IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Brennan & McDonald, “Debt and Equity Taxation: A Combined Economic and Legal Perspective”

Left to right: Tim Riffle, Tom Brennan, Leandra Lederman, David Gamage, Karen Ward

By: Leandra Lederman


On January 18, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed Prof. Tom Brennan from Harvard Law School as the first speaker of the year in our Tax Policy Colloquium. Tom presented an early draft of a paper co-authored with Robert L. McDonald, Debt and Equity Taxation: A Combined Economic and Legal Perspective. We had a lively and interesting discussion about it in the workshop, as well as over dinner.

The paper, which I do not believe is publicly available yet, deals with the taxation of hybrid securities. It describes current law on how those securities are categorized as debt or equity, as well as the history of how the law developed. The paper criticizes the binary categorization of hybrid instruments as either debt or equity. It thus argues for a bifurcated approach.

The core of the current draft is a proposed new approach to debt and equity that considers the capitalization of a corporation as a whole and taxes the components in line with the underlying economics. The paper disaggregates the risk-free return, the risky return, and abnormal returns (rents). The paper proposes two possible systems of taxation: the “unlevered equity system” and the “levered equity system.” In the unlevered equity system, debt consists of risk-free obligations (like short-term Treasury bills) and equity is unlevered ownership of assets. In the levered equity system, the definition of debt is the same but equity is fully leveraged ownership of assets (fully financed by risk-free obligations). Under the unlevered approach, although particular investors may own a mix of debt and equity, the corporation itself effectively issues no net debt because it issues no risk-free obligations.

A key insight of the paper applies the Domar-Musgrave economic result that, under certain assumptions, risky returns on assets do not bear tax. Brennan and McDonald point out that the Domar-Musgrave insight also applies to corporations, although the securities are liabilities for them instead of assets. (Many years ago, I applied Domar-Musgave analysis in an article of mine on the tax favoritism for entrepreneurship, but I had not thought about its possible application to corporate income, which is a fascinating idea.) The implication of that insight, as Brennan & McDonald note, is that the risk-premium portion of return on investment effectively does not bear tax. As a result, under the unlevered system, all corporate income would bear corporate tax because the unlevered system does not have any net debt obligations. By contrast, adopting the levered system would make the corporate tax burden only rents, given a tax deduction for debt. The paper explains that this reaches the same result as the Mirrlees Review’s exemption for “normal returns” on corporate capital, as well as the allowance for corporate equity (ACE), if the ACE deduction is defined in a particular way. Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Brennan & McDonald, “Debt and Equity Taxation: A Combined Economic and Legal Perspective””

The 2018 Tax Policy Colloquium at the IU Maurer Law School

ColloquiumPosterBy Leandra Lederman

The 2018 Tax Policy Colloquium at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law will kick off next Thursday, January 18, with the presentation by Harvard Law School professor Tom Brennan of a fascinating and timely paper he is co-authoring with Robert L. McDonald, Debt and Equity Taxation: A Combined Economic and Legal Perspective. Tom is a terrific speaker, and I expect the workshop to be really interesting.

Last year, I did a closing post noting that some themes had emerged in the semester’s colloquium. This year, I plan to blog each workshop afterwards, with permission of the speakers. The full workshop schedule follows after the jump. If you will be in Bloomington and are interested in attending one or more workshops, just let me know and I can send you the paper once I receive it. (Most of the paper drafts will not be publicly available.)

The Tax Policy Colloquium is a course for students; I expect about 14 this semester, including a visiting scholar from another school on campus who has asked to audit. I conduct a background session with the students to help them get up to speed on the concepts presented in the paper draft. Typically, the actual workshops are attended not only by the students but also by my colleague David Gamage, senior tax attorney/Maurer alumnus Tim Riffle, and a few other faculty–law school colleagues and/or tax or economics faculty from other schools on campus. Sometimes other members of the community attend, such as a tax professor from another law school; another attorney practicing in Bloomington or Indianapolis; a student not enrolled in the class (Shuyi Oei‘s and Ben Leff‘s talks in 2016 were particularly popular with other students!); and/or a local judicial clerk. Eric Rasmusen from the IU Kelley School of Business and Margaret Ryznar from IU’s McKinney Law School in Indianapolis have each attended several of the talks.

Continue reading “The 2018 Tax Policy Colloquium at the IU Maurer Law School”