Tag: corporate tax rate

Tax Reform Error #2: Phasing-in Lower Tax Rates

Since 1981, Republican legislators have shown a strong penchant for phasing-in tax rate reductions over several years.  That tradition is maintained in Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp’s proposed 979-page “simplification” of the U.S. tax system.  The Camp draft retains a very high top tax rate of 38.8 percent on businesses that file under the individual income tax as partnerships, proprietorships, LLCs or Subchapter S corporations. For those choosing to file as C-corporations, by contrast, the Camp proposal would gradually reduce the corporate tax rate by two percentage points a year over five years, eventually reducing it from 35 to 25 percent. 

The trouble with phasing-in lower tax rates is that it creates an incentive to postpone efforts and investments until later, when tax rates will be lower.  Reducing the corporate tax rate by two percentage points a year would create an incentive to repeatedly delay reported profits, year after year, holding back the economy and tax receipts.  Sensible tax planners would write-off expenses soon as possible, including interest expenses, but defer investment until future years when the tax rate would be reduced on any resulting added earnings.  

Meanwhile, the widening gap between corporate and noncorporate tax rates (a difference of 13.8 percentage points after five years) would encourage many small businesses, farms and professionals to set up C-corporations to shelter retained earnings.  Owners of closely-held private corporations can defer double taxation indefinitely by not paying dividends and taking most compensation in the form of tax-free corporate perks. Many enterprises contemplating the new incentive to shift income from individual to corporate tax forms after five years would postpone expansion plans until after they made that switch, further depressing the economy and tax receipts.

The Republican Party’s proclivity for phased-in tax cuts may have originated with former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.  In his January 25, 2001 testimony before the Senate Budget committee, Chairman Greenspan said, “In recognition of the uncertainties in the economic and budget outlook, it is important that any long-term tax plan … be phased in.”  That was the same advice he gave in January 1981 when Greenspan and I served on President Reagan’s transition team.  Unfortunately, his advice to phase-in lower tax rates was followed both times, with disastrous results.

During the deep recession from July 1981 to November 1982, Congress opted to postpone most tax relief until the 1983-84 tax years.  Individual tax rates were ostensibly reduced by 5 percent in October 1981, but with only three months left in the year that meant just 1.25 percent.   Rates were again reduced by 10 percent in July of 1982, but that applied to only half of that year’s income.  Meanwhile, bracket creep from high inflation kept pushing people into higher tax brackets (until indexing took effect in 1985), negating much of the intended effect.  The final 10 percent reduction in July 1983 was not fully effective until calendar year 1984. 

Oddly enough, the painful blunder of phasing-in the Reagan tax cuts after a recession was repeated by the Bush administration in March 2001, three months after the economy slipped into recession.  Aside from the fiscal frivolity of adding a 10 percent tax bracket on the first $12,000 of income (cutting taxes $300-600 at all incomes), reductions in the four highest tax rates were originally scheduled to be very gradually phased-in by 2006.  Congress later came to its senses in May 2003 and reduced marginal tax rates. Yet substantial damage was already done.   University of Michigan economists Christopher House and Matthew Shapiro found, “The phased-in nature [of lower tax rates] contributed to the slow recovery from the 2001 recession, while the elimination of the phase-in helped explain the increase in economic activity in 2003.” The harmful impact of the phase-in was confirmed by Cornell University economist Karel Mertens and Morton Ravin of University College London. 

Mertens and Ravin also found that lower corporate tax rates do not reduce U.S. tax revenues, partly because lower tax rates increase domestic investment while reducing tax incentives to take on excess debt.  The Camp plan to phase-in a 25 percent corporate tax rate over many years would be as unnecessary as it would be counterproductive.  Most other countries reduced their corporate tax rates to 25 percent or less long ago – creating marginal effective rates on new investment that are commonly less than half the U.S. level – with clearly beneficial effects on their economies and tax receipts.  

The important, unlearned lesson of 1981 and 2001 is that phased-in reductions in marginal tax rates can make things worse before they make things better.

An uncompetitive U.S. corporate tax rate fosters excessive tax-deductible debt and gives a big cost advantage to foreign enterprises.  There is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by improving the U.S. tax climate slowly rather than quickly.

President Delivers Same Zero-Sum Message on Jobs to U.S. Chamber

In his speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday, President Obama tried to make nice with U.S. business. While the speech contained some positive elements about promoting trade and a lower corporate tax rate, the president also pounded the tired theme that we are locked in a battle with other countries over a fixed number of jobs.

Notice how the president framed the otherwise good news of expanding domestic production:

Right now, businesses across this country are proving that America can compete. Caterpillar is opening a new plant to build excavators in Texas that used to be shipped from Japan. … A company called Geomagic, a software maker, decided to close down its overseas centers in China and Europe and move their R&D here to the United States. These companies are bringing jobs back to our shores. And that’s good for everybody.

