Quotulatiousness

April 28, 2015

Another misleading statistical quirk about US corporate profits

Filed under: Business,Economics,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:02

Earlier this month, Tim Worstall explained why the huffing and puffing over the increased share of corporate profits in the US GDP figures is misdirected:

There’s all sorts of Very Serious People running around shouting about how the capitalist plutocrats are taking ever greater shares of the US economy. This might even be true but one of the pieces of evidence that is relied upon is not actually telling us what people seem to be concluding it is. The reason is that we’re in an age of increased globalisation. This means that large American companies (we mostly think of the tech companies here, Apple, Google, Microsoft) are making large profits outside America. However, when we measure the profit share of the US economy we are measuring those offshore profits as being part of the US economy. But we’re not also measuring the labour income that goes along with the generation of those profits. It’s thus very misleading indeed to be using this profit share as an indication of the capitalist plutocrats rooking us all.

[…]

It’s possible that that rise in the profit share is actually nothing at all to do with the US domestic economy. If American corporations are now making much larger foreign profits than they used to then that could be the explanation. No, it makes no difference about whether they repatriate those profits, nor whether they pay tax on them: those foreign profits will be included in GNP either way. Note also that measuring the profit share this way is rather misleading. Yes, it does, obviously because this is the way we calculate it, mean that the profit share of GNP is rising. But we’re not including the labour income that goes along with the generation of those profits. That’s all off in the GNP (or GDP) of the countries where the sales and manufacturing are taking place. The only part of this economic activity that we’re including in US GNP is that profit margin.

[…]

Now to backpeddle a little bit. I do not in fact insist that this is the entire explanation of the increased profit share. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was but I don’t insist that it’s the entire explanation. I do however insist that it is part of the explanation. The sums being earned offshore by large American companies are large enough to show up as multiple percentage points of the US economy. So some of that change in the profit share is just because American companies are doing well elsewhere in the world. It’s got very little to almost no relevance to the American economy itself that they are. At least, not in the sense that it’s being used here, to talk about the declining labour share. Because these profits simply aren’t coming from the domestic American economy therefore they can’t have any influence upon the percentage of that American economy that labour gets.

This does, of course, have public policy implications. If the above is the whole and total reason for the fall in the labour share of GNP then obviously we can raise the labour share of GNP just by telling American companies not to make profits in foreign countries. Which would be a completely ridiculous thing to do of course. But given that that would indeed solve this perceived problem, and also that it’s a ridiculous thing to do, means that the worries over the problem itself are also ridiculous. So, we don’t actually need a public policy response to it.

April 14, 2015

(Some) Corporations love (some) social causes

Filed under: Business,Environment — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

You’ll notice some corporations are quick to climb onboard certain social causes. Because reasons:

My absolute favorite example of corporations using social causes as cover for cost-cutting is in hotels. You have probably seen it — the little cards in the bathroom that say that you can help save the world by reusing your towels. This is freaking brilliant marketing. It looks all environmental and stuff, but in fact they are just asking your permission to save money by not doing laundry.

However, we may have a new contender for my favorite example of this. Via Instapundit, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao is banning salary negotiations to help women, or something:

    Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate,’ she said. ‘So as part of our recruiting process we don’t negotiate with candidates. We come up with an offer that we think is fair. If you want more equity, we’ll let you swap a little bit of your cash salary for equity, but we aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation.’

Like the towels in hotels are not washed to save the world, this is marketed as fairness to women, but note in fact that women don’t actually get anything. What the company gets is an excuse to make their salaries take-it-or-leave-it offers and helps the company draw the line against expensive negotiation that might increase their payroll costs.

April 8, 2015

This is probably why so many people think businesses should pay more tax

Filed under: Business,Economics,Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Forbes, Tim Worstall reports on a staggering misconception among Americans about what corporate profits amount to:

A wonderful little find by Mark Perry. Something that helps to explain quite why so many completely ridiculous economic ideas and public policies manage to gain traction. The problem is that the average person just doesn’t understand the economy at all. No, I don’t mean economics, or the abstruse arguments about whether we should use monetary or fiscal policy. But just the basic raw numbers of what’s actually going on out there. As Perry goes on to point out this, well, let’s not beat about the bush here, let’s call it what it is, this ignorance of the universe they’re inhabiting by the average person out there is what keeps the economic demagogues in business.

