Tag: Corporate taxation

What Obama and the New York Times Don’t Understand about Worldwide Taxation

Mitt Romney is being criticized for supporting “territorial taxation,” which is the common-sense notion that each nation gets to control the taxation of economic activity inside its borders.

While promoting his own class-warfare agenda, President Obama recently condemned Romney’s approach. His views, unsurprisingly, were echoed in a New York Times editorial.

President Obama raised … his proposals for tax credits for manufacturers in the United States to encourage the creation of new jobs. He said this was greatly preferable to Mitt Romney’s support for a so-called territorial tax system, in which the overseas profits of American corporations would escape United States taxation altogether. It’s not surprising that large multinational corporations strongly support a territorial tax system, which, they say, would make them more competitive with foreign rivals. What they don’t say, and what Mr. Obama stressed, is that eliminating federal taxes on foreign profits would create a powerful incentive for companies to shift even more jobs and investment overseas—the opposite of what the economy needs.

Since even left-leaning economists generally agree that tax credits for manufacturers are ineffective gimmicks proposed for political purposes, let’s set that topic aside and focus on the issue of territorial taxation.

Or, to be more specific, let’s compare the proposed system of territorial taxation to the current U.S. system of “worldwide taxation.”

Worldwide taxation means that a company is taxed not only on its domestic earnings, but also on its foreign earnings. Yet the “foreign-source income” of U.S. companies is “domestic-source income” in the nations where those earnings are generated, so that income already is subject to tax by those other governments.

In other words, worldwide taxation results in a version of double taxation.

The U.S. system seeks to mitigate this bad effect by allowing American-based companies a “credit” for some of the taxes they pay to foreign governments, but that system is very incomplete.

And even if it worked perfectly, America’s high corporate tax rate still puts U.S. companies in a very disadvantageous position. If an American firm, Dutch firm, and Irish firm are competing for business in Ireland, the latter two only pay the 12.5 percent Irish corporate tax on any profits they earn. The U.S. company also pays that tax, but then also pays an additional 22.5 percent to the IRS (the 35 percent U.S. tax rate minus a credit for the 12.5 percent Irish tax).

In an attempt to deal with this self-imposed disadvantage, the U.S. tax system also has something called “deferral,” which allows American companies to delay the extra tax (though the Obama administration has proposed to eliminate that provision).

Romney proposes to put American companies on a level playing field by going in the other direction. Instead of immediate worldwide taxation, as Obama wants, Romney wants to implement territorial taxation.

But what about the accusation from the New York Times that territorial taxation “would create a powerful incentive for companies to shift even more jobs and investment overseas”?

Well, they’re somewhat right … and yet they’re totally wrong. Here’s what I’ve said about that issue:

If a company can save money by building widgets in Ireland and selling them to the US market, then we shouldn’t be surprised that some of them will consider that option.  So does this mean the President’s proposal might save some American jobs? Definitely not. If deferral is curtailed, that may prevent an American company from taking advantage of a profitable opportunity to build a factory in some place like Ireland. But U.S. tax law does not constrain foreign companies operating in foreign countries. So there would be nothing to prevent a Dutch company from taking advantage of that profitable Irish opportunity. And since a foreign-based company can ship goods into the U.S. market under the same rules as a U.S. company’s foreign subsidiary, worldwide taxation does not insulate America from overseas competition. It simply means that foreign companies get the business and earn the profits.

To put it bluntly, America’s tax code is driving jobs and investment to other nations. America’s high corporate tax rate is a huge self-inflected wound for American competitiveness.

Getting rid of deferral doesn’t solve any problems, as I explain in this video. Indeed, Obama’s policy would make a bad system even worse.

But, it’s also important to admit that shifting to territorial taxation isn’t a complete solution. Yes, it will help American-based companies compete for market share abroad by creating a level playing field. But if policymakers want to make the United States a more attractive location for jobs and investment, then a big cut in the corporate tax rate should be the next step.

President Obama’s Corporate Tax Reform Rearranges the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

American companies are hindered by what is arguably the world’s most punitive corporate tax system. The federal corporate rate is 35 percent, which climbs to more than 39 percent when you add state corporate taxes. Among developed nations, only Japan is in the same ballpark, and that country is hardly a role model of economic dynamism.

But the tax rate is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s also critically important to look at the government’s definition of taxable income. If there are lots of corrupt loopholes – such as ethanol – that enable some income to escape taxation, then the “effective” tax rate might be rather modest.

On the other hand, if the government forces companies to overstate their income with policies such as worldwide taxation and depreciation, then the statutory tax rate understates the actual tax burden.

The U.S. tax system, as the chart suggests, is riddled with both types of provisions.

This information is important because there are good and not-so-good ways of lowering tax rates as part of corporate tax reform. If politicians decide to “pay for” lower rates by eliminating loopholes, that creates a win-win situation for the economy since the penalty on productive behavior is reduced and a tax preference that distorts economic choices is removed.

But if politicians “pay for” the lower rates by expanding the second layer of tax on U.S. companies competing in foreign markets or by changing depreciation rules to make firms pretend that investment expenditures are actually net income, then the reform is nothing but a re-shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Now let’s look at President Obama’s plan for corporate tax reform.

  • The good news is that he reduces the tax rate on companies from 35 percent to 28 percent (still more than 32 percent when state corporate taxes are added to the mix).
  • The bad news is that he exacerbates the tax burden on new investment and increases the second layer of taxation imposed on American companies competing for market share overseas.