The strong implication is that U.S. companies add jobs at home by closing production facilities abroad and thus “bringing jobs back to our shores.” This kind of win-lose, zero-sum accounting is out of step with the reality of our global economy. More often, when U.S. multinationals ramp up production and hiring abroad, they do the same at their factories and offices in the United States, and vice versa.

Take Caterpillar, the global equipment company based in Peoria, Ill. According to its recent quarterly earnings report, the company added 19,000 jobs to its global workforce in 2010, 7,500 of those in the United States. This is common practice among U.S. multinationals.

As I noted in my 2009 Cato book Mad about Trade, studies show that the jobs added by U.S. multinationals at home and abroad are strongly and positively correlated. More production and sales abroad typically require the hiring of more managers, accountants, engineers and production workers at the parent company’s facilities in the United States.

Despite the president’s rhetoric, the creation of jobs in today’s global economy is a win-win, positive sum proposition.

U.S. Corporate Tax Rate the Highest

Japan has announced that it will cut its corporate tax rate by five percentage points. Japan and the United States had been the global laggards on corporate tax reform, so this leaves America with the highest corporate rate among the 34 wealthy nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That is not a good position for us to be in. Most of the competition faced by U.S. businesses comes from businesses headquartered in other OECD countries. America also competes with other OECD nations as a location for investment. Our high corporate tax rate scares away investment in new factories, makes it difficult for U.S. companies to compete in foreign markets, and provides strong incentives for corporations to avoid and evade taxes.

The chart shows KPMG data on statutory corporate tax rates in the OECD for 2010, but I’ve also put in the new lower rate for Japan. With the Japanese reform, the average rate in the OECD will be 25.6 percent. That means that the 40 percent U.S. rate is 56 percent higher than the wealthy-nation average.

Most fiscal experts agree that cutting the U.S. corporate tax rate is a high priority, and President Obama’s fiscal commission endorsed the idea. If the president wants to get the economy firing on all cylinders–and generate a new pragmatic and centrist image for himself–he should lead the charge to drop the corporate rate to at least 20 percent.

With state-level taxes on top, a federal corporate rate of 20 percent would put America at about the OECD average, and give all those corporations sitting on piles of cash a great reason to start investing again.

Dan Mitchell’s comments are here.

Buy Global Tax Revolution here.

Don’t Blame Ireland’s Mess on Low Corporate Tax Rates

Ireland is in deep fiscal trouble and the Germans and the French apparently want the politicians in Dublin to increase the nation’s 12.5 percent corporate tax rate as the price for being bailed out. This is almost certainly the cause of considerable smugness and joy in Europe’s high-tax nations, many of which have been very resentful of Ireland for enjoying so much prosperity in recent decades in part because of a low corporate tax burden.

But is there any reason to think Ireland’s competitive corporate tax regime is responsible for the nation’s economic crisis? The answer, not surprisingly, is no. Here’s a chart from one of Ireland’s top economists, looking at taxes and spending for past 27 years. You can see that revenues grew rapidly, especially beginning in the 1990s as the lower tax rates were implemented. The problem is that politicians spent every penny of this revenue windfall.

When the financial crisis hit a couple of years ago, tax revenues suddenly plummeted. Unfortunately, politicians continued to spend like drunken sailors. It’s only in the last year that they finally stepped on the brakes and began to rein in the burden of government spending. But that may be a case of too little, too late.

The second chart provides additional detail. Interestingly, the burden of government spending actually fell as a share of GDP between 1983 and 2000. This is not because government spending was falling, but rather 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.

But big government is never a free lunch. Government spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. This is now painfully apparent since there no longer is a revenue windfall to mask the damage.

There are lots of lessons to learn from Ireland’s fiscal/economic/financial crisis. There was too much government spending. Ireland also had a major housing bubble. And some people say that adopting the euro (the common currency of many European nations) helped create the current mess.

The one thing we can definitely say, though, is that lower tax rates did not cause Ireland’s problems. It’s also safe to say that higher tax rates will delay Ireland’s recovery. French and German politicians may think that’s a good idea, but hopefully Irish lawmakers have a better perspective.

Taiwan Cuts Corporate Taxes

From the subscription magazine Tax Notes today:

Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (parliament), in an attempt to attract foreign investors, on May 28 passed legislation cutting the island’s corporate tax rate from 20 percent to 17 percent, retroactive to January 1…

The lower corporate tax rate will make Taiwan more competitive with its East Asian rivals Singapore, whose rate is also 17 percent, and Hong Kong, whose rate remains slightly lower at 16.5 percent.

The reduced rate ‘will make us even more competitive and will help attract international businesses to set up their headquarters in Taiwan. We believe we’ll see the positive results in the next several years,’ lawmaker Alex Fei of the ruling Kuomintang.

