MIT Sloan Professor Michelle Hanlon
From Crain’s Chicago Business
It’s become increasingly clear that Congress will need to provide some sort of assistance to the bereft government of Puerto Rico. The island has been in recession for a decade and holds $72 billion in debt it cannot fully repay; its pension plan is nearly bankrupt.
While there’s widespread agreement that something must be done, there’s not as yet any unanimity as to what this something should be. How Congress resolves this issue should be watched closely by the taxpayers of Illinois, because it could end up worsening the state’s finances.
Puerto Rico arrived in its current fiscal throes by borrowing money to postpone difficult tax and spending decisions whenever possible—a strategy that everyone in Illinois would recognize. Until quite recently it could borrow at rock-bottom rates, thanks to the generous tax breaks its lenders receive on their interest at the local, state and federal level. Eventually, lenders began to fear that they might not get repaid, and capital markets began demanding sharply higher interest rates before they just stopped lending to them altogether.
One proposed solution is to allow Puerto Rico to avail itself of Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Under Chapter 9, municipalities and public agencies can get court protection to reorganize their finances, but a state cannot. However, the island’s government and the U.S. Treasury argue that this isn’t sufficient: While over two-thirds of Puerto Rico’s debt would be covered under a Chapter 9 bankruptcy, they propose a legislative change that would allow all of its debt to be covered by bankruptcy protection, an unprecedented step.
MIT Sloan Professor Michelle Hanlon
From The Hill
I recently testified at a Ways and Means Committee hearing about tax reform. While there is broad agreement about the need to reduce the U.S. corporate tax rate, which is now highest among the world’s advanced economies, Committee members asked how they could explain this to constituents. Would this be perceived as fair?
When businesses choose their legal form for tax purposes in the United States they have several options. The simplest option is that the owner can operate the business without a separate legal entity in which case the income is taxed directly to the individual on their tax return. This is known as a sole proprietorship. An alternative is a pass-through entity, which is not taxed at the entity level (generally) but instead “flows through” income to the owner(s) who are taxed on their individual income tax returns. These entities include partnerships, LLCs, and S-corporations.
The other common type of organizational form is the C-corporation, which is subject to an entity level tax. In addition, when dividends are paid, the shareholders are taxed on the dividend income. Thus, the C-corporation form of business organization may result in double taxation. Almost all publicly traded businesses are taxed as C-corporations, while many small business are organized as pass-through entities.
MIT Sloan Prof. Michelle Hanlon
From The Wall Street Journal
Apple issued $12 billion of U.S. debt in April, which gave the company a domestic cash infusion that allowed it to keep more earnings overseas. Last month Pfizer PFE attempted to acquire AstraZeneca, a transaction that would have made Pfizer a subsidiary of the U.K.-based company. These were useful examples in the taxation classes I teach at MIT’s business school, but the real-world implications of these decisions are troubling. Even worse, legislators have responded with proposals that seek to prevent companies from escaping the U.S. tax system.
The U.S. corporate statutory tax rate is one of the highest in the world at 35%. In addition, the U.S. has a world-wide tax system under which profits earned abroad face U.S. taxation when brought back to America. The other G-7 countries, however, all have some form of a territorial tax system that imposes little or no tax on repatriated earnings.
To compete with foreign-based companies that have lower tax burdens, U.S. corporations have developed do-it-yourself territorial tax strategies. They accumulate foreign earnings rather than repatriate the earnings and pay the U.S. taxes. This lowers a company’s tax burden, but it imposes other costs.
For example, U.S. corporations hold more than $2 trillion in unremitted foreign earnings, a substantial portion of which is in cash. This is cash that currently can’t be reinvested in the U.S. or given to shareholders. As a consequence, companies are borrowing more in the U.S. to fund domestic operations and pay dividends. Another potential effect is that companies invest the earnings in foreign locations.