The Trump Administration released its long-awaited tax reform proposal yesterday. The proposal is a long ways away from being final; legislation still has to be introduced into Congress and passed by both the House and the Senate, and the proposal, consisting of a single-page of short bullet points, is lacking in key details. The NY Times refers to it as “less a plan than a wish list” (“White House Proposes Slashing Tax Rates, Significantly Aiding Wealthy,” April 26, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Alan Rappeport).
Here are six ways the proposal, if finalized, could impact equity compensation.
1. Lower Individual Tax Rates: The proposal would replace the current system of seven individual tax rates ranging from 10% to 39.6% with just three tax rates: 10%, 25%, and 35%. The plan doesn’t indicate the income brackets applicable to each rate, but it will clearly be a significant tax cut for many taxpayers (except those already in the lowest tax bracket).
Lower individual tax rates mean that employees take home a greater percentage of the income from their equity awards (and all other compensation). This will impact tax planning and may change employee behavior with respect to stock holdings and equity awards. Employees may be less inclined to hold stock to qualify for capital gains treatment and tax-qualified awards and deferral programs may be less attractive.
2. New Tax Withholding Rates: It’s not clear yet what would happen to the flat withholding rate that is available for supplemental payments. The rate for employees who have received $1 million or less in supplemental payments is currently pegged to the third lowest tax rate. But with only three tax rates, this procedure no longer makes sense.
The rate might stay at 25% or, with only three individual tax rates, the IRS might dispense with the supplemental flat rate altogether and simply require that companies withhold at the rate applicable to the individual. This could have the added benefit of resolving the question of whether to allow stock plan participants to request excess withholding on their transactions.
3. Lower Capital Gains Rate. The plan calls for elimination of the additional 3.8% Medicare tax imposed on investments that is used to fund Obamacare. This will increase the profit employees keep from their stock sales.
4. No More AMT. If you’ve been putting off learning about the AMT, maybe now you won’t have to. The plan would eliminate the AMT altogether (there aren’t any details, but I assume taxpayers would still be able to use AMT credits saved up from prior years). This would be a welcome relief for any companies that grant ISOs.
5. Elimination of the Estate Tax. With elimination of the estate tax, the strategy of gifting options to family members or trusts for estate-planning purposes would no longer be necessary.
6. Lower Corporate Tax Rate. The plan calls for the corporate tax rate to be reduced from 35% to 15%. A lower corporate tax will reduce corporate tax deductions for stock compensation, which will mitigate the impact of the FASB’s recent decision to require all tax effects for stock awards to be recorded in the P&L.