In a capital-starved economy, what makes more sense than allowing firms access to their own capital? For one year beginning in 2011, hundreds of thousands of S corporations around the country will be able to do just that, thanks to the efforts of the S Corporation Association and its allies in Congress, particularly Senators Grassley, Lincoln, Hatch, and Snowe and Representatives Kind and Reichert.
On September 27th, President Obama signed into law the Small Business Lending Fund Act of 2010 (HR 5297). Among other business friendly provisions, the bill includes one of the S Corporation Association’s tax priorities, a reduction in the built-in gains holding period. The provision is for 2011 only, but it allows firms that converted as few as five years ago to sell appreciated assets without paying the punitive built-in gains tax.
This success builds on last year’s reduction in the holding period to seven years, and we hope it signals a move towards permanently reducing the holding period below the old ten-year requirement. Ten years is a long time, and in a world where capital is dear, it only makes sense for firms planning new investments to begin by accessing their own capital.
Latest on Tax Outlook
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has lost control of the tax debate headed into the November elections. Last week, 31 House Democrats signed a letter supporting extending all the individual tax rates, including the top two rates. Then, 47 Democrats wrote Speaker Pelosi calling for keeping dividend and capital gains rates at their current 15 percent. As The Hill reports:
Forty-seven House Democrats have signed a letter calling on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to extend the current tax rate on capital gains and dividends. “By keeping dividends and capital gains tax rates linked and low for everyone, we can help the private sector create jobs and allow seniors and middle-class households to save and invest more,” the letter states. Under current law, beginning next year capital gains will be taxed at 20 percent while dividends will be taxed at ordinary income rates that go as high as 39.6 percent.
As a result, a majority of House members now support extending all the current rates, at least temporarily. How is it possible that an issue that’s been 10 years in the making is still unresolved eight weeks before the election? Keith Hennessey has a very good entry on his blog outlining the steps Congress took to get here. As Keith points out:
The sequence of events was:
1. The President picks a big fight on the tax extension and highlights the partisan split;
2. a handful of Senate Democrats signal they’re not onboard; (first warning)
3. the Speaker says “the Senate will go first;” (second warning)
4. the President doubles down on the fight and elevates the conflict by making it the centerpiece of his election-cycle argument;
5. the President’s just-resigned budget director guts the President’s argument in his first New York Times column; (third warning)
6. (same day as #5) the President proposes “new” policies that are ignored by both sides; (confusion reigns)
7. Members return from August recess;
8. 30 House Democrats bail on the President’s position; (final blow)
9. Senate Democrats delay the vote until after the election.
That’s not poor coordination, it’s a total absence of coordination. Going into a highly partisan conflict on the other team’s turf, you either make sure your team is unified first, or when you figure out they’re not, you concede or switch topics quickly. We have seen a strategy and an alliance slowly collapse over a several month period. I don’t understand how the blue team [Democratic] leaders could allow that to happen.
So that’s how we got here. How does the Speaker respond? Last month, we listed the possible outcomes of the rate debate. Congress could:
- Extend all current tax policies (except the estate tax rules) for one or two years;
- Extend just those policies benefiting families making less than $250,000; or
- Do nothing and leave this issue to the next Congress.
The events of the last week have killed option two. There may be a way for the Speaker to move a middle-class-only bill through the House, but we are unable to think of how. There’s talk they may consider the bill under the Suspension Calendar, but suspensions need two-thirds support in order to pass, and the Speaker doesn’t control a simple majority on this issue. Once you lose the majority on an issue in the House, you generally lose.
Option one is becoming increasingly likely, but it would require the Speaker to allow a vote on blocking all the tax hikes when Congress returns in November. She may not control a majority on this issue, but she does control the floor. It would also require an emboldened Republican conference to accept a temporary fix to an issue they probably would like to fight next year.
So while “extending all” is moving up on the options list, we continue to believe the most likely outcome is that this issue will remain unresolved through the end of the year and would be the first order of business for the new Congress.
More on “Big” vs. “Small”
Meanwhile, the debate over how higher rates might impact business continues. On Meet the Press Sunday, Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) made the following point about extending all the tax rates:
They have tried to mask this as an issue with small businesses. Well, it turns out that only 2 percent of small businesses are affected. And when you look at the definition of small businesses, you find that they’re big hedge funds, big Washington lobbying firms, KKR, Pricewaterhouse. Because, under the definition of tax code, anything that’s an S corporation qualifies. So I want Mike to tell us whether he really believes that KKR, whether Pricewaterhouse, whether those are the kind of small businesses that need help? Because that’s the folks that they’re trying to help out.
S-CORP ally and AEI economist Alan Viard warned policymakers about this argument earlier this month. As he wrote in an AEI research piece:
A common argument is that the high-income rate reductions lower taxes on small business. The valid form of this argument, recently explained by Kevin A. Hassett and myself, is that the rate reductions lower marginal tax rates on investment by all firms, including small businesses. Unfortunately, the more common forms of the argument adopt an exclusive focus on small business and obscure the growth implications.
To begin, the argument is often founded on the mistaken premise that small firms are inherently better than large firms, which suggests that the government should interfere with market forces to promote the former over the latter. In a previous Outlook, Amy Roden and I explained that firms of all sizes contribute to national prosperity and demonstrated that small firms do not play a disproportionately large role in job creation. By focusing only on small (more precisely, pass-through) firms, the argument ignores the adverse effect of letting the high-income rate reductions expire on investment by big business. The data cited above suggest that the affected high-income households finance a greater fraction of corporate investment than pass-through investment. The potential tax-rate increase on corporate investment is also larger, at least if the dividend tax cut fully expires.
