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Posts Tagged ‘Corporate income tax’

According to an article in the New York Times, the Obama Administration is seriously examining a proposal to reduce America’s anti-competitive 35 percent corporate tax rate.

The Obama administration is preparing to inject an unpredictable new variable into its economic policy clash with Republicans: a plan to overhaul corporate taxes. Economic advisers have nearly completed the process initiated in January by the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, at President Obama’s behest. That process, intended to make the United States more competitive internationally, has explored the willingness of business leaders to sacrifice loopholes in return for lowering the top corporate tax rate, currently 35 percent. The approach officials are now discussing would drop the top rate as low as 26 percent, largely by curbing or eliminating tax breaks for depreciation and for domestic manufacturing.

This may be a worthwhile proposal, but this is an example where it would be wise to “look before you leap.” Or, for fans of Let’s Make a Deal, let’s see what’s behind Door Number 2.

To judge Obama’s plan, it is important to have the right benchmark. An ideal corporate tax system obviously should have a low tax rate. And it also should have no double taxation (tax corporate income at the business level or tax it at the individual level, but don’t tax it at both levels).

But it’s also important to have a simple and neutral system. The right definition of corporate income for any given year is (or should be) total revenue minus total costs. What’s left is income.

This may seem to be a statement of the obvious, but it’s not the way the corporate tax code works. The system has thousands of complicated provisions, some of which provide special loopholes (such as the corrupt ethanol credit) that allow firms to understate their income, and some of which impose discriminatory penalties by forcing companies to overstate their income.

Consider the case of depreciation. The vast majority of people understandably have no idea what this term means, but it sounds like a special tax break. After all, who wants big corporations to lower their tax bills by taking advantage of something that sounds so indecipherable.

In reality, though, depreciation simply refers to the tax treatment of investment costs. Let’s say a company buys a new machine (which would increase productivity and thus boost wages) for $10 million. Under a sensible and simple tax system, that company would include that $10 million when adding up all their costs, which then would be subtracted from total revenue to determine income.

But the corporate tax code doesn’t let companies properly recognize the cost of new investments. Instead, they are only allowed to deduct (depreciate) a fraction of the cost the first year, followed by more the next year, and so on and so on depending on the specific depreciation rules for different types of investments.

To keep the example simple, let’s say there is “10-year straight line depreciation” for the new machine. That means a company can only deduct $1 million each year and they have to wait an entire decade before getting to fully deduct the cost of the new machine.

Ultimately, the firm does deduct the full $10 million, but the delay (in some cases, about 40 years) means that a company, for all intents and purposes, is being taxed on a portion of its investment expenditures. This is because they lose the use of their money, and also because even low levels of inflation mean that deductions are worth significantly less in future years than they are today.

To put it in terms that are easy to understand, imagine if the government suddenly told you that you had to wait 10 years to deduct your personal exemption!

Let’s now circle back to President Obama’s proposal. With the information we now have, there is no way of determining whether this proposal is a net plus or a net minus. A lower rate is great, of course, but perhaps not if the government doesn’t let you accurately measure your expenses and therefore forces you to overstate your income.

I’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

P.S. It’s also important to understand that a “deduction” in the business tax code does not imply loophole. If you remember the correct definition of business income (total revenue minus total costs), this means a business gets to “deduct” its expenses (such as wages paid to workers) from total revenue to determine taxable income. Some deductions are loopholes, of course, which is why a  simple, fair, and honest system should be based on cash flow. Which is how business are treated under the flat tax.

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Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University is a big booster of the discredited notion that foreign aid is a cure-all for poverty in the developing world, but he is now branching out and saying silly things about policy in other areas.

In a column for the Financial Times, he complains that tax competition is forcing governments to “race to the bottom” with regards to tax rates. The answer, he wants us to believe, is some sort of global tax cartel. Sort of an “OPEC for politicians” that will facilitate the imposition of higher tax rates.

Only international co-operation can now solve what is becoming a runaway social crisis in many high-income countries. …With capital globally mobile, moreover, governments are now in a race to the bottom with regard to corporate taxation and loopholes for personal taxation of high incomes. Each government aims to attract mobile capital by cutting taxes relative to others. …countries cannot act by themselves. Even the social democracies of northern Europe, with their balanced budgets and high tax rates, are increasingly being pulled into the vortex of tax cutting and the race to the bottom. …recent trends…require increased, not decreased, taxation of higher incomes, including corporate profits; and that tax and regulatory co-ordination across countries are vital to prevent a ruinous fiscal race to the bottom.

If this overwrought rhetoric is true, it would mean that governments have been starved of revenue because of race-to-the-bottom tax cuts for evil corporations and sinister rich people. Well, it is true that tax competition over the past 30-plus years has resulted in lower tax rates. But do lower tax rates mean less tax revenue, as implied by Sachs’ analysis?

At the risk of being impolite and shattering anyone’s illusions, let’s actually see what happened to the overall tax burden on both personal and corporate income.

This chart, showing the average for industrialized nations, shows that Sachs and his ilk are wrong. Way wrong. Tax rates have come down, but the overall tax burden actually has increased. So while there may be a race to less-destructive tax rates, there certainly isn’t a race to bottom for tax revenue.

