Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Energy Tax Subsidies for "Fat Cats" (Part Four)

My fourth and final post on the U.S. energy sector. I'm finally getting around to the topic that motivated this series of posts: U.S. tax subsidies to encourage the development of renewable energy.

In my last post, I described a hypothetical wind farm development in Iowa. Wind and solar are currently "non-economic" without some type of government subsidization. In other words, the returns to an investor in a renewable energy project do not justify the risk associated with the investment.

In typical fashion, Congress decided to "solve" the economic obstacles to renewable energy development through the tax code. Investors in qualified renewable energy projects are entitled to two types of tax subsidies. The first type of tax subsidy involves tax credits linked to electricity generation by qualified facilities (wind farms, solar projects, etc.). The second type of tax subsidy involves accelerated tax depreciation for equipment deployed in qualified facilities.

As I described in my last post, the tax subsidies may convert an otherwise non-economic project into a project that will attract private financing.

In a logical world, we would assume that Congress would want to maximize the amount of private capital that would flow into renewable energy projects. After all, new renewable energy facilities require construction activities before COD (jobs), and operations/maintenance activities after COD (jobs) (jobs, jobs, jobs). In fact, there would be a sort-of multiplier effect; we would need to upgrade the nation's outdated transmission "grid" to accommodate more wind and solar power. Moreover, renewable energy provides obvious benefits by reducing pollution, improving air quality, etc.

Unfortunately, Congress isn't subject to the constraints of a logical world. Instead of providing broad eligibility to use credits (and depreciation) against taxable income, Congress effectively limited participation to corporate taxpayers. By limiting participation to corporate taxpayers, Congress kept individual investors (taxpayers) out of the market. This decision may have been predicated on a political judgment that uber-wealthy individuals would create "blowback" by using energy tax subsidies to shelter income. However, it starved the renewable energy developers of one source of capital following the 2007 financial meltdown (as discussed below).

Let's get back to my Iowa wind-farm development. Our developer friend needs $100 million, for a project that is not economic unless the developer can "monetize" the tax subsidies available to the project. The developer cannot reach out to individuals; only corporations can use the tax subsidies in practice. Which corporations are providing "tax equity" to these projects?

There are currently 15 tax equity investors active in renewable energy development. The list is a "who's who" of TARP recipients. Bank of America, JP Morgan, GE Capital, Citi, Wells Fargo, Northern Trust. In addition, at least one insurance company is participating in the sector (MetLife). The only non-financial institution on the list is Google, which has recently entered the sector with a couple high-profile investments.

As you can see, most "tax equity" for renewable energy is provided by financial institutions (banks and, to a lesser extent, insurance companies). Financial institutions are logical participants in the sector. They generate steady taxable income from U.S. sources, and thus can offset U.S. tax liabilities with tax subsidies from renewable energy projects. They are also in the business of underwriting loans to borrowers, i.e., evaluating the quality of a borrower's income stream in determining whether to advance cash to the borrower.

Unfortunately, Congress built the tax subsidies for renewable energy with Wall Street in mind. During the "boom boom" years of the real estate bubble, financial institutions were flush with profits and taxable income, and they surged into the renewable development space. The surge of capital pushed down the cost of "tax equity" into a range of 6-7%, promoting development. As we all know, the real estate bubble burst with devastating consequences on the economy at large, and concentrated pain within the banking sector. Financial institutions updated their business models to reflect lower profits and lower taxable income (or tax losses). The surge of capital into the renewable energy sector became a trickle and then a drought. Under current market conditions, the cost of "tax equity" has climbed into a range of 10-15% (depending on type of project, among other things).

I keep expecting other corporate taxpayers to join the party. In fact, the reluctance of non-financial institutions to commit "tax equity" to renewable energy projects leaves me scratching my head. (Again, the mad geniuses at Google are a notable exception.) I understand that industrial and technology and service-oriented businesses do not have the same underwriting experience as the large banks. However, many of these companies have large cash stockpiles, and "tax equity" investors are seeing pre-tax returns of 20-25%. Industry sources tell me that, notwithstanding the economics, CFOs get hung up on the fact that "tax equity" investments are non-core activities.

Why has Google decided to be a trailblazer, where others dare not tread? I don't have a good theory. I'm surprised that other large corporate taxpayers are not taking advantage of the rich "tax equity" yields to invest in the space. I'm guessing that the marketing advantages for "going green and socially responsible" would tend to outweigh the benefit of the tax subsidies.

So where does that leave our wind farm developer? Maybe Google will be interested; more likely, the developer will join the line of developers seeking capital from the TARP recipients.

