The tax bills passed by the Republican-controlled House and Senate and strongly supported by President Trump (despite some important differences between them) can be fairly criticized for any number of big reasons: the mess of a drafting process in the Senate, the impact on already bloated federal budget deficits and the national debt, the cavalier treatment of healthcare reform, the seemingly cruel hits to graduate students and to teachers who buy some of their students’ school supplies.
My main concern is different, though. I could see an argument for the main thrust of the bills – even taking into account most of the above flaws – if they boasted the potential to achieve its most important stated aim. In Mr. Trump’s words, “We’re going to lower our tax rate to the very competitive number of 20 percent, as I said. And we’re going to create jobs and factories will be pouring into this country….” Put less Trump-ishly and more precisely, the idea is that by slashing tax rates for corporations and so-called pass-though entities, along with full-expensing of various types of capital investment, American businesses will build more factories, labs, and other productive facilities; buy more equipment, materials and software; hire more workers and increase their pay (since the demand for labor will soar).
Actually, since automation will surely keep steadily reducing the direct hiring generated by all this promised productive investment, let’s focus less on the jobs promise (keeping in mind that manufacturing in particular generates lots of indirect jobs per each direct hire), and more on the business spending that will boost output – since faster growth is the ultimate key to robust employment and wage levels going forward.
Unfortunately, after spending the last few days crunching some relevant numbers, I can’t see the GOP tax plans living up to their billing – which makes their flaws all the more damning.
What I’ve done, essentially, is look at inflation-adjusted business spending during American economic recoveries (to ensure apples-to-apples data by comparing similar stages of the business cycle) going back to the Reagan years of the 1980s, and examine whether or not individual and especially business tax cuts have set off a factory etc building spree. And I didn’t see anything of the kind, except possibly over the very short term. Moreover, even these increases may have had less to do with the tax cuts than with other influences on such investments – like the overall state of the economy and the monetary policies carried out by the Federal Reserve (which help determine the cost of credit).
Let’s start with the expansion that dominated former President Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office – lasting officially from the fourth quarter of 1982 through the second quarter of 1990 (by which time he had been succeeded by George H.W. Bush). The signature Reagan tax cuts, which focused on individuals, went into effect in August, 1981 – when a deep recession was still underway.
Interestingly, business investment kept falling dramatically through the middle of 1983 – when an even stronger rebound kicked in through the end of 1984. Indeed, that year, corporate spending (known officially as private non-residential fixed investment surged by 16.66 percent. But this growth rate then began slowing dramatically – and through 1987 actually dropped in absolute terms.
A major tax reform act was signed into law by the president in October, 1986, and individuals were its focus as well. Two provisions did affect business, but appeared to be at least somewhat offsetting in their effects, in line with the law’s overall aim of eliminating incentives and disincentives for specific kinds of economic activity. They were a reduction in the corporate rate and a repeal of the investment tax credit – whose objective was precisely to foster capital spending. Other provisions had major effects on business but principally by encouraging more companies to change over to so-called pass-through entities, not (at least directly) on investment levels. Business spending recovered, but its peak for the rest of the decade (5.67 percent of real GDP in 1989) never approached the earlier highs.
Arguably, fiscal and monetary policy were much more influential determinants of business spending, along with the recovery’s dynamics. The depth of the early 1980s recession practically ensured that the rebound would be strong, as did the massive swelling of federal budget deficits, which strengthened the economy’s overall demand levels, and their subsequent reduction.
Perhaps most important of all, the Federal Reserve under Chairman Paul Volcker cut interest rates dramatically from the stratospheric levels to which he drove them in order to tame double-digit inflation. And yet for most of 1984, when business spending soared, the federal funds rate (FFR) was rising steeply. Capex also strengthened between 1987 and mid-1989, which also witnessed a scary stock market crash (in October, 1987).
The story of the long 1990s expansion, which mainly unfolded during Bill Clinton’s presidency, was simultaneously simpler and more mysterious from the standpoint of business taxes – and macroeconomic policy. Following a shallow recession, Clinton raised both personal and corporate tax rates while government spending was so restrained that the big budget deficits he inherited actually turned into surpluses by the late-1990s. For good measure, the FFR began rising in late 1993, from 2.86 percent, and between early 1995 and mid-2000, stayed between just under six percent and just under 6.5 percent.
