I was reminded earlier today by Ronan “I’ll be damned if Frank Sinatra isn’t your father” Farrow that the world is a little obsessed with Burger King’s potential acquisition of Tim Hortons. (In case you aren’t familiar, Tim Hortons is sort of like a Canadian Dunkin Donuts, assuming of course that all of the U.S. looks like New England in terms of having a Dunkin Donuts every 12 feet. Also, betcha didn’t know that Burger king was already itself owned by a Brazilian private-equity firm named 3G Capital.) I have to admit that I get both confused and intrigued when I hear new names for concepts that already have perfectly good names. Case in point: the term “tax inversion” has gotten thrown around in basically every article about the deal to refer to the fact that one of the terms of the deal is that Burger King will move its headquarters from Miami to Canada, thereby avoiding U.S. corporate tax liability as well as U.S. capital gains taxes in some cases. In my day, this was referred to as a form of the deadweight loss of taxation.
Deadweight loss can generally be thought of as an economic black hole, since it measures the economic value that is lost when a market deviates from what maximizes the economic value created for society. With taxation specifically, the deadweight loss comes about because the tax reduces economic activity (and, as a result value created for producers and consumers) but then shafts the government as well since it can’t collect tax revenue on transactions that don’t happen. This intuition suggests that taxes create less inefficiency when they don’t cause consumers and producers to change their behavior very much. (An exception to this, however, exists with taxes to correct for negative externalities, since in that case reducing the amount of economic activity is actually good for society.) Unfortunately, what we seem to be learning as of late is that companies are getting really good at changing their behavior for tax purposes- check out this chart from Goldman Sachs and Business Insider:
If this behavior is strong enough, it could even be possible that, in addition to keeping business activity in the country, the U.S. could even increase the amount of revenue it collects in corporate taxes by reducing the tax rate. (In other words, it’s possible that the U.S. corporate tax rate is on the bad side of the Laffer curve.)
It turns out that Greg Mankiw was somewhat prescient in his latest NYT column:
One Way to Fix the Corporate Tax: Repeal It
If tax inversions are a problem, as arguably they are, the blame lies not with business leaders who are doing their best to do their jobs, but rather with the lawmakers who have failed to do the same. The writers of the tax code have given us a system that is deeply flawed in many ways, especially as it applies to businesses.
The most obvious problem is that the corporate tax rate in the United States is about twice the average rate in Europe. National tax systems differ along many dimensions, making international comparisons difficult and controversial. Yet simply cutting the rate to be more in line with norms abroad would do a lot to stop inversions.
I’m not sure that I’m as gung-ho about a broad consumption tax as Greg is, but the rest of the piece is pretty spot on. I mean, it’d be nice to get companies to chant “U-S-A” while throwing money at the IRS, but it’d be nice to live in a world of unicorns and rainbows as well, and the sooner we acknowledge that publicly-traded firms do in fact have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profit in addition to a general disposition to do so, the more we can focus on fixing the game rather than hating the player.
But wait- is it possible that the headquarters move is not actually tax driven? Burger King asserts that taxes are not the main consideration…and for context, I guess it’s helpful to know that there are far more Tim Hortons locations in Canada than there are Burger King locations in the U.S., so it’s more of a coming together of equals than the term “acquisition” would suggest. in any case, I hope that this discussion as at least convinced you that there are more productive things for policymakers to do than try to arrange a boycott of Burger King.
UPDATE: All this talk of tax inversion suspicions is distracting us from the real horror that Tim Hortons is unleashing on the world.