The White House is convinced that a special tax break it plans to offer to entice corporations to bring back some of the estimated $2.6 trillion in profits they have sheltered in overseas tax havens will raise paychecks for average American workers.
To hear the administration tell it, corporations will invest that money in expanding plants and research in the U.S., hiring workers and driving up wages.
“A tax cut like this, very conservatively, will increase the median wage by about $4,000 a year over a relatively short time,” the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin Hassett, said Wednesday morning at a forum in Washington.
But for that to actually happen, corporations would have to decide to bring back their profits, invest them in ways that increase productivity, and that increase would have to drive higher wages. And that is far from guaranteed, economists say.
Hassett said corporate profit growth used to be closely associated with wage increases for workers, but it no longer is. He blamed tax havens such as Ireland, where the corporate rate can be as low as 2.4 percent.
“it used to be that if profit growth went up 11 percent, then we’d expect wages to go up about 11 percent. But instead profit growth went up 11 percent and wages hardly budged,” Hassett said. “And the reason is the profits are in Ireland. And we bring the profits back here, then wage growth can go back to being what it should be, which is going up with profits.”
Hassett’s chief of staff, D.J. Nordquist, said a white paper backing up the analysis would be released soon.
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But some economists, while agreeing on the need to revamp the corporate tax code, say the biggest beneficiaries of lower rates will be executives and shareholders. They say workers on average would only get 20 cents to 25 cents from each dollar in reduced tax, and would benefit more from programs that lower the taxes they pay directly.
“Hassett’s logic is hopeful, wishful thinking as a way to sell a corporate tax cut that will mostly benefit those at top of the distribution, especially shareholders,” said Kimberly Clausing, an economist at Reed College who testified before the Senate Finance Committee on Oct. 3.
She said companies and investors have money to invest without needing to bring it back from overseas, but they are not doing that because they do not see opportunities to sell their products while middle class incomes have stagnated.
She rejected overseas tax havens as the cause, arguing that wages were also largely stagnant in other major economies around the globe.
Currently, U.S.-based multinational corporations are taxed on their global earnings, but they can defer tax on overseas earnings until they bring the money back.
But there is widespread agreement the tax code needs to be overhauled because companies have been able to keep money in foreign subsidiaries to avoid taxes that might otherwise be due. For example, companies have transferred patents to subsidiaries in low-tax countries, so that revenue from selling or licensing products, even in the United States where corporate headquarters are, counts as income in the low-tax country.
A tax “framework” unveiled Sept. 27 by Trump and House and Senate Republican leaders calls for moving to a system that only taxes domestic profits, rather than global operations. It is vague about how it would deal with overseas profits, except to say there would be “rules to protect the U.S. tax base by taxing at a reduced rate and on a global basis the foreign profits of U.S. multinational corporations.”
Tapping overseas profits has long been discussed by federal officials. President Obama, for example, had proposed a low repatriation rate to raise revenue to fund an expansion of highway, transit and infrastructure.
Economists have warned, however, that repeatedly offering bonus rates to bring money back would encourage companies to keep sheltering profits until the next bonus rate is offered.
Changing from a global corporate tax system and offering a one-time repatriation rate is part of a sweeping tax overhaul plan that would bring the top corporate rate down from 35 percent to 20 percent and reduce the seven current individual tax brackets to three or four.
The House is expected to unveil detailed legislation in several weeks, after an agreement between the House and Senate is reached over the total cost to the federal deficit from the tax plan.
After failing to deliver on a plan to repeal Obama’s signature health insurance law, Trump and Republicans are under pressure to deliver a tax package by the end of the year.
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