Opinion: Were Trump’s $1.5 Trillion Tax Cuts Ultimately a Flop?
In December of 2017, President Donald Trump and the GOP-led Congress delivered the biggest overhaul to the U.S. tax code in three decades in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which was billed as a tremendous boost for the middle class, corporations, job growth, the economy and more.
The corporate tax rate was cut from 35 percent to 21 percent, and lawmakers said the massive break would boost business spending, creating a surge in hiring, raises and bonuses for employees, as well as investment back into the companies themselves on things like new equipment, etc.
“It’ll be fantastic for the middle-income people and for jobs, most of all … I think we could go to 4 percent, 5 percent or even 6 percent (GDP growth), ultimately,” Trump said at the time. “We are back. We are really going to start to rock.”
But a new Reuters report, citing a survey of more than 100 economists employed by major firms in corporate America done by the National Association of Business Economics, says the $1.5 trillion tax package “appeared to have no major impact on businesses’ capital investment hiring plans.”
One year later, the tax cuts did boost U.S. GDP but never to the levels Trump said — there was one quarter that GDP hit 4.2 percent — and the effects already are waning. In fact, no Republicans campaigned on the new tax law heading into November’s midterm elections because of the overall chilly reception it got from the general public.
“A large majority of respondents, 84 percent, indicate that one year after its passage, the corporate tax reform has not caused their firms to change hiring or investment plans,” said NABE President Kevin Swift.
Aside from an increase in spending in the goods producing sector, the survey also showed further slowdown in business spending after moderating sharply in the third quarter of 2018. Capital spending in January fell to its lowest level since 2017 and expectations for capital spending the next three months also has weakened.
“Fewer firms increased capital spending compared to the October survey responses, but the cutback appeared to be concentrated more in structures than in information and communication technology investments,” said Swift, who is also chief economist at the American Chemistry Council.
According to the survey, employment growth improved modestly in the fourth quarter of 2018 compared to the third quarter. Just over a third of respondents reported rising employment at their firms over the past three months, up from 31 percent in the October survey. The survey’s forward-looking measure of employment slipped to 25 in January from 29 in October.
So where is all of the money from the corporate tax cuts going? Well, stock buybacks, of course. Companies spent a record $1.1 trillion buying back their own stock in 2018, helping prop up the market as a whole.
Companies actually spent more on buybacks than on capital investments in 2018’s first half, and remember, capex weakened as the year went on. Buybacks shrink the number of shares, boosting earnings per share and eventually, the stock price. That helps all shareholders, of course, but especially corporate executives, more than half of whose total compensation is in stock.
So who was the big winner of Trump’s tax cuts? Corporations, according to Gold.
Well, corporate profits surged $78.2 billion in the third quarter, accelerating over the second quarter’s $65 billion gain. Earnings for the companies in the S&P 500 Index SPX, +0.83% probably topped $148 per share last year, about a 40% gain from the end of 2016. That’s exactly what the S&P 500 gained from just before the election to its October 2018 all-time high.
The numbers couldn’t be clearer: Corporations, big shareholders and top corporate executives reap the lion’s share of the gains from the 2017 tax cut.
Editor’s note: Were the tax cuts ultimately a flop for you personally? Did you see an increase in your take-home pay? Did you get a raise or bonus directly attributed to the tax cuts? Share your thoughts below.