Great news: On taxes, the US beats France, Portugal, and ... that's about it

If American businesses have begun looking for opportunities to relocate their corporate offices overseas, it’s not necessarily from a lack of patriotism. The Tax Foundation calculated the tax competitiveness of the 34 countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), nations at least nominally committed to free-market economics, as part of their annual ranking system. The US comes in 32nd out of 34, just above France and Portugal, but below such economic powerhouses as Mexico — and Greece (via TaxProfBlog):

Estonia currently has the most competitive tax code in the OECD. Its top score is driven by four positive features of its tax code. First, it has a 21 percent tax rate on corporate income that is only applied to distributed profits. Second, it has a flat 21 percent tax on individual income that does not apply to personal dividend income. Third, its property tax applies only to the value of land rather than taxing the value of real property or capital. Finally, it has a territorial tax system that exempts 100 percent of the foreign profit earned by domestic corporations from domestic taxation with few restrictions.

While Estonia’s tax system is unique in the OECD, the other top countries’ tax systems receive high scores due to excellence in one or more of the major tax categories. New Zealand has a relatively flat, low income tax that also exempts capital gains (combined top rate of 33 percent), a well-structured property tax, and a broad-based value-added tax. Switzerland has a relatively low corporate tax rate (21.1 percent), low, broad-based consumption taxes (an 8 percent value-added tax), and a relatively flat individual income tax that exempts capital gains from taxation (combined rate of 36 percent). Sweden has a lower than average corporate income tax rate of 22 percent and no estate or wealth taxes. Australia, like New Zealand, has well-structured property and income taxes. Additionally, every single country in the top five has a territorial tax system.

France has the least competitive tax system in the OECD. It has one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the OECD (34.4 percent), high property taxes that include an annual net wealth tax, a financial transaction tax, and an estate tax. France also has high, progressive individual income taxes that apply to both dividend and capital gains income.

How about the US? Consider this another form of inversion:

The United States places 32nd out of the 34 OECD countries on the ITCI. There are three main drivers behind the U.S.’s low score. First, it has the highest corporate income tax rate in the OECD at 39.1 percent. Second, it is one of the only countries in the OECD that does not have a territorial tax system, which would exempt foreign profits earned by domestic corporations from domestic taxation. Finally, the United States loses points for having a relatively high, progressive individual income tax (combined top rate of 46.3 percent) that taxes both dividends and capital gains, albeit at a reduced rate.

It’s the second point more than the first that drives the inversions, also known as repatriations. Corporations that relocate outside the US will still pay the high corporate tax rate for earnings realized within the US, so they aren’t dodging taxes based on sales to Americans. By moving outside the US, though, they can now avoid paying US taxes on sales to everyone else. That puts them on the same footing as other global corporations, which do not charge domestic taxes on foreign revenues like the US does.  However, the high corporate tax rate and the complexity of the corporate tax system certainly does nothing to keep these corporations at home, let alone attract foreign investment.

The Wall Street Journal notes that the US is an a class by itself — and not in a good way:

With the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate at over 39% including state levies, plus a rare demand that money earned overseas should be taxed as if it were earned domestically, the U.S. is almost in a class by itself. It ranks just behind Spain and Italy, of all economic humiliations. America did beat Portugal and France, which is currently run by an avowed socialist.

The Tax Foundation benchmark compares developed economies with large and expensive governments, but the U.S. would do even worse if it were measured against the world’s roughly 190 countries. The accounting firm KPMG maintains a corporate tax table that includes more than 130 countries and only one has a higher overall corporate tax rate than the U.S. The United Arab Emirates’ 55% rate is an exception, however, because it usually applies only to foreign oil companies.

The new ranking is especially timely coming amid the campaign led by Messrs. Obama and Schumer to punish companies that move their legal domicile overseas to be able to reinvest future profits in the U.S. without paying the punitive American tax rate. If they succeed, the U.S. could fall to dead last on next year’s ranking. Now there’s a second-term legacy project for the President.

If we want to stop inversions, we should solve the problems that drive them, not punish companies for rational business decisions. Obama and Schumer don’t want to address those problems and the ridiculous competitive position of the US internationally, though, because to do so would reduce the potential for crony capitalism and social engineering through the corporate tax code. It’s a politically corrupt system, which is the lens through which we should see any politician that would rather attack legitimate businesses rather than address the actual issues.

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