Blog
The Point

The Three Choices for Tax Reform

September 13, 2017

Trump administration officials and GOP leaders in Congress are still putting together their tax plan. Nevertheless, the early signs point to decisions that could sink the project or produce changes that would jeopardize economic growth.

Congress can approach changing the corporate tax in one of three ways. It can try to simplify the code, it can reform it, or it can cut it back. The GOP’s current approach appears to start with simplification. Simplifying the corporate tax normally means phasing out a package of tax preferences for particular industries or business activities, and using the revenues to bring down the current 35 percent tax rate to 28, 25 or even 20 percent. This model shifts the burden of the tax among industries but not among income groups, since shareholders continue to bear most of the burden. Such simplification can also attract bipartisan support and produce real economic benefits. At a minimum, it lowers tax compliance costs for most businesses; and if it’s done thoughtfully, it can increase economic efficiency. To be sure, any efficiency benefits will be marginal unless the simplifications are fairly broad and sweeping.

The record also shows that serious tax simplification is very hard to achieve. Support from President Obama and congressional GOP leaders wasn’t enough to advance it in 2014, for the simple reason that most companies prefer their tax preferences to a lower tax rate. They’re not wrong economically: The Treasury calculated in 2016 that tax preferences lower the average effective corporate tax rate to 22 percent, and companies in many industries pay substantially less. Why give up those preferences for a 28 or 25 percent rate? A 20 percent rate could solve the problem for most industries, if anyone had a plausible way to pay for it. Of course, financing a deep rate cut was the border adjustment tax promoted by Speaker Paul Ryan, and which the White House and big importers and retailers quickly squashed.

The second option is genuine reform, where Congress changes the structure of the corporate tax. Economically, the most promising reform would give U.S. companies a choice of tax treatments when they invest in equipment. They could deduct the full cost of those investments in the year they make them (“expensing”) while giving up the current deduction for interest on funds borrowed to finance the investments. Or they could stick with the current depreciation system for their investments, including the deduction for interest costs. If enough companies choose the first route, as they likely would, this reform would spur investment and sharply reduce the tax code’s nonsensical bias towards financing business growth with debt rather than equity. Such a structural reform would make sound economic sense. It also seems as unlikely as serious simplification, because it foregoes the pixie dust of marginal tax rate cuts that GOP supply-siders demand.

That leaves the Trump administration and Republican leaders with option three: Cut the corporate tax rate without paying for it. The President seems to favor this approach. He has called repeatedly for slashing the corporate rate to 15 percent, a multi-trillion dollar change, and paying for a small piece of it by limiting a few personal tax deductions for higher-income people. It’s also catnip for GOP supply-siders who continue to proclaim that a deep rate cut will boost economic growth enough to pay for itself. We’ve tried this t several times already, so we now have hard evidence to evaluate those claims. The actual record shows, beyond question, that such turbo-charged dynamic effects do not occur. The most recent example is George W. Bush’s 2001 personal income tax cuts. His “success” enacting them produced huge deficits and ultimately contributed to the financial collapse that closed down his presidency.

A largely-unfunded cut in the corporate tax rate in 2018 would boost corporate profits as well as budget deficits, but it won’t increase business investment, productivity or employment. Prime interest rates in this period have been lower than at any time since the 1950s, so companies have had easy and cheap access to funds for investment for years. At a minimum, this tells us that there’s no real economic basis to expect businesses to use their windfall profits from a big tax cut to expand investment.

Instead, they’re likely to use some of their additional profits to fund stock buy-backs. The rest will flow through as dividends and capital gains, mainly for the top one percent of Americans who hold 49.8 percent of stock in public companies, and the next nine percent who own another 41.2 percent of all shares. Those lucky shareholders will use much of their windfall gains to buy more stock; and coupled with the corporate stock buy-backs, the boost in demand for stocks will pump up the markets. To be sure, those shareholders will also spend some of their unexpected gains, which will modestly stimulate growth. Once that stimulus dissipates, as it will fairly quickly, the ballooning budget deficits will drive up interest rates and slow the economy for everyone else.

The worst scenario is that large, deficit-be-damned cuts in the corporate tax rate could produce a stock market bubble that could take down the economy when it bursts. The good news is that the current Congress would never enact it. The odds of Democrats supporting Donald Trump on a tax plan to make shareholders richer are roughly the same as winning the Powerball; and the certainty of soaring budget deficits should scare off enough conservative Republicans to sink the enterprise.