Depreciation, Expensing and Taxes

September 11, 2013

Bruce Bartlett wrote an article with a nice breakdown of the history of depreciation in the United States. An interesting point he makes is that depreciation was initially an accounting gimmick:

If the railroads treated capital expenditures the same way that operating expenses were treated, they would have huge losses for many years that would discourage investors. So the idea of depreciation was born – writing off capital investments over time.

Maybe that helped businesses sell projects to investors, but the addition of the corporate income tax in 1909 made depreciation rules important for taxes, too.

In the article, Bartlett lays out two common economic arguments why depreciation rules can be bad for tax purposes.

The first argument is that under current depreciation rules, inflation erodes the value of the tax right off. These types of depreciation rules understate the cost of the equipment to business, overstate the profit, and lead to higher taxes for the business.

The second argument is that as technology changes more rapidly, high-tech equipment becomes irrelevant sooner than it physically wears out.

Expensing solves both these issues and offers other benefits of its own – namely, increased investment and economic growth.

Expensing is effective in increasing investment, because it lowers the cost of capital. As the Tax Foundation’s Steve Entin wrote in a recent report:

The rules for how quickly a company can write off investments in plants, equipment, and buildings directly impact the cost of doing business. The higher those costs are, the slower the economy will grow. The lower the cost, the bigger the economy will be, and with it the number of jobs and the level of wages.

But it’s important for long-term economic growth that expensing not just be used as a short-term solution to stimulate investment, as it has been used in the past.

As Bartlett points out, for depreciation policy, policymakers need to “establish a stable system and cease using it as a short-run stimulus measure.”

To maximize economic growth and let businesses make investments based on their timeframe instead of due to taxes, that policy should move towards expensing.

For tax purposes, it would be nice if we still saw depreciation rules as merely a gimmick and allowed businesses to expense the full cost of capital investments instead.

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