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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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March 22, 2019

A Different Type of Tax Reform

Two interesting, and important, documents crossed our desk last week. The first was the 2019 edition of the Economic Report of the President. What particularly grabbed our attention was the following statement from Chapter 3:

Fundamentally, when people opt to neither work nor look for work it is an indication that the after-tax income they expect to receive in the workforce is below their "reservation wage"—that is, the minimum value they give to time spent on activities outside the formal labor market.

That does not strike us as a controversial proposition, which makes the second of last week's documents—actually a set of documents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—especially interesting.

In that series of documents, HHS's Nina Chien and Suzanne Macartney point out a couple of things that are particularly important when thinking about the effect of tax rates on after-tax income and the incentive to work. The first, which is generally appreciated, is that the tax rates that matter with respect to incentives to work are marginal tax rates—the amount that is ceded to the government on the next $1 of income received. The second, and less often explicitly recognized, is that the amount ceded to the government includes not only payments to the government (in the form of, for example, income taxes) but also losses in benefits received from the government (in the form of, for example, Medicaid or child care assistance payments).

The fact that effective marginal tax rates are all about the sum of explicit tax payments to the government and lost transfer payments from the government applies to us all. But it is especially true for those at the lower end of the income distribution. These are the folks (of working age, anyway) who disproportionately receive means-tested benefit payments. For low-wage workers, or individuals contemplating entering the workforce into low-wage jobs, the reduction of public support payments is by far the most significant factor in effective marginal tax rates and the consequent incentive to work and acquire skills.

The implication of losing benefits for an individual's effective marginal tax rate can be eye-popping. From Chien and Macartney (Brief #2 in the series):

Among households with children just above poverty, the median marginal tax rate is high (51 percent); rates remain high (never dipping below 45 percent) as incomes approach 200 percent of poverty.

Our own work confirms the essence of this message. Consider a representative set of households, with household heads aged 30–39, living in Florida. (Because both state and local taxes and certain transfer programs vary by state, geography matters.) Now think of calculating the wealth for each household—wealth being the sum of their lifetime earnings from working and the value of their assets net of liabilities—and grouping the households into wealth quintiles. (In other words, the first quintile would the 20 percent of households with the lowest wealth, the fifth quintile would be the 20 percent of households with the highest wealth.)

What follows are the median effective marginal tax rates that we calculate from this experiment:

Wealth percentile

Median Effective Marginal Tax Rate

Lowest quintile

44%

Second quintile

43%

Third quintile

32%

Fourth quintile

33%

Highest quintile

35%

Note: The methodology used in these calculations is described here and here.
Source: 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, the Fiscal Analyzer

Consistent with Chien and Macartney, the median effective marginal tax rates for the least wealthy are quite high. Perhaps more troubling, underlying this pattern of effective tax rates is one especially daunting challenge. The source of the relatively high effective rates for low-wealth individuals is the phase-out of transfer payments, some of which are so abrupt that they are referred to as benefits, or fiscal, cliffs. Because these payments differ widely across family structure, income levels within a quintile, and state law, the marginal tax rates faced by individuals in the lower quintiles are very disparate.

Note: The methodology used in these calculations is described here and here.
Source: 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, the Fiscal Analyzer

The upshot of all of this is that "tax reform" aimed at reducing the disincentives to work at the lower end of the income scale is not straightforward. Without such reform, however, it is difficult to imagine a fully successful approach to (in the words of the Economic Report) "[increasing] the after-tax return to formal work, thereby increasing work incentives for potential entrants into the labor market."

 

 

March 23, 2018

What Are Businesses Saying about Tax Reform Now?

In a recent macroblog post, we shared some results of a joint national survey that is an ongoing collaboration between the Atlanta Fed, Nick Bloom of Stanford University, and Steve Davis of the University of Chicago, and Jose Barrero of Stanford University. (By the way, we're planning on calling this work the "Survey of Business Executives," or SBE.).

In mid-November, we posed this question to our panel of firms:

If passed in its current form, how would the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act affect your capital expenditures in 2018?

At the time, we (and perhaps others) were a little surprised to find that roughly two-thirds of respondents indicated that tax reform hasn't enticed them into changing their investment plans for 2018. Our initial interpretation was that the lack of an investment response by firms made it unlikely that we'd see a sharp acceleration in output growth in 2018.

Another interpretation of those results might be that firms were unwilling to speculate on how they'd respond to legislation that was not yet set in stone. Now that the ink has been dry on the bill for a while, we decided to ask again.

In our February survey—which was in the field from February 12 through February 23—we asked firms, "How has the recently enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) led you to revise your plans for capital expenditures in 2018?" The results shown below—restricted to the 218 firms that responded in both November 2017 and February 2018—suggest that, if anything, these firms have revised down their expectations for this year:

You may be thinking that perhaps firms had already set their capital expenditure plans for 2018, so asking about changes in firms' 2018 plans isn't too revealing—which is why we asked them about their 2019 plans as well. The results (showing all 272 responses in February) are not statistically different from their 2018 response. Roughly three-quarters of firms don't plan to change their capital expenditure plans in 2019 as a result of the TCJA:

These results contain some nuance. It seems that larger firms (those with more than 500 employees) responded more favorably to the tax reform. But it is still the case that the typical (or median) large firm has not revised its 2019 capex plans in response to tax changes.

