Why Corporate Tax Reform Is So Desirable–and So Hard to Achieve

Why Corporate Tax Reform Is So Desirable–and So Hard to Achieve

November 14, 2013

In a political environment most notable today for its partisan trench warfare, serious conversations across party lines are nonetheless taking place over a major reform of corporate taxes. This unusual instance of comity comes from a genuine consensus that lowering the corporate tax rate — the favored goal would move it from 35 percent to 28 percent — would be good for the economy. As an economic matter, a revenue-neutral cut in the corporate tax rate has something for almost everyone: It should lead directly to more investment and higher profits, which in turn should produce stronger growth and, with any luck, raise the wages of some workers. Yet, serious corporate tax reform will always be a long shot unless the parties can agree on how to pay for it and what to do about all the businesses that aren’t subject to it.

The hardest piece of this puzzle involves where to find the money for a lower rate. If, as expected, profits, growth and some wages go up, part of the cost should be relatively painless; but those additional revenues would amount to more of a free appetizer than a whole lunch. And one popular target for additional revenues, the special tax deductions for certain investments by oil and gas companies, would provide no more than a palate cleanser. In the end, there are only a few pieces of the corporate code large enough to finance meaningful rate reductions — and all of them are fiercely defended by the companies that benefit most from them.

The biggest target is accelerated depreciation — some $550 billion over 10 years to provide in special tax deductions that offset the cost of large corporate investments, and at a rate faster than the equipment or structure actually depreciates. For the biggest beneficiaries, think of the communications equipment industry, aircraft makers, mining and industrial equipment producers, and other heavy manufacturing. Pushing the corporate rate down to 28 percent rate would offset their economic costs, while helping other industries even more. But the revenues from ending accelerated depreciation for corporations would only be enough to lower the rate to a little less than 31 percent.

Another costly provision is “deferral” — the ability of American multinationals to delay paying any U.S. corporate taxes on their foreign profits until they transfer those profits from their foreign subsidiaries to the parent corporation back in America. While experts argue over how much revenues would actually result from ending deferral, it would spread the pain: That’s because the industries affected most by an end to deferral make relatively modest use of accelerated depreciation – think of our leading software, Internet and pharmaceutical firms. The catch lies in the indirect costs. American multinationals earn foreign profits by out-competing their German, British and Japanese rivals in foreign markets. But unlike the United States, Germany, Britain, Japan and nearly every other country taxes corporations only on the income they earn in their home markets. So, ending deferral would force only U.S. companies to pay taxes both abroad and at home, leaving them at a competitive disadvantage. Holding them harmless while ending deferral would require a corporate rate even lower than 28 percent — and the revenues gained by ending deferral, along with accelerated depreciation, wouldn’t be enough to get the rate down to even 28 percent.

Moreover, corporate tax reform is not the same as business tax reform, not by a long shot. More than half of all business profits in America are earned by companies that don’t pay the corporate tax, including most investment and legal practices, hedge funds, private equity funds, and privately held companies. They are all organized as partnerships, LLCs or S-corps, not subject to the corporate tax, and taxed as “pass-throughs”:  The income of such firms is distributed among their owners and then taxed at the owners’ personal tax rate, sometimes as ordinary income and more often as capital income.

As an economic matter, the right answer is to tax all business income at the same rate, whether the business is a corporation or something else. It also would help with funding the lower rate:  For example, ending accelerated depreciation for all businesses, corporate or not, would raise an estimated $775 billion over 10 years instead of $550 billion. Moreover, a 28 percent rate on all business income mighty well raise substantial revenues, since so much of non-corporate business income today is taxed at the 20 percent rate for capital income. And that’s a political problem. To begin, ending the special “carried interest” tax break for hedge funds, private equity funds and real estate trusts might well ignite a Washington firestorm – which could explain why President Obama didn’t try to do it when he held healthy majorities in both house of Congress. That’s not all: To maintain a level playing field on personal taxes, the current 20 percent tax on the capital gains and dividends of ordinary investors also would have to go up to 28 percent up as well. But if that happened, the shareholders of public corporations would be at a costly disadvantage, since the same income would face a single 28 percent rate when earned by a non-corporate pass-through business, and a rate twice as high when generated by a corporation (28 percent at the corporate level and another 28 percent at the owners’ level).

This economic logic has led many conservative economists and Republicans to call for repealing all corporate taxes. Of course, there is no prospect of a bipartisan consensus for doing that. Rather, the Democratic side of the consensus for a lower corporate tax rate has always insisted that the same corporations make up for any and all revenues lost from cutting the rate. And that’s a problem which they haven’t yet solved.