Ideas Good and Not so Good: Infrastructure Investment and Corporate Taxes

President Obama released his fiscal year 2016 budget proposal earlier this week. The proposal is full of good ideas, so-so ideas, and some not so good ideas. One great idea is to devote more money to the Highway Trust Fund for infrastructure investments, which improves job growth now and in the future. At the moment, however, it’s paired with the not-so good idea to pay for it with a mandatory one-time 14 percent tax on the $2 trillion of tax-deferred foreign earnings of U.S. corporations, which would bring in $268 billion over the six years. To be clear, this is an improvement over the other “one-time” corporate tax change often floated to realize a temporary revenue windfall—a full repatriation tax “holiday” for earnings accumulated overseas. So if the Obama proposal is a lot better than a full holiday, what’s the problem? The proposed one-time tax rate is still too low.

The 14 percent one-time tax is a transition tax to the president’s proposal to institute a 19 percent tax on corporate foreign-sourced earnings. Currently, corporate foreign-sourced earnings are subject to the U.S. corporate income tax, but payment of the tax is deferred (i.e., no U.S. taxes are paid at all) until the corporation brings to earnings to the United States (or in the jargon: repatriates the earnings). The earnings are then theoretically taxed at the statutory corporate tax rate of 35 percent, but due to various deductions and tax credits most corporations pay substantially less than the 35 percent rate. It is estimated that firms have stashed away $2 trillion in untaxed earnings overseas. One reason it makes sense for them to stash money overseas is that Congress has in the past offered a repatriation tax “holiday,” which allowed them to repatriate it at hugely preferential rates. And proposals to do this again have been percolating for years, so it makes a lot of sense for multinationals to wait and see if they get another windfall.

This largely explains why the business community, rather than jumping at the chance to face a 14 percent tax rate instead of the 35 percent rate, wants the transition tax rate to be no higher than 5 percent or even lower. Of course they can’t flat-out argue that they’re actually waiting for another pure windfall, so instead they argue the 14 percent rate somehow harms competitiveness, though they don’t explain how. Let’s examine this specious argument.

Firms compete over customers for their products and competitiveness, by its very nature, is forward looking since the past can’t be changed. The tax on income that has already been earned will not affect a firm’s behavior; the accumulated $2 trillion of untaxed income is based on past decisions, which cannot be changed. Consequently, there is no reason to tax this income at a rate less than the statutory corporate tax rate since there is no competitiveness issue. A lower tax rate just rewards firms for the aggressive tax planning that allowed them to accumulate $2 trillion in untaxed earnings.