Hmmm….lower tax rates and higher tax revenue. That seems vaguely familiar. Maybe it has something to do with “supply-side economics.” One can only wonder if Sachs has heard about that strange idea known as the Laffer Curve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The news is going from bad to worse for Ireland. The Irish Independent is reporting that the Swiss Central Bank no longer will accept Irish government bonds as collateral. The story also notes that one of the world’s largest bond firms, PIMCO, is no longer purchasing debt issued by the Irish government.

And this is happening even though (or perhaps because?) Ireland received a big bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (and the IMF’s involvement means American taxpayers are picking up part of the tab).

I’ve already commented on Ireland’s woes, and opined about similar problems afflicting the rest of Europe, but the continuing deterioration of the Emerald Isle deserves further analysis so that American policy makers hopefully grasp the right lessons. Here are five things we should learn from the mess in Ireland.

1. Bailouts Don’t Work – When Ireland’s government rescued depositors by bailing out the nation’s three big banks, they made a big mistake by also bailing out creditors such as bondholders. This dramatically increased the cost of the bank bailout and exacerbated moral hazard since investors are more willing to make inefficient and risky choices if they think governments will cover their losses. And because it required the government to incur a lot of additional debt, it also had the effect of destabilizing the nation’s finances, which then resulted in a second mistake – the bailout of Ireland by the European Union and IMF (a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which occurs when one bad government policy leads to another bad government policy).

American policy makers already have implemented one of the two mistakes mentioned above. The TARP bailout went way beyond protecting depositors and instead gave unnecessary handouts to wealthy and sophisticated companies, executives, and investors. But something good may happen if we learn from the second mistake. Greedy politicians from states such as California and Illinois would welcome a bailout from Uncle Sam, but this would be just as misguided as the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland. The Obama Administration already provided an indirect short-run bailout as part of the so-called stimulus legislation, and this encouraged states to dig themselves deeper in a fiscal hole. Uncle Sam shouldn’t be subsidizing bad policy at the state level, and the mess in Europe is a powerful argument that this counterproductive approach should be stopped as soon as possible.

By the way, it’s worth noting that politicians and international bureaucracies behave as if government defaults would have catastrophic consequences, but Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there have been more than 200 sovereign defaults in the past 200 years and we somehow avoided Armageddon.

2. Excessive Government Spending Is a Path to Fiscal Ruin – The bailout of the banks obviously played a big role in causing Ireland’s fiscal collapse, but the government probably could have weathered that storm if politicians in Dublin hadn’t engaged in a 20-year spending spree.

The red line in the chart shows the explosive growth of government spending. Irish politicians got away with this behavior for a long time. Indeed, government spending as a share of GDP (the blue line) actually fell during the 1990s because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector. This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

Eventually, however, the house of cards collapsed. Revenues dried up and the banks failed, but because the politicians had spent so much during the good times, there was no reserve during the bad times.

American politicians are repeating these mistakes. Spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama year. We also had our version of a financial system bailout, though fortunately not as large as Ireland’s when measured as a share of economic output, so our crisis is likely to occur when the baby boom generation has retired and the time comes to make good on the empty promises to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

3. Low Corporate Tax Rates Are Good, but They Don’t Guarantee Economic Success if other Policies Are Bad – Ireland used to be a success story. They went from being the “Sick Man of Europe” in the early 1980s to being the “Celtic Tiger” earlier this century in large part because policy makers dramatically reformed fiscal policy. Government spending was capped in the late 1980 and tax rates were reduced during the 1990s. The reform of the corporate income tax was especially dramatic. Irish lawmakers reduced the tax rate from 50 percent all the way down to 12.5 percent.

This policy was enormously successful in attracting new investment, and Ireland’s government actually wound up collecting more corporate tax revenue at the lower rate. This was remarkable since it is only in very rare cases that the Laffer Curve means a tax cut generates more revenue for government (in the vast majority of cases, the Laffer Curve simply means that changes in taxable income will have revenue effects that offset only a portion of the revenue effects caused by the change in tax rates).

Unfortunately, good corporate tax policy does not guarantee good economic performance if the government is making a lot of mistakes in other areas. This is an apt description of what happened to Ireland. The silver lining to this sad story is that Irish politicians have resisted pressure from France and Germany and are keeping the corporate tax rate at 12.5 percent. The lesson for American policy makers, of course, is that low corporate tax rates are a very good idea, but don’t assume they protect the economy from other policy mistakes.

4. Artificially Low Interest Rates Encourage Bubbles – No discussion of Ireland’s economic problems would be complete without looking at the decision to join the common European currency. Adopting the euro had some advantages, such as not having to worry about changing money when traveling to many other European nations. But being part of Europe’s monetary union also meant that Ireland did not have flexible interest rates.

Normally, an economic boom drives up interest rates because the plethora of profitable opportunities leads investors demand more credit. But Ireland’s interest rates, for all intents and purposes, were governed by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where growth was generally anemic. The resulting artificially low interest rates in Ireland helped cause a bubble, much as artificially low interest rates in America last decade led to a bubble.

