kept tighter control on their spending. …New York’s top-of-the-charts spending puts the state at the pinnacle…with New Yorkers paying a national high of 12.7 percent of income in state and local levies. Local property taxes in New York are astronomical and not coming down any time soon. …deductibility has powerful friends—among them the public-employee unions… New York and the nation would benefit if deductibility was jettisoned. …end the incentive for the tax-and-spend practices that have been so economically corrosive to big-spending Blue states.

Let’s close with the should-be-obvious point that the goal isn’t to repeal the state and local tax deduction in order to give politicians in Washington more money to spend. Instead, every penny of that revenue should be used to finance pro-growth tax reforms.

That creates a win-win situation of better tax policy in Washington, while also creating pressure for better tax policy at the state and local level.

For what it’s worth, both Trump and House Republicans are proposing to get rid of the deduction.

P.S. I mentioned at the start of this column that it would not be unreasonable to think that the tax code was deliberately designed to maximize economic damage. But even a curmudgeon like me doesn’t think that’s actually the case. Instead, our awful tax system is the result of 104 years of “public choice.”

P.P.S. Itemized deductions and other loopholes create distortions by allowing people to understate their income if they engage in approved behaviors. There are also provisions of the tax code – such as depreciation and worldwide taxation – that force taxpayers to overstate their income.

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If I had to pick my least-favorite tax loophole, the economist part of my brain would select the healthcare exclusion. After all, that special preference creates a destructive incentive for over-insurance and contributes (along with Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, etc) to the third-party payer crisis that is crippling America’s healthcare system.

But if I based my answer on the more visceral, instinctive portion of my brain, I would select the deduction for state and local taxes. As I’ve previously noted, that odious tax break enables higher taxes at the state and local level. Simply stated, greedy politicians in a state like California can boost tax rates and soothe anxious state taxpayers by telling them that they can use their higher payments to Sacramento as a deduction to reduce their payments to Washington.

What’s ironic about this loophole is that it’s basically a write-off for the rich. Only 30 percent of all taxpayers utilize the deduction for state and local taxes. But they’re not evenly distributed by income. Here’s a sobering table from a report by the Tax Foundation.

The beneficiaries also aren’t evenly distributed by geography.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing in dark blue that only a tiny part of the country benefits from this unfair loophole for high-income taxpayers.

As you can see from the map, the vast majority of the nation deducts less than $2,000 in state and local taxes.

But if you really want to see who benefits, don’t simply look at the dark blue sections. After all, most of those people would happily give up the state and local tax deduction in exchange for some of the other policies that are part of tax reform – particularly lower tax rates and less double taxation.

And I suspect that’s even true for the people who hugely benefit from the deduction. The biggest beneficiaries of this loophole are concentrated in a tiny handful of wealthy counties in New York, California, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

As you can see, they reap enormous advantages from the state and local tax deduction, though I suspect these same people also would benefit if tax rates were lowered and double taxation was reduced.

Regardless of who benefits and loses, there’s a more fundamental question. Should federal tax law be distorted to subsidize high tax burdens at the state and local level?

Kevin Williamson of National Review says no.

…the deduction of state taxes against federal tax liabilities creates a subsidy and an incentive for higher state taxes. California in essence is able to capture money that would be federal revenue and use it for its own ends, an option that is not practically available to low-tax (and no-income-tax) states such as Nevada and Florida. It makes sense to allow the states to compete on taxes and services, but the federal tax code biases that competition in favor of high-tax jurisdictions.

The Governor of New York, by contrast, argues that the tax code should subsidize his profligacy.

It would be “devastating on the state of New York, California, et cetera, if you didn’t allow the people of this state to deduct their state and local taxes,” Cuomo told reporters… State and local governments have been working to preserve the deduction, and they argue that doing away with the preference would hurt states and localities’ flexibility to make tax changes.

