This paper examines the reliability of survey data for research on U.S. businesses, including sole proprietorships, partnerships, S corporations, and C corporations. We examine all surveys that ask questions about these businesses and compare outcomes across surveys and with aggregated administrative data. We document large inconsistencies in business incomes, receipts, and number of returns. We highlight problems due to non-representative samples and measurement errors. Non-representativeness is reflected in undersampling of businesses, especially in categories of owners with low total incomes. Measurement errors arise because respondents do not refer to relevant documents when answering survey questions and also because some questions are framed in a manner that is confusing to respondents. Finally, we discuss measurement issues for statistics of interest, such as returns and valuations of ongoing private businesses, that are inherently latent and cannot be recovered using either survey or administrative data.
In this paper, we first provide evidence that existing measures of business incomes and valuations based on widely used surveys such as the Survey of Consumer Finances are mismeasured. We then develop a theory disciplined by U.S. national accounts and business census data to measure net incomes and private business sweat equity—which is the value of time to build customer bases, client lists, and other intangible assets. We estimate an aggregate sweat equity value of 0.65 times GDP, with little cross-sectional dispersion in valuations when compared to business net incomes and large cross-sectional dispersion in rates of return. Our estimate of sweat equity is close to the estimate of marketable fixed assets used in production by private businesses, implying a high ratio of intangible to total assets. We use the model to evaluate the impact of greater tax compliance of private businesses and lower tax rates on the net income of both privately held and publicly traded businesses. We find larger sectoral and aggregate effects from the tax policy experiments relative to studies that abstract from private business and, in particular, the accumulation of sweat capital. Finally, we show that our results are robust to including nonpecuniary benefits of business ownership.