Thursday, November 17, 2016

Company tax confuses economists

To think about company tax, we have to first understand it. These taxes apply to a type of entity run by humans with its own set of accounts called a company. That entity typically aims to make a profit each year, by making sure its revenues are above its costs, with some costs able to be amortised (or smoothed) across time in an accounting sense through depreciation, and in a financial sense, through borrowing and repaying debts. 

Across Australia, company profits were about $230 billion in 2015-16, and company tax revenue was $65 billion.

Companies in Australia pay tax on their profits at 30%. If these profits are then transferred to the company owners, through a dividend, the owners of the company are credited for the tax already paid by the company, and pay the difference between the company tax and their marginal rate.

So we have two important situations to consider if we want to know the effect of a company tax. First, the situation where a company pays all profits to its owner in a year. In this case, because the tax is credited against the tax payable by the person (or people) who own the company, the effective company tax rate is zero. It ceases to be of any relevance to any decision making internally (profits, or whatever objective, are still maximised) or externally (owners of companies can compare company performance before tax).

If this was the case all the time, company tax would be a none issue. With it or without it the net effects are the same, and if we err on the side of simplicity, we would get rid of it. There are no distributional or efficiency effects to worry about.

But the second case, where the company retains their profits on their own accounts, gets really interesting. And confusing for economists. Because it all happens in their big blind spot - financial assets.

An example
Lets simplify some more. In this second case, the company does make profits of $100, they pay the company tax rate of 30% on it each year, then simply accumulates the remaining 70% of profits (the after-tax profits) in its own bank account.

The table below compares the with and without company tax scenarios where one year's profits are saved as assets on the company books, and are therefore assets on the owner’s books.

Notice what happens when we remove the company tax. It makes it easier for companies to accumulated assets with tax-free incomes, and thereby increase the wealth of their owners. Company tax is simply another way to tax wealth accumulation, but on unrealised capital gains.

The "economic" logic
Now. Hold on there, says the little economist floating over my shoulder. Why would anyone want to own a company that increases in value without ever getting a dividend? What crazy economics is that?

It’s the type of economics that acknowledges that financial and asset markets even exist! After all, what purpose is there to run a business, or own a financial asset, except to accumulate wealth? If people weren’t interested in such things, there would be no super rich people, they would have cashed out all their assets and spent the cash on faster cars, better aeroplanes, or bigger houses.

It’s the type of economics that acknowledges that people will own vacant land without building on it, because it is an asset whose value rises over time.

It’s reality.

But things get crazier still
The economic consensus is that taxing companies is bad because it reduces investment in new machines, buildings, vehicles, ships, and other capital equipment, thereby reducing the rate of growth of the economy. After all, it means it costs companies more to save a year’s income in their own accounts, and then spend it on new machines next year.

It’s one of those ideas that seems plausible on the surface. But in fact, one great way to avoid company tax is to make less profit by investing now in new machines and equipment - the exact economic incentive most economists claim comes from removing the tax!

A company that is not investing like crazy is likely to have more profits - they are probably lazy monopolists. I can think of a few, like Telstra, the banks, and some of the big miners.

I’m serious. Here’s a plot of Amazon’s profits. Notice the period of low and negative profits. That’s what you get when you are investing heavily in warehouses, robots, servers, IT, and other large capital projects that are the things that make us more productive in the future. It’s an example of avoiding company taxes by investing!

Source: Business Insider

And yet, cutting company taxes is a love in. Treasury likes it. Many think-tanks like it. Here’s Nick Gruen liking it. But they are all wrong. And they are wrong because their model conflates physical capital - machines, vehicles, buildings and equipments - with financial arrangements. You can’t tax a tractors. You tax only the profits of an entity that may own a tractor to help earn its revenue. The tractor is a cost that subtracts from profits!

If the company buys too few tractors, it’s profits will be lower because it couldn’t earn the revenue. It it buys too many, its profit will be lower because its costs are higher. The optimal investment in tractors that maximises profit is the same, whether you keep all the profit, or just a share of the profit, because the rest is taxed.

The reason that so many economic models show efficiency gains from company tax cuts is… because they assume it in the first place! They assume that any additional profits kept by the company will all be used to invest in new machines and equipment.

So the efficiency gains all but evaporate if you don’t assume them and actually look at how company taxes actually work.

Gifts from the people
Lastly, what about the distributional effects. I have shown in the table above how company owners will be able to accumulate wealth in the company entity and avoid taxes altogether. But The Australia Institute has gone further and shown that the major beneficiaries are the big banks, who get $7.4billion over the next ten years, as well as the US government through its tax system, because of offsetting arrangements used for companies who have already paid tax in other countries, like Australia!

Cutting the company tax will be a multi-billion dollar gift from with working class to the super wealthy. If it goes ahead, prepare for Australia to catch up to the world in our political backlash against the establishment!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Quick views on Trump (did we forget Brexit already)

When the Brexit vote stunned the world’s elite (obviously it didn’t stun the millions who voted for it) I wrote about some simple lessons that are too easily ignored in “normal” times. 

With Trump winning the US election, perhaps it is again worth reflecting on how the world’s elites misread the public mood so badly.

  1. Elites seem to believe the public will eat up their lies, but then they deludedly thought that exposing Trump’s lies would bring him down. Facts Don’t Matter. To either side!
 Look at the lies from celebrities promising to leave the country. Anyone could see through it!
  2. Again, technocrats underestimated human tendencies to blame outsiders for their woes. Despite being a believer in multiculturalism, the basic reality is that high levels of immigration reduce labour’s bargaining power.

  3. This disconnect is clearly seen in the way the media “looks to the markets” as a way to gauge views on political decisions like this (see top image). That’s total crap. No one gives two hoots about the financial markets unless they are part of the wealthy elite. In fact, this is a victory for his supporters who see, quite legitimately, that the worship of financial markets has distracted politicians from the needs of the vast majority people who have not a cent at risk in those markets.
  4. The Australian media portrayed the land down under as a country of moderates who were disappointed about Trump’s win. That’s complete nonsense. While it may reflect the reaction in my social circles, and maybe yours, just remember that Australia already has a more inhumane immigration policy than what Trump proposes, and already has whole bunch of nut cases elected to government at all levels. Trump would be amongst like-minded friends in the halls of most Australian governments. 

  5. It’s almost like the elites were speaking Latin, and the masses speaking english. The elites simply couldn’t understand Trump’s appeal, and their lack of appeal. He lies. He objectifies women. That signals he is a normal human being. Unlike the faux outrage, most common people realise humans, god forbid, pursue each other for sex. He talks about a wall along the Mexican border and everyone goes crazy. Almost as if they forget there is already a bloody wall! There are about 1,000km of barriers, fences and walls on that border!

  6. The US is already a country taking political prisoners, torturing whistle-blowers, invading countries on false pretences and against the will of international organisations, and conducting mass surveillance on its own citizens. They already deport illegal immigrants and have a border wall. The political classes failed to punish anyone on Wall Street after the financial crisis, yet also then failed to take on public investment programs to support the wage-earning classes. They already have police killing black people routinely. What exactly is Trump going to do?