Here’s what Perry found:

    When a random sample of American adults were asked the question “Just a rough guess, what percent profit on each dollar of sales do you think the average company makes after taxes?” for the Reason-Rupe poll in May 2013, the average response was 36%! That response was very close to historical results from the polling organization ORC’s polls for a slightly different, but related question: What percent profit on each dollar of sales do you think the average manufacturer makes after taxes? Responses to that question in 9 different polls between 1971 and 1987 ranged from 28% to 37% and averaged 31.6%.

That’s simply a ridiculous belief. Plain howling at the Moon crazy. The capital share of the economy isn’t that high and the capital share is made up of a great deal more than just profits (depreciation, rent, interest and so on as well as profits). There’s just no way that this is anywhere near true. As Perry goes on to point out:

    According to this Yahoo!Finance database for 212 different industries, the average profit margin for the most recent quarter was 7.5% and the median profit margin was 6.5%.

March 4, 2015

The odd secular religion of Corporation Theology

Filed under: Business,Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Megan McArdle on the weird things some people can believe:

I got a lot of responses to my post last week on Wal-Mart’s decision to raise the minimum wage many of its employees earn to $10 an hour next year. One variety of response stood out: the folks who said “Wal-Mart is doing this because it’s good for its business.”

It stood out because it is almost right, but not quite. The correct statement is that “Wal-Mart is doing this because it thinks it’s good for its business.” Never ignore the possibility that Wal-Mart could be completely wrong.

I remark on this because some of the arguments I saw verged upon what I’ve come to think of as “corporation theology”: the belief that if a corporation is doing something, that thing must be incredibly profitable. This is no less of a faith-based statement than the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Yet it is surprisingly popular among commentators, not just on the right, but also on the left.

[…]

This left-wing writer was evincing considerably more faith than I have in the American corporation. Corporations do dumb stuff all the time — for decades, even. Moreover, advertising has multiple purposes. It can of course induce you to consume more of a product, but frankly, no matter how much Pepperidge Farm advertises, it’s probably not going to dramatically increase America’s consumption of prepackaged cookies. So why does it advertise? Because it wants you to choose a Milano instead of an Oreo or one of them newfangled biscotti.

This is corporation theology. Of course, you also see it on the right — arguments that if some product were good or desirable, a corporation would already have provided it. The entire history of human progress argues against this theory.

As these two examples suggest, corporation theology gets trimmed to personal and ideological convenience, as all theologies often are: A liberal is capable of simultaneously believing that market failures abound in industries he or she would like to regulate, and also that Costco knows how to run Wal-Mart’s labor policy better than Wal-Mart does; a conservative, the inverse. Both are wrong. Corporations, like all human institutions, are great engines for making mistakes. The only reason they seem so competent is that companies who make too many mistakes go out of business, and we don’t have them around for comparison.

December 30, 2014

Tax-splaining a headline

Filed under: Business,Economics,Law,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The headline that grabs attention says that a vast number of US corporations pay absolutely no corporate taxes. Tim Worstall explains that this is quite true:

Timothy Taylor has a nice piece here on the subject:

    More than 90 percent of businesses, representing more than one-third of all business activity, in the United States are structured as flow-through entities — businesses that do not pay the corporate income tax, but rather pass profits through to owners who pay tax under the individual income tax.

    We have two (actually, more than two, but this is the distinction that matters to us here) forms of business ownership. The first is the C Corporation, what we all normally think of as a corporation. The second is an S corporation (in taxation, very like a partnership). And the important thing is that C corporations are the only ones that pay the corporate income tax. S corporations don’t: their owners pay individual income tax on the profits. So, if we saw a move from C to S corporations as the method of organisation then we’d see a reduction in corporate income tax paid. But not, possibly, a reduction in total tax paid on business profits.

