Skip to comments.Making American Companies More Competitive
Posted on 09/26/2003 12:39:46 PM PDT by Sparta
Making American Companies More Competitiveby Daniel J. Mitchell, Ph.D.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) has repeatedly sided with the European Union (EU) and ruled that provisions of U.S. tax law provide impermissible "subsidies" because business income from exports is sometimes not taxed at the same rate as other forms of corporate income. More specifically, the WTO twice ruled that the Foreign Sales Corporation (FSC) portion of the tax code violated trade rules, leading U.S. lawmakers to replace FSC with the Extraterritorial Income Act (ETI). But the EU argued that the new law also was an impermissible subsidy, and the WTO subsequently ruled two more times against the United States.
The WTO decisions put the United States in a difficult position. If FSC/ETI is not repealed, the EU has the right to impose more than $4 billion of "compensatory" tariffs every year on American products. These taxes on U.S. exports, which could be as high as 100 percent, would fall on over 1,800 different products including agriculture, jewelry, steel, machinery and mechanical appliances, wool and cotton textiles, and toys.1 Yet repealing the law means higher corporate income taxes--also about $4 billion annually--for companies that benefit from the law. This seems like a no-win situation--either higher taxes on corporate income or higher taxes on exports.
While not desirable, the WTO decisions could be a blessing in disguise if they spurred much-needed tax reform. The tax code has numerous features that significantly undermine the competitiveness of U.S.-based companies. The bad news is that fixing these problems would "cost" money (according to static revenue-estimating models). The good news, in a manner of speaking, is that repealing ETI would generate about $49.4 billion in tax revenue over the next 10 years--money that can be used to ameliorate the anti-competitive provisions of the tax code.2
Ideally, lawmakers should engage in wholesale change, junking America's "worldwide" tax system (whereby companies are taxed on income earned in other nations) and replacing it with a "territorial" tax system (the common-sense practice of taxing only income earned inside national borders). This reform would allow U.S.-based companies to compete on a level playing field with foreign competitors, particularly if it is accompanied by a significant reduction in the corporate tax rate.
The aggregate tax burden in America is too high, but most other industrialized nations have a tax burden that is far more onerous. This would suggest that U.S.-based companies have a competitive advantage in the global economy, but this is not the case. The U.S. corporate tax rate is among the highest in the world, and companies are forced to pay that tax on income that is earned--and subject to tax--in other nations. The combination of these features brings to mind Clint Eastwood's "spaghetti Western" The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The Good: A Lower Total Tax Burden. As indicated in Chart 1, federal, state, and local taxes consume about 30 percent of national economic output in the United States. This is far too high, but the burden of government is much heavier in most European nations. In the EU, taxes consume about 42 percent of gross domestic product.
Not surprisingly, America's lower tax burden translates into superior economic performance. Per capita economic output in the U.S. is nearly 50 percent higher than in the EU. America also enjoys much more job creation, resulting in significantly less unemployment.
Aggregate tax figures are important, but they do not necessarily reveal the tax burden on different types of economic activity. One reason the United States has a big overall advantage, for instance, is the absence of a national sales tax. Countries in the EU, by contrast, are required to levy a value-added tax of at least 15 percent. This consumption-based levy is at least partially responsible for the bloated welfare states in most EU nations.
America also tends to have lower payroll and personal income tax rates. Significant changes in tax rates since 2001--lowering personal income and capital gains tax rates, slashing the dividend tax rates, and a move toward expensing of investment--have further improved the competitiveness of the U.S. tax code.
The Bad: A High Corporate Tax Rate. The overall tax burden in the United States may be low compared to Europe, but this does not mean that America has an advantage in all areas. The United States, for instance, has one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the industrialized world. The federal government imposes a corporate income tax rate of 35 percent, and state corporate tax burdens increase the effective tax rate to 40 percent. According to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and KPMG data, this is the second-highest corporate tax burden of any developed nation.
America has fallen behind because many other nations--particularly in Europe--have dramatically lowered their corporate tax rates in the past 15 years. This vigorous tax competition has led to better tax policy. Ireland is perhaps the most spectacular example, lowering its corporate rate from 50 percent to just 12.5 percent.
Many other nations have also reduced corporate rates to help their companies compete in the global economy. Iceland and Hungary have 18 percent tax rates on business income, and even socialist nations like France and Sweden have lower corporate tax rates than America. The average corporate tax rate in Europe has fallen by about 7 percentage points just since 1996.3
The Ugly: Worldwide Taxation. American-based companies are taxed on their worldwide income.4 This policy is very anti-competitive, subjecting U.S. companies to higher tax rates than those paid by companies based in other nations.