By the way, I noticed how the reporter displays bias. Instead of being honest and writing that that the loophole enables higher taxes, she writes that the loss of the preference “would hurt states and localities’ flexibility to make tax changes.”

Gee, anyone want to guess how that “flexibility” is displayed?

Though at least the reporter acknowledged that the deduction is primarily for rich people in blue states.

…the deduction…is viewed as disproportionately benefiting wealthy people. It also tends to be used in areas that lean Democratic.

And that’s confirmed by a 2016 news report from the Wall Street Journal.

Repealing the federal deduction for state and local taxes would make 23.6% of U.S. households pay an average of $2,348 more to the Internal Revenue Service for 2016. But those costs—almost $1.3 trillion over a decade—aren’t evenly spread… Ranked by the average potential tax increase, the top 13 states (including Washington, D.C.), as well as 16 of the top 17, voted twice for President Barack Obama. …And nearly one-third of the cost would be paid by residents of California and New York, two solidly Democratic states. …President Ronald Reagan tried repealing the deduction as part of the tax-code overhaul in 1986, but he was rebuffed by congressional Democrats and state officials. …Republicans argue that the break subsidizes high state taxes, because governors and legislators know they can raise income taxes on their citizens and have the federal government pick up part of the tab. …half the cost of repealing the deduction would be borne by households making $100,000 to $500,000, using a broad definition of income. Another 30% would be borne by households making more than $1 million. Under the GOP plans, residents of high-tax states wouldn’t necessarily pay more in federal taxes than they do now. They would benefit from tax-rate cuts.

Here’s one final image that underscores the unfairness of the deduction.

The Tax Policy Center has a report on the loophole for state and local taxes and they put together this chart showing that rich people are far more likely to take advantage of the deduction. And it’s worth much more for them than it is for lower-income Americans.

How much more? Well, more than 90 percent of taxpayers earning more than $1 million use the deduction and their average tax break is more than $260,000. By contrast, only a small fraction of taxpayers earning less than $50 thousand annually benefit from the deduction and they only get a tax break of about $3,800.

Yet leftists who complain about rich people manipulating the tax system usually defend this tax break.

It’s enough to make you think their real goal is bigger government.

I’ll close by calling attention to the mid-part of this interview. I shared it a couple of days ago as part of a big-picture discussion of Trump’s tax plan. But I specifically address the state and local tax deduction around 3:00 and 4:30 of the discussion.

P.S. In addition to the loophole that encourages higher taxes at the state and local level, there’s also a special tax preference that encourages higher spending at the state and local level. Sigh.

P.P.S. Now, perhaps, people will understand why I want to rip up the current system and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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I expressed pessimism yesterday about Trump’s tax plan. Simply stated, I don’t think Congress is willing to enact a large tax cut given the nation’s grim fiscal outlook.

In this Fox Business interview, I elaborated on my concerns while also pointing out that the plan would be very good if it somehow got enacted.

We now have some preliminary numbers that illustrate why I’m concerned.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget put together a quick guess about the revenue implications of Trump’s new plan. Their admittedly rough estimate is that federal revenues would be reduced by close to $6 trillion over 10 years.

Incidentally, these revenue estimates are very inaccurate because they are based on “static scoring,” which is the antiquated notion that major changes in tax policy have no impact on economic performance.

But these numbers nonetheless are useful since the Joint Committee on Taxation basically uses that approach when producing official revenue estimates that guide congressional action.

In other words, it doesn’t matter, at least for purposes of enacting legislation, that there would be substantial revenue feedback in the real world (the rich actually paid more, for instance, when Reagan dropped the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent). Politicians on Capitol Hill will point to the JCT’s static numbers, gasp with feigned horror, and use higher deficits as an excuse to vote no (even though those same lawmakers generally have no problem with red ink when voting to expand the burden of government spending).

