Critics Misrepresent the Reality of Bonus Depreciation

November 18, 2014

Last week, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities released a report arguing that bonus depreciation should remain expired. They base this on three main claims:

  • Bonus depreciation was a temporary stimulus and should be allowed to expire
  • Allowing bonus depreciation to continue is an overly-generous subsidy for business investment
  • It does not align with the goals of tax reform

The CBPP’s conclusions are based on a misunderstanding of bonus depreciation, its current place in the tax code, and its place in tax reform.

What is Bonus Depreciation?

Under current law, businesses are not able to fully deduct the initial cost of capital investments (buildings, machines, and other equipment) as they do with labor and raw material. Instead, they must write these costs off over several years or even decades, depending on the asset type.

Due to the delay between the purchase of the asset and its write-off, the business ends up not being able to fully account for the present value cost of the investment. This is due to the fact that a $20 deduction today is not as valuable as a $20 deduction ten years from now.

Bonus depreciation allows businesses to write-off 50 percent of the initial cost of the investment before depreciating the asset as it would under current rules. Because most of the initial cost is written off in the first year, the total present value of the write of ends up being larger than it was in the absence of bonus depreciation, but it still does not allow a complete write off.

Example Calculation of a Capital Allowance on a $100 Investment, with and without Bonus Depreciation

Without Bonus Depreciation

With Bonus Depreciation

Year

Cost

Nominal Write-off

Present Value Write-off

Nominal Write-off

Present Value Write-off

0

$ 100.00

$ 20.00

$ 20.00

$ 60.00

$ 60.00

1

$ –

$ 20.00

$ 18.60

$ 10.00

$ 9.30

2

$ –

$ 20.00

$ 17.31

$ 10.00

$ 8.65

3

$ –

$ 20.00

$ 16.10

$ 10.00

$ 8.05

4

$ –

$ 20.00

$ 14.98

$ 10.00

$ 7.49

Total

$ 100.00

$ 100.00

$ 86.99

$ 100.00

$ 93.49

Bonus Depreciation Should Not Be Seen as a Temporary Stimulus

CBPP makes the claim that bonus depreciation is a temporary stimulus based on the fact that Congress enacted it during the two recessions of the past decade on a temporary basis. Thus, it should be allowed to expire in order to have the desired simulative effect in the future.

This is based on the view that bonus depreciation can be likened to some sort of demand-side stimulus, in which the federal government temporarily boosts economic activity through a quick and temporary change in policy.

While it may give a boost to the economy in the short run, bonus depreciation should not be considered a temporary stimulus. Instead, it should be viewed as a way to reduce the cost of investment relative to current law over the long run. In the above example, it allows a business to recover more of the cost of an investment than it would be able to in the absence of bonus depreciation. This lowers the cost of capital, leading to higher investment, a larger capital stock, and a larger economy.

Seen this way, it makes sense that it should be made permanent as a way to reduce the ongoing cost of investment.

Bonus Depreciation Does Not Create Negative Effective Tax Rates

CBPP also makes the claim that making bonus depreciation permanent would extend a large subsidy for corporations for investment. Specifically, they claim that bonus depreciation creates a negative effective tax rate on investment.

Their claim stems from the fact that bonus depreciation allows businesses to write-off capital investments faster than “economic depreciation.” The idea behind this is that because an investment produces a flow of income over many years, the full cost of the machine should not be written off the year it was made. Instead, the cost should be written off at the same rate the machine depreciates. Any faster, the tax code provides a subsidy.

While this is a useful accounting method, it is not how businesses realize costs. When a business makes a capital investment, such as buying a machine, it purchases that machine in the first year. The costs are not spread out over the life of the machine, as the CBPP’s analysis implies.

The result of delaying write-offs at all is that effective tax rates are higher than they otherwise would be.

Making Bonus Depreciation Permanent Moves Towards an Ideal Corporate Tax Reform.

CBPP’s last point is that Representative Dave Camp’s tax reform proposal did away with bonus depreciation therefore it is not compatible with tax reform.

One of the weak spots in Chairman Camp’s tax reform proposal was his treatment of capital investment. Not only did he get rid of bonus expensing, his plan lengthened asset lives, which would exacerbate the current mistreatment of capital investments. This is the primary reason why the plan netted little economic growth in the long run.

Instead, meaningful tax reform would move towards full expensing, which would allow businesses to write-off the full cost of investments.

Making bonus depreciation permanent would be a step towards the proper treatment of investments: full expensing.

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