While in the past we’ve disagreed with Alan on the job creating capabilities of smaller businesses, we agree wholeheartedly with him that allowing the rate debate to devolve into a fight over the size of the businesses affected is simply a distraction. This is a debate about jobs and not raising taxes on employers, regardless of how many people they employ.
On the question of large S corporations, the IRS does a nice job of breaking down the S corporation community by size and industry in its SOI reports. The most recent numbers can be found in the IRS data book while more in-depth figures date back to 2007. Here’s a quick profile we pulled from the numbers:
- There are 4.5 million S corporations (2009);
- The average S corporation has $1.5 million in revenues and $100,000 in income (2007); and
- Assuming a wage of $40,000, the average S corporation has five employees (2007).
These are simple averages, but they provide a general sense of the S corporation world. In terms of revenues, the majority of S corporations can be found in wholesale and retail, followed by construction, manufacturing, and then professional services.
In short, S corporations are large and small. They are active in every industry and in every community, and they provide millions of much-needed jobs to families across the country — even the big ones.
Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus staked out unique turf yesterday, calling for keeping tax policy stable for middle class taxpayers, allowing rates to rise for taxpayers making more than $250,000, but for taxing capital gains and dividends at 20 percent. As BNA reports:
“I’m going for policy, and I think 20 percent for both capital gains and dividends is the right policy,” Baucus told reporters. Baucus acknowledged that the tax cut would specifically benefit the same $200,000 per year individuals that he has said should not expect to see their ordinary income tax rates cut again for 2011, but said the difference is that capital gains and dividends deserve to be treated the same under the tax code.
For wages and salary income for top-earning taxpayers, Baucus reiterated his position that Congress should focus on permanent tax cuts for only middle-class households and not entertain any temporary extensions of tax cuts for high-income individuals.
In effect, Senator Baucus is pressing for the tax policies outlined in President Obama’s budget. That budget called for taxing dividends at 20 percent, but the rhetorical battle over the past year has allowed that fact to slip aside. As your S corporation advocates, we feel compelled to observe the inconsistency of a policy that would keep (dividend) rates low for C corporation shareholders but would allow rates to go up for S corporation shareholders. Why is one better than the other?
Exactly how all this gets done also is unclear. There may be some effort in the Senate to bring up and pass a Baucus-like bill before the Senate adjourns (probably at the end of next week now), but that effort will likely be wrapped up with strict limits on debate and amendments, and the Republican minority has been successful this Congress blocking such requests.
If the Majority Leader wants to get anything done before the elections, he’ll need to set some time aside and let the Senate work its will. With time so short, we don’t expect that to happen.
S-CORP in Wall Street Journal
With the focus on flow-through businesses and the pending tax hikes, your S-CORP team is getting more press these days. The latest was earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, where journalist John D. McKinnon quoted S-CORP Executive Director Brian Reardon on a story summarizing the rate debate. As the Journal writes:
Republicans cite studies showing roughly half of all such income would be affected by raising the top two rates. Democrats say only about 3% of households reporting such income account for that half. That suggests much of the income comes from big businesses operating under small-business structures, they say. Businesses affected by the top tax rates include all sorts of concerns, from farms and manufacturers to high-tech and professional firms.
That trend has been under way for years. Congress authorized Subchapter S corporations in 1958 to encourage the growth of small companies. The popularity of pass-through entities grew in the 1980s with the lowering of individual tax rates and other rule changes.
By now, “the vast majority of employers in this country are organized as flow-throughs,” said Brian Reardon, executive director of the S Corporation Association, which represents such companies.
Later, John gets to the heart of the matter:
But the new-found importance of such enterprises-regardless of their size-means raising individual tax rates could have significant economic impacts. This week, Moody’s Economy.com said raising taxes on higher earners would reduce GDP by 0.4 percentage point in 2011, while payroll employment would be 770,000 lower by mid-2012.
As we’ve pointed out before, the debate over tax rates is really a debate about jobs. The current obsession of policymakers over distinctions between small and large businesses or manufacturers verses professional services businesses is really beside the point. There are S corporations and partnerships in all business sectors, and they are all employers.
Following yesterday’s comments by President Obama, the S Corporation Association joined together with more than 30 other business associations to make the case for action by Congress to avoid the massive tax hike on private enterprise looming next year. As the letter states:
Main Street businesses are America’s job creators. They are responsible for 60 percent of the net new jobs created in the last decade. But uncertainty about the economy and looming tax hikes have kept this sector from hiring new workers, resulting in a weak economic recovery and slow to nonexistent job growth. Until Main Street begins to hire, we fear the unemployment rate will remain unacceptably high.
Congress returns next week and the first order of business will be the much-delayed package of small business tax provisions. This legislation is the perfect vehicle for extending the tax rates and Congress should jump at the chance. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, failure to take action would mean that taxes next year will rise on families and businesses by $227 billion.
Despite the President’s opposition, momentum for extending all the expiring rates appears to be growing. In recent weeks, senators Ben Nelson (D-NE), Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Evan Bayh (D-IN) have all expressed support for extending all of the rates. Meanwhile, former OMB Director Peter Orzag wrote in the New York Times earlier that, given a choice between doing nothing and extending everything next year, Congress should extend everything.
