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Tagged: tax law

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Tall Latte with a Double Shot of Tax Avoidance

StarbucksLogoIntellectual property has become a major tax-avoidance vehicle for multinationals. Front-page articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have detailed how IP-heavy companies like Apple, Google, and Big Pharma play games with their IP to avoid taxes on a massive scale. For example, Apple uses IP-based tax-avoidance strategies to reduce its effective tax rate to approximately 8%, well below the statutory 35% corporate tax rate (and well below most middle-class Americans’ tax rates).

Two characteristics of IP make it the ideal tax-avoidance vehicle. First, the uniqueness of every piece of IP makes its fair market value extremely hard to establish, allowing taxpayers to choose whatever valuations result in the least tax. Second, unlike workers or physical assets like factories or stores, IP can easily be moved to tax havens via mere paperwork.

But Starbucks is a bricks-and-mortar retailer dependent upon physical presence in high-tax countries. It wouldn’t seem to be in a position to use these IP-based tax tricks. Yet in an excellent, eye-opening paper, Edward Kleinbard (USC) delves into the strategies that Starbucks uses to substantially reduce its worldwide tax burden. Most interestingly, Starbucks puts IP like trademarks, proprietary roasting methods, operational expertise, and store trade dress into low-tax jurisdictions. Kleinbard cogently observes that the ability of a bricks-and-mortar retailer like Starbucks to play such games demonstrates how deep the flaws run in current U.S. and international tax policy.

 

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The IRS Scandal, Property Rules, and Liability Rules

IRS LogoRegardless of your take on the IRS targeting conservative groups applying for 501(c)(4) status, the episode demonstrates once again that Congress, the Administration, and the media have multiple avenues to pressure the IRS to act or to reconsider earlier actions. This susceptibility to political pressure has broad, counterintuitive implications for how to best deter violations of requirements throughout tax law.

In their path-breaking law & economics article, Calabresi & Melamed observed that every entitlement can be protected by either a property rule (e.g. injunctions, disgorgement of profits) or a liability rule (e.g. compensatory damages). The same is true in tax law. When a taxpayer violates a requirement for a favorable tax status, the tax code either imposes additional tax proportionate to the harm (a liability rule) or imposes the draconian penalty of taking away the tax status entirely (a property rule).

Which rule is most likely to deter a well-connected organization from violating a requirement imposed on it by tax law? At first glance, property rules (i.e. yanking the organization’s favorable tax status) appear to be the most effective deterrent. But the IRS routinely hesitates to take this draconian step, which would result in complaints to Congress, the Administration, the media, and other organizations. Even if the tax code, as written, imposes this property-rule remedy, the IRS can and often does decline to impose it in practice.

Examples of this problem abound throughout tax law. My favorite example is a real estate investment trust (or “REIT”) that had its IPO in 2007 and revealed in its SEC filing that it was in clear violation of one of the requirements (I.R.C. § 856(a)(2)) to qualify as a REIT for tax purposes. How brazen! But what was the IRS to do? The requirement is protected by a property rule: the only remedy available to the IRS was to take away the REIT’s favorable tax status entirely. This would have been draconian. All the REIT’s shareholders would have complained to their congresspersons, the financial press would have run stories, and the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts would have raised a ruckus. The IRS didn’t dare impose this property-rule remedy. The IRS did nothing, and the REIT suffered no consequences for the violation.

Would this REIT have been so brazen if the requirement had, instead, been protected by a liability rule, which would merely have imposed additional tax proportional to the violation? Almost certainly not. And that is the counterintuitive result: liability rules are often more effective in practice than draconian property rules in deterring taxpayers from violating tax-law requirements.

The relative merits of property rules and liability rules in tax law are explored in depth by this forthcoming Virginia Law Review article.

 

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Stanford Law Review Online: The Dirty Little Secret of (Estate) Tax Reform

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Edward McCaffery entitled The Dirty Little Secret of (Estate) Tax Reform. Professor McCaffery argues that Congress encourages and perpetuates the cycle of special interest spending on the tax reform issue:

Spoiler alert! The dirty little secret of estate tax reform is the same as the dirty little secret about many things that transpire, or fail to transpire, inside the Beltway: it’s all about money. But no, it is not quite what you think. The secret is not that special interests give boatloads of money to politicians. Of course they do. That may well be dirty, but it is hardly secret. The dirty little secret I come to lay bare is that Congress likes it this way. Congress wants there to be special interests, small groups with high stakes in what it does or does not do. These are necessary conditions for Congress to get what it needs: money, for itself and its campaigns. Although the near certainty of getting re-elected could point to the contrary, elected officials raise more money than ever. Tax reform in general, and estate tax repeal or reform in particular, illustrate the point: Congress has shown an appetite for keeping the issue of estate tax repeal alive through a never-ending series of brinksmanship votes; it never does anything fundamental or, for that matter, principled, but rakes in cash year in and year out for just considering the matter.

He concludes:

On the estate tax, then, it is easy to predict what will happen: not much. We will not see a return to year 2000 levels, and we will not see repeal. The one cautionary note I must add is that, going back to the game, something has to happen sometime, or the parties paying Congress and lobbyists will wise up and stop paying to play. But that has not kicked in yet, decades into the story, and it may not kick in until more people read this Essay, and start to watch the watchdogs. Fat chance of that happening, too, I suppose. In the meantime, without a meaningful wealth-transfer tax (the gift and estate taxes raise a very minimal amount of revenue and may even lose money when the income tax savings of standard estate-planning techniques, such as charitable and life insurance trusts, are taken into account), one fundamental insight of the special interest model continue to obtain. Big groups with small stakes—that is, most of us—continue to pay through increasingly burdensome middle class taxes for most of what government does, including stringing along those “lucky” enough to be members of a special interest group. It’s a variant of a very old story, and it is time to stop keeping it secret.

Read the full article, The Dirty Little Secret of (Estate) Tax Reform by Edward McCaffery, at the Stanford Law Review Online.