Should Main Street Businesses Elect C Corp Status? No!

The idea that corporate-only tax reform isn’t so bad because Main Street businesses can elect C corporation status has been argued for years. But should Congress reduce the corporate tax rate with the expectation that pass-through businesses will just switch to C status to access the lower rates?   The answer is no.  Here are the main points:

  • It’s the opposite of tax reform.  The corporate-only approach to tax reform is effectively “anti-tax reform.” It will return us to the pre-1986 era, when corporate tax rates were significantly lower than individual rates and tax gaming and income sheltering were rampant.
  • It increases the negative effect of the double corporate tax.  Everyone agrees the double corporate tax hurts investment and job creation.  Forcing pass-through businesses (who employ the majority of private sector workers) into the double tax would make it worse.
  • It penalizes business owners when they sell their business.  For many business owners, the sale of their business is their retirement plan.  The tax code recognizes this by taxing any gain from the sale of a pass-through business at the capital gains rate of 24 percent.  On the other hand, any gain from the sale of a closely-held C corporation is taxed twice at a combined rate of over 50 percent!  This double tax punishes entrepreneurs who have spent a lifetime building their business.

1.   Corporate-Only = Anti-Tax Reform

S-Corp Advisor Tom Nichols hit this point in his testimony before the Ways and Means Committee in 2013:

When I first started practicing law in 1979, the top individual income tax rate was 70 percent, whereas the top income tax rate for corporations taxed at the entity level (“C corporations”) was only 46 percent.   This rate differential obviously provided a tremendous incentive for successful business owners to have as much of their income as possible taxed, at least initially, at the C corporation tax rates, rather than at the individual tax rates, which were more than 50 percent higher.

This tax dynamic set up a cat and mouse game between Congress, the Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (the “Service”) on the one hand and taxpayers and their advisors on the other, whereby C corporation shareholders sought to pull money out of their corporations in transactions that would subject them to the more favorable capital gains rates that were prevalent during this period or to accumulate wealth inside the corporations.  Congress reacted by enacting numerous provisions that were intended to force C corporation shareholders to pay the full double tax, efforts that were only partially successful.

Efforts to lower the corporate rates while holding steady individual and pass-through rates should be deemed “anti-tax reform.”  They will return us to the world Tom describes above, effectively reversing the broad changes made by Congress in 1986 and creating a tremendous incentive for taxpayers to organize their income to take advantage of the lower corporate rates and then shelter that income from additional tax.

2.    The Double Tax is the Problem

Any tax reform worth the name would seek to reduce or eliminate the double corporate tax by integrating the corporate tax code with the individual tax code.

Here’s what EY had to say about the double corporate tax in the study they did for us back in 2011:

In addition, the flow-through form helps mitigate the economically harmful effects of the double tax on corporate profits, in which the higher cost of capital from double taxation discourages investment and thus economic growth and job creation. Moreover, double taxation of the return to saving and investment embodied in the income tax system leads to a bias in firms’ financing decisions between the use of debt and equity and distorts the allocation of capital within the economy. As tax reform progresses, it is important to understand and consider all of these issues with an eye towards bringing about the tax reform that is most conducive to increased growth and job creation throughout the entire economy. 

By forcing pass-through businesses into the corporate tax while increasing tax rates on shareholders, the tax reform envisioned by the Obama Administration moves in the opposite direction and will hurt job creation and investment.  Under the Obama Administration’s plan:

The top marginal rate for pass-through businesses remains at 44 percent;

  • The corporate rate drops to 28 percent;
  • The tax on dividends increases to 28 percent; and
  • All these rates apply to a broader base of income.

Today, shareholders of an S corporation making $100 pay a top tax of $44 regardless of whether the income is distributed to shareholders or retained by the business.  How would the Obama proposal affect that company?

  • Under the Obama plan, S corporation income would still pay a top marginal rate of 44 percent, only on a broader base of income.  The taxes on pass-through businesses would go up.
  • Meanwhile, the Administration would cut the corporate tax rate to 28 percent while raising the dividend rate to 28 percent, so a C corporation would pay an initial tax of $28 plus another $20 for any dividends paid to taxable shareholders.  These rates would apply to a broader base of income too, so it’s difficult to say whether any particular corporation would end up paying more or less tax under the Obama plan.

Under these rules, an S corporation could convert to C and reduce its initial tax bite from $44 to $28.  It would then face a choice: Either retain its income at the firm and avoid the second layer of tax, or pay out a dividend and trigger another $20 in taxes (28 percent of $72) for a total tax hit of $48.  Again, this combined rate would apply to a broader base of income.

In other words, the only way the S corporation lowers its tax burden by converting to C is if it then stops any dividend payments and keeps the income within the corporate structure.  Tax reform should seek to reduce this type of distortionary incentive, not increase it.  The double tax on corporations makes US businesses less attractive to investors and less competitive in the world marketplace.  Forcing more businesses into the harmful double tax simply makes no sense.