And that is what seems to have happened at least in part:

    Back in 1980, nearly 80% of business income went to “C” corporations–so named after the applicable part of the tax code that governs them–which are what most of us think of when we think of a “corporation.” Back then, the remaining 20% was almost all sole proprietorships, which were just taxed as individual income. …..(…)…But C corporations now account for only about 30% of all business income. The share going to sole proprietorships hasn’t changed much. But much more corporate income is going to partnership and S corporations….(…)…Back in the 1960s, the corporate income tax often collected 4-5% of GDP. Since about 1990, it has more commonly collected 1-2% of GDP. Part of the reason is that a smaller share of business income is flowing through the conventional C corporation form.

That really is a large part of the explanation. It’s not that business profits are not being taxed, it’s that they’re being taxed in a different way. And that explains much of the fall in the corporate income tax revenues: and all too few people are over on the other side looking at the increase in individual income tax payments stemming from corporate profits.

So a legal change has drawn a lot of corporations to change how they are structured, so that profits are taxable in the hands of their individual owners, rather than in the imaginary hands of the corporate person. And another US tax quirk explains even more of the headline:

There is another point to be made here, about how we measure the share of corporate profits in the US economy. This has very definitely risen, this is absolutely true. And the tax bill hasn’t, that’s also true. A goodly part of the explanation is the above, about C and S corporations. But there’s this one more thing. Profits in the US economy includes all profits made in the US, by both Americans and foreigners. But it also includes foreign profits made by US corporations. Those tens of billions being made abroad by Google and Apple, Microsoft, they’re all included in the US profit share. And as we also know, those foreign profits aren’t paying the US corporate income tax because, entirely legally, they’re being used overseas to reinvest in those foreign businesses. My stick my finger in the air estimate of the difference those profits make is about 2% of US GDP. Meaning that if we measure US profits as 10% of GDP, then look at tax payments, we’re only seeing the tax payments from 8% of GDP (before we even look at the C and S corporation thing).

December 12, 2014

QotD: Apple isn’t worth the same as Switzerland

Filed under: Business,Economics,Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

It is true that Switzerland’s GDP is around $700 billion. But GDP is a measure of value added in a country in one year. That is, it’s the income of the place. Apple’s $700 billion valuation is the total value of the company: this is akin to wealth, not income. And of course the value of a stock is the net present value of all of the future income from it. So, that $700 billion for Apple is the current value (as the market estimates it) of everything that Apple will ever do in the future. The valuation of Switzerland, that $700 billion, is what the place made this year alone. Two very different numbers.

To get to something comparable for Apple we need to work out this year’s added value. A rough and ready definition of that is profits plus wages paid (this is approximately equal to the labour and profit shares in GDP which don’t quite equal total GDP but good enough for rough comparisons). Apple’s profits are around $40 billion, it employs a little under 100,000 people directly. Say each of those is paid $100,000 a year (obviously, some get very much more but when we add in the Genius Bar folks that might be reasonable enough as an average) which gives us another $10 billion. Not entirely accurate but reasonable enough to say that Apple’s value add, the equivalent of GDP, is some $50 billion.

When we go looking for a country at around that we find The Sudan and Luxembourg jointly on some $55 billion. And Luxembourg is some 400,000 people, and roughly half of the people in a country work (take out the kiddies, pensioners, housewives etc, roughly correct) giving us a Luxembourgois workforce of 200,000 people. 100,000 people in one of the most profitable companies on the planet produce about the same value as 200,000 rich world people in a country. OK, that’s impressive for Apple but it’s a much better indication of the company’s economic size than any other measure. It is, around and about, fair to say that Apple produces the same economic value as Luxembourg. […]

And to repeat the point at the top, we’re never going to really understand corporate power or the size of the corporate sector (or corporations) until we start to understand what these different numbers being bandied about as valuations and value of production etc really mean. Corporations really are very much smaller than countries: even the largest and most valuable of corporations is really only comparable to a city sized country. To give you a much better idea of the size of Apple relative to economic output of an area then Apple’s about the size of Raleigh, North Carolina, Omaha Nebraska, maybe, just maybe as large as Forth Worth, Texas, or Charlotte, North Carolina. Somewhere in that range at least. Or to use States, perhaps around Rhode Island or Maine.

Corporations just aren’t as large and economically powerful as some seem to think.

Tim Worstall, “Apple Isn’t Worth Switzerland But It Is Worth All The World’s Airlines”, Forbes, 2014-11-22.

