Shift the burden.

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How the U.S. Could Kill the Corporate Tax

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The idea of abolishing corporate taxes sounds like a radical one: I've received dozens of angry emails after bringing it up in a recent column. In the U.S., however, the process of phasing out corporate tax started in earnest 30 years ago, and though it's unfinished, it has worked reasonably well. Politically charged though it would be, the U.S. would benefit from bringing it to the logical conclusion, and other countries could profit from its example.

In a recent paper, Conor Clarke of Yale Law School and Columbia University economist Wojciech Kopczuk traced the evolution of business income and its taxation in the U.S. since the 1950s. They recorded a gradual shift from corporate to individual taxation.

In working out how to tax business income, a government faces a dilemma. If it stresses individual income for taxation, it encourages people to keep their earnings inside firms and receive consumption-related benefits through them (which are often also taxed as benefits). If it stresses corporate levies, corporations do all they can to avoid it, setting up complicated structures and schemes. 

There is a third path that avoids these problems -- treating more business income as pass-through and taxing it as it accrues to individuals. That creates the "invidious task of allocating firm-level income in large, complex entities to many dispersed owners," as Clarke and Kopczuk put it. The U.S. has gradually chosen this headache over the others by introducing pass-through S-corporations in 1958 and then allowing more use of them by increasing the number of shareholders they could have. The 1986 tax reform also raised the corporate tax rate above the top-bracket individual tax rate, encouraging owners to switch to the pass-through form. As a result, the share of business income subject to corporate taxation dropped steeply in the U.S. while it grew or remained stable in some other major economies:

Clarke, Kopczuk, 2016

The pass-through revolution hasn't significantly changed U.S. tax revenues as a share of economic output. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, since 1965, that share has fluctuated between 23.5 percent and 28 percent, keeping closer to the high end of the range in recent years. Keeping the corporate tax essentially just for publicly traded firms with lots of shareholders, which couldn't change into S-corporations, didn't cut into the U.S. government's revenues.

But what if the U.S. government decided to complete the revolution and treat all businesses as pass-through entities? 

The classic way to get money out of a corporation is to pay dividends. A relatively small share of dividend income shows up on income tax returns:

Clarke, Kupczuk, 2016

There are many reasons not all business income -- specifically, about 70 percent of S-corporation profits and 50 percent of the dividends in C-corporations (larger companies that don't get the pass-through benefit) -- gets taxed at the individual level. Some business shareholders are foreigners, tax-exempt or low-tax entities. It's natural that they own shares in the bigger, publicly traded companies. So if publicly traded U.S. multinationals were treated as pass-through entities, the U.S. Treasury would still get a smaller share of their beneficiaries' income than it now gets from S-corporation owners.

There is, however, a variable in this equation that such an approach would change significantly: retained earnings. S-corporations retain far less profit than C-corporations, Clarke and Kopczuk show:

Clarke, Kopczuk, 2016

There is a reason for C-corporations' higher profit-retention rate. They have learned to avoid corporate tax on that income in myriad ways. Taxes on dividends are harder to dodge. 

Abolishing the corporate tax without a compensatory mechanism would expand the U.S. fiscal deficit by 2.6 percent of gross domestic product. In my column that suggested getting rid of the tax, I mentioned the possibility of making up for the budget shortfall by raising consumption taxes. Many of my correspondents disagreed. One problem is the temptation of the shadow economy. With that approach, the "with or without invoice" question might become the rule, as a former government official from Latin America wrote. Indeed, sales and value-added taxes are commonly avoided in many countries. Greece is a prime example of where that could lead.

But if previous U.S. experience is any guide, it may not even be necessary to raise consumption taxes to claw back the revenue lost with the abolition of corporate tax. The fiscal gap might be closed just by taxing today's retained profits at individual tax rates, the way it works for S-corporations, rather than letting companies salt away the cash with no other purpose than tax optimization.

Clarke and Kopczuk argue in their paper that the retained earnings of C-corporations, which are not counted toward individuals' taxable income, skew income inequality data. That money is someone's income, if only because it increases the value of the companies that retain the profits. Because of that, it's fair, not just potentially lucrative for the government, to attribute the profits to shareholders and tax it as their personal income.

There would probably be technical difficulties involved in applying S-corporation rules to big public companies -- but they wouldn't be greater than those involved in taxing dividends or capital gains.

It's probably unrealistic to expect the U.S. government to simplify the tax system by ending the pass-through revolution and getting rid of corporate taxation. As more than one of my correspondents pointed out, the intricacies of corporate tax are the subject of much interaction between businesses and legislators. That makes them indispensable to many influential people. But then, getting rid of such profitable complications should be essential to any real attempt to "drain the swamp." That's what any good populist should aim to do, rather than suggest symbolic decreases in to-line corporate tax rates, as Donald Trump does in the U.S. and Theresa May does in the U.K.

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:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net