Why the disparity between smaller and larger firms? We're not sure yet—but we have an inkling. In a separate survey we had in the field in February—the Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) survey—we asked Sixth District firms to identify their tax reporting structure and whether or not they expected to see a reduction in their tax bill as a result of the TCJA. Larger firms—which are more likely to be organized as C corporations—appear to be more sure of the TCJA's impact on their bottom lines. Conversely, smaller "pass-through" entities appear to be less certain of its impact, as shown here:

For now, we're sticking with our initial assessment that the potential for a sharp acceleration in near-term output growth is limited. However, there is some upside risk to that view if more pass-through entities start to see significantly smaller tax bills as a result of the TCJA.

January 3, 2017

Following the Overseas Money

​​

Though the holiday season has come to a close, the forthcoming policy season may bring with it serious debate about a holiday of a different sort: a tax "holiday" that would allow corporations to repatriate accumulated profits currently held overseas.

As with many of the policy proposals that the new Congress and administration will consider, our primary interest here at the Atlanta Fed is to assess how the policy, if enacted, will likely affect our own economic forecasts and the environment in which future monetary policy will be made.

The best starting point is usually to just determine the facts as we know them. In this case, the question is what we know about the nature of the foreign earnings of U.S. corporations.

U.S. corporations' undistributed foreign earnings have been accumulating rapidly for more than a decade, as companies have expanded their foreign operations. The income earned by U.S. domestic corporations' foreign subsidiaries is generally not subject to U.S. tax until the income is distributed to the parent corporation in the United States. According to a November 25, 2016, Wall Street Journal article, over the past decade total undistributed foreign earnings of U.S. companies have risen from about $500 billion to more than $2.5 trillion, a sum equal to nearly 14 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

Though it is not uncommon to refer to these sums as "a pile of cash," this sort of terminology is perhaps a bit misleading. For one, some of that "pile of cash" is not cash at all. According to a report from the Joint Committee on Taxation , "the undistributed earnings may include more than just cash holdings as corporations may have reinvested their earnings in their business operations, such as by building or improving a factory, by purchasing equipment, or by making expenditures on research and experimentation."

More important, the portion of foreign earnings that hasn't been invested in business operations is not necessarily "trapped" or "stashed" overseas. In fact, much of it is in the United States, already working (albeit while untaxed) for the U.S. economy.

U.S. companies do not routinely disclose what their foreign subsidiaries do with undistributed earnings. To better understand the situation, in 2011 the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations conducted a survey of 27 large U.S. multinationals. Survey results showed that those companies' foreign subsidiaries held nearly half of their earnings in U.S. dollars, including U.S. bank deposits and Treasury and corporate securities (see the table).

A couple of years later, a June 13, 2013, Wall Street Journal report also found that Google, EMC, and Microsoft kept more than three-quarters of their foreign subsidiaries' cash in U.S. dollars or dollar-denominated securities.

So it turns out, then, that a large fraction of undistributed foreign profits is held at U.S. banks or invested in U.S. securities. Even dollar deposits held by U.S. companies in tax havens such as Ireland, the Cayman Islands, and Singapore ultimately live here in the United States because foreign banks typically hold their dollar deposits in so-called correspondent banks in the United States.

In fact, U.S. dollar balances always stay in the United States, even if they are controlled from outside the country. Those dollars in turn are available to be lent out to U.S. businesses. And when U.S. companies' foreign subsidiaries invest their cash holdings in U.S. Treasury bonds, they are in effect lending to the U.S. government.

Foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies choose to invest their profits in dollar-denominated assets for much the same reasons that make the U.S. dollar an international reserve currency:

  • the dollar maintains its value in terms of goods and services (the dollar is a global unit of account);
  • U.S. financial markets are deep and liquid, providing ample investment choices; and
  • U.S. government obligations are considered virtually risk-free, making them a safe haven during times of global stress and risk aversion.

Companies also have operational reasons for keeping surplus cash in U.S. dollars. Most of the international trade invoicing is done in dollars, so U.S. companies' foreign subsidiaries hold dollars to pay suppliers and deal with customers. Also, nonfinancial companies prefer to avoid foreign exchange risk and volatility. Finally, holding most of the funds, which are not invested in foreign operations, in dollars mitigates potential accounting losses, since U.S. companies are required to report in dollars on their consolidated financial statements.

None of this is to say that a tax holiday for U.S. corporations on undistributed foreign profits is a good or bad policy choice. But even without passing judgment, it may fall to macroeconomic forecasters to estimate the policy impact on business investment, job growth, and the like. Understanding the facts underlying the targeted funds is a reasonable starting point for answering the harder questions that may come.

November 13, 2012

(Fiscal) Cliff Notes

Since it is indisputably the policy question of the moment, here are a few of my own observations regarding the "fiscal cliff." Throughout, I will rely on the analysis of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), as reported in the CBO reports titled An Update to the Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2012 to 2022 and Economic Effects of Policies Contributing to Fiscal Tightening in 2013.