Each of these Senate defections is significant since any effort to extend current tax policy will need 60 votes, and the Democrats only control 59 prior to the elections. As The Hill noted today:
Senate Democrats would need all 59 Democrats and at least one Republican to pass the Obama administration’s plan to extend tax cuts for the middle class while allowing the tax breaks for the highest-income tax brackets to expire. That plan could be a non-starter in the Senate without Nelson’s support, since another GOP vote would be needed for passage.
Moreover, the Democrat’s majority may shrink immediately after the November elections. Three states — Delaware, Illinois, and West Virginia — will immediately seat their new Senators after the elections in November rather than wait until January, which means if any of those seats change parties, support for a full extension would grow.
As before, we continue to believe the most likely outcome is continued stalemate on extending the rates and no action by Congress this year, followed closely by Congress choosing to extend all of the rates for at least a year. Each additional defection, combined with any Republican victories in Delaware, West Virginia, and Illinois, increases the odds that the latter option becomes law.
S-CORP on Fox Business News
S Corporation Association Executive Director Brian Reardon appeared on Fox Business News last week to discuss the Obama Administration’s newest stimulus proposals.
As discussed above, if the Obama Administration wants to see some real stimulus, it should seek to remove the policy uncertainty hanging over the private sector and support extending all of the current tax provisions that either expired last year or are scheduled to expire next year.
While some of the specific tax items offered up — particularly expensing and a permanent R&E tax credit — are attractive to members on both sides of the aisle, finishing the existing “honey-do” list of tax items is more important.
The amount of capital available to the private sector — and currently buried in money market funds and ridiculously low-interest Treasuries — completely dwarfs the $180 billion package proposed by the President, even without the offsetting tax hikes that are planned to accompany the package. Getting that capital off the sidelines is the first step towards helping the job market recover.
The headline says it all. The long-awaited Volcker Tax Reform Commission report was released last Friday and was immediately put on a shelf someplace in the basement of the Ways and Means Committee. According to the Commission members:
The Board was asked to consider various options for achieving these goals but was asked to exclude options that would raise taxes for families with incomes less than $250,000 a year. We interpreted this mandate not to mean that every option we considered must avoid a tax increase on such families, but rather that the options taken together should be revenue neutral for each income class with annual incomes less than $250,000.
In general, the report’s authors sought to provide “helpful advice to the Administration” on “options for changes in the current tax system to achieve three broad goals: simplifying the tax system, improving taxpayer compliance with existing tax laws, and reforming the corporate tax system.” The Board was not asked to consider major tax reforms.
Just how helpful this advice is remains to be seen, but the low-key manner in which the report was released suggests the Administration does not see the report itself as a useful message vehicle. Proposals to raise taxes seldom are.
For S corporations, two recommendations stand out:
Payroll Tax Provision: The report suggests that payroll tax policy could be changed so that all active S corporation shareholders, LLC members and limited partners pay payroll taxes on all distributions from their businesses. Under the heading of “Disadvantages”, the report states:
The revenues raised from the proposal would come primarily from owners of small businesses. Moreover, it would impose employment taxes on income that is partially a return on capital rather than a return on labor.
Our point exactly.
Business Structure Neutrality: As a part of corporate tax reform, the report states that “a goal of reform in this area is tax neutrality with respect to organizational form” including these two options:
One option would be to require firms with certain “corporate” characteristics—publicly traded businesses, businesses satisfying certain income or asset thresholds, or businesses with a large number of shareholders—to pay the corporate income tax. In effect, this would broaden the corporate tax base by applying the corporate tax to more businesses….
An alternative option would eliminate the double taxation of corporate income and harmonize tax rates on corporate and non-corporate income through “integration” with the individual income tax. In one example of such a system, individual investors would be credited for all or part of the tax paid at the corporate level against their individual taxes.
In other words, you could harmonize the tax treatment of business income by either imposing the corporate tax on more entities or by reducing the double tax currently paid by C corporation shareholders. Again, the disadvantages of option one highlighted by the Commission speak volumes:
Achieving neutrality between corporate and non-corporate businesses by subjecting more businesses to the corporate tax would increase the cost of capital and thus decrease investment in those businesses.
More on Pending Tax Hikes
Our friends on the Hill pointed out a new survey of the National Association of Business Economists membership on the pending tax hikes. The survey found that more than half of NABE economists support extending all the marginal tax rates (including the upper brackets) while six out of ten support keeping the rates on capital gains and dividends at 15 percent. Other interesting results:
- Three quarters support promoting economic growth over reducing the deficit;
- Three quarters oppose further fiscal stimulus; and
- A large plurality support “clarity on future regulation and tax policy” over other ways in which the government can best “encourage increased employment.”
We are hearing this last point repeatedly these days — the best thing Congress can do is provide a little policy certainty to the markets. Congress is not doing the things it is supposed to (budgets, tax extenders, etc.) while it is considering and adopting dramatic changes to rules by which businesses relate to their employees, their customers, and their government. Markets do not like uncertainty, yet the current policy climate here in D.C. is rife with it. CNN points out that in the area of tax policy alone, more than 100 tax relief provisions affecting just about everybody are waiting to be extended.
Finally, on the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, four out of five respondents did not believe the Commission would produce a credible plan that could pass Congress. On that one, we’re not so sure. A growing number of smart folks around town are suggesting the Commission may be the best chance we have in the next couple years to get the federal deficit under control. Maybe; but either way, we’re guessing that report won’t be released on a Friday.
Last night, the Senate voted 60-39 to close debate on a Landrieu amendment to restore the $30 billion lending facility to the small business bill. This amendment was made necessary because earlier in the week, the leadership had dropped the lending facility due to staunch opposition from key swing votes.
