For your weekend listening pleasure (?): I visit the ReConsider podcast to chat money, inflation, fiat currencies, gold, Bitcoin, & Uncle Sam’s balance sheet. Starts at 4:59.
The tax treatment of employee stock and options raises a classic Goldilocks problem. We want to tax this compensation neither too much or too little. In a recent policy brief, I consider three questions about how to strike that balance.
Do companies get excessive tax deductions for employee stock and options?
This concern rocketed to prominence in 2012 when Facebook went public. Its employees earned billions from their stock options and restricted stock units. The company, in turn, got billions in tax deductions, reducing its income taxes for years.
Those deductions outraged some observers who asked how Facebook could get billions in tax write-offs when its financial statements showed much lower compensation costs. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle denounced the “stock option loophole” and proposed limiting these deductions.
While there are good reasons for Congress to worry about companies gaming the tax code, this is not one. The tax deductions that companies receive for employee stock and options are, with few exceptions, just like those for cash wages, salaries, and bonuses. Continue reading “How Should Tax Reform Treat Employee Stock and Options?”
On Tuesday, I had the chance to testify before the Senate Finance Committee on business tax reform. Here are my opening remarks. They are a bit on the glum side, emphasizing challenges and constraints lawmakers face. Moving from optimistic rhetoric about tax reform to legislative reality is hard. You can find my full testimony here.
America’s business tax system is needlessly complex and economically harmful. Thoughtful reform can make our tax code simpler. It can boost American competitiveness. It can create better jobs. And it can promote shared prosperity.
But tax reform is hard. Meaningful reforms create winners and losers. And you likely hear more complaints from the latter than praise from the former. I feel your pain. At the risk of adding to it, my testimony makes eight points about business tax reform.
- Thoughtful reform can promote economic growth, but we should be realistic about how much.
More and better investment boosts economic activity over time. The largest effects will occur beyond the 10-year budget window. If reform is revenue neutral, revenue raisers may temper future growth. If reform turns into tax cuts, deficits may crowd out private investment. Either way, the boost to near-term growth may be modest. Dynamic scoring will thus play only a small role in paying for tax reform.
- The corporate income tax makes our tax system more progressive.
The corporate income tax falls on shareholders, investors more generally, and workers. Economists debate how much each group bears. Workers are the most economically diverse. But they include highly paid executives, professionals, and managers as well as rank-and-file employees. The bulk of the corporate tax burden thus falls on people with high incomes even if workers bear a substantial portion.
- Workers would benefit from reforms that encourage more and better investment in the United States.
In the long run, wages, salaries, and benefits depend on worker productivity. Reforms that encourage investment and boost productivity would thus do more to help workers than those that merely increase shareholder profits.
- Taxing pass-through business income at preferential rates would inspire new tax avoidance.
When taxpayers can switch from a high tax rate to a lower one, they often do. Kansans did so when their state stopped taxing pass-through income. Professionals use S corporations to avoid payroll taxes. Investment managers convert labor income into long-term capital gains. Congress and the IRS can try to limit tax avoidance. But the cost will be new complexities, arbitrary distinctions, and new administrative burdens.
- Capping the top rate on pass-through business income would benefit only high-income people.
To benefit, taxpayers must have qualifying business income and be in a high tax bracket. Creating a complete schedule of pass-through rates could reduce this inequity. But it would expand the pool of taxpayers tempted by tax avoidance.
- Taxing pass-through business income at the corporate rate would not create a level playing field.
Pass-through income faces one layer of tax. But corporate income faces two, at the company and again at taxable shareholders. Taxing pass-throughs and corporations at the same rate would favor pass-throughs over corporations. To get true tax parity, you could apply a higher tax rate on pass-through business income. You could levy a new tax on pass-through distributions. Or you could get rid of shareholder taxes.
- It is difficult to pay for large cuts in business tax rates by limiting business tax breaks and deductions.
