Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Auerbach Tax and Automobile Multinationals

Bloomberg reports:
A proposed tax on imports that President Donald Trump is said to be warming to could upend the competitive landscape for carmakers, boosting Ford Motor Co. while hindering manufacturers that rely more on overseas factories including Toyota Motor Corp. House Republican leaders have proposed a so-called border-adjusted tax, which would place a levy on vehicles imported into the U.S. and fully exempt those exported. Though Trump initially deemed the idea too complicated, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer last week said it was under consideration and could help pay for a wall along the Mexico border. The overhaul to the U.S. tax system could hand an advantage to Ford, Honda Motor Co. and General Motors Co., which rely the least on imported vehicles among major automakers. The shake-up would also undermine Toyota
Is Bloomberg assuming a fixed yen/$ exchange rate so these border adjustments boost exports and discourage imports? Greg Mankiw and Paul Krugman take a very different view. Greg breaks down this Destination Based Cash Flow tax as a three-fer:
Impose a retail sales tax on consumer goods and services, both domestic and imported; Use some of the proceeds from the tax to repeal the corporate income tax.; and Use the rest of the proceeds from the tax to significantly cut the payroll tax.
Greg is assuming the rise in sales taxes is greater than the cut in income taxes, which is not clear. But let’s hear from Paul:
Greg and I disagree on whether replacing profits taxes with sales taxes is a good idea, but agree that all of this has nothing to do with trade and international competition – because it doesn’t. I suspect, however, that Greg is being naïve here in assuming that we’re just seeing confusion because border tax adjustment sounds as if it must involve competitive games. There’s some of that, for sure, but one reason the competitiveness thing won’t go away is that it’s an essential part of the political pitch. “Let’s eliminate taxes on profits and tax consumers instead” is a hard sell, even if you want to claim that the incidence isn’t what it looks like. Claiming that it’s about eliminating a dire competitive disadvantage plays much better, even though it’s all wrong.
Alan Auerbach – the proponent of this idea – joined with Douglas Holtz-Eakin to state why this competitiveness argument is all wrong: These two (AHE) wrote:
Unlike tariffs on imports or subsidies for exports, border adjustments are not trade policy. Instead, they are paired and equal adjustments that create a level tax playing field for domestic and overseas competition; Border adjustments do not distort trade, as exchange rates should react immediately to offset the initial impact of these adjustments. As a corollary, border adjustments do not distort the pattern of domestic sales and purchases
So if this is not going to advantage Ford and GM to the disadvantage of Toyota, could something else be driving Ford’s support and the opposition from companies like Toyota. I have been looking more at the transfer pricing angle objecting to this claim from AHE:
Border adjustments eliminate the incentive to manipulate transfer prices in order to shift profits to lower-tax jurisdictions
A lot of people read this and think transfer pricing manipulation goes away. But this is clearly wrong if our trading partners have positive corporate tax rates that are sourced based. Even AHE admits this later:
Thus, the multinational would have no incentive to use transfer prices to shift profits away from the United States, even if the tax rate in the foreign country is very low. Indeed, it would benefit by shifting profits to the United States, to reduce the taxes it pays in the low-tax country.
Lawrence Summers adds:
Businesses that invest heavily, hire extensively and export a large part of their product will have negative taxable income on a chronic basis .. Fourth, the combination of a sharply lower rate, new opportunities for tax arbitrage and the fact that any revenue gains from bringing overseas cash home are one-shot means the Federal revenue base would erode. The result would be cuts in entitlement payments to consumers who spend heavily, tax hikes on individuals and reductions in government spending. Over time, this will slow growth and burden the middle class.
He is correct about the “new opportunities for tax arbitrage" which is what I referring to with my Trump Toaster Oven example where I noted:
While currently Tiffany might want to raise the intercompany price – she knows the IRS could object. Of course Auerbach’s DBCFT would change her incentives as she might want to lower this price to only $80 to eliminate the Canadian income tax – assuming the Canadian Revenue Agency does not object.
Of course the Canadian Revenue Agency would strongly object. Toyota is a lot like our example. The Auerbach proposal would raise its U.S. taxes and give it an incentive to ship their cars to the U.S. at cost costs only. Toyota’s 10-K indicates that its 2015 sales were $260 billion with over $100 billion to the U.S. Its operating margin was 10 percent with the U.S. getting about half of that on its U.S. sales. So on U.S sales, Toyota has U.S. profits near $5 billion and Japanese profits near $5 billion – both taxes at fairly high rates. The Auerbach tax would give Toyota the incentive to have all $10 billion sourced in the U.S. But one would certainly expect the Japanese tax authorities to strongly object. Summers example reminds me of Boeing which sells over $90 billion a year with 58 percent of those sales to foreign customers. It currently incurs near $1.9 billion in U.S. taxes given its 7.5 percent profit margin and the fact that it allocates over 95 percent of its income to the U.S. The Auerbach tax would cut this tax bill to zero. It would also cut the U.S. tax bill for companies such as Starbucks. So what about Ford and GM? Alas Dylan Matthews has this all wrong with:
For example, suppose that a car company — let’s just call it, uh, General Motors — makes $1 billion in profit manufacturing cars in the US and selling them domestically and exporting them to subsidiaries abroad. That would normally subject it about $350 million in taxes, since the US has a 35 percent corporate tax rate. But GM could instead have its foreign subsidiaries pay $1 billion less for the cars they buy from the US branch of the company. That wipes out GM’s US profits, leaving it with no US tax liability and shifting the profits to the subsidiaries abroad. If those subsidiaries are in countries with a low or nonexistent corporate income tax, that could wind up being a very good deal ... This makes most tax evasion schemes pointless.
I doubt Dylan looked at the 10-K filings of either Ford or GM when he drafted this base erosion fairy tale. Ford sources less than 17 percent of its income to foreign affiliates and GM sources almost none of its income abroad. So the Auerbach tax would represent a major reduction in their U.S. tax bills. These foreign affiliates are not in tax havens unless you think Canada, Mexico, and our European trading partners have zero corporate tax rates (hint – their tax rates are 20 percent or more). Think of their operations as having a European component and a North American component. The European affiliates produce and distribute cars paying royalties back to the U.S. parent. Under the Auerbach proposal, they might want to increase those royalties to bleed their European affiliates dry. But of course the tax authorities in France, Germany, and the UK are not stupid. In North America, Mexican maquiladoras make the components, Detroit assembles, and a Canadian distributor sells to Canadian customers. The Auerbach tax would give Ford and GM the incentives to manipulate transfer pricing to strip all Canadian and Mexican income so the last line from Dylan that I quoted is quite wrong. But it would also be wrong to assume that the Canadian Revenue Agency and the Mexican authorities would just roll over.


Brad Setser said...

PGL -- love the details. On Boeing, my guess is that it gets a rebate (something summers notes as possible with "negative taxable income on a chronic basis). to make the math simple, Boeing gets 40% of 90b domestically($36b), and 60% abroad ($54b). as i understand it the $54b doesn't enter into calculations for its tax (nor do capital investments, given full expensing). So if domestic costs exceed ($36b - capex) i think Boeing's tax income is negative. and thus it should get a check back from the government (w-o rebates, refiners are screwed given some import to export given overall US exports of product despite US net import of crude, so rebates to a degree are a necessary aspect of the bill if you do not want to disrupt major businesses). let me know if i have thing wrong.

ProGrowthLiberal said...

Brad - as usual you have the numbers right. As far as the legal details, never has been my forte.

ProGrowthLiberal said...

Just saw this from the always excellent Brad Setser:

I briefly mentioned "Dark Matter" and this issue in an earlier post. Brad provides an excellent discussion of how these two issues are related. A must read.