The Senate is now on an unrelated bill, but we expect it to resume debate on the small business bill sometime next week – which will likely push House consideration of the bill into September. What’s the prognosis? Here’s the S-CORP Crystal Ball:
- Progress on the bill had been slowed by two points of contention: opposition to the lending facility, and demands (mainly by Republicans) to offer amendments on the estate tax and other tax items. The 60 votes in support of the lending provisions should put an end to that debate. The Senate has worked its will and members will likely move on, at least until negotiations take place between the House and the Senate.
- The next step will be a cloture vote on the Baucus Substitute. This is the tax portion of the bill that includes some very good provisions, including the bonus depreciation and built-in gains relief. There’s a good chance the first attempt to get cloture will fall short, with Republicans holding together in an effort to get votes on key amendments; they support the tax provisions, but want their amendments, too.
- At that point, our crystal ball gets fuzzy. We could end up with an agreement for one or two key votes and then final passage. Or the Leader could continue to block any additional amendments and try one last time to get cloture.
With two weeks left in the session, the Senate has two “must pass” items: the Kagan nomination and the small business bill. Getting both done is doable, but it’s going to require a concerted effort. With all of the bad policies on the horizon for small businesses, a friendly package of tax provisions would be a welcome respite. Here’s hoping the Senate succeeds in moving this bill.
Future of Expiring Tax Cuts: Update
Lots of conflicting news this week on future of the expiring tax cuts:
- “Democrats are considering a plan to delay tax hikes on the wealthy for two years because the economic recovery is slow and they fear getting crushed in November’s election.” The Hill, July 22nd.
- “In a speech on the economy and jobs, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Friday reiterated his party’s call to extend the Bush middle-class tax cuts and deemed Republicans’ call to extend breaks for the wealthy a ‘mistake [that] would be putting ourselves even deeper into debt.’” The Hill, July 22nd.
- “Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) is eyeing September for possible committee action on extending individual tax cuts that are scheduled to expire at the end of the year, according to Senate aides. Baucus held a meeting with Republicans and Democrats on his committee Thursday evening to begin discussing how to deal with the approaching expiration of the tax cuts. Baucus raised the possibility of a September committee vote, people present said. Aides cautioned that no conclusions about what to do or when to do it were reached at the meeting.” Dow Jones, July 21st.
- “Sen. Kent Conrad (D., N.D.), a senior Senate Democrat with influence over tax and budget policy, said Wednesday that Congress shouldn’t allow taxes on the wealthy to rise until the economy is on a more sound footing. Conrad told Dow Jones Newswires in an interview outside the Senate chamber that Democrats should cancel plans to let the top individual income-tax rates and capital-gains rates rise for the wealthy at the end of this year. He said a tax increase might imperil an economy already weakened by the effects of persistent unemployment and turmoil in European debt markets.” Dow Jones, July 21st.
So, the future of tax policy is clear as mud. What are the possible outcomes for the expiring tax cuts?
- Congress does nothing and all the tax cuts expire;
- Congress adopts a temporary (one- or two-year) extension of the middle class tax relief; or
- Congress adopts a temporary extension of all the tax relief.
It’s not intuitive, but we believe the second option — Congress extends the middle class tax cuts only — is the least likely outcome. It’s counterintuitive because that is the preferred policy of the leadership in Congress and the Obama Administration. It’s least likely because it will be hard for leadership, especially in the Senate, to cobble together the necessary votes. Republicans are likely to oppose en masse, and deficit hawk Democrats will object to the cost.
On the other hand, a one-year extension of all the tax cuts could carve out super majorities in both the House and the Senate, but that would require congressional leadership to move a bill over the objections of a significant portion of their conference. They might, but they haven’t been willing to do that to date.
Instead, faced with the no-win situation of dividing their base, leadership could choose to do nothing. With the legislative clock ticking, we see that as the most likely outcome. Congress does nothing, or makes a half hearted effort and falls short, and all the tax relief goes away.
Predicting is risky and we’ve been wrong many times. We hope we’re wrong this time too.
It’s July 14th, 2010. There are approximately 30 legislative days before the fall elections and less than six months before huge portions of the tax code expire, so it’s only appropriate that today, the Senate Finance Committee held the first substantive hearing on the implications of allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire. Some key points:
- Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) clearly takes a dim view of flow-through taxation for certain firms and appears dismissive of arguments that higher rates will hurt the business community and employment. Washington Wire readers are encouraged to watch the hearing and see for themselves, but it’s obvious that we have lots of work to do in defending the basic S corporation structure.
- Dr. Doug Holtz-Eakin alone made the point that as long as federal spending was too high — well above historic norms already, with the explosion in entitlement spending still before us — and until it is addressed, tax policy is going to be an exercise in second-best options.
In one “laugh out loud” moment, Professor Len Burman pointed out that higher tax rates may increase entrepreneurship because business owners have access to more deductions. In other words, let’s raise taxes because that will encourage taxpayers to come up with novel ways to avoid paying them? Being entrepreneurial in your tax avoidance is not the sort of entrepreneurship we’re looking for here.
Perhaps the best point of the hearing was made by S-CORP ally Dr. Holtz-Eakin, who, in a back-and-forth with Chairman Baucus, made the case for flow-through taxation as cogently as anybody to date. Boiled down, his point is that because individuals pay all business taxes anyway, it makes good policy sense to tax business income at the individual rates directly.
