Too big to exist

Senator Bernie Sanders recently remarked this in his comments on the crisis:
This country can no longer afford companies that are too big to fail. If a company is so large that its failure would cause systemic harm to our economy, if it is too big to fail, then it is too big to exist. If it is too big to fail, it is too big to exist. We need, as a Congress, to assess which companies fall in this category. Bank of America is certainly one of them. Those companies need to be broken apart. We cannot have companies so huge that if they go under they take the world economy with them.
I most certainly agree. There is a tendency these days for companies to grow beyond any economically substantiable limit. Corporations grow for the entirely wrong reasons.

First and foremost, it is necessary to understand that corporations don't grow because this makes them economically more efficient. Hugeness does not equal efficiency. A huge corporation is, in effect, a small centrally commanded economy. Being centrally commanded economies, the structure of large corporations has more to do with Soviet-era communism than it has to do with capitalist efficiency. (There is a small but important exception: corporations can choose their employees.)

I believe the following are two of the fundamental reasons why corporations grow and grow.
  • Double taxation of dividends. Any dividends that corporations pay to their shareholders are double-taxed. First, the government takes some 20-40% (depending on which government) on the amount of corporate profits. Then, those profits are distributed as dividends to shareholders, and the government takes an additional 20-50% of that, depending on the incomes of shareholders. Effectively, dividends are taxed at something like 50%.

    It is not only that it's double taxation. It's more than that - by paying dividends, a corporation first has to recognize that portion of revenue as profit in the first place. If the revenue is not recognized as profit, it cannot be used for dividends, but the corporation can use "creative accounting" to avoid paying corporate income tax.

    The consequence of this tax system is that shareholders are encouraged not to take dividends, but instead, to reinvest the money into corporate growth. This avoids the corporate and income tax, while shareholders get their due through an increased value of their shares.

    Most importantly, because dividend taxation is so huge, money is invested into corporate growth, even when it would be better used elsewhere. The investment opportunities elsewhere would have to be more than 100% better for dividend payments to make sense.

    This distortion should cause excess organic corporate growth.

  • Conflicts of interest between shareholders and corporate leadership. Directors and CEOs do not own the corporations they run; but they sure do run them. The bigger the company you run, the more power you wield, the more money you make, and the greater you are. Even when it isn't good for the shareholders, directors are motivated to pursue opportunities to buy other companies or merge with them, so that their company can grow even larger, so that they can earn and control even more.

    This distortion should cause excess growth through mergers and acquisitions.

So what is to be done?

Senator Sanders is certainly right that companies that are too large to fail are a liability, and are too large to exist in the first place. His proposal to solve this by threatening a breakup of corporations that grow too large, makes sense. Companies approaching a clearly defined breakup limit would be motivated to split themselves before the courts do. But the trend for companies to grow until they approach this limit would continue.

I think that the least that can be done to fix this trend is to at least remove the corporate income tax. Losses would be tolerable because corporations are avoiding paying this in the first place, and increasing inefficiencies and systemic risk through that.

However, it would be better still to remove both the corporate and personal income tax altogether, and replace them with a federal sales tax.

Among many other advantages, replacing income taxation with FairTax would remove the shareholder incentive to keep growing their companies when it makes no economic sense, and would leave only the agency problem of mergers & acquisitions. And to solve the problem of companies that grow "too large to fail" in that way, a threat of breakup as proposed by Senator Sanders would be a good way to avoid systemic risk.

Comments

Anonymous said…
I frown on any government intervention as to the size of a company. Who is to say what is too big? You, Me, someone smarter than either of us? Or bureaucrats who have proven to be as dumb as can be at times, not to mention politically motivated. Your dividend argument makes sense, and an argument against either the corporate tax or the tax on dividends to remove double taxation makes sense.
I'm not sold on the fairtax yet. Particularly the version being promoted now with its "prebates". Imagine A supposed free market economy setting up a system where every single person gets a check from the government each month! No Thanks!
Getting rid of a tax on dividends would certainly encourage shareholders to demand the dividend payments wouldn't it? That alone would limit excessive corporate growth as well as encouraging investors to keep a closer eye on the efficiency of the company.
Great Post, I thought i knew your thinking quite well by now, but you thru me for a loop with this one
Gave me a bit to think about. I usually just think "Amen Brother, you said it!"
denis bider said…
Anonymous: "I frown on any government intervention as to the size of a company. Who is to say what is too big? You, Me, someone smarter than either of us?"

A company becomes too big to fail when the net result could flood the economy with more unemployed people than it can readily take. For a stable economy, you want transitions to be gradual. This is not achieved if 15% of all employees become unemployed on more or less the same time of the same year - either because the failed company is that big, or because its failure causes that many other businesses to fail.

There appears to be no solid economic reason in favor of businesses that big, so they probably shouldn't be.

Of course, I also don't think that government shouldn't be big, either.


Anonymous: "I'm not sold on the fairtax yet. Particularly the version being promoted now with its "prebates". Imagine A supposed free market economy setting up a system where every single person gets a check from the government each month! No Thanks!"

Such a system is actually simpler and cheaper to administer than a system where cheques are sent to a select few. This is why government employees receive a normal salary and then pay income tax on it, for example, rather than just being paid a lower salary. The system is simpler and more transparent this way.

It is easy to mass-mail cheques to everyone simply on the basis of their household size. It is difficult and error-prone to make decisions depending on the circumstances of each individual.


Anonymous: "Getting rid of a tax on dividends would certainly encourage shareholders to demand the dividend payments wouldn't it?"

Eliminating corporate income tax in this case would be more transparent. If you are going to apply a principle of progressive taxation (which I'm against, but anyway), it is more consistent to keep the personal income tax and get rid of the corporate income tax in order to avoid double taxation.

I've written other articles on why FairTax makes sense. The reasons are compelling. So far, I'm sad to say that the only arguments I've seen against it are off-hand dismissals like "it wouldn't work", from people who appear to be intellectually married to the current scheme of things.
denis bider said…
Sorry. That should be "I also don't think that government should be big, either."
boris_kolar said…
I don't agree that government should split big companies. When a company grows too big, it becomes less efficient and as it becomes less efficient, more teams within it will believe they can do better on their own. Companies grow too big because they can prevent spin offs with patents, unreasonable non-compete clauses, exhausting lawsuits, dumping prices and bureaucratic barriers.
denis bider said…
boris: What you enumerated are some of the superficial characteristics of various corporations. However, your list doesn't explain why shareholders want their companies to grow big; rather than, say, taking out their dividends and investing them in other businesses. I described how there are barriers which provide strong incentives for shareholders not to do so.

The methods you described are just symptoms, and are in fact symptoms of inefficiency. Tell me again how the patent litigation approach helped SCO remain in business?
boris_kolar said…
I very much agree with your reasoning about how taxation discourages change of portfolio. I don't agree with the part of government splitting companies and making a big, unfair, politically motivated mess in the process (they can't do it any other way). Tax reform, patent law reform and more efficient legal system (in which SCO would not be able to drag companies in court for years) would make government splits unnecessary. Companies would split by themselves and investors would love it.
Anonymous said…
"A company becomes too big to fail when the net result could flood the economy with more unemployed people than it can readily take. For a stable economy, you want transitions to be gradual."

You suppose that a stable economy is the ideal, why can't a more "dynamic" economy be better, after all, a lot of people have made their fortunes when the economy goes south. Buying low so to speak.
My personal belief is that the freedom to fail is more important than stability. Of course, you may disagree with me, but that proves my point. Who decides what is too big? You and your want for stability? How bout the wacko anticorporate types who think that anything that would hurt the sole proprietor should be banned.
How about a micro example: Like all the little townspeople that protest big bad walmart for opening in their town, but ironically end up shopping there because their prices can't be beat.
It kills the independent local merchants. but thats not all. Should that walmart not be allowed because it is too big an employer in that small town. What if walmart decided that store was not profitable and pulled out? what about all the townspeople who now rely on those jobs? (your argument)

The reality is some of those towns die and some retool and move on. as it should be

"Such a system is actually simpler and cheaper to administer than a system where cheques are sent to a select few."

That's missing the point entirely. who cares if its efficient? the point is that we shouldn't want people relying or becoming accustomed to government checks, it breeds dependency, not to mention the inevitable "strings" that will certainly be attached. Much like the federal government imposes standards to states in order to qualify for funds, what's to stop them from doing that to individuals?
The pure argument for a tax on consumption vs production i can get behind, but the current plan is flawed.

I am also against progressive tax rates. I actually think they are immoral. it is blatently unfair. One person is taxed at a higher rate than another. how is that fair? The same rate for everyone, low to high.
Not to mention that those with lower incomes (and tax liablities) generally use more government services than those with higher. One could argue that if that fact were taken into account, a regressive tax rate would actually be a little more fair while still taxing more actual dollars from those who have more.
I just think a flat tax is the way to go.
denis bider said…
boris: Good point, I think there's sense in that.

Anonymous: "You suppose that a stable economy is the ideal, why can't a more 'dynamic' economy be better, after all, a lot of people have made their fortunes when the economy goes south."

Let me tell you why. Because when you have 25% of the population unemployed in the streets - without a chance in hell of finding new employment before they run out of scraps to eat - you have another thing coming. And the thing you have coming is a change in social order - something that's gonna cost you dearly, and may include confiscation of your property to say the least.

The 'dynamic' economy you speak of is an unstable economy, and an unstable economy is one that needs constant big government supervision, regulation and bailouts, in order to prevent a situation where so many people are out of work that society tips over into chaos.


