Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

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.

Here is an example: Suppose Esther has 1,000 options from her employer, Acme, Inc. Each allows her to buy a share of Acme stock for $10. If Esther exercises her options when Acme stock is worth $15, she pays $10,000 for stock worth $15,000 and thus has a $5,000 gain. Esther pays ordinary income taxes on the $5,000 while Acme deducts $5,000 as compensation. And both Esther and Acme pay payroll taxes on the $5,000.

Esther’s stock options are taxed just as if she received a $5,000 cash bonus. The deduction for Acme, just like the deduction for Facebook, is an integral part of our income tax system. Employees pay income taxes on their compensation, and businesses get a corresponding deduction. Lawmakers should maintain the parallel treatment of cash and equity compensation in any tax reform.

Does taxing options at exercise pose a special challenge for employees of private companies?

Employees owe income and payroll taxes when they exercise most options. That’s not a problem for employees who have easy access to the cash they need to pay their tax bill. But it can be a problem for employees who find themselves option rich and cash poor.  Employees of publicly traded companies can always cover their tax bill by selling stock. But employees of private companies often can’t. This problem is rare, but has reportedly become more common as successful start-ups stay private longer.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed to solve the problem with the Empowering Employees through Stock Ownership Act. The bill allows employees of privately-held firms to defer their taxes from exercising options for up to seven years or until their stock becomes liquid, whichever comes first.

Deferral of tax payments would help solve the liquidity problem. But it also would give equity compensation a notable advantage over cash compensation. Deferral of tax payments would be valuable for all employees, not only those with limited liquidity. Even taxpayers who have available cash would welcome the chance to defer their taxes for several years. Charging interest on the amount of deferred taxes would be one way to maintain some balance between cash and equity compensation.  (In essence, this approach would treat the deferral of tax payments as a loan from the IRS.)

Does the AMT pose a special burden for employees who receive incentive stock options?

Employees who get a special type of stock option—known as incentive stock options—face a different tax structure. ISO gains are taxed at capital gains tax rates, not ordinary income rates. And taxes aren’t due until the employee sells their stock, which could be long after they first exercise their options. That’s a big advantage for employees. But businesses don’t get a tax deduction for the compensation. Since the loss to firms is usually larger than the gain to employees, ISOs are rare. (This could change if Congress cuts the corporate rate much more than individual rates in a coming tax bill.)

But there’s a catch. Under the Alternative Minimum Tax, ISO gains are taxed when exercised. This creates an unwelcome surprise for employees who are unaware of the AMT and its accelerated tax on ISOs. Indeed, it can create financial hardship when stock prices fall, leaving taxpayers with a big tax bill on gains that have since evaporated.

This problem was especially severe during the financial crisis. Congress responded by temporarily exempting ISO gains from the AMT. That exemption has long since lapsed. Congress could permanently fix the problem by repealing the AMT, as the GOP framework and many other plans propose.

Stock options create some unusual challenges for tax writers, and they’ll have to be careful to be sure they are treated fairly relative to other forms of compensation to avoid creating incentives for tax-motivated compensation schemes.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Our tax system includes many provisions to boost business investment, particularly by startups and innovative firms. In a new Tax Policy Center study, Joe Rosenberg and I find that those incentives are often blunted by other features of the tax code:

We examine how tax policies alter investment incentives, with a particular focus on startup and innovative businesses. Consistent with prior work, we find that existing policies impose widely varying effective tax rates on investments in different industries and activities, favor debt over equity, and favor pass-through entities over corporations. Targeted tax incentives lower the cost of capital for small businesses, startups, and those that invest in intellectual property. Those advantages are weakened, and in some cases reversed, however, by two factors. First, businesses that invest heavily in new ideas rely more on higher-taxed equity than do firms that focus on tangible investment. Second, startups that initially make losses face limits on their ability to realize the full value of tax deductions and credits. These limits can more than offset the advantage provided by tax incentives. We also examine the effects of potential tax reforms that would reduce the corporate income tax rate and achieve more equal tax treatment across the various forms of business investment.

Read Full Post »

Twenty years ago, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro to grapple with climate change, biological diversity, and other environmental challenges. Today they are back again, but with much less fanfare. If my Twitter feed is any indication, Rio+20 is getting much less attention that the original Earth Summit.

One item that deserves attention is greater emphasis on getting business involved in protecting the environment. For example, two dozen leading businesses–from Alcoa to Xerox–teamed up with The Nature Conservancy on a vision for The New Business Imperative: Valuing Natural Capital (interactive, pdf).

