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Examining the Economic Implications of the Payroll Tax Cut Extension


A temporary payroll tax cut now means a corresponding pay hike later, meaning the economy is scheduled to take a growth hit in the coming months.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 17.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
--The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

This coming week we shall likely see Congress pass an extension of the "temporary" payroll tax cut, first enacted as a stimulus to the economy in January of 2011. As I write, the extension is just for two months. We'll leave aside the politics and look at the economic implications of the extension, and then go on to examine the deficit in the US. That will give rise to some thoughts about Europe and what would have to happen for a country to leave the euro. We'll finally close with some thoughts and graphs about the more controversial part of the tax cut extension, the Keystone XL Pipeline. Just how radical is it to build such a pipeline in the US? And what are the implications for the deficit? I think looking at a few maps might surprise some readers. It should all make for a rather controversial letter, but then controversy is my middle name. (Note, this letter will print longer as there are lots of charts.)
But first, I want to thank one reader for helping to increase my reader base in a rather unusual way. I was sent this bit from a blog by Edward Ream today:
I came across John Mauldin,, when someone left a printout of his blog in a railway carriage. His 'Outside the Box' column is free to all.
I enjoy his column, and I think some of you may enjoy it too. I especially admire his thirst for knowledge and his tolerance of diverse viewpoints. He actively seeks disconfirming evidence and the views of those who disagree with him. Imo, this stance is a model for what politics should be, and isn't :-) – Edward
Thanks, Edward, and to whomever left the letter on the train. We take expansion of the number of our friends wherever we can find it. And let's see how he feels after this letter.
The Center Cannot Hold
The payroll tax, as a way to pay for Social Security, has been 12.4% since 1990, with half paid by workers and half paid by business. Late last year a temporary payroll tax cut of 2% was enacted. This saved an average family of four about $1,000 per year and affected 160 million taxpayers. It is not peanuts. It also "cost" about $120 billion in revenue (best estimates). This is about 0.8% of GDP. Remember that number.
Let's review the economic implications of tax policy. Depending on which academic study you want to use, tax increases or cuts have a "multiplier" effect of anywhere from 1 times (Harvard and Italy) to 3 times, the latter from Obama's former head of the council of Economic Advisors, Christina Romer, and her husband, both at the University of California Berkeley (not a hotbed of conservatism). Let's use 2 times as an average for our discussion, but you can adjust to suit your favorite academic study (you have read all those papers, haven't you?). Various studies show that spending cuts exert an effect for about 1 year before they are "absorbed" into the economy, and tax cuts take a little longer to have their full effect.
I think it likely that we will see that the US economy grew less than 2% in 2011, and probably closer to 1.5%. If there is a 2 times multiple on tax cuts, then the stimulus was worth anywhere from 1% to 1.6% of growth in 2011 (depending on your favorite academic paper), which is much of (and maybe most of) the growth we had in the US this last year.
As I write early Saturday morning, it looks like the payroll tax cut extension will only be for two months. This would mean that taxpayers may see a roughly $100 per month cut in take-home pay, starting in March. This means that the economy will take a growth hit starting in March. So why not extend it for a year? Or even two? Why not wait until the economy is stronger?
The problem is that the US fiscal deficit is about 8% of GDP. We already have a debt-to-GDP ratio of between 80% to 98%, depending on how you count intergovernmental debt and nonfederal debt. But let's use the lower number.
That means, if we do nothing about the deficit, in three years we are over 100%. We know (Rogoff and Reinhart and the BIS studies) that potential growth decreases above the level of 90% debt-to-GDP. We also know that as the debt grows, so does the cost of interest to pay the debt.
Let's run a thought experiment (for the purposes of simplification) on a country with a large debt of, say, 80% of debt-to-GDP and a deficit of 8%, with interest costs of about 2%. Revenues are 16% from taxes, and expenses are 24%.
First, that means that the debt carries an interest rate cost of about 1.6% of GDP, or around 10% of revenues. If the debt rises to 100% of GDP, then the interest costs will rise to about 2% of GDP, or about 12.5% of revenues. This will force spending cuts or tax increases if the deficit is not allowed to rise.
But wait. If we cut spending (also known in Europe as austerity), then we will see a negative tax multiplier of about 1.5% of GDP over that time period. That means it will be harder to grow our way out of the problem, especially if the economy is growing at less than 2% annually. Debt at the levels we are talking about makes it much harder to grow yourself out of debt.
Let's look at a paragraph from a very recent paper by the Boston Consulting Group entitled "What Next? Where Next?":
The inability to grow out of the problem is bad news for debtors. Look at Italy, for example: Italian government debt is 120 percent of GDP. The current interest rate for new issues of ten year bonds is 7%, up from 4.7% in April 2011. If Italy had to pay 6% on its outstanding debt , such a high rate would materially increase the primary surplus (That is, the current account surplus before interest expense) that Italy would need to run in order to stabilize its debt level.
If we assume that Italy's economy grows at a nominal rate of 2% per year, the government would need to run a primary surplus of 4.8% a year of GDP just to stabilize its debt levels; the latest forecast show only a 0.5% surplus for 2011. Any effort to increase the primary surplus through austerity and tax increases runs the risk of creating a downward spiral. When investors start doubting the ability of the debtor to serve its obligations, interest rates rise even further, leading to a vicious circle of austerity, lower growth and rising interest rates.
What if interest costs in our hypothetical country rose to 4%? That would mean that 25% of tax revenues (over time) would be consumed by interest. (Yes, I know, there is a lag effect. I am trying to keep it simple.) That means either further spending cuts or tax increases. Which leads to the vicious circle of austerity that the BCG writes about.
This is why Nouriel Roubini says that Italy is better off simply defaulting on its debt and reducing the overall debt by about 20%. The arithmetic says that Italy would be better off, as the hope of using spending cuts and tax increases (austerity) as their way out of the current problem is rather bleak.