Where does that leave us as electricity consumers (ratepayers)? No surprise here. The cost of renewable energy development has increased, and utilities pass through costs to consumers. We'll be paying higher electricity costs as utilities source more electricity from (higher cost) renewable facilities. Unless other corporate taxpayers start participating in the "tax equity" market, electricity consumers (ratepayers) and taxpayers will pitch in to repair the balance sheets of the financial institutions participating in the market. But you probably won't see this story in the New York Times.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Energy Subsidies for "Fat Cats" (Part Three)

My third post on the U.S. renewable energy sector. I'm finally getting to the tax policy angle, where the "fat cats" on Wall Street are enjoying the good times, again. [I originally intended to finish this off in three posts. I realized that it will take four.]

As I described in my last post, "traditional" power plants burn coal and natural gas to satisfy most of our electricity demand. In the past decade, policymakers have begun pushing the development of "renewable" energy resources (primarily wind and solar) through a carrot and stick approach. The "carrot" involves tax subsidies for the development of wind and solar generation facilities. The "stick" involves a government mandate, often labelled a renewable portfolio standard ("RPS"), that requires utilities to source a fraction of their electricity from renewables. In the U.S., various states have enacted RPSs with various degrees of "teeth," but there is no national standard.

I'm focusing on the "carrot," but a quick observation on the "stick." Regulated utilities pass along costs to their customers. If a utility pays higher costs to source higher-cost "renewable" energy, then utility ratepayers (me, you, your kids, your grandma, your landlord, your employer, your local mall) will see the increased costs on their electric bills. Ultimately, higher utility costs are borne by individuals, directly or indirectly. Public Utility Commissions ("PUCs") exist to "protect" ratepayers from higher costs. Because renewable energy is still higher cost than energy from fossil fuels, PUCs will serve as a natural "check" on demand for renewables.

Back to the "carrot." Congress has enacted a set of tax subsidies to encourage renewable energy development. If you've done any interstate driving lately, you've probably seen "wind farms" (clusters of wind turbines on towers) popping up like dandelions. Those wind farms, and solar generation facilities currently under development, could not get off the ground without tax subsidies.

So why can't renewable energy developers get their projects into commercial operation without tax subsidies? Because an investment in renewables is non-economic under current market conditions. By non-economic, I mean that an unsubsidized renewable energy project would have negative risk-adjusted returns to its investors. For example, assume a wind farm or solar generation facility costs $10 million to develop. Based on current technology costs, financing costs and electricity rates, the investment might only yield a 2% average return over its operating life. But an investor can get a risk-free 3% return by investing in 30-year Treasuries. No rational investor would invest $10 million in a highly risky start-up venture (a wind farm or solar generation facility) with lower expected returns (2%) than a risk-free return (3%). [Note that 2% is a hypothetical number for easy discussion purposes.]

As I discussed in my last post, policymakers could tackle this issue using one of two approaches. The first approach would involve an across-the-board increase in electricity rates. For example, Congress could impose a carbon tax, which would increase utility costs for coal and natural gas. This would increase rates for electricity from traditional power plants (because the cost of coal and natural gas are passed through to electricity consumers). In turn, utilities could pay higher rates for renewable energy without causing "green rate shock" to electricity consumers.

Congress has rejected this approach for political reasons (higher electricity rates are politically unpopular; and higher costs for coal will decrease investment and union jobs in the coal mining industry). Instead, Congress has enacted tax subsidies for renewable energy development. The tax subsidies, when added to prevailing electricity rates, are sufficient to motivate investors to allocate capital to renewable energy projects.

The tax subsidies historically included tax credits and accelerated depreciation. This is where things get tricky and interesting. I've been talking about "tax subsidies" very loosely. Let's get into the anatomy of a deal.

So how do developers make these deals work?

Let's say you are a wind developer. You have identified a strip of windy farmland in Iowa, and you want to lease the land and install a series of towers and wind turbines. Of course, the farmer in question probably doesn't need much electricity; you'll need some infrastructure (converters and transmission cables) to connect your generation facility to the regional "grid" and transmit the electrons to Des Moines or Omaha. On the cost side of the ledger, you have (i) cost of land, (ii) cost of equipment (wind turbines, converters, hardware and integrated software), (iii) cost of infrastructure (towers, transmission), (iv) cost of financing, and (v) "soft costs" (attorneys, engineers, consultants and accountants necessary to get permits, conduct environmental studies, project wind patterns, draft leases, arrange financing, and pay the bills). Let's assume the total cost, from the planning phase to commercial operation, is $100 million.

How about revenues?

You've identified a Midwestern utility that is willing to sign a long-term power purchase agreement ("PPA") and pay slightly above-market prices for the electricity from your windfarm. They'll take all the electricity you can generate, but the amount of electricity generated depends on the technology (the efficiency of the wind turbine) and the wind itself. If the wind blows more than expected, the project will generate more electricity, more revenue and more earnings for its owners. If the wind blows less than expected, the project will generate less electricity, less revenue and less earnings for its owners. Ultimately, you know that you'll have a revenue stream from the project, but you can't predict the operating cash flows with precision (because they depend on wind flows).

