Stop Bribing Companies to Lever Up

Go ahead and pull out an income statement for your favorite stock. I'll wait.

You'll notice that there is a line called "Interest Expense" that comes before the "Tax Expense" line. Now notice the absence of similar lines for "Dividend Expense" and "Share Buyback Expense."

No, I'm not trying to bore you with an accounting lecture. I'm trying to point out a travesty of modern finance: the unequal treatment of debt and equity, better known as the tax-deductibility of interest.

Thanks to interest deductibility, our tax code unfairly benefits companies that lever themselves to the moon -- e.g., big banks -- while putting those who choose equity financing -- like Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) -- at a comparative disadvantage.

And the disparity is real. The Congressional Budget Office finds that equity-financed corporate investments pay an effective tax rate of 36.1%, while debt-financed investments pay an effective tax rate of -6.4%.

Yes, that's a negative tax rate for debt-financed corporate investment. Taxpayers are paying corporations to lever up. It's totally unfair and unwise.

And then we all sit around and wonder why banks levered themselves 1000 to 1. Why, the tax code pays them to!

Corporate welfare for borrowers
One of the lessons that business school students learn is that you should, generally speaking, use debt if it's not totally reckless. This is because if I borrow money at, for instance, 6%, I'm not really paying 6%. Thanks to Uncle Sam, I'm paying 3.9% after taking into effect the "tax shield" of deductible interest expense, assuming a 35% corporate tax rate.

Think of it as welfare for corporate borrowers. And in the case of Goldman Sachs  (NYSE: GS  ) , it saved the company $2.2 billion last year -- the majority of its net income. Goldman was not alone: The deduction saved Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) $5.8 billion, which was the majority of that company's net income, too. The same is true for highly levered nonbank stocks like DineEquity (NYSE: DIN  ) , owner of the Applebee's and IHOP franchises. 

The majority of their net income is all paid for by the tax code.

The picture isn't as rosy for companies who use equity instead of debt. If I issue equity with a required rate of return (to compensate for the risk) of 10%, I end up "paying" 10%. The government does not subsidize my equity issuance via a deduction, nor are share buybacks or dividend payments (whose potential determines a stock's value) tax-deductible at the corporate level. My 10% stays 10%.

Now, there's been a lot of bluster in Congress about the evils of leverage. It seems to me that the obvious step forward would be to -- oh, I don't know -- stop paying people to take on leverage?

Just a thought.

The FairTax solution
One of the objections a reader might bring up isWHERE  that interest payments are taxed -- via the recipient's income. This is true.

But so are dividends. However, dividends are also taxed at the corporate level (as earnings), too. So dividends get taxed twice, and interest gets taxed once. Therefore, the playing field is still skewed toward debt. (Share buybacks are taxed only once, but at the same, generally higher corporate-level tax rate as earnings.)

A way to fix this would be to simply eliminate the interest deduction in exchange for a lower corporate tax rate, as President Obama proposed back in February.

Alternatively, we could go for fellow Fool Dan Caplinger's proposal and simply eliminate the corporate income tax. If the tax rate is 0%, getting a deduction for interest expense doesn't matter.

The problem with both of these proposals is that they might send the pendulum too far in the other direction. If dividends are taxed at 15% with a lower corporate tax rate (0% in Dan's case) while income and interest are taxed at up to 35%, we may have simply skewed the field in another direction -- toward equity. This goes double when you figure that share buybacks are only taxed via the corporate tax rate. So you could wind up with the opposite problem.

I think a more comprehensive solution is in order. And that solution is moving to a consumption-tax-based system like the FairTax.

Under the FairTax, the corporate income tax, dividend tax, capital gains tax, payroll taxes, and individual income taxes (including any taxes on interest) would be completely eliminated. Instead, a national sales tax of 23% would be levied on all new goods and services. An "advanced refund" mechanism would also be put in place to ensure that the tax does not hurt those below the poverty line. I'm not the best one to explain the details, so I recommend checking out the FairTax website.

If nothing is taxed besides sales, there can be no perverse tax incentives to lever or delever. Debt and equity are truly on an equal footing, as they should be.

If you think I'm a crazy libertarian sporting rose-colored glasses, you haven't been reading my columns as of late. I've been very supportive of stimulus spending, the TARP "bailout," and Ben Bernanke's Fed -- all stuff that has me on the libertarian hit list.

But I know a good idea when I see one.