That being said, they wouldn’t necessarily have that excuse if the Trump Administration was more aggressive about trying to shrink the size and scope of the federal government. So there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Until something changes, however, I don’t think Trump’s tax cut is very realistic. So if you want my prediction on what will happen, I’m sticking to the three options I shared yesterday.

  1. Congress and the White House decide to restrain spending, which easily would create room for a very large tax cut (what I prefer, but I won’t hold my breath for this option).
  2. Congress decides to adopt Trump’s tax cuts, but they balance the cuts with dangerous new sources of tax revenue, such as a border-adjustment tax, a carbon tax, or a value-added tax (the option I fear).
  3. Congress and the White House decide to go for a more targeted tax cut, such as a big reduction in the corporate income tax (which would be a significant victory).

By the way, the Wall Street Journal editorialized favorably about the plan this morning, mostly because it reflects the sensible supply-side view that it is good to have lower tax rates on productive behavior.

While the details are sparse and will have to be filled in by Congress, President Trump’s outline resembles the supply-side principles he campaigned on and is an ambitious and necessary economic course correction that would help restore broad-based U.S. prosperity. …Faster growth of 3% a year or more is possible, but it will take better policies, and tax reform is an indispensable lever. Mr. Trump’s modernization would be a huge improvement on the current tax code that would give the economy a big lift, especially on the corporate side. …The Trump principles show the President has made growth his highest priority, and they are a rebuke to the Washington consensus that 1% or 2% growth is the best America can do.

But the WSJ shares my assessment that the plan will not survive in its current form.

…the blueprint is being assailed from both the left and the balanced-budget right. The Trump economic team acknowledges that their plan would mean less federal revenue than current law… Mr. Trump’s plan is an opening bid to frame negotiations in Congress, and there are plenty of bargaining chips. Perhaps the corporate rate will rise to 20%… Budget rules and Democratic opposition could force Republicans to limit the reform to 10 years.

For what it’s worth, if the final result is a 15 percent or 20 percent corporate tax rate, I’ll actually be quite pleased. That reform would be very good for the economy and national competitiveness. And regardless of what JCT projects, there would be substantial revenue feedback.

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Fundamental tax reform such as a flat tax should accomplish three big goals.

The good news is that almost all Republicans believe in the first two goals and at least pay lip services to the third goal.

The bad news is that they nonetheless can’t be trusted with tax reform.

Here’s why. Major tax reform is based on the assumption that achieving the first two goals will lower tax revenue and achieving the third goal will generate tax revenue. A reform plan doesn’t have to be “revenue neutral,” of course, but politicians would be very reluctant to vote for a package that substantially reduced tax revenue. So serious proposals have revenue-raising provisions that are roughly similar in magnitude to the revenue-losing provisions.

Here’s the problem.   Notwithstanding lip service, Republicans are not willing to go after major tax loopholes like the healthcare exclusion. And that means that they are looking for other sources of revenue. In some cases, such as the proposal in the House plan to put debt and equity on a level playing field, they come up with decent ideas. In other cases, such as the border-adjustment tax, they come up with misguided ideas.

And some of them are even talking about very bad ideas, such as a value-added tax or carbon tax.

This is why it would be best to set aside tax reform and focus on a more limited agenda, such as a plan to lower the corporate tax rate. I discussed that idea a few weeks ago on Neil Cavuto’s show, and I echoed myself last week in another appearance on Fox Business.

Lest you think I’m being overly paranoid about Republicans doing the wrong thing, here’s what’s being reported in the establishment press.

The Hill is reporting that the Trump Administration is still undecided on the BAT.

The most controversial aspect of the House’s plan is its reliance on border adjustability to tax imports and exempt exports. …the White House has yet to fully embrace it. …If the administration opts against the border-adjustment proposal, it would have to find another way to raise revenue to pay for lowering tax rates.

While I hope the White House ultimately rejects the BAT, that won’t necessarily be good news if the Administration signs on to another new source of revenue.

And that’s apparently under discussion.

