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Tax Expenditures Taken by Small Businesses in the Federal Tax Code

3 min readBy: Garrett Watson

Like individuals, businesses take advantage of tax expenditures such as exclusions, exemptions, deductions, and credits, when calculating federal taxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. liability. The composition of the tax expenditures taken by firms may vary depending on their size. Small firms may, for example, be less likely to take advantage of tax expenditures related to foreign profits if they are less exposed to international markets.

A study commissioned by the Small Business Administration (SBA) in 2013 measured the benefit of federal tax expenditures used by small businesses. In the study, small businesses are defined as pass-through entities with less than $10 million in gross receipts or C-corporations with less than $10 million in assets.

Using tax expenditure estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), the authors estimate that about $57.5 billion in tax expenditures were used by small businesses in fiscal year 2013. Of the largest tax expenditures taken by businesses in fiscal year 2013, about $40.2 billion is taken by small businesses out of $161.2 billion in total business tax expenditures.

The relative size of a tax expenditureTax expenditures are a departure from the “normal” tax code that lower the tax burden of individuals or businesses, through an exemption, deduction, credit, or preferential rate. Expenditures can result in significant revenue losses to the government and include provisions such as the earned income tax credit (EITC), child tax credit (CTC), deduction for employer health-care contributions, and tax-advantaged savings plans. does not necessarily convey the importance of the expenditure to small businesses. For example, certain tax expenditures may simplify tax compliance for small firms even if they do not confer a large reduction in tax liability.

Table 1. Largest Tax Expenditures Used by Small Businesses, Fiscal Year 2013
Expenditure Fiscal Year 2013 Cost (billions of dollars)
Source: John O’Hare, Mary Schmitt, and Judy Xanthopoulos, ”Measuring the Benefit of Federal Tax Expenditures Used by Small Business,” Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, November 2013

Retirement plans (Keogh Plans)


Exclusion of interest on state and local private activity bonds


Deduction for health insurance premiums and long-run care insurance premiums by the self-employed


Expensing under section 179 of depreciable business property


Deduction for income attributable for domestic production activities


Depreciation for equipment in excess of the alternative depreciation system


Exclusion of interest on public purposes State and local government bonds


Depreciation of rental housing in excess of the alternative depreciation system


Exclusion of investment income on life insurance and annuity contracts


Deferral of gain on like-kind exchanges


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The SBA study authors estimate that about 73 percent of all small business tax expenditures in 2013 were realized by partnerships and S corporations, accounting for about $42.2 billion of the $57.5 billion in tax expenditures benefiting small businesses.

Many tax expenditures available to businesses are not used by small firms. For example, prior to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), firms benefited from the deferral of active income from controlled foreign corporations (CFCs), a tax expenditure worth $42.4 billion in FY 2013. Similarly, tax expenditures such as the deferral of active financing income.

Like all businesses, small firms benefit from tax expenditures like the deduction for health insurance premiums paid by employers, the tax treatment of retirement plans, and expensing provisions under section 179 of the tax code. Many of these tax expenditures are intended for self-employed individuals and may mirror the tax treatment of employees. For example, small businesses may deduct income used for health insurance premiums when calculating their individual income taxAn individual income tax (or personal income tax) is levied on the wages, salaries, investments, or other forms of income an individual or household earns. The U.S. imposes a progressive income tax where rates increase with income. The Federal Income Tax was established in 1913 with the ratification of the 16th Amendment. Though barely 100 years old, individual income taxes are the largest source of tax revenue in the U.S. liability.

Like with tax expenditures used for all firms, the expenditures offered to small businesses are not created equal. For example, while JCT considers depreciationDepreciation is a measurement of the “useful life” of a business asset, such as machinery or a factory, to determine the multiyear period over which the cost of that asset can be deducted from taxable income. Instead of allowing businesses to deduct the cost of investments immediately (i.e., full expensing), depreciation requires deductions to be taken over time, reducing their value and discouraging investment. for business investment in excess of the alternative deprecation system (ADS) to be a tax expenditure, full expensingFull expensing allows businesses to immediately deduct the full cost of certain investments in new or improved technology, equipment, or buildings. It alleviates a bias in the tax code and incentivizes companies to invest more, which, in the long run, raises worker productivity, boosts wages, and creates more jobs. better reflects the economic costs of investment through the time value of money. Each tax expenditure should be evaluated on its own merits to determine if it is consistent with sound tax policy.