This paper looks at the patent box that Belgium enacted, effective 2008, which presented a nice research opportunity due to its design. It was for patents only, not other IP, making empirical measurement easier, Plus, it required new patents, and gestured in the direction of requiring activity in Belgium, although as we’ll see this may not have been much more than a gesture.
It also was exceptionally generous. Belgium had a 34% corporate income tax rate (okay, strictly speaking, 33.99%, but for a corporate income tax “99 pricing” strikes me as a bit idiotic and pointless). The patent box retained the full tax rate on the deduction side, and provided an 80% exclusion for gross income (generally) from patents.
Thus, suppose one spends €100 developing a patent that ends up earning €70. The former can presumably be expensed as R&D, leaving €66 after-tax given the 34% rate. The latter is taxed at 6.8% (20% of 34%), leaving €66.17 after-tax. So the 30 percent pre-tax loss becomes an after-tax gain, under the Belgian patent box. That is not exactly ungenerous.
As background before discussing the paper’s empirical findings, why would one have a patent box? It’s one mechanism among many for increasing “innovation” that is thought to have positive spillovers. These might be two main kinds: (1) the global benefit from increasing knowledge that leads to further knowledge expansion, practical applications that benefit people, etc.; (2) local spillovers from having the activities take place in one’s own jurisdiction. Here the idea is that everyone wants their own Silicon Valley, on the view that it enriches and otherwise benefits the jurisdiction and its residents.
Alternative ways of increasing valuable innovation include (to name just two among many) (1) patent law and other associated legal protections, and (2) up-front tax benefits, such as R&D expensing or credits, perhaps made refundable so that innovators can benefit even if they don’t have current net income.
For real world patent boxes, the particular motivations might include (1) nobly and disinterestedly wanting to benefit everyone in the world by at least slightly and incrementally increasing global innovation activity, (2) more selfishly (and via tax competition) aiming to become the host of a new Silicon Valley, (3) revenue piracy – which I don’t mean to condemn via the label – meaning that one gets patenters to assign legal and tax claims to one’s jurisdiction so that both they and oneself will benefit – less global taxes for them, more revenue for oneself than if it hadn’t offered accommodation services, and (4) simple Ramsey pricing, whereby one lowers the tax rate (for efficiency reasons) on activity that is relatively mobile and thus elastic.
As we’ll see, the paper’s findings reinforced my view that, while in principle countries can benefit from offering patent or broader innovation boxes, on one or more of grounds 2 through 4, in practice this never seems actually to be the case. This in turn leaves a question that I’ll address at the end: Why, then, do patent boxes seem to be so popular with national policymakers. But first, let’s look more closely at the paper.
The paper has 6 main empirical findings, each of which I’ll accompany here with my own commentary.
1) Effect on patent applications and grants – Using a difference-in-difference research design and with multiple controls, fixed effects, alternative specifications, entropy balancing, etc., the paper finds that the Belgian patent box increased patent applications by 0.4 to 1.8%, and patent grants by 0.4 to 5.1%. This is consistent with concluding that the patent box increased innovation activity in Belgium, although this could of course involve shifting from other countries, rather than new activity.
There’s a vast IP literature, making the point that it’s tricky to go straight from more patents to more spillover benefits from innovation, for a number of reasons. For example, strategic patents and greater activity by patent trolls often are not good things. But, in a study like this, increased patent applications and grants is verging on necessary, even if not sufficient, to suggest a strong case that there might be increased innovation, at least as to that which is being (perhaps formalistically) assigned to the country with the patent box.
The paper aims to offer only a lower bound on the response. For example, its panels exclude firms that weren’t around for all of the years under study, thereby omitting the creation of new firms in response. But even granting that, the positive response, while unsurprising given the very substantial benefits Belgium was offering to patents that ended up earning gross income, seems rather small.
2) Effect on patent quality – Combining several standard measures of this that are used in the IP literature, the paper found a decline in patent quality by reason of the patent box (although the effect’s magnitude is hard to quantify, given the squishiness of the metric). This is hardly surprising under a design that allows investments earning a 30% pretax loss to be profitable after-tax. Of course, if profitability rather than spillovers were the sine qua non for the patenting activity that one wants to encourage, there’d be no need to do more than, say, address liquidity problems. Still, the provision’s allowing a tax arbitrage between deductions at 34% and gross income taxed at 6.8% seems unlikely to be a strong positive inducement to “quality” of any kind.
3) Intra-Belgian shift in firms’ use of employees with college degrees – The paper found a quite substantial increase – in contrast to its generally otherwise modest results – in the extent to which Belgian firms that could make practical use of the patent box, as distinct from those that couldn’t, increased their relative levels of employment of individuals with a college education. The paper uses this just as an indicator that something is happening in these firms. If they were just mailing patent applications to a Belgian rather than non-Belgian address, there might be no need for greater relative use of college grads. But the data don’t permit analyzing whether these were, say, engineers or tax planners.
