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Archive for February, 2012

Harvard Business School professor Mihir Desai believes American companies and investment firms have erred–horribly–by linking manager compensation so tightly to financial market performance. In the current Harvard Business Review, he identifies this as a giant FIB, a Financial Incentive Bubble:

American capitalism has been transformed over the past three decades by the idea that financial markets are suited to measuring performance and structuring compensation. Stock-based pay for corporate executives and high-powered incentive contracts for investment managers have dramatically altered incentives on both sides of the capital market. Unfortunately, the idea of compensation based on financial markets is both remarkably alluring and deeply flawed: It seems to link pay more closely to performance, but it actually rewards luck and can incentivize dangerous risk-taking. This system has contributed significantly to the twin crises of modern American capitalism: governance failures that cast doubt on the stewardship abilities of U.S. managers and investors, and rising income inequality.

Mihir has nothing against well-functioning financial markets. He emphasizes that they “play a vital role in economic growth by ensuring the most efficient allocations of capital,” and he believes that capable managers and investors should be “richly rewarded” when their talents are truly evident.

The problem is that incentive compensation based on financial performance does a lousy job of distinguishing skill from luck. In finance-speak, managers and investors often get rewarded for taking on beta, when their pay really ought to be linked to alpha. In practice, luck gets rewarded with undeserved windfalls (that are by no means offset by negative windfalls for the unlucky). And that, he argues, results in an important “misallocation of financial, real, and human capital.”

Well worth a read.

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My latest column at the Christian Science Monitor discusses the many fiscal pressures that will come to a head at the end of the year. Here’s an excerpt:

Start with our tattered tax code, which now contains a six-pack of temporary tax cuts. The largest are the Bush-era cuts originally enacted in 2001 and 2003 that were scheduled to expire in 2010. Rather than decide their fate, President Obama and Congress extended them another two years.

That legislation also included additional tax cuts championed by Mr. Obama and an estate tax compromise, all of which expire – along with the original tax cuts – at the end of 2012.

Then there’s the dreaded alternative minimum tax. It expired Dec. 31, but Congress for years has passed an annual “patch” preventing the AMT from hitting more middle-class families. A hodgepodge of temporary tax breaks known, tellingly, as the “extenders,” also expired at the end of last year, but many lawmakers and beneficiaries want to bring them back. Various stimulus measures, including the payroll tax holiday and corporate investment incentives, are set to lapse soon, too.

If those six tax-cut packages expire, annual federal tax revenues would rise by about $1 trillion annually, the Congressional Budget Office projects [See correction below]. It’s hard to imagine that lawmakers will actually let that happen. As the CBO itself notes, such a sharp increase would weaken the economy at a time when it’s struggling to recover from the Great Recession.

On the spending side of the ledger, the most egregious example of can-kicking is the formula by which Medicare sets payments for doctors. That formula has called for dramatic cuts for years. But every time those cuts come near, Congress overrides them temporarily, and often “pays for” that by scheduling even bigger cuts in the future. That’s why doctors face a 27 percent cut in payment rates at the end of March and more in years ahead.

And then there are the roughly $1 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts, spread over nine years, that are scheduled to begin next January. Congress didn’t really intend those cuts to happen; instead, they were meant to pressure last year’s “super committee” to find real budget savings. That didn’t occur, and now Washington is rife with speculation that policymakers will flinch from letting the cuts go through, at least until the economy strengthens.


We will also hit the debt limit again late in 2012 or early in 2013. Add it all up, and there’s quite the fiscal showdown looming for later this year.

Correction: That sentence leaves the wrong impression. It makes it sound like the six tax items add up to $1 trillion in annual revenue, but that is not correct (ht Loren A.). My apologies for missing this during editing. Here’s the full explanation from the first draft of my column:

The expiration of those six packages of tax cuts, plus the arrival of some new taxes created in the health reform legislation, would boost tax revenues sharply in the next few years. The Congressional Budget Office projects that tax revenues will increase from $2.3 trillion in fiscal 2011 to $3.3 trillion in 2014 if all these scheduled changes occur. That trillion-dollar increase, a 44 percent gain, would far outstrip the expected 11 percent growth of the economy.

In short, the $1 trillion increase reflects the six tax items, new taxes from health reform, and the growing (we hope) economy. Sorry for the confusion.

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The tax code is like a garden. Without regular attention, it grows weeds that will soon overwhelm the plants and flowers. Unfortunately, no serious weeding has been done to the tax code since 1986. In the meantime, many new plants and flowers have been added without regard to the overall aesthetic of the garden. The result today is an overgrown mess. There is a desperate need to pull the weeds, cut away the brush, and rethink some of the plantings to restore order, beauty, and functionality to the garden.