To recap: you need $100 million to get your project past its commercial operation date ("COD"). You have a long-term PPA, which is expected to generate sufficient revenues over time to generate an average 5% cash yield on the project. (For example, the owner will receive $5 million in net cash from the project annually, measured in today's dollars.) That yield may be higher, or it may be lower, depending on how much the wind blows after COD.

Where do you get the $100 million?

You probably don't have that cash lying under your mattress. You can't borrow from a bank, because a bank is not comfortable with your credit profile (a developer with no assets). You need equity from somewhere. But as noted, the cash yield on your risky new wind farm (5%) is not attractive relative to a risk-free yield (3%).

Our developer friend needs a dose of "tax equity." Remember, Congress has chosen to subsidize renewable energy development through tax credits and accelerated depreciation. As a developer, you don't have sufficient taxable income to absorb the tax credits and depreciation from the project. However, plenty of large corporate taxpayers have U.S. taxable income, i.e., "tax appetite" that would permit them to reduce their own tax liabilities by tax credits and depreciation from the project. Some of these large corporate taxpayers are even willing to participate in the renewable energy space, despite the risks. Never fear, "tax equity" may be here!

Why is "tax equity" willing to participate in a deal that a "normal" investor would not touch?

A normal investor may not be interested in a risky start-up business that yields 2% more than a risk-free return. However, a "tax equity" investor can use the credits and depreciation from the project to offset taxes that it would otherwise pay to federal and state tax authorities. The decrease in cash-tax liability is economically equivalent to an increase in operating cash flow. For example, if the project generates $5 million in tax credits and $20 million in depreciation expense in Year 1, the effective yield for that year would be 18% ($5 million operating cash flow, plus $5 million in tax credits that save $5 million in taxes, plus $8 million in tax savings from depreciation expense ($20 million times 40% assumed tax rate)).

Who is actually participating as "tax equity" in renewable energy deals?

Stay tuned for my next post.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Energy Subsidies for "Fat Cats" (Part Two)

This is the second of four posts discussing the tax subsidies for renewable energy development that have been captured by large financial institutions (and Google!).

A quick overview of the energy sector, from “traditional” electricity generation to renewables:

We are a nation of gadget junkies, and our appliances, computers, TVs, cell phones, pads, pods and more essential infrastructure needs (subways, hospitals, refrigerators) are powered by electricity. We satisfy most of that electricity demand with supply from “traditional” electrical generation facilities. Traditional power plants mainly run on fossil fuels -- coal and natural gas -- which are abundant and cheap. Unfortunately, burning coal results in a parade of horribles (smog, soot, acid rain, air toxins, and greenhouse gas emissions). Natural gas is cleaner, but still a greenhouse gas. Finally, nuclear energy, although a “clean” alternative to fossil fuels, has always been controversial (and even more so following the tsunami in Japan).

Unlike fossil fuels, which are abundant in the United States but ultimately finite, “alternative” sources of energy are renewable. Our primary sources of “renewable” energy include hydro, solar, wind and biomass. Hydroelectric power is relatively cheap, but derived from rivers and dams, which limits generation capacity. Sunlight and wind are free and abundant in some places, but the technology required to convert sunlight and wind into electricity is expensive. Biomass generation technology is cheaper than solar/wind, but utility-scale development is limited to areas where the underlying fuel supply is abundant.

The policy dilemma is to formulate a coherent energy policy that balances the costs and benefits of “traditional” energy (coal, natural gas and nuclear), with the costs and benefits of “renewable” energy (primarily solar and wind). Throw politics into the mix, and it’s easier said than done. However, most everyone can agree that the cost of energy has a huge impact on our individual and collective standard of living. It has an equally dramatic impact on the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers and exporters.

Thus, low-cost energy is better than high-cost energy. Although a simple concept, execution is tricky, because it is not always clear how to define the “cost” of electricity generation.

Using current technology, coal and natural gas are the cheapest sources of energy for electrical generation. They are both abundant natural resources with high energy content relative to cost of extraction, and they can both be used to provide “baseload” power without the “intermittency” problems of wind and solar power. A recent EIA report estimated the average cost of new conventional coal generation at 9.5 cents/kWh; conventional (combined cycle) natural gas at 6.6 cents/kWh; advanced nuclear at 11.4 cents/kWh; wind at 9.7 cents/kWh; solar photovoltaic at 21.1 cents/kWh; biomass at 11.3 cents/kWh; and hydro at 8.6 cents/kWh.

