Barron’s weighs in against the border adjustment tax plan

Right-of-center politicos and policy analysts have split on the wisdom of imposing a border adjustment tax plan. Gene Epstein of Barron’s devotes his latest “Economic Beat” column to criticizing the idea.

If you like complexity in the federal tax code, you’ll undoubtedly love the proposed border adjustment tax. The BAT should also appeal to wonkish types whose idea of fun is puzzling through the impact of a major tax change. Dissenters will include tax simplifiers, and those who object to the uncertainty and disruption that the BAT surely will bring to an economy that badly needs a break from disruption and uncertainty.

The House Republican tax plan would cut the top rate on corporate profits to 20% from 35%. Having proposed a decrease to 22%, I can hardly object to a difference of two percentage points, and so I give the 20% proposal a thumbs-up. While most tax cuts involve a loss of revenue, a reduction in the tax on corporate profits is likely to be revenue-neutral (see “Cut the Top U.S. Corporate Tax Rate to 22%,” Nov. 26, 2016), and it should boost economic growth.

But the corporate tax cut would include a special kicker in the form of the border adjustment tax. The BAT would deny corporations the ability to deduct the cost of imports from their taxable income, while all income earned from exports would be exempt from the new levy. This would mean that companies selling imports in the domestic market would be taxed on the full proceeds of the sale—not just on the profit earned—which could more than offset the gains from the tax reduction. At the same time, the tax would be zero on the sale of exports.

The value of the transactions that would be affected by the border adjustment tax is huge.

The U.S. trade deficit itself—the difference between exports and imports—ran at just 3.4% of real gross domestic product in 2016, much lower than the 5.5% peak of 2005. But the gross flows are much larger than that net figure. Exports last year were valued at $2.1 trillion, or 12.8% of real GDP, and imports at $2.7 trillion, or 16.2%. Given those magnitudes, the tax plan is likely to require massive readjustments throughout the economy. Major importers like Wal-Mart Stores are already objecting, while exporters are clearly pleased.

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