November 20, 2014

“The Piketty Gang ride in, a hollerin’ an’ a whoopin’ and take all the money from Scrooge McDuck”

Filed under: Economics,Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:30

At Forbes, Tim Worstall explains why — despite the headlines — Piketty didn’t actually change economics:

That optimal taxation theory really rests on two things that we’re pretty sure are true. The first being that Laffer Curve thing. No, this doesn’t mean that all tax cuts pay for themselves. Rather, that it’s possible for tax rates to be so high that they actually reduce the amount of tax revenue being collected. A nice example of this is the latest rise in New York’s cigarette tax: less money in total is now being raised even though the tax rate has risen. Given that our primary purpose in taxing is to get the money we need to run the government that we must have (as ever, my opinion being that we might want to have less government, and thus lower taxes, than we currently do but that’s another matter) having a tax over the revenue maximising rate just isn’t sensible.

The second pillar is that we know that different taxes destroy different amounts of economic activity for the same revenue collected. As above, we want to gain revenue but obviously we also want it at the least cost. That means getting as much of it as we can from the low deadweight costs taxes and as little of it as we can manage from the high cost ones. We also know how the spectrum looks. At the lowest deadweight costs we have repeated taxes on real property (say, a land value tax), then taxes upon consumption (VAT or sales taxes) then on incomes and highest of all, upon corporates and capital. There’s one off the spectrum, transactions taxes like the financial transactions tax, but that’s so silly that no one serious is suggesting it.

So, standard and general theory insists that we shouldn’t be taxing corporates and capital at all if we can manage it and also that we don’t want to have very high taxes rates on anything.

So, if for political (or even emotional) reasons you think that we really should be gouging the rich then you’re going to have to go find yourself some new economic theories. And that, I think, is really what is going on here with Piketty and the gang (slightly catchy that, isn’t it? The Piketty Gang ride in, a hollerin’ an’ a whoopin’ and take all the money from Scrooge McDuck?). They want to find a reason to tax wealth, something conventionally contraindicated, and they want to have very high income tax rates, something also contraindicated by conventional theory. So, rather than try to overturn that conventional theory they’re bypassing it. Ignoring it even and just bringing up the idea of inequality instead to see if that will convince people.

October 28, 2014

Facebook‘s UK tax picture

Filed under: Britain,Business,Economics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:17

Tim Worstall explains why it’s not a scandal that Facebook doesn’t pay more taxes in the UK:

In fact, it’s actually rather a good idea that Facebook isn’t paying UK corporation tax. For the standard economic finding (also known as optimal taxation theory) is that we shouldn’t be taxing corporations at all. Thus, as a matter of public policy we should be abolishing this tax: and also perhaps applauding those companies that take it upon themselves to do what the politicians seem not to have the courage to do, make sure that corporations aren’t paying tax.

That isn’t how most of the press sees it, of course

[…]

That’s an extremely bad piece of reporting actually, for of course Facebook UK did not have advertising revenue of £371 million last year: Facebook Ireland had advertising revenue of that amount from customers in the UK that year. And that’s something rather different: that revenue will be taxed under whatever system Ireland has in place to tax it. And this is the way that the European Union system of corporate taxation is supposed to work. Any company, based in any one of the 28 member countries, can sell entirely without hindrance into all other 27 countries. And the profits from their doing so will be taxed wherever the brass plate announcing the HQ of that company is within the EU. This really is how it was deliberately designed, how it was deliberately set up: it is public policy that it should be this way.

We could also note a few more things here. The UK company itself made a loss and that loss was because they made substantial grants of restricted stock units to the employees. And under the UK system those RSU grants are taxed as income, in full, at the moment of their being granted. Which will mean, given those average wages, at 45% or so. And we should all be able to realise that a 45% tax rate is rather higher than the 24% corporation tax rate. The total tax rate on the series of transactions is thus very much higher than if Facebook has kept its employees as paupers and just kept the profits for themselves. Further, those complaining about the tax bill tend to be those from the left side of the political aisle: which is also where we find those who insist that workers should be earning the full amount of their value to the company which is what seems to be happening here.