Unfortunately, burning coal and natural gas has negative side-effects (air pollution, smog, acid rain, greenhouse gas emissions, etc). These negative side-effects are not reflected in the price of the underlying commodities. Economists refer to these hidden costs (negative side-effects) as “externalities.” Basically, an externality is a negative consequence of economic activity that is not included in the price for that activity. If the “externality” were included in the price of the economic activity (“internalized”), the cost of the activity would increase, decreasing the amount of the activity.

Back to the energy sector. Although coal and natural gas are the cheapest sources of energy for electrical generation, they are “artificially” cheap. The cost of producing energy from coal and natural gas does not reflect the negative side-effects (the “externalities”). If those costs were “internalized” into the cost of the commodities, renewable energy generation would become more competitive relative to traditional fossil fuels. (Based on our existing “electrical grid” infrastructure, renewable energy also presents an “intermittency” problem. For example, the wind tends to blow more at night, when electricity demand is lower than “peak” business hours. This “intermittency” problem is an externality associated with renewable energy.)

Policymakers could “internalize” the costs of fossil fuels by imposing a tax on coal and natural gas (a “carbon” tax). However, a carbon tax would increase energy costs for residential and industrial consumers (the cost of fuel used to generate electricity would increase). Moreover, it would be impossible to ensure that the proceeds of a carbon tax would be used to defray the societal costs of traditional energy generation. Liberal politicians that advocate for such a tax would be tempted to direct the tax revenues to the liberal policy objective du jour.

In any case, it appears unlikely that Congress will enact a carbon tax while I am still alive to consume electricity. Instead, Congress has tackled the energy-cost differential from the opposite direction. Rather than increasing the cost of fossil fuels, Congress has attempted to decrease the cost of renewable energy through government subsidies. Among other subsidies, Congress has attempted to stimulate renewable energy development through tax subsidies.

In my third post on this topic, I’ll discuss the anatomy of a renewable energy deal. In my fourth post, I'll move to the tax policy angle. As foreshadowed in my first post, the tax subsidies for renewable energy development have primarily flowed to large financial institutions. Perversely, the consequence has been less renewable energy development, at a higher cost, imposing a secondary level of costs on energy consumers. So taxpayers are stuck with higher taxes, energy consumers (for the most part taxpayers) are paying higher costs for energy, while large financial institutions (and Google!) are extracting tax subsidies as intermediaries. The entire fiasco could only have been devised by our political "leaders" in Washington D.C.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Energy Subsidies for "Fat Cats" (Part One)

Among the many failures of the political class, our disjointed, haphazard and inefficient “energy policy” goes high on the list. I hesitate to use the phrase “energy policy,” because there seems to be no concerted effort to steer the U.S. energy sector in a coherent direction (“policy” is non-existent). Decisions about energy policy are dominated by short-term calculations of politicians who are primarily motivated by the next re-election campaign.

The policy mess reflects the influence of bizarre alliances. On the one hand, liberal politicians grandstand publicly about the perils of “climate change” (pandering to environmentalists), while protecting the coal industry against cleaner forms of energy (pandering to unions). On the other hand, conservative politicians trumpet the virtues of smaller government and free markets, while protecting irrational energy subsidies for local constituents (pandering to corporate welfare recipients).

A good example is the one-two punch of import duties on foreign-produced ethanol, and tax credits for U.S.-produced ethanol (see here). Do we want lower-cost ethanol and more ethanol consumption (arguably good for the environment but bad for U.S. farmers)? Or do we want higher-cost ethanol and less ethanol consumption (arguably bad for the environment but good for U.S. farmers)?

Meanwhile, President Obama has fostered a perception that he can ride around on unicorn shooting “green jobs” out of his orifices. (You pick the orifice; credit to Paul Begala for the imagery.) In truth, renewable energy development has slowed dramatically in the past two years. President Obama’s “green jobs” economy is a pipe dream. And, ironically, the “fat cats” on Wall Street are the primary beneficiaries of tax policy intended to subsidize the development of renewable energy production.

This will be a four-part blog post. In part two, I’ll provide a layman’s overview of the energy sector, from “traditional” fossil fuels to alternative energy sources. In part three, I’ll explain the anatomy of a deal. In part four, I'll describe why the “fat cats” on Wall Street are receiving a tax windfall to finance renewable energy development.

What do you get when incoherent energy policy meets bad tax policy? Energy (tax) subsidies for "fat cats." More to come.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Solar Fizzles; Green Jobs "Pipe Dream"

This week, I'm going to focus on the U.S. energy sector. I'll be discussing the landscape broadly, and then specifically discussing the tax policies intended to subsidize the development of renewable energy.

Before I get into the tax policy angle, a couple recent developments:

[1] Governments Lose Bets on Solar Manufacturing

Two U.S. solar manufacturers have recently filed for bankruptcy (Evergreen Solar and Intel spin-off SpectraWatt). The price of solar panels has fallen dramatically as China ramps low-cost manufacturing. That's good news for U.S. energy consumers and the environment, because the cost differential between solar power and power generation from fossil fuels is narrowing. If the trend continues, solar power will become a competitive alternative energy source without government subsidies.

