Double-Taxing Capital Income: How Bad Is the Problem?

November 16, 2006

Download Fiscal Fact No. 71

Fiscal Fact No. 71

Introduction “Double taxation” is a common and often misused expression in tax policy discussions. It is not the number of tax layers that matters, but the total effective tax rate—that is, the percentage of each income stream taken as tax.

One of the best-known cases, and one of the most critical problems in public finance, is the double tax on capital income. Corporations pay the federal corporate income tax, and then with their remaining after-tax income, they pay dividends to their shareholders. Those individuals then must pay an additional, individual-level tax on those amounts.

The essential question is whether the resulting total tax rate on capital income from corporations is substantially higher than the rate on other types of income. There are several types of income that it should be compared to: income from sole proprietorships, partnerships, S corporations and other business entities that are by law exempt from the corporate income tax, and finally, wage income. Under an ideal income tax, all income would be taxed at the same rate.

In current law, the statutory federal rate on corporate income is 35 percent. In the simplest type of comparison, then, this corporate rate is added to the statutory rate on individuals’ capital income, currently 15 percent, for a total tax rate of approximately 50 percent in the U.S., while it is significantly lower in many other nations (see Table 1).

Table 1. Overall Effective Statutory Tax Rate on Dividend Income by Rank in 2005

OECD Nations

Top Rate on Corporate Income Plus Individual Tax Rate on Dividends

Percentage Point Change 2000 to 2005

2005

2000

Rate

Rank

Rate

Rank

Japan

63.7%

1

64.5%

3

-0.8

Denmark

59.0%

2

59.2%

7

-0.2

Canada

56.1%

3

62.5%

5

-6.4

France (d)

55.9%

4

63.2%

4

-7.2

Switzerland (g)

54.7%

5

56.5%

10

-1.8

Germany

52.4%

6

60.9%

6

-8.5

Netherlands

52.1%

7

74.0%

1

-22.0

United States

50.8%

8

58.9%

8

-8.1

Spain

50.0%

9

52.7%

12

-2.7

Sweden

49.6%

10

49.6%

16

0.0

Ireland

49.3%

11

57.4%

9

-8.2

Korea

48.7%

12

44.6%

21

4.1

Australia (a)

48.5%

13

48.5%

18

0.0

United Kingdom (a)

47.5%

14

47.5%

19

0.0

Hungary (e)

45.4%

15

55.7%

11

-10.3

Italy

44.8%

16

45.9%

20

-1.1

Turkey

44.0%

17

65.0%

2

-21.0

Luxembourg

44.0%

18

52.2%

13

-8.3

Belgium (b)

43.9%

19

49.1%

17

-5.3

Austria

43.8%

20

50.5%

15

-6.8

Portugal

42.0%

21

51.4%

14

-9.4

New Zealand (a)

39.0%

22

39.0%

26

0.0

Finland (c)

37.8%

23

29.0%

29

8.8

Czech Republic

37.1%

24

41.4%

23

-4.3

Poland (f)

34.4%

25

44.0%

22

-9.6

Greece

32.0%

26

40.0%

24

-8.0

Mexico

30.0%

27

35.0%

28

-5.0

Norway

28.0%

28

28.0%

30

0.0

Iceland

26.2%

29

37.0%

27

-10.8

Slovak Republic

19.0%

30

39.7%

25

-20.7

Average

44.3%

50.1%

-5.8

(a) For Australia, New Zealand and the UK, all with a non-calendar tax year, the rates shown are those in effect as of July 1, April 1 and April 5, respectively. (b) For shares issued before January 1, 1994, the (withholding) personal income tax rate is 25 per cent. The withholding tax is final, if the shareholder so chooses. (c) Part of the dividends from non-listed companies is taxed as earned income. Since the highest marginal tax rate is higher for earned income than for capital income, the net personal tax in this table would not be zero for such companies. (d) For companies not paying the CSB (Contribution Sociale sur les Bénéficies), the corporate income tax rates are 1.1 percentage points lower. Included in the rate in column 6 is the prélèvements sociaux (CSG,CRDS) of 11%, which is levied on distributed profits (100). As shown in column 10, taxpayers only have to declare 50 per cent of the dividends that are grossed-up with the prélèvements sociaux that have been withheld at source. The tax base is further reduced by a part of the prélèvements sociaux (up to 5.8 per cent of the grossed-up dividends). (e) Distributed dividends that exceed a threshold equal to 30 percent of the value of the share are taxed at the shareholder level at a personal income tax rate of 35%. For dividends below this threshold, the rate is 20 percent. (f) Source for the information: KPMG’s Corporate Tax Rate Survey and the IBFD European Tax Handbook. (g) The corporate income tax rate includes the church tax, while the personal income tax rates excludes it.

Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

Firm Structure To ensure that their businesses produce goods and services as efficiently as possible, managers are always seeking the ideal firm structure. Writers of tax law often interfere with this process to the great detriment of the nation’s economic performance. A tax-minimizing structure is not necessarily an efficient business structure.

A significant transformation of firm structure has indeed taken place in the U.S. Businesses had traditionally been structured in three ways: sole proprietorships, partnerships or corporations. But in the past two decades, hybrid forms such as S corporations and limited liability partnerships–so-called pass-through entities exempt from the corporate income tax–have multiplied at a phenomenal pace (see Table 2).