For example, an American-based company operating in Ireland is at a disadvantage since its profits are subject to the 35 percent U.S. corporate income tax in addition to Ireland's 12.5 percent corporate tax. The U.S. company generally can claim a credit for the taxes paid to Ireland, so the overall tax rate on Irish-source income should not exceed 35 percent. As Table 1 indicates, however, this still means the U.S. firm pays nearly three times as much tax as an Irish company. It also means that the U.S. firm pays nearly three times as much tax as a Dutch firm competing in Ireland, since Holland has a territorial tax system. Furthermore, these foreign tax credits are not always available because they can expire or be limited by other factors.
Making matters worse, the tax code contains a plethora of rules that make it even harder for companies to compete. Tax rules for using foreign tax credits, for instance, are so onerous that companies sometimes are double-taxed on foreign-source income. Companies also are forced to misallocate certain expenses in order to increase taxable income. Even features designed to mitigate the anti-competitive nature of worldwide taxation--such as deferral--are subject to a multiplicity of restrictions.5
Worldwide taxation means that U.S.-based companies are not allowed to compete on a level playing field. Most nations do not tax companies on their worldwide income. This means that companies based in those nations can take full advantage of the low corporate tax rates that now exist in so many countries.6 Adding insult to injury, compliance costs for foreign-source income are extraordinarily high, forcing internationally active American companies to spend huge amounts of money and to divert a substantial amount of time and energy just to fill out tax forms.
Fundamental Reform. Policymakers should junk America's worldwide tax on corporate income and shift to territorial taxation. Such a step would be poetic justice. The EU filed the WTO cases against America in hopes of forcing lawmakers to increase the tax burden on U.S. companies. If lawmakers instead use the WTO rulings as an impetus to improve the tax code, American companies will become more effective competitors in the world economy, and the EU will regret its attack on U.S. fiscal sovereignty.
However, getting revenge on the EU is the last reason to fix the tax code. The main reason to shift to territorial taxation is that it is good, pro-growth tax policy. Specifically, territorial taxation promotes:
Worldwide taxation is bad tax policy and should be repealed. Nations are sometimes guilty of enacting laws--including tax laws--to give their companies a special advantage. The United States is guilty of this practice, but in the perverse sense that American tax laws put U.S.-based companies at a competitive disadvantage.
Good tax policy should neither subsidize nor penalize any company, regardless of whether it is foreign or domestic. This is why territorial taxation is ideal policy. If the U.S. had a territorial system, every company operating in the United States, regardless of where it is chartered, would pay tax to the IRS on its U.S.-source income.
This, of course, happens now. What would change, though, is that the foreign-source income of U.S. companies would be taxed only by foreign governments, thereby allowing American firms to compete on a level playing field with companies from other countries.
Incremental Reform. To the extent that fundamental reform is not immediately feasible, lawmakers should fix at least some of the worst features of the current tax system. Repealing the ETI provision will generate about $49.4 billion over 10 years, but this is not nearly enough money to finance a complete shift to a territorial system, especially since Congress continues to rely on inaccurate "static scoring" methodology to estimate the revenue impact of major tax legislation. Congress could increase the amount of available money by extending some trade-related fees (and this is widely expected), but it is unlikely that the total pool of money will exceed $100 billion over 10 years.
It is therefore essential for lawmakers to choose reforms that will generate the most "bang for the buck," and two lawmakers have undertaken this much-needed task. Important incremental reforms are included in H.R. 2896, sponsored by Representative Bill Thomas (R-CA), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and S. 1475, sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee.
The following proposals certainly would help to improve the competitiveness of U.S.-based companies and are critical incremental steps toward a territorial tax system because they reduce and delay taxation of foreign-source income.
One way to ameliorate this unfair practice is to take into account a company's international interest costs--the "worldwide fungibility" approach.21 Chairman Thomas and Senator Hatch propose to give companies greater ability to use this method, which "would significantly expand the ability of many U.S.-based multinational enterprises to claim foreign tax credits."22
Chairman Thomas and Senator Hatch would reduce the number of baskets from nine to two, a step that would reduce double taxation, lower compliance costs, and promote tax competition.24
Chairman Thomas and Senator Hatch would extend deferral so that this income is protected from immediate taxation. This would lower compliance costs and allow U.S.-based multinationals to improve the efficiency of their overseas operations by centralizing sales and services functions for a number of different foreign markets within a single foreign entity.25
This reform also is a major step toward a territorial tax system. As noted by the U.S. Treasury in a report published in 2000, "The deferral achieved by operating abroad through a foreign subsidiary...can neutralize the effect of worldwide taxation.... Moreover, in certain circumstances, deferral can effectively make what is nominally a worldwide system into a territorial system."26
Chairman Thomas and Senator Hatch propose to give companies a period during which they can bring money back to the United States without having to pay the 35 percent tax rate on corporate income. Instead, the tax would be only 5.25 percent. This proposal could attract $300 billion to the American economy,27 money that could fund new investments, increase dividends, and help pay down debt to improve balance sheets. Best of all, "pressure might then arise to `extend' the provision, thus rendering an ostensibly temporary stimulus provision a further step toward the adoption of a territorial-type tax system."28
The international provisions of the tax code desperately need reform, and Representative Thomas and Senator Hatch have identified some high-priority targets for incremental reform. But many "domestic" tax policy changes could help U.S. companies become more competitive. Lowering the corporate income tax rate clearly would help, as would a shift from depreciation to expensing.29
The Thomas bill takes some big steps toward these goals by lowering the corporate tax rate for all businesses with less than $10 million in taxable income, extending a temporary provision that reduces the tax bias against new investment through 2005, and further reducing the burden of depreciation for manufacturing equipment. The Hatch bill, meanwhile, allows 100 percent expensing for investments through 2006.