Eliminating all corporate tax expenditures except for deferral, for example, could get the corporate rate down to 26 percent. You could try to go lower by cutting other business deductions, such as interest payments. But deductions lose their value as tax rates fall. To pay for large rate reductions, you will need to raise other taxes or introduce new ones. Options include raising taxes on shareholders, a value-added tax or close variant like the destination-based cash flow tax, or a carbon tax.
- Finally, making business tax cuts retroactive to January 1, 2017 would not promote growth.
Retroactive tax cuts would give a windfall to profitable businesses. That does little or nothing to encourage productive investment. Indeed, it could weaken growth by leaving less budget room for more pro-growth reforms. Another downside is that all the benefits would go to shareholders, not workers.
How fast will the US economy grow? When mainstream forecasters consult their crystal balls, they typically see real economic growth around 2 percent annually over the next decade. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and midpoint estimates of Federal Reserve officials and private forecasters cluster in that neighborhood.
When President Trump looks in his glowing orb, he sees a happier answer: 3 percent.
That percentage point difference is a big deal. Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney recently estimated the extra growth could add $16 trillion in economic activity over the next decade and almost $3 trillion in federal revenues.
But could our economy really grow that fast? Maybe, but we’d need to be both lucky and good. We’ve grown that fast before. But it’s harder now because of slower population growth and an aging workforce. And there are signs that productivity growth has slowed in recent years.
To illustrate the challenge, I’ve divvied up past and projected economic growth (measured as the annual growth rate in real gross domestic product) into three components: the growth rates of population, average working hours, and productivity.
The link between population and growth is simple: more people means more workers generating output and more consumers buying it. Increased working hours have a similar effect: more hours mean more output and larger incomes. Hours go up when more people enter the labor force, when more workers find jobs, and when folks with jobs work more.
Productivity measures how much a worker produces in an hour. Productivity depends on worker skills, the amount and quality of capital they use, managerial and organizational capability, technology, regulatory policy, and other factors.
As the first column illustrates, the US economy averaged 3 percent annual growth over more than six decades. Healthy growth in population and productivity offset a slight decline in average hours. Of course, that six-decade average includes many ups and downs. The Great Recession and its aftermath dragged growth down to only 1.4 percent over the past decade. In the half century before, the United States grew faster than 3 percent.
Mainstream forecasters like the CBO and the Federal Reserve expect slower future growth along all three dimensions. People are having fewer children, and more adults are moving beyond their child-rearing years, so population growth has slowed. Our workforce is aging. Baby boomers are cutting back hours and retiring, and younger workers aren’t fully replacing them, so average working hours will decline. Productivity growth has slowed sharply in recent years, for reasons that are not completely clear. Productivity is notoriously difficult to forecast, but recent weakness has inspired many forecasters to expect only moderate growth in the years to come.
Proponents of President Trump’s economic agenda offer a rosier view. Four prominent Republican economic advisers—John F. Cogan, Glenn Hubbard, John B. Taylor, and Kevin Warsh—recently argued that policy, not just demographic forces, has brought down recent growth. They claim supply-side policy reforms—cutting tax rates, trimming regulation, and reducing unproductive spending—can bring it back up. They argue that encouraging investment, reinvigorating productivity growth, and drawing enough people into the labor force to offset the demographic drag would generate persistent 3 percent growth.
Many analysts doubt such supply-side efforts can get us to 3 percent growth (e.g., here, here, here, and here). Encouraging investment and bringing more people into the labor force could certainly help, but finding a full percentage point of extra growth from supply-side reforms seems like a stretch. Especially if you plan to do it without boosting population growth.
The most direct supply-side policy would be expanding immigration, especially among working-age adults (reducing our exceptional rates of incarceration could also boost the noninstitutional population). But the Trump administration’s antipathy to immigration, and that of some Republicans in Congress, pushes the other way. Cutting legal immigration in half over the next decade could easily take 0.2 percentage points off future growth (see this nifty interactive tool from ProPublica and Moody’s Analytics). Three percent growth would then be even more of a stretch.
Another group of economists believes that demand-side policies—higher spending and supportive monetary policy—could lift growth above mainstream forecasts.
