Op-Ed: Modernizing Corporate Taxation

Project Syndicate | June 26, 2013

How to tax the income of multinational corporations (MNCs) was an unlikely headline topic at the recent G-8 summit in Ireland. It will be a key agenda item at the upcoming G-20 summit in Russia as well. Given these companies’ significance to national and global economic performance, world leaders’ focus on the arcane intricacies of corporate taxation is easy to understand – perhaps nowhere more so than in the United States.

As the US embarks on the difficult path of corporate tax reform, it should heed the United Kingdom’s example. Even as it champions multilateral cooperation to ensure that MNCs pay their “fair” share, the British government has slashed its corporate rate, exempted the active foreign income of British MNCs from the national corporate tax, and enacted a “patent box” that stipulates a 10% tax rate on qualified patent income.

As a result of years of cuts in corporate tax rates by other countries, the US now has the highest rate among the advanced economies. Reducing the top US federal rate, currently at 35%, to a more competitive level – the OECD average is around 25% – would encourage investment and job creation in the US by both domestic and foreign MNCs.

Paying for a rate cut by eliminating various corporate credits and deductions would simplify the code and trim the cost of compliance. It would also enhance efficiency by curbing tax-based distortions in companies’ investment decisions (what and where) and their choices concerning how to finance investments and which organizational forms to adopt. The Obama administration and Congressional leaders from both parties agree that a cut in the corporate tax rate should be revenue-neutral.

Other advanced industrial countries have paid for corporate rate reductions partly by restricting depreciation and other deductions. Despite lower tax rates, corporate tax revenues have not declined in these countries and represent a larger share of GDP than they do in the US.

In addition to reducing its corporate tax rate, the US needs to reform the way it taxes its MNCs’ foreign earnings. All other G-8 countries (and most OECD countries) boost their MNCs’ competitiveness by taxing only their domestic income, exempting most of their foreign earnings from domestic taxation (an approach known as a territorial system). The US, by contrast, taxes its MNCs’ worldwide income, with taxes paid elsewhere credited against their US tax liability to avoid double taxation.

The worldwide system puts US-based MNCs at a competitive disadvantage. They must pay the high US corporate rate on profits earned by their affiliates in low-tax foreign locations, while foreign MNCs headquartered in territorial systems pay only the local tax rate on such profits.

Current US law blunts this disadvantage by allowing US companies to defer paying US tax on profits earned abroad by foreign affiliates until they are repatriated to their US owners. As a consequence of both the high US tax rate and deferral, US-based MNCs have a strong incentive to keep their foreign earnings abroad. Indeed, their non-US affiliates currently hold an estimated $2 trillion in accumulated foreign earnings.

These earnings are “locked out” and unavailable to finance investment and job creation in the US, without incurring significant additional US taxes. Moreover, US companies incur efficiency costs from the suboptimal use of deferred earnings and higher levels of debt, as well as the burden of maintaining worldwide tax strategies. And these costs, estimated at 1-5% of deferred earnings, have been rising rapidly in recent years, in line with the growing share of foreign markets in US-based MNCs’ revenues.

A territorial system would address the competitiveness disadvantages, the “lock-out” effect, and the inefficiencies of the US’s worldwide approach. But it would not reduce incentives for US corporations to shift their reported profits to low-tax jurisdictions; on the contrary, such incentives would be even stronger in a pure territorial system. Given increasing globalization of business activity; the rising importance of intangible capital that is difficult to price and easy to move (for example, patents and brands); competitive cuts in national corporate tax rates; and the spread of tax havens, income shifting and the resulting tax-base erosion have become a major policy concern throughout the OECD.

In response, other developed economies have used a variety of techniques to create “hybrid” territorial systems aimed at countering tax-base erosion. Such systems include transfer-pricing rules based on OECD guidelines (used by the US as well), limits on interest deductibility, and domestic taxation of some kinds of income earned in low-tax locations where companies report large earnings but carry out little real economic activity.

As part of comprehensive corporate tax reform that includes a revenue-neutral rate cut, the US Congress is currently considering a hybrid territorial reform and evaluating several measures to counter tax-base erosion and income shifting, including those used by other advanced countries. Republican Congressman David Camp, who is leading the legislative effort in the House of Representatives, has proposed an innovative alternative that rests on the “destination principle”: MNCs’ taxable earnings should be based largely on where their products are sold, rather than on where the companies are headquartered, where their production and financing occur, or where their profits are reported.

Camp’s proposal would significantly reduce incentives to move manufacturing abroad for tax reasons. By contrast, both America’s worldwide system and other countries’ hybrid territorial systems rely on an “origin or source principle” that bases taxation largely on where input costs and production activities are located.

The US last reformed its business tax code in 1986, when it had one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world and the competitive dynamics of the global economy were very different. It is time for another comprehensive corporate tax reform, one that reduces the tax rate, broadens the tax base, and adopts a hybrid territorial approach with effective base-erosion safeguards.