From a nationally self-interested standpoint, it might be great for Belgium if its enacting a patent box induced a good number of educated, high-value employees to move to Belgium from, say, neighboring EU countries. The tax revenues alone might be significant in such a case (although they wouldn’t be scored under Belgium’s corporate income tax). But data limitations made it impossible to test for this intriguing possibility. But that said, if I were trying to attract high-skilled workers from neighboring countries, I rather doubt that a patent box is where I’d start out.
4) Rate of increase in patent activity vs. other EU countries – The paper compared Belgian patent trends to those in 3 peer countries in the EU: Germany, France, and Sweden. Germany and France are of course both neighbors, and neither changed their rules with respect to patent boxes during the period under study. Germany never had a patent box during the period, while France always did. Sweden is included because of similarities to Belgium in terms of overall size and that of its IP sector.
The paper finds that Belgium’s highest rate of relative increase in patent activity pertained to Germany, as opposed to France or Sweden. While the cause and significance of this can’t be nailed down definitively, I view it as consistent with (and perhaps mildly supportive of) a switching story. Germany was the one country of the three that combined being adjoining with not having its own patent box regime.
5) Relative effective tax rate (ETR) effects – Overall, the paper found that firms taking advantage of the patent box saw their ETRs drop by 2.2 to 2.4% absolutely, or 7.2 to 7.9% relative to their prior ETRs. However, the degree of average benefit varied by the type of firm. It was highest for multinational companies (MNCs) that had limited profit-shifting opportunities out of Belgium, intermediate for MNCs that had profit-shifting opportunities (and that thus had already been shielded from actually paying an ETR in the ballpark of Belgium’s 34% statutory rate), and lowest for firms that were Belgian only.
I would think it’s reasonable to presume that the MNCs were predominantly owned by non-Belgians. After all, they’re presumably on at least EU-wide or even global capital markets, and Belgium is too small for one to think that its residents would typically own a high percentage. By contrast, I’d presume that the Belgian firms were mainly owned by locals. So the tax benefit was going far more to companies whose shareholders were non-Belgians, than to those whose shareholders were Belgians.
6) Revenue effect – The paper estimates that the Belgian patent box resulted in a revenue loss of €68 million per year, representing 0.63% of Belgian corporate income tax revenue.
This is a very bad result, from the standpoint of the provision’s merits from a Belgian national welfare standpoint. It means that, far from representing successful revenue piracy – or, to put it more charitably, hitting the peak of the Laffer curve, the provision is actually losing money. So rather than making money out of being an accommodation party, Belgium is paying.
One needn’t generally demand of tax breaks that they better than pay for themselves. But here it’s very plausible that they should. Again, this money is coming mainly from non-Belgians, as to whom it’s plausible that Belgium benefits from revenue-maximizing, subject to modification by reason of positive externalities created by luring patent activity inward. It’s plausible that the incidence of the tax cut actually lay with the MNCs’ predominantly non-Belgian shareholders, given the recent prevalence of extra returns (presumably reflecting market power) to MNCs generally, and those involved in IP activity particularly. For Belgian residents, by contrast, one would have Ramsey tax motives of trading off revenue against deadweight loss, and thus of adopting more efficient tax levels even if one thereby loses revenue. But deadweight loss incurred by non-residents is normatively irrelevant under a selfish national social welfare function.
This pushes pretty far towards one concluding that Belgium hurt rather than helped itself by adopting the patent box. Again, global positive spillovers might not do much for Belgium in particular even if one did not suspect that there’s more switching than fresh innovation activity in response to the provision.
But what about the local spillovers? I suspect that this would require a lot more substance than the Belgian patent box appears to demand. To qualify, the taxpayer must have a Belgian “qualified research center” (QRC). But this need only be Belgian-owned, which can be close to meaningless given the flexibility of corporate residence. And even if the QRC is actually in Belgium, it need only be sufficiently capable, staffed, etc., to “supervise” the research that’s going on. Maybe this calls for renting an office that’s staffed by a few college grads who look over the docs, but I seriously doubt that it calls for anything close to even requiring the first faltering steps towards the true establishment of a Belgian Silicon Valley.
So Belgium appears to have been losing tax revenues, giving the money to foreigners, subsidizing projects that might even have had significant expected pre-tax losses, and failing to encourage any significant local positive spillovers (apart, perhaps, from encouraging the firms to hire a few college grads who might instead have been toiling in some other office in Brussels or wherever).
This appears to be a very typical story regarding patent boxes. So why they are so popular? I’m not cynical enough, at least in this particular case, to attribute it mainly to lobbying and interest group influence. Rather, the thing sounds trendy and new (“wow – a patent box – where do they keep the darned thing?”). So it might mainly be self-branding by policymakers who want to associate with something that sounds hard-headedly cool, even if it actually isn’t.