So what to conclude? The list of witnesses and tone of the majority–especially the Chairman’s–suggest this hearing was designed to lay the policy predicate for higher rates next year. What’s unclear is exactly which taxes the Committee plans to raise. Despite what you might read, most of the Bush tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 went to middle- and low-income Americans, not the rich. So the pending tax hike is going to impact regular families in a very real and harmful way. With just 30 days of legislative session left before the elections, even a well intentioned effort to extend those tax policies may fall short.
Perhaps more importantly, the hearing demonstrated the lack of a plan for what happens beyond 2010. Even if Congress extends some or all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, something more comprehensive is needed if the United States is not to follow Greece down the path towards the third world. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) have introduced what they describe as a budget neutral tax reform plan. In the absence of any other ideas, it might be worth a look to see what they propose.
Estate Tax Fix Introduced in Senate
In more tax news, Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) yesterday evening introduced an amendment to make permanent changes to the estate tax. As the entire tax world knows, the estate tax is taking a one-year hiatus in 2010 before returning in 2011 with a top rate of 55 percent and an exclusion of $1 million.
This dramatic shift, from a regime that applies a capital gains tax on inherited assets when they are sold to a very high 55 percent rate imposed at the death of the estate’s principal is possibly the largest marginal rate hike in history and is giving estates and estate planners alike a very real case of whiplash. Nobody predicted we would be in this situation a year ago, and the uncertainty is having a very real impact on how folks are behaving.
The Lincoln-Kyl proposal is designed to mitigate this harm and uncertainty by making permanent a middle ground on taxing estates. Key provisions in the bill include:
- Reducing the top estate tax rate to 35 percent;
- Increasing the exclusion from $1 million to $3.5 million; and
- Allowing the estates of deceased taxpayers to choose between no estate tax and limited “carryover basis” or the provisions included in this plan for 2010.
Missing from the proposal are any revenue increases or spending cuts to offset the revenue loss of the lower rates and higher exclusion. The selective pay-go rules adopted by Congress earlier this year allowed Congress to extend 2009 estate tax rules without offsets, but any reduction in the estate tax beyond that would have to be offset or face a 60 vote Budget Act point of order. Filling this revenue hole, which has been estimated in the $50-$75 billion range over ten years, has been a significant challenge for the Lincoln-Kyl team, and it appears it still is unresolved.
While the Lincoln-Kyl proposal is targeted at the pending small business bill, it is unclear whether they will get a clean vote on the issue. Majority Leader Reid has filled the so-called amendment tree and is taking other steps necessary to limiting changes to the underlying bill. Regardless, the introduction of this legislation is the first substantive effort in the Senate to enact a permanent estate tax fix, which is progress. The question now is whether there’s enough time in the legislative calendar for this debate to play out. Stay tuned.
The payroll tax hike in the House-passed extenders bill moves to the front burner in the Senate this week.
Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) introduced an amendment late last week to strike the provision from the bill. As a potential swing vote on the overall package, Snowe’s opposition in particular is sure to catch Leadership’s eye.
“At a time when Congress continues to dither on enacting a small business jobs bill, Section 413 is a poison pill in this tax bill, robbing American small businesses of the capital they need to create new, good-paying jobs,” Senator Snowe said in a release accompanying the amendment. “Indeed, this is a job-killing tax hike that will force entrepreneurs across the nation to retrench and reconsider any plans for hiring employees or expanding their business.”
Meanwhile, Senator Enzi raised this issue at a Finance Committee hearing last Thursday, first questioning Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner about it and then entering into a colloquy with Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT). In response to Enzi’s concerns, Senator Baucus made clear his staff was working on an alternative.
The business community has come together as well, with twenty-seven business groups signing a letter spearheaded by the S Corporation Association highlighting the many flaws with the House-passed provision. In addition to focusing on the policy challenges, the letter notes the complete lack of legislative history accompanying this major new tax:
Finally, this new tax is an excellent example of what happens when the legislative process is short circuited. It was never the subject of hearings or public review, it was made public just a few short weeks ago, and it has been attached to legislation that already passed both the House and the Senate. It is an accident of the legislative calendar that we are in a position to offer our views at all.
If it were not for the deliberative nature of the Senate, this provision would have been enacted and signed into law before anybody in the business community—including legal and accounting professionals who advise them—knew it was even under consideration.
The Senate’s rules and the Memorial Day recess delay gave us time to get the message out, however, and we’re beginning to hear from practitioners and affected businesses from around the country. As a Dow Jones Newswire story makes clear, S corporations targeted by this provision extend well beyond the “lawyers and lobbyists” highlighted by the Ways and Means Committee:
Gabriel Durand-Hollis, owner of a San Antonio, Texas-based architecture and interior design firm, is no John Edwards. But he could nonetheless see his taxes rise as a result of a Senate measure that seeks to crack down on a technique Edwards, a former U.S. Senator from North Carolina, once used to avoid paying hundreds of thousands in payroll taxes…. Durand-Hollis, one of two owners of a firm that employees 25, said the provision, if enacted, would boost his federal tax bill by $30,000 or more. “If we had to send a big check like that to the IRS at the end of the year, we’d have to take a hard look at whether we can afford Christmas bonuses, or that new software purchase,” Durand-Hollis said in an interview.
On the process front, we expect Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to file cloture on the underlying bill (Baucus substitute, really, but we digress) sometime tomorrow or Wednesday. That would set up a key vote on closing debate as early as Thursday. Word is that Senator Reid is short of the 60 votes he needs right now and that changes to the underlying bill will be necessary for him to attract those key swing votes.