The Washington Post last week reported that the White House was looking at other ideas, including a value-added tax and a carbon tax… Even if administration officials are simply batting around ideas, it seems clear that Trump’s team is open to a different approach.

The Associated Press also tries to read the tea leaves and speculates whether the Trump Administration may try to cut or eliminate the Social Security payroll tax.

The administration’s first attempt to write legislation is in its early stages and the White House has kept much of it under wraps. But it has already sprouted the consideration of a series of unorthodox proposals including a drastic cut to the payroll tax, aimed at appealing to Democrats.

I’m not a big fan of fiddling with the payroll tax, and I definitely worry about making major changes.

Why? Because it’s quite likely politicians will replace it with a tax that is even worse.

This would require a new dedicated funding source for Social Security. The change, proposed by a GOP lobbyist with close ties to the Trump administration, would transform Brady’s plan on imports into something closer to a value-added tax by also eliminating the deduction of labor expenses. This would bring it in line with WTO rules and generate an additional $12 trillion over 10 years, according to budget estimates.

Last but not least, the New York Times has a story today on the latest machinations, and it appears that Republicans are no closer to a consensus today than they were the day Trump got inaugurated.

…it is becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be a simpler system, or even lower tax rates, this time next year. The Trump administration’s tax plan, promised in February, has yet to materialize; a House Republican plan has bogged down, taking as much fire from conservatives as liberals… Speaker Paul D. Ryan built a tax blueprint around a “border adjustment” tax… With no palpable support in the Senate, its prospects appear to be nearly dead. …The president’s own vision for a new tax system is muddled at best. In the past few months, he has called for taxing companies that move operations abroad, waffled on the border tax and, last week, called for a “reciprocal” tax that would match the import taxes other countries impose on the United States.

The report notes that Trump may have a personal reason to oppose one of the provisions of the House plan.

Perhaps the most consequential concern relates to a House Republican proposal to get rid of a rule that lets companies write off the interest they pay on loans — a move real estate developers and Mr. Trump vehemently oppose. Doing so would raise $1 trillion in revenue and reduce the appeal of one of Mr. Trump’s favorite business tools: debt.

From my perspective, the most encouraging part of the story is that the lack of consensus may lead Republicans to my position, which is simply to cut the corporate tax rate.

With little appetite for bipartisanship, many veterans of tax fights and lobbyists in Washington expect that Mr. Trump will ultimately embrace straight tax cuts, with some cleaning up of deductions, and call it a victory.

And I think that would be a victory as well, even though I ultimately want to junk the entire tax code and replace it with a flat tax.

P.S. In an ideal world, tax reform would be financed in large part with spending restraint. Sadly, Washington, DC, isn’t in the same galaxy as that ideal world.

P.P.S. To further explain why Republicans cannot be trusted, even if they mean well, recall that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both included VATs in the tax plans they unveiled during the 2016 presidential campaign.

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Since I’ve written that the International Monetary Fund is the Dumpster Fire of the Global Economy” and “the Dr. Kevorkian of Global Economic Policy,” I don’t think anyone could call me a fan of that international bureaucracy.

But I’ve also noted that the real problem with organizations like the IMF is that they have bad leadership. The professional economists at international bureaucracies often produce good theoretical and empirical work. That sensible research doesn’t make much difference, though, since the actual real-world policy decisions are made by political hacks with a statist orientation.

For instance, the economists at the IMF have produced research on the benefits of smaller government and spending caps. But the political leadership at the IMF routinely ignores that sensible research and instead has a dismal track record of pushing for tax increases.

Hope springs eternal, though, so I’m going to share some new IMF research on tax policy that is very sound. It’s from the second chapter of the bureaucracy’s newest Fiscal Monitor. Here are some excerpts, starting with an explanation of why the efficient allocation of resources is so important for prosperity.