Fool contributor Chris Baines is a value investor. Follow him on Twitter, where he goes by @askchrisbainesChris' stock picks and pans have outperformed 96% of players on CAPS. He owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Citigroup Inc. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Apple and Goldman Sachs Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (7)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 24, 2012, at 3:12 PM, jackc37 wrote:

    Good idea, but 23% is too darn high. Cut it in half and make the Federal government live within the responsibilities the Constitution gives it.

    Not overnight because we don't want to hurt the truly needy, but that responsibility belongs to the states.

    A Fair Tax is going to be super difficult to make happen because the current tax system gives Congress all its power and they aren't going to let it happen. The people that have lobbied them for all those tax benefits aren't going to let it happen either.

  • Report this Comment On September 24, 2012, at 3:41 PM, CluckChicken wrote:

    A fair tax would ideally tax only disposable income, this is something the "Fair Tax" would not do. The "Fair Tax" would have a greater impact on the poor as they tend to use a much larger percentage of income on goods and services then the wealthy do.

  • Report this Comment On September 24, 2012, at 3:52 PM, jdmeck wrote:

    As ales tax instead of income taxes is the best way to go but the fir tax is not. 23% is way to much and not needed. To much welfare considerations still in the fair tax.

  • Report this Comment On September 26, 2012, at 2:23 PM, 1ProudAmerican wrote:

    Though the consumption tax rate of the Fair Tax is 23%, the overall tax varies and is a much smaller percentage per family (or individual) because of the prebate written into the Fair Tax. Here is a link of how the Fair Tax would have positively affected most American households in 2012. http://www.fairtax.org/site/PageServer?pagename=FAQs#3

  • Report this Comment On September 29, 2012, at 12:50 PM, TXFairTaxer wrote:

    HEY ALL!! 23% is only the RETAIL tax rate. It isn't your effective tax rate.

    Your EFFECTIVE tax rate is based on 2 primary criteria 1) your family composition (Single/Married, # of kids) and 2) what you spend annually. Here are a few Examples:

    Effective FairTax rate for SINGLE ADULT, NO KIDS after prebate: Spend $25K/yr = 6.5%

    Effective FairTax rate for family of 4 after prebate, spend $25K/yr = -4%

    Effective FairTax rate for SINGLE ADULT, NO KIDS after prebate: Spend $40K/yr = 14.5%

    Effective FairTax rate for family of 4 after prebate: Spend $40K/yr = 6%

    Please don't just look at 23%, look at the BIG picture: No More IRS!!! No more Income Taxes, No more highly regressive Payroll Taxes.

    @TXFairTaxer

  • Report this Comment On September 29, 2012, at 1:02 PM, DFWFairTax wrote:

    CluckChicken: You stated that "A fair tax would ideally tax only disposable income, this is something the "Fair Tax" would not do. The "Fair Tax" would have a greater impact on the poor as they tend to use a much larger percentage of income on goods and services then the wealthy do."

    I do not understand your first sentence. I understand "Disposable Income" to be that which you take home in your paycheck or have to spend after paying required taxes.

    Under the FairTax, you take home your entire paycheck less anything YOU determine be withheld for savings, insurance, state taxes or other things that YOU wish your employer to hold out of your check. Therefore your paycheck is your disposable income. If and when you chose to purchase a NEW good or service at retail, you will of course pay the National Consumption Tax, the FairTax. Before you pay it, you will have received a monthly Prebate check from the government for your household which is based upon the number of people in your household. This will offset any taxes you pay for necessary goods and services up to the poverty level for your household. If you spend pass this poverty level, you will of course be paying the tax out of your disposable income.

    The Prebate make the FairTax a progressive tax and eliminates the regressive nature of the current system, especially for lower income people, young or old.

    Please visit www.fairtax.org to learn about a Replacement for our 99 year old disaster known as the Federal Income Tax.

Add your comment.

Sponsored Links

Leaked: Apple's Next Smart Device
(Warning, it may shock you)
The secret is out... experts are predicting 458 million of these types of devices will be sold per year. 1 hyper-growth company stands to rake in maximum profit - and it's NOT Apple. Show me Apple's new smart gizmo!

DocumentId: 2029156, ~/Articles/ArticleHandler.aspx, 11/27/2014 11:34:24 AM

Report This Comment

Use this area to report a comment that you believe is in violation of the community guidelines. Our team will review the entry and take any appropriate action.

Sending report...


Advertisement