The report lays out the business case that natural resources have real economic value, even if they aren’t traded in markets, and that protecting them can sometimes reduce costs, maintain supplies, soften the blow of future regulation, and build goodwill with customers, communities, and workers. All kind of obvious, at one level, but nonetheless useful to see in print with examples and commitments.

One item that caught my eye is the potential for “green” infrastructure to replace “gray”:

Strong, reliable manmade (“gray”) infrastructure undergirds a healthy marketplace, and most companies depend heavily on it to operate effectively and efficiently. Yet increasingly, companies are seeing the enormous potential for “natural infrastructure” in the form of wetlands and forests, watersheds and coastal habitats to perform many of the same tasks as gray infrastructure — sometimes better and more cheaply.

For instance, investing in protection of coral reefs and mangroves can provide a stronger barrier to protect coastal operations against flooding and storm surge during extreme weather, while inland flooding can be reduced by strategic investments in catchment forests, vegetation and marshes. Forests are also crucial for maintaining usable freshwater sources, as well as for naturally regulating water flow.

Putting funds into maintaining a wetland near a processing or manufacturing plant can be a more cost- effective way of meeting regulatory requirements than building a wastewater treatment facility, as evidenced by the Dow Chemical Seadrift, Texas facility, where a 110-acre constructed wetland provides tertiary wastewater treatment of five million gallons a day. While the cost of a traditional “gray”treatment installation averages >$40 million, Dow’s up-front costs were just $1.4 million.

For companies reliant on agricultural systems, improved land management of forests and ecosystems along field edges and streams, along with the introduction of more diversified and resilient sustainable agriculture systems, can minimize dependency on external inputs like artificial fertilizers, pesticides and blue irrigation water.

To encourage such investments, where they make sense, lawmakers and regulators need to focus on performance–is the wastewater getting clean?–rather than the use of specific technologies or construction.

Read Full Post »

Companies often run into trouble when they offer a service at a zero price.

Not always, of course. Many all-you-can-eat buffets continue to thrive even though the marginal cost of the next chicken nugget is zero. And many content providers manage to stay in business by selling radio, TV, or display ads against the free content users enjoy.

But all too often, a zero price attracts bad customers and encourages excessive consumption. Marco Arment of Instapaper, for example, discovered that a zero price attracted “undesirable customers” for his app. And AT&T famously discovered that offering unlimited iPhone data could overwhelm its capacity.

Thanks to Ken Besinger of the Los Angeles Times, we now have another juicy example: the lifetime passes that American Airlines sold to a small group of customers:

There are frequent fliers, and then there are people like Steven Rothstein and Jacques Vroom.

Both men bought tickets that gave them unlimited first-class travel for life on American Airlines. It was almost like owning a fleet of private jets.

Passes in hand, Rothstein and Vroom flew for business. They flew for pleasure. They flew just because they liked being on planes. They bypassed long lines, booked backup itineraries in case the weather turned, and never worried about cancellation fees. Flight crews memorized their names and favorite meals.

Each had paid American more than $350,000 for an unlimited AAirpass and a companion ticket that allowed them to take someone along on their adventures. Both agree it was the  best purchase they ever made, one that completely redefined their lives. …

But all the miles they and 64 other unlimited AAirpass holders racked up went far beyond what American had expected. As its finances began deteriorating a few years ago, the carrier took a hard look at the AAirpass program.

Heavy users, including Vroom and Rothstein, were costing it millions of dollars in revenue, the airline concluded.

How did things go wrong? American Airlines miscalculated how pass holders would behave:

“We thought originally it would be something that firms would buy for top employees,” said Bob Crandall, American’s chairman and chief executive from 1985 to 1998. “It soon became apparent that the public was smarter than we were.”

In economic jargon, American fell victim to both adverse selection and moral hazard. What customer wants to buy an unlimited, lifetime pass? One who’s happy to spend a great deal of time flying about in first class with friends, family members, or a random person they just met at the gate. And how will they behave? As though first class seats are costless, easy to book, free to cancel, a great gift for friends and strangers, and even, in some cases, as a revenue source.

What happened next shouldn’t be surprising. First, the passes went through a death spiral with American raising the price in a vain effort to make them profitable. When last offered, a single pass cost $3 million and was purchased by a grand total of nobody. Second, American sicced its “revenue management executives” on the most flagrant of the frequent flyers. As a result, several had their passes revoked for misuse. And American faces some lawsuits that make one wonder whether it crossed the line in trying to rid itself of these outrageously expensive customers.