A top challenge facing policymakers today is how to raise productivity, the key driver of living standards over the long term. …The IMF’s policy agenda has therefore emphasized the need to employ all policy levers, and in particular to promote growth-friendly fiscal policies that will boost productivity and potential output. Total factor productivity (TFP) at the country level reflects the productivity of individual firms…aggregate TFP depends on firms’ individual TFP and also on how available resources (labor and capital) are allocated across firms. Indeed, the poor use of existing resources within countries—referred to here as resource misallocation—has been found to be an important source of differences in TFP levels across countries and over time. …What is resource misallocation? Simply put, it is the poor distribution of resources across firms, reducing the total output that can be obtained from existing capital and labor.

The chapter notes that creative destruction plays a vital role in growth.

Baily, Hulten, and Campbell (1992) find that 50 percent of manufacturing productivity growth in the United States during the 1980s can be attributed to the reallocation of factors across plants and to firm entry and exit. Similarly, Barnett and others (2014) find that labor reallocation across firms explained 48 percent of labor productivity growth for most sectors in the U.K. economy in the five years prior to 2007.

And a better tax system would enable some of that growth by creating a level playing field.

Simply stated, you want people in the private sector to make decisions based on what makes economic sense rather than because they’re taking advantage of some bizarre quirk in the tax code.

Potential TFP gains from reducing resource misallocation are substantial and could lift the annual real GDP growth rate by roughly 1 percentage point. …Upgrading the design of their tax systems can help countries chip away at resource misallocation by ensuring that firms’ decisions are made for business and not tax reasons. Governments can eliminate distortions that they themselves have created. …For instance, the current debt bias feature of some tax systems not only distorts financing decisions but hampers productivity as well, especially in the case of advanced economies. …Empirical evidence shows that greater tax disparity across capital asset types is associated with higher misallocation.

One of the main problems identified by the IMF experts is the tax bias for debt.

And since I wrote about this problem recently, I’m glad to see that there is widespread agreement on the economic harm that is created.

Corporate debt bias occurs when firms are allowed to deduct interest expenses, but not returns to equity, in calculating corporate tax liability. …Several options are available to eliminate the distortions arising from corporate debt bias and from tax disparities across capital asset types, including the allowance for corporate equity system and a cash flow tax. …In the simplest sense, a CFT is a tax levied on the money entering the business less the money leaving the business. A CFT entails immediate expensing of all investment expenditures (that is, 100 percent first-year depreciation allowances) and no deductibility of either interest payments or dividends. Therefore, if it is well designed and implemented, a CFT does not affect the decision to invest or the scale of investment, and it does not discriminate across sources of financing.

By the way, regular readers may notice that the IMF economists favor a cash-flow tax, which is basically how the business side of the flat tax operates. There is full expensing in that kind of system, and interest and dividends are treated equally.

This is also the approach in the House Better Way tax plan, so the consensus for cash-flow taxation is very broad (though the House wants a destination-based approach, which is misguided for several reasons).

But let’s not digress. There’s one other aspect of the IMF chapter that is worthy of attention. There’s explicit discussion of how high tax rates undermine tax compliance, which is music to my ears.

Several studies have shown that tax policy and tax administration affect the prevalence of informality and thus productivity. Colombia provides an interesting case study on the effect of taxation on informality. A 2012 tax reform that reduced payroll taxes was found to incentivize a shift of Colombian workers out of informal into formal employment. Leal Ordóñez (2014) finds that taxes and regulations play an important role in explaining informality in Mexico. For Brazil, Fajnzylber, Maloney, and Montes-Rojas (2011) show that tax reductions and simplification led to a significant increase in formal firms with higher levels of revenue and profits. While a higher tax burden contributes to the prevalence of informality… For 130 developing countries, a higher corporate tax rate is found to increase the prevalence of cheats among small manufacturing firms, lowering the share of sales reported for tax purposes.

In closing, I should point out that the IMF chapter is not perfect.