But if America already had a bubble, what lesson can we learn from Ireland? The simple answer is that we should learn to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Easy money is a recipe for inflation and/or bubbles. Simply stated, excess money has to go someplace and the long-run results are never pleasant. Yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have launched QE2, a policy explicitly designed to lower interest rates in hopes of artificially juicing the economy.

5. Housing Subsidies Reduce Prosperity – Last but not least, Ireland’s bubble was worsened in part because politicians created an extensive system of preferences that tilted the playing field in the direction of real estate. The combination of these subsidies and the artificially low interest rates caused widespread malinvestment and Ireland is paying the price today.

Since we just endured a financial crisis caused in large part by a corrupt system of housing subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, American policy makers should have learned this lesson already. But as Thomas Sowell sagely observes, politicians are still fixated on somehow re-inflating the housing bubble. The lesson they should have learned is that markets should determine value, not politics.

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Sometimes it’s not a good idea to be at the top of a list. And now that Japan has announced a five-percentage point reduction in its corporate tax rate, the United States will have the dubious honor of imposing the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate. Here’s an excerpt from the report in the New York Times.

Japan will cut its corporate income tax rate by 5 percentage points in a bid to shore up its sluggish economy, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said here Monday evening.Companies have urged the government to lower the country’s effective corporate tax rate — which now stands at 40 percent, around the same rate as that in the United States — to stimulate investment in Japan and to encourage businesses to create more jobs. Lowering the corporate tax burden by 5 percentage points could increase Japan’s gross domestic product by 2.6 percentage points, or 14.4 trillion yen ($172 billion), over the next three years, according to estimates by Japan’s Trade Ministry. …In a survey of nearly 23,000 companies published this month by the credit research firm Teikoku Data Bank, more than 44 percent of respondents cited lower corporate taxes as a prerequisite to stronger economic growth in Japan. …A 5 percentage-point tax rate cut is unlikely to do much to solve Japan’s woes, however. An effective corporate tax rate of 35 percent would still be higher than South Korea’s 24 percent or Germany’s 29 percent, for example. …Meanwhile, the government is trying to offset lost tax revenue with tax increases elsewhere, which could blunt the effect of reduced corporate tax burdens.

I suspect the Japanese government’s estimate of $172 billion of additional output is overly generous. After all, the corporate tax rate in Japan will still be very high (the government originally was considering a bigger cut). And foolish Japanese politicians will probably raise taxes elsewhere. But there will be some additional growth since the corporate tax rate is an especially damaging way to collect revenue.

But I’m not losing sleep about Japan’s economic future. I hope they do well, of course, but my bigger concern is the American economy. The U.S. corporate tax rate of nearly 40 percent (including state corporate burdens) already is far too high, particularly since America adds to the competitive disadvantage of U.S.-domiciled firms by being one of the few nations to impose an extra layer of tax on foreign-source income. Japan’s proposed rate reduction, however,  means the high tax rate in America will be an even bigger hindrance to job creation.

It’s also worth noting that the average corporate tax rate in Europe has now dropped to less than 24 percent, so even welfare states have figured out that a high tax burden on business doesn’t make sense in a competitive global economy.

Sometimes you can fall farther behind if you stand still and everyone else moves forward. That’s a good description of what’s happening in the battle for a pro-growth corporate tax system. By doing nothing, America’s self-destructive corporate tax system is becoming, well, even more destructive.

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By every possible metric, one would expect corporate tax rates to be higher in Europe. The burden of government spending is higher across the Atlantic, so that presumably would lead to pressure for a higher corporate tax rate. The affinity for class warfare and anti-business policies is more pronounced in Europe, so that should mean more punitive policies in the Old World.

Yet the corporate tax rate is Europe has now dropped, on average, to less than 25 percent, and the American corporate tax remains at more than 39 percent (including the average of state tax burdens). The latest development in Europe, according to Tax-news.com, is that the Netherlands is reducing its rate to 25 percent.

Dutch Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager has unveiled key details of the country’s 2011 tax plan, containing a number of fiscal measures designed to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation… The 2011 tax plan includes plans to reduce corporation tax in 2011 to 25%. The government also plans to make permanent the reduced rate 20% corporate tax rate on the first EUR200,000 in profit, announced last year and retroactive to 2008. In addition, companies will significantly benefit from the extension by one year of the temporary three-year loss carry-back facility (previously losses could be carried back for just one year) as well as the extension of the temporary accelerated depreciation scheme, which allows certain capital assets to be depreciated at 50% per year, to investments made in 2011 as well as those made in 2009 and 2010.

So why is Europe moving in the right direction on this issue and America lagging? The simple (and accurate) answer is tax competition. Governments are lowering tax rates because politicians think that is their only option if they want to attract jobs and investment. Europe’s economies are so interconnected and cross-border mobility of jobs and investment is so large that politicians are being forced to do the right thing, even though all their normal impulses are the opposite. This video explains, followed by a video showing why corporate tax rates should be lower.

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