Glenn’s Take on the Proposal at the G7 Meeting to Impose a Minimum Tax on Corporate Profits

   The G7 (or Group of 7) is an organization of seven large economies: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Only democratic countries are included, so China is not a member. At a recent meeting attended by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the group agreed to adopt a uniform corporate tax rate of at least 15 percent.

Glenn discusses this decision in the following opinion column published in the Financial Times.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Paolo Gentiloni, European Commissioner for Economy, at a recent meeting of the G7.

Governments Should Tax Cash Flow, Not Global Corporate Income

From the Biden administration’s inception, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has championed a global minimum tax for corporations. While the US walked back from a request for a 21 per cent rate (which was linked to an objective of raising the current US corporate tax of 21 per cent to between 25 and 28 per cent), it did lock in with G7 finance ministers a rate of at least 15 per cent. Secretary Yellen praised the move: “That global minimum tax would end the race to the bottom in corporate taxation, and ensure fairness for the middle class and working people in the US and around the world.”

It is tough to argue that corporate income shouldn’t pay its “fair share”. But the global minimum tax raises both political and economic questions.

Politics first. Approval in the US is likely to be tough. The minimum tax is estimated by the OECD to raise as much as $50bn-$80bn per year, much of it from successful American firms. Revenue to the US Treasury would be part of this amount, but small relative to the substantial expansion in spending proposed by the Biden administration. Will other governments engage their own political costs to achieve a deal that may be ephemeral if it fails to get US legislative approval? Even if the deal succeeds, might it hand a competitive victory to China? As a non-party to G7 or OECD proposals, could it not use both tax rates and subsidies to draw more investment to China?

But it is on economics that the global minimum tax draws more sensitive questions in two areas. The first is the design of the tax base. The second addresses the foundational question of the problem policymakers are trying to solve and whether the new minimum tax is the best way to do so.

A 15 per cent rate is not particularly useful without an agreement on what the tax base is. Particularly for the US, home to many very profitable technology companies, the concern should arise that countries will use special taxes and subsidies that effectively target certain industries. The US has had a version of a minimum tax of foreign earnings since the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 enshrined GILTI (Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income) provision into law. The Biden administration wants to use the new global minimum tax to raise the GILTI rate and expand the tax base by eliminating a GILTI deduction for overseas plant and equipment investments.

For a 15 per cent minimum rate to make sense, countries would need a uniform tax base. Presumably, the goal of the new minimum tax is to limit the benefits to companies of shifting profits to low-tax jurisdictions, not to distort where those firms invest. The combination of a global minimum tax with the broad base advocated by the Biden administration could reduce cross-border investments and reduce the profitability of large multinational firms.

A still deeper economic issue is that of who bears the tax burden. I noted above that projected revenue increases are small compared to G7 government spending levels. It is not corporations who would pay more, but capital owners generally and workers, according to contemporary economic views of who bears the burden of the tax.

There is a better way to achieve what Yellen and her finance minister colleagues are trying to accomplish. To begin with, countries could allow full expensing of investment. That approach would move the tax system away from a corporate income tax toward a cash flow tax, long favoured by economists. In this revision, the minimum tax would not distort new investment decisions. It would also push the tax burden on to economic rents—profits in excess of the normal return to capital—better satisfying the apparent G7 goal of garnering more revenue from the most profitable large companies. And such a system would be simpler to administer, as multinationals would not need to set up different ways to track deductible investment costs over time in different countries.

In the debate leading up to the 2017 US tax law changes, Congress considered a version of this idea in a destination-based cash flow tax. Like a value added tax, this would tax corporate profits based on cash flows in a given country. The reform, which foundered on the political desirability of border adjustments, limits tax biases against investment and boosts tax fairness.

Returning to the numbers: countries with large levels of public spending relative to gross domestic product, as the Biden administration proposes, fund it mainly with value added taxes, not traditional corporate income taxes. A better global tax system is possible, but it starts with a verdict of “not GILTI.”

NEW! – 04/09/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the longer-term impact of several post-pandemic fiscal policy efforts and the new Biden administration infrastructure investment proposal.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the long-term impacts of recent fiscal policy decisions as well as the proposed infrastructure investment by the Biden administration. The most recent round of fiscal stimulus means that we’re spending almost 4.5 Trillion which is a high percentage of what we recently spent in an entire fiscal year. They deal with the question of if the infrastructure spending will increase future productivity or will just be spent on the social programs. Also, Glenn deals with the proposed corporate tax increase to 28% which has been designated to fund these programs but does have an impact on stock market values held by millions through 401K’s and IRA’s.

Just search Hubbard O’Brien Economics on Apple iTunes or any other Podcast provider and subscribe!