With the introduction of the Snowe-Enzi amendment, the odds of positive changes to the small business payroll tax hike shot up dramatically. That’s good for the small business community and good for good tax policy. The House-passed provision is clearly a step backward for taxpayers and the Tax Code. It would impose new costs on small businesses while asking the impossible of the IRS. With the leadership of Senators Snowe, Enzi, and others, we’re hopeful we can fix all that.
The economic fear that gripped folks in the Fall of 2008 has resulted in a historic collapse of federal revenues.
Revenue collections since 1960 have stayed in a relatively tight pattern centered around 18 percent of our GNP. Considering the range of tax policies we’ve imposed on taxpayers during that time, the steadiness of the 18 percent mean is remarkable and suggests some sort of political or economic boundary is in effect.
That steadiness was broken last year when federal collections fell to their lowest level since 1950. Meanwhile, Washington’s response to the crisis has driven federal spending to levels not seen since World War II. Record low revenues and record high spending means record high deficits.
While record high deficits are obviously a negative, what your S-CORP team finds most troubling is the long-term outlook. For the next decade, the trend is definitely not our friend.
Once we get past the immediate effects of the “fear” and revenues move back to their historic mean, deficits of 4 or 5 percent GNP will persist. And when revenues move well above their historic mean? Deficits of 4 or 5 percent will persist.
And this is the baseline! It doesn’t include expensive policies that are either set to expire or those that are simply politically unsustainable.
Obama 2009 Tax Proposals vs. CBO Baseline Deficit
The chart above takes CBO’s September deficit estimates and superimposes CBO’s June estimates of President Obama’s 2009 tax proposals. Not exactly kosher, but the underlying point is undiminished: even the President’s modest policies to extend just part of the Bush tax relief would add hundreds of billions to the deficit each year.
“Unsustainable” is the word that comes to mind. Herb Stein once observed that unsustainable trends will not be sustained, which suggests these projected deficits are unlikely to become a reality, but that just means something has to give. Stuck between a rock (record deficits) and a hard place (a weak economy), there are simply no easy answers.
For S corporations, the challenge is to spend the next year demonstrating to taxwriters the economic importance of our community, especially as Congress grapples with the “too big to fail” concept for financial services.
S corporations were created to fight economic consolidation. They move economic power and decision-making away from Wall Street and on to Main Street. If policymakers want proactive policies that reduce the incidence of systemic risk, empowering closely-held businesses is a sure-fire means of doing so.
Health Care Pay-Fors
Health care reform is in the final stages of its legislative journey — last half of the fourth quarter perhaps? — and while the pro-reform team has plenty of momentum, exactly what tax items make it into the final package remain undecided.
Of most concern to S corporations are the marginal rate increases included in both bills. In the House, it is the 5.4 surtax applied to individual incomes above $500,000, while in the Senate it is the 0.9 percent HI tax increase applied to individual incomes over $200,000.
Moreover, recent stories on possible compromises should raise S corporation eyebrows. As first reported in CongressDaily, negotiators are considering expanding the Medicare HI tax beyond wages to include all types of income, including S corporation income.
According to JCT, applying the existing 1.45 percent payroll tax to investment income, including capital gains, taxable interest, dividends, estate and trust income and income from rents, royalties, S corporations and passive partnership income, to those earning above the $200,000/$250,000 thresholds would raise $111 billion over a decade.
S-CORP has a long history of fighting efforts to expand payroll taxes beyond, well, payrolls. Payroll taxes like the HI tax were designed to resemble private insurance premiums on the premise that Medicare and Social Security were “earned” benefits. This proposal would blur the line beyond taxes on labor and taxes on capital, undermine the notion that Medicare is an “earned” benefit, and should be of considerable concern to the business community.
GAO Releases S Corporation Report
In response to a request by Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Charles Grassley (R-IA), the Government Accountability Office spent the last year looking into tax compliance by the S corporation community. The GAO presented its findings in a report released yesterday.
Reports like this always carry with them a large degree of headline risk. Words like “noncompliance” and “misreported” jump off the first few pages. Look beyond the first couple pages, however, and the GAO has compiled a comprehensive review of the challenges S corporation face when calculating their taxes.
Questions covered by the GAO include why some businesses choose to be S corporations, what are the types of S corporation non-compliance, and what are the options for improving S corporation compliance. To answers these questions, the GAO interviewed numerous stakeholders, including the S Corporation Association, and, in their just-released report, came to the following conclusions:
- Congress should require S corporations to calculate and report the basis for their shareholders’ ownership shares;
- The IRS should research options for improving the performance of professional tax preparers;
- The IRS should provide additional guidance to new S corporations on calculating basis and compensation; and
- The IRS should require examiners to document analysis of compensation, and provide more guidance on compensation.Having given the report a first read, what is our reaction? First, the S corporation was created to encourage private enterprise, not avoid lawfully-owed taxes. We don’t support or help those taxpayers who knowingly avoid paying their taxes.
Second, the legislative recommendation included in the report is for Congress to require an entity-level basis calculation. According to the GAO, this proposal would help address the problem of shareholders claiming losses beyond their basis in the firm. This recommendation is new to S-CORP and we have asked our advisors to weigh-in on its merits.
Third, we’re glad to see the GAO agrees with us that the IRS has tools to address one of the larger areas of non-compliance. Some S corporation owners who work in their business underpay their salaries in order to reduce their payroll tax obligations. As the GAO notes, the IRS needs to do a better job of both defining the existing “reasonable compensation” standard in its guidance, and applying the standard in its examinations.
