A Theory of Taxing Sovereign Wealth

May
2009
Victor Fleischer

Sovereign wealth funds enjoy an exemption from tax under § 892 of the tax code. This anachronistic provision offers an unconditional tax exemption when a foreign sovereign earns income from noncommercial activities in the United States. The Treasury regulations accompanying § 892 define noncommercial activity broadly, encompassing both traditional portfolio investing and more aggressive, strategic equity investments. The tax exemption, which was first enacted in 1917, reflects an expansive view of the international law doctrine of sovereign immunity that the United States (and other countries) discarded fifty years ago in other contexts. Because § 892 was not written with sovereign wealth funds in mind, the policy rationale for this generous tax treatment has not been closely examined in the aca- demic literature.

This Article provides a framework for analyzing the taxation of sovereign wealth. I start from a baseline norm of “sovereign tax neutrality,” which departs from the current regime under § 892 by treating the investment income of foreign sovereigns no better and no worse than foreign private investors’ income and by favoring no one nation over another. Whether we should depart from this norm depends on several factors, including what external costs and benefits are created by sovereign wealth investment, whether tax or other regulatory instruments are superior methods of attracting investment or addressing harms, and which domestic political institutions are best suited to implement foreign policy. I then consider whether we should impose an excise tax that would discourage sovereign wealth fund investments in U.S. companies. This tax might be designed to complement nontax economic and foreign policy goals by discouraging investments by funds that fail to comply with best practices for transparency and accountability.

The case for repealing the existing tax subsidy is strong. We should tax sovereign wealth funds as if they were private foreign corporations; there is no compelling reason to subsidize sovereign wealth. At the same time, my analysis suggests that policymakers should be cautious about going any further: An excise tax may not be the optimal regulatory instrument for managing the special risks posed by sovereign wealth funds.

This article appears in the May 2009 Issue: Volume 84, Number 2
Topic(s):