October 11, 2014

QotD: The economies (and dis-economies) of scale

Filed under: Business,Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

We are the heirs of the Industrial Revolution, and, of course, the Industrial Revolution was all about economies of scale. Its efficiencies and advances were made possible by banding people together in larger and larger amalgamations, and we invented all sorts of institutions — from corporations to municipal governments — to do just that.

This process continues to this day. In its heyday, General Motors employed about 500,000 people; Wal-Mart employs more than twice that now. We continue to urbanize, depopulating the Great Plains and repopulating downtowns. Our most successful industry — the technology company — is driven by unprecedented economies of scale that allow a handful of programmers to make squintillions selling some software applications to half the world’s population.

This has left us, I think, with a cultural tendency to assume that everything is subject to economies of scale. You find this as much on the left as the right, about everything from government programs to corporations. People just take it as naturally given that making a company or an institution or a program bigger will drive cost efficiencies that allow them to get bigger still.

Of course, this often is the case. Facebook is better off with 2 billion customers than 1 billion, and a program that provides health insurance to everyone over the age of 65 has lower per-user overhead than a program that provides health insurance to 200 homeless drug users in Atlanta. I’m not trying to suggest that economies of scale don’t exist, only that not every successful model enjoys them. In fact, many successful models enjoy diseconomies of scale: After a certain point, the bigger you get, the worse you do.

Megan McArdle, “In-N-Out Doesn’t Want to Be McDonald’s”, Bloomberg View, 2014-10-02.

September 20, 2014

Corporate inversions

Filed under: Business,Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 11:56

The most recent corporate inversion that hit the news — Burger King and Tim Hortons — may or may not work out, but it’s generally a sensible economic strategy that can yield strong results for the shareholders. In the most recent issue of The Freeman, Stewart Dompe and Adam C. Smith talk about why inversions are an example of competitive governance in action:

Populist themes like “economic patriotism” may appeal to voters, but such arguments are nonsensical: Firms are ultimately responsible to their shareholders. As Judge Learned Hand wrote, “Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.”

If anything, firms have a moral responsibility to minimize their taxable liabilities. The legal structure of a firm establishes the relationship between shareholders, who own the capital, and managers that make operating decisions. Executives have a fiduciary responsibility to pay the lowest tax possible because they are the stewards of their shareholders’ wealth. There is no functional difference between an executive who spends millions of dollars on a lavish party and an executive who gives that money to Washington instead—except that the former is probably a lot more fun to be around.

Think about tax compliance like a rent check owed to one’s landlord, with the added complication that it’s very difficult to move. Suppose a tenant is currently renting multiple apartments at one location, but decides the rent is just too damn high. Since the tenant can’t relocate entirely, suppose she moves some of her stuff out of one of the apartments into a storage unit across town, thus saving significantly on her rent. Would this be seen as unethical in that the tenant is attempting to avoid her fiduciary obligation to the landlord? Of course not. She is simply trying to reduce the costs of residing in a particular location.

In the same vein, minimizing the firm’s tax burden means minimizing part of the firm’s operating costs. Just as a resource manager can identify a more cost-efficient way to produce goods and services, so can a tax lawyer identify a more cost-efficient way of maintaining tax compliance. A business has no moral obligation to always use the same suppliers, be they suppliers of production inputs or corporate charters. The law is the law and firms have the option of changing how they are structured and located in order to minimize their taxable liabilities. If they use loopholes, so be it: Loopholes are by definition legal. Firms only have the obligation to pay the tax mandated by the law.

August 26, 2014

Tax inversions: “Canada, it would seem, is the new Delaware”

Filed under: Business,Cancon — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:04

In Maclean’s, Jason Kirby looks for reasons why Tim Hortons is interested in a deal with Burger King:

For starters, let’s consider Burger King’s motivation for buying Tim Hortons. It is not looking for synergies. Don’t expect to see Burger King roll out twinned stores, with one counter selling Whoppers, the other Timbits, as per Wendy’s strategy when it owned Tims. Instead, Burger King wants to avoid paying U.S. taxes. If the deal goes ahead (no agreement has been finalized) Burger King will achieve this through what’s known as a “tax inversion.” It would buy Tim Hortons, then declare the newly merged company to be Canadian. And because companies in Canada enjoy a lower corporate tax rate than those in America — 15 per cent in Canada compared to an official U.S. rate of 35 per cent — Burger King’s future tax bills could be a lot smaller.

