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How Do America’s CEOs Feel About the Tax Plans? They’re Watching the Details

Business leaders say corporate-tax rate cut wouldn’t change investment plans, but many are watching key provisions

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 - 19:45
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Editor's note: 

Part of my contribution to the WSJ's coverage of the 2017 GOP federal tax overhaul legislation.

WASHINGTON—While lawmakers in the House and Senate craft dueling versions of tax-overhaul legislation, battling over corporate tax rates and rules for overseas income, corporate chiefs at a gathering across town are sweating some of the smaller stuff.

Utilities are focused on maintaining deductions for interest payments on their heavy borrowing. Multinationals worry a potential excise tax on transactions from U.S. units to foreign affiliates could disrupt global supply chains or crimp investment in operations that employ thousands of U.S. workers. And concern lingers among CEOs of all stripes about whether lawmakers can pass a tax bill at all by year’s end.

Most executives laud the outlines of the tax bills taking shape on Capitol Hill. But in interviews with corporate chiefs attending the annual Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington, many say they are focused on narrower provisions.

Executives say they are unsure the tax overhaul will happen before the end of the year, as the White House and Republican congressional leaders have pledged.

A majority attending an onstage interview with Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser, said they didn’t expect lawmakers to meet the self-imposed deadline.

“We’re planning next year as if there’s no change,” said Michael McKelvy, chief executive of construction firm Gilbane Building Co., which has $5 billion in annual revenues and works with developers in the U.S. and overseas.

Congressional Republicans have said that the tax plans would boost spending on plants, machinery and other equipment in the U.S. Yet when asked Tuesday morning whether the tax bill would prompt them raise U.S. investments, only a smattering of the executives raised their hands. “Why aren’t the other hands up?” Mr. Cohn asked the audience.

In a speech to the group later, Vice President Mike Pence pressed the executives to promote the tax plan to their employees and said that lower taxes would lead to more business investment.

Nick Akins, chief executive of Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power Co. , is closely following a provision limiting the deduction of business-interest payments. Utilities, which rely heavily on debt to make major capital investments, have so far succeeded in persuading lawmakers to carve out an exception for them, he said.

“We were really fearful, because it takes years to work that out in the regulatory process,” Mr. Akins said.

Paul Browning, CEO of Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Americas Inc., said he is watching proposals for an excise tax on transactions between U.S. and foreign units of the same company—and will be visiting Capitol Hill this week to talk to lawmakers about it.

The company, a joint venture of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Hitachi Ltd. , exports U.S.-made power generation equipment, he said, but it also uses imported parts and equipment that could leave it subject to the excise tax.

“We just want to make sure that anything that comes out in the tax bill doesn’t disincentivize foreign direct investment,” Mr. Browning said.

Executive opinion isn’t unanimous even on lower corporate rates—or whether taxes are the most important issue for their businesses.

Charles Phillips, CEO of business-software company Infor Inc., said the House and Senate plans, which both call for lowering the corporate tax rate to 20%, wouldn’t improve his company’s effective tax rate significantly.

He added that a tax overhaul could provide an indirect benefit if it helped lift overall spending by business customers and consumers. A change in the corporate tax rate itself, though, wouldn’t likely change Infor’s investment plans, he said.

“We invest based on opportunity, not on tax rates,” he said.

Mr. McKelvy, the construction-firm CEO, said he is more worried about finding skilled workers than he is about the tax bill. “The biggest problem we’re facing is not policy, it’s the need for people,” he said.

Michael J. Wolf, CEO of management-consulting firm Activate Inc., said he prefers tax cuts for individuals and middle-class families, and provisions to protect benefits for working Americans, because it would do more for economic growth.

“The focus should be on a tax structure that’s going to drive prosperity in general,” he said.

Write to Theo Francis at and Vanessa Fuhrmans at