Legislative Update: The Pre-Thanksgiving Edition

We’re tracking two key tax items at the moment – tax extenders and international reform.  Here’s our outlook for both.

For extenders, Congress has once again ignored the needs of American businesses by delaying adoption of a multi-year extender package until the last possible moment.  What’s the point of encouraging businesses to invest in new equipment if those provisions are enacted only retroactively?  Not only does it undermine the policy, it creates a dynamic where pass through owners are required to overpay their taxes over the course of the year, draining money from their businesses and reducing their ability to hire new workers and invest in new equipment.

The most recent word from the Hill suggests these concerns may be resonating, and that there’s a vigorous effort afoot to:

  1. Make as many of the extender provisions permanent as possible, including the R&E tax credit, small business expensing, and built-in gains relief;
  2. Extend the other provisions for two years; and
  3. Include EITC and child credit reforms important to the Administration.

In other words, we may see a reprise of the deal they nearly closed last fall.  If true, this development would represent a significant early accomplishment in Ways & Means Chairman Brady’s tenure and help to set the table for more significant tax policies to come.

If the broader package fails, we’re hearing the Administration will push for a one-year extender package (2015 only) to give them one more chance to work on tax policy prior to the 2016 elections.  Obviously, a one-year extension of policies that have already expired would simply prolong the extender roller coaster ride that we’ve been on for the past several years and should be vigorously rejected by Congress.

On the international front, we reported in October that Chairman Ryan had officially put on hold his efforts to fix our international tax code by attaching it to the highway bill.  Ryan was unable to come to terms with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) over highway funding levels and he faced a reform skeptic in Speaker Boehner.

Now that he’s Speaker, that effort may have new life.  New Ways & Means Chair Kevin Brady’s remarks in the Wall Street Journal, where he adopted Ryan’s “step one, step two” approach to pursing international reform in 2016, suggest Ryan has an ally at the head of the Committee.  Add to that Pfizer’s announced merger with Allergan in the largest inversion ever, the continued vocal support of Senator Rob Portman and other key policy makers for targeted international reforms, and the G-20’s endorsement of base erosion recommendations that are likely to hit US companies, and it all builds the case that something has to be done on the international front.

On the other hand, Speaker Ryan’s “60 Minutes” interview (see below) demonstrates he understands on-going tax rate disparity faced by pass through businesses.  Successful pass through businesses currently pay tax rates significantly higher than their corporate and foreign competitors.  That disparity would likely be made worse by reforms that focus on corporate concerns only.  Meanwhile, the innovation box draft that was designed to stop corporate inversions has failed to garner widespread support in the corporate community (see below), reinforcing the perception that the business community is far from unified over exactly what international reform should look like.

So that pretty much leaves us where we’ve been for several months now – the need for reforming how we tax business income is obvious, but the path to getting there is not, particularly with a President who opposes restoring rate parity for pass through businesses.

 

Innovation Box Support

A coalition of large corporations has emerged to support the innovation box approach proposed by Ways & Means member Charles Boustany (R-LA).  We offered comments on that draft last summer and have been waiting along with the rest of the tax community for a redraft.  Rumor has it that the release of a new, improved innovation box draft is imminent, which explains the timing of this week’s announcement.  As Politico reports:

BUSINESS RESPONDS TO BEPS: A corporate coalition featuring Apple, Boeing, Cisco and Intel is using the G-20’s adoption of the OECD BEPS recommendations to ramp up their international tax reform efforts. The group, American Innovation Matters, is releasing a statement this morning pushing for an innovation box, even in the heightened gridlock of a presidential election year.

American Innovation Matters (AIM) joins at least three other coalitions out there pushing corporate tax reform, including RATE, LIFT, and ACT.  That’s a lot of corporate muscle in favor of reform.  Now if they could just agree on what it looks like.

 

Speaker Ryan on “60 Minutes”

On Sunday, House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared on “60 Minutes” to discuss his new job and the challenges he faces:

I think you can walk and chew gum at the same time. I think you can oppose the president on some issue that you fundamentally disagree with, but also work with the other party on issues you do agree with. That’s what I’ve been doing. Look, if we can find common ground, we can on highways, we will on funding the government, hopefully we can on tax policy. Those are three things that will produce certainty in this economy in the next few months. Let’s go do that.

Our friends at Politico focused on the “next few months” line and what that might mean:

The “next few months” line there is interesting. A Ryan spokeswoman said the speaker was specifically referring to extenders, an area where practically everyone expects some sort of deal by the end of 2015. But Ryan has also left open the idea that international tax reform could happen in 2016, even though plenty of people see that as quite the longshot.

During the interview, Speaker Ryan also had the opportunity to lay out his vision for comprehensive tax reform:

Scott Pelley: You have proposed having only two tax brackets, 10 percent and 25 percent. That still your position?

Paul Ryan: Yeah, I’ve always liked that plan. And our tax code really punishes our small businesses, which is where most of our jobs come from. I mean, look, we’re sitting here in Wisconsin, overseas, which to us means Lake Superior. You know, the Canadians are taxing their businesses at 15 percent. The top tax-rate on successful small businesses in America, here in Wisconsin, is 44.6 percent. How can you compete like that? How can you have jobs? How can working families get ahead with a tax system like that?

Scott Pelley: Give me three things you would do on tax reform. Very specifically.