One trio of economists took a critical look at past efforts to forecast potential GDP growth, a key driver of long-run growth forecasts. They conclude that forecasters, including those at the Federal Reserve and the CBO, have overreacted to temporary economic shocks, overstating potential growth when times are good and understating it when times are bad. We’ve recently had bad times, so forecasters might be underestimating potential GDP almost 10 percent. If so, policies that boost demand could push up growth substantially in coming years. (For a related argument, see here.)
So where does that leave us?
Well, every crystal ball (and glowing orb) is cloudy. We should all be humble about our ability to forecast the economy over the next decade. Scarred by the Great Recession and its aftermath, forecasters may be inadvertently lowballing potential growth. Good luck and good supply- and demand-side policies might deliver more robust growth than they anticipate. But those scars remind us we can’t always count on good policy, and luck sometimes runs bad.
We can hope that luck and good policy lift growth to 3 percent. But it’s prudent to plan for 2 percent, and pray we don’t fall to 1 percent.
The House Freedom Caucus wants to eliminate the Budget Analysis Division at the Congressional Budget Office and rely on outside research organizations, including the Urban Institute, instead. As a former acting director of CBO and an Institute fellow at Urban, I think this is a terrible idea. It would harm fiscal policymaking and weaken the Congress.
Here’s the proposal offered by Representatives Scott Perry (R-PA), Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Mark Meadows (R-NC):
The Budget Analysis Division of the Congressional Budget Office, comprising 89 employees with annual salaries aggregating $15,000,000, is hereby abolished. The duties imposed by law and regulation upon the employees of that Division are hereby transferred to the Office of the Director of the Congressional Budget Office, who shall carry out such duties solely by facilitating and assimilating scoring data compiled by the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Urban Institute.
We certainly appreciate the shout out. Here at Urban, we have amazing researchers who model policies involving health insurance, Social Security, taxes, food stamps, housing, and many other programs. We are proud of our work and try to be as helpful as possible to lawmakers across the political spectrum.
But neither we nor other private organizations can replace CBO’s budget group. Our skills overlap, but we fill different niches in the policy ecosystem.
Consider the sheer scope of CBO’s responsibilities. As Director Keith Hall noted in recent testimony, the agency expects to publish official scores of more than 600 pieces of legislation in the next year. The scores will estimate the spending and, usually with input from the Joint Committee on Taxation, the revenue implications of every provision in those bills. They will also assess whether the bills impose substantial mandates on the private sector or state, local, and tribal governments.
To do this, CBO has staffers familiar with every nook and cranny of the government, from agriculture to veterans. In just the past week, CBO has published more than two dozen cost estimates covering everything from flood insurance to child care to maritime administration to sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Not to mention scoring Senate proposals to repeal and possibly replace the Affordable Care Act. Only CBO and its White House equivalent, the Office of Management and Budget, have the capacity to model every facet of federal spending.
Outside groups could certainly expand their capacities. And Congress could expand the list of anointed organizations. But the bottom line is that we would need substantial new resources, both funding and people. Replacing the capacities of CBO’s budget division is not something research organizations can or should do for free.
But resources aren’t the core issue. In addition to its published cost estimates, CBO provides thousands of confidential cost estimates to members of Congress and their staffs as they craft potential legislation. This service is vital to thoughtful legislating. Confidential feedback helps members test new ideas, consider alternatives, and refine proposals until they are ready to go public.
Outside organizations can, and indeed already do, provide similar modeling help to members. At Urban, we frequently get requests from Representatives and Senators of both parties. But working through iterations of potential legislation works best when lawmakers and their staffs work directly with the analysts who will give them official scores. Working with CBO’s budget team is a much more effective process than trying to coordinate different scores, based on different models and assumptions, from multiple outside organizations.
The most important difference between research organizations and Congress is also the most obvious. CBO works for Congress and only for Congress. CBO works closely with the budget committees and House and Senate leadership to juggle priorities, set deadlines, and provide the analyses Congress needs and wants. CBO obeys congressional budget rules, even when it disagrees with them. CBO has the backing of Congress when it gathers data and information from agencies.
