Appearing on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show in 1975, the ex-governor of California quipped: ‘We live in the only country in the world where it takes more brains to figure out your income tax than it does to earn the income.’ A little over a decade later, the same gentleman put his pen where his mouth was, and signed into law the Tax Reform Act of 1986, ostensibly simplifying the US Tax Code.
Well, I have to admit that I didn’t take much interest in the Code before Reagan’s reform, but – if that was simplification – I dread to think what it was like in the good old days. Fast forward thirty-odd years and Donald Trump was playing the same game. Or was he?
As US taxpayers start to consider their first filings under the latest reform, one example should show just how complex the damned thing is.
As of 2018 the US corporate tax system went over to a territorial basis. That broadly meant that dividends received from abroad by US corporations would be exempt from tax. Nothing is ever that simple. America had invented, back in 1962, the concept of Controlled Foreign Corporation (today the internationally ubiquitous CFC) which essentially taxed passive and certain other profits parked in tax-advantaged jurisdictions on a current basis, irrespective of whether the income was repatriated. But, if they were to transition to a territorial basis, that wasn’t enough. To paraphrase Mr Carson: ‘Wheeeeeere’s Google/Amazon/Apple?’ What about active income being cleverly sheltered in the Islands and Irelands of the world? And so was born Global Intangible Low Taxed Income (GILTI). After certain adjustments, foreign income (‘intangible’ was evidently thrown in to make a good acronym) would be taxed at half the federal tax rate (10.5% in the New World Order) with a foreign tax credit for 80% of the foreign tax paid on the income. That meant that a foreign tax rate of over 13.125% cancelled out the US tax (which is the same effective rate on Foreign Derived Intangible Income – the export incentive offered to US corporations under the reform – meaning there is ostensibly no tax advantage to going through loops to carry on the business offshore).
So far – if a little complicated – bearable. The fun starts, however, when considering the effect of GILTI on individual or transparent entities (LLCs, S Corps, Partnerships) investing directly in foreign companies. Once caught within the CFC rules, their position becomes untenable. As it seems right now, they get no 50% deduction for GILTI and no foreign tax credit. That means they have to pay up to 37% tax on the gross income abroad, in addition to the local tax paid. Given that the foreign jurisdiction may impose withholding tax on distribution of an actual dividend (albeit that such tax may be credited – if there is other income – in a general basket separate from GILTI), and given the exposure to State taxes and Obamacare, it is time to consider buying a one-way ticket up the Empire State Building.
Now, straight-thinking people might have thought this was a mistake, calling for suitable regulations to correct the situation. Evidently not. In this (once again) newly simplified world of US tax the solution being screamed from the rooftops is for the individuals to make a S962 election for their income to be treated as corporate for tax purposes. That way they (probably) become eligible for the foreign tax credit – although the 50% deduction still looks doubtful. Because they have elected to be treated as a corporation, there is tax to pay on the ‘dividend’ when received. This ‘might’ be eligible as a qualified dividend (23.8% tax) and there ‘may’ be a credit to be had on the foreign withholding tax. But, nobody seems very sure.
This is simplification?
I recall an interview with the conservative intellectual guru William F Buckley Jr. on the night of Reagan’s 1980 victory. Asked why he wholeheartedly supported the former actor, he told a story (much as the newly elected president might). He had been one of a group, including Reagan, attending a meeting in a room on a high floor of a luxury hotel. The door became jammed, and they couldn’t get out. Reagan proceeded to climb out of the window, feel his way along the perilous ledge to the next room, where the window happened to be open, climb in and come around to open the door from the outside. To the genuinely brilliant Buckley, that showed decisiveness, and made Reagan eligible to rule the world. When I heard this, my immediate reaction was: ‘Wouldn’t it have been simpler to just call reception?’
Perhaps the Americans just have a different concept of ‘simple’? After all, as George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have said: ‘The English and Americans are two peoples divided by a common language’.