Income Taxation and Business Incorporation: Evidence from the Early Twentieth Century
If the corporate income tax is set at a different rate from non-corporate income tax, it can play an important role in a firm’s choice of organizational form. The impact and interdependency of income tax incentives are crucial factors to take into account when designing efficient tax policies. In this paper I exploit the substantial variation in income taxes across U.S. states in the early twentieth century to estimate these sensitivities. The potential endogeneity of state taxes is addressed using an IV approach. The results demonstrate that the relative taxation of corporate to personal income has a significant impact on the corporate share of economic activities. Raising the entrepreneur’s tax cost of incorporation by 10% decreases the mean corporate share of economic activities by about 11-18%. In addition, higher personal tax rates may affect the share of corporate activities through tax evasion and tax progressivity.
Review by Beatriz Rodríguez-Satizábal
What are the implications of income tax on the organizations? As Li Liu claims in this paper distributed by NEP-HIS on 2012-10-20, the interplay of corporate and personal income taxes are central to tax policy design. As we have all witnessed, the new century has been marked by a turbulent corporate world. Politicians, economic-policy makers, and citizens are calling for new regulation and control over the giant corporations ruling the economies of most countries.
After almost a century of dealing with corporations, the issue is still which is the best way to keep the corporations within the limits of what is right for a country’s economy without having a negative effect on the firm’s growing path. The fact that the taxation lies in the heart of the relation between the businesses and the rest of the society, implies that its understanding needs both sides of the story (even shown from different perspectives): the policy-maker decision on how, when, and whom to tax; and, the effects of taxation in the structure, productivity, and revenues of the firm. The former commonly studied, and the latest still open to include case studies of firms and countries.
Studying the case of the United States during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Liu brings together a period of tremendous changes in the income regimes –including the introduction of the income taxes (corporate in 1909, personal in 1913)- with the appearance of the first well-known big corporations. In other words, this paper is a step forward to fill the gap in the literature on the contribution of income taxes in the spread of corporate forms during an early period.
Using a dataset that includes the tax rates, the corporate share of establishment, employment, and production in the manufacturing sector, Liu builds a theoretical framework that starts with a simple model to illustrate how firms make decisions about whether to incorporate based on comparison of the profits they are likely to obtain from each organizational form (p. 7). This offers a result that shows the complexity of the business decisions and the reality which the policy-maker has to deal with: the taxation of firms differs by organizational form.
Interestingly, Liu adds to the discussion the degree of incorporation making a case on the economic importance of corporations and the fact that a great number of firms incorporate in response to tax incentives, rather than productivity options. Therefore, there is a strong relationship between business incorporation and income taxes when the big transformation occurred.
In other words, firms were not keeping it simple for the policy-maker! As a dynamic unit, the decision on the organizational form they were going to take while growing depended not only on the complexity of the production, the financial options available, or the size of the markets, but also on how they relate with the taxation system that at the end could increase or decrease the degree of incorporation.
Being this intuition not new for those who study the evolution of firms, this paper adds data to a methodological approach that combines the advances of the corporate governance on the structure of the firm and the accounting concern on how to deal with what they have to give back to the society.