However, the good news for consumers and the environment is bad news for U.S. solar manufacturers and their stakeholders (investors, employees, government benefactors). Despite federal and state subsidies directed at the solar industry, the cost of manufacturing in the United States far exceeds the cost of manufacturing in China and other emerging markets. Evergreen Solar made a losing bet on the wrong technology. SpectraWatt crumbled under market pricing conditions. Industry analysts predict more consolidation in the industry (i.e., more bankruptcies for U.S. and foreign manufacturers).

Along with investors and employees, taxpayers joined in the pain from the bankruptcy filings. Massachusetts directed $21 million in cash grants to Evergreen (along with tax incentives that are now moot). SpectraWatt's bankruptcy filing reported $6 million in "state economic inducements" as assets.

Talk about skewed incentives. Our politicians get to "bet" on business deals with other people's money. If the "bet" is successful, the politician takes the credit. If the "bet" is a bust, the politician blames China and suffers no consequences (because he or she has no skin in the game). Unlike a private enterprise, the "investment" process is so opaque that it's difficult to identify anyone to hold accountable.

[2] Green Jobs "Pipe Dream"

The collapse of the U.S. solar manufacturing industry is the latest bad news for advocates of a transformative "green" economy. On August 18, the New York Times published an interesting article discussing the dismal growth in the "green jobs" sector. (The article focused on the San Francisco Bay Area and California with some general observations about the sector nationally.)

In a development that will take few of us by surprise:
[T]he green economy is not proving to be the job-creation engine that many politicians envisioned. President Obama once pledged to create five million green jobs over 10 years. Gov. Jerry Brown promised 500,000 clean-technology jobs statewide by the end of the decade. But the results so far suggest such numbers are a pipe dream.... A study released in July by the non-partisan Brookings Institution found clean-technology jobs accounted for just 2 percent of employment nationwide [2.7 million jobs].
I suppose that we get the politicians that we deserve. If voters took these types of "pledges" at face value, they were bound to be disappointed. I have no problem with either politician's attempt to set "lofty" aspirations. However, at some point, a "lofty" aspiration starts to resemble the empty promise of a snake oil salesman. Let's see if anyone in the next election cycle tries to hold President Obama accountable for overpromising and underdelivering on his green jobs "pipe dream."

[3] Your Bus Driver Has A "Green Job"

One note on methodology. I skimmed the Brookings Institution report; the allocation of "green jobs" among industries is surprising. The largest two categories of "green jobs" are Waste Management/Treatment (386,000 jobs) and Public Mass Transit (351,000 jobs), followed by Energy-Saving Building Materials (162,000 jobs), Regulation and Compliance (142,000 jobs), Professional Environmental Services (141,000 jobs), Organic Food/Farming (130,000 jobs), and Recyling/Refuse (129,000 jobs).

I'm sure that many of the individuals working in these industries would be surprised that their position qualifies as a "green job." I understand the methodology, but most of these job "categories" have existed for decades -- long before politicians became obsessed with "sustainability." When you start looking at the numbers, it makes you wonder how President Obama kept a straight face when he pledged to create five million new green jobs over the next decade.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tax Reform: Bill Parks

I'd like to use Friday to discuss an interesting article that was published in Tax Notes during the week.

On August 15, Bill Parks offered a set of principles to guide corporate tax reform (For Corporate Taxes: Lower Rates, Raise Revenues, 132 Tax Notes 745).

Our tax system is broken, and the best way forward would be a Big Reform which substantially changes existing tax rules and regulations. In the United States, the taxation of business income has become increasingly skewed between multinational "princes" and domestic "paupers." What do I mean by "princes" and "paupers"? Let's examine two hypothetical businesses.

Assume that ToolCo manufactures specialized parts and equipment for U.S. industrial clients. The business is medium-sized (less than 500 employees), located in the Midwest, and generates solid but unspectacular profits for its owners. ToolCo uses state-of-art engineering software, including some applications (intellectual property) designed by its resourceful technology group, in the manufacturing process. Because ToolCo is a domestic business with domestic IP development, manufacturing and sales, ToolCo's effective tax rate for a multi-year period is consistently in the range of 40%.

Compare ToolCo to BigTool Inc. Like its smaller competitor, BigTool manufactures specialized parts and equipment. However, BigTool is a U.S. based multinational, with thousands of employees located in the U.S. and foreign countries. Through transfer pricing and cost sharing arrangements, BigTool shifts much of the intellectual property for its operations to low-tax foreign jurisdictions. Consequently, BigTool pays the U.S. tax rate (40%) on a relatively small proportion of its worldwide profit. Its global effective tax rate for a multi-year period is consistently in the range of 20%.

