After supposedly chomping on the bit for years to pass meaningful tax reform, Republicans are now set to blow an historic opportunity. Whatever version of the Bill that emerges from the House and Senate Conference Committee (which will be signed by President Trump faster than he can down a Filet o’Fish), will be far less than the Republicans envisioned when they finally captured the White House and both Congