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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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January 7, 2009

Will tax stimulus stimulate investment?

Update: Reader Doug Lee points out that the fixed investment series above is dominated by the extraordinary decline in residential investment over the past several years. For that sector, the questions posed above are in a bit sharper focus. Are firms in the residential investment sector pessimistic about future prospects? Absolutely. Are compromised credit markets behind the low investment levels? Quite possibly, though given the large inventory overhang in housing it is improbable that activity in the sector would be robust in any case. Is the low investment/net worth ratio symptomatic of a general deleveraging within the nonfinancial business sector? Not so clear, as it is pretty hard to see through the effect in residential category.

Here, then is a chart of the history of nonresidential fixed investment relative to corporate net worth:

010709_update

The recent decline in the ratio, while still there, is much less dramatic and, in fact, seems to be part of a more persistent trend that commenced prior to the 2001 recession (and which may have been temporarily disguised by the housing boom that followed).

Was the nonfinancial nonresidential business sector ahead in the deleveraging game—ahead of residential construction businesses, financial firms, and consumers? And could this bode well for this sector when the recovery begins? Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers.

By David Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed


Original post:

On Monday, the form of potential fiscal stimulus, 2009-style, took a step forward detail-wise. From the Wall Street Journal:

“President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are crafting a plan to offer about $300 billion of tax cuts to individuals and businesses, a move aimed at attracting Republican support for an economic-stimulus package and prodding companies to create jobs.

“The size of the proposed tax cuts—which would account for about 40% of a stimulus package that could reach $775 billion over two years—is greater than many on both sides of the aisle in Congress had anticipated.”

The plan appears to make concessions to both economic theory—which suggests that consumers will save a relatively large fraction of temporary increases in disposable income—and recent experience—which seems to suggest that what works in theory sometimes works in practice. Again, from the Wall Street Journal:

“Economists of all political stripes widely agree the checks sent out last spring were ineffective in stemming the economic slide, partly because many strapped consumers paid bills or saved the cash rather than spend it. But Obama aides wanted a provision that could get money into consumers’ hands fast, and hope they will be persuaded to spend money this time if the credit is made a permanent feature of the tax code.”

As for the business tax package:

“… a key provision would allow companies to write off huge losses incurred last year, as well as any losses from 2009, to retroactively reduce tax bills dating back five years. Obama aides note that businesses would have been able to claim most of the tax write-offs on future tax returns, and the proposal simply accelerates those write-offs to make them available in the current tax season, when a lack of available credit is leaving many companies short of cash.

“A second provision would entice firms to plow that money back into new investment. The write-offs would be retroactive to expenditures made as of Jan. 1, 2009, to ensure that companies don’t sit on their money until after Congress passes the measure.”

A relevant question here is really quite similar to the one we ask when the tax cuts are aimed at households: Will the extra cash be spent? This graph provides some interesting perspective:

010709

Relative to net worth (of nonfarm nonfinancial corporate businesses), private fixed investment has been in consistent decline since the second quarter of 2006. (The level of fixed investment has declined in each quarter, save one.) In fact, the investment/net worth ratio is currently at a postwar low.

Why? A couple of hypotheses come to mind. (1) Firms are extremely pessimistic about the outlook and see relatively few worthwhile projects in which to commit funds. (2) Credit markets are so impaired that the net worth of firms—a critical variable in mainstream models of the so-called “credit channel” of monetary policy—is supporting increasingly smaller levels of lending. (3) Nonfinancial firms, like financial firms, are deleveraging and hence not expanding.

Of course, even if one of these hypotheses is true, it need not be the case that marginal dollars sent in the direction of businesses will go uninvested. But it makes you wonder.