In my simple examples, BigTool is the multinational "prince," and ToolCo is the domestic "pauper." The U.S. tax system imposes higher costs on purely domestic businesses, compared to multinational business that can develop intangibles offshore and use transfer pricing to shift income to low-tax jurisdictions.

I am not alleging that U.S.-based multinationals are "avoiding" tax or engaging in otherwise unscrupulous behavior. In fact, large public multinationals are subject to extremely rigorous accounting and financial reporting requirements. They are simply capitalizing on a structural advantage permitted by the existing tax system. The bottom line result, however, is perverse. Capital will flow away from domestic businesses (where after-tax returns are lower) towards multinational businesses (where after-tax returns are higher).

As noted, Bill Parks's recent article offers a set of principles to guide corporate tax reform. I've been noodling on Big Reform ideas lately, and Bill nails one of them on the head:
I propose that we assess corporate taxes on the same percentage of worldwide profits as domestic sales contribute to worldwide sales... Any anomalies will be a small price to pay for fairness and consistency. It eliminates the tendency to manipulate many factors to show most or all profits outside the United States. Calculating this percentage would require firms to report revenues and expenses to the IRS using [International Financial Reporting Standards or "IFRS"].
In other words, scrap existing book-tax differences and key taxable income off book income (in Bill's article, book income reported under IFRS principles). Then, allocate book income between the U.S. and foreign jurisdictions based on a percentage of sales in the respective jurisdictions (again, as reported under IFRS principles). Bill's theory is that the allocation proposal would generate more tax revenue than the existing international tax rules. He would use the additional revenue to lower corporate income tax rates.

The proposal has an intuitive appeal based on its simplicity. It would eliminate our reliance on transfer pricing rules to define and protect the U.S. tax base. Less is more when it comes to transfer pricing: the existing rules are porous, ineffective and impose daunting costs on taxpayers and the IRS.

Let's revisit my example in light of Bill's proposal. ToolCo (the mid-size, purely U.S. business) would be a winner. By broadening the base and lowering rates, domestic manufacturers and service providers (like ToolCo) will have increasingly competitive cost structures. BigTool (the large, multinational business) could be a winner or a loser, depending on its mix of U.S. and foreign sales. If, say, 80% of its sales were made in the United States, it would pay more U.S. tax. On balance, it seems likely that Bill's idea would result in a fairer tax distribution between domestic and foreign businesses. In other words, multinationals would pay more tax under Bill's proposal, because income would no longer flush down the cracks of a leaky transfer pricing system.

Bill's article provides a reminder about tax reform. Reform should be guided by fairness and simplicity. Policymakers should weigh both virtues when designing an improved tax system. Incremental reforms that add complexity are probably worse than no reform at all.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Buffett Bandwagon (Part Two)

Warren Buffett recently published a lecture on tax policy in the New York Times. I discussed Buffett's article here, and a response from the Wall Street Journal here. Today is my last day beating this dead horse.

The Double Taxation Dilemma

In sum, Buffett's main concern is the preferential tax treatment of capital gains for "millionaires and billionaires." Unlike the WSJ, I agree that we should tax capital gains at the same rates as ordinary income. That remains a topic for another day. For now, a relatively quick observation, beginning with Corporate Tax 101.

Most public companies are C corporations, and most of those C corporations pay some U.S. tax on their earnings. The earnings are taxed a second time when the C corporations pay taxable dividends to their shareholders. We refer to this tax law mechanic as "double taxation."

(Likewise, if a shareholder disposes of her shares at a gain which reflects the increased value resulting from the corporate earnings, the gain is subject to tax, resulting in an effective "double tax" on the shareholder. This entire double-tax "problem" could be solved if we treated all corporations as flow-through entities, taxed shareholders on their interest in corporate earnings, and gave shareholders a basis increase for the underlying earnings. Yet another topic for a later post.)

Under current tax rules, qualified dividends and long-term capital gains are subject to preferential tax rates. As the WSJ correctly observes, the lower tax rates reflect a crude attempt to blunt the impact of the "double taxation" dilemma. If a C corporation pays tax at a 40% blended federal-state tax rate, it seems like an overreach to tax dividends at ordinary income rates (35% under current rules). So far, so good.

At this point, the WSJ oversimplifies the commercial and tax landscape. It is true that some amount of capital gains reflects sale of stock in public C corporations (resulting in double taxation). However, I suspect that a large amount of capital gains are derived from the sale of other assets.

For example, if I purchase a bond, and the value of the bond increase because Treasury rates decline, capital gain from the sale of the bond would qualify for a preferential tax rate. However, unlike the shares in a C corporation, which derive their value from the after-tax earnings of the corporation, bonds reflect the valuation of pre-tax cash flows. The WSJ argument falls over when you introduce capital assets other than shares in a C corporation. We don't have a "double taxation" dilemma to solve!

