Sunday, November 29, 2009
Among the most prophetic voices prior to the economic crash was UCLA economics professor Harold H. Somers, who warned in 1991 that revisions to the tax code would increase leverage, which could lead to economic disaster:
The result is to tilt the well-worn playing field even more in favor of leveraging, leading to the possibility of another leverage frenzy and debacle at some time in the future.
Professor Sommers explained:
The complete history of the causes of the junk bond debacle of 1989 and 1990 is yet to be written. But the tax incentive must have a prominent place in any comprehensive work. This comment applies to long-term debt where the interest deduction can be a major factor; short-term debt may be dominated by other considerations.
What is involved is essentially the shield against income tax that is provided by corporate debt compared with the shields that are provided for equity by the income tax rules ...
Former President of the St. Louis Federal reserve Bank - William Poole - agrees in a new paper:
Excessive leverage is highly destabilizing to the financial system (see this, for example). If a simple fix to the tax code could substantially reduce leverage, I'm all for it.
A straightforward fix for excessive leverage can be achieved through the tax system. Companies borrow, in part, because they believe that debt capital is cheaper than equity capital. That is certainly the case under the U.S. corporate tax system because interest is a deductible business expense in calculating income subject to tax whereas dividends are not deductible.
Poole recommends the gradual phasing-in of changes to the tax code to reduce leverage:
Interest deductibility could be phased out over the next 10 years. Next year, 90 percent of interest would be deductible; the following year, 80 percent would be deductible, and so forth, until interest would no longer be deductible at all. The same reform would apply to all business entities; partnerships, for example, should not be able to deduct interest if corporations cannot.
With this simple change, the federal government would encourage businesses and households to become less leveraged. We have learned that leverage makes not only individual companies more vulnerable to failure but also the economy less stable. We use tax laws all the time to promote socially desirable behavior; eliminating the deductibility of interest would reduce the risk of failure of large companies—especially, large firms—and thereby reduce the collateral damage inflicted by such failures.