Deferred Taxes and Tax Reform: Is a Big (Fictional) Accounting Gain in the Future?
I read today that Congress is likely to consider corporate tax reforms that would reduce the statutory income tax rate from the current 35% to as little as 15%. The lower income tax rate would be offset by the elimination of a tax deduction for interest, and a “destination-based consumption tax.” The idea of this latter new form of taxation is that goods would be taxed based on where they were consumed rather than where they were produced. Accordingly, imports would be subject to Federal taxes, while exports would not.
Whether this novel sort of tax reform would benefit the U.S. economy seems like a very interesting and significant question that will be forever outside of my area of expertise. But, it does provide me with an opportunity to explain my misgivings with the reporting of tax expense in financial statements.
I have four concerns:
First, there is the issue of “intraperiod” tax allocation. Given the broad variety and complexities of tax regimes throughout the world it comes as no surprise that the FASB provides virtually no guidance for distinguishing between an “income tax” and other forms of taxation. Yet, the required two-step income statement relies on such a distinction:
NI = NIBT – Income Tax Expense
This means that income taxes must be separately presented “below the line,” while all of the other many forms of taxes (e.g., property taxes, excise taxes, fuel taxes) are buried in NIBT. I suppose that the distinction between income taxes and other forms of taxation make it convenient for the analyst to calculate a company’s so-called “effective income tax rate” — as the ratio on income tax expense to NIBT. But, in this day and age of creative taxation methinks it is devolving into a distinction without much of a difference. If there is any distinction to be made, its practical significance will be even more diminished should income taxes become a smaller portion of the total.
Therefore, I prefer that all taxes are aggregated in one place on the income statement. This is in part to have a better idea of how much taxes were accrued, but more important it is to have clearer information about a corporation’s operating profitability before taxes. The components of taxes paid/accrued are also relevant, so the notes to the financial statements should tabulate total taxes by major categories.
Second, there is the question of reporting “deferred taxes.” Given the universal applicability of ASC Topic 740 — Income Taxes, I would venture to say that measuring deferred tax expense is the most challenging topic in U.S. GAAP for practitioners. Yet, its conceptual and practical bases are highly questionable:
Take as an example a machine that cost $15,000. For tax purposes, it has a five-year life and is subject to double-declining balance depreciation. Company A will apply straight-line depreciation over five years for financial reporting purposes, while company B will use for its financial reporting the same double-declining depreciation method that it uses for tax purposes. Both companies are in compliance with U.S. GAAP.
At the end of the first year, Company A will report a deferred tax liability of $1,050 (= [$12,000 – $9,000] x 35%); however, Company B will report no deferred tax liability. Company A will report total expenses of $4,050; but Company B will report $6,000 in expenses.
Liabilities are supposed to indicate expected future cash outflows. But, if both companies are identical in every other respect, their future cash outflows are expected to be the same even though liabilities are reported as being different. Ergo, the deferred tax liability must be a red herring.
Third, the basis of measurement of deferred liabilities is itself highly questionable. Let’s consider the liability accruals that will be made on December 31, 2016, which is just a couple of weeks from today. ASC 740 states that the currently enacted tax rate must be applied to the timing difference. Yet, it is reasonably possible, if not highly likely that tax rates will go down in the next couple of years. In this environment, I can’t say how application of ASC 740 will produce a representational faithful measurement for the liability — and that’s even before you consider that there is no discounting for the time value of money.
Consider what will happen to financial statements if Congress reduces the corporate tax rate to 15%. In my earlier example, Company A would reduce the liability and report negative tax expense; but Company B would be unaffected. Again, I would argue that B’s financial statements are more informative. In the real world, any company with deferred tax liabilities exceeding deferred tax assets — i.e., the vast majority — will report fictional increases to net income.
Fourth, the amount of tax expense reported is not a good indicator of future tax rates. In particular, most companies year after year report a higher “effective tax rate” than they actually paid in the period. The difference is most pronounced with increasing capital intensity. In my next blog post I will be describing why this is the case, and providing some preliminary data.
But for now, suffice it to say that in the financial accounting system that I am in the process of creating, there won’t be any deferred taxes. There will be fewer headaches for accountants, more money for shareholders and better information for investors.
Author: Tom Selling.