In other words, to paraphrase the Bible, the President giveth and the President taketh away.

This doesn’t mean the proposal would be a step in the wrong direction. There are some loopholes, properly understood, that are scaled back.

But when you add up all the pieces, it is largely a kiss-your-sister package. Some companies would come out ahead and others would lose.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to measurably improve incomes for American workers. In a competitive global economy, where even Europe’s welfare states recognize reality and have lowered their corporate tax rates, on average, to 23 percent, the President’s proposal at best is a tiny step in the right direction.

When an American Company Redomiciles to the Cayman Islands, What Lesson Should We Learn?

Another American company has decided to expatriate for tax reasons. This process has been going on for decades, with companies giving up their U.S. charters (a form of business citizenship) and redomiciling in low-tax jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Ireland, Switzerland, Panama, Hong Kong, and the Cayman Islands.

The companies that choose to expatriate usually fit a certain profile (this applies to individuals as well). They earn a substantial share of their income in other countries and they are put at a competitive disadvantage because of America’s “worldwide” tax system.

More specifically, worldwide taxation requires firms to not only pay tax to foreign governments on their foreign-source income, but they are also supposed to pay additional tax on this income to the IRS — even though the money was not earned in America and even though their foreign-based competitors rarely are subject to this type of double taxation.

In this most recent example, an energy company with substantial operations in Asia moved its charter to the Cayman Islands, as reported by digitaljournal.com:

Greenfields Petroleum Corporation…, an independent exploration and production company with assets in Azerbaijan, is pleased to announce that the previously announced corporate redomestication … from Delaware to the Cayman Islands has been successfully completed.

Because it is a small firm, the move by GPC probably won’t attract much attention from the politicians. But “corporate expatriation” has generated considerable controversy in recent years when involving big companies such as Ingersoll-Rand, Transocean, and Stanley Works (now Stanley Black & Decker).

Statists argue that it is unpatriotic for companies to redomicile, and they changed the law last decade to make it more difficult for companies to escape the clutches of the IRS. In addition to blaming “Benedict Arnold” corporations, leftists also attack low-tax jurisdictions for “poaching” companies.

Libertarians and conservatives, by contrast, explain that expatriation is the result of an onerous tax system that imposes high tax rates and requires the double taxation of foreign-source income. Expatriation is the only logical approach if companies want a level playing field when competing in global markets.

I cover this issue (and also explain that the Obama administration is trying to make a bad system even worse) in the video below.

My recommendation, not surprisingly, is that politicians fix the tax code. Unfortunately, politicians prefer the blame-the-victim game, so they attack the companies instead of solving the underlying problem (and then they wonder why job creation is anemic).

White House to Propose 26 Percent Corporate Tax Rate?!? Look before You Leap

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.

Jilted Cavs Fans Should Blame Ohio’s Income Tax

Supporters of the Cleveland Cavaliers, especially the owner of the team, are upset that basketball superstar LeBron James has decided to sign with the Miami Heat. The anger is especially intense because the Cavaliers offered James $4 million more over the next five years. But their anger is misplaced because more money in Cleveland actually translates into about $1 million less disposable income when the burden of state and local income taxes is added to the equation. Rather than condemn James for making a rational choice, local basketball fans should tar and feather Ohio politicians.

This story from CNBC walks through the calculations.

[I]f you match up what James’ salary would be for the first five years in Cleveland and the five years in Miami, you find that the Cavaliers are only offering him $4 million more. That advantage gets erased — and actually gives the Heat the monetary edge over — when you consider the income tax difference. …Playing in Cleveland, LeBron would face a state income tax of 5.925 percent, plus a Cleveland city tax of two percent. Over the first five years of a new contract with Cleveland, James would give back $3,953,060 combined to the state and city for the 41 games each season he’d play at home. But James would have to pay none of that for home games in Miami since Florida doesn’t have an income tax. Athletes have to pay income taxes to states that they play in on the road, so the games he’ll play away from home — whether he played for Cleveland or Miami — are essentially a wash. But there are, on average, 11 away games per season where James would have to pay Ohio and Cleveland taxes. Why? Because he has to pay when he plays in the six areas –– Florida, Texas, Washington D.C., Illinois, Toronto and Tennessee –– that have no jock taxes. That’s another $1,061,128 he’ll have to pay in taxes that he wouldn’t have to pay in Miami.

New York basketball fans also should be angry. With some of the highest taxes in the nation, many of which target highly productive people as part of a class-warfare policy, New York is bad news for professional athletes. The New York Post, commenting on the probability that James would sign with the Miami Heat, identified the real villains.

[B]lame our dysfunctional lawmakers in Albany, who have saddled top-earning New Yorkers with the highest state and city income taxes in the nation, soon to be 12.85 percent on top of the IRS bite. There is no state income tax in Florida. On a five-year contract worth $96 million – what he’d get from the Knicks or the Heat — LeBron would pay $12.34 million in New York taxes. Quite a penalty for the privilege of working in Midtown.

Now let’s look at the big picture. The calculations that LeBron James made when deciding to sign with the Miami Heat are the same calculations that companies make when deciding whether to build factories and create jobs. So when people wonder why high-tax states such as Ohio, California, and New York are losing jobs to zero–income tax states such as Florida and Texas, part of the answer should be obvious. And if we move to the global level, folks should not be too surprised that companies and investors, all other things equal, are likely to avoid the United States, with its punitive 35 percent corporate tax, and instead create jobs and build wealth in places like Hong Kong, Ireland, and Switzerland.