CBO thus has an edge in providing the analyses Congress needs, when it needs them. Research organizations can and do provide timely analysis as well, but there are limits. We have other projects and demands on our time.
Moreover, we outside researchers rely heavily on the work that CBO’s budget analysis division currently does. CBO’s annual baselines, for example, often provide the starting point for our analyses. And CBO scores provide many of the numbers we use to model alternative policies. Eliminating CBO’s budget team would undermine our ability to deliver the type of analyses that Congress wants.
Eliminating CBO’s budget team would also weaken Congress. Congress created CBO in the early 1970s as part of a larger battle with President Nixon about power over the purse. Congress created CBO to ensure its own source of credible budget information. Defunding CBO’s budget team would weaken Congress at a moment when objective budget information and a balance between Congress and the President are as important as ever.
My colleagues and I would welcome opportunities to provide more help to Congress as members grapple with policy challenges, develop options, and try to understand the range of potential outcomes. But asking us to replace CBO’s budget team would undermine thoughtful policy making and weaken the Congress.
Mexico won’t willingly write the check for Donald Trump’s wall. So the president is hunting for a way to make Mexico pay.
That search isn’t going well.
Last week, press secretary Sean Spicer floated one idea: the destination-based cash flow tax. The DBCFT taxes imports and exempts exports. We import about $50 billion more from Mexico each year than we export. So the DBCFT could raise substantial revenue from trade with Mexico. Maybe Trump could earmark that money to pay for the wall?
Such earmarking sounds superficially plausible. But it has fundamental budget and logic flaws.
The budget problem is that Congress has other plans for that money. The DBCFT is the centerpiece of the House proposal for tax reform. House leaders insist reform will be revenue neutral. Any new money from the DBCFT will offset money lost from cutting business taxes. That leaves nothing for Trump’s wall.
Broader point: You can’t pay for anything with revenue-neutral tax reform (or, for that matter, with revenue-losing “tax relief”).
Trump may be more concerned with messaging than with these budget niceties. So he could still try to rhetorically link the DBCFT to paying for the wall.
But that leads to the logic problem. We run trade deficits with many countries. If the DBCFT makes Mexico pay for the wall, what does it make China pay for? Germany? Japan? Vietnam? And what about countries like Hong Kong, where America has a trade surplus? Are we paying them for something? And what happens when the wall has been paid for? Does Mexico become exempt from the DBCFT? Or does it start paying for something else?
These questions have no sensible answers. The DBCFT treats Mexico like every other nation, so it can’t make Mexico pay for the wall.
Some observers initially thought Spicer was suggesting a new tariff on Mexican imports. Most economists rightly hate that idea and fear it could spark retaliation against American products. And it seems clear that Spicer really meant the DBCFT. But let’s give that interpretation some credit. A tariff, unlike the DBCFT, could raise new revenue specifically from trade with Mexico.
But a tariff still faces a fundamental economics problem. A tariff doesn’t work like Las Vegas. Just because it targets Mexican products doesn’t mean the tax stays there. Instead, businesses will raise prices, passing some tax on to American customers. Consumers would pay more for cars, TVs, and avocados. Businesses would pay more for auto parts, trucks, and telecommunications equipment. Some burdens would decline over time as businesses shift to suppliers outside Mexico. But some shift of the burden to Americans is inevitable. A tariff would thus make American consumers and businesses, not just Mexicans, pay for Trump’s wall. And that’s without any retaliation.
If President Trump wants to target Mexico alone, he needs another strategy. Neither the DBCFT nor a tariff can make Mexico pay for the wall.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump agree on one thing: Managers of private equity funds should pay ordinary tax rates on their carried interest, not the lower rates that apply to long-term capital gains and dividends. They differ, of course, on what those rates should be. But if we made that change today, managers would pay taxes at effective federal rates of up to 44 percent, rather than the up-to-25 percent rates that apply currently.