So begins Bruce Bartlett’s The Benefit and the Burden, an excellent guide to the promise and peril of tax reform.

Beauty is too much to ask of any tax system, but order and functionality are fair aspirations. As Bruce documents, however, we fall far short. Our code is too complex, unfair, and economically harmful. And it doesn’t raise enough revenue to pay the government’s bills.

Bruce takes readers on a tour of many crucial issues in designing a coherent tax system. How should we measure income? Should capital gains count? How should the tax burden vary with income? Are all tax cuts and increases created equal? What can we learn from other nations? Should we tax income or consumption? How should we think about the inevitable politics of choosing winners and losers?

Bruce’s writing is clear, concise, and crisp. And he provides excellent suggestions for further reading for those who want to delve deeper (I found several items to add to my reading list).

Highly recommended for anyone wanting a pithy introduction to the challenges of designing a tax system we can be proud of.

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If you are a Godel, Escher, Bach kind of person, this short film is for you. Cristobal Vila presents Inspirations:

ht: Open Culture via @brainpicker

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The President’s new Framework for Business Tax Reform is two documents in one. The first diagnoses the many flaws in America’s business tax system, and the second offers a framework for fixing them.

Much of the resulting commentary has focused on the policy recommendations. But I’d like to give a shout out to the diagnosis. The White House and Treasury have done an outstanding job of documenting the problems in our business tax system.

As the Framework notes, our corporate tax system pairs a high statutory tax rate with numerous tax subsidies, loopholes, and tax planning opportunities. Our 39.2 percent corporate tax rate (including state and local taxes) is the second-highest in the developed world, and will take over the lead in April when Japan cuts its rate. But our tax breaks are more generous than the norm.

That leaves us with the worst possible system – one that maximizes the degree to which corporate managers have to worry about taxes when making business decisions but limits the revenue that the government actually collects. It’s a great system for tax lawyers, accountants, and creative financial engineers, and a lousy system for business leaders and ordinary Americans. Far better would be to fill in the Swiss cheese of the tax base and move to a lower statutory rate, just as the President proposes (albeit with much more clarity about the rate-cutting than the cheese-filling and with proposals that would make some of the holes bigger).

A related problem is that our corporate tax system plays favorites among different businesses and activities, often with no good reason. To illustrate, Treasury’s Office of Tax Analysis calculated the average tax rates faced by corporations in different industries. As you can see, the corporate tax really tilts the playing field:

I am at a loss to understand why the tax system should favor utilities, mining (which includes energy extraction), and leasing, while hitting services, construction, and wholesale and retail trade so hard. Why should the average retailer pay 31%, while the average utility pays only 14%?

These disparities are unfair and economically costly. Investors recognize these differences and allocate their capital accordingly. More capital flows to industries on the left side of the chart and less to those on the right. Far better would be a system in which investors deployed their capital based on economic fundamentals, not the distortions of the tax system.

The chart highlights one of the key battlegrounds in corporate tax reform. Leveling the playing field (while maintaining revenues) will require that some companies pay more so others can pay less. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced Wednesday that it “will be forced to vigorously oppose pay-fors that pit one industry against another.” But such pitting is exactly what will be necessary to enact comprehensive corporate tax reform.

P.S. The full names of the sector names I abbreviated in the chart are: Transportation and Warehousing; Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting; Finance and Holding Companies; and Wholesale and Retail Trade.

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Most modern markets operate on money. I sell my services as an economist, for example, and use the proceeds to buy Tazo Tea, vacation trips, and a surprising number of Apple products.

But that approach doesn’t transplant well (so to speak) to living human organs. Many people find the idea of markets in organs repugnant. As a result, money-based organ markets are generally outlawed.

As economists often point out, that moral stance comes with a major cost: many people who need a new kidney can’t find one. Humans have two kidneys, but can live healthy lives with just one. So there is the potential for gains from trade between those who need a kidney and those who have one to spare. The challenge is getting enough people to donate kidneys, when it isn’t possible to compensate them with money.

Some good samaritans do donate kidneys to strangers. But that’s very rare. Far more common are people who will donate a kidney to a relative or friend. But those offers often run into a harsh biological reality. Just because you want to give someone a kidney doesn’t mean it will be a biological match.

Enter the kidney exchange. Simple case: Alice may want to donate to Bob but not be a match. Chuck may want to donate to Daphne but not be a match. But if Alice is a match to Daphne, and Chuck is a match to Bob, then can make an exchange. Alice donates to Daphne, Chuck donates to Bob, and everyone is happy. The miracle of a good match in the kidney barter market.