As I'll discuss later, I would tax capital gains at the same rates as ordinary income. In connection with that change, I would reform the tax code to treat all business entities (including public C corporations) as flow-throughs. This one-two punch would eliminate the "double taxation" dilemma. More to come on all of the above.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Buffett Bandwagon (Part One)

Yesterday, I discussed Warren Buffett's most recent lecture on tax policy. Today, the Wall Street Journal jumped on the bandwagon. Meanwhile, David Logan and Peter Pappas beat us both to the punch.

The Bait and Switch

I touched on this yesterday, but the WSJ gives us some numbers to drive home the point. Buffett repudiated the central pillar of President Obama's tax policy agenda by advising that Congress should "leave rates for 99.7 percent of taxpayers unchanged." In other words, Buffett was making a "surgical" argument about the tax policy applicable to actual millionaires and billionaires.

Unlike Buffett, President Obama wants to raises taxes on families with $250,000 in taxable income ($200,000 for individuals). This is roughly the top 2% of U.S. taxpayers, and includes millions of hard-working taxpayers who are light years away from the "millionaire club." So why is President Obama obsessed with tax increases for the working affluent? Because there simply aren't enough "millionaires and billionaires" to quench the President's thirst for additional revenue. From the WSJ:
In 2009, 237,000 taxpayers reported income above $1 million and they paid $178 billion in taxes. A mere 8,274 filers reported income above $10 million, and they paid only $54 billion in taxes.

But 3.92 million reported income above $200,000 in 2009, and they paid $434 billion in taxes. To put it another way, roughly 90% of the tax filers who would pay more under Mr. Obama's plan aren't millionaires, and 99.99% aren't billionaires.

Mr. Buffett says it's only "fair" to raise his taxes, but he's lending his credibility to raising taxes on millions of middle-class earners for whom a few extra thousand dollars in after-tax income is a big deal. Unlike Mr. Buffett, those middle-class earners aren't rich and may earn $250,000 for only a few years of their working lives. How is that fair?
President Obama has attempted to "energize the base" by lumping together the working affluent with "millionaires and billionaires." But here's the problem with this plank in Obama's platform. As government expands, the definition of "wealthy" taxpayer will go down. Today, it's $250,000. Tomorrow, it will be $200,000, or perhaps $150,000. After all, wealth is relative. Pretty soon, everybody at 400% of the federal poverty line will be considered "wealthy," and everybody else will be looking to attract "government investments" by way of transfer payments. If the ultimate goal is "equality," then increasing taxes on the working affluent, and then the middle class, is a good way to start. (If you can't raise the lowest common denominator, then simply lower it...voila, equality!)

Meanwhile, the actual "millionaires and billionaires" will likely keep squabbling about tax policy while sipping margaritas at the beach.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Buffett on Taxes ... Again

For the umpteenth time, Warren Buffett has petitioned Congress to raise tax rates on "millionaires and billionaires."

In a New York Times editorial published August 14, Buffett makes the following recommendation to Congress:
I would leave rates for 99.7 percent of taxpayers unchanged and continue the current 2-percentage-point reduction in the employee contribution to the payroll tax. This cut helps the poor and the middle class, who need every break they can get.

But for those making more than $1 million — there were 236,883 such households in 2009 — I would raise rates immediately on taxable income in excess of $1 million, including, of course, dividends and capital gains. And for those who make $10 million or more — there were 8,274 in 2009 — I would suggest an additional increase in rate.
I'm weary of Buffett's lectures on tax policy. One week, he lectures Congress to raise taxes on "millionaires and billionaires." The next week, he lectures President Obama for scapegoating the private jet industry. (Note that Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns NetJets, a business-jet operator.) He occasionally makes a valid point, but advocates of Big Government ignore the nuances and use Buffett as the poster boy for Big Taxes on everyone.

A few observations on Buffett's tired refrain:

[1] Buffett's main concern is the preferential tax treatment of capital gains. I'm sympathetic to the argument, but that's a topic for another day. My problem with Buffett is that his focus on capital gains obscures a more pressing issue: our tax system is fundamentally broken.

Imagine a patient in critical condition in a hospital emergency room. Buffett is like an orthopedic surgeon, anxiously fluttering around the ER doctors while fretting over a manageable knee injury. Sure, the knee injury will require treatment. But we need to stabilize the patient before we treat the knee. We need comprehensive tax reform, and the taxation of capital gains should be part of that reform process. Buffett's focus on capital gains recognized by "millionaires and billionaires" puts the cart before the horse.

[2] Buffett thinks that dividend and capital gains tax rates should be higher for "millionaires and billionaires." How about a compromise position? In connection with fundamental tax reform, why not "phase out" the tax preference for dividends and capital gains in excess of $1 million? That seems to me a kind of rough justice. Although Buffett might be open to such a compromise, President Obama is focused on class warfare for political purposes.