Since the CBO analysis and definitions of the fiscal cliff are familiar to many, I will forgo a rehash of the details. However, in case you haven't been following the conversation closely or are in the mood for a refresher, you can go here first for a quick summary. This "appendix" also includes a description of the CBO's alternative scenario, which amounts to renewing most expiring tax provisions and rescinding the automatic budget cuts to be implemented under the provisions of last year's debt-ceiling extension.

On, then, to a few facts about the fiscal cliff scenario that have caught my attention.

1. Going over the cliff would put the federal budget on the path to sustainability.

If reducing the level of federal debt relative to gross domestic (GDP) is your goal, the fiscal cliff would indeed do the trick. According to the CBO:

Budget deficits are projected to continue to shrink for several years—to 2.4 percent of GDP in 2014 and 0.4 percent by 2018—before rising again to 0.9 percent by 2022. With deficits small relative to the size of the economy, debt held by the public is also projected to drop relative to GDP—from about 77 percent in 2014 to about 58 percent in 2022. Even with that decline, however, debt would represent a larger share of GDP in 2022 than in any year between 1955 and 2009.

Such would not be the case should the status quo of the CBO's alternative scenario prevail. Under (more or less) status quo policy, the debt-to-GDP ratio would rise to a hair under 90 percent by 2022:


The current debt-to-GDP ratio of 67 percent is already nearly double the 2007 level, which checked in at about 36 percent. However, though the increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio over the past five years is smaller in percentage terms, a jump to 90 percent from where we are today may be more problematic. There is some evidence of "threshold effects" that associate negative effects on growth with debt levels that exceed a critical upper bound relative to the size of the economy. At the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City's 2011 Economic Symposium, Steve Cecchetti offered the following observation, based on his research with M.S. Mohanty and Fabrizio Zampolli:

Using a new dataset on debt levels in 18 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries from 1980 to 2010 (based primarily on flow of funds data), we examine the impact of debt on economic growth....

Our results support the view that, beyond a certain level, debt is bad for growth. For government debt, the number is about 85 percent of GDP.

Of course, causation is always a tricky thing to establish, and Cecchetti et al. are clear that their estimates are subject to considerable uncertainty. Still, it is clear that the fiscal cliff moves the level of debt in the right direction. The status quo does not.

2. The fiscal cliff moves in the direction of budget balance really fast.

By the CBO's estimates, over the next three years the fiscal cliff would reduce deficits relative to GDP by about 6 percentage points, from the current ratio of 7.3 percent to the projected 2015 level of 1.2 percent.

Deficit reduction of this magnitude is not unprecedented. A comparable decline occurred in the 1990s, when the federal budget moved from deficits that were 4.7 percent of GDP to a surplus equal to 1.4 percent of GDP. However, that 6 percentage point change in deficits relative to GDP happened over an eight-year span, from 1992 to 1999.

It is probably also worth noting that the average annual rate of GDP growth over the 1993–99 period was 4 percent. The CBO projects real growth rates over the next three years at 2.7 percent, which incorporates two years of growth in excess of 4 percent following negative growth in 2013.

The upshot is that, though the fiscal cliff would move the federal budget in the right direction vis à vis sustainability, it does so at an extremely rapid pace. I'm not sure speed kills in this case, but it sounds pretty risky.

3. The fiscal cliff heavily weights deficit reduction in the direction of higher taxation.

Over the first five years off the cliff, almost three-quarters of the deficit reduction relative to the CBO's no-cliff alternative would be accounted for by revenue increases. Only 28 percent would be a result of lower outlays:


The balance shifts only slightly over the full 10-year horizon of the CBO projections, with outlays increasing to 34 percent of the total and revenues falling to 66 percent.

Particularly for the nearer-term horizon, there is at least some evidence that this revenue/outlay mix may not be optimal. A few months back, Greg Mankiw highlighted this, from new research by Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero, and Francesco Giavazzi:

This paper studies whether fiscal corrections cause large output losses. We find that it matters crucially how the fiscal correction occurs. Adjustments based upon spending cuts are much less costly in terms of output losses than tax-based ones. Spending-based adjustments have been associated with mild and short-lived recessions, in many cases with no recession at all. Tax-based adjustments have been associated with prolonged and deep recessions.

Of course, that in the end is a relatively short-run impact. It does not directly confront the growth aspects of the policy mix associated with fiscal reform. Controversy on the growth-maximizing size of government and the best growth-supporting mix of spending and tax policies is longstanding. The dustup on a Congressional Research Services report questioning the relationship between top marginal tax rates and growth is but a recent installment of this debate.

Here's what I think we know, in theory anyway: Government spending can be growth-enhancing. Tax increases can be growth-retarding. It's all about the tradeoffs, the details matter, and unqualified statements about the "right" thing to do should be treated with suspicion. (If you are an advanced student of economics or otherwise tolerant of a bit of a math slog, you can find an excellent summary of the whole issue here.)

In other words, there are lots of decisions to be made—and it would probably be better if those decisions are not made by default.

Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed