The IRS is Auditing Fewer Returns than Ever

Table #3 from the GAO Report

While the IRS continues to audit higher earning taxpayers more often overall, during the 10-year period audit rates consistently declined for all levels of taxpayers, except those with the highest incomes. The audit rate for taxpayers with income between $200k and $500k experienced the largest drop, with the audit rate declining from 2.3 percent down to 0.2 percent; a 92 percent reduction in audits. Taxpayers with the highest incomes, defined as $10 million or more, saw a resurgence in audit rates from 2017-2018; however, even they experienced an overall decline, dropping from 21.2 percent in 2019 to only 3.9 percent in 2019 – equating to an 81 percent decline.

Impact on the Treasury

There is the theory that the prospect of a tax audit leads to greater voluntary compliance. In other words, if people think they won’t get audited, then they are more likely to cheat on their taxes.

Non-compliance with tax laws and regulations have a material impact on the Treasury. According to the IRS, it is estimated that on average, individual taxpayers under-reported nearly $250 billion a year for the period 2011-2013. This obviously leads to the non-collection of taxes that are otherwise owed the government and raises issues of fairness for taxpayers who are playing by the rules.

Why the Decline in Audit Rates?

One of the main drivers is a lack of resources at the IRS, a combination of both reduced funding and less auditors on staff. The number of agents working for the IRS has declined across the board since 2011. Tax examiners, the type who handle basic audits by mail, have dropped by 18 percent. Meanwhile, revenue agents, who handle the more complex cases in the field, declined by more than 40 percent over the same period.

Demographics point to an increase in these trends as there are a wave of coming retirements in the IRS. Over the next three years, nearly 14 percent of current tax examiners and 16 percent of revenue agents are expected to retire. Stack on top of this the fact that the inexperience of newer agents and the time to complete audits is also taking longer.

Conclusion

The IRS claims it is missing out on millions in legally due tax revenues due to the inability to maintain enforcement. They say they need more funding to hire more agents to perform more audits, which not only find fraud in the audits themselves but also increase overall compliance due to the pressure this creates.

Currently, there is no political focus on bringing major new resources to the IRS, so it’s not likely to see an uptick in individual tax audit rates anytime soon. The trend of focusing on the highest earners, however, will likely continue as this is where the IRS can find the most bang for its buck.

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CNBC Global CFO Council Survey).

Impact on the Capital Markets      

Stock buybacks have had a significant impact on the markets. Not only are companies using excess cash to buy back shares, but with interest rates so low for so long, many companies have even taken on debt to buy back shares. Still, excess cash that can’t just sit on the corporate balance sheet is the main driver of the largest buyback programs. Established, cash-flush tech companies such as Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft are the dominant players, accounting for nearly one-third of all buyback activity in the first half of 2021.

Given the recent run-up in the markets, buyback programs have not kept up. Couple this with the proposed increases in corporate tax rates from 21 percent to 25 percent, and there’s even less cash to fund buyback programs. Generally, most experts believe these macro-economic factors combined with the new 2 percent tax will cause a shift toward dividend payouts as they will be more favorable to shareholders.

Conclusion

The main idea behind the proposed 2 percent excise tax on stock buybacks is to both raise revenue and encourage corporate investment. Critics of stock buyback programs believe this is better for the economy and workers, whereas buybacks favor corporate shareholders at their expense. While a 2 percent tax might not be enough to create wholesale change, it appears to have enough teeth combined with corporate tax rate changes to change most public company CFOs.

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