Taxation and the optimal constraint on corporate debt finance


The tax bias in favour of debt finance under the corporate income tax means that corporate debt ratios exceed the socially optimal level. This creates a rationale for thin capitalization rules limiting the amount of debt that qualifies for interest deductibility. This paper sets up a model of corporate finance and investment in a small open economy to quantify the deadweight loss from the asymmetric tax treatment of debt and equity and to identify the second-best optimal debt-asset ratio in the corporate sector. For plausible parameter values derived from data for the Norwegian economy, the deadweight loss from the tax distortions to corporate financing decisions amounts to 2-3 percent of total corporate tax revenue, and the socially optimal debt-asset ratio is 4-5 percentage points below the debt level currently observed. Driving the actual debt ratio down to this level would generate a total welfare gain of about 3 percent of corporate tax revenue. The welfare gain would arise partly from a fall in the social risks associated with corporate investment, and partly from the cut in the corporate tax rate made possible by a broader corporate tax base.