These are important steps to fundamental tax reform. Shifting to a flat tax, needless to say, would solve all of the problems in the tax code, both domestic and international.30
In 1960, America was home to 18 of the world's 20 largest corporations. By 1996, however, only eight of the world's 20 largest companies were based in America.31 Tax policy surely was not the only factor in this shift, but worldwide taxation is unquestionably hindering the competitiveness of U.S.-based companies. American companies that compete in global markets face significantly higher effective tax rates than their foreign counterparts.32
There are many other signs that worldwide taxation imposes unacceptably high costs, including corporate inversions. Most companies that have rechartered in jurisdictions with better tax law presumably would have remained U.S. companies if America had a territorial tax system, but they were not willing to sacrifice the interests of their workers and shareholders just for the "privilege" of enduring worldwide taxation.
Cross-border mergers are another warning sign. In general, there is no reason for concern if a foreign-based company becomes the "parent" following a merger with a U.S.-based company. However, if foreign-based companies are taking over U.S.-based companies because worldwide taxation reduces the competitiveness and lowers the value of American companies--a factor that has been cited in some high-profile acquisitions of U.S. companies, such as Daimler's merger with Chrysler33--worldwide taxation should be repealed.
Territorial taxation is good tax policy. It is simple, it is pro-tax reform, and it will help the U.S. economy. Territorial taxation means more jobs, better jobs, and improved competitiveness of U.S. companies.
By dragging America to the WTO, the European Union has unwittingly given policymakers a golden opportunity to improve the tax treatment of internationally active U.S. companies. If Congress lacks the political will to engage in fundamental reform, it should at least go as far toward a territorial tax system as possible.
Daniel J. Mitchell, Ph.D., is McKenna Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
The notion that the EU has special rights in profit may bring on a trade war as the current rift in French-America corporte joint ventures is already hurt due to the War on Terrorism - e.g., other countries could see the US wean herself off of future investment in unfriendy markets and slowly deprive these countries of badly needed research and development. By shutting out American investment and job creation, the favorable twin towers of an American presence in a countries economy and a political vested interest in this market remaing viable will be lost making it much more likely that America can and will turn a blind eye to former economic partners who have become cut throat competitiors feeling vindicated in letting them suffer. The UN, the EU, Brazil and other countries have for too long taken for granted the open sea lanes and military presence on land, air and space by which the world's trade is protected under American military presence. If a day comes in which America withdraws from an active protector of all trade to the role of protecting our own economic activity will be the day that all nations find themselves indirectly taxed and eventually isolated.
"...the right of governments to use public funds to support local industry and national development is a core element of sovereignty...
"What is lacking among liberal trade theorists is the realization that commerce runs on the basis of competition, not harmony. The great error that has dogged liberalism is the belief that peaceful trade can replace international strife. Instead, trade has always been a major component of strife. Statesmen know that where factories, research labs, jobs, capital, and other resources are located is where wealth and power will also develop. And as a society becomes stronger, it can better shape events so as to bring more security and prosperity to its people."
~ William R. Hawkins, (The Cancun Trade Negotiations and the Global Economic Struggle)
Transnational corporate apologists, such as Daniel J. Mitchell, seek to undermine U.S. sovereign right to enact policies that are beneficial to our own citizenry. They believe that it is "unfair" that we act in our own economic self-interest. That is why the advantage we enjoy by not having a national sales tax must be negated by imposing such a consumption oppressive method of taxation.
No thanks. We'd be much better off enabling reduction of our corporate income tax by imposing a relatively low (10~15%), flat-rate "revenue tariff" on ALL imported goods. As James Madison noted during debate of The First Federal Revenue Law, "A single, uniform tariff... was consistent with the principles of free trade" and is the method of taxation that is least oppressive of our own citizenry.
Furthermore, while a "revenue tariff" lacks the objectionable characteristics of protectionist targetted tariffs that are advocated by special interests they DO offer a margin of comensation to domestic industries that are adversely affected economicly by bureacratic regulation rather than taxation. As an apologist for transantional corporations, Daniel J. Mitchell ignores this factor, preferring "solutions" that undermine our domestic industries (and national sovereignty) with international resources.