Read Full Post »

Harvard Business School professor Mihir Desai believes American companies and investment firms have erred–horribly–by linking manager compensation so tightly to financial market performance. In the current Harvard Business Review, he identifies this as a giant FIB, a Financial Incentive Bubble:

American capitalism has been transformed over the past three decades by the idea that financial markets are suited to measuring performance and structuring compensation. Stock-based pay for corporate executives and high-powered incentive contracts for investment managers have dramatically altered incentives on both sides of the capital market. Unfortunately, the idea of compensation based on financial markets is both remarkably alluring and deeply flawed: It seems to link pay more closely to performance, but it actually rewards luck and can incentivize dangerous risk-taking. This system has contributed significantly to the twin crises of modern American capitalism: governance failures that cast doubt on the stewardship abilities of U.S. managers and investors, and rising income inequality.

Mihir has nothing against well-functioning financial markets. He emphasizes that they “play a vital role in economic growth by ensuring the most efficient allocations of capital,” and he believes that capable managers and investors should be “richly rewarded” when their talents are truly evident.

The problem is that incentive compensation based on financial performance does a lousy job of distinguishing skill from luck. In finance-speak, managers and investors often get rewarded for taking on beta, when their pay really ought to be linked to alpha. In practice, luck gets rewarded with undeserved windfalls (that are by no means offset by negative windfalls for the unlucky). And that, he argues, results in an important “misallocation of financial, real, and human capital.”

Well worth a read.

Read Full Post »

Financial Answers Made Simple

For the past year, I have been advising a start-up, FedWise LLC, that is working to improve American’s financial literacy. (Full disclosure: I have a small interest in the company.)

FedWise’s vision is simple: to provide helpful, unbiased, reliable information to consumers about financial products and services like mortgages and credit cards.

The company recently launched its first two products.

One is a public website, FinFAQs, where visitors can get answers to specific questions. For example, “What are points?” or “What questions can creditors not legally ask me?“. If you are interested, please try it out. FinFAQs is still young, and the team welcomes feedback on the questions, answers, and interface.

The second, the FedWise Answer Engine, allows financial institutions to offer the Qs and As to consumers on their own websites while receiving sales leads and market intelligence. Several banks and credit unions have already signed up for subscriptions. Perhaps needless to say, FedWise is happy to talk to other institutions that might be interested in offering the service to their customers. For more info, click here.

Read Full Post »

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had a fun article about Air New Zealand’s latest innovation: Cuddle Class. As “the Middle Seat” columnist Scott McCartney describes it:

Steve Metz of Houston cuddled up with his wife Jackie and slept as they flew to New Zealand on a small futon. This flying couch wasn’t in a private jet or even a high-priced business-class cabin. They snuggled in coach.

“I don’t sleep well on planes, but I actually slept a good five hours,” said Mr. Metz, aboard a 13-hour Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles to Auckland recently. “It’s no king-sized bed, but we made do.”

“Cuddle class” is an innovative seat design that has given coach passengers the first real opportunity to lie flat for sleep on long flights. To create the extra space, three seats in a row have fold-away armrests and a padded foot-rest panel that flips up and locks into place. Two passengers take up three seats and pay an average of half the cost of the third seat, typically an extra $500 to $800 for an overnight flight.

This sounds a fun innovation, but don’t get too excited:

The sky couch has limitations. To make it fit, Air New Zealand narrowed the aisles in the coach cabin. And since the couch is only about 4½-feet long, most people have to scrunch up to keep their feet from hanging into the aisle. In the middle of the night on a recent flight, it was impossible to walk through the coach cabin without bumping feet and legs hanging out of sky couches. And since it’s still the cheap-ticket cabin, two people have to cuddle closely in only 32 to 33 inches of width for each row, including the seat.

Now what does this have to do with economics, you might ask? Well, Air New Zealand faces a classic problem for any supplier who offers different levels of service. On the one hand, it wants to offer better service to attract more customers. On the other, it wants to make sure that some travelers still opt for higher-priced service. As McCartney puts its:

Air New Zealand doesn’t want to make the couch longer or wider—if it were better, it might start cannibalizing passengers from business-class or premium-economy seats.

So there you have it. Coach air travel isn’t unpleasant just because the airlines want to reduce costs. It’s unpleasant so that some flyers will pony up for better service.

P.S. For more economics of the air, see this post on the Tragedy of the Overhead Bin.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »