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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:
Median Effective Marginal Tax Rate
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.
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."
January 17, 2018
What Businesses Said about Tax Reform
Many folks are wondering what impact the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—which was introduced in the House on November 2, 2017, and signed into law a few days before Christmas—will have on the U.S. economy. Well, in a recent speech, Atlanta Fed president Raphael Bostic had this to say: "I'm marking in a positive, but modest, boost to my near-term GDP [gross domestic product] growth profile for the coming year."
Why the measured approach? That might be our fault. As part of President Bostic's research team, we've been curious about the potential impact of this legislation for a while now, especially on how firms were responding to expected policy changes. Back in November 2016 (the week of the election, actually), we started asking firms in our Sixth District Business Inflation Expectations (BIE) survey how optimistic they were (on a 0–100 scale) about the prospects for the U.S. economy and their own firm's financial prospects. We've repeated this special question in three subsequent surveys. For a cleaner, apples-to-apples approach, the charts below show only the results for firms that responded in each survey (though the overall picture is very similar).
As the charts show, firms have become more optimistic about the prospects for the U.S. economy since November 2016, but not since February 2017, and we didn't detect much of a difference in December 2017, after the details of the tax plan became clearer. But optimism is a vague concept and may not necessarily translate into actions that firms could take that would boost overall GDP—namely, increasing capital investment and hiring.
In November, we had two surveys in the field—our BIE survey (undertaken at the beginning of the month) and a national survey conducted jointly by the Atlanta Fed, Nick Bloom of Stanford University, and Steven Davis of the University of Chicago. (That survey was in the field November 13–24.) In both of these surveys, we asked firms how the pending legislation would affect their capital expenditure plans for 2018. In the BIE survey, we also asked how tax reform would affect hiring plans.
The upshot? The typical firm isn't planning on a whole lot of additional capital spending or hiring.
In our national survey, roughly two-thirds of respondents indicated that the tax reform hasn't enticed them into changing their investment plans for 2018, as the following chart shows.
The chart below also makes apparent that small firms (fewer than 100 employees) are more likely to significantly ramp up capital investment in 2018 than midsize and larger firms.
For our regional BIE survey, the capital investment results were similar (you can see them here). And as for hiring, the typical firm doesn't appear to be changing its plans. Interestingly, here too, smaller firms were more likely to say they'd ramp up hiring. Among larger firms (more than 100 employees), nearly 70 percent indicated that they'd leave their hiring plans unchanged.
One interpretation of these survey results is that the potential for a sharp acceleration in GDP growth is limited. And that's also how President Bostic described things in his January 8 speech: "For now, I am treating a more substantial breakout of tax-reform-related growth as an upside risk to my outlook."
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.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
October 17, 2011
State and local fiscal fortunes: Follow the money (collected)
Last week, we found ourselves in conversation with some colleagues discussing the issue of state and local fiscal conditions, which by pure coincidence coincided with the announcement that the city of Harrisburg, Pa., filed for bankruptcy. In the course of conversation, our attention was drawn to an interesting fact. Prior to 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data through 2008, annual growth of total revenues at the state and local level was closely aligned with direct expenditures at the same level. Since 2000, however, this pattern has decidedly changed. The main reason is the dramatic volatility of total revenue:
Revenues at the state and local level come from many sources. Taxes from income, sales, and property, of course, but also from various fees and charges associated from education, utilities, ports and airports, and so on. In addition, revenues come from transfers from the federal government and, importantly, asset income from trust fund portfolios.
In fact, the primary source of the increased volatility in state and local government revenues since 2000 is large swings in revenue going into insurance trust funds to finance compulsory or voluntary social insurance programs operated by the public sector.
Insurance trust revenue is derived from contributions, assessments, premiums, or payroll "taxes" required of employers and employees. It also includes any earnings on assets held or invested by such funds. Not surprisingly then, the volatility of insurance trust revenue is partly tied to volatility in financial markets, as the chart below clearly illustrates.
Though fluctuations in insurance fund revenues have been the largest source of fluctuations in overall state and local revenues over the past decade or so, volatility in general revenue is still an issue. Ups and downs in income tax revenues have been particularly sharp since 2000.
Interestingly, Census Bureau data for state government finances show tax revenue growth turned negative in 2009.
In research that focuses specifically on revenue variability at the state level, UCLA law professor Kirk Stark notes the possibility that state revenues have too much reliance on the same income-centric tax base that characterizes the federal revenue code:
"Perhaps the most obvious (yet little discussed) federal inducement for the design of state and local tax systems is the fact that Congress has established an elaborate and detailed legal framework for certain taxes—including, most notably, the individual and corporate income taxes—but not for others. The very existence of the Code, Treasury Regulations, IRS administrative guidance, and federal judicial case law creates an almost irresistible incentive for the states to adopt individual and corporate income taxes. The availability of the federal income tax base as a starting point in calculating state tax liability is an unqualified benefit. …
"At the same time, however, there are potentially significant costs associated with having states piggyback on the federal income tax. Taxes that might be suitable for use by a central level of government are not necessarily appropriate for use by state or local governments. Some of the most volatile state revenue sources are those upon which states rely by virtue of piggybacking on the federal income tax."
The theme of Professor Stark's article is the role that federal policy might play in generating revenue volatility at the state level:
"Through various inducements and limitations embedded in federal law, the federal government has stacked the deck in favor of state revenue volatility, unwittingly exacerbating the subnational fiscal crises that it is then called upon to mitigate through bailouts and general fiscal relief."
Some other examples of how federal tax policy can have an impact on state and local policy according to Stark include "differential treatment of alternative tax sources within the federal income tax deduction for state and local taxes" and "various specific provisions in federal law that limit state taxing authority."
Professor Stark is clear on the point that the research in this area has defied simple generic conclusions about how state and local tax codes can be constructed to minimize revenue volatility. And the work is largely silent on how the volatility question fits into the broader question of optimal tax-system design. But it is hard to argue with this conclusion:
"If the federal government is interested in reducing the likelihood and severity of future state fiscal crises, it should consider changes to federal law that would eliminate the current bias in favor of volatile state tax systems."
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
John Robertson, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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