The trick is finding those matches and extending them to larger groups. Today’s New York Times has a moving article that illustrates how far this idea has come. Kevin Sack recounts how the 60 people shown above were linked through a chain of 30 kidney transplants thanks to the efforts of Garet Hil and the National Kidney Registry. The first donor,Rick Ruzzamenti (upper left), is a good samaritan who felt inspired to give a kidney to a stranger. The other 29 donors all donated on behalf of a friend or relative.

What made the domino chain of 60 operations possible was the willingness of a Good Samaritan, Mr. Ruzzamenti, to give the initial kidney, expecting nothing in return. Its momentum was then fueled by a mix of selflessness and self-interest among donors who gave a kidney to a stranger after learning they could not donate to a loved one because of incompatible blood types or antibodies. Their loved ones, in turn, were offered compatible kidneys as part of the exchange.

Chain 124, as it was labeled by the nonprofit National Kidney Registry, required lockstep coordination over four months among 17 hospitals in 11 states. It was born of innovations in computer matching, surgical technique and organ shipping, as well as the determination of a Long Island businessman named Garet Hil, who was inspired by his own daughter’s illness to supercharge the notion of “paying it forward.”

Dr. Robert A. Montgomery, a pioneering transplant surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which was not involved in the chain, called it a “momentous feat” that demonstrated the potential for kidney exchanges to transform the field. “We are realizing the dream of extending the miracle of transplantation to thousands of additional patients each year,” he said.

The entire article is inspiring.

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The International Economy recently invited me to contribute to a forum on how best to fix America’s tax system. Here’s my piece; for eleven other views, check out the complete forum.

America’s tax system is a mess. It’s needlessly complicated, economically harmful, and often unfair. And it doesn’t raise enough money to pay our bills. That’s why almost everyone agrees that tax reform should be a top priority. Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Accountants, lawyers, and economists. Elected officials and ordinary citizens. All know our tax system is deeply flawed.

Unfortunately, they don’t agree on how to fix it. Some want revenue-neutral tax reform, while others want higher revenues to cut deficits and pay for rising entitlement spending. Some want to fix the income tax, while others want to tax consumption. Some want to cut tax rates across the board, while others would lift rates for high earners.

Public discourse, meanwhile, is hung up on the idea of attacking “loopholes” when the real action is in tax breaks that benefit millions of taxpayers. Tax reform isn’t just about corporate jets or carried interest. It’s about the mortgage interest deduction, the tax exemption for employer provided health insurance, and generous tax incentives for debt-financed corporate investment. Those policies have major flaws, but they are not loopholes. They reflect fundamental economic and social choices, and they benefit well-defined constituencies.

Tax reform will thus involve a prolonged political struggle, as reformers seek some compromise that can attract enough support to overcome the inevitable inertia against change. That won’t be easy, but given our sky-rocketing debt, weak recovery, and flawed tax system, it’s clearly worth the effort.

Even as they seek a reasonable compromise, reformers should continue to articulate their visions of an ideal tax system. Mine would reflect five principles. First, the government should raise enough money to pay its bills. That likely means higher revenues, relative to GDP, than we’ve had historically. Second, it’s better to tax bads rather than goods. That means greater reliance on energy and environmental taxes. Third, it’s better to tax consumption than income; policymakers should thus limit how much they tax saving and investment. Fourth, the tax burden should be shared equitably both across income levels and among people of similar means who make different choices (for example, renting versus owning a home).

Finally, the best tax systems have a broad base and low rates. Policymakers should thus emphasize cutting tax breaks rather than raising tax rates. Indeed, some rates, like the 35 percent rate on corporate profits, should come down.

To afford such cuts, policymakers should go after the dozens of deductions, credits, exclusions, and exemptions that complicate the code and narrow the tax base, often with little economic or social gain. Many of these provisions have been sold as tax cuts, but are really spending in disguise. They should get the same scrutiny that policymakers devote to traditional spending programs.

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President Obama’s latest budget endorses a “Buffett rule” – a new floor on taxes paid by folks with very high incomes. His rule would require that “those making over $1 million should pay no less than 30 percent of their income in taxes.”

The president didn’t offer many specifics about how the rule would actually work. Up on Capitol Hill, however, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Tammy Baldwin have  introduced legislation that would implement a 30% minimum tax. That legislation addresses key technical issues such as which taxes to include, what measure of income to use, and how to phase-in the tax so that there isn’t a giant spike when someone’s income rises from $999,999 to $1 million. For more information, including TPC’s estimates of the distributional impacts, please see this post by TPC’s Roberton Williams.

