Corporate Taxes and Jobs: Myers Discovers the Business Cycle
I have reviewed Jayson Myersâ€™ recent Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters report on corporate tax cuts, which I made public yesterday.
Proponents of lower corporate taxes usually argue that these will help Canada compete with other countries in attracting internationally-mobile investment. However, as Myers admits, â€œover the past decade, reductions in Canadaâ€™s effective and average combined statutory corporate tax rates have had little observable impact on net flows of foreign direct investment into the countryâ€ (page 13).
Significantly, Myers does not claim to find any positive relationship between lower corporate tax rates and investment, employment, innovation, growth or incomes. All of his numbers are based on positive correlations between after-tax corporate profits (or cash flows) and these variables.
It is certainly possible to measure corporate tax cuts as increases in after-tax profits. However, as Myersâ€™ own graph shows (page 15), changes in tax rates are not the main driver of changes in Canadian after-tax profits. A correlation with profits is not the same as a correlation with corporate taxes.
Profits and Jobs
Myers actually does not find a very close correlation between after-tax profits and employment (page 16), so he instead focuses on the unemployment rate (page 17). His summary mistakenly states, â€œClose positive relationships exist between: Canadaâ€™s unemployment rate and after-tax business profitsâ€ (page 3), implying that higher unemployment corresponds to higher profits. As noted later, â€œit is a negative relationshipâ€ (page 17).
This negative correlation is hardly surprising. During booms, profits go up and unemployment goes down. In recessions, profits fall and unemployment rises. Indeed, Myersâ€™ graph of profits and unemployment looks like a graph of Canadian business cycles (top of page 17).
However, correlation is not the same as a causal relationship. It is always possible that a third factor â€“ such as the business cycle â€“ is driving both variables.
Even if there is a causal relationship, it is unclear which way the causation runs. Myersâ€™ story is that higher business profits cause more hiring, which causes lower unemployment. But an equally plausible story is that lower unemployment causes more consumer spending, which causes higher business profits.
To manufacture his conclusion, Myers works back from profits to tax cuts and from the unemployment rate to numbers of jobs: â€œplanned federal and provincial corporate tax rate reductions in 2011 and 2012 can be expected to: Lower Canadaâ€™s unemployment rate by 0.52 percentage points and boost employment by 98,800 net jobsâ€ (page 4).
Cash Flow and Investment
Myers proceeds to apply the same â€œmethodologyâ€ to investment as well as research and development, but changes the explanatory variable from after-tax profits to after-tax cash flows. Profits exclude capital consumption allowances, the amounts that business must invest just to cover the depreciation of existing assets. Cash flow is profit plus these allowances.
There is obviously a pretty strong connection between capital cost allowances and actual investment to cover depreciation. This connection is on top of the business-cycle relationship between profits and new investment. Hence there is an undeniable correlation between cash flow and total investment, but it has nothing to do with corporate tax rates.
Myers makes another notable admission in this area: â€œCanadian businesses have invested a declining share of after-tax cash flow in both new facilities and machinery and equipment over the past thirty yearsâ€ (page 21). So, cash given to corporate Canada with no strings attached will not necessarily be invested here. Indeed, corporate taxes could be increased without cutting into the cash used to finance investment.
Magic Tax Cuts
Myers goes back to straight after-tax profits in examining overall economic growth, personal income and government revenue. Of course, all of these variables are subject to the same business cycle as unemployment and investment.
Based on the correlation among after-tax profits, growth and incomes, Myers argues, â€œThe one percentage point reduction in the federal corporate income tax rate implemented in 2010 added 0.5% to Canadaâ€™s GDP last year and as a result can be expected to boost the personal income of Canadians by 0.4% or $4.7 billionâ€ (page 28).
Since government revenues are based on GDP and personal income, he concludes that â€œLower corporate income tax rates increase overall government revenuesâ€ (page 29). By comparison, the typical supply-side contention is that tax cuts increase government revenue until it reaches the Laffer Curveâ€™s peak.
Myersâ€™ claim is subject to no such limit. Anytime the public sector needs money, it can just give $1 to the corporate sector and watch it turn into more than $4 of additional GDP, which yields about $1.60 of tax revenue.
Unfortunately, most of that money would go to other levels of government. But I am sure a federal-provincial accord can be negotiated to put this perpetual revenue-generating machine into action!
Again, Myersâ€™ report is not about corporate tax rates or their possible incentive effects. In his model, corporate tax cuts matter only insofar as they increase after-tax profits. Rather than implementing planned corporate tax cuts at an annual cost of $6.2 billion, Ottawa might as well just write corporate Canada a series of postdated cheques for $6.2 billion each.
Before the report starts making Voodoo economics look cautious, its opening section compares statutory corporate tax rates in Canada and other countries. Myers argues, in bold text, that â€œCanadaâ€™s combined corporate tax rate needs to fall to 25% simply to allow Canada to catch up with the rest of the worldâ€ (page 11).
However, his benchmarks are unweighted averages of the OECD and the whole world, which are artificially dragged down by small tax havens. As I noted years ago, these averages are appreciably higher when countries are weighted according to GDP. Canada was already in line with appropriately weighted OECD and global averages before the current round of corporate tax cuts.
Of course, the United States has a relatively high statutory corporate tax rate and the worldâ€™s largest GDP. But Myers contends that it has a lower effective corporate tax rate and, in bold text, that â€œCanadaâ€™s combined corporate tax rate needs to fall to 25% simply to allow Canada to remain competitive with the United States in terms of the percentage of profits that are actually left in the hands of businessâ€ (page 12).
However, his graph actually shows that effective corporate tax rates (i.e. revenues/profits) have been almost identical in the two countries, at least since 2000 (page 12). Canadaâ€™s effective rate jumped up in 2010, when the Department of Finance attributed â€œhigher-than-expected corporate income tax revenuesâ€ to â€œexceptional one-time factors.â€ A one-year blip in revenue hardly makes the case for ongoing corporate tax cuts.
It seems to me Mr. Myers has reworked the old editor’s trick of writing a headline and leading with a first paragraph neither of which have anything to do with the content of the article. Since almost no-one reads beyond the first paragraph the great majority of readers will retain the false information even if the truth is actually in the article.
In this case it is the press release that is the fabrication.
Indeed. And to further reduce the number of people who read beyond the press release, the Canadian Manufacturers and Exportersâ€™ website provides the report only to people logged in as members.
I agree wholeheartedly. One fact, however, is inescapable: Corporations don’t pay taxes; their customers do.
Consequently, I’d like to see those corporations taxed where I don’t shop.
People are always saying that, but I really doubt it. It’s just one of the arguments corporations use in their incredibly strenuous efforts not to be taxed: Oh, there’s no point taxing us, we’ll just pass the costs along. Yeah? If that’s so why do they push so hard not to be taxed? Theoretically, if it’s true then money spent lobbying for lower corporate taxes is irrationally spent. But they keep on spending it . . .
Another point is that many of the same economists who decry corporate taxes for allegedly being passed onto consumers also advocate higher consumption taxes.
I pay little attention to the chatter from the anonymous. I do, however, sincerely appreciate your response, Erin. You raised a valid point of which I was unaware. Thanks for that.
So if higher after-tax profits lead to higher employment, just where is this employment created? The answer: not necessarily domestically but where-ever in the world labour rates are lowest.