US Tax reform- how to respond effectively

November 24th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

The leaked “Paradise Papers” reveal how global companies minimize their tax payments by (legally) routing revenue and taxable earnings through low tax or no tax jurisdictions. Such revelations should not be a surprise given the significant differences in company tax rates and tax systems across tax regimes that influence corporate actions.

The obvious solution to this reality is not to tax companies at all. Rather to tax all the income generated by business operations for their many dependents, where they reside at the personal income rate. Though the very highly income taxed may still decide to live in Monaco, the Bahamas or Mauritius – a freedom they should not be denied and where they may well be subject to high expenditure and property taxes.

The owners of businesses can be taxed on the dividends received and the wealth (capital) gains, realized and unrealized gains generated for them. Their lenders can all be taxed on the interest received from business borrowers. All landlords including institutional owners can be taxed on their rental income.

And those employees receiving benefits in cash or kind, including contributions the firms make on their behalf to pension plans and social security funds, can as usual have taxes withheld from them by their employers and passed on to the government. Indeed fuller use of businesses  as tax collectors. Forcing them to withhold income of all kinds, for which the individual income tax payer is only later credited. Collection rates are likely to be as good as they are with PAYE and could fully make up for any loss of taxes from companies.

The costs incurred by companies collecting taxes for the government are (understandably) allowed as a deduction from their taxable income. Usually also allowed as a deduction from taxable company income are the interest, rental and employment costs incurred by the firm – though not all interest incurred may be treated the same way. Also allowed as a deductible expense will be a rate of depreciation of the purchase price of plant and equipment, though with different rates applied to similar asset classes in different jurisdictions.  These allowances may or may not approximate the actual loss of market value incurred by the company. And if not will add to or deduct from the economic income being generated.

All companies and individuals have every incentive to manage their tax liabilities as best they can and not only where they best report revenue and income. They may well structure their balance sheets with more risky debt to take advantage of the taxes saved. Debts that may (wrongly) appear cheaper than equity, the opportunity cost of which, is not allowed as a tax expense.

With the elimination of taxes on the income of businesses, all this tax structuring and gaming will disappear. Companies and their auditors would have to determine the measure of income as well as assets and liabilities to report. And so owners and managers would more rationally incur expenses, including interest and depreciation and location costs, regardless of their tax implications.

The US Congress is currently proposing a dramatic reduction in its federal corporate tax rate to 20% to make its companies more competitive. A reduction intended to keep more of them and their taxable income and investment and employment activity at home. There are also tax reforms on the agenda. Among them is to allow firms to fully deduct all capital expenditure (whatever its life) from taxable income- a very important way to increase economic income after taxes. A further proposal is to disallow all interest incurred as a business expense.

This would take the US company tax system close to a very low company tax rate – much lower than 20% in economic effect, given how income is to be defined. It is a new competitive challenge that all other economies will have to confront. The ideal way to compete with the US and all the tax havens is to eliminate the company tax system.