As to the headline risk, last summer the IRS reported that tax compliance by S corporations likely was as good, and possibly better, than taxpayers’ compliance in general. Meanwhile, the SBA reported last year that S corporations shoulder the highest effective tax burden of any business type. As an investor, as an employer, and as a taxpayer, S corporations are a valuable component of America’s business community. The GAO has given us some suggestions on how we can do better.
The Washington Post this week reported on an issue that shouldn’t come as a surprise for S-CORP readers: President Obama’s tax plans could hurt many of America’s small businesses. Small business owners who report their business profits on their personal income returns (like most small business owners do) are suddenly finding themselves classified as the “richest” Americans, and thereby subject to Obama’s tax increases. The Post explains:
Across the nation, many business owners are watching anxiously as the President undertakes expensive initiatives to overhaul health care and expand educational opportunities, while also reining in runaway budget deficits. Already, Obama has proposed an extra $1.3 trillion in taxes for business and high earners over the next decade. They include new limits on the ability of corporations to automatically defer U.S. taxes on income earned overseas, repeal of a form of inventory accounting that tends to reduce business taxes, and a mandate that investment partnerships pay the regular income tax rate instead of the lower capital gains rate.
The Washington Post is catching up to what S-CORP and its friends have been pointing out for a while now — if your goal is to reinvigorate the economy, placing additional burdens upon the very business that can help pull us out of this crisis is the wrong way to go. The example used by the Post — Gail Johnson of Richmond, Virginia — should give S corporation shareholders pause:
Johnson declined to say whether she voted for Obama. But she said she ignored his tax plans until her husband, who handles real estate and construction for the schools, mentioned it one day. “I’ve since talked to my accountant,” she said. “And, oh, my gosh!”
In a typical year, Johnson’s federal tax bill would be about $120,000. But starting in 2011, the higher marginal rates would add about $13,000 a year, Hurst said. Capping the value of itemized deductions at 28 percent would add another $10,000, for a total increase of $23,000.
And Johnson’s tax bill stands to grow dramatically if Obama were to revive a plan to apply Social Security tax to income over $250,000 instead of capping it at the current $106,800. Because Johnson is an employee and an employer, she would have to pay both portions of the tax, Hurst said, tacking another $30,000 onto her bill.
That’s a potential $50,000 tax increase for a small employer whose family earns about $500,000 a year, including the income from her business. It’s hard to see how increasing her federal tax bill (this does not include state and local taxes) from around $120,000 to $170,000 would not harm Gail’s plans to invest in her business and hire additional employees.
Budget Plan Finished
On that note, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the tax increases outlined above is that they simply will not be enough. Federal deficits are going sky-high and higher taxes on the middle-class are all but inevitable. House and Senate negotiators this week put the final touches on the budget outline for next year. For S corporations, three major items stand out: total deficit estimates, the estate tax and the inclusion of reconciliation instructions for health care.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Obama budget, if enacted, would result in deficits of $1.8 trillion, $1.4 trillion, $1 trillion, $658 billion, $672 billion, and $749 billion over the next five years. That’s a cumulative of $4.4 trillion over five years, or $1.7 trillion more than if we simply did nothing over the next five years and maintained current law.
The U.S. government has never run deficits of that magnitude and exactly how the debt will be financed is an open question. To put these five-year numbers in perspective, over eight years of President Bush — who is rightly criticized for not paying more attention to holding down spending – debt held by the public increased by $2.4 trillion. The budget offered up by conferees this week has deficit estimates that are smaller than the Obama budget, but not enough to address the question of who is going to finance all that debt.
Regarding the estate tax, the budget agreement calls for maintaining the 2009 rates and exemption levels of 45% and $3.5 million per spouse. While the Senate’s original budget allowed for higher exemption levels and a lower rate, the House ultimately prevailed and stuck with freezing the 2009 rules.
On the reform front, the resolution will include “reconciliation instructions” for health care reform. As S-CORP readers know, reconciliation is valuable to the majority in the Senate because it allows for controversial items to pass the Senate with a simple majority rather than the usual 60 votes.
There are limitations, however, because bills brought to the Senate floor under reconciliation may not increase the deficit outside of the budget window, which means whatever they enact under this budget would have to be sunset after five years.
S corporation shareholders know how these sunsets work — we have been dealing with the uncertainty of the estate tax repeal sunset for a decade now. How effective could broad-based health care reform be if it goes away in just five years?
Moreover, reconciliation bills may not include provisions with no or little impact on revenues and spending. The core provision in most health reform plans is to create a health insurance “exchange” similar to the Connector up in Massachusetts. This may or may not be a good idea, but it doesn’t have a significant impact on either revenues or spending and would likely fall outside of reconciliation. For a full review of these issues, we recommend reading the analysis of S-Corp ally Keith Hennessey.
Bottom line: Attempting to reconcile health care reform could cost the majority more than it’s worth, especially with Senator Specter now aligning himself with the Democratic Caucus.
Both the House and the Senate completed their respective budget resolutions last week. The plan now is for the two bodies to get together to resolve any differences and produce a single budget in the form of a conference report. We expect most of those discussions to take place over the next couple of weeks.
One of the key questions for budget conferees is whether or not they will include reconciliation instructions for health care reform and climate change. As S-CORP readers know, the virtue of reconciliation is that it lowers the bar to pass something in the Senate from a 60 vote supermajority to just a basic majority (in this case, half of those present and voting plus Vice President Biden).
