Tax Reform Rehash

The release of Finance Committee tax reform discussion drafts on cost recovery and international tax have laid bare a reality that’s been hiding just below the surface for two years now the visions for reform embraced by the key House and Senate tax writing committees are dramatically different and move in opposite directions.

The international drafts are a good example. The Ways and Means draft would move the tax treatment of overseas income towards a territorial system, while the Baucus draft would move towards a more pure worldwide system by largely eliminating deferral. Here’s how the Tax Foundation described it:

Of the 34 most advanced countries, 28 use a territorial tax system, while only 6, including the U.S., use a worldwide tax system with deferral. No developed country imposes a worldwide tax system without deferral, though some have tried it with near disastrous effects.

Exactly how the two committees could bridge these broad differences in vision is unclear.

For pass-through businesses, the differences are just as stark. Neither committee has released details on overall rates or the treatment of pass-through businesses, but both have made clear the general direction they plan to take.

The Ways and Means Committee seeks comprehensive reform where the top rates for individuals, pass- through businesses, and corporations would be lowered and the differences between them reduced, helping to restore the rate parity that existed from 2003 to 2012. Other provisions in Chairman Camp’s draft would seek to close the differing treatment of partnerships and S corporations, creating a stronger, more coherent set of pass-through rules.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus, on the other hand, appears to actively oppose rate reductions for individuals and pass-through businesses even as he constructs his reform package around a core of cutting rates for C corporations. The inherent inconsistency of lowering corporate rates to make US businesses more competitive while simultaneously defending significantly higher rates on pass-through businesses is stark. The Baucus draft does make a vague reference to “considering” the impact on pass-through businesses, but it is clear that consideration amounts to nothing more than increased small business expensing or something similarly limited.

So the Finance Committee would cut corporate rates and ask S corporations and other pass through businesses to help pay for them. In the end, C corporations would pay a top rate of 28 or 25 percent, while pass-through businesses would pay rates 13 to 20 percentage points higher.

How do they justify this disparate treatment? The double tax on corporate income is often raised as leveling factor. As the Washington Post recently reported, “Today, the Treasury estimates, as much as 70 percent of net business income escapes the corporate tax.”

But “escaping” the corporate tax is not the same as escaping taxation. The simple fact is that pass through businesses pay lots of taxes, and they pay those taxes when the income is earned. The study we released earlier this year found that S corporations pay the highest effective tax rate (32 percent) followed by partnerships (29 percent) and then C corporations (27 percent on domestic earnings).

These findings include taxes on corporate dividends, so some of the double tax is included. They do not include capital gains taxes due to data limitations. Including capital gains would certainly close the gap between C and S corporations, but enough to make up 5 percentage points of effective tax? Not likely. Meanwhile, the study focused on US taxes only, so it doesn’t attempt to capture the effects of base erosion or the ability of C corporations to defer taxes on foreign income for long periods of time.

All in all, the argument against pass through businesses is based on some vague notion that these businesses are not paying their fair share. The reality is just the opposite. By our accounting, they pay the most. That means that, all other things being equal, today’s tax burden on S corporations makes them less competitive than their C corporation rival down the street.

Real tax reform would seek to make all business types more competitive by lowering marginal rates while also helping to level out the effective tax rates paid by differing industries and business structures. That’s the basis behind the three core principles for tax reform embraced by 73 business trade associations earlier this year: reform should be comprehensive, lower marginal rates and restore rate parity, and continue to reduce the double tax on corporate income.

These principles are fully embraced by Chairman Camp and the Ways and Means Committee. They appear to have been rejected by the Finance Committee. Which begs the question: What exactly is the goal of the Finance Committee in this process? Is it just to raise tax revenues? You don’t need “reform” to do that.

Whatever their goal, the gap between the House and the Senate is enormous, and unlikely to be closed anytime soon. Chairman Camp continues to press for reforms that would improve our tax code, but he’s going to be hard pressed to find common ground with what’s being outlined in the Senate.

Extenders

With the timeline for tax reform being pushed back, there is a bit more discussion of what to do about tax extenders. The whole package of more than 60 provisions expires at the end of the year and to date there’s been little discussion regarding how or when to extend them. As the Tax Policy Center noted this week:

It isn’t unusual for these mostly-business tax breaks to temporarily disappear, only to come back from the dead a few months after their technical expiration. But this time businesses are more nervous than usual. Their problem: Congress may have few opportunities to continue these so-called extenders in 2014. This doesn’t mean the expiring provisions won’t be brought back to life. In the end, nearly all will. But right now, it is hard to see a clear path for that happening.

