Tag Archives: Jason Fichtner

Paving over pension liabilities, again

Public sector pensions are subject to a variety of accounting and actuarial manipulations. A lot of the reason for the lack of funding discipline, I’ve argued, is in part due to the mal-incentives in the public sector to fully fund employee pensions. Discount rate assumptions, asset smoothing, and altering amortization schedules are three of the most common kinds of maneuvers used to make pension payments easier on the sponsor. Short-sighted politicians don’t always want to pay the full bill when they can use revenues for other things. The problem with these tactics is they can also lead to underfunding, basically kicking the can down the road.

Private sector plans are not immune to government-sanctioned accounting subterfuges. Last week’s Wall Street Journal reported on just one such technique.

President Obama recently signed a $10.8 billion transportation bill that also included a provision to allow companies to continue “pension smoothing” for 10 more months. The result is to lower the companies’ contribution to employee pension plans. It’s also a federal revenue device. Since pension payments are tax-deductible these companies will have slightly higher tax bills this year. Those taxes go to help fund federal transportation per the recently signed legislation.

A little bit less is put into private-sector pension plans and a little bit more is put into the government’s coffers.

The WSJ notes that the top 100 private pension plans could see their $44 billion required pension contribution reduced by 30 percent, adding an estimated $2.3 billion deficit to private pension plans. It’s poor discipline considering the variable condition of a lot of private plans which are backed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

My colleague Jason Fichtner and I drew attention to these subtle accounting dodges triggered by last year’s transportation bill. In “Paving over Pension Liabilities,” we call out discount rate manipulation used by corporations and encouraged by Congress that basically has the same effect: redirecting a portion of the companies’ reduced pension payments to the federal government in order to finance transportation spending. The small reduction in corporate plans’ discount rate translates into an extra $8.8 billion for the federal government over 10 years.

The AFL-CIO isn’t worried about these gimmicks. They argue that pension smoothing makes life easier for the sponsor, and thus makes offering a defined benefit plan, “less daunting.” But such, “politically-opportunistic accounting,” (a term defined by economist Odd Stalebrink) is basically a means of covering up reality, like only paying a portion of your credit card bill or mortgage. Do it long enough and you’ll eventually forget how much those shopping sprees and your house actually cost.

Eileen Norcross on News Channel 8 Capital Insider discussing Virginia and the fiscal cliff

Last week I appeared on NewsChannel 8’s Capital Insider to discuss how the fiscal cliff affects Virginia. There are several potential effects depending on what the final package looks like. Let’s assume the deductions for the Child Care Tax Credit, EITC, and capital depreciation go away. This means, according to The Pew Center, where the state’s tax code is linked to the federal (like Virginia) tax revenues will increase. That’s because removing income tax deductions increases Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) on the individual’s income tax filing (or on the corporation’s filing) thus the income on which the government may levy tax increases. According to fellow Mercatus scholar, Jason Fichtner, that could amount to millions of dollars for a state.

On the federal budget side of the equation,the $109 billion in potential reductions is now equally shared between defense and non-defense spending. Of concern is the extent to which the region’s economy is dependent on this for employment. Nearly 20 percent of the region’s economy is linked to federal spending. Two points: The cuts are reductions in the rate of growth in spending. For defense spending, they are relatively small cuts representing a return to 2007 spending levels as Veronique points out. So, these reductions not likely to bring about the major shakeup in the regional economy that some fear. Secondly, the fact that these cuts are causing worry is well-taken. It highlights the importance of diversification in an economy.

Where revenues, or GDP, or employment in a region is too closely tied to one industry, a very large and sudden change in that industry can spell trouble. An analogy: New Jersey’s and New York’s dependence on financial industry revenues via their income tax structure led to a revenue shock when the market crashed in 2008, as the New York Fed notes.

On transportation spending there are some good proposals on the table in the legislature and the executive. Some involve raising the gas tax (which hasn’t been increased since 1986), and others involve tolls. The best way to raise transportation revenues is via taxes or fees that are linked to those using the roads. Now is no time to start punching more holes in the tax code to give breaks to favored industries (even if they are making Academy-award quality films) or to encourage particular activities.

Virginia’s in a good starting position to handle what may be in store for the US over the coming years. Virginia has a relatively flat tax structure with low rates. It has a good regulatory environment. This is one reason why people and businesses have located here.

Keep the tax and regulatory rules fair and non-discriminatory and let the entrepreneurs discover the opportunities. Don’t develop an appetite for debt financing. A tax system  is meant to collect revenues and not engineer individual or corporate behavior. Today, Virginia beats all of its neighbors in terms of economic freedom by a long shot. The goal for Virginia policymakers: keep it this way.

Here’s the clip

Tax breaks in the eye of the beholder

A good article from The New York Times exploring the definition and politics of tax breaks. While lawmakers may often favor elimination of tax breaks, in general, they tend to protect the ones they helped create. As my Mercatus colleague Jason Fichtner notes,”These special interests are getting carve-outs from Congress, and both sides – Republicans and Democrats – are guilty of picking their favorite interests to support.”

There are tax breaks for Eskimo whaling captains, NASCAR racetrack operators and the makers of wooden toy arrows according to the article. All told federal tax breaks amount to $123 billion a year. Senator Tom Coburn is interested in tackling this mess of loopholes. His report on how to balance the budget with $9 trillion in savings “Back in Black” details the range and cost of tax breaks currently provided to any number of activities and individuals (starting on page 558).

Breaks include federal programs like the Empowerment Zone/Renewal Community, operated by HUD to spur economic development. The literature on offering tax breaks to businesses to locate in a particular geographic area is at best mixed with one major obstacle: it’s difficult to determine whether the tax credit or some other set of factors is responsible for an observed outcome. For more, here’s an analysis of the GO Zone, a tax incentive program created post-Katrina for the Gulf Coast.

Would a Permanent Extension of Tax Rates Really Create Certainty?

In the late 1990s, there were typically fewer than a dozen tax provisions that had just a limited lease on life and needed to be renewed every year or so.

Today there are 141.

That is from today’s Wall Street Journal. If speculation is accurate, today’s Congressional vote will only exacerbate this trend. By my count, it creates temporary provisions for:

  • All income tax rates
  • Capital gains tax rates
  • Dividend tax rates
  • The Social Security payroll tax rate
  • The estate tax rate
  • Student loan tax credits
  • Per-child tax credits
  • The Earned Income Tax Credit
  • The tax credit for blending ethanol into gasoline
  • The $1.00 per gallon biodiesel tax credit
  • A tax credit to incentivize alternative fuel
  • A tax credit for maintaining railroad tracks (really?)
  • Expensing of business investments
  • And others (the WSJ refers to “dozens of corporate-tax provisions that already were subject to annual renewal”; some of these may or may not be in my list above). 

As my colleague, Jason Fichtner and his coauthor, Katelyn Christ, have recently written, uncertainty and tax policy are a fatal policy mix.

Previous research suggests that policy uncertainty can be very harmful to economic growth.

But all of this talk about temporary tax provisions obscures an important fact: Even if the Congress were to make current tax provisions permanent, there would still be an enormous amount of uncertainty in current tax policy. This is because, over the long run, government expenditures are on an unsustainable path and by the simple arithmetic of budgeting, taxes will eventually have to go (way) up or spending will have to go down.

If policy makers truly want to generate certainty and create an environment conducive for economic growth, they will need to reform the tax code, make the reforms permanent, and bring spending in line with taxes.