The president’s FY 2014 Budget would limit tax benefits for workers with high-balance retirement saving accounts. Although critics call the plan a blow to workers’ retirement saving, I consider the plan a smart way to roll back the billions in tax breaks that go to investors who don’t need tax incentives to save for retirement. (As a recent senior economist with the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, my support for this provision might not come as a surprise, but note that I didn’t work on this proposal during my tenure at the White House.)
Under current law, annual defined-benefit distributions are limited to $205,000 per plan. The president’s proposal extends the limitation to defined-contribution accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs and recognizes that, unlike in the past, individuals may have multiple pensions. If the combined value of a worker’s retirement accounts exceeds the amount necessary to provide a $205,000 annuity, they can no longer receive tax benefits for retirement saving. As under current law, the maximum benefit level would be indexed to the cost-of-living and would be sensitive to interest rates, which determine the price of an annuity. This year, the cap would affect individuals with defined-contribution account balances exceeding about $3.4 million.
The absence of a cap on defined-contribution accounts allows some high-income workers to shield large amounts of saving from tax. A worker and his employer can contribute up to $51,000 each year to a workplace retirement account (a worker can contribute up to $17,500 on their own) and a worker without a retirement plan can generally contribute $5,500 annually to an IRA. Limits are higher for workers over age 50, and contributions can be made regardless of an account’s balance. The president’s plan would disallow new contributions if account balances exceed the limit, although balances could still grow tax-free.
One analysis estimated that the cap would apply to only one in a thousand current account holders aged 60 and older and would eventually affect just one in a hundred current workers later in their careers. While there are caveats with the analysis—the data are for 2011 and do not include defined-benefit pensions—the point remains that the proposal would affect few workers now or in the future. ( Continue… )
From the start of his 2008 campaign, President Obama has called for raising taxes on the rich. He got much but not all that he wanted in the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) earlier this year. Now his FY2014 budget takes another couple of bites at that apple.
The first repeats his proposal to cap at 28 percent the value of itemized deductions and specified exclusions, which would raise $530 billion over ten years. The president has pushed this idea in each of his five budgets, expanding it last year to include selected exclusions ranging from interest on municipal bonds to employer-paid health insurance premiums.
This year’s new wrinkle would extend the limitation to some taxpayers with income below Obama’s threshold for being rich—$250,000 for couples and $200,000 for singles. That will surely elicit howls from Obama’s critics on the left and the right, but it does recognize implicitly the budgetary need to raise taxes on more than just the top 2 percent of households.
Obama’s other bite on the rich is a Buffett Rule that would ensure that high-income households pay at least a minimum percentage of their income in taxes. Until now, the president has only spoken aspirationally about this idea. But his budget includes a concrete plan, dubbed the Fair Share Tax, or FST, that would collect $53 billion over ten years (and $99 billion if Congress doesn’t raise taxes on the rich with the 28 percent cap). ( Continue… )
Liberal Social Security advocates are furious. By shifting to a measure called the chained Consumer Price Index, the retirement system would boost benefits by a bit less each year than under the current formula, a gradual change whose bite would grow over time. These advocates are vowing to kill the idea dead. This is something of a conversation-stopper.
Here’s a better idea: Use this technical change as an opportunity to redesign the retirement program. Most Social Security experts, no matter their political persuasion, know this must be done. Why not do it now?
While there may be broad disagreement on the solutions, there is a fairly strong consensus on the nature of the problem. Social Security has done a remarkable job of reducing poverty among the elderly. But its design is badly outdated, better reflecting the nature of work and family structure in 1935 than in 2013. And it has insufficient resources to pay all promised future benefits. ( Continue… )
Small businesses occupy an iconic place in the public policy debate and benefit from a broad range of tax and spending subsidies. But the economic issues surrounding small businesses and innovation are complex and nuanced, and not well understood. We are learning, however, that if Congress wants to encourage risk-taking, it may be better off focusing on new firms, not small ones.
In an effort to better understand the nature of small businesses and the government subsidies that support them, my Brookings colleague Sam Brown and I have reviewed decades of research in a new paper for the Kauffman Foundation. What we’ve found suggests Congress should tread very carefully as it thinks about how the tax code drives decisions by entrepreneurs to start and expand companies.
Being small, in and of itself, does not confer a special advantage to businesses in job creation or innovation. Rather it is young firms, which by definition start as small businesses, that serve these critical roles. Policies that aim to stimulate young and innovative firms may be very different than those that subsidize small businesses.
Sometimes, the very tax policies and other public programs that are aimed at helping small businesses may discourage their growth. For instance, when pro-small business subsidies or policies are phased out as firm size expands, they may unintentionally discourage businesses from expanding because expansion will lead to loss of those subsidies. ( Continue… )
2013 is a tough year if you owe payroll tax, as most of us do. Not only did the 2010 payroll tax cut die at the end of 2012, but high-income workers now owe an extra 0.9 percent, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Economists worry about what the combined new taxes will mean for workers’ net pay, consumer spending, and an economy still trying to get its footing. Now the Tax Policy Center’s updated Payroll Tax Calculator shows just what the tax hit means for individual households.
The 2010 tax act cut the workers’ rate for the Social Security payroll tax from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent for 2011 and 2012. Congress allowed the reduced rate to expire as scheduled at the beginning of this year. The Tax Policy Center has estimated that the higher tax rate will take $115 billion out of workers’ pockets this year and cut consumer spending.
The ACA created a new “additional Medicare tax” that kicked in for the first time in January. Individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples earning more than $250,000 now pay a 0.9 percent tax on earnings above those thresholds. Few of us will pay the new tax, but it will nip at high earners’ wallets.
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Finally, the cap on earnings subject to the Social Security payroll tax increased from $110,100 to $113,700. ( Continue… )
House Republicans, former GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, and the chairs of President Obama’s 2010 fiscal commission, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, have all called for changing the way the U.S. taxes multinational corporations. The concept: Shift from a system where U.S. firms pay U.S. tax on their worldwide income to one where they’d pay U.S. tax only on what they earn at home—a structure known as a territorial system. A territorial system would accomplish this by removing the current tax that U.S. multinationals pay, net of foreign income tax credits, on dividends that their foreign affiliates repatriate to the U.S. parent company.
Backers of a territorial tax, including CEOs of many multinationals themselves, argue that the current worldwide system puts U.S. firms at a competitive disadvantage since they must pay the high U.S. tax rate on repatriated profits earned by their affiliates in low-tax countries, while multinationals based in territorial countries pay only the local tax rate on these profits. They also argue that since nearly all of the rest of the world uses a territorial system, it only makes sense for the U.S. to follow suit. The United Kingdom and Japan are the latest nations to eliminate their taxes on repatriated dividends.
These are compelling claims but for one problem: Existing territorial systems are in fact hybrids that include elements of a worldwide tax. And the current U.S. system is itself a mix of worldwide and territorial systems, in large part because it allows U.S. companies to defer tax on foreign income until they repatriate those earnings back to the U.S.
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Any new system in the U.S. would almost certainly be a hybrid as well. As a result, the benefits to U.S.-based multinationals would vary widely. Some firms would come out ahead, but others would not. ( Continue… )
A few years ago, it was fashionable to compare California, Illinois, or whatever U.S. state was struggling financially to the troubled island nation of Greece. Now, with Stockton, California the largest U.S. municipality to enter bankruptcy, it may be tempting to make another Mediterranean comparison – this time to the troubled island nation of Cyprus.
In Cyprus as well as Stockton (plus San Bernardino, California and Jefferson County, Alabama), the question is: Who will be left holding the bag? A common theme is “haircuts,” or possible losses for investors (bank depositors in Cyprus; bondholders in California) to spare wider pain to taxpayers, pensioners, public employees, and other local stakeholders.
