Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Protectionist Fallacies and Promises

October 11, 2018

Repetez moi: “tariffs are stupid.” Our President, who should know better, said the U.S. has collected billions of dollars from China as a result of the tariffs placed on imported goods. Well no, not exactly, actually not even close. Those billions of dollars have been collected from U.S. companies and manufacturers importing products and materials (like aluminum and steel, electronics, etc.) for use in the products and services that they sell. Tariffs have already cost Ford Motor Co. $1 billion in profit. U.S. consumers are also paying, until recently only on a few products (the CPI for laundry equipment was falling for about 10 years but is up 13% over the past year) but who will soon see prices on more products affected, as tariffs are placed on more products. Auto workers who were promised protectionist policies would spur manufacturing job growth must be disappointed as growth has fallen since 2017 and has been negative since mid-2017. Obviously, there are other influences on emp. growth in autos but protectionism isn’t helping. NAFTA version 2 (which looks a lot like NAFTA version 1) is hailed as the next savior for employment. Why not, those protectionist promises have worked-out so well thus far.

auto manuf emp

Is NH’s Labor Deficit Turning?

September 19, 2018

Aside from the ups and downs of business cycles, the growth rate of New Hampshire’s (and the nation’s) labor force and labor force participation rate has been on a consistent, downward trend. The rising percentage of NH’s population in age groups with traditionally lower rates of labor force participation along with slower overall population growth are key contributors. The two trends go a long way toward explaining why economic growth has been slower over much of the past two decades than during earlier time periods. As I noted in earlier posts, with NH’s extremely low birth rates, net in-migration to the state is critical for population, labor force, and ultimately employment growth. Net state-to-state in-migration to NH is resuming in age groups with higher labor force participation and one consequence is a recent increase in the working-age population, as well as labor force participation in the state (chart), enabling stronger job growth in NH. It is early but the trend is very encouraging.

Particption and Population

“How Did You Go Bankrupt?”

August 13, 2018

How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”   Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

This is the literary version of a concern issued many times by the noted economist Rudiger Dornbusch, who liked to say: “The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought.”

Last Friday’s release of the U.S. “Monthly Treasury Report” shows a continuation of the twin trends of declining revenue and increasing expenditures.

corp taxes and deficit

This is the sort of fiscal stimulus that so many lawmakers argued against as the economy was being pummeled during the “great recession.”  Why is this pro-cyclical rather than counter-cyclical policy now a good idea for those same lawmakers?  Historically the U.S. fills its coffers during good times so we are better able to deal with bad times.  Rising deficits in a strong economy should be more upsetting than the latest presidential tweet. What makes the current situation so unusual and more worrying is the low short-term interest rates and the high (and rising) level of federal debt.  As interest rates rise the high levels of federal government, corporate and household debt will reveal the folly of credit-inflated growth.

July 2018 Deficit

Price Pressures are Building in the U.S. Economy

August 10, 2018

There is disagreement among economists over how big a threat is rising inflation. A tame consumer price index and modest U.S. wage growth have many economists arguing against further interest rate increases in 2018. But there are signs that higher prices are working their way into the economy. The most obvious example is in goods that are affected by the trade war (skirmish?) between the U.S. and just about every other nation on earth.  Steel, aluminum, lumber, and washing machines are examples that have increased the price of building materials for new homes, laundry equipment, beverages in cans, and some other consumer goods. Even if the self-inflicted harm of a trade war disappears, however, consumers are likely to begin feeling price hikes. So much of what consumers purchase is transported via truck that recent increases in transportation costs (see graphic), unless abated, will soon affect consumer prices.

Truck Transportation Prices

We see this with gasoline price spikes and their resulting impact on grocery prices. Today, strong demand and worker shortages in the trucking industry are dramatically raising the cost of truck transportation services that will eventually work their way into consumer prices.

More Workers are Quitting Their Jobs and Getting Better Pay

August 7, 2018

U.S. job growth remains strong while real wage growth remains tepid despite a 3.9 percent unemployment rate nationally, but things may be changing. It is unlikely that companies can hold the line on wages – and depress real wage growth – when low unemployment encourages workers to quit their jobs in search of a higher salary. The rate at which workers are voluntarily leaving their jobs (the “quit rate”) is as high as it has been in 17 years (see graphic) as measured by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics  “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey” (JOLTS).Quit Rate

This indicates a strong labor market where workers are confident that if they leave their job they can easily find another. The prospect for higher wages is a big reason. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s wage measure for job switchers — people who leave one employer for another — reached 4.4% in March and is at 3.9% in June, well above wage growth for workers overall. It is a good environment for workers facing stagnating real wage growth to start looking for better pay, forcing firms to boost compensation to attract and retain employees. Although this is good for consumer spending, corporate profit margins may get pinched unless employers can cut costs elsewhere.