While the future is murky as always, a few points of clarity do exist:

  • Nothing will happen before the end of the year. The House will recess this weekend and not return for legislative business until mid-January. Even if it took up extenders promptly after returning, which is highly unlikely, the soonest an extender package can get done would be February or March.
  • Coming up with $50 billion in offsets to replace the lost revenue will also be a challenge. Congress is tackling a permanent Doc Fix right now, which requires nearly three times that level of offsets. Coming up with an additional $50 billion will not be easy.
  • The lack of an AMT patch also is hurting urgency for the package. Congress permanently addressed the Alternative Minimum Tax earlier this year, which is good news, but that action also removed one of the most compelling catalysts for moving the annual extender package. Annually adopting the AMT patch protected 20 million households from higher taxes. That incentive is now gone.

All those points suggest that the business community has a long wait before it can expect to see an extender package move through Congress.

Or does it? One of the most popular extenders is the higher expensing limits under Section 179. This small business provision allows firms to write-off up to $500,000 in capital investments in 2013, as long as their overall amount of qualified investments is $2 million or less.

Beginning in 2014, these limits will drop to $25,000 and $200,000 respectively.

You read that correctly. Starting January, business who invest between $25,000 and $2 million in new equipment will no longer be able to write-off some or all of that cost in year one. Talk about an anti-stimulus. Coupled with the loss of bonus depreciation, the R&E tax credit, and the 5-year holding period for built in gains, and the expiration of extenders will have a measurable effect on the cost of capital investment for smaller and larger businesses alike.

This reality is beginning to sink in both on Main Street and the investment community, where certain industries rely on these provisions as a core part of their business plans in coming years. It’s too soon to see how much momentum the loss of these provisions will generate in coming months, but cutting the expensing limit from $500,000 to $25,000 in one year is bound to attract somebody’s attention.

Fiscal (Slope) Cliff Forecast

While everyone in Washington waits for Tuesday’s election results, this story in The Hill caught our eye: “Fiscal cliff already weighing on economy.” According to the story:

While the expiring tax cuts and automatic spending cuts that make up the cliff do not take effect until the beginning of 2013, Pawlenty said he is hearing from financial firms that businesses are already halting business activity because they are not sure what will happen.

For example, 61 percent of JPMorgan’s U.S. clients are altering their hiring plans because of the cliff, and 42 percent of fund managers for Bank of America identify it as their greatest investment risk.

That’s consistent with what our S-CORP members are telling us. Faced with higher tax rates, uncertain health insurance prospects, and lagging employment growth, the S corporations we hear from are choosing to forego hiring and investment decisions until they feel more confident about the future of public policy and the economy.

This suggests the so-called fiscal cliff is more of a downward slope, and we’re already on it. Employers are holding back, which is suppressing investment and hiring decisions right now, and that’s reflected in the less-than-stellar jobs and GDP numbers we’ve been seeing for the past six months.

That also means that any signal that Congress is prepared to address the cliff and block these tax hikes would help the economy immediately– not just after January 1st.

So, what’s at stake for S corporations? Here’s a short list:

Tax Rates: The best case is that current rates are extended for 2013. The worst case is total gridlock in Congress and rates rise to their pre-2001 levels and beyond. (Beyond because of the tax hikes included in health care reform). Here’s a table summarizing the options:

Top Rates

Worst Case

Best Case

Wage & Salary

44.7%

37.9%

Cap Gains

23.8%

15.0%

Dividends

44.7%

15.0%

Interest

44.7%

35.0%

S Corp Income

44.7%

35.0%

Keep in mind, the best case scenario includes both extending current rates and repealing the new 3.8 percent investment tax imposed under Obamacare. Not impossible if Romney wins and Republicans take the Senate, but not easy either.

AMT: One of the findings in our E&Y study released this summer was the significant number of pass-through owners who pay the AMT. According to E&Y, of the 2.1 million business owners who earn more the $200,000 annually, 900,000 pay the top two tax rates, while 1.2 million pay the AMT. This suggests that the expiration of the so-called AMT patch last year may have more impact on pass-through business owners than the expiration of the lower rates. Treasury estimates that 30 million additional taxpayers will be pulled into the AMT April 15th under the current rules (if the AMT patch remains expired). The findings of E&Y suggest many of those taxpayers are business owners. Business owners most at risk are those with dependent children and those living in high-tax states like New York and California.

Extenders: Congress has gotten into a [bad] habit of ignoring the expiration of all those tax provisions falling under the title of ’extenders’ — the R&E tax credit, the state and local tax deduction, the shorter built-in gains holding period, etc. The Senate Finance Committee has passed a package of extensions, but the House has yet to act. If and how these important issues are addressed during the lame duck are still to be determined, and unfortunately seem to have taken a backseat to dealing with the “must-do” broader 2001/2003 extenders that are set to expire at year’s end.

Those are the tax provisions directly impacting the S corporation community. Couple them with the spending cuts scheduled to begin January 1st, and the total makes up the $700-plus billion fiscal cliff.

What might happen?

