A long-term plan to cut the company tax rate from 30% to 25% is the centrepiece of the Coalition’s economic plan for jobs and growth. The Coalition maintains the change will boost GDP by more than 1% in the long-term, at a budgetary cost of $48.2 billion over the next 10 years.
But the very Treasury research papers relied on by the Coalition tell a more modest story than the headlines. Using these papers, we show that the net benefit to Australians in the real world will be only about half of the headline benefit, and it will be a long time before we are any better off at all.
The short story
The Government has made two claims about the economic impacts of its plan to cut the company tax rate.
On Budget night Treasurer Scott Morrison said that the tax cuts would:
“… mean higher living standards for Australians and an expected permanent increase in the size of the economy of just over one percent in the long term.”
Later last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said:
“The Treasury estimated last year…that for every dollar of company tax cut, there was four dollars of additional value created in the overall economy.”
Sound in theory, but there’s a back story
In theory, cutting the company tax rate boosts the economy in the long term. All taxes distort choices, and thereby drag on economic activity. Taxes on capital often have especially large economic costs because they discourage investment, which is mobile across borders. By some estimates, roughly half of the economic costs of Australian company tax ultimately fall on workers, as lower company profitability leads to lower investment, and therefore lower wages and higher unemployment.
But while the theoretical argument for company tax cuts is straightforward, the real story is more complicated.
The twist: a tax cut for foreign investors
The twist in the tale comes from Australia’s system of dividend imputation, or franking credits. The effect of this system is to make the company tax rate for Australian resident shareholders effectively close to zero. In nearly every other country, company profits are taxed twice: companies pay tax, and then individuals also pay income tax on the dividends, albeit often at a discount to full rates of personal income tax.
But in Australia, the shares of Australian residents in company profits are effectively only taxed once. Investors get franking credits for whatever tax a company has paid, and these credits reduce their personal income tax. Consequently, for Australian investors, the company tax rate doesn’t matter much: they effectively pay tax on corporate profits at their personal rate of income tax.
As a result, although Australia has a relatively high headline corporate tax rate compared to our peers, in practice the comparable tax rate is lower – at least for local investors. As a result, many of the international studies about the impact of cutting corporate tax rates are not readily applicable to Australia.
Local shareholders do get one small benefit from cutting corporate tax rates. If companies pay less tax, then they have more to reinvest, so long as the profits are not paid out to shareholders. Yet in practice, most profits are paid out. Therefore a company tax cut will generate little change in domestic investment.
By contrast, foreign investors do not benefit from franking credits. They pay tax on corporate profits twice: first at the company tax rate, and then as income tax on the dividends. This means that a cut to the company tax rate provides big benefits to them.
This week The Australia Institute pointed out that foreign investors from the United States and other countries that have tax treaties with Australia may not benefit from the company tax cut, because their home governments will collect the gains from any cut to Australia company tax as additional company tax. Yet this would only occur when foreign firms repatriate profits earned in Australia to the home country.
The big reductions in net tax revenue – and therefore the large benefits to companies – are expected when the corporate tax rate is cut from 30% to 25% between 2022 and 2027 for larger companies, including the bulk of businesses that are foreign-owned.
The headline from the Treasury modelling for the 2016-17 Budget is that this cut will ultimately increase GDP by up to 1.2% meaning larger foreign companies are attracted to invest more in Australia. The finding is based on work contained in a Treasury research paper that modelled the long-term impact of a company tax cut.
Activity is not income
However, it is a mistake to assume that all the increase in economic activity will make Australians better off. We often use Gross Domestic Product – the sum of all economic activity – as a short-hand measure for prosperity. But when the benefits disproportionately flow to non-residents, GDP can be misleading. It’s much better to look at Gross National Income (GNI), which measures the increase in the resources available to resident Australians.
Treasury expects that cutting corporate tax rates to 25% will only increase the incomes of Australians – GNI – by 0.8%. In other words, about a third of the increase in GDP flows out of the country to foreigners as they pay less tax in Australia. And because most of the additional economic activity is financed by foreigners, the profits on much of the additional activity will also tend to flow out of Australia.
You don’t get something for nothing
Yet even this increase in GNI of 0.8% is not the best estimate of the improvement in living standards Australians can expect from the Government’s company tax plan. If company taxes are lower, other taxes have to be higher, all other things being equal. In the modelling discussed so far, Treasury first assumes that these revenues can be collected by a fantasy tax that imposes no costs on the economy.
But that’s not what happens in the real world. So the Treasury research paper also models the scenario in which personal income taxes rise to offset the reduced company tax revenue. On this more realistic assumption, Treasury estimates that GNI will increase by just 0.6% in the long term, or roughly $10 billion a year in today’s dollars.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor