Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Why many tech startups are cheering a broken Liberal campaign promise

On March 22, Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberal government unveiled its first federal budget since capturing a parliamentary majority in the 2015 election. Among the components of the budget that have attracted attention in the press are the fiscal stimulus measures, infrastructure investments, and a deficit projection of close to $30 billion. But the budget is also notable because of something it does not contain: changes to the taxation of stock options.

In general, Canadians who are likelier to receive compensation in the form of stock options tend to be at the high end of the earnings scale. Large firms often reward their executives with stock options in lieu of salary, partly because stock option gains benefit from preferential tax treatment, and partly because ownership of claims on their own company’s stock provides a material incentive for corporate executives to optimize that stock’s performance.

The Liberals’ original proposal was to place a cap of $100,000 per year on gains from exercised stock options that can qualify for a tax deduction. (Under the current rules, only half of gains from cashing in stock options are subject to taxation, and there is no cap.)

Why didn’t the government follow through on its pledge? And what are some of the implications of this non-change?

Startup compensation a concern

“As I was out on pre-budget consultations I heard from many small firms and innovators that they use stock options as a legitimate form of compensation for their employees, so we decided not to put that in the budget,” said Finance Minister Bill Morneau. Indeed, startups typically do not enjoy the kind of cash flow that large, profitable, established firms generate. Thus, it is common for startups, particularly in the tech sector, to try to lure talent away from major players by offering stock options as compensation. This practice has allowed some startups to attract highly skilled personnel who might otherwise have accepted a more immediately lucrative position at a reputable, old-guard company.

The Liberals were not the only federal political party to float a proposal for altering the preferential tax treatment accorded stock options in the run-up to last year’s election. Thomas Mulcair’s New Democrats actually went a step further, advocating wholesale elimination of the special deduction. But tech entrepreneurs pushed back; Hootsuite Media founder Ryan Holmes even predicted that the NDP plan would “kill the Canadian startup ecosystem.”

At a time when Canada’s economy is experiencing lacklustre growth and job creation, many leading politicians understandably don’t want to be seen as undermining one of the country’s most vibrant growth industries. Moreover, the Liberals have marketed themselves as a party that plans to green the economy through technology and innovation; a policy change to the detriment of the tech startup sector would seem out of step with that brand image.

The downside: loss of federal revenue

Of course, incumbents in many industries would be delighted to receive special subsidies, protections, and preferential tax treatment, and can mount convincing arguments in their own favour. Every policy yields costs and benefits, and it’s the task of policymakers to weigh these in order to identify the most socially beneficial option.

Preferential treatment for stock options imposes a cost on Canadian taxpayers by undercutting the amount of revenue that makes its way into federal coffers. In turn, this compromises the government’s ability to offer public services and invest in infrastructural upgrades and innovation—all of which can lower the cost of doing business and boost productivity—without increasing the deficit. Even relatively conservative tax specialists, like Jack Mintz of the University of Calgary, have argued that the status quo around stock option taxation is inefficient, and unfairly favours employees who receive stock options as compensation.

Trudeau and Morneau broke their promise because they have calculated that the status quo delivers more benefits for startups than costs for Canadians who don’t hold stock options. For now at least, a lot of tech startups will breathe a sigh of relief.

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