Where is the Surge in Corporate Tax Revenue?

July 31, 2018

Conservative orthodoxy says that tax cuts always pay for themselves. Unfortunately, there is little empirical evidence to support that. Other than ideologues, few economists believe that recent U.S. tax cuts will pay for themselves. Solid, empirical research suggests that perhaps 35%-40% of the revenue lost from rate cuts could be offset by growth effects. Again, as I have said in prior posts, the best that can be said is that corporate tax cuts lose less money over time.

Change in Corp taxes since tax cut

There are good reasons for cutting taxes and the U.S. corporate rate needed to be cut. But the case for setting tax rates at their lowest possible levels to maximize economic growth, while not increasing public debt, and still providing needed tax funded services is weakened, I believe, when ideologues argue that tax cuts always increase revenues or pay for themselves. Ideologues argued that the recent federal corporate rate cut would pay for itself and incentives to “repatriate” overseas profits would offset the rate drop. Six months into the rate cut corporate tax revenues are down 20% to 30% depending on the metric used, with no signs of improving, and with the U.S. deficit hurtling toward $1 trillion faster than expected.

The Fed’s Revenue Loss is NH’s Revenue Gain

May 24, 2018

Federal corporate tax revenues have been on a downward trend since 2016.  That is unusual in a recovering and growing economy.  The recently enacted corporate tax rate cut from 35 to 21 percent has accelerated the downward revenue trend, a result expected by everyone with a thought process more guided by empirical evidence than  ideological orthodoxy.  The figure below shows how much more sharply corporate tax revenue has been declining since the recent cut in the U.S. corporate tax rate.  Each point on the graph’s line shows the sum of the prior 12 months of U.S. corporate tax collections. Thus, the large recent drop in the 12 month sum of corporate tax collections (as of April 2018) includes only a few months of the new lower rate, yet it still shows a precipitous decline in annualized revenue.

Fed corp tax revenue

I would like to have seen more real “reform” along with a more gradual corporate rate cut (along with some spending reforms to limit impacts on federal deficits) but the U.S. and New Hampshire business tax rates were too high and needed to be cut.    Still, no one who has even a cursory knowledge of the research and evidence on corporate tax cuts expected that such a large rate cut from 35% to 21%  would actually increase corporate tax collections. The best that can be said about the impacts of a large corporate tax cut is that it will lose less revenue over time. That doesn’t mean that a tax cut will always result in an absolute decline in revenues, although that has clearly been the case with the recent U.S. tax cut.  Revenue can still increase with a small rate cut even though revenues may be lower than they would have been had rates not been cut .  That is the case with New Hampshire’s very modest, recent cuts in business tax rates.  Business tax revenues (for the most part) continued to increase in NH but at a slower rate of growth  after the cuts where enacted.

New Hampshire is expected to have a more than $100 million budget surplus by the end of fiscal year 2018.   New Hampshire risks drawing two inaccurate conclusions from this  surplus and the recent sharp increase in business tax collections that is largely responsible for it.   First, that the small drop in 2017 in the state’s business profits tax (BPT) rate from 8.5% to 8.2%, and business enterprise tax (BET) from 0.75% to 0.72%, is responsible for the recent large increase in NH business tax revenues and subsequent state surplus.  Second, that a larger rate cut would produce even more business tax revenue and perhaps an even larger budget surplus.   Again, the rate cuts were needed but NH should understand that the rate cuts have not, and will not in the future, lead to a surge in business tax revenue.  If NH’s business tax cuts had actually produced more revenue (than if rates had not been cut) the growth rate of business tax revenue would have increased following the rate cuts.  In fact, the growth rate in business tax collections declined after NH’s rate cut took effect for tax periods beginning after December of 2016. That is until the federal government lowered its corporate tax rate.  Again, it’s not that business tax collections actually declined, the U.S. and NH economy were strong and profits were increasing,  it’s just that NH, by marginally lowering tax rates, decided to capture a little less of those profits and thus the growth rate of business tax revenue declined.

