New minimum tax proposal for companies’ book profits

Reportedly, the Senate Democrats are nearing an agreement on a corporate minimum tax  that would apply in lieu of some things that Senator Sinema opposes, e.g., generally raising the corporate rate.

I am not entirely a fan of minimum taxes, as discussed here. But when political constraints limit what can be enacted, the best shouldn’t be the enemy of the sufficiently good. I do think there’s a strong case for increasing U.S. corporate tax burdens relative to where the 2017 act left them – as a new article of mine that is coming out in Tax Notes next Monday (November 1) will discuss. So let’s consider the merits of doing it in the particular way that the emerging agreement envisions.

The following are the key features that were listed in a fact sheet. The items from the fact sheet are in bold, with comments of mine in regular font.

The Corporate Profits Minimum Tax would:

  •   Apply to roughly 200 companies that report over $1 billion in profits – These probably include many of the leading suspects that are currently earning what look like large rents and paying low taxes. Thus limiting the tax’s reach might be viewed as equivalent to imposing graduated corporate rates, which is not generally the best approach. And the exemption amount is surely above the level that one would adopt purely on administrative grounds. Setting it that high is presumably a political  constraint. (I am presuming that it is indeed an exemption amount, to avoid large “cliff” effects when one goes a dollar over the threshold.)

  •   Create a 15% minimum tax on the profits that these giant companies report to shareholders – I suggested here that there may be grounds for assigning some tax liability to book income, not just the income measures devised by legislators. I have since backed off this a bit, since my friends in the accounting profession are so vehemently and almost unanimously opposed to it (although I suspect that there might be a bit of NIMBYism going on there). But in any event this is the direction in which the international tax world is moving, since politically book income nas become the fallback of choice for minimum taxes, faute de mieux. With flawed political institutions setting corporate tax bases, there is certainly a kind of second-best case for doing this. The minimum tax (as opposed to low-rate supplemental tax) design feature is one that I’d probably on balance recommend against, but again that’s not to overstate the problems caused by it.

  •   Preserve the value of business credits including R&D, clean energy, and housing tax credits and allow credits for taxes paid to foreign countries – These credits vary in their meritoriousness. I hope the foreign tax credits aren’t 100% (i.e., dollar-for-dollar domestic tax reduction for foreign taxes paid, leading to a “marginal reimbursement rate” of 100%, for reasons that I wrote about, for example here. But there are already precedents (such as GILTI) for applying a less than 100% MRR, so I am hopeful that it is also the case here.

  •   Include some flexibilities for companies to carry forward losses and claim a minimum tax credit against regular tax in future years – This is certainly a desirable feature, as it offsets the arbitrariness of annual accounting.

  •   Raise hundreds of billions in revenue over 10 years – Again, while the details will be key, raising that sort of money from these taxpayers is indeed a direction in which I believe we should generally be going.

  • Bottom line, I look forward to seeing further details, but even if some political compromises were necessary, I am hopeful that this will prove to be a meritorious proposal on balance. More to come.