For instance, even though it cites research about how high tax rates reduce compliance, the chapter doesn’t push for lower rates. Instead, it endorses more power for national tax authorities. Makes me wonder if the political folks at the IMF imposed that recommendation on the folks who wrote the chapter?

Regardless, the overall analysis of the chapter is quite sound. It’s based on a proper understanding that growth is generated by the efficient allocation of labor and capital, and it recognizes that bad tax policy undermines that process by distorting incentives for productive behavior.

The next step is convince Ms. Lagarde and the rest of the IMF’s leadership to read the chapter. They get tax-free salaries, so is it too much to ask that they stop pushing for higher taxes on the rest of us?

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There are many powerful arguments for junking the internal revenue code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax.

  1. It is good to have lower tax rates in order to encourage more productive behavior.
  2. It is good to get rid of double taxation in order to enable saving and investment.
  3. It is good the end distorting preferences in order to reduce economically irrational decisions.

Today, let’s review a feature of good tax reform that involves the second and third bullet points.

Under current law, there is double taxation of corporate income. This means that companies must pay a tax on income, but that the income is then taxed a second time when distributed to the owners of the company (i.e., shareholders).

This means that the effective tax rate is a combination of the corporate income tax rate and the tax rate imposed on dividends. And this higher tax rate is an example of why double taxation discourages capital formation and thus leads to lower wages.

But this double taxation of dividends also creates a distortion because there isn’t double taxation of corporate income that is distributed to bondholders. This means companies have a significant tax-driven incentive to rely on debt, which is risky for them and the overall economy.

Curtis Dubay has a very straightforward explanation of the problem.

In debt financing, a business raises money by issuing debt, usually by selling a bond. In equity financing, a business raises funds by selling a share in the business through the sale of stock. The tax system provides a relative advantage to financing capital expenditures through debt because under current tax law, businesses can deduct their interest payments on the debt instruments, but dividend payments to shareholders are not deductible. Thus, equity is disadvantaged because it is double taxed while debt correctly faces only a single layer of taxation.

By the way, when public finance people write that something is “not deductible” or non-deductible, that simply means it subject to the tax (much as the non-deductibility of imports under the BAT is simply another way of saying there will be a tax levied on all imports).

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the analysis. Curtis then explains why it doesn’t make sense to create an incentive for debt.

The double tax on equity makes debt a relatively more attractive way for businesses to finance themselves, all else equal. As a result, businesses will take on more debt than they otherwise might. …This is a serious problem because carrying significant amounts of debt can make businesses less stable during periods when profitability declines. Interest payments on debt are a fixed cost that businesses must pay regardless of their performance. This can be onerous and endanger a business’s solvency when profits fall.

He points out that the sensible way of putting debt and equity on a level playing field is by getting rid of the double tax on dividends, not by imposing a second layer of tax on interest.

…it does not make sense to equalize their tax treatment by eliminating interest deductibility for businesses. Doing so would further suppress economic growth, job creation, and wage increases. Instead, Congress should end the double taxation of income earned through equity financing in tax reform by eliminating taxes on saving and investment, including capital gains and dividends.

Incidentally, what Curtis wrote isn’t some sort of controversial right-wing theory. It’s well understood by every public finance economist.

The International Monetary Fund, for instance, is generally on the left on fiscal issues (and that’s an understatement). Yet in a study published by the IMF, Ruud A. de Mooij outlines the dangers of tax-induced debt.

Most tax systems today contain a “debt bias,” offering a tax advantage for corporations to finance their investments by debt. …One cannot compellingly argue for giving tax preferences to debt based on legal, administrative, or economic considerations. The evidence shows, rather, that debt bias creates significant inequities, complexities, and economic distortions. For instance, it has led to inefficiently high debt-to-equity ratios in corporations. It discriminates against innovative growth firms, impeding stronger economic growth. … recent developments suggest that its costs to public welfare are larger—possibly much larger—than previously thought. …The economic crisis has also made clear the harmful economic effects of excessive levels of debt… These insights make it more urgent to tackle debt bias by means of tax policy reform.

