I’ve been banging on for a while that one key cause of the crisis was the tax-deductibility of interest payments, and the incentive that allows companies to finance themselves with dangerous debt rather than safer equity. But I didn’t realize it was this bad. Pete Davis finds this table in an October 2005 CBO report, at the height of the debt bubble:
It really is as bad as that: companies financing themselves with equity pay an effective tax rate of 36%, while companies choosing debt pay a negative tax rate of 6.4%. How is that even possible? The CBO report explains:
The effective tax rate on debt-financed corporate capital income is negative in part because accelerated depreciation and interest payments generate tax deductions in excess of taxable income, which leads to corporate tax refunds. Taxes paid by savers on interest received do not entirely offset those refunds; again, much of that interest income is received in various accounts in which it is not taxed.
In other words, companies lever themselves up so much that their interest payments are larger than their income, and so they get tax refunds and pay no corporate income tax. This can’t be healthy. And, sadly, it’s not going to change, either, Paul Volcker notwithstanding.