What are the top issues impacting CPAs nationwide? There’s no one more qualified to provide insight than Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, president and CEO of the American Institute of CPAs. We talk to him about tax deadlines, possible tax increases, prospects for the U.S. economy and the rising trend across the country to minimize professional and occupational licensing rules as well as to tax professional services.
Jeff Kaszerman: What are the top issues impacting CPAs nationwide? Well, we've got the top dog of the profession here to tell us this is the IssuesWatch Podcast. Hi, I'm Jeff Kaszerman, vice president of Government Relations at the New Jersey Society of CPAs and welcome to episode 71. I'm excited to introduce today's guest: Barry Melancon. Barry is the president and CEO of the American Institute of CPAs, as well as the CEO of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. As head of the largest body of CPAs in the world, Barry has unique insight into the issues impacting the profession worldwide and, of course, right here in the U.S. We're also honored to have Barry present two sessions at our upcoming Virtual Convention taking place June 15 to June 18. He'll be addressing the important topic of “Pivoting During Uncertainty.” He'll also be leading a session for managing partners on “Re-imagining the Firm Landscape.” You can learn more about the Convention and register at njcpa.org/convention. Welcome Barry.
Barry Melancon: Thank you, Jeff. It's good to be with you and all of the members of the New Jersey Society, and hopefully we'll have a good discussion.
Tax Filing Deadline
Jeff Kaszerman: Great. So, let's start with everyone's favorite topic: taxes. The May 17 federal tax filing and payment deadline has come and gone despite the best efforts of the AICPA and others to extend the deadline to June 15. So just what was the IRS' rationale for not extending to June 15? Should CPAs just assume that tax deadlines for the rest of the year will not be extended?
Barry Melancon: I think that unless we see some reversion in the direction that a post-COVID world is moving, I think you should assume that the deadlines that are in place probably will be here. Deadlines are emotional thing. You said everybody's favorite topic, taxes. I'm not so sure it's everybody's favorite topic! But deadlines certainly garner a lot of attention. Frankly, we know that there are differences of opinion inside the membership nationally about deadlines. There was even in 2020 when we fought really hard to get the deadline moved to July. I think a strong majority thought the deadline should move. We thought June 15 was the best date. The IRS disagreed with that. There was a difference this year compared to 2020, it sort of goes to the why, I think. In 2020, it was really Treasury's decision. Treasury ultimately made the call at our urging — Secretary Mnuchin, specifically.
I think this go around Treasury sort of deferred to IRS to make the final decision on this. I believe Commissioner Rettig didn't see the need to make that change in the same way that we did. I have a lot of respect for him. I have a lot of respect for the men and women at the IRS. I don't think we should go around thinking that people were trying to make things more difficult or not being responsive. I think you have to assume best intent. However, he testified that the reason why the change wasn't there is because wealthy people were taking advantage of that and not paying the taxes on what amounted to May 17 as opposed to June 15. I suspect that was part of it.
I think there were some other things. I think those things haven’t been articulated. But I think we could surmise that, first I think the government was interested in people paying taxes sooner rather than later, because obviously the government has expended a lot of money and a lot of cash flow. I think there was a general element of that. I also think that there was a desire of the IRS to get back to some form of normalcy. It's a tough organization to manage. They have to allocate resources. Obviously, there are backlogs. I think their backlogs are a lot worse than what was testified to. I think our members have experienced that. Certainly the notice, what we call the notice machine, sending things out, crossing in the mail, unprocessed things where people have responded exacerbated the whole notion that there was a need for relief on the timing. I do think as the IRS looked at their system, they were trying to figure out, "Well, how can we take steps in that direction?" It's sort of a chicken and an egg type of environment.
My position on it, and I have said this publicly, is that ultimately our system, our taxing system, is effectively a voluntary compliance system. Yes, it has components of audit and compliance. But, for the most part, people comply with our tax laws appropriately and voluntarily. The backlog and the sort of the lack of service capabilities — again, not anybody's intent, but just a fact — warranted that change to take place. So I'm going to assume the best intent that they wanted to move off of sort of the crunch of this tax filing season and try to put the resources in the right place. I do think the end result would have been better with a delay. I think the majority of our members believe that as well. As you said, we've gotten past it now and we're moving forward, but I do think the service-level issues remain a big issue inside the IRS.
