We retired Tax Justice Blog in April 2017. For new content on issues related to tax justice, go to www.justtaxesblog.org
On Friday, the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a $276 billion bill that would make permanent “bonus depreciation.” This huge tax break for business investment was first enacted to try to address the recession early in the Bush administration. Since then, it has been repeatedly re-enacted to try to stimulate the economy during the much more severe recession starting at the end of the Bush administration. It finally expired at the end of 2013.
Here are some reasons why Congress should allow bonus depreciation to remain expired rather than making it a permanent part of the tax code.
1. “Bonus depreciation” has not helped the economy in the past and is unlikely to help the economy in the future.
A July 7 report from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) reviews research on bonus depreciation and finds that it has little positive impact on the economy as a temporary measure and is likely to have even less impact as a permanent measure. The report cites surveys of firms that “showed that between two-thirds and more than 90 percent of respondents indicated bonus depreciation had no effect on the timing of investment spending.”
Businesses will invest more only if they expect to have more sales. In a recession, when consumer demand falls, companies won’t invest more even with extra tax breaks. In a growing economy, business investment will naturally go up, with or without extra tax breaks. That’s why firms that take advantage of bonus depreciation are getting a break for investments they would have made anyway.
This is one reason why bonus depreciation provides far less stimulative effect for the economy than many other measures. The CRS report cites estimates that each dollar the government gives up for bonus depreciation increases economic output by just 20 cents, whereas each dollar the government spends on unemployment insurance increases economic output by more than a dollar.
2. Enacting the permanent “bonus” depreciation measure is hugely hypocritical when lawmakers refuse to approve much smaller, but more effective measures.
The House is set to approve this bill, which would reduce revenue by $276 billion over a decade to help businesses, after refusing for months to take up a $10 billion extension of emergency unemployment insurance, which would provide a greater impact for each dollar spent.
Many of the lawmakers who champion this bill, including Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp, refuse to support other changes to the tax code unless they are part of a sweeping, comprehensive tax reform. In fact, Camp and others have even used this argument to oppose a bill that would raise $19.5 billion over a decade by preventing the “inversions” that more and more American corporations are seeking so that they can claim to be foreign companies to avoid U.S. taxes. Camp claims that Congress should not close the loopholes these companies use to pretend to be “foreign” unless it is done as part of a comprehensive tax reform. And yet, he supports a permanent change in the depreciation rules that would reduce revenue by $276 billion over a decade.
3. Bonus depreciation provides many business investments with a negative effective tax rate. In other words, these investments are more profitable after taxes than before taxes!
Companies are allowed to deduct from their taxable income the expenses of running their businesses, so that what’s taxed is net profit. Businesses can also deduct the costs of purchases of machinery, software, buildings and so forth, but since these capital investments don’t lose value right away, these deductions are taken over time
Of course, firms would rather deduct capital expenses right away rather than delaying those deductions, because of the time value of money, i.e., the fact that a given amount of money is worth more today than the same amount of money will be worth if it is received later. For example, $100 invested now at a 7 percent return will grow to $200 in ten years.
Bonus depreciation is an expansion of the existing tax breaks that allow businesses to deduct their capital expenditures more quickly than is warranted by the equipment’s loss of value or any other economic rationale.
The problem this presents is not confined to abstract ideas about the tax code. For example, because the tax code generally taxes the income (profits) of a business, it allows deductions for expenses like interest payments. This means that businesses can invest in equipment with borrowed money and the combination of accelerated depreciation and deductions for interest payments often results in these investments having a negative effective tax rate. This problem exists to some degree with the depreciation breaks that are already a permanent part of the tax code. Bonus depreciation makes the problem considerably worse.
The CRS report explains that for debt-financed investments, the effective tax “rate on equipment without bonus depreciation is minus 19 percent; with bonus depreciation it is minus 37 percent.”
Taxes are supposed to raise the money we need to pay for public programs. But bonus depreciation turns business taxes upside-down, allowing companies to make more money on their investments after taxes than they’d earn if there were no tax system at all.