The most significant change in America’s new tax law is the corporate rate’s being cut to 21 percent, “the lowest tax rate since 1919. Corporate rates haven’t been this low since then, and the corporate rates are now significantly lower than individual tax rates,” said Saba Ashraf of Ballard Spahr at the Philadelphia Inquirer’s tax panel Wednesday at the Ballroom at the Ben on Chestnut Street.
What was missing? Any quid pro quo for that tax break, such as increased hiring, capital expenditures, or investment, she added. Still, “the corporate tax cut rate is permanent, unlike the individual tax cuts, which expire in 2025.”
The Inquirer on Wednesday hosted a tax panel featuring La Colombe Coffee entrepreneur Todd Carmichael and a host of state and local taxation experts, including Ashraf, co-practice leader, Ballard Spahr; Michael Bryan, managing director, Deloitte Tax LLP; Raman Mahadevan, tax partner and Philadelphia tax market leader, Ernst & Young LLP; and Ryan Sweet, director of real-time economics, Moody’s Analytics.
Mahadevan of Ernst & Young said the U.S. corporate rate “was now competitive with the rest of the world. Will it help investment? It’s debatable, because we don’t yet have the data to know for sure. But an EY survey of 500 CEOs showed they intend to spend more on capex and they now see real reasons to reengage in M&A and focus on the U.S.”
Michael Bryan of Deloitte said the tax break ultimately took the place of Congress’ failed infrastructure bill.
“Lawmakers couldn’t get that done, so they turned to tax reform. But it wasn’t as last-minute as people think,” Bryan said, noting that tax-cut bills had been under discussion for as long as two years before the most recent legislation.
State and local governments have been pondering workarounds of the $10,000 limit on state and local tax deduction for individuals, he added, such as New Jersey.
“But I don’t think the U.S. Treasury will let that work,” Bryan said, adding that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “will put a bullet” in any effort to get around the limit.
Carmichael, who cofounded La Colombe and opened its first coffee shop in Center City in the early 1990s, said the tax cut wasn’t necessary. He’d like to pay more in taxes. The better the city is doing, the better his company will do, he said. And it all starts with upgrading the city’s schools.
Carmichael defended his views (which he editorialized about Nov. 29 in the Inquirer) at the Ballroom at the Ben, 834 Chestnut St., by saying “I think the new tax reform law is [nonsense] and I’m lobbying against it,” he said in front of 200 guests.
“This tax cut is a booby trap for our future. The lion’s share of the tax savings isn’t going into investing, but into dividends” to shareholders. “I don’t agree that the U.S. isn’t competitive. We’re insanely competitive, we’re the Shaquille O’Neal of economies in this world.”
The ratio of business earnings to topline revenues “is the fattest we’ve ever seen. But it’s not doing our children any favors. This tax break is temporary and it’s creating a huge debt. CEOs know it’s a farce, and some of them tell me privately that I’m crazy to say what I’m saying, although most of them agree with me and say ‘keep going.’”
Carmichael advocates raising the business tax in Philadelphia to fund the city’s public schools. La Colombe pays an effective tax rate of 21 percent in Philadelphia and 23.7 percent in New York City, where the company has eight locations.
Carmichael said he would even submit to a coffee tax — similar to Philadelphia’s sweetened-beverage tax — “if it was applied evenly all over every cup of coffee.”
Ryan Sweet of Moody’s predicted that wages nationally would likely rise with the economy’s expansion — regardless of the tax law.
“There hasn’t been a boom in investment as a result of the tax cut yet. There have been some one-offs like bonuses. But, if we want to see a sustained impact, we need increased labor force growth and productivity growth.”
He predicts 3 percent annual GDP growth and the potential of a “fiscal hangover” in 2020 with higher recession odds, given the likely enormous U.S. deficit of $1 trillion by 2019.
“We haven’t seen fiscal stimulus of this size, plus wage growth, since the mid- to late-1960s. Unlike some other countries, the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is still low. But it’s not a sustainable path.”