Jeff Kaszerman: Right. I know that's something we've been talking about when we do our Capitol Hill visits for... it seems like 10 years.
Potential Tax Increases
Jeff Kaszerman: So staying with taxes, President Biden has said that tax increases on millionaires and corporations are fundamental to creating a “fair economy” that rewards work and grows the middle class. On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell said that the same tax hikes would be a red line for Congressional Republicans. This would seem to kill any chance of a deal on infrastructure spending. So the President has an unofficial deadline of May 31 to see if he can find common ground with Republicans on an infrastructure package. What do you think is likely to happen with these tax and infrastructure proposals?
Barry Melancon: It comes as much political as policy. You phrase the question on the sort of the policy of job creation. So, for instance, we're hearing a lot of people say, "I can't find people” in their businesses, from restaurants to manufacturing, et cetera. Part of that is about policy, unemployment policy and things of that nature that makes employment more difficult and is having some impacts on the economy. So there are a lot of things that affect policy on jobs, not just taxes. Clearly higher taxes historically has proven to affect what people are willing... how they willing to look at risk, make investments, et cetera. So it's a very complicated web. But let's take it from a political perspective because I think the real issue of an infrastructure/tax bill is about what will get through the political system.
We could spend the whole time talking about what people are proposing, and that is going to be a moving target. Let's take sort of a macro political issue. So the likelihood of this being a bipartisan bill is probably pretty low. That means there needs to be a vehicle that will allow whatever is to be passed, to get through the Senate with 51-to-50 vote, based on the way the Senate is. Which means there were only a few things — as long as the filibuster rule remains in place, which it looks like it will — there's only a few things that can pass on a 51-to-50 vote. That is basically something called reconciliation, where the Congress has passed budget bills and then there is a second bite at the apple where reconciling some of the concepts in that bill to specifics can be passed on a majority-vote basis, as opposed to a 60-vote basis.
It originally looked like there was going to be a ruling that would have allowed a second one of those for last year's revenue bills, budget bills. That now looks like it won't be, and it looks like the way the vehicle will go forward is to be a vehicle that's based on next year's revenue and spending bill. So that's going to probably push the date back. That means that there will be a lot of talk about getting this done by in the summer and things of that nature. There's always a possibility of that, stars can align. I think the most likely outcome is that this will push into the fall.
Now, the fall becomes very important because, in effect, we are already starting the next election cycle. We have focused a lot of — at least the media has — on the 50/50 tie in the Senate, and the Vice President breaking the tie, and getting it through the Senate. But the House is very narrow democratic majority as well. In fact, it's not a set number in the House. It's 435 members, but there's always vacancies and people retire or take other jobs and things of that nature, or health. So the majority number in the house, the Democrats, sort of ebbs and flows. A couple of weeks ago it was literally three, at other times it's 8,9, 10, 11, 12, something in that neighborhood. So the speaker has a tough job of keeping all of the Democratic votes together, the couple of handfuls of moderate Democrats together on those issues.
Certain provisions such as the SALT deduction, the state and local tax deduction... which is important in New Jersey is... There's been a lot of people that say on the Democratic side, "I'm not voting for the bill unless it's in there." There are some tradeoffs on the other side of that, including revenue. So, will those people hold to that point? If they will, it's going to be a tough time getting the bill through the process. It likely will be compromised. Then you can take that issue and multiply it by about 20 other issues, that various components of people around the country have different issues with or what they want to see in the package. So, Speaker Pelosi has a tough job of finding that right sort of passageway to get just enough votes. That is not going to be so easy. So, the long and the short of it is, what specifically will be in it is going to be subject to a lot of compromise and give and take, even within the democratic party. And it's going to take longer because it's going to be a comprehensive deal. They may peel off infrastructure and maybe get some bipartisan aspects of infrastructure in doing that, that's still a possibility. But getting a massive tax bill through, which they want to do in 2021 because it’s very difficult to get it done in 2022, because again, election year. So, it's going to take some time, something will probably get through. I think it would be hard to predict exactly all the nuances of it right now. I think you can bet on a bit longer time than what some of the public statements are being made right now.