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NEW! – 02/19/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss early thoughts on the Biden Administration’s economic plan.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss early thoughts on the Biden Administration’s economic plan. They consider criticisms of the most recent stimulus packages price tag of $1.9B that it may spur inflation in future quarters. They offer thoughts on how this may become the primary legislative initiative of Biden’s first term as it crowds out other potential policy initiatives. Questions are asked about what bounce we may see for the economy and comparisons are made to the Post World War II era. Please listen and share with students!

The following editorials are mentioned in the podcast:

Glenn Hubbard’s Washington Post Editorial with Alan Blinder

Olivier Blanchard’s comments on the Stimulus in a Peterson Institute for International Economics post

Larry Summer’s WaPo editorial about the risks of the stimulus:

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Census Bureau Releases Results from the American Community Survey

Each year the U.S. Census Bureau conducts the American Community Survey (ACS) by surveying 3.5 million households on a wide range of questions including their income, their employment, their ethnicity, their marital status, how large their house or apartment is, and how many cars they own. The ACS is the most reliable source of data on these issues and is widely used by economists, business managers, and government policy makers. The data for 2019 and for the five-year period 2015-2019 were released on December 10. You can learn more about the survey and explore the data on the ACS website.

The ACS provides data on increases in income over time by different ethnic groups. This news article discusses the result that between 2005 and 2019, the incomes of Asian American grew the fastest, followed by the incomes of Hispanics, the incomes of non-Hispanic whites, and the incomes of African Americans.

Measuring Changes in Income Inequality

As we discuss in Chapter 17, there are several complications in accurately measuring changes in the distribution of income over time. First, people will not typically remain in the same place in the income distribution their whole lives. Instead, their incomes are likely to fluctuate, moving them up and down the income distribution. So comparing the distribution of income for the whole population at two points in time can give a misleading idea of how the incomes of particular individuals changed. Measuring income mobility can be difficult, however, because it entails tracking the incomes of individuals over time. Doing that requires specialized studies rather than relying on the more readily available government data we can use to track changes in the incomes of the whole population. 

Second, we are more interested in the income people have available to spend rather than the income they earn. Because people pay taxes on the incomes they receive and because many people receive transfer payments from the government, including unemployment insurance payments and Social Security payments, the income distribution is more equal if we measure it after taking into account the taxes people pay and the transfer payments they receive.

Finally, people earn income from a variety of sources in addition to wages and salaries, including dividends they receive from owning stock, capital gains they earn from selling a financial or other asset, and income they earn from owning a business such as a restaurant or dry cleaners. The income people at the top of the income distribution earn from owning a business can be particularly hard to measure because it depends on how the income is reported to the Internal Revenue Service, which depends in turn on changes in laws affecting how businesses are organized and how they pay taxes. Dealing with these measurement issues is particular important in determining how much the share of income earned by the top 1% of the income distribution has changed over time—an issue that has been the subject of much political debate.

Wojciech Kopczuk of Columbia University and Eric Zwick of the University of Chicago address these measurement issues in a new article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Even skimming the article makes clear just how difficult the measurement issues are. Click HERE to read the article.

Note that the article is part of a symposium on income and wealth inequality that appears in that issue of the journal. The other articles in the symposium are also worth reading. Articles that appear in the Journal of Economic Perspectives are frequently (but not always!) nontechnical summaries of research that can be read without knowledge of economics beyond the principles course. 

10/24/20 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the economics of issues raised during the Final 2020 Presidential Debate.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the economic impacts of what was discussed in the final Presidental debate on 10/22/20. They discuss wide-ranging topics that were raised in the debate from reopening the economy & schools, decreasing participation of women in the workforce due to COVID, healthcare, environment, and general tax policy. Listen to gain economic context on these important items. Click HERE for the New York Times article discussed during the Podcast:

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5/15/20 Podcast – Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien Welcome Guest – Texas A&M Economics Professor, Jonathan Meer

Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien continue their podcast series hosting guest – Jonathan Meer, Professor of Economics from Texas A&M University as well as the Director of the Private Enterprise Research Center at Texas A&M. During the conversation, we learn about Jonathan’s teaching over 3,500 students annually in a large online Principles of Microeconomics lecture course. He discusses how his usual online teaching absolutely helped his transition when Texas A&M closed for the semester. He also talks about the state of Higher Education, non-profit giving, as well as some challenges nonprofits face in these uncertain times.

Some notes from this Podcast if you’d like more information:

1. Link to Jonathan Meer’s Youtube video on setting up an online course:

Jonathan Meer of Texas A&M University shares his best practices for teaching economics online.

2. Link to Jonathan’s website page providing links to his research papers on altruism and charitable giving: http://people.tamu.edu/~jmeer/research.html

3. Nontechnical summary of Jonathan’s research with Harvey Rosen on charitable giving: https://www.nber.org/reporter/2018number1/rosen.html

4. Please refer to the Apply the Concept feature from Chapter 2 of Hubbard and O’Brien Economics, 7/E, on the use of market mechanisms to allocate food at the Feeding America charity (for your convenience, we hope to post this shortly so check back).

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