Our friends at International Strategy & Investment in the past suggested that the choice before Congress is not “all or nothing” and we agree. Rather than be constrained by the idea that we will either fall off the cliff or step back entirely, our view is that Congress will take a half-step back, avoiding the most damaging pieces of the cliff while allowing others to take effect. Here’s a list with those cliff provisions most likely to be avoided starting at the top:

More Likely

  • AMT
  • Middle-Class Tax Relief
  • Sequestration
  • Doc Fix
  • Tax Extenders
  • Extended UI Benefits
  • Upper Income Tax Relief
  • Health Care Reform Tax Hikes
  • Discretionary Spending

Less Likely

We’ve highlighted the tax rates on upper income taxpayers, including S corporations, since their extension depends almost entirely on who wins the White House. The odds they get extended is close to zero under President Obama, and perhaps 50-50 under a new Romney Administration. Romney has made clear he will push for them, as has the House — it’s the Democrats in the Senate that are the wild card. As for the rest of the provisions, there may be some movement based on the elections, but not much.

In addition to the policies, there’s a question of timing. The general notion is that any deal on the fiscal cliff must occur before the end of 2012, but several of the provisions listed above could just as easily be dealt with in the first few weeks of 2013 with little additional harm to the economy, particularly if Congress and the incoming Administration effectively signaled what they had in mind. Moreover, with only a few weeks between the elections and the holidays, there may simply be insufficient time for the differing parties to come together.

But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to wait. Action immediately after the election to address the entire fiscal cliff — including the top tax rates — would help improve people’s lives now through increased hiring and increased business investment. Congress should act, and act quickly.

But will they? Not if their recent behavior, particularly in the Senate, is any indication. So our best pre-election guess is that Congress will act eventually, but only at the last minute, and that most of the fiscal cliff will be averted either prior to the end of the year or shortly thereafter.

2-Year Extension Set to Pass

Here’s an early Christmas present — the Senate voted this afternoon 81-19 to move forward on the tax deal cut between President Obama and congressional Republicans. We expect the package to pass intact early tomorrow.

For S corporations, the package means the top tax rate on S corporations remains at 35 percent and rates on capital gains and dividends remain at 15 percent for the next two years. On the estate tax front, the plan calls for a top rate of 35 percent and an exemption of $5 million per spouse.

Democratic opposition in the House is coalescing around the estate tax provisions, and if there is an attempt to change the bill, that’s where it’s likely to happen. Leadership there may attempt to raise the tax rate to 45 percent (from 35 percent) while reducing the exemption level from $5 million to $3.5 million. This amendment, however, or any other substantive change to the package, is unlikely to pass for a variety of reasons.

The size of the Senate majority makes it difficult for the opposition to characterize the deal as anything but bipartisan and broadly supported. Moreover, recent polls show the plan is popular with voters, too. According to Chris Cillizza:

Two new national polls out today affirm that political popularity. In a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, a whopping 69 percent support the tax package — support that cross party lines with 75 percent of Republicans backing the deal while 68 percent of Democrats and Independents offered their support.

A new Pew poll showed 60 percent supporting it including 62 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents. The simple reality for Democrats writ large — and President Obama more specifically — is that they need a win in the eyes of the American public following a disastrous election that saw the party lose control of the House and lose ground in the Senate.

And finally, the clock is working against the opposition. Any deal blocked now will be taken up and passed by the Republicans when they take control in January. So either this week or first thing next year, a package very similar to what passed the Senate will be adopted by Congress and be signed by the President. Good news indeed!

Republican Opposition

We don’t want to overstate Republican opposition to the deal, but a number of high-profile Republicans are publicly opposing the plan, arguing that the party could do better if it waited until the New Year and the new Congress.

Republicans comprised five of the fifteen votes against cloture on Monday, four of whom appear to have opposed the deal because it could be better — Coburn (OK), DeMint (SC), Ensign (NV), and Sessions (AL).B Meanwhile, a number House Republicans have come out opposed to the package. Representative Steve King (IA) and Michele Bachmann (MN) announced their opposition earlier, and Mike Pence (IN) announced his opposition just yesterday, stating:

 

“I’ve no doubt in my mind that the first order of business for the new Congress [if the compromise does not pass] will be to enact a bill that extends all the current tax rates on a permanent basis,” Pence continued. “We’ll do it. We’ll send it to the Senate if this bill falters. There’s always time to do the right thing.”

 

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is also opposed, arguing Republicans should hold out for something permanent.

“Given the unambiguous message that the American people sent to Washington in November, it is difficult to understand how our political leaders could have reached such a disappointing agreement,” Romney wrote in an op-ed for USA Today. “The new, more conservative Congress should reach a better solution.”

We’re confident that the Republican House could pass a permanent tax bill. We’re also confident such a bill would stall in the Senate and would be opposed by the Administration. In the meantime, real taxes would be going up on real businesses and estates, starting January 1. Given the circumstances, the agreement achieved by negotiators is as good as the business community could have hoped.

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