And what happened to capital spending? In late 1993, right after the tax-hiking, spending- cutting, deficit-shrinking Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act was passed, and the Fed was tightening, businesses went on a capex spending spree began that saw such investment reach annual double-digit growth rates in 1997 and stay in that elevated neighborhood for the next three years.
It’s true that Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress passed tax cut legislation in August, 1997, that among other measures lowered the capital gains rate. But the acceleration of business spending began years before that. And although we now know that much of this capital spending went to internet-centered technology hardware for which hardly any demand existed then at all, from a tax policy perspective, the key point is that this category of spending rose strongly – not whether the funds were spent wisely or not.
The expansion of the previous decade casts major doubt on whether any policy moves can significantly juice business spending. Just look at all the stimulative measures put into effect, tax-related and otherwise. The recovery lasted from the end of 2001 to the end of 2007, and during this period, on the tax front, former President George W. Bush in June, 2001 signed a bill featuring big cuts for individuals, and in May, 2003 legislation that sped up the phase-in of those personal cuts and added reductions in capital gains and dividends levies. For good measure, in October, 2004, the “Homeland Investment Act” became law. It aimed to use a tax “holiday” (i.e., a one-time dramatically slashed corporate rate) to bring back (i.e., “repatriate“) to the U.S. economy for productive investment hundreds of billions of dollars in profits earned by American companies from their overseas operations.
In addition, under Bush, the federal budget balance experienced its biggest peacetime deterioration on record, and starting in the fall of 2000, the Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan cut the FFR to multi-decade peacetime lows, and didn’t begin raising until mid-2004.
The business investment results underwhelmed, to put it mildly. Such expenditures fell significantly throughout 2001 and 2002, and grew in real terms by only 1.88 percent the following year. Thereafter, their growth rate did quicken – to 5.20 percent rate in 2004, 6.98 percent in 2005, and 7.12 percent in 2006. But they never achieved the increases of the 1990s and by 2007, that expansion’s final year, business investment growth had slowed to 5.91 percent.
There’s no doubt that something needs to be done to boost business spending nowadays, which has lagged for most of the current recovery and turned negative last year – even though the federal funds rate remained near zero for most of that time and the Federal Reserve’s resort to unconventional stimulus measures like quantitative easing as well, despite unprecedented budget deficits (though they began shrinking dramatically in 2013), and despite the continuation of all the Bush tax cuts (except the repatriation holiday, and the imposition of a small surcharge on all investment income to help pay for Obamacare). Business investment’s record during the current recovery has been even less impressive considering a Great Recession collapse that was the worst in U.S. history going back to the early 1940s, and that should have generated a robust bounceback.
But if history seems to teach that tax cuts and even other macroeconomic stimulus policies haven’t been the answer, what is? Two possibilities seem well worth exploring. First, place productive investment conditions on any tax cuts and repatriation (the 2004 tax holiday act did contain them) and then actually monitor and enforce them (an imperative the Bush administration neglected). And second, put into effect some measures that can boost incomes in some sustainable way – and thus convince business that new, financially healthy customers will emerge for the new output from their new facilities. To me, that means focusing less on ideas like raising the national minimum wage to $15 per hour (though the rate should, at long last, be linked to inflation), and more on ideas like trade policies that require business to make their products in the United States if they want to sell to Americans, and immigration policies that tighten labor markets and force companies to start competing more vigorously for available workers by offering higher pay.
In that latter vein, the 20 percent excise tax on multinational supply chains contained until recently in the House Republican tax plan could have made a big, positive difference. Sadly, it looks like it’s been watered down to the point of uselessness, and the original has little support in the Senate. The House Republican tax plan also had included a border adjustment tax that would have amounted to an across-the-board tariff on U.S. imports (and a comparable subsidy for American exports), but the provision was removed from the legislation partly due to (puzzling) Trump administration opposition.
Mr. Trump clearly has acted more forcefully to relieve immigration-related wage pressures on the U.S. workforce, but it’s unclear how quickly they’ll translate into faster growing pay. If such results don’t appear soon, and barring Trump trade breakthroughs, expect opponents of the Republican tax plan to keep insisting that it’s simply a budget-busting giveaway to the rich, and expect these attacks to keep resonating as the off-year 2018 elections approach.