[3] Buffett would "leave rates for 99.7 percent of taxpayers unchanged." This is a repudiation, not an endorsement, of President Obama and other left-wing policymakers who sweep households with $250,000 in adjusted gross income into the same category as "millionaires and billionaires."

[4] Although Buffett repudiates the central strategy in President Obama's class warfare playbook, expect the media and left-wing policymakers to focus on a more general narrative: billionaire Warren Buffett as the poster-boy for Big Taxes on everyone.

[5] I keep waiting for Buffett to put his money where his mouth is. Nothing prevents Buffett, Bill Gates, or any other "millionaire or billionaire" from making a large "donation" to the federal government, or state government(s), or local municipalities. However, Buffett has pledged most of his personal fortune to charitable foundations. Kudos to Buffett for the philanthropic gestures, but the call for Bigger Taxes is starkly hypocritical. If Buffett believes that politicians are good economic stewards, why did he allocate most of his personal fortune to charitable foundations rather than writing a big check to the IRS?

Message to Buffett: more action ... less talk.

Monday, August 15, 2011


I’m ending my hiatus and getting back in the blogging saddle. I was traveling for a few weeks, and catching up for a few weeks. During my travels, I was fortunate to avoid the political drama (and media frenzy) surrounding the debt-ceiling debate. While catching up, I couldn’t avoid the media frenzy (or political drama).

We all know the ultimate outcome of the debate: an agreement to lift the debt ceiling by approximately $2 trillion in three steps, conditioned on "deficit savings" of a similar amount. A good summary of legislation (the "Budget Control Act of 2011") is available here.

The first two steps will increase the debt ceiling by approximately $900 billion. The third step will increase the debt ceiling by another $1.2-$1.5 trillion, depending on the outcome of budget negotiations within a Congressional fiscal-reform “SuperCommittee.” Democrats and Republicans will each appoint six members to the SuperCommittee, and the twelve members of Congress will negotiate a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases that are intended to exceed the amount of the debt-ceiling increase. If the SuperCommittee is unable to agree on a mix of cuts and revenue increases, automatic spending cuts will take effect.

The ratings agency S&P is not sanguine that the SuperCommittee will take credible steps towards “fiscal consolidation” in the existing political climate. On Friday, August 5, S&P downgraded the credit rating of U.S. Treasuries from AAA to AA+ (with a negative outlook). The Downgrade and other economic factors traumatized the financial markets last week. Ironically, investors dumped stocks in favor of U.S. Treasuries as a “safe haven” investment. Go figure.

Reactions to the Downgrade were mixed. The Obama administration challenged the credibility of the Downgrade, arguing that S&P’s assumptions were flawed. (An important factor motivating the Downgrade is the spectacularly polarized relationship between Democrats and Republicans, and the resulting dysfunction on Capitol Hill.) Conspiracy theorists speculated that S&P was attempting to establish its objectivity, and thus salvage its reputation in Europe, where it has begun losing market share after downgrades of European sovereigns.

The majority view ranged from indifference to resignation to mild optimism. For most political and market observers, the Downgrade was neither a surprise (S&P telegraphed it in mid-July), nor a harbinger of doom (as noted, investors fled to U.S. Treasuries after the downgrade). Most observers viewed the Downgrade as an official wake-up call.

In my view, the Downgrade was several years late. We’ve always known that entitlement spending was unsustainable in the long run; and the gap between projected revenues and expenditures has been exacerbated by the Great Recession. We collectively borrowed too much to fuel a decades-long binge on consumption and government transfer payments. The resulting economic bubble has burst with devastating consequences; the aging Baby Boom population will become an immense strain on federal and state budgets in the next decade; and our flabby industrial sector faces ruthless competition from emerging-market economies. We are facing the abyss, and our political leaders have been slow to acknowledge the severity of our fiscal imbalance. Everyone deserves a share of the blame: Democrats; Republicans; and a voting public that rewards incompetence with re-election.

Can the new SuperCommittee take baby steps towards fiscal sustainability? During the last year, two bipartisan committees produced serious recommendations to address our nation’s long-term fiscal imbalance (see here and here). I’m hopeful, although not optimistic, that the SuperCommittee will build upon some of those recommendations.

If I had to wager, I’d put my money on “politics as usual,” with Democrats (and many Republicans) opposing sensible entitlement reforms, and Republicans (and many Democrats) opposing sensible reforms to tax expenditures. The Obama administration ignored the recommendations of its own budget-reform committee, which speaks volumes about its commitment to tackle the fiscal crisis. More disturbingly, President Obama takes every opportunity to poison the well, by obsessing publicly over tax breaks to “millionaires and billionaires,” defining “millionaires and billionaires” as “households earning more than $250,000.” But that’s a post for another day.