Paul Ryan: Well, I’d simplify the code dramatically. I would collapse the rates down to two or three. And I would change the way we tax ourselves internationally, so businesses can take their money and bring it back home so American businesses stay American businesses. And we have to drop our rates on our businesses. I think those three things right there are what I would do.

Paul Ryan has always been a vocal advocate for Main Street businesses and he understands the challenge S corporations and partnerships face with top marginal tax rates of over 40 percent.  The vision he outlined on “60 Minutes” meets the criteria outlined in our Pass Through Principles Letter signed by 120 of the largest and most active business trade groups in Washington DC.  Now that he’s the Speaker, he has an opportunity to move tax reform the fits that vision through 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.

S-CORP Clips | October 1-10

A compilation of the business tax related stories that caught our eye

 

Administration on Tax Reform

The President’s economic advisors have been unusually busy in recent weeks.  National Economic Council Director Jeffrey Zients was firm in his conviction that tax reform could get done in the new Congress, citing the “remarkably overlapping” approaches of Obama’s plan and the Camp draft.

It is true there are some common themes in the Camp and Administration proposals, but also there are major – and fatal – differences as well, including:

  • The Camp Draft is budget neutral while the Administration’s plan would raise revenue;
  • The Camp Draft adopts a territorial tax system while the Administration appears to strengthen our world-wide system; and
  • The Camp Draft is comprehensive while the Administration plan would reduce rates on corporations only – an approach rejected by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Add to those differences the fact that the Administration’s draft landed with a thud when it was released back in 2012 and has barely been discussed since, and the idea of House Republicans and the Obama Administration coming together on tax reform in the next Congress seems laughably remote.

Meanwhile, Council of Economic Advisers Chair Jason Furman spoke in New York the other week on tax reform, offering additional context to the Administration’s tax reform proposal and addressing some of the concerns that have been raised.  We’ll have more to say about this later, but this paragraph caught our eye:

On the economic merits, it is important to remember that C corporation income is partially taxed at two levels while pass-through income is only taxed at one level. As a result, today C corporations face an effective marginal rate that is 6 percentage points higher than that on pass-through businesses. Although the President’s Framework would cut and simplify taxes for small business, including small pass-through entities, for larger businesses we should be moving towards greater parity—with the goal of equal effective rates on an integrated basis, a goal that would not be served by parallel reductions in individual and corporate tax rates.(Emphasis added)

That’s not exactly true.  Recall that our study on effective tax rates released last year found that S corporations face the highest effective tax rate of any business type.  Those estimates were based on real businesses and actual tax returns.

The numbers Jason is referring to are based on hypothetical future investments.  They can be found in a three-year-old Treasury analysis under the heading of “Effective Marginal Tax Rates on New Investment.”  Jack Mintz authored a comprehensive critique of these estimates for the Tax Foundation last February, some of it pretty damning.

For our purposes, we will just point out that Treasury’s analysis, correctly done, would be appropriate if you wanted to measure the tax burden on marginal investment decisions – should we build that new facility, should we buy that piece of equipment, should we use debt or equity? – but it doesn’t support the notion that C corporations today pay a higher effective rate than pass-through businesses.  You need to estimate average effective tax rate to make that claim, which is what our study does.

Jason is right to point out that the double tax on corporations hurts US competitiveness.  That’s the reason the pass-through business community advocates for its reduction as an essential goal of tax reform.  There’s little point in reforming the tax code if the result doesn’t reduce the tax on investing in the United States, and the best path to achieving that is to tax business income once at reasonable rates and then leave it alone.  That’s how S corporations are taxed today, and real reform would move C corporations in that direction.

 

Ryan on S Corporations

Contrast the Administration’s approach with that of Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), a leading contender to take the gavel as the next Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.  He recently gave a speech at an event hosted by the Financial Services Roundtable in which he made clear the importance of improving the tax code for all businesses, including S corporations and other pass-through businesses. Here’s what he had to say:

“Tax reform is one of those things that we don’t know if we’re going to be there at the end of the day, because we want to make sure that, as we lower tax rates for corporations, we do the same for pass throughs.

You know, a lot of people in the financial services industry – banks – are subchapter S corporations.

Where Tim [Pawlenty] and I come from, “overseas” is Lake Superior, and Canadians are taxing all of their businesses at 15 percent. And our subchapter S corporations, which are 90 percent of Minnesota and Wisconsin businesses, are taxed at as high as a 44.6 percent effective rate.

So we have to bring all these tax rates down, but we have a problem with the Administration being willing to do that on the individual side of the tax code.”

We’ve been beating the “comprehensive tax reform” drum for three years now and it’s nice to see key policymakers embrace the message.

 

American Progress on S Corp Payroll Taxes

Meanwhile, Harry Stein of the Center for American Progress is out published a report with broad recommendations on how to best reform the tax code. Among its suggestions is one to close the “Edwards-Gingrich loophole,” an issue we’ve covered extensively in the past. On that subject, the S Corporation Association has developed the following position:

  1. We don’t support using the S corporation structure to avoid payroll taxes.  We represent businesses that comply with the law, not sneak around it.
  2. It’s not a loophole, its cheating.  This issue is often described as a loophole, but that’s not accurate.  Underpaying yourself in order to avoid payroll taxes is already against the rules.
  3. The IRS has a long history of successfully going after taxpayers who abuse the S corporation structure.  The current S corporation rules on this have been in place since 1958.
  4. Any “fix” needs to improve on the current rules.  That means they need to be easier to enforce and they need to target wage and salary income only.  Employment taxes should apply to wages only, not investment (including business) income.

 

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