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Corporate-Tax Reform Is Coming. Really.

Paula Dwyer writes editorials on economics, finance and politics for Bloomberg View. She was London bureau chief for Businessweek and Washington economics editor for the New York Times, and is a co-author of “Take on the Street: How to Fight for Your Financial Future.”
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For all the partisan squabbling in this bizarre election year, a consensus has emerged in one important area: The U.S. corporate-tax system is broken.

No matter who wins on Nov. 8, there's surprising agreement that change is coming. To get ready, think tanks are pumping out reform proposals, tax experts are updating their research and Congress is holding hearings.

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have plans. But the one most popular among politicians and scholars is by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is offering a type of consumption tax to fix a multitude of problems with the existing code. His plan, however, could destabilize U.S. financial markets, especially the bond market. It may also violate the U.S.'s trade commitments.

QuickTake Profit Shifting

The ease with which multinational corporations avoid taxes is just one of many problems with the existing tax code. The top U.S. rate of 35 percent, the highest in the industrialized world, pushes companies to game the system. A good example is Apple's sweetheart deal with Ireland, in which Apple created "stateless income" and paid an effective tax rate of 0.005 percent.

QuickTake Tax Inversion

The tax code also encourages companies to invert -- merge with overseas firms and adopt their legal address -- to obtain lower tax rates. Because overseas profits are taxed once they are repatriated, companies are also stashing more than $2 trillion abroad, denying the U.S. of funds that could be put to work creating jobs and spurring growth. 

The current system also discourages investment by taxing corporate profits twice, once at the company level and again at the individual level as dividends. By allowing deductions for interest payments but not for dividends, the tax code favors debt over equity, sometimes resulting in dangerous levels of debt accumulation.

That's a lot of dysfunction, and the presidential candidates have ideas for ending it. Clinton often calls on corporations to pay their "fair share" of taxes, and has already decided where she'd spend a $275 billion windfall from corporate-tax reform (on a burst of infrastructure spending). But she hasn't yet said where she would set the top rate or which tax breaks she would end.

Clinton has been specific only when it comes to stopping companies from inverting: She would impose a stiff exit tax -- by tapping the earnings companies have stashed overseas -- in hopes they'll decide against taking a foreign address.

Trump's most recent plan would end many deductions and slash the top corporate rate to 15 percent. He would cut corporations' tax burden (and government revenue) by almost $2 trillion over a decade, by one estimate.

Ryan would lower the top rate to 20 percent and move the U.S. toward a tax on consumption with something called a destination-based cash-flow tax, developed by Alan Auerbach of the University of California at Berkeley.

Like the current system, it would tax revenue minus expenses -- but would do it in a way that would give companies incentives to hire workers, invest in new equipment and keep cash at home.

For example, capital investments, such as building a new factory, could immediately be written off rather than depreciated over many years. All corporate revenue would be border-adjusted, meaning that goods and services produced in the U.S. but sold elsewhere wouldn't be taxed, as they are now. Wages would be deductible as long as the workers are in the U.S.

Interest paid on corporate debt wouldn't be deductible, thus ending the bias for bonds over equity to finance investments. (Trump would let manufacturers choose between immediate write-offs on investments or interest deductibility, but not both.)

The merits of Auerbach's proposal are many. Complicated depreciation schedules would go out the window. The ticklish matter of how to treat profits earned in foreign countries, and the gaming that worldwide taxation encourages, would disappear. Inversions would come to a halt. There would be no need for special-interest lobbying to win tax breaks. Corporate taxes would be simpler.

Domestic investment presumably would pick up because the tax code would favor exports and penalize imports. And companies that had moved production offshore would be rewarded for returning to the U.S. with lower tax bills.

Now for the demerits. Taxes on imports but not exports are usually called tariffs. By taxing only transactions in the U.S. (including imports), exports would be indirectly subsidized. And taxing foreign but not domestic labor could distort trade flows. In all cases, says the University of Southern California's Edward Kleinbard, the proposal appears to violate World Trade Organization rules, though tax and trade lawyers are vigorously debating this.

The cash-flow tax could also destabilize financial markets. The enormous U.S. bond market would be hit hard if interest payments were no longer deductible. Private-equity firms, which depend on tax breaks to subsidize heavy borrowing, could be wiped out. Banks would suffer if companies took out fewer loans in favor of issuing more stock.   

Other ideas to overhaul corporate taxes are worth considering. A bipartisan proposal just surfaced from Eric Toder, co-director of the Tax Policy Center, and Alan Viard, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They would lower the corporate tax rate to 15 percent and tax shareholders in addition.  Investors would pay ordinary income tax on gains in the market value of their shares, whether or not they sell them.

In other words, shareholder-owners would pay most corporate taxes, which sounds revolutionary but seems eminently logical. A company's tax residency and the location of its profits, which now form the basis of the U.S. system, would matter a lot less. Companies can easily shift addresses and profits across borders, but shareholders can't so easily escape taxation.

Kleinbard favors more incremental reforms that would stop inversions, lower the top rate to 25 percent -- the average for developed economies -- and cap interest deductions.

Everyone will have an incentive to compromise, no matter who wins on Nov. 8. Clinton has big plans to spend the proceeds from tax reform. Trump will want to prove he can govern. Ryan will want to showcase his ideas to end Washington gridlock. What better way to do this than to fix the corporate-tax mess?

(Corrects fifth paragraph to clarify that inversions and deferrals of tax on overseas earnings are separate tax-avoidance strategies.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net