President Trump created a stir by dismissing as “too complicated” the border adjustability feature in the House Republican corporate tax reform. Yet a few days later his press secretary Sean Spicer suggested the seemingly rejected border tax could pay for a Mexican border wall.
Meanwhile, the President suggested the dollar is “too strong” even though (1) Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross boasted about Trump having talking the Mexico peso down 35% and (2) Martin Feldstein and other economists pushing border adjustability predict that the plan would push the dollar 25% higher.
To call border adjustability too complicated is starting to look like a huge understatement.
In the House Republicans’ tentative “Better Way” plan, border adjustment means corporations could no longer treat expenses of imported materials, parts, or equipment as a cost doing business. Manufacturers of electrical machinery or plumbing parts could not deduct the cost of copper (36% of which is imported). Retailers could not deduct the cost of imported goods. Refiners would pay a 20% tax on crude oil from Canada.
Exports, by contrast, would not count as income for U.S. tax purposes. Big exporters might even qualify for a federal check. “Any border adjustment should include cash refunds for exporters,” writes economist Alan Viard.
This “border adjustability” is said to be comparable to the way we exempt foreigners from our sales and excise taxes and other countries likewise exempt us from their equivalent value added taxes (VAT). But that analogy depends on treating a tax on corporate cash flow (essentially income minus expensed investments) as equivalent to a tax on sales. I plan to discuss the VAT analogy in a separate blog.
Tax Policy Center economist Bill Gale notes, “Many economists—but very few non-economists—believe that the international trade effects of border adjustments will be small.” Indeed, the architects of the House GOP plan, as well as potential winners and losers among business leaders, depict the House GOP tax proposal as an export incentive and import penalty. So does economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth who writes, “Border adjustability taxes are essentially tariffs under another name.” Carolyn Freund of the Peterson Institute likewise shows how a “Maryland-produced sweatshirt will face a lower tax rate than the Chinese-produced sweatshirt, exactly as if a tariff were applied.” Foreign trading partners will surely see it the same way.
How can economists disagree? “In a simple textbook model,” explains Alan Viard, “a border adjustment would trigger a real increase in the value of the dollar that would raise the cost of U.S. exports and reduce the cost of U.S. imports by an amount that would exactly offset the direct effects of the border adjustment.”
This textbook model claims the so-called “destination-based cash-flow tax (DBCFT)” will not affect the U.S. trade deficit because, as Paul Krugman explains, “wages and/or the exchange rate would change.” Rather than dealing with changing wages, border adjustment enthusiasts claim the real exchange rate of the dollar would supposedly rise “exactly” enough to make U.S. exports sufficiently expensive to foreigners to “exactly” offset the export subsidy. And the dollar prices of foreign imports would likewise fall by “exactly” the right amount to compensate for the importers’ extra 20% tax, neither more nor less.
“If the dollar doesn’t rise quickly enough or high enough,” notes The Wall Street Journal, “a border-adjusted tax is expected to penalize big retailers and other large corporations reliant on lower-cost foreign production.” Even if we could be certain of the real exchange rate rising by 25%, past experience does not suggest that is likely to happen in fewer than four years, or that import prices would fall proportionately or uniformly.
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