NH Business and other source Revenue Growth

The figure above shows that the annualized growth rate in NH’s business tax revenues declined throughout much of 2017 (although the final months showed some modest reversal of the trend). Annualized revenue growth jumped dramatically, however, in the first four quarter of 2018, after the cut in the federal corporate tax rate.  The chart also shows that the growth rate of NH’s seven largest sources of general revenue – other than the BPT and BET – that are dependent upon economic conditions and economic activity in the state (meals and rentals, liquor commission revenues, tobacco, real estate transfer, communications services, interest and dividends, and insurance taxes) are growing much more modestly, below the trend from recent years, and certainly not enough to produce a $100 million plus budget surplus.

Clearly business tax collections are responsible for NH’s large budget surplus, but it  is not accurate to say that the increase in business tax collections reflects a “booming NH economy” as many in the state argue.   NH’s economy is strong but not exactly “booming” (1.3% year-over-year job growth ranking 21st nationally, and 1.9% GSP growth ranking 26th) and not nearly strong enough to produce the kind of business tax revenue growth that the state has seen in recent months.  Excuse this brief sidetrack (it is a pet peeve) but don’t assess growth in NH’s (or any state’s) economy  on the basis of a state’s unemployment rate.  Hawaii, at 2.1%, currently has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation followed by NH and North Dakota tied at 2.6% – but here is the thing, over the past year the North Dakota economy has lost 1.3% of jobs (the worst growth rate in the nation), while NH added 1.3% more jobs (21st among all states).

State Unemp. and Job Growth

The same is true when state unemployment rates and the annual growth in state gross state product (the broadest measure of economic growth) are plotted (chart below).  In 2017 NH tied with Michigan for 25th among states for growth in gross state product (at 1.9%),  despite NH having a 2.6% unemployment rate while Michigan’s rate is 4.7%.  The scatter plots above and below urge caution in using unemployment rates to gauge economic growth in a state,  especially now that slow labor force growth is contributing to low unemployment rates and acting as a binding constraint on economic growth in many states.

State GSP Growth and Unemp

Growth in NH’s business tax revenue has historically tracked private sector employment growth in the state.  To show just how unusual the recent growth in NH’s business tax revenue is in relation to job growth in the state look at the following chart which shows how far, by historical measures, the recent growth in revenues has outpaced NH’s private sector employment growth.

Nh Business Taxes and Emp. Growth

Private sector job growth has picked up in recent months (defying reported growth in the size of NH’s labor force –  and suggesting to me that NH may be (re)capturing some of the state’s labor that has been working outside of NH – but more about that in a future post).  However, growth in business tax revenue has far exceeded that which historically accompanied similar rates of job growth.  Changes to federal corporate tax laws are a primary reason for the out-sized boost in NH’s business tax revenues, so whatever you think of the recent federal tax reform you can thank the feds for their role in creating NH’s current budget surplus.  The NH Department of Revenue provided lawmakers with a briefing on what tax reform could mean to NH’s revenues but they were rightly cautious in making a dollar forecast of impacts.  But a summary of their analysis of impacts suggests that more of the provisions of federal tax law will increase rather than decrease NH revenues.

The impact on NH revenues of federal corporate tax collections is also apparent when comparing annualized growth in federal corporate and NH business tax revenue in recent years.  The chart below shows how dramatically different are the most recent trends in business tax revenue growth at the federal and NH state level.  In addition,  surprisingly (to me at least), this inverse relationship seems to occur over the longer-term as slower growth in federal corporate tax collections since the recession are associated with higher growth in NH state business tax collections (and vice versa), despite the fact that economic growth in NH lagged U.S. growth during much of the recovery from recession.

Federal and NH Business Tax Growth

I have argued in prior posts that lawmakers should be cautious in budgeting because revenue growth in NH, although growing, was growing  more slowly.  I did not foresee a $100 million budget surplus but who did, and who knew what the impact of federal tax reform would be.  No public hearings or discussion of the federal tax reform proposal were held and in any case nobody was certain whether changes in corporate tax laws would pass.  Growth trends in most of NH’s key sources of state revenue have been modest even as federal tax reform quickly and dramatically altered NH’s business tax revenue trends, greatly improving the state’s fiscal position in the process.   I believe that fundamental underlying revenue trends still argue for caution in state budgeting, but when the federal government’s actions contribute to a state surplus NH is happy to say “yes please and thank you.” Lawmakers would be wise , however, not to assume that cuts in the state’s business taxes are responsible for the growth in state tax revenues or that larger cuts will add to the surplus.


%d bloggers like this: