Tag: corporate tax

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.

The Bogus Charge of ‘Shipping Jobs Overseas’

In the final push before Election Day, President Obama has been traveling the country criticizing Republicans for favoring tax breaks for U.S. companies that supposedly ship U.S. jobs overseas. It’s a bogus charge that I dismantle in an op-ed in this morning’s New York Post:

The charge sounds logical: Under the US corporate tax code, US-based companies aren’t taxed on profits that their affiliates abroad earn until those profits are returned here. Supposedly, this “tax break” gives firms an incentive to create jobs overseas rather than at home, so any candidate who doesn’t want to impose higher taxes on those foreign operations is guilty of “shipping jobs overseas.”

In fact, American companies have quite valid reasons beyond any tax advantage to establish overseas affiliates: That’s how they reach foreign customers with US-branded goods and services.

Those affiliates allow US companies to sell services that can only be delivered where the customer lives (such as fast food and retail) or to customize their products, such as automobiles, to better reflect the taste of customers in foreign markets.

I go on to point out that close to 90 percent of what U.S.-owned affiliates produce abroad is sold abroad; that those foreign affiliates are now the primary way U.S. companies reach global consumers with U.S.-branded goods and services; and that the more jobs they create in their affiliates abroad, the more they create in their parent operations in the United States. If Congress raises taxes on those foreign operations, it will only force U.S. companies to cede market share to their German and Japanese (and French and Korean) competitors.

I unpack the issue at greater length in a Free Trade Bulletin published last year, and on pages 99-104 of my recent Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization.

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.

Injustice of State Subsidies

My colleague Chris Edwards made a good point yesterday in his post on the injustice of federal subsidies.  The wrangling between the states to haul in the federal largesse is wasteful, and getting worse.  But the underlying issue in the article Chris cites — a state using taxpayer money to lure a company away from another state — is another wasteful activity that is all too common.

Instead of competing with other states to attract industry by lowering taxes and reducing regulations, it seems most state governors prefer a politically opportunistic method I call “press release economics.”  Here’s how it works:

A state “economic development” agency offers an out-of-state company (or even an out-of-country company) tax breaks and/or direct subsidies to locate some or all of its business operations in that state.  Most likely, the business would have located there anyhow due to myriad factors including demographics, transportation logistics, and workforce capabilities.  Sometimes several states will engage in a “bidding war” to get a business to set up shop within their borders.  The governor of the “winning” state will then issue a press release citing the new jobs and capital his administration has just brought to the state.  The locating company usually tells the press that the winning state’s package helped seal the deal.  The company and the governor’s press staff then typically arrange a photo-op at an orchestrated ground-breaking ceremony for the new facilities.

If a state is already bleeding jobs, as is often the case in the current economy, such press releases and photo-ops can be a political coup.  Moreover, the governor will have given up, or foregone, relatively little in tax revenue in comparison to, say, cutting the state corporate income tax.  This also leaves the governor with more money to spend on various vote-buying programs. I’m picking on governors, but the legislature generally prefers the press-release economics route for similar reasons.  And if you’re a governor, why risk the headache of engaging the legislature in a fight over reducing corporate taxes, unemployment taxes, or any other tax — including personal income taxes and sales taxes — that effect industry when you can take the easy win?

Am I too cynical?  Actually, I had first-hand experience with this issue when I worked in state government.  My suggestion that the governor eliminate or reduce the state’s high corporate income tax rate, and “pay for it” — at least in part — by getting rid of the state’s corporate welfare apparatus, was routinely ignored for the reasons I cited above.  That one would be hard-pressed to find support among the economics profession for the state corporate welfare give-away game means little to the majority of policymakers and their minions who naturally favor short-term political gain over long-term economic gain.  That other companies already located within the state are stuck paying the regular tax rate, and are thus put at a competitive disadvantage, is a secondary or non-concern as well.

Another issue that I won’t delve into here is the fact that these giveaways often blow up in a state’s face when the locating company ends up not producing the jobs it promised and/or it relocates to another state or country after pocketing the free taxpayer money.  Anyhow, journalists should be on the lookout for more press-release economics schemes coming from the states as revenues remain tight and politicians become desperate to demonstrate they’re “doing something.”  Journalists should examine a state’s tax structure when a taxpayer giveaway is announced to see if perhaps the governor is masking economic-unfriendly fiscal policies.

Note: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford proposed late last year to do exactly what I recommended: eliminate the state’s corporate income tax, offset in part by the elimination of corporate tax incentives.  There is hope.

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.

Obama Taking on ‘Tax Havens’

Jeff Zeleny at the New York Times Caucus Blog reports, “President Obama will present a set of proposals on Monday aimed at changing international tax policy, calling for the elimination of benefits for companies and wealthy individuals that harbor their cash in offshore accounts.”

Cato scholars have long made arguments in defense of tax havens. In The Wall Street Journal, Senior Fellow Richard Rahn outlined the policy the federal government should be taking instead:

The correct policy for the United States to follow is to reduce its corporate tax rate to make it internationally competitive, and to move toward a tax system that does not punish savings and productive investment so severely. We know from the experiences of many countries that reducing tax rates and simplifying the tax code improve both tax compliance and economic growth. Tax protectionism should be rejected because it is at least as destructive to economic growth and job creation as are tariffs on goods and services.

Cato scholar Daniel J. Mitchell narrated a three part video series on the subject, presenting the economic and moral cases for tax havens, and a final video that punctured myths associated with the practice.  

Mitchell spoke on Capitol Hill last month about the role of tax havens and in Foreign Policy magazine, Mitchell explained why tax havens are a blessing.

America Alone on Punitive Corporate Taxes

In Tax Notes International today, two Ernst and Young experts describe how corporate tax reforms in Japan have made America an even bigger outlier in its punitive treatment of multinational corporations:

Japan’s recent adoption of a territorial tax system as part of a broader tax reform reduces the tax burden on the foreign-source income of Japanese multinational corporations.

Before the Japanese reform, the two largest economies had both high corporate income tax rates and worldwide tax systems. Now the United States not only has the second-highest corporate income tax rate of the OECD countries, it is also one of the few that still have a general worldwide tax system.

The Japanese corporate tax reform is part of a global trend toward reduced taxation of corporate income, which often takes the form of a significantly reduced corporate tax rate but also is reflected through reduced taxation of foreign-source income.

The details of the president’s budget proposal to reform deferral are expected in the coming weeks. As we await the specifics, it is clear that the direction of the proposal runs counter to this strong current of global corporate tax reform with lower overall corporate tax rates and reductions in domestic taxation of foreign-source income.

In simple terms, Japan’s reforms may give firms such as Toyota or Hitachi an advantage over firms such as Ford or General Electric in international markets.

Alas, U.S. policymakers don’t seem to understand that in a globalized world of free-flowing capital we need to change our uncompetitive tax policies. At Cato, we will keep trying to educate them, but it is sad that our economy loses jobs and investment because our elected leaders are such slow learners compared to leaders in Japan, Jordan, Canada, and elsewhere.