Table 2. Growth of Non-Corporate Forms of Business, Selected Years 1980 – 2004 Millions of Tax Returns

Year

S Corporations

Partnerships

Business Schedules(C or F)

1980

0.5

1.4

11.4

1985

0.7

1.8

14.1

1990

1.5

1.8

16.2

1995

2.2

1.6

18.1

2000

2.9

2.1

19.4

2004

3.5

2.5

21.5

Sources: IRS, Tax Foundation Individual Tax Model

The taxable income (or loss) from these firms is reported directly on the tax returns of their owners; that is, it is “passed through” the business entity to the individual. There it is subject to the individual income tax. To see how this process works, consider the case of the sole proprietorship illustrated on the left side of Table 3.1

Table 3. Comparison of Corporate and Non-Corporate Taxation

Tax Calculation on Non-Corporate Income

Tax Calculation on Corporate Income

Revenue

$ 10,000,000

Revenue

$ 100,000,000

Adjustments

$ 9,000,000

Adjustments

$ 90,000,000

Income

$ 1,000,000

Taxable Income

$ 10,000,000

Here, the business profit “passes through” untaxed to the individual

Corporate Income Tax

$ 3,500,000

Tax Credits

$ 0

Corporate Income Tax After Credits

$ 3,500,000

Retained Earnings

$ 0

Distributions to Shareholder

$ 6,500,000

Adjusted Gross Income

$ 1,000,000

Adjusted Gross Income

$ 650,000

Itemized Deductions

$ 20,000

Itemized Deductions

$ 20,000

Exemptions

$ 4,400

Exemptions

$ 4,400

Taxable Income

$ 975,600

Taxable Income

$ 625,600

Individual Income Tax

$ 314,711

Individual Income Tax

$ 93,840

Tax Credits

$ 0

Tax Credits

$ 0

Individual Income Tax After Credits

$ 314,711

Individual Income Tax After Credits

$ 93,840

Effective Tax Rate on Capital Income to the Individual

31.5%

Effective Tax Rate on Capital Income to the Individual

44.4%

Source: Tax Foundation

Taxation of Non-Corporate Income First the individual reports the gross revenues that she has received from her business activities on Schedules C, E or F. In this simplified example it is $10 million. Then allowable expenses are subtracted, labeled here as “adjustments,” which amount to $9 million. Adjusted gross income, then, is $1 million.

The taxpayer is then allowed to exclude a portion of her taxable income through the use of deductions and exemptions. Here we will assume that the $1 million from the sole proprietorship was the individual’s only source of income and that she filed a joint return which claimed $20,000 in itemized deductions and four personal exemptions worth $4,400.2

This subtraction leaves the taxpayer with $975,600 in taxable income. This is then subjected to the individual tax rate schedule for a tax bill of $314,711. The effective tax rate on this type of income is therefore 31.5 percent. That is, the final payment divided by income before deductions and exemptions is 31.5 percent.

Taxation of Corporate Income Now consider the case where income is produced by a business organized as a corporation (see the right side of Table 3). The income would be subject to two levels of federal tax. First the corporate income tax would be levied at rates ranging from 15 percent (income less than $50,000) to 35 percent (incomes over $18,333,333). Next, when the corporation disburses its after-tax profits to shareholders in the form of dividends, the income is taxed again at the individual level. Since 2003, income from qualified dividends has been taxed at 15 percent.

In the same way as the non-corporate business, the corporation subtracts its expenses from its revenues to arrive at income. This time, however, the calculation is performed on a corporate income tax return. In this case we will assume that the firm subtracts $90 million in expenses from $100 million in revenue to arrive at $10 million in income. This income is then subject to the corporate income tax for a tax bill of $3.5 million.

The firm can do two things with its after-tax income: it can hold onto it as retained earnings, or it can distribute it to shareholders in the form of dividend payments. To make the results comparable to the non-corporate case, we will assume that all income is distributed to 10 shareholders who are identical in all respects to the sole proprietor described above.

As before, each individual is allowed to deduct the $20,000 in itemized deductions and $4,400 in personal exemptions from his adjusted gross income. This leaves each of them with a taxable income of $625,600. This is then taxed at the 15 percent dividend tax rate for a total individual income tax bill of $93,840. When we sum the individual and corporate income tax bills, we find that this corporate-derived income faces an effective tax rate of 44.4 percent, nearly 13 percentage points higher than what similar income derived from a sole proprietorship faced.

Conclusion The disparate treatment of income causes firms to organize or re-organize for tax reasons, usually in ways that make less sense economically. In the case described above, for example, it is easy to see why firms would organize as non-corporate entities rather than as corporations.

The economic cost of these tax-induced distortions is estimated to be quite high. In 1996 the Congressional Budget Office reviewed a number of studies examining the efficiency losses associated with the corporate income tax and found that they probably exceed half of corporate receipts.

If congressional tax-writers find corporate income tax collections to be too low, they should not conclude that the tax rate on capital income is too low, either at the corporate or individual level. Rather, they should observe that corporate collections will almost certainly never rise to their previous levels if new businesses continue to choose the tax advantages of organizing as non-corporate pass-through entities.

Footnotes1 Similar results could be produced for the other forms of non-corporate businesses. 2 The interaction of the Personal Exemption Phase-Out (PEP) and the phase-out of PEP itself results in a lower-than-expected amount of personal exemption.


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