Jeff Kaszerman: Right. It's interesting, you note that there will most likely be a lot of negotiations within the Democratic party, which I would agree with. It's probably going to come down almost completely to what the liberals and the blue dogs can work out within the party.
Paycheck Protection Program
Jeff Kaszerman: Let's move on to the Paycheck Protection Program. At the AICPA's April 22 Town Hall meeting, it was mentioned that we are in the final stretch of this program. So, can you catch us up on where we stand with this after all the legislative and administrative changes that have happened over the last year?
Barry Melancon: Yeah. Well, again, we could probably take about two or three hours and talk about that, but let's hit the headlines. About a week ago it was announced that other than through a certain set of incentivized, CFIs they're called, lenders, the money had been run out. There was a set aside for those types of things. It said that the money was run out. Literally, on May 18, the the night of May 18, the SBA came out and said, "Well, we found some more money." So there is a small pocket of some additional money that still sits out there for PPP loans through traditional means. There is a dwindling amount that's even in the set aside. So we are essentially at the end of the funding for PPP.
That, I think, will hold. I think that there's unlikely to be an additional funding appropriation into PPP at this point. It sort of shifts then to the forgiveness process, which we think there will be some higher thresholds for automatic forgiveness. There will clearly be some focus on some of the fraud in the system. There's clearly fraud in the system. I think some of the lending that has taken place even in the last couple of weeks, there is certainly going to be some scrutiny as to what those lending processes look like. As many know we had a fintech solution that really help the profession be a key cog in this process. We had some pretty high stringent rules that went into that process because we were trying to minimize those types of fraudulent activities. There were clearly, in the Schedule C area, basically there were a lot of... You didn't even have to have a Schedule C filed. It was a sort of a performance Schedule C. I think there will be some look back into whether those are legit or not, or how many of those are legit.
So we're going to go through this phase of some of the larger numbers are going to get some scrutiny. Then some of the systems, there'll be some almost like you think about tax compliance and tax audits. There are going to be some looks into that process. But the money is essentially run out. Let's just be honest, it's been an incredible program. It's been about more than 10 million loans in that process to something between seven and eight million different businesses. There it's just been a huge element of keeping the economy moving and keeping employment at a reasonably high level. Frankly, it probably was the difference between a lot of businesses just going off the end. But it's essentially behind us as it relates to the application.
Jeff Kaszerman: Right. Do you have any idea of how many of those loans were forgiven? I mean, roughly?
Barry Melancon: Yeah. I don't have the number right in front. A lot, because basically in the first round of PPP, there was a $75,000 threshold. A lot of those loans were under $75,000 that were pretty much automatically forgiven. It's the $2 millions and above that have been more, laborious, if you will. They've been slowed down from that process. I think we'll see something like $150,000, where there'll be... It's not really automatic forgiveness, but it's like a really, really, really simple forgiveness process that you sign, the entrepreneur signs, a form that says they spent the money appropriately to meet the forgiveness process. I think SBA is going to want to convert as much of that as quickly as possible, as well as the financial institutions will want that to happen. So it's a huge number that's actually been forgiven, not if you start get to the higher numbers.
Jeff Kaszerman: So let's talk about the economy. During the same Town Hall, the AICPA Town Hall, it was mentioned that Goldman Sachs predicts the economy will grow 8 percent this year, and unemployment will drop to 4 percent by the end of the year. In their CEO's annual letter also predicts robust recovery through 2023. So what are they seeing in the economy that makes them so very optimistic, and do you agree with this optimistic assessment?
Barry Melancon: Well, I think I do agree that the economy is on a much greater upward tick then I think a lot of us would have anticipated when COVID started. I think that has proven out that's great. It's not necessarily worldwide. I think, as Americans, we have benefited from some of the government programs that have been put forth. Even if you, maybe you're a conservative and you say they shouldn't be spending as much or whatever the case may be, the fact of the matter is those programs helped businesses survive. Our economy is a small-business economy. Sixty percent or so of our economy is really a small-business economy. Small businesses surviving creates that confidence and that throughput that's so very, very important. That has proven to be very successful.
Not every country in the world has been able to do that. So there's some different tension points and global economies in some lock downs. We all read about India. You don't read too much about Pakistan, it's probably worse than India. Malaysia is basically totally locked down as well. You go on and on, Indonesia with new sets of issues. The fact that the U.S. dollar is the world's standard, the world, in effect, currency — by the way, that's a lot of why these crypto wars are being fought out because it is a risk to the U.S. dollar standing to some degree. The fact that our government could deficit spend, and maybe, as CPAs, we say deficit spent too much, but that has fueled the economy. So I think the economy is on a positive run. I think there's a lot of worry about will inflation dampen that to some degree.
I think there's some basic assumption that when you talk about JP Morgan and Goldman's predictions, et cetera, I think they're making an assumption of some stabilization on the inflation point. I think it said that inflation, if it hits 4 percent, the American public, from a consumption perspective and a savings perspective and in just sort of an overall economic perspective, gets a bit shaken. That's the historic level. So I think there will be a lot of things that we'll try to keep the numbers below that. But I think there's a lot of activity in the economy. We know there are certainly supply chain challenges in certain verticals. Certainly if you want to build a house right now, you have some concerns from that standpoint, but a lot of other manufacturing concerns as well.
So there's just a lot of pent-up demand. There is yes, we have to manage through supply chains that are particularly dependent on other places in the world. But there's also on a lot of this, consumer debt is down. There's a lot of accumulated ready-to-spend. I think we're going to see an explosion of travel and leisure travel and all of these things. So people see a lot of positives from that. I think that's generally correct. The other element of that as it relates to business activity is private equity. There are huge amounts of accumulated dollars in private equity. In private equity, obviously the quid pro quo of investing in private-equity funds is that it is invested in entities that produce returns or exit strategies. So the people who manage private-equity funds have a lot of things that they are out there looking for to spur the economy on.
Then I think you put an overall layer of the technology impact. Clearly COVID has brought some of the things that would have happened in technology three, four or five years from now, and has truncated that down. I think that produces certain amounts of efficiency, certain amounts of new businesses and expansion. So you add all of those things up. If you're running a CPA firm, you probably came out of a really, really good year and you're probably sitting in another good year. If you're a CFO for a midsize business, unless you are in one of those verticals that was disproportionately hurt, you see a lot of opportunities and people see more opportunities. You add all those things together, and economies are somewhat unpredictable, but I think there is a lot of basis for people predicting some pretty strong economic outcomes over the next year or so.
Jeff Kaszerman: Yeah. I have to say that I, too, was absolutely flabbergasted at how well we're coming out of this pandemic. As a matter of fact, I was shocked even way in the beginning when my own investments mutual funds were down 15 or 20 percent for the first month or two. Three or four months later, they were up five or 10 percent. So that has always amazed me.
Minimizing Professional and Occupational Licensing Rules
Jeff Kaszerman: Let's get into a couple of hot button issues for CPAs. So there's been a rising trend across the country to minimize professional and occupational licensing rules — the regulatory power of various boards that oversee these professions and occupations. So, what is the latest on this movement?
Barry Melancon: Yeah. So let me set the stage on this because I think as CPAs, a lot of people started default to, "Well, they're not really talking about us. What's the ‘it’ here?" The ‘it’ does include us in many instances. To just give you one data point, the basis of the question that you're talking about, Jeff, we are monitoring 213 different pieces of legislation in this bucket around the country in the 50 different states. So, it is a hot button issue. So, what's the ‘it?’ Really, sort of in infancy, maybe seven or eight years ago this started to be a high-level discussion issue and has been ramping up. It one of the few issues in our world right now that the extremes in both parties, or if you want to put it in the context of liberal and conservative, if you will far left liberals far right conservatives, both gravitate to, but for different reasons. It becomes sort of almost a tsunami type of political environment.
