Tag: corporate income tax

Five Lessons from Ireland

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 counter-productive 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.

Three Things We Should Worry about in 2011

The mid-term elections were a rejection of President Obama’s big-government agenda, but those results don’t necessarily mean better policy. We should not forget, after all, that Democrats rammed through Obamacare even after losing the special election to replace Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts (much to my dismay, my prediction from last January was correct).

Similarly, GOP control of the House of Representatives does not automatically mean less government and more freedom. Heck, it doesn’t even guarantee that things won’t continue to move in the wrong direction. Here are three possible bad policies for 2011, most of which the Obama White House can implement by using executive power.

1. A back-door bailout of the states from the Federal Reserve – The new GOP Congress presumably wouldn’t be foolish enough to bail out profligate states such as California and Illinois, but that does not mean the battle is won. Ben Bernanke already has demonstrated that he is willing to curry favor with the White House by debasing the value of the dollar, so what’s to stop him from engineering a back-door bailout by having the Federal Reserve buy state bonds? The European Central Bank already is using this tactic to bail out Europe’s welfare states, so a precedent already exists for this type of misguided policy. To make matters worse, there’s nothing Congress can do – barring legislation that Obama presumably would veto – to stop the Fed from this awful policy.

2. A front-door bailout of Europe by the United States – Welfare states in Europe are teetering on the edge of insolvency. Decades of big government have crippled economic growth and generated mountains of debt. Ireland and Greece already have been bailed out, and Portugal and Spain are probably next on the list, to be followed by countries such as Italy and Belgium. So why should American taxpayers worry about European bailouts? The unfortunate answer is that American taxpayers will pick up a big chunk of the tab if the International Monetary Fund is involved. Indeed, this horse already has escaped the barn. The United States provides the largest amount of  subsidies to the International Monetary Fund, and the IMF took part in the bailouts of Greece and Ireland. The Senate did vote against having American taxpayers take part in the bailout of Greece, but that turned out to be a symbolic exercise. Sadly, that’s probably what we can expect if and when there are bailouts of the bigger European welfare states.

3. Republicans getting duped by Obama and supporting a VAT – The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Obama Administration is contemplating a reduction in the corporate income tax. This sounds like a great idea, particularly since America’s punitive corporate tax rate is undermining competitiveness and hindering job creation. But what happens if Obama demands that Congress approve a value-added tax to “pay for” the lower corporate tax rate? This would be a terrible deal, sort of like a football team trading a great young quarterback for a 35-year old lineman. The VAT would give statists a money machine that they need to turn the United States into a French-style welfare state. This type of national sales tax would only be acceptable if the personal and corporate income taxes were abolished - and the Constitution was amended to make sure the federal government never again could tax what we earn and produce. But that’s not the deal Obama would offer. My fingers are crossed that Obama doesn’t offer to swap a lower corporate income tax for a VAT, particularly since we already know that some Republicans are susceptible to the VAT.

America’s Number One! America’s Number One!…Oops, Never Mind

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.

Bright Spots in Fiscal Commission Report

President Obama’s Fiscal Commission has produced a serious and sobering analysis of the government’s budget mess, and it provides some of the needed solutions. Three of the report’s main themes are on target: the need to make government leaner, the need to cut business taxes to generate economic growth, and the need to impose tighter budget rules to discipline spending.

The report rejects the view of many Democratic leaders that the welfare state built over the last 80 years must be defended against any and all budget cuts. “Every aspect of the discretionary budget must be scrutinized, no agency can be off limits, and no program that spends too much or achieves too little can be spared. The federal government can and must adapt to the 21st century by transforming itself into a leaner and more efficient operation.” How lean the government should be, and how many agencies to eliminate, will be the central fiscal debate in coming years. Downsizing government is the order of the day.

The report recognizes the need to spur economic growth, particularly by cutting the corporate tax rate. “The corporate income tax, meanwhile, hurts America’s ability to compete… statutory rates in the U.S. are significantly higher than the average for industrialized countries … and our method of taxing foreign income is outside the norm…. the current system puts U.S. corporations at a competitive disadvantage against their foreign competitors.” The report recommends cutting the 35 percent federal corporate tax rate to 28 percent or less to respond to the Global Tax Revolution and to “make America the best place to start a business and create jobs.”

Finally, the report suggests that Congress impose new procedures to enforce budget restraint. However, the rules suggested by the commission are complex and not tight enough. It would be simpler and more powerful to impose a cap on overall federal spending. For example, a law could require that the government’s overall budget not grow faster than general inflation each year else the president would sequester spending across-the-board. Such a cap would be easy for the public to understand and enforce.