By David Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

November 6, 2008

Saving and taxes

I hope you will excuse me for trading in a bit of old news, but I’ve been thinking about a post by Greg Mankiw from last week. Titled “My Personal Work Incentives,” the item takes published details of the McCain and Obama tax proposals. The essence of the post was to point out how these details impact the return to working for higher-income individuals, assuming that a marginal dollar earned is a marginal dollar saved (for the children, of course):

“Let t1 be the combined income and payroll tax rate, t2 be the corporate tax rate, t3 be the dividend and capital gains tax rate, and t4 be the estate tax rate. And let r be the before-tax rate of return on corporate capital. Then one dollar I earn today will yield my kids:

(1-t1){[1+r(1-t2)(1-t3)]^T}(1-t4).

“For my illustrative calculations, let me take r to be 10 percent and my remaining life expectancy T to be 35 years…

“Under the McCain plan, t1=.35, t2=.25, t3=.15, and t4=.15. In this case, a dollar earned today yields my kids $4.81. That is, even under the low-tax McCain plan, my incentive to work is cut by 83 percent compared to the situation without taxes.

“Under the Obama plan, t1=.43, t2=.35, t3=.2, and t4=.45. In this case, a dollar earned today yields my kids $1.85. That is, Obama's proposed tax hikes reduce my incentive to work by 62 percent compared to the McCain plan and by 93 percent compared to the no-tax scenario.”

Since the election is over, I trust that fact will keep the focus on the essential economic point, which is that tax policy does indeed affect incentives.

Which brings me to my point. Using Mankiw’s interest rate assumption, the present value of McCain’s $4.81 is $0.17 (which is implied directly by the 83 percent marginal tax rate). The comparable figure for Obama’s $1.85 is $0.07.

Mankiw’s point is that these sorts of numbers would substantially change his incentives to work. If the whole point is to leave a little nest egg for the kids, that is surely true, but there is another choice.

Here is another possibility: Suppose I forgo provisioning for the children altogether and simply consume that extra dollar of income. That way I avoid the corporate tax, dividend and capital gain tax, and the estate tax altogether. Under the McCain plan I get to enjoy $0.65 worth of extra consumption, or $0.57 worth under the Obama plan. I would have to value my children’s consumption an awful lot to trade $0.65 (or $0.57) of my own for $0.17 (or $0.07) of theirs.

As I think about this example, I am naturally drawn to the fact that savings rates in the United  States are, in an historical context, pretty darn low.

Personal Saving as a Percent of Disposable Income

There are almost certainly multiple reasons for the pattern shown in this chart. It would be tough to make the case that tax policy is the only culprit, but it would be equally tough to argue that it is irrelevant.

The distortion on saving from capital-income taxation could be eliminated, of course, by simply eliminating taxes on saving, but doing so would have exactly the sort of distributional consequences that account for a good deal of difference in the Obama and McCain tax plans in the first place. My training as an economist gives me no special expertise in determining how to value the trade-off between “fairness” and efficiency—and beware of any economist who pretends otherwise. But as you contemplate the distortions presented by your favorite tax proposal—a required step in any complete analysis—you might consider putting disincentives to save fairly high up on the list.

 

August 21, 2008

The “What’s Fair” contest

At Café Hayek, George Mason’s Russell Roberts opens up a brand new “Inequality Chart Contest.” The chart in question is based on work by Thomas Piketty (professor, Paris School of Economics) and Emmanuel Saez (professor, University of California Berkeley), the essence of which is that the rich have gotten richer and everyone else not so much. (You can find a link to the Piketty-Saez paper, as well as updated data and executive summaries, on Emmanuel Saez’ homepage. Russell links to more information from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)

Here’s the picture…

Figure 2

… and the contest is to construct “ONE sentence explaining ONE thing that is wrong with concluding that these numbers are evidence that the U.S. economy has become more tilted toward the rich at the expense of the poor.”

In the spirit of prompting reflection on issues of inequality and fairness, I invite you to think about the following three pictures, generated from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax data through 2006:

Avg Tax Rates by Income Percentile

Avg Tax Rates by Income Percentile

Avg Tax Rates by Income Percentile

Let’s focus on the 1 percent of income-earners (by IRS defined Adjusted Gross Income, or AGI). If you look at the average federal tax rate paid by this group—that is, taxes paid divided by AGI—it did fall substantially over the period from 2000–2006. The average tax rates for other income groups fell as well, but not as dramatically.