I agree. Fund managers should pay ordinary rates on their carried interest. In a new paper, I argue that this is the right approach for a reason distinct from, and in addition to, the conventional concern about wealthy fund managers paying low tax rates. Taxing carried interest as capital gains creates a costly loophole when benefits to managers are not offset by corresponding costs to investors. Such offsets exist when investors are taxable individuals. In that case, carried interest merely transfers the capital gains preference from investors to managers. But there’s no offset when investors are tax-exempt organizations or corporations, neither of which gets a capital gains preference. By transferring their capital gains to the manager, rather than paying in cash, these investors create a capital gains preference that would otherwise not exist. Taxing carried interest as ordinary income eliminates that loophole.
This perspective on the carried interest problem yields a second insight: Current proposals to reform carried interest taxation are incomplete. If carried interest is taxed as ordinary income for managers, the investors who provide that compensation should be able to deduct it from their ordinary income as an investment or business expense. That’s how we treat cash management fees. There is no reason to treat carried interest differently.
To see why this matters, consider a fund—it might be a buyout fund, a venture capital fund, or a syndicate of angel investors—that invests in companies, improves their business prospects, and then sells to other investors. The managers receive a cash management fee and a 20 percent carried interest, their share of the fund’s profits from dividends and capital gains.
If the fund generates $100 in long-term capital gains, managers get $20 and investors get $80. Under current practice, managers pay capital gains taxes, individual investors pay capital gains taxes, and endowments and other tax-exempt organizations pay nothing.
Many reformers, including President Obama, would tax carried interest as labor income while making no changes for investors. Under this partial reform, managers pay labor income rates on their $20, and investors pay capital gains taxes on their $80.
Under my full reform, managers would pay labor income taxes on their carry, as under the Obama plan. Investors, however, would pay capital gains taxes on all $100 of the fund’s gains and then deduct the $20 of carried interest from their ordinary income.
For tax-exempt investors, there is no difference between partial and full reform. They don’t pay taxes, so they only care about their net income, not how the tax system characterizes it. The same is true for corporations, which pay the same tax rates on any income.
But taxable individuals do care. As long as they can use most of their deductions, they would prefer to deduct carried interest against their ordinary income. Better to pay capital gains taxes on $100 and deduct $20 from ordinary income than to just pay capital gains taxes on $80.
Individual investors in these funds are quite well-off, so why would we want to give them a bigger deduction? Two reasons. First, our goal should be a tax system that treats private equity funds neither better nor worse than other ways of structuring investments.
Current practice fails that test. Because of the carried interest loophole I described above, overall fund returns are often under-taxed relative to other forms of investment. Partial reform fixes that problem, but pushes the pendulum slightly too far the other way, over-taxing fund returns when investors are taxable individuals. Full reform gets the balance exactly right.
Second, our goal should be a tax system that treats cash compensation and carried interest equivalently. Current practice again fails, encouraging managers to employ various games to convert cash fees into carried interest. Partial reform fixes that, but again goes slightly too far, making cash more attractive than carry. Full reform treats them identically.
Full reform also solves the most legitimate concern of people who defend current practice. They typically argue that lower tax rates on capital gains reward entrepreneurship, financial risk taking, and sweat equity in new or struggling businesses. And they are right. Love it or hate it (that’s a debate for another day), our tax code provides lower tax rates on capital gains and dividends from creating or improving businesses.
There is no reason those lower rates should not be available for investments made through funds. But partial reform eliminates these lower rates for any gains distributed as carried interest. Full reform solves that problem by crediting all the gains to investors. That’s probably not what many defenders of current practice have in mind. But it does ensure that all capital gains are treated as such.
Managers thus pay labor income taxes, and investors get the usual benefits associated with capital gains. And managers and investors are free to negotiate whatever fund terms are necessary—perhaps including more carried interest—to make their funds viable businesses. This being the tax code, there are some pesky details, especially about how investors can deduct carried interest. But the bottom line is that full reform would tax carried interest just right.
Disclosure: I am currently evaluating whether to invest in an angel syndicate. I have family and friends who manage and invest in private equity funds.