Rethinking the Tax-Revenue Effect of REIT Taxation
97 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2015 Last revised: 3 Jun 2015
Date Written: January 21, 2015
Real estate investment trusts (REITs) have recently made headlines in major media outlets and have caught the attention of lawmakers and analysts because they erode the corporate tax base. REITs are not subject to the entity-level tax that typically applies to corporations. To avoid being taxed on real estate income, some corporations spin off real estate into REITs. After a REIT spinoff, such corporations rent the real estate from the REIT and continue to use it in their operations. Thus, a mere change in corporate form removes taxable income from the corporation (i.e., erodes the corporate tax base) and eliminates the entity-level tax on income from the spun-off real estate. This erosion of the corporate tax base concerns lawmakers (who have proposed prohibiting tax-free REIT spinoffs), some economists, and the media. Another concern is that the IRS has extended REIT classification to entities that hold nontraditional real estate, such as telecommunications infrastructure, billboards, oil and gas pipeline systems, timber, casinos, prisons, and data centers. The extension of REIT taxation to nontraditional real estate may not erode the corporate tax base because the assets may come from noncorporate entities. Thus, the tax-revenue effect of REIT taxation extends beyond REIT spinoffs and the erosion of the corporate tax base. Nonetheless, intuition suggests that more REIT spinoffs, the expansion of REIT taxation, and the growth of the REIT industry must erode the corporate tax base and significantly reduce government tax revenue. This Article challenges that intuition and presents two counterintuitive findings. First, it shows that REIT spinoffs can actually increase tax revenue even though they erode the corporate tax base. Second, it reveals that loss of tax revenue from REIT taxation primarily results from REITs forming from partnerships, not from REIT spinoffs. The Article concludes by recommending how these findings should influence discussions of REIT reform.
Keywords: real estate investment trust, REIT, corporate-tax-base erosion, foreign investment in U.S. real property, tax-exempt investment in real property
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