3.    Double Tax Applies to Business Sales

The “they can just convert” argument also ignores the penalty that closely-held C corporations face when they are sold.  Closely-held C corporations currently face a combined federal tax rate of more than 50 percent when they are sold, versus just 24 percent for the sale of the business by an S corporation.  Under the Obama approach of lower corporate rates but higher capital gains rates, the effective tax would be 48 percent.

This double tax makes switching to C corporation status a non-starter for entrepreneurs who might want to sell their business someday.  Many business sales are tied to the retirement of the owner, where the proceeds are used to fund his or her retirement, so rates that high are a threat to their retirement security.  It’s different for publicly held C corporations.  Individual stockholders can sell their stock at any time, often at higher multiples as the stock of a public company enjoys a more liquid market.

So arguing that pass-through businesses can “just convert” simply is not credible.  Some businesses might be in a position to switch to C status, but there are higher taxes waiting on the other side, along with unproductive tax complexity that does nothing to enhance business productivity.  Given that pass-through businesses employ more than half the private sector workforce, how does any of this make sense?  More broadly, how does forcing more companies into the inefficient and investment-stifling double tax model make America’s companies more competitive?  Sounds like a plan to do the exact opposite.

 

S Corp Provisions on House Floor

Last Friday, longtime S-CORP allies Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) introduced two pieces of legislation – H.R. 629 and H.R. 630 – to extend tax provisions critical to America’s 4.6 million S corporations.

The bills would make permanent the five-year built-in gains holding period as well as a basis adjustment fix for S corporations making charitable contributions.  They build off the momentum from last Congress when identical bills successfully passed the House with broad bipartisan support. These provisions are ones that we’ve championed for years, and go a long way towards making the tax rules for Main Street businesses fair and predictable.

In a joint press release, Rep. Reichert had this to say:

S Corporations are proven job creators and it is our job as legislators to make sure the tax code helps them to access the capital they need to grow, remain competitive and help get Americans back to work. I am pleased to introduce these bipartisan pieces of legislation with my colleague Congressman Kind, because our tax code should encourage growth rather than stifle it. I look forward to working with my colleagues to advance policies that help our small businesses create jobs and support families across the country.

Rep. Kind also added:

These commonsense, bipartisan bills will bring stability and simplicity to the tax code to make it easier for many small businesses to create good jobs and help sustain local communities. There are nearly 60,000 S Corporations in Wisconsin alone, so supporting these job creators is a top priority as we work to strengthen the economy in Wisconsin and across the country.

The broad support these provisions have garnered from the business community and lawmakers reflects the sentiment that these outdated tax rules just don’t make sense and permanent changes need to be made. H.R. 629 would allow S corps increased access to their own capital by providing for a permanent, five-year BIG holding period, rather than the current ten-year period these businesses must endure before they can dispose of appreciated assets without paying a prohibitive tax.  As S-Corp Advisor Jim Redpath testified before the Ways and Means Committee last year:

I find the BIG tax provision causes many S corporations to hold onto unproductive or old assets that should be replaced. Ten years is a long time and certainly not cognizant of current business-planning cycles. Many times I have experienced changes in the business environment or the economy which prompted S corporations to need access to their own capital, that if taken would trigger this prohibitive tax. This results in business owners not making the appropriate decision for the business and its stakeholders, simply because of the BIG tax.

H.R. 630 is another common sense reform that would encourage S corporations to give back by permanently ensuring S corporations are able to deduct the full value of the stock they donate to charity.  This provision would level out the tax treatment of such donations between S corporations and partnerships.

Improving and making permanent the rules for the businesses that drive our economy is critical and we applaud Reps. Reichert and Kind for once again introducing this legislation.  We are looking forward to seeing the bills considered and adopted by the House!

Ryan Rolls Out New Ways & Means Committee

Main Street business tax treatment was a big theme during the Ways & Means Committee’s first hearing of the year.  Its purpose was to look at the state of the economy, but key members kept raising the question of how to best treat pass-through businesses in tax reform.   Carrying the flag for S corps was our longtime S-CORP Champion Dave Reichert (R-WA):

Reichert (1:53:00): In another area where we have the ability to boost our economy – through tax reform, as has been mentioned, and which would benefit businesses large and small — what about pass-through businesses…which face a high marginal tax rate in addition to high compliance costs. How do you see the change in the tax code specifically helping those small pass-through businesses?

Economist Martin Feldstein: I think that’s a major challenge that you face as a committee and in Congress in dealing with tax reform. That lowering the corporate tax rate, where both the President and Republicans have said ‘we’ve got to get down into the twenties,’ will still leave pass-through businesses, who file through their personal tax returns, facing much higher tax rates, so somehow that has to be dealt with. And by treating the business income of individuals differently from other things, so that in effect they get the advantages of the lower tax rate that come with corporate tax reform.

Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL) also focused on the challenge faced by pass-through businesses:

(2:22:00): I want to bring up something my colleagues mentioned earlier, about corporate rates being the highest in the world…I think we agree that we need to do something with corporate rates. My concern is pass-through entities. You touched a little bit on effective rate, and how when you add everything the effective rate is 40 percent or more, and if you add in state income tax, the average is 49.6. So if you look to move corporate rates from 35 to 28 to 25, whatever they’re thinking about doing there, I don’t know how you can be competitive in terms of pass throughs.

One statistic I got is 99 percent of the companies registered in Florida and other places are small businesses, obviously a lot of them pass throughs. And 60 percent of job creation comes from these businesses, and many of these start-ups. In terms of reducing the rate, if you’re a pass-through company and you have seventy employees, and you’re giving half your money back to the various governments, it’s pretty hard to be able to grow your business, add equipment, add jobs, when you’re giving half of [your money] away. My point, to the professors here today, is to ask what effect lowering the rates on C corps and pass throughs would have on the economy and on creating jobs….

Economist Doug Holtz-Eakin:  It’s bad tax policy to treat business income differently depending on whether it’s a pass through or a C corporation. And that would drive you to organize your business based on tax considerations rather than business considerations; that’s the hallmark of the tax system interfering with the economy.

And finally, Representative Todd Young (R-IN) weighed in:

(3:00): I’d like to talk about tax reform…but specifically focusing on tax reform for our smaller businesses and younger firms.

 I do have some concerns, going back to the small and younger firms that, about some intimation by the President and by others in this town that we may only consider corporate reform, rather than the individual code so that those pass-through entities like S corporations and LLCs get the benefit of simplification, on one hand, and rate reduction, knowing that many of them pay over half of their profits in taxes, when you combine the taxes at different levels of government.

It bears reminding that, over the past decade, more than six out of every ten new jobs created in this country have been through these smaller firms, and this is where over half of jobs currently exist in this country.

Bottom Line:  Key members of Ways and Means, starting with the Chairman and working down from there, are fully aware of the economic importance of pass-through businesses and the threat that “corporate-only” tax reform poses to them.

 

Tax Reform Challenge in One Chart

If you’re looking for an illustration of how the tax code fails to treat business income equitably, look no further than this chart on effective marginal tax rates from the CBO (click to enlarge).

Keep in mind that the chart shows effective marginal rates, so it captures the tax on new income from a new business investment, not the average tax paid by businesses on their existing income.  If you’re looking for effective rates on existing business income, you should look at the effective rate study we released back in 2013. (Spoiler alert:  S corps pay the highest effective rate.)  Moreover, since sole props tend to be less profitable and are taxed at lower average rates, their inclusion reduces the effective marginal rate for pass-through businesses below what it would be if S corporations alone were examined.

These points aside, the chart has much to tell us.

First, look at the disparity between debt and equity investment.  Returns on equity are taxed at high levels, while returns on debt financed investment are taxed at much lower levels.  Debt-financed investment by C corps is actually subsidized under the current code!  This disparity encourages businesses to over leverage.  Not good.  Any tax reform worth doing would seek to balance out the tax treatment of debt verses equity.

Second, look at the long lines showing the range of effective marginal tax rates.  These signify the difference in effective rates depending on the industry and assets involved.  The longer the line, the greater the disparity.  The range of effective tax rates for C corps using equity ranges from 21 to 47 percent.  The range for C corp debt is from 22 percent to negative 42 percent!  Pass-through businesses also show significant ranges, if not quite as extreme.  Once again, any tax reform worth doing would seek to shorten those lines and balance out the tax treatment of investing in different types of assets.

One of our concerns with the Camp plan released last year was that it did little to balance out either the debt verses equity differential or the differing treatment among asset types.  In fact, the JCT analysis of the plan showed the Camp draft would have increased the effective tax burden on business investment.  Tax reform should encourage, not discourage, business hiring and investment while balancing out the tax burden on differing industries and business structures.

If you want a sense of how difficult that task will be, look no further than this CBO chart.

 

It’s All About That Rate

Speaking of tax rates, Bloomberg’s Richard Rubin had a nice story this week outlining the challenge tax reformers face in trying to reconcile corporate and pass through taxation.   S-CORP’s own Brian Reardon was highlighted channeling singer Meghan Trainor:

The administration’s proposals are an “absolute non-starter,” said Brian Reardon, president of the S Corp Association, a group of pass-through companies whose board of directors includes an executive from Tabasco sauce maker McIlhenny Co.

“Main Street businesses have to be an equal partner in this,” he said. “And what that means is rate parity. It’s all about the rates.”

It’s all about the rates, indeed.  You can bet that’s going to be our major theme this year as Congress takes another look at tax reform.

error: Content is protected !!