As has been noted, currently the Senate budget does not include reconciliation instructions at all while the House included them for health care and education only. This lack of instructions does not mean the Senate leadership had decided to forego reconciliation. Instead, most observers believe they were intent on pursuing a conference strategy whereby the House reconciliation instructions would be expanded to also include the Senate.
By adding the instructions at the last moment in conference, Senate leadership avoids an ugly floor battle on all of these issues. Instead, senators would be given one vote — up or down — on the conference report as a whole without the ability to make any changes.
Floor action last week, however, threw a big monkey wrench into that plan, at least as far as climate change is concerned. On Wednesday, the Senate voted 67-31 to support Senator Mike Johanns’ (R-NE) amendment. The amendment reads:
Section 202 is amended by inserting at the end the following: “(c) The Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Budget shall not revise the allocations in this resolution if the legislation provided for in subsections (a) or (b) is reported from any committee pursuant to section 310 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974.”
In effect, the Johanns’ amendment is a statement that the Senate should not use reconciliation for climate change legislation. While the provision itself could easily be dropped in conference and reconciliation instructions added in its place, that change would still face the 67 senators who by all appearances are opposed to using this process to consider cap and trade, at least this year.
All the more reason for S-CORP readers to expect health care reform – rather than climate change – to be the first major reform item considered by Congress this year.
Estate Tax Votes
Lots of Senate activity on the estate tax front as well. The underlying budget resolution produced by the Budget Committee assumes Congress would extend 2009 estate tax rules for 2010 and beyond.
That means the top tax rate on estates would hold at 45 percent and the exclusion would be $3.5 million per spouse. That’s a definite improvement over where we started in 2001, with a top rate of 55 percent and an exclusion of $1 million per spouse, but its step back from the one-year repeal currently scheduled to take effect in 2010.
To make the pending compromise a little better, S-CORP ally Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) offered an amendment to allow the Finance Committee to consider a deficit-neutral alternative with a 35 percent top rate and a $5 million per spouse exclusion. The S Corporation Association joined a long list of business groups in support of the effort. That amendment was adopted by the Senate, 51-48 with all Republicans and 10 Democrats voting in support, including Finance Chairman Max Baucus.
What followed then was a classic “what just happened?” moment when the Senate also adopted, 56-43, an amendment by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to create a point of order against any additional estate tax relief (beyond the underlying resolution) that doesn’t include an equal amount of tax relief for families making less than $100,000.
It is possible to support both middle-class tax relief and estate tax relief, so exactly what the implications the Durbin amendment has for future estate tax legislation is unclear. For the moment, we’ll focus on the positive, which is that a majority of the United States Senate is now on record supporting an estate tax deal that is better than the 2009 rules. Given the current leadership in Congress, that may be as good as we’re going to do.
SBA on Effective Tax Rates
Anybody involved in tax policy for a reasonable period of time will pick up on the prejudice of some policymakers and folks at the IRS that S corporations tend to under-pay their taxes. Over the years, the S corporation has been described by some as “tax avoidance schemes” and worse.
Given that background, the findings from a new report commissioned by our friends at the Small Business Administration (SBA) might surprise you. Of the four core business types — C corporation, S corporation, Partnership, and Sole Proprietorship — which one pays the highest effective tax rate?
S corporations! By a lot.
The research, conducted by Quantria Strategies for the SBA, looked at a broad sample of firms with under $10 million in gross receipts and found that S corporations pay a significantly higher effective tax rate than C corporations, partnerships, or sole proprietorships.
Average Effective Federal Income
Tax Rates by Legal Form of Organization, 2004
Entity Type Rate (%)
Sole Proprietorship 13.3
Small Partnership 23.6
Small S Corporation 26.9
Small C Corporation 17.5
All Small Business 19.8
Source: Quantria Strategies LLC
To be fair, the effective tax rate for C corporations does not include taxes paid by shareholders on dividends and capital gains. As the researchers note:
… the effective tax rate analysis does not capture the taxes paid by C corporation owners on dividends and capital gains. This will tend to understate somewhat the total effective tax rate of small businesses organized as C corporations, but this bias will tend to be small, particularly because of the fairly low rates of tax currently applicable to individual dividends and capital gains.
So even with the shareholder level tax included, the research suggests that S corporations may shoulder the highest effective rate of any business type.
What’s the source of the higher tax burden? After all, the tax treatment of S corporations at the federal level is mirrored on the tax treatment of partnerships. One possibility is that S corporations may tend to be older, more mature companies that were organized before the emergence of the Limited Liability Company.
Whatever the underlying reason, if your operating premise is that S corporations have a significantly lower tax burden than comparable businesses structured as partnerships or C corporations, you might want to think again.
Jobs and Trade
Our friends at the Kaufman Foundation have a great site devoted to entrepreneurship called growthology that’s worth a look. The site is heavy on the high-tech side of growth, but it’s a great window into how the internet and entrepreneurship are combining to form an incredibly potent partnership.
What caught our eye this month was a new survey of economic bloggers on the best sources of job creation in the economy. “Economic Growth” was number one — no news there — while free trade was well down the list. Your S-CORP team finds that strangely disturbing. If anybody should understand the critical importance of open borders to continued economic growth, it’s economists who use the internet to circulate their writing. What is the internet, after all, but one big open border of products and ideas? Maybe it was just how the questions were worded, but this tepid response on the importance of free trade is one more reason to fear for the future of global commerce.