And while we deal with the European problem in Endgame, we also note that the US risks becoming like Italy in a few short years.
Sounds extreme? Here's my reasoning. If you invest in developed-market sovereign debt, it is because you are seeking as close to risk-free returns as you can get. Who buys US debt looking for risk?
The bond market is going to watch the train wreck that is European sovereign debt, and the soon-to-be train wreck that is Japanese debt, and if the US does not show a clear path to a sustainable deficit by 2013, at which time our debt-to-GDP will be closing in on 100% (however you want to calculate it), and then I think the bond market will say, "We have seen how this movie ends in Europe and Japan. We are now watching the same movie in the US. If you don't mind, we'll leave at intermission."
Once rates start to rise, the options faced by the US are not good. Real spending cuts and tax increases in the midst of a crisis? Allowing the Fed (or essentially forcing it) to monetize the debt? There will be no good choices if we do not act.
Whenever the payroll tax cut extension goes away, it will mean an effective tax increase of the same magnitude of the tax cut. In our example, about a 1% to 1.6% hit to GDP. Think the economy is strong enough to handle that without going back perilously close to recession? As states and local governments are raising taxes by about 1% of GDP? As Europe implodes?
These are the headwinds I keep writing about. These tax cuts and increases make a difference in the short, 1-2 year term. Big time difference! Do you in effect hit the economy going into an election? But if not now, when? If we fail to get the deficit under control, we soon become Italy. Can we go another year? Sure. But the longer we wait, the fewer options we have. We are going to have to face the music at some point. Better to control it now!
The only way to do this is an economically rational way is wholesale restructuring of the tax code and restructuring of entitlements. We should consider replacing the payroll tax completely.
No room today to go into these solutions tonight (but we will later!) There are tax cuts and increases that have better multipliers. If you combine or substitute taxes that have bad multiples with those that have benefits, you can partially offset the effect of the spending cuts and tax increases.
There is a way. It will take a level of cooperation we have yet to see, or one party in total control of the process. And then it will take courage.
The US has no easy choices. Our choices now are merely very difficult. If we delay much longer, past 2013, our choices go to bad or very bad. Different in kind from those of Europe but not in difficulty or the quality of outcomes. We are edging closer to the Endgame.
We must combine the above with policies that create jobs. We must have growth as part of the solution. We can get through this in the US if we choose to. But the sense of urgency needs to get turned up.
Where Is My Return to the Mean?
Much of the Western world has been conditioned to a "return to the mean" paradigm for the past 60 years. Yes, there are recessions, but they are temporary lulls in a prevailing growth dynamic. The growth trend has been more or less inexorable. And we have become accustomed to it. Mainstream economic thought and forecasting are based upon the "past performance" that economic growth will resume. But lately that has not been the case. Economic growth after the credit crisis has been decidedly lackluster.
That return to the mean has gone missing of late. The reason is that we are coming to the end of the debt supercycle. Debt-fueled growth in the "developed" world is coming to an end as the cost of debt rises and the bond markets abandon one country after another, seemingly overnight. One minute debt is easy, the next it is hard to get.
Europe is coming to the make-or-break point rather rapidly. As noted last week, the recent summit did not solve the real problems. The distraction of the British veto served for a while to obscure the lack of any significant solutions. My friend Mohamed El-Erian, who is the CEO and co-chief investment officer of PIMCO, wrote rather alarmingly in this week's Foreign Policy about the choices facing Europe. Remember, this is one of the most thoughtful and influential investors in the world. He knows he is sitting on the world's largest pile of bonds. He is not given to rash analysis (as is so often the case with your humble analyst, who sits on next to nothing). The following is raising eyebrows all over the world (emphasis mine!):
It is critical for the welfare of billions around the world that Europe get its act together now. The continent faces an increasing probability of having to navigate a fourth potential morphing in the next few months. Should it materialize, this would take one of two forms:
… either a disorderly and highly disruptive fragmentation of the eurozone, or the establishment of a smaller and less imperfect eurozone that has a different relationship with the rest of the EU.
Both possibilities involve yet another set of immediate disruptions for Europe and the global economy. As such, the temptation among politicians will be to avoid making any active choices. But that would constitute a huge mistake. It would further reduce their future degrees of freedom due to an even narrower set of possibilities and, with that, erode their ability to influence outcomes.
As time passes, the option of a smaller and less imperfect eurozone is becoming the only way to 'refound' a union that would have the chance to stand the test of time and, thus, constitute a key component of medium-term efforts to restore global financial stability, meaningful economic growth, and plentiful jobs. It is not an absolute best, and it would be a messy process involving the risk of collateral damage and unintended consequences. Yet, when judged in terms of feasibility and desirability, it sure dominates the alternative of a full fragmentation.
The High Cost of Leaving
Let's think about what it means for a country to leave the euro (hat tip to Daniel Stetler of the Boston Consulting Group, from the paper I previously mentioned, augmented by a few of my own thoughts).
They would immediately have to impose capital controls. That means closing the border to prevent physical capital flight with piles of cash. And of course it means trade controls, or otherwise any company would rig the books to get as much cash out as possible. Extended bank holidays would be a necessity.
What would be the new official exchange rate? What would be the black market rate? Would euros be somehow marked as the new currency while they waited for the printing presses to spit out the new currency?
How would euro-denominated debt be handled? Not just country debt, which would be relatively easy, but business debt, much of which falls under UK law in Europe. What would it cost to recapitalize the banks? Who runs the stock market and in what currency?

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