One problem with haircuts is that they can impair future market access: the government in question may have to pay higher borrowing costs to regain investor confidence. A wider concern is contagion: If investors fear they won’t get their money back, they might demand higher interest rates from the sector as a whole. Moody’s Investors Service publicly worried about such contagion last summer, in a report critical of U.S. municipalities and what the organization viewed as changing norms toward bankruptcy.
But there are a few reasons to be skeptical about the contagion scenario applied to munis. First, although broad (worth about $3.7 trillion in 2012), the municipal bond market is not very deep. On the supply side, a few large issuers like California, New York, and Texas dominate. On the demand side, most investors are households or institutions representing households such as money market mutual funds. ( Continue… )
It is an article of faith at the White House and among some congressional Republicans that while individual tax reform may be off the table this year, corporate reform remains a reachable goal. Rewriting the corporate income tax, goes the theory, is easier because there is a consensus within the business community to lower rates and broaden the tax base.
A closer look suggests this may be more wishful thinking than smart analysis. That doesn’t mean reforming the corporate tax is a bad idea. It is not. It does mean that doing so may be harder than either President Obama or key Republicans want to admit—at least in public.
The Wall Street Journal’s John McKinnon wrote a nice piece on Friday on the divisive tax reform politics inside corporate America. John reported on how big business is dividing itself into opposing camps—preparing for what former senator and 1986 tax reformer Bill Bradley calls “total war” over reform.
Also on Friday, the Tax Policy Center and the American Tax Policy Institute held a program on the economics of corporate tax reform. There, two panels of tax economists described some of the effects of corporate reform. The participants included Bill Gentry of Williams College, Jim Hines of the University of Michigan, George Plesko of the University of Connecticut, Doug Shackelford of the University of North Carolina, and Eric Toder of the Tax Policy Center. The moderator was Victoria Perry of the International Monetary Fund. ( Continue… )
Finland’s government recently announced a broad fiscal reform package that cuts corporate tax rates—financed in part by higher taxes on corporate dividends. The plan makes sense for Finland and is worth considering here at home.
Finland will lower the corporate rate to 20 percent in 2014, down from the current rate of 24.5 percent (and 26.0 percent in 2011). The move follows rate cuts in competing European nations, including the UK and Sweden, and a planned rate cut in Denmark. Finland’s current corporate rate is at about the median in the OECD; dropping the rate to 20 percent will put Finland’s rate close to the bottom for European OECD countries.
Finland plans to pay for part of the rate cut by boosting the effective investor tax rate on dividends paid by companies listed on the Finnish stock exchange. (The reform is not a statutory rate hike, but rather a reduction in preferences for dividends.) Effective taxes will increase only on dividends, not on capital gains.
The swap makes sense. A lower corporate tax rate should help attract new business to Finland, which maintains an extremely open and competitive economy. As in other countries, a lower corporate rate will reduce distortions—such as the type and financing of business investment—that become more severe with higher rates. Moreover, the swap is likely progressive, and will help mitigate Finland’s rise in income inequality over the past decade. ( Continue… )
Housing industry lobbyists often make the case that, whatever you think of the mortgage interest deduction, now would be a terrible time to eliminate or restructure the subsidy. After all, they say, the housing market remains so shaky that ending the deduction would send home prices back into a tailspin.
However, there is a contrary case to be made: It may be that with both interest rates and prices so low, this could be the ideal time to redesign the tax subsidy for home ownership. Because monthly mortgage payments for many homeowners and buyers are lower than they have been for years, trimming or restructuring the MID might have less impact than we thought.
Last November, a panel of housing experts brought together by the Urban Institute concluded that “current housing conditions reveal several factors that would likely dampen the marketwide effects” of reforming the mortgage interest deduction.
According to a summary of the session, the roundtable participants concluded that “post-recession housing market conditions have disrupted the normal relationships between user costs, rents, and house prices.” In other words, the market is such a mess that it is no longer possible to predict what would happen if the MID were repealed today. ( Continue… )