Canada, it would seem, is the new Delaware.

So Burger King is buying Tim Hortons, but in doing so, the combined Tim Hortons and Burger King will be financially engineered to be Canadian, at least on paper. A statement released by the companies following the Wall Street Journal‘s initial report on the deal said Burger King’s largest shareholder, 3G Capital, a Brazilian private equity firm, would own the majority of the shares of the newly created company. And you can be sure any tax savings will flow back to shareholders in the form of higher dividends.

It’s clear what’s driving Burger King to pursue this deal. But there’s been far less attention paid to the question: what’s in this for Tim Hortons?

According to Tim Hortons, the answer — as it unceasingly has been for the past two decades — is the pursuit of international growth. In the statement from Tim Hortons and Burger King, the companies said the coffee chain will have ”the potential to leverage Burger King’s worldwide footprint and experience in global development to accelerate Tim Hortons growth in international markets.”

Update: Kevin Williamson points out that relatively few US companies actually relocate to other countries now, but that the number is clearly increasing and knee-jerk reactions to that by politicians may well make it worse.

There are trillions of dollars in U.S. corporate earnings parked overseas, and progressives want the government to shove its greedy snout all up in that, denouncing “corporate cash hoarders” and blaming un-repatriated corporate earnings for everything from the weak job market to chronic halitosis. Harebrained schemes for putting that corporate cash in government coffers abound. So the current balance could quite easily be tipped. And after years of ad-hocracy under Barack Obama et al., U.S.-style “rule of law” may not be as attractive as it once was. A few more arbitrary NLRB decisions or political jihads from the IRS could change a few minds about the value of U.S. law and governance.

The question isn’t whether you can bully Walgreens out of its plan to move to Switzerland. The question is whether the next Apple or Pfizer ever puts down legal roots in the United States in the first place. Right now, the friction works in favor of the United States, but there is no reason to believe that that will always be the case. You think that Singapore wouldn’t like to be the world’s banking or pharmaceutical capital? That Seoul lacks ambition? That the Scots who brought us the Enlightenment can’t run a decent system of law and property rights? Burger King is not talking about moving to some steamy banana republic for tax purposes, but to stodgy, stable, predictable, boring old Canada. Boring and predictable looks pretty good if you’re Burger King, especially when the alternative is unpredictable and expensive. Unpredictable and expensive is what you date when you’re young and stupid — you don’t marry it.

Update the second:

August 6, 2014

Atlas Shrugged was not an instruction manual”

Filed under: Business,Economics,Government,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:34

Oh, my. A few corporations are using the “corporate inversion” tactic to get out from underneath punitive taxes and the reaction is to talk about making it harder to escape? Tamara K. explains why this is breathtakingly dumb:

Dude, one of the complaints that nuanced cosmopolitan liberals have with Ayn Rand is that her villains are cartoonish caricatures, and here you go popping out an editorial that could have been written by Wesley Mouch. Tone-deafness on this scale is positively breathtaking. Atlas Shrugged was not an instruction manual, you knob.

I suspect more corporations have been considering the pro and con to corporate inversion recently … and the hysterical reaction to the few that have already taken place may trigger a rush to the exits. Nice work, guys!

April 30, 2014

Inheritance taxes actually perpetuate the 1%

Filed under: Britain,Economics,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:18

Here’s Tim Worstall’s counter-intuitive post at the Adam Smith Institute blog from last week:

… Note “family foundation” there. Because of that inheritance tax rich people do tend to (and they have to be very rich for it to work) stick all of the money into a foundation. This wealth can then be maintained by professional money managers down the generations. Tax free, of course, as it’s inside a foundation. The stipulation is that said foundation must give away 5% of its assets each year. But such “giving away” obviously includes employing family members to run it. At pretty much any salary desired.

This obviously wouldn’t happen if the money could just be left directly to children without tax being due. And the effect of it going into such a foundation where the professional money managers can maintain it, rather than the heirs blow it, is that we’ve lost one of the major forces that disperses wealth through the society. The feckless heir.

So, we end up with the imposition of the tax leading to the continued concentration of old wealth, as the avoidance of the tax reduces the ability of the inheritors to waste it.

