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How the tax bill made the next recession much more painful

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The tax bill fiscal impact will leave little room for maneuvering around the next recession.

If the stock market rally was a party, someone would be wondering if the punch bowl should be taken away. The tax bill, instead, has refilled the bowl to the brim. Party fun goes on, and the coming hangover has just gotten worse.

Shortly after the bill passed, Walmart, AT&T, Comcast and many other companies announced $1,000 bonuses to hundreds of thousands of employees. And this is peanuts compared to the large and permanent reduction in the corporate tax rate corporations get. The breaks extend to a mountain of profits accumulated abroad and a variety of loopholes that may lower taxes even further when they bring them back.

Corporate America was already flush with cash. The extra pile courtesy of the tax bill will spur some marginal increase in business investment and wages (as the $1,000 bonuses show), but the historical relationship between taxes and economic activity suggests that this effect is bound to be small.

Far more importantly, the extra money will accelerate stock buybacks. Data by the US Federal Reserve shows that corporate repurchases of stock have been a major source of demand for equities and arguably the most important factor in pushing stocks higher in recent years. Because it operated under the radar of individual investors, general belief in the soundness of the bull market never caught on. But now the tax cut is in place, and people are increasingly aware that offshore money will mostly go to dividends and repurchases. This is bringing a lot of investors in, pushing stocks even higher.

The tax cut, therefore, not only will have some marginal effect on economic activity, but also a hugely positive impact on the demand and supply of stocks. This makes it without a doubt a positive for the stock market. So what is not to like?

In our view, the tax cut comes exactly at the wrong time.

Back in the aftermath of the financial crisis the world desperately needed a fiscal shot in the arm – lower taxes, higher spending, or both. But politicians in the US and Europe, claiming concern by high levels of debt, declared that austerity was the only acceptable way to fight the crisis and denied the world of this medicine.

This was an enormous policy error. Without any fiscal help, central bankers were forced to engineer a global recovery through aggressive monetary loosening, at the cost of severe distortions such as zero (or negative) interest rates, massive asset inflation, and a huge accumulation of private debt.

But monetary authorities accomplished their goal. The world is firmly in growth territory, the US is at full employment, and inflation has stayed low. Not only we came out in pretty good shape, but conditions are now ideal for dealing with those distortions created by “unconventional” policies. 

The tax bill, however, injects a sharp fiscal stimulus that not only is unnecessary at this time but also creates the opposite problem. If the economy speeds up too much or inflation starts rising, central bankers could be forced to raise rates too quickly to keep things under control. This is dangerous in a world with high indebtedness. And once again, fiscal and monetary policies will be at odds.

Even if inflation stays low and the economy does not overheat, the tax cut is bound to increase levels of public debt by at least $1TN over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the Joint Committee on Taxation, and the Tax Policy Center. This will leave even less room for deploying fiscal tools (i.e. higher spending and/or even lower taxes) to fight the next recession when it comes.

This is a serious issue. While things look good right now, the business cycle is not dead. The current expansion has been running for 104 months straight, and we are well positioned to break the 120-month all-time record. When the streak ends, the size of outstanding public and private debt are very likely to be much larger than in 2008.

And it is a good bet that, unless the world’s political landscape changes radically, politicians will again be horrified by levels of debt and refuse to stimulate the economy through fiscal means, just as they refused during the last crisis. Monetary authorities will have no choice but loosening policy way too much, and the cycle will start all over again from a more extreme point of indebtedness.

Thus the tax bill has quite certainly, and unnecessarily, made future downturns far more painful than they needed to be. But when people party they don’t think about hangovers, especially when everybody was served another round. Higher stock prices in the short term are likely. What may happen later will not be as fun.

What now?

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