If you were the CEO of an international company that made semiconductor chips, laptops, or other manufactured products, would you locate your next plant in the United States – where the corporate rate is about 40% – or Taiwan where it is less than half of that?

Companies build new factories, buy machines, and hire workers in order to earn after-tax profits. Our government swipes twice as much of those profits as the Taiwanese government, so our economy obviously gets fewer factories and machines and lower wages than otherwise. 

The global business environment is changing, and we need to change with it. I’m not sure why that is so hard for U.S. policymakers to understand.

See here for corporate effective tax rates around the world.

Buy this book to read about the global tax revolution.

Tax Oppression Index Ranks America in Bottom Half of Industrialized Nations

A thorough new study of 30 nations from the Institut Constant de Rebecque in Switzerland reveals serious shortcomings in America’s tax system.

The report, entitled “Tax burden and individual rights in the OECD: An International Comparison,” creates a Tax Oppression Index based on three key variables: the overall tax burden, public governance, and taxpayer rights. The good news is that the United States has a comparatively low aggregate tax burden, though America’s score on this measure would be much better in the absence of a punitively high corporate tax rate. The bad news is that corruption and inefficiency in Washington drag down America’s score for public governance. The ugly news is that America has a very low rating for protecting taxpayer rights — largely because politicians have tilted the playing field to favor the IRS, including the fact that taxpayers lose the presumption of innocence provided in the Constitution.

Here is a brief description of the study:

The OECD’s campaign against “harmful tax competition” and “tax havens” has overshadowed the essential issue, namely the important roles that both tax competition and “tax havens” play for capital preservation and formation, leading to higher prosperity and better protection of individual rights throughout the OECD.

The tax oppression index is based on 18 representative criteria measuring fiscal attractiveness, public governance and financial privacy in the 30 member states of the OECD. Switzerland appears as the country with the lowest tax oppression — due to a relatively low tax burden and a more [classical] liberal institutional order, including its citizens’ right to veto legislation, political decentralization, and protection of financial privacy. Germany and France, on the other hand, whose governments have supported the OECD’s efforts, are among the most questionable states in terms of safeguarding their residents’ individual rights.

…The tax oppression index evaluates the 30 OECD member states on three complementary dimensions quantified by 18 representative criteria, on the basis of OECD and World Bank data. The index enables relevant conclusions about the tax burden and individual rights among those countries.

Switzerland earns the top ranking in the report, followed by Luxembourg, Austria, Canada, and Slovakia. Italy and Turkey have the worst systems, followed by Poland, Mexico, and Germany. The United States is tied for 19th, behind the welfare states of Scandinavia. With Obama promising to raise tax rates and increase the power of the IRS, it may just be a matter of time before the United States is competing for the world’s most oppressive tax regime.

Euro VAT for America?

Desperate for fresh revenues to feed the giant spending appetite of President Obama, Democratic policymakers are talking up ‘tax reform’ as a way to reduce the deficit. Some are considering a European-style value-added tax (VAT), which would have a similar effect as a national sales tax, and be a large new burden on American families.

A VAT would raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year for the government, even at a 10-percent rate. The math is simple: total U.S. consumption in 2008 was $10 trillion. VATs usually tax about half of a nation’s consumption or less, say $5 trillion. That means that a 10% VAT would raise about $500 billion a year in the United States, or about $4,300 from every household. Obviously such a huge tax hit would fundamentally change the American economy and society, and for the worse.

Some fiscal experts think that a VAT would solve the government’s budget problems and reduce the deficit, as the Washington Post noted yesterday. That certainly has not happened in Europe where the average VAT rate is a huge 20 percent, and most nations face large budget deficits just as we do. The hard truth for policymakers to swallow is that the only real cure for our federal fiscal crisis is to cut spending.

Liberals like VATs because of the revenue-raising potential, but some conservatives are drawn to the idea of using VAT revenues to reduce the corporate tax rate. The Post story reflected this in noting “A 21 percent VAT has permitted Ireland to attract investment by lowering the corporate tax rate.” That implies that the Irish government lost money when it cut its corporate rate, but actually the reverse happened in the most dramatic way.

Ireland installed a 10% corporate rate for certain industries in the 1980s, but also steadily cut its regular corporate rate during the 1990s. It switched over to a 12.5% rate for all corporations in 2004. OECD data show that as the Irish corporate tax rate fell, corporate tax revenues went through the roof – from 1.6% of GDP in 1990, to 3.7% in 2000, to 3.8% in 2006.

In sum, a VAT would not solve our deficit problems because Congress would simply boost its spending even higher, as happened in Europe as VAT rates increased over time. Also, a VAT is not needed to cut the corporate income tax rate because a corporate rate cut would be self-financing over the long-term as tax avoidance fell and economic growth increased.