As an example, who thinks that any of the Kennedys would still be rich if they’d been able to get their hands on old Joe’s money directly?

I rest my case.

As one of the comments on that post points out, it’s not just the inheritance tax: it’s the interaction between the tax and the rules governing family foundations that create this unexpected-to-most-of-the-99% situation. I’m sure the 1% who can benefit from this are fully aware of it. This could be fixed either way, but the very people who benefit are the ones who would be pivotal in whether the changes could be made. So, it’s technically possible but not at all likely.

April 17, 2014

Think carefully before clicking “Like” for a branded product

Filed under: Business,Law,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:58

Did you know that if you’ve “Liked” a product’s page on Facebook, you may have given up your right to sue the company?

Might downloading a 50-cent coupon for Cheerios cost you legal rights?

General Mills, the maker of cereals like Cheerios and Chex as well as brands like Bisquick and Betty Crocker, has quietly added language to its website to alert consumers that they give up their right to sue the company if they download coupons, “join” it in online communities like Facebook, enter a company-sponsored sweepstakes or contest or interact with it in a variety of other ways.

Instead, anyone who has received anything that could be construed as a benefit and who then has a dispute with the company over its products will have to use informal negotiation via email or go through arbitration to seek relief, according to the new terms posted on its site.

In language added on Tuesday after The New York Times contacted it about the changes, General Mills seemed to go even further, suggesting that buying its products would bind consumers to those terms.

“We’ve updated our Privacy Policy,” the company wrote in a thin, gray bar across the top of its home page. “Please note we also have new Legal Terms which require all disputes related to the purchase or use of any General Mills product or service to be resolved through binding arbitration.”

The change in legal terms, which occurred shortly after a judge refused to dismiss a case brought against the company by consumers in California, made General Mills one of the first, if not the first, major food companies to seek to impose what legal experts call “forced arbitration” on consumers.

April 14, 2014

In defence of limited corporate liability

Filed under: Business,Law,Liberty,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:47

The RSS feed that used to track Megan McArdle’s posts at Bloomberg View has been on the fritz for a couple of weeks, so I missed this article when it was posted earlier this month:

The argument for unlimited liability isn’t just a libertarian evergreen; it’s also something you occasionally hear from the far left, because it would basically make the corporate form untenable. Imagine, if you would, that by buying and holding the share of a firm for 10 minutes, you thereby subjected yourself to seizure of all your goods to satisfy potential lawsuit judgments — even if those judgments involved behavior that involved no legal liability at the time of the acts.

Not possible? That’s basically what happened with asbestos liability. Firms that had had no legal liability under the doctrines of the times in which the asbestos was sold or used suddenly found themselves driven into bankruptcy by massive settlements. Moreover, after the first wave of lawsuits exhausted the funds available to pay asbestos claims, plaintiffs’ lawyers started pushing to expand the number of pockets that could be dipped into.

A company that had never manufactured asbestos could be sued and have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on lawsuits and settlements because it had once bought a company with an insulation division that had formerly manufactured asbestos — even though it had immediately sold off that division in the process of completing the merger. Insurers could be forced to pay out for the whole of a company’s liability if they had sold a company insurance for even a year between the time a company started making or using asbestos and the time that the plaintiff discovered the harm. And “harm” wasn’t limited to getting sick; you could sue for the emotional distress of worrying that you might get sick.

Kind of hard to imagine becoming a shareholder under those circumstances, isn’t it? Maybe you’d better put your money in the bank — a small, privately held bank, of course. Commerce would look something like it did in medieval Italy, where all economic activity was basically organized by the family or the partnership.

Growth would have to be financed by debt or by retained earnings. That’s how British firms financed expansion in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. It’s how small businesses tend to finance expansion now.

The traditional libertarian answer is “insurance”, but that’s a non-starter as well.

To which I answer: What insurance company?

Insurers are also corporations, and their owners get the same valuable shield from liability that everyone else gets from the corporate form. They may have shareholders, or they may be mutually held by their policy holders, but either way, someone is getting protection from lawsuit by the same laws that protect General Motors Co. This sort of liability shield is vital for any large aggregation of capital requiring lots of contributors — which is basically the definition of an insurance company.

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