If you instead prefer to look at taxes paid, the share the top 1 percent forked over to the federal government rose from 37.4 percent in 2000 to 39.9 percent in 2006. The share paid by the next highest 4 percent rose only slightly over this period, and the share paid by all other groups actually fell or stayed roughly the same.

On the other hand, concentrating on the share of taxes paid relative to the share of income earned by each group would lead you to the conclusion that not much had changed between the year 2000 and 2006.

So here’s the contest: Explain in one sentence which one of those pictures tells us whether the federal income-tax system has become more or less “fair.”

August 19, 2008

Did the stimulus package actually stimulate?

One of the big questions of the policy season is surely “Did the $100 billion of tax rebates distributed to households in May, June, and July actually work?” “Work” in this case means “stimulate consumer spending.” You may want to sit down before I tell you this, but so far economists disagree. In one corner you have Christian Broda at the University of Chicago and Jonathan Parker at Northwestern University:

The Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 was aimed at increasing disposable income temporarily through tax rebates in the hope this would stimulate spending and end or at least mitigate the severity of a U.S. economic slowdown. We find that to a significant extent they succeeded. The stimulus payments are initially being spent at significant rates. These rates are slightly higher than those observed in 2001 when fiscal policy has been credited with helping end the 2001 recession.

In the other you have Martin Feldstein:

Although press stories emphasizing that the rebates induced additional consumer spending were technically correct, they missed the important point that the spending rise was very small in comparison to the size of the tax rebates.

A recent, widely reported academic study by Christian Broda and Jonathan Parker showing that the rebates led to increased spending on nondurable items (like food and drugs) does not contradict the implication of the more comprehensive data—on national retail sales and total consumer spending—that the induced rise in consumer outlays was small relative to the size of the rebate.

Oh boy. Let’s back up a step. Before the fact, here is what people said they were planning to do with their rebates (by at least one report):

081908a_3

So what did the people receiving the rebates do with them? Well, if we could answer that one, it would be easy to resolve the Feldstein vs. Broda-Parker dispute. It does seem undeniable that a pretty good piece of those rebates was saved, at least in the first two months.

081908a_3

Can those elevated saving rates recorded in May and June reflect an outbreak of thriftiness? The real answer is “who knows?” but we can do a little back-of-the-envelope arithmetic to put things in perspective. Ignoring the Katrina-related dip in August 2005, the average saving rate from the beginning of 2005 through this past April was about 0.61 percent.

So, here’s the question: Assuming that consumers saved out of nonrebate income at the rate of 0.61 percent, how much would they have had to save out of the sums distributed in May and June to raise the overall saving rates to the observed values of 4.9 and 2.5 percent?

If you do the annualized calculation for the $43 billion of rebates in May and $28 billion in June you get some pretty striking numbers: An implied saving rate out of the rebates of somewhere in the neighborhood of 83 percent in May and 63 percent in June.

You can argue that there is a sense in which even these figures are understated. Durable goods purchases, for example, are theoretically a form of household saving, and the Broda-Parker survey respondents did indicate that about 20 percent of their rebates went toward the purchase of durables. However, if that is so durable expenditures without the tax rebates would have been really low. Though expenditures on durables grew at an annualized rate of 5.8 percent in May—not bad—they shrank by 17.4 percent in June.

These back-of-the-envelope calculations are pretty rough, of course, but they are broadly consistent with evidence from the 2001 tax rebates. That evidence also suggests that about one-third of the rebates were spent in the quarter following their disbursement, so the spending effects of this year’s model may yet have legs.

On the other hand, even if the rebates do prop up consumer spending in the short run, that would hardly settle the debate about whether they were the best way to spend $100 billion. But that’s a different debate for a different time.