Monday, June 27, 2016
That's clear from their vociferous defence of Malcolm Turnbull's hugely costly promise to cut the company tax rate from 30 to 25 per cent, even though our system of dividend imputation means local shareholders have little to gain from the cut.
Local shareholders would have the present 30 per cent rate of their "franking credits" cut back in line with the fall in the company tax rate. Something similar would affect all Aussie workers with superannuation.
The business lobbies carry on about the company tax cut as if the loss of revenue to the budget had no opportunity cost. In truth, the gap would mean higher budget deficits (and a higher interest bill to taxpayers) unless it was covered by cuts in the provision of government benefits and services, or by higher taxes.
It would probably be some combination of the three, with most weight taken by higher income tax, brought about by further bracket creep in the absence of tax cuts.
The budget's tiny tax cut for income-earners on more than $80,000 a year was almost a tacit admission that this was the last tax cut any of us would be seeing for many a moon.
Point is, while local shareholders have little to gain from the company tax cut, they'll bear their share of its cost.
There could be no more convincing refutation of the eternal fiction that company executives represent the interests of their shareholders. Economists have recognised this conflict of interests since the work of American economists Berle and Means in 1932.
So what's motivating the business lobby groups in their enthusiasm for a company tax cut? Well, though Australian shareholders would be little better off, the company itself would be paying less tax, which its executives may regard as an improvement.
Of course, the shareholders who would benefit from a lower tax are the foreign owners of Australian shares, since they receive no imputation credits to be reduced.
Provided, however, their home country doesn't have a company tax rate higher than ours. This means American shareholders – who supply at least a quarter of our equity capital – ultimately have nothing to gain from the cut.
The Internal Revenue Service taxes US owners of foreign shares at the American company tax rate of 36 per cent, less whatever tax they've already paid to a foreign government.
So, in principle, cutting the tax we extract from them actually benefits the IRS, not our foreign shareholders.
Of course, many big American multinationals turn legal cartwheels so as to have their Australian profits taxed at a nominal rate in some tax haven. But they escape paying the US's higher tax rate on those profits only for as long as they keep them offshore (and thus unable to be passed on to their US shareholders).
It's not so surprising that the most untiring urger of the company tax rate cut, the Business Council, should be so uncaring about its lack of benefit to local shareholders.
It's a club of the chief executives of our biggest companies. Its conception of what's good for business is what's good for company executives.
What's more, many of the council's Australian chief executives would be answerable to head office executives in foreign countries. So they'd be pleased to see a tax change the primary beneficiaries of which were foreign shareholders.
Similarly, it's not surprising to see the Minerals Council so supportive of the proposed cut. It's dominated by the three foreign global mining giants that dominate our mining industry: BHP-Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xtrata-turned-Glencore.
To those guys, Oz is just a place to be exploited – in both senses of the word.
What's harder to comprehend is why the other business lobby groups – the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group – have been so enthusiastic about a cut that would bring so little benefit to local shareholders.
It's surprising because both groups purport to represent the interests of small business. Almost by definition, small business is Australian-owned.
And with a genuinely small business – where the owner-manager is also the chief shareholder – the business's profits (those not taken as salary and perks) will always ultimately be taxed in the owner's hands, meaning most of the benefit from the lower rate of company tax is lost through the equivalent cut in franking credits.
But so great was AiG boss Innes Willox's lust for a lower company tax rate that at one stage he proposed paying for it by abolishing dividend imputation. Not sure he'd thought that one through.