Tax Break

Former TIAA-CREF head John Biggs supports auditor rotation

John Biggs, a key figure in a 2002 Congressional debate over term limits for public company auditors has thrown his support behind the idea again.

Breathing some life into an idea auditors are trying feverishly to snuff out, retired TIAA-CREF chairman John Biggs has told auditor regulators that public companies should be required to change auditors after 10 years.

His remarks, in a recently posted letter to the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, are among the few comments the board has received advocating audit firm rotation, a controversial idea vehemently opposed by the accounting and business groups.

Since floating the idea in August, the PCAOB has received 620 letters, about 20 times the normal amount, with most warning of unintended consequences if rotation is passed.

Chief among the critics are auditors, who warned rotation would raise audit costs and hurt the quality of audits as new audit firms got up to speed. Board audit committees also complained about rotation, saying it would usurp their choice over auditors, a responsibility given them by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. And financial officers at some large companies said they might have trouble finding a new auditor at all because of the shortage of firms with necessary industry expertise.

Essential Reading: Ernst & Young’s fine, Swiss bank fallout and the Buffett rule

Welcome to the top tax and accounting headlines from Reuters and other sources.

* Watchdog fines Ernst & Young $2 million over audits. Dena Aubin – Reuters. The watchdog board for corporate auditors on Wednesday said it has imposed a $2 million penalty, its largest fine ever, on accounting and consulting firm Ernst & Young LLP in a settlement involving past audits of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp. The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board said it also sanctioned four current and former Ernst & Young partners for violating PCAOB rules in the audits of Medicis, which sells prescription drugs for asthma and skin conditions. Ernst & Young settled without admitting or denying the PCAOB’s findings. The audits in question involved Medicis’ 2005, 2006 and 2007 financial statements, the PCAOB said. Link.

* Payroll-tax cut extension talks bog down as time runs short. Siobhan Hughes and Corey Boles – The Wall Street Journal. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Tuesday lawmakers working on an extension of a popular payroll-tax cut had only until early next week to reach a deal, as the two sides negotiating the package showed few signs of compromise and spent a morning meeting digging in to their positions. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp said that if negotiators can’t agree on current proposals to offset the cost of the package, they may have to “begin looking at scaling back some of these core policies” or else rely on deficit spending or simply kick the issue “outside the scope of the conference.” House Republicans started the latest round of talks with a proposal to cover the cost partly with a freeze to cost-of-living pay increases for federal workers. That outraged Maryland Democrats, whose constituents include many government workers. Democrats were no happier with a proposal to gradually force more senior citizens to pay higher premiums for Medicare. Link.

* Wegelin boss gives up NZZ role after US tax probe. Emma Thomasson – Reuters. The head of Wegelin – Switzerland’s oldest private bank and which the United States has indicted for helping clients dodge taxes – is standing back from his role as chairman of the country’s influential Neue Zuercher Zeitung daily. Konrad Hummler, one of Switzerland’s most high-profile bankers, said on Thursday he needed to focus on the U.S. case against Wegelin on charges it enabled Americans to evade taxes on at least $1.2 billion in offshore bank accounts. Hummler had come under pressure to step down as NZZ chairman for fear the Wegelin case could damage the reputation of Switzerland’s oldest newspaper – the voice of the country’s business establishment. Link.

On Capitol Hill, companies want tax rate cut, but it’s unclear whose ox will be gored

Corporate America went to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for one of what will probably become dozens of tax reform hearings over the next few years.

Companies that you might call “winners” under the complex U.S. tax code – such as General Electric and some pharmaceutical companies which tend to pay a much lower rate than the standard 35 percent corporate tax rate – were not there.

Those you might call losers, brand name companies paying close to the top 35 percent — like FedEx and Time Warner — were. They all agree to cut the rate — no surprise there — but there was little consensus on what they would give up in return.

Essential Reading: Capitol Hill, Liechtenstein, Mark Zuckerberg and Mitt Romney

Welcome to the top tax and accounting headlines from Reuters and other sources.

* US payroll tax talk mired in election-year politics. Richard Cowan and Donna Smith – Reuters.

Republican and Democratic leaders accused each other of bad faith negotiations on Tuesday as both parties played hardball in talks to extend a tax cut for 160 million U.S. workers. Both sides agree the payroll tax cut should be renewed for a full year before it expires on Feb. 29, and its extension has been seen as a foregone conclusion. But the parties are far apart over how to pay for it and the rancor of election-year politics complicates lawmakers’ work. They argued over whether to continue a pay freeze on federal workers for another year, saving around $26 billion, and whether to squeeze $31 billion out of the Medicare healthcare program for the elderly. Link.