Anonymous: "the point is that we shouldn't want people relying or becoming accustomed to government checks, it breeds dependency, not to mention the inevitable 'strings' that will certainly be attached."

Perhaps, but this is the one compromise we have to make in order to make FairTax appear fair to those who want the government to protect the poor. A strong argument that people use against consumption taxes is that they would harm the poor, and sending a portion of FairTax revenue out in the form of cheques is crucial to defeat that argument.


Anonymous: "One could argue that if that fact were taken into account, a regressive tax rate would actually be a little more fair while still taxing more actual dollars from those who have more."

Yes, in principle, but there are things that are possible, and then there are things that are feasible. FairTax is way more desirable than the current tax system in the U.S., and it actually has some significant political support, and a small but hopeful chance of some day getting passed.

Strict and principled approaches like you and I might subscribe to, however, have a snowball's chance in hell of getting passed.

The difference between an ideal situation and FairTax is much smaller than the difference between the current awful situation and FairTax.
Anonymous said…
One other argument i've heard against the fairtax is the fact that it is double taxation against those who have already earned their money and paid tax on it, specifically but not limited to retirees. They've spent their entire lives building up their retirment nest egg and paying income taxes, and now they have to pay again? How does the fairtax address this issue?
denis bider said…
I believe this answers that concern. (link)

I find that the FairTax FAQ is quite comprehensive. One thing I like about them is that they tend to treat criticisms objectively and answer them in detail. There's lots of info to be found in that FAQ.
denis bider said…
I'm sorry, it seems I gave you a pointer to the wrong question within that page. The retiree-related questions are #15 and #16. Just open the link I gave you, wait until the page is loaded, and then modify the URL to #15 or #16 at the end, and press Enter. You can also use the browser Find function to search for "retir" for all mentions of "retired" or "retiree".
denis bider said…
Essentially, the main argument why retirees don't have to worry is this.

The price of everything you buy today must already contain the income taxes, payroll taxes, corporate income taxes of every entity involved in the production of that item.

What the FairTax does, which I illustrated graphically in this article (Taxation in pictures), is that it changes the point where those taxes are collected, but not the amount of taxes collected.

In other words, after FairTax, the amount of tax embedded in the price of any individual item will remain the same, therefore the price should also remain the same.

There may be short-term inflation as part of the adjustment process, if people try to take advantage of the change to push up prices for their products. Whether or not such inflation will occur is debatable and depends on how the transition is managed.

However, even if this comes to pass, if one's savings are invested in something that preserves value against inflation, one need not worry about losing purchasing power.

Effectively, when you pay FairTax, you aren't paying instead of your income tax - you are paying instead of the income taxes and payroll taxes of all individuals involved in the production of that item. So pensions and savings are not double-taxed.
Anonymous said…
"Effectively, when you pay FairTax, you aren't paying instead of your income tax - you are paying instead of the income taxes and payroll taxes of all individuals involved in the production of that item. So pensions and savings are not double-taxed."

If the total dollars taken in by the gov't is supposed to be the same, which is the argument i've heard, then that last statement shouldn't be true. The fairtax would replace all the income and payroll taxes related to the production of said item AND the consumers income tax.
Right now I pay all those taxes related to production plus income tax. the pensioner/non-income earner does not. Given the same consumption, the pensioner pays less tax than I, because they pay no income tax. Under the fairtax, the pensioner pays the same tax as I, once again given identical consumption.
denis bider said…
No. Right now, when you purchase an item, you pay for the income taxes, payroll taxes, and so forth for everyone who was involved in the production of that item. You do not pay your own income tax when buying an item, because your income tax has already been paid.

Your income tax was paid for by people who consumed your products and services.

In a FairTax world, people who consume your products and services would explicitly pay the FairTax instead of implicitly paying for your income tax and payroll tax. You then use your earned money to buy another product, paying the FairTax for that, which replaces the income taxes and payroll taxes you would have paid earlier for the producers of that item.

It is a fact of any transaction-based taxation that the same money will be taxed not just twice, but an infinite number of times, as it circulates around the system. You must not mistake this with double taxation. Double taxation is when money is taxed twice per transaction.
Anonymous said…
By George, I think I've got it!

I didn't go far enough with the implicit payment argument. Good luck explaining it to a pensioner though.
A little trippy, hard to wrap my head around at first. Kind of like when i try to explain the idea of shorting the market and people can't understand how you can sell something first and buy it later. Logical, just in reverse to usual way of thinking
denis bider said…
Anonymous: "Good luck explaining it to a pensioner though."

That is the problem. The most important issues we face in the democratic process are complex and require years to understand. Meanwhile, most people lack a drive to sacrifice their free time in to attain such understanding. So they vote based on superficialities - and this gets us to where we are, in more respects than taxation alone.

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