What’s the solution?

Well, just as Curtis Dubay explained, there are two options.

What can be done to mitigate debt bias in the tax code? In a nutshell, it will require either reducing the tax deductibility of interest or introducing similar deductions for equity returns.

And the author of the IMF study agree with Curtis that the way to create neutrality between equity and debt is by using the latter approach.

Abolishing interest deductibility would indeed eliminate debt bias, but it would also introduce new distortions into investment, and implementing it would be very difficult. …The second option, introducing a deduction for corporate equity, has better prospects. …such an allowance would bring other important economic benefits, such as increased investment, higher wages, and higher economic growth.

And Mooij even acknowledges that there’s a Laffer Curve argument for getting rid of the double tax on dividends.

The main obstacle is probably its cost to public revenues, estimated at around 0.5 percent of GDP for an average developed country. …In the long term, the budgetary cost is expected to be significantly smaller, since the favorable economic effects of the policy change would broaden the overall tax base. And in fact, a number of countries have successfully introduced variants of the allowance for corporate equity, suggesting that it is not only conceptually desirable but also practically feasible.

Another study from the International Monetary Fund, authored by Mooij and  Shafik Hebous, highlights the damage caused by luring companies into taking on excessive debt.

Excessive corporate debt levels are a serious macroeconomic stability concern. For instance, high debt can increase the probability of a firm’s bankruptcy in case of an adverse shock… Given this concern about excessive corporate debt, it is hard to understand why almost all tax systems around the world encourage the use of corporate debt over equity. Indeed, most corporate income tax (CIT) systems allow interest expenses, but not returns to equity, to be deducted in calculating corporate tax liability. This asymmetry stimulates corporations to use debt over equity to finance investment.

We get the same explanation of how to address the inequity in the tax treatment of debt and equity.

Effectively, there are two ways in which debt bias can be neutralized: either by treating equity more similar as debt by adding an allowance for corporate equity (ACE); or by treating debt more similar for taxation as equity by denying interest deductibility for corporations.

And we get the same solution. Stop double taxing dividends.

ACE systems have been quite widely advocated by economists and implemented in some countries, such as Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Switzerland, and Turkey. Evaluations generally suggest that these systems have been effective in reducing debt bias… Yet, many countries are still reluctant to introduce an ACE due to the expected revenue loss.

By the way, the distortionary damage becomes greater when tax rates are onerous.

A recent academic study addresses the added damage of extra debt that occurs when tax rates are high.

For a country like the United States with a relatively high corporate income tax rate (a statutory federal rate of 35%), theory argues that firms in this country should have significant leverage. …The objective of our study is to estimate how much such variation in tax structure arising from global operations explains the variation in capital structure that we observe among US publicly traded multinational firms. …We employ the BEA’s multinational firm data and augment it with international tax data… Using our calculated weighted average tax rate, we include otherwise identified explanatory variables for capital structure and estimate in a multivariate regression setting how much our blended tax rate measure improves our understanding of why capital structure varies across firms and, to a lesser extent, across time. …Economically, this coefficient corresponds to a 7.1% higher book leverage ratio for a firm with a 35% average tax rate over the sample period compared to an otherwise identical firm with a 25% average tax rate. These results demonstrate that, contrary to some of the earlier literature finding that tax effects were negligible, firms that persistently confront high tax rates have significantly more debt, both economically and statistically, than otherwise equivalent firms who persistently face lower corporate income tax rates. …Irrespective of whether we examine leverage ratios based on book values or market values, whether we include cash or not, or if we alternatively examine interest coverage, we find that multinational firms confronting lower tax rates use less debt. The results are not only statistically significant, but the coefficient magnitudes suggest that these effects are first order

There’s some academic jargon in the above excerpt, so I’ll also include this summary of the paper from the Tax Foundation.

