James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

White House confusion on corporate tax holiday

March 23, 2011

The White House perhaps rightly worries, via a Treasury blog posting, that a tax amnesty for U.S. companies repatriating profit might distract from broader reform. (House GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently came out for the idea.)  But its economic objection to the idea is confused.

As things stand, there’s an incentive for companies to stash cash overseas, because bringing it back triggers a U.S. tax rate of up to 35 percent, depending on the level of local taxes already paid. A big but temporary reduction could see a lot of cash returning to the domestic economy — especially in the technology and drugs sectors.

Treasury notes, though, that this might result in very little direct new investment or job creation. When such a holiday was last tried in 2004, tax data show that 843 companies brought back nearly $400 billion. But for every dollar returned, about 91 cents went toward share buybacks with another eight cents toward boosting dividends, according to research from economists at the University of Connecticut and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama and others want to reform corporate taxes more broadly. A reduction in America’s fairly high headline tax rate would most likely come with the elimination of some tax breaks beloved of companies. With limited political capital available — his own congressional Democrats don’t want to cut rates or provide a tax holiday — Obama may need to focus on this more lasting change. Moreover, if company bosses are given reason to believe they’ll get an amnesty every few years, they might lobby harder to keep their favorite tax breaks, thereby derailing reform.

If the political calculation is slightly negative, though, the economic one tips the other way. Treasury is stretching a point in assuming the government would somehow lose revenue by taxing repatriated income at a sharply lower rate. In reality, without the reduction most of the money will remain offshore.

And even if all the cash returning to the United States went to companies’ shareholders, that could still generate more consumption, growth and jobs, a knock-on effect Treasury ignores. Yet this so-called wealth effect is explicitly part of the rationale behind the Fed’s second round of quantitative easing. Some economists dispute the linkages, but not the ones that work for Obama. So despite some political risks, it might be time go on holiday — as long Washington also continues the work of reform.

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