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Federal tax reform debates suffer from the Rashomon effect

Untethered Lawyer

The film Rashomon won an Academy Honorary Award in 1952 and is considered now one of the greatest films ever made. The film uses a plot device that involves various characters providing subjective, alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident. 

One can see the theoretical application of this plot device to the multi-varied perception of the liberal government’s changes to the taxation of Canadian controlled private corporations. Let’s just deal with the one plot device — the sprinkling of income.

The government takes the position that these tax advantages are in place to help Canadian businesses reinvest and grow, find new customers, buy new equipment and hire more people. Not surprisingly, people evidently use these corporate structures to reduce taxes by paying dividends to those family members at a lower tax bracket and not involved in the business. Mea culpa. The government perceives that these people are avoiding paying their fair share of taxes as opposed to investing in their business and maintaining their competitive advantage.

Of course, sprinkling income provides dividends to family members who may not have much to do with the corporation in the first place. The tax policy intended to spread income more among those involved with the corporation.

The government states that when the rules are used for personal benefit, they are not contributing to growing the economy. Rather, such practices undermine confidence in the economy by selectively giving away tax advantages and producing an unfair result.

The Canadian Bar Association takes umbrage to the government’s use of the term “loophole.” Loopholes are inherently legal, but they circumvent the policy intent of the legislation when corporations legally use tax advantages to make professionals more whole as compared to salaried employees. So let’s just call these advantages “loopwholes” instead.

We can use the Rashomon approach to examine taxes paid in Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s CCPC comparison discussion paper. Susan, an employee, earns employment income of $220,000 and pays her fair share of taxes totalling $79,000. We compare this to our business owner Bob earning a professional income of $220,000 and, through the sprinkling of tax loopwhole-ness, pays only $44,000 in taxes. Susan pays about 36 per cent of her income in taxes while Bob only pays 20 per cent, a $35,000 difference. One could easily think that there is only a 16-per-cent difference, but through the magic of Rashomon, we can see that Susan pays about 44 per cent more in taxes (35/79). If the loopwhole is lost, Bob becomes even more upset as his tax bill would increase 80 per cent (35/44).

The CBA, to the consternation of some members and now some former members, takes a political position against the removal of the tax loopwhole. The main argument appears to be that the loopwhole allows the corporate professional to earn the same amount as an employed individual since a corporate professional does not have paid vacation or an employer pension. The pension argument has an iceberg quality to it since fewer companies are providing pensions in any event, down to around 37 per cent of employees.

In comparing total compensation, HR professionals use a rough guideline that benefits can total 20 per cent of income once you include vacation, health and pensions. If we get back to fun with ratios, we can see that Bob’s tax savings of $35,000 comes close to this 20-per-cent premium ($44,000 normally).

A major argument for allowing professional corporations a tax break is the risk premium. A business owner has no guaranteed income, job security, paid vacation, sick days or retirement program. In addition, the owner must personally guarantee debt obligations and pay the entire cost of the Canada Pension Plan. Therefore, an owner should be entitled to a risk premium. As an example, the risk premium for stocks is arguably about five per cent, but this does not appear high enough for Bob considering the risk.

So, in a straight comparison, Bob should pay less tax in order to have close to the same total compensation as Susan, a salaried employee. Unfortunately, we drifted away from the actual question, dreamed about a logical fallacy and refuted an argument that was never made. The question is not how the tax system should make Susan and Bob have the same total compensation but rather how to limit the tax exemption for what it was intended, mainly using dividends to compensate those involved in the business and to help businesses reinvest and grow.

If we use sprinkling dividends as a loopwhole in order to make Bob’s total compensation the same as salaried employee Susan, we have passed the risk premium over to be paid by Susan by way of tax revenue foregone by exempting Bob. The risk premium should belong to Bob to be mitigated by higher revenue paid by Bob’s clientele or by reduced expenses, not lower taxes at the expense of Susan.

If a tax break is truly yours, then let it go. If it returns, then it belongs to you. If it doesn’t, then it never was.


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