Moneybox

One Year After Trump’s Tax Cuts, the Only Obvious Winners Are Investors

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, flanked by Republican lawmakers, speaks during a ceremony for the conference report to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, flanked by Republican lawmakers, speaks during a ceremony for the conference report to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

One year ago this week, Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the Republican Party’s single most significant domestic policy accomplishment under the Trump administration. The legislation slashed rates on corporations and individuals while rejiggering the country’s system of international taxation. The cost was initially estimated at almost $1.5 trillion over a decade, and the projected price tag has only increased to about $1.9 trillion since it was enacted.

All of this was done in the name of economic growth. The bill’s conservative backers argued that lowering corporate taxes would turbo-charge business investment, boosting the country’s GDP and eventually leading to higher wages for workers. Many, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, went so far as to claim the bill would spur enough growth to pay for itself. Critics said that was unlikely, and liberals predicted that companies would mostly just return their gains to shareholders in the form of buybacks and dividends.

Who was right? While we can only guess how the economy would have performed without the tax cut, the bill’s most obvious winners do in fact seem to be people with big stock portfolios. After-tax corporate profits and share buybacks have indeed leapt higher. And while there are some faint signs that the bill may have boosted investment and pay around the margins, you basically have to squint to see them. Meanwhile, tax collections appear to have suffered, contributing to the our widening deficit.

Corporate profits are up

The GOP’s bill chopped America’s corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. This was its centerpiece, its defining stroke. And predictably, American businesses are now paying less to the IRS. According to the Bureau of Economic analysis, corporate tax collections plummeted in 2018—year-over-year, they were down about 45 percent during the third quarter—while after-tax profits jolted higher.1

After-tax corporate profits
Jordan Weissmann/Slate

Stock buybacks are indeed booming

Companies have taken that windfall and promptly handed it to their shareholders. Stock buybacks jumped along with earnings at the start of 2018, and in the third quarter members of the S&P 500 set a new record by spending more than $200 billion hoovering up their own shares, up almost 58 percent from a year before. (Dividends also rose, but not out of line with their previous trend). And while some middle-class families have enjoyed a boost to their 401K accounts as a result, it’s worth keeping in mind that, among households, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans own 84 percent of all stock holdings.

Dividends and buybacks
Jordan Weissmann/Slate

Business investment isn’t doing anything fabulous

Business investment has risen too, but not as dramatically. So far this year, spending on private non-residential fixed investment—the category that includes things like office buildings, factory equipment, and computer software—seems to have risen along a similar trend as in 2017.

A chart showing business investment growing at a steady rate.

Looking at overall business investment is a little bit misleading, however, because so much of its fluctuations in recent years have been driven by the ups and downs of the oil industry. If you exclude the drilling business—such as in this graph from Evercore ISI—corporate investment did actually pop up a bit at the beginning of 2018, the way you might expect if the tax cuts were having an effect. The overall increase is worth about 0.2 percentage points of GDP.

A chart showing private nonresidential fixed investment.
Ernie Tedeschi/Evercore ISI

Even if all of that growth were due to the tax cut, it would not be nearly enough to make good on conservative promises that the tax cut would pay for itself. (As University of California–Berkeley economist Brad DeLong notes, business investment would have needed to increase by almost 4 percentage points of GDP for that to come true). And in fact, total federal revenue collections have been falling.

Tax collections are falling

In October, the Treasury Department reported that tax revenues for fiscal 2018 were up by 0.4 percent, which some conservatives took to mean that economic growth had made up for lower rates. (Thanks to increased spending, the overall deficit ballooned 17 percent to $779 billion.) But that was not the case. The Treasury Department’s figures included the last three months of 2017—again, fiscal years start in October—when the new law had yet to take effect, and Americans filed their personal returns this past April under the old tax rules, which helped the government’s haul. For most of 2018, tax collections have actually been declining.

Tax collections
Jordan Weissmann/Slate

More broadly: In an expanding economy, you expect tax collections to rise. The fact that they have remained basically flat overall—and far below projections from before the tax bill was passed—tells us that the cuts haven’t generated enough growth to cover their price tag.

Workers haven’t gotten much of a pay increase

Another big selling point of the tax bill was that it would increase wages. The White House Council of Economic Advisors suggested that average incomes could rise anywhere from $4,000 to more than $12,000. The rationale was that, as companies invested more in their operations, workers would become more productive, and be able to command higher pay.

There was no actual reason to expect that employees would suddenly see their hourly pay shoot up overnight (that said, if investment growth doesn’t pick up, there won’t be much reason to expect pay to shoot up in the future, either). And indeed, wages and salaries haven’t seen any kind of remarkable shift in growth.

The place where you might expect to see short-term changes in pay is in bonuses; after all, if companies are raking in profits, they might be willing to spread the wealth around to their employees. And, as you might recall, after the tax cut passed a number of U.S. companies announced they’d be handing out celebratory bonuses.

Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on news reports to figure out what’s happened to bonus pay in this country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics actually tracks it as part of their Employment Cost Index. It turns out that, year-over-year, private-industry bonus pay increased by 11.6 percent during the third quarter.

Bonus Pay
Jordan Weissmann/Slate

Try to hold your excitement, though. That increase amounts to about 10 cents per hour, or less than 0.2 percent of total compensation.

Of course, many workers have benefited from the tax cut simply because they’ve seen their taxes go down. The problem is that, for typical families, the change in their weekly withholding has been fairly small—less than $50 every two weeks—which helps explain why most Americans say they haven’t noticed their taxes drop.

Even conservatives say we can’t see its upside

It’s possible, of course, that the tax bill’s benefits have simply been muffled by other changes in the economy. The Federal Reserve has been increasing interest rates, and Donald Trump has plunged the U.S. into a series of trade spats, both of which could be putting a damper on business investment. The legislation’s supporters have also argued that many of its benefits, like higher wages, would only emerge over the long term, which means we would just need to be patient. The conservative Tax Foundation, which predicted the legislation would give a significant lift to growth, recently said that we shouldn’t expect to spot its positive effects yet. “It is always difficult to spot the impact of policy changes in economic data,” they noted. “Economic data is noisy.”

It’s almost never a good sign when the most committed supporters of a policy suggest that its benefits may be invisible to the naked eye.

The tax bill as acting as a stimulus—for now

The notion that the tax bill would increase long-term economic growth, and plump wages, by encouraging more business investment may not quite pan out the way Republicans promised. In the short term, though, their legislation has almost certainly helped the economy by acting as a basic stimulus. Along with Congress’ big budget deal last year, slashing rates on corporations and households has left people with more cash to spend, and growth has gone on a nice run as a result.

Growth due to tax cuts and spending
Evercore ISI

The only problem? Most mainstream forecasts, like this one from Evercore ISI, seem to think the extra adrenaline will run out in 2020, right as Trump is campaigning for re-election. Politically, at least, even the president may not turn out to be much of a winner from his tax cut.

1 A note to readers who like to get in the weeds on this stuff: The BEA’s data on corporate profits and tax payments unfortunately include both C-corps, which are subject to the corporate rate, and passthrough S-corps, which are not. This is a constant source of frustration to economists and econ writers, and unfortunately means that the bureau’s data won’t match up exactly with the Treasury Department. Nonetheless, during FY 2018—which stretched from October 2017 through September 2018—corporate income tax receipts fell 31 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.