* Romney’s returns revive scrutiny of lawful offshore tax shelters. Jonathan Weisman – The New York Times.

Levin and Conrad try to close $155 billion in tax “loopholes”

There’s been a lot of talk about tax loopholes in recent months. Now there’s a bill to go with it.

On Tuesday, two Democratic U.S. senators — Carl Levin and Kent Conrad — piled a laundry list of long-standing proposals into their “Cut Unjustified Tax Loopholes Act.”

The bill would add $155 billion to the country’s coffers over the next 10 years, according to estimates put together by the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Office of Management & Budget on earlier versions of these proposals. That’s more than enough to pay for a whole year of a payroll tax break.

Essential reading: payroll tax talks, state income tax cuts and a Swiss bank fine

Swiss bank Julius Baer, Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann Welcome to the top tax and accounting headlines from Reuters and other sources.  

* Payroll tax negotiations heat up again. Rosalind Helderman – The Washington Post.

U.S. House and Senate negotiators appointed to reach a compromise over how to pay for extending the expiring payroll tax cut hold a key meeting early on Tuesday. Ongoing discussions between the 20-member conference committee, as well as House and Senate leaders, will make clear whether Democrats and Republicans will reach a quick deal by Feb. 17 to extend the tax cut for the remainder of the year. Democrats and Republicans remain split on how to pay to extend the tax cut. Link.  

Essential reading: Chinese airlines, Swiss banks and more

 

Air China planes on the tarmac of the Beijing Capital International Airport. REUTERS/David Gray

Welcome to a roundup of the top tax and accounting headlines from Reuters and other sources.

* China bars airlines from EU tax plan. Simon Rabinovitch – The Financial Times. The Chinese government has barred the country’s airlines from complying with a European Union charge on carbon emissions, escalating a dispute that officials have warned could turn into a trade war. Chinese airlines had previously said they would not pay the EU carbon tax, but the formal prohibition by the State Council, or cabinet, puts Beijing in direct opposition to Brussels. China has notified all Chinese airlines that, without government approval, they cannot join the EU emissions trading scheme or charge customers extra because of it, state-agency Xinhua said. The impact on Chinese airlines with routes to Europe was unclear. Although the EU’s carbon scheme went into effect for airlines on January 1, Brussels has not started charging them yet. Link to The Financial Times.

Tax clips from the Web: Oklahoma mulls cutting income tax, how to spend your refund and more

Miss Oklahoma, Betty Thompson (R), first runner up in the Miss America contest

Oklahoma wants to abolish its state income tax. The plan, according to Governor Mary Fallin, is to achieve one of the lowest income tax rates in the country by eliminating some tax credits and closing loopholes in the tax code. Other taxes would not be increased, according to The Oklahoman.

“Our goal is to transform Oklahoma into the best place to do business, the best place to live, find a quality job, raise a family and retire in all of the United States. Not just better than average, but the very best,” state Representative Leslie Osborn said. (Cue Rodgers and Hammerstein music)

Across the United States, the average state sales tax rate has dropped, according to William Barrett at Forbes.

The coming week’s tax and accounting calendar

Some events in the week ahead:

Monday, February 6

Comment letters due on the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s proposed accounting standards updating the cumulative translation adjustment following the sale of a nonprofit or foreign business.

Tuesday, Feburary 7

The U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee (JEC) will hold a hearing on extending the two-percentage-point payroll tax cut and continuing emergency federal unemployment insurance benefits through the end of 2012, including examining the economic impact of extending these policies versus allowing them to lapse.

Witnesses:

    Dr. Mark M. Zandi, Chief Economist, Moody’s Analytics Mr. James Sherk, Senior Policy Analyst, The Heritage Foundation Ms. Judith M. Conti, Federal Advocacy Coordinator, National Employment Law Project

Wednesday, February 8

The payroll tax cut: what it means for you and your neighborhood

President Obama signed in December a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut (Reuters).

The Washington debate over a payroll tax holiday grinds on with House and Senate members meeting to work out just how Congress might extend the Social Security tax break for the rest of the year.

So who benefits from this tax break in your neighborhood?

Everyone with taxable earnings gets the break, but the more you make, the bigger the break. So an extension could have an especially big impact on parts of the country with high income levels, as illustrated by a report from the Joint Economic Committee released on Wednesday. The report analyzes the payroll tax cut savings by county or city.