A new paper published in the Journal of Financial Economics finds that countries with high tax rates on corporate income also have higher corporate leverage ratios. …Using survey data of multinational corporations from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the authors…find that businesses that report their income in high tax jurisdictions have corporate leverage ratios that are substantially higher than those in low tax jurisdictions. More precisely, they find that a business facing an average tax rate of 35% has a leverage ratio that is 7.1% higher than a similar firm facing an average tax rate of 25%.

By the way, here are the results from another IMF study by Mooij about how the debt bias is connected to high tax rates.

We find that, typically, a one percentage point higher tax rate increases the debt-asset ratio by between 0.17 and 0.28. Responses are increasing over time, which suggests that debt bias distortions have become more important.

The bottom line is that the U.S. corporate tax rate is far too high. And when you combine that punitive rate with a distortionary preference for debt over equity, the net result is that we have companies burdened by too much debt, which puts them (and the overall economy) in danger when there’s a downturn.

So the obvious solution (beyond simply lowering the corporate rate, which should be a given) is to get rid of the double tax on dividends.

The good news is that Republicans want to move in that direction.

The not-so-good news is that they are not using the ideal approach. As I noted last year, the “Better Way Plan” proposed by House Republicans is sub-optimal on this issue.

Under current law, companies can deduct the interest they pay and recipients of interest income must pay tax on those funds. This actually is correct treatment, particularly when compared to dividends, which are not deductible to companies (meaning they pay tax on those funds) while also being taxable for recipients. The House GOP plan gets rid of the deduction for interest paid. Combined with the 50 percent exclusion for individual capital income, that basically means the income is getting taxed 1-1/2 times. But that rule would apply equally for shareholders and bondholders, so that pro-debt bias in the tax code would be eliminated.

For what it’s worth, I suggest this approach was acceptable, not only because the debt bias was eliminated, but also because of the other reforms in the plan.

…the revenue generated by disallowing any deduction for interest would be used for pro-growth reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate.

Though I can’t say the same thing about the border-adjustability provision, which is a poison pill for tax reform.

P.S. While the preference for debt is quite harmful, I nonetheless still think the worst distortion in the tax code is the healthcare exclusion.

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We have reached the 50th full day of the Trump Presidency.

In that span of time, we’ve had lots of political wrangling between Trump and the media. We’ve been introduced to the concept of the “Deep State” (yes, there is a permanent bureaucracy that acts to protect its own interests, but it’s silly to call it a conspiracy). There have been some controversial executive orders. And Trump made his big speech to Congress.

Lots of noise, though, does not mean lots of action. The President hasn’t signed any big legislation to repeal Obamacare, or even any legislation to tinker with Obamacare. There haven’t been any big changes on fiscal policy, either with regards to spending or taxes.

Heck, Trump hasn’t even told us what he really thinks on some of these issues.

In other words, the biggest takeaway after 50 days is that we still don’t know whether Trump is going to make government bigger or smaller.

I address some of these issues in two recent interviews. We’ll start with this discussion on the day of Trump’s Joint Address. I mostly focus on the need for entitlement reform and explain how Trump could do the right thing for America…if he wants to.

You’ll also notice, right at the end of the interview, that I made sure to sneak in a reference to fiscal policy’s Golden Rule. Gotta stay on message!

In this second interview, which occurred a couple of days later, I start the conversation by fretting about how the border-adjustable tax could kill the chances of getting good tax policy.

In the latter part of the interview, the discussion shifts to infrastructure and I make the rare point that we should copy Europe and get the private sector more involved (it’s generally a good idea to do the opposite of Europe, to be sure, but there are a small handful of other areas – including corporate tax rates, Social Security, and privatized postal services – where various European countries are ahead of us).

The bottom line is that we didn’t know before the election whether Trump wants to limit the burden of government, and we still don’t know today. My guess last year was that we’ll get the wrong answer, though I confess that the jury is still out.

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