In sum, the report provides a useful menu of reform options that incoming members of a more conservative Congress can pursue next year. We need bigger spending cuts than the commission has laid out—as I’ve outlined in this balanced-budget plan—but the commission deserves credit for spurring a national discussion on how to downsize the federal government.

Thanks to Tax Competition, Corporate Tax Rates Continue to Fall in Europe

Many people assume that Europe is the land of high-tax welfare states and America is an outpost of laissez-faire capitalism. We should be so lucky. The burden of government in America is still lower than it is in the average European nation, but the United States is a lot closer to France than it is to Hong Kong – and the trend is not comforting.

We recently endured the embarrassing spectacle of President Obama arguing with Europeans that they should increase the burden of government spending. Now we have a new report from the European Commission indicating that the average corporate tax rate in member nations of the European Union has plummeted to just 23.5 percent while the corporate tax rate in the U.S. has stagnated at 35 percent. In the past dozen years alone, as the chart illustrates, the average corporate tax rate in the European Union has dropped by nearly 12 percentage points. To make matters worse, the corporate tax rate in America actually is closer to 40 percent if state tax burdens are added to the mix.

This is not to say that European politicians are reading Hayek and Friedman (or watching Dan Mitchell videos on corporate taxation). Almost all of the positive reforms are because of tax competition. Thanks to globalization, it is increasingly easy for labor and (especially) capital to cross national borders to escape bad policy. As such, nations now have to compete for jobs and investment, and this liberalizing process is particularly powerful among nations that are neighbors.

Not surprisingly, European politicians despise tax competition and instead would prefer to impose a one-size-fits-all policy of tax harmonization. These efforts to create a tax cartel have a long history, beginning even before Reagan and Thatcher lowered tax rates and triggered the modern era of tax competition. The European Commission originally wanted to require a minimum corporate tax rate of 45 percent. And as recently as 1992, there were an effort to require a minimum corporate tax rate of 30 percent.

Fortunately, the politicians did not succeed in any of these efforts. As such, tax competition remains alive and corporate tax rates continue to fall. What remains to be seen, however, is whether America will join the race to lower corporate tax rates – and more jobs and investment.

Wednesday Links

  • Even though the government is running massive deficits, interest rates and inflation are low. So, what’s the problem?

Summers’ Corporate Tax Confusion

At a conference yesterday, White House National Economic Council Director Larry Summers repeated a superficial critique of the U.S. corporate income tax that we’ve heard often from the Obama administration.

Politico notes that Summers suggested “that U.S. corporate tax rates are relatively low, despite complaints from U.S. corporations.” And they quote him: “If you look at taxes paid by corporations as a fraction of profits, they’re actually very low” because the U.S. tax code is replete with “evasion and avoidance.”

The Obama team’s solution to the supposed problem is to pile more complex IRS rules and regulations on U.S. corporations and to increase taxes on their foreign earnings.

There are lots of problems here. One is the implication that the U.S. corporate tax is uniquely subject to evasion and avoidance. It isn’t. Corporate income taxes around the globe are subject to large avoidance and evasion pressures because of globalization and technological advance.

That is one of the main reasons why virtually every other industrial nation has dramatically cut its corporate tax rate over the last decade or so. But the United States has not followed suit, and that’s why U.S. corporations are having to put large efforts into avoidance.

The latest data from KPMG shows that the U.S. federal/state rate is 40 percent–tied with Libya for the third-highest rate among 116 countries surveyed. The chart shows the average rate for the 30 OECD nations.

Summers may be right that U.S. corporate taxes are “low” when measured as a share of profits, although that calculation is more complex than you might think (For example, is he talking about domestic taxes divided by domestic profits, domestic taxes divided by worldwide profits, or something else?)

Anyway, Larry is referring to a measure of the average tax rate. But, generally, it is statutory rates that drive avoidance, and so it is the very high U.S. statutory rate that is helping to shrink federal taxes paid and thus drive down the average rate that Larry is worried about.

Note that lower statutory corporate rates over the last two decades have been associated with higher corporate tax revenues, as Figure 1 illustrates here. Thus, if Larry wants a higher average rate, he should propose cutting the U.S. statutory rate.

Summers apparently wants corporations to “help the country” by paying more taxes. But Larry must know that it is individual workers, consumers, and savers who actually bear the burden of the corporate tax. These people are “the country” and they would be helped by dramatically cutting the corporate tax rate and boosting the economy.