Taxes

No Need to Fear the Border-Adjustment Tax

A radical reform of business taxes is the best chance we have for boosting U.S. productivity and long-term growth.

Growth, coming and going.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

"Border adjustments" have quickly gone from the hottest idea in U.S. business-tax reform to one of the most reviled. One reason for the rising skepticism is the fear that border-adjusted taxes -- simply described as a tax on imports and a subsidy for exports -- would increase prices for American consumers. But they don't have to. 

The problem is that border adjustments create short-term uncertainty. U.S. retailers that import many of their products from places like China and Mexico fear these levies will either hurt their bottom lines or their customers’ wallets.

Border adjustments are a feature of virtually all of the tax systems employed by our trading partners, so adopting them will in essence level out our tax system that has historically had it backward. Economists project that border adjustments will cause the dollar to strengthen relative to other currencies, and that the increased tax on imports will be fully offset by imports’ reduced cost. This offset is all but certain in the long term. It’s the short term that’s at risk.

This dilemma is akin to what economists characterize as a market failure. House Republicans have a business-tax plan with this border-adjustment feature -- called the destination-based cash flow tax -- that will solve so many problems.

At the right rate, it will raise the necessary revenue, jumpstart our economic growth, provide relative immunity from the global tax race to the bottom, and bring an end to the profit-shifting shenanigans eroding our tax base and Americans’ sense of fairness in our tax system. It will result in a net tax cut to retailers and many other businesses, and should actually take some of the tax burden off the shoulders of workers.

But moving to this system creates uncertainties and potential costs that businesses like retailers are rightfully protesting. If the dollar doesn’t appreciate, retailers and other net importers could face catastrophic losses, and consumers could be hit with higher prices, all while net exporters see a large benefit. The government can correct this by providing transition rules that kick in if the currency adjustments don’t offset the effects of the tax in the short term.

Most businesses will ultimately be winners under the destination-based cash flow tax. Retailers, in particular, should benefit because they pay nearly the highest effective tax rate under our current system and will reap significant benefits from a lower rate when currencies do adjust. And, with true competition, American consumers could actually see prices decrease. Promises for job and wage growth stand a much better chance under this reform plan than the more timid alternatives.

There will be losers under the plan, including some tax lawyers -- present company included -- who have spent their careers coming up with convoluted but permissible ways for multinationals to pay as little tax as possible. But once the currency adjusts and businesses are taxed under a new consumption-based system, the biggest losers will be businesses few Americans have sympathy for: those that abandoned the U.S. for low-tax locales, and certain foreign and U.S. multinationals that legally manipulate the current rules to minimize their U.S. tax burden.

The other options for fundamental business-tax reform in the U.S. include taking the traditional path that broadens the corporate-income tax base and lowers the corporate-income tax rate. Or we could adopt an add-on traditional yet regressive consumption tax but keep the corporate income tax in much the same way our major trading partners have.

One option wouldn't resolve competitiveness concerns, the other is politically untenable, and both preserve opportunities for eroding the corporate tax base through profit shifting.

The destination-based cash flow tax is expected to indirectly reduce the tax burden on workers and should actually be more progressive than our current corporate income tax. In addition, its expensing provision will shrink the tax bills of businesses that invest in equipment that makes their workers more productive. In other words, it’s the only type of radical reform that both a Democrat and a Republican could love.

To make it palatable, the plan needs intelligently crafted transition rules to protect importers from currency-adjustment failures and consumers from price increases. Tax credits could temporarily shift net exporters’ windfalls to net importers until exchange rates sufficiently adjust. Other experts have suggested that Congress ask the Federal Reserve to adopt policies to ensure that the dollar will appreciate sufficiently to fully offset the border adjustments.

Lawmakers should start introducing such proposals now to show that they’re committed to addressing the fears and doubts about the idea. If they don't, we could lose the best chance we have to boost U.S. productivity and long-term growth.

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

    To contact the authors of this story:
    Stuart Leblang at stuarteleblang@gmail.com
    Amy S. Elliott at amytselliott@gmail.com

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

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