Attempts to reform the corporate sale of tax breaks create a hornets nest of interlocking problems, according to a preliminary study by the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation.
The study makes no recommendation about safe-harbor leasing, perhaps the most controversial section of the 1981 tax bill, but concludes:
"In appears, then, that no solution to the safe-harbor-leasing problem will be fully satisfactory in terms of its impact on perceptions, efficiency, equality of investment incentives and revenue."
The 35-page analysis, portions of which were published yesterday in the Bureau of National Affairs' Daily Tax Report, will be revised significantly before final release to the Ways and Means and Finance committees, which will have the analysis when considering legislation reforming tax leasing, or repealing it altogether.
The 1981 legislation allowed corporations that pay little or no federal taxes--and consequently have no use for tax breaks resulting from investments--to sell depreciation and investment tax credits to other companies in paper transations called "leases."
The Joint Committee found that, in some cases, "Leasing can encourage firms to make investments which would be unprofitable on a pretax basis, and diverting capital to such investment projects can reduce productivity."
In addition, the study reiterated in slighly modified form the contention that leasing is a relatively inefficient way to provide investment incentives to companies operating in the red.
The poor companies, which are the targets of the legislation, got 75.6 cents of each tax dollar lost by the Treasury; the prosperous companies buying the tax breaks got 22.3 cents; and middlemen--brokers, lawyers and investment bankers--got 2.1 cents. Corporate tax leasing is expected to cost about $27 billion through fiscal 1986.
The study pointed out that leasing has created a major "perception" problem. If this criticism is based on the notion that leasing "violates the general principle of tax law that economic substance, not form, should determine how a transaction is characterized for tax purposes," then the logical conclusion is to repeal leasing.