Trump’s tax plan: the unanswered questions

The US president’s new tax plan lays out ambitious targets but is light on detail

Donald Trump’s tax plan, led by treasury secretary,  Steve Mnuchin, is designed to energise the US economy   Photograph: AP

Donald Trump’s tax plan, led by treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, is designed to energise the US economy Photograph: AP


Donald Trump on Wednesday sought to re-energise the prospects for tax cuts and demonstrate progress in his first 100 days of office as treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and other members of his team unveiled a broad set of goals and principles for tax reform.

But while the president’s plan laid out ambitious targets for cuts to personal and corporate tax, it left reams of policy questions unanswered. Among the biggest holes: how the tax cuts would be paid for. Outside estimates suggested the measures could reduce revenue by trillions of dollars over 10 years. 

Here are some of the key measures and unaddressed questions. 

Corporate tax changes

As Mr Trump promised during the election, the plan pledges to cut the rate of corporate tax to 15 per cent from 35 per cent now. It also ensured small businesses with different legal structures share the benefits of that low rate. However, there was no clarity on how this reduction would be funded or on the details of how so-called pass-through entities that comprise the majority of businesses would be handled. 

Whereas House speaker Paul Ryan has been advocating a 20 per cent corporate tax rate partially funded by an import tax that raises upwards of $1 trillion (€0.9 trillion), the White House has refused to embrace the latter plan. Mr Mnuchin has suggested higher growth will fund the corporate tax reduction, but this would not pass muster with Congressional budget watchdogs, whose views are procedurally important. 

Repatriation of profits

The White House promised a one-off tax levy on overseas earnings to encourage companies to bring them home. US companies have an estimated $1.2 trillion stranded in offshore cash piles, money they do not want to bring home because it would be taxed at 35 per cent under current law. 

Attempts to access this sum through other means have spurred numerous tax avoidance ruses, including the inversion deals US businesses have used to move their headquarters overseas. Mr Trump condemned those moves in his campaign. But knowing the likely effect of his one-off levy requires knowing the rate – and the White House has not put a number on it.  

Mr Trump’s campaign tax plan said 10 per cent. House Republicans have taken a more nuanced approach: an 8.75 per cent rate on cash and a 3.5 per cent rate on earnings already invested in assets such as factories. On Wednesday Mr Mnuchin said only: “We’re working with the House and Senate on that, but I will say it will be a very competitive rate that will bring back trillions of dollars.”  

Setting the rate too low would alienate Democrats opposed to any corporate giveaways. But setting it too high would upset pro-business Republicans who do not want to see companies punished. 

Personal taxes

Mr Trump’s team would telescope the number of individual income tax brackets from seven to three, lowering the top rate from 39.6 per cent to 35 per cent. Among the other key proposals are a boost to the standard deduction that reduces people’s taxable income, doubling the carve-out to the first $24,000 of a couple’s earnings. 

Many other deductions are eliminated, but key deductions for mortgage interest and charitable contributions would remain. Among the other measures are the repeal of the estate tax and alternative minimum tax, which are unpopular with wealthy taxpayers, and the scrapping of an Obamacare-related investment income tax. 

The change to the standard deduction would help ordinary families, but very wealthy families would benefit from the plan as well – in particular from the scrapping of the AMT, the investment income surtax, and the estate tax. The richest 10 per cent of taxpayers pay 90 per cent of estate taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center. 

In addition, by marrying a top individual income tax rate of 35 per cent with a business tax rate of 15 per cent, Mr Trump would be creating a powerful incentive for wealthy individuals to put their assets into a company. Mr Mnuchin has said he wants to focus the benefits on ordinary businesses, but has not said how. 

The deficit impact

Given the thin detail in the proposals, Republicans were on Wednesday cautioning against attempts to cost up the package as if it were a traditional tax plan. Nevertheless, attempts to do so suggest it would be immensely costly if not offset by revenue-raising measures (or extraordinarily stellar growth). 

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated that over a 10-year period the proposals would lead to a loss of anywhere from $3 trillion to $7 trillion depending on how the details pan out. Among the most costly proposals is the corporate tax cut, which loses $2.2 trillion, the reduction in the tax rate on pass-through entities (that is, businesses that pass earnings to their owners as individuals), the doubling of the standard deduction, and the changes to the rates of individual income tax. 

The plan’s defenders would argue this ignores the so-called dynamic effect of easing taxes – namely higher growth, which generates revenue. This is something Mr Mnuchin has repeatedly stressed, as he claims that his tax cuts would pay for themselves. 

However, the dynamic revenue score that matters most is the one produced by the Joint Committee on Taxation, a Congressional watchdog that will run the numbers on whatever emerges from Congress. This uses highly conservative assumptions that will not show a big revenue fillip from higher growth. 

Prospects in Congress

The administration’s brief tax document was cooked up in short order after Mr Trump ordered his team to energise tax reform by putting forward a road map. One of the key questions now is how the proposals mesh with an existing plan from Mr Ryan, which aims to be revenue-neutral. 

Mr Ryan put a positive gloss on the proposals on Wednesday, saying the package was “along exactly the same lines that we want to go”, while Mr Mnuchin said the administration was on the same page as Republican leaders. 

However, there are important points of division. For example, Mr Mnuchin has not ruled out a temporary tax-cutting package that increases the deficit – something many lawmakers would see as a resounding second-best compared with permanent, revenue-neutral reform. Nor has Mr Trump embraced the critical revenue-raising cornerstone of House Republicans’ plans – namely a levy on imports known as the border-adjusted tax.

That said, nor has he definitively rejected it, leaving Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee to continue debating the measure. Indeed, for some lawmakers the mere fact that the president has waded so publicly into the debate has come as a welcome development.

Presidential leadership is seen as essential for tax reform to happen. It heralds an intensifying round of meetings between the administration and tax writers in Congress. If there is progress on healthcare reform – as appeared to be the case on Wednesday – it could further enhance the prospects of a tax bill eventually materialising. 

-(Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)

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