TPC”s Daniel Baneman has examined how the PFSA would affect marginal tax rates — i.e., the effective tax rate that would apply if a person earned an additional dollar. Here’s his chart comparing the PFSA to current policy (i.e., the taxes that would be in effect if all the expiring tax cuts get extended at the end of the year, except for the payroll tax holiday):

As you can see, the Buffett rule would have little effect on the tax rate on wages and salaries. The real action is in capital gains:

Effective marginal tax rates on capital gains would nearly double from 18 percent (under current policy) to 34 percent for taxpayers with incomes between $1 million and $2 million, and would climb to 29 percent for taxpayers with incomes over $2 million. That jump shouldn’t come as a surprise. As Warren Buffett has been telling us, high-income taxpayers who face low tax rates tend to have lots of capital gains, which are currently taxed far below the fair share tax rate of 30 percent. (If you’re wondering, taxpayers with incomes between $1 million and $2 million face a higher effective marginal rate than taxpayers with incomes over $2 million because the fair share tax phases in over that range.)

If investors ever expect that the Buffett rule will actually go into effect, expect them to realize lots of capital gains early. Update (I forgot to include the second half of that thought): After that, realizations will be significantly lower than they would be under current tax rules. That cuts into the potential revenue from the Buffett rule.

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Financial Answers Made Simple

For the past year, I have been advising a start-up, FedWise LLC, that is working to improve American’s financial literacy. (Full disclosure: I have a small interest in the company.)

FedWise’s vision is simple: to provide helpful, unbiased, reliable information to consumers about financial products and services like mortgages and credit cards.

The company recently launched its first two products.

One is a public website, FinFAQs, where visitors can get answers to specific questions. For example, “What are points?” or “What questions can creditors not legally ask me?“. If you are interested, please try it out. FinFAQs is still young, and the team welcomes feedback on the questions, answers, and interface.

The second, the FedWise Answer Engine, allows financial institutions to offer the Qs and As to consumers on their own websites while receiving sales leads and market intelligence. Several banks and credit unions have already signed up for subscriptions. Perhaps needless to say, FedWise is happy to talk to other institutions that might be interested in offering the service to their customers. For more info, click here.

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Over at the Tax Policy Center’s blog, TaxVox, my colleague Roberton Williams examines the pitfalls that afflict some efforts to measure a person’s tax rate:

Investment manager James Ross last week told New York Times columnist James Stewart that his combined federal, state, and local tax rate was 102 percent.  No doubt, Ross did pay a lot of tax to the feds and the two New Yorks, city and state. But did he really pay more than all of his income in tax?

No, he did not.

As Stewart made clear past the wildly misleading headline (“At 102%, His Tax Rate Takes the Cake”), Ross’s tax bills totaled 102 percent of his taxable income, a measure that omits all exclusions, exemptions, and deductions. Using that reduced measure of income inflates Ross’s effective tax rate far above the share of his total income he paid in taxes.

Deeper into his column, Stewart explains that Ross’s tax bill was just 20 percent of his adjusted gross income (AGI), a more inclusive measure that does not subtract out exemptions and deductions. Because he took advantage of many preferences, Ross’s taxable income was only a fifth of his AGI, resulting in that inflated 102 percent tax rate. But even AGI doesn’t include all income. Among other things, it leaves out tax-exempt interest on municipal bonds, contributions to retirement accounts, and the earnings of those accounts. Ross almost surely paid less than 20 percent of his total income in taxes

Stewart’s article demonstrates the common confusion about effective tax rates, or ETRs. There are many ETRs, depending on which taxes you count and against what income you measure them. Including more taxes drives up ETRs. Using a broader measure of income drives them down. And interpreting what a specific ETR means requires a clear understanding of both the tax and income measures used.

In short, you need to be careful with both the numerator and the denominator when measuring someone’s tax rate. And you need to be doubly careful when comparing tax rates across individuals or groups.

TPC released a short report today that illustrates that point for taxpayers of different income levels. Rachel Johnson, Joe Rosenberg, and Bob Williams show how including different taxes and using different income measures (AGI versus a broader measure of cash income) can have big effects on ETRs.

As Bob concludes his blog post:

The bottom line is you can use these numbers to tell many different stories, some more valid than others, depending on the taxes you include and the income measure you use. The broadest measure of income provides the most meaningful gauge of the relative impact of taxes on households. Narrower measures can yield absurd results—James Ross didn’t pay 102 percent of his income in taxes—and ignore important differences in households’ ability to pay.

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