The issue is, “we shouldn't have state licensing of professions and trades.” So that's sort of the point. This is a well-funded initiative by certain incredibly wealthy people who believe in that particular notion. They may believe that a differently than others, but that whole notion is agreed to. So, if you're on the far left, you agree with that point by saying, "Licensing rules prevent employment. They prevent mobility. People can't move across states. It's harder to get jobs. It's a discrimination or an inequity issue it's to keep people from being able to be successful.” If you're on the far right of that political spectrum, you see the explosion of the number of these licensing regimes in various states as an explosion of state government, a cost, a cost of government, a cost on society and business, a cost on consumers. If you're on the far right, you're in favor of less government and therefore, sort of the two extremes can both gravitate to this issue.
Now the knee-jerk reaction for professions like CPAs and architects and engineers and the like is to say, "Well, they don't really mean us, right? Of course, they don't mean professions, they mean trades." But, in actuality, they mean everything — that there shouldn't be this licensing type of process. There have been bills that have been introduced states that would have taken away the licensing process of CPAs and other professions. There have been bills that have said that a governor of a state can grant a license of any professional ilk, to anyone regardless if they pass the exam and meet the requirements if the governor thought that they were appropriate. We've been successful working with the state CPA societies, such as Ralph and his team in New Jersey. But replicate that times 50 to hold all of those things off. In fact, we lead a coalition of the professions that says... There is a public interest issue as it relates to the professions. By the way as for CPAs, we do have mobility. So it doesn't prevent you from moving across state lines. We tackled that about a decade ago and we have that in every state except one, except Hawaii. So it isn't really an inhibitor to job movement and job creation across state borders. By the way, there's a public interest notion, these are sophisticated things. We don't want to be walking into a building that's designed by a non-licensed architect and it collapses. Obviously, in the financial markets, the public interest that we bring as a profession. So we've led a coalition over the last several years, which includes by the way, the state boards of accountancy represented by NASBA and other professions: engineering, architecture. There's been some attempts at some of these things in medicine, they participate to some degree. Lawyers are typically regulated, not through state legislation, but through the Supreme Court and the state. So it's a little bit different ball game for lawyers which is not unusual.
But we lead this coalition that has done a lot of research. We tackle these notions. At various points during this year, 213 different pieces of legislation in 46 different states. Some of them take different forms because ultimately there's push in this area by well-funded activists, but then ultimately what the legislator actually introduces takes different forms. So, for instance, I think there were four in New Jersey. They weren't directly affecting us, as CPAs or the professions, but this is a big trend. It's not going to go away. I think it's very important for CPAs to not believe “it's not us.” It's not directly target at us, but the blanket covers us and most of these elements, and we have to be very diligent. If you could just think about our profession, which is the most national and most global of all the professions, you lose licensure in one state, it creates a huge problem because of the mobility of our profession. So, it's a big issue.
Jeff Kaszerman: Right, right. Well, Barry, I think we're going to be okay in New Jersey because, I don't know how familiar you are with our state, but New Jersey loves regulations.
Barry Melancon: I noticed.
Jeff Kaszerman: I can't imagine them going backwards on this.
Sales Tax on Professional Services
Jeff Kaszerman: Another state issue: Are you seeing any movement in the states on the sales tax on professional services?
Barry Melancon: Yes. Very definitely. So, taxes at a state level in general is a big deal, right? States were hard hit. Yes, there's been some federal government subsidies. There are certainly, because of high taxes, a movement of people. People working from home and leaving states and all of those types of things. So, it's a complex issue and, of course, businesses being shut down sales tax revenues and the like. So, sales tax on services is an important one to the CPA profession. It's important to small business because when they hire CPAs, they pay more for it. It's important to CPA firms because their services cost more, et cetera. Sales tax on services exist in some form in three states and those a historic for many, many, many decades. From time to time, states pop up with this discussion on sales tax on services as a way of additional revenue measures basically.
It's actively being debated right now in eight states, we expect that to increase. So far, again, we've been successful through our advocacy efforts combined with the state CPA societies to not have that enacted. We think this will be not only a 2021, but a 2022 issue as governors and legislatures look at their finances, and particularly in 2022 as well, because a lot of the federal government funding is not likely to be replicated in 2022. That's when maybe some of the budget issues in the state really Will come home to roost.
Jeff Kaszerman: Right. Right. This issue was a very big issue in New Jersey, like 10, 12 years ago. Fortunately it didn’t get beyond the discussion phase, but it's a big pot of money if they ever decide to do it.
The CPA Profession and the Pandemic
Jeff Kaszerman: So let's wrap things up on a positive note. Can you share your thoughts about how the accounting profession stepped up to the plate during the pandemic and what you see as the greatest opportunities for CPAs moving forward?
Barry Melancon: Well, I think overall the profession — it's undeniable frankly — the profession has done an extraordinary job and has done extremely well. We set out three targets as we entered into this. One: as a profession, we needed to deliver on the notion that consumer confidence is important. We needed to not just be a profession that saw the negatives and the risk. We need to be balanced as trusted advisors on that because that's a critical component of economic recovery.
Number two, we focused on small business. I mentioned earlier, our economy is disproportionately small business, employment is disproportionately in small business. This was going to be a small-business event more than a big business. We have 44,000 firms in this country. We have a hundred-plus thousand members that work in business. A lot of those are in small business and serve main street and small businesses. We have done an extraordinary job being there to help them through things like PPP, which we discussed, and a whole host of other issues, more so than probably anything else.
What I like to say is six million businesses in this country with employees, and the most common thing, those six million businesses have — actually, it’s six million with 500 or fewer employees — the most common thing that they have is a relationship with a CPA. So that focus, and I think the profession's delivery on that has been phenomenal.
Then the third point is that we are trusted advisors. This is a complex time, no one has ever lived through these things. The magnitude of these things are incredible. Really, business leaders and individuals, they're counting on us to be the simplifiers, the people who they can trust to understand the nuances and the interplay of these types of things.
So I think it all three of those elements, our profession has met those objectives extraordinarily well. I think we adjusted. I think we adjusted because we were profession that was in a state of transformation. We were not defending the old, the old approach of the profession. We were painting a picture of a new profession, a new evolution in the profession. That sort of worked really well. That allowed firms to be ready. Some are more ready than others, but firms really stepped up from that standpoint. I think the American public and American business public responded very favorably to the profession as in what they turn to them for.
Frankly, our professional will continue to evolve. We're not going to recognize our profession into the future, because the expectations of what we can do for society and business is going to continue to evolve. The technological impact of what we do is going to continue to rapidly evolve. But I think those trusted advisor and simplicity challenges that we have to bring to the table, it isn't going to get simpler for a while folks. I think that, that opportunity for our profession is great. In fact, I think most CPA firms would tell you that the opportunities far exceed the capacity of the firm to take advantage of it. Which comes to strategic. I think firms depending on their size and the geography and all of those things has to be very strategic on what they're doing. They don't have to do everything.
So the opportunities, I think, are in expanding services. ESG, obviously tax is going to be front and center for many, many years to come. State and local tax, federal tax and global implications of tax, because of the supply chain. Some of the areas that we’ve not traditionally been in, Jeff. I think knowledge about business models, really understanding what a business model is and how to fine tune it for your client or your employer. I think supply chain, supply chain risk, even potentially we've built consulting and assurance services and supply chain. We have seen the importance of that. Obviously cyber, but a whole host of other developing areas. So, stay tuned. We'll have some discussions at the annual meeting about some of these as well. I think the opportunity for the profession in an ever-changing evolutionary way are phenomenal.
Jeff Kaszerman: Great. Well, thanks so much Barry, for sharing your thoughts on all of these important topics. I look forward to hearing you again at our Annual Convention. Even if it is going to be virtual and I don't get to see you live.
Barry Melancon: Yeah. One day we won't be virtual. But thank you very much, and it's great to have been with everybody. I do look forward to that Convention.
Jeff Kaszerman: Remember, you can hear more from Barry by registering for the NJCPA Virtual Convention, taking place June 15 through June 18. Learn more and register at njcpa.org/convention.