I have another riddle for you: When does a tax cut result in more tax expense? When you've been recording deferred tax assets for years based on a higher tax rate, that's when.
What the Heck?
As I noted in last week's blog, the Trump administration has suggested lowering the corporate tax rate to 15% (from 35%). In the long term, that will certainly result in welcome tax savings for corporations. But in the short term, it could result in some unanticipated tax expense, particularly when it comes to stock compensation.
A quick refresher: when companies record expense for nonqualified awards (NQSOs, RSUs, PSAs, etc.) they also record a deferred tax asset (DTA) that anticipates the tax savings the company will ultimately be entitled to for the award. This DTA is based on the company's current tax rate and reduces the current tax expense reported in the company's P&L.
For example, let's say a company records expense of $1,000,000 for nonqualified awards in the current period. The company will also record a DTA of $350,000 ($1,000,000 multiplied by the corporate tax rate of 35%—to keep things simple, ignore any state or local taxes the company might be subject to). Even though the DTA represents a future tax savings, it reduces the tax expense reported in the company's P&L now.
But if the corporate tax rate is reduced to 15%, the tax savings companies can expect from their awards is also reduced. In this case, the anticipated savings of $350,000 will be reduced too only $150,000 ($1 million multiplied by 15%). The company told investors it expected to realize a savings of $350,000 but now it expects to only realize a savings of $150,000. That $200,000 shortfall will have to be reported as additional tax expense.
What Should You Do?
At this point, nothing. We have a way to go before the administration's tax proposal becomes a reality. And while I can think of plenty of reasons cutting the corporate tax rate might not be a great idea, having to write off a bunch of DTAs isn't one of them. Regardless of the DTAs, a lower corporate tax rate will lower taxes for companies.
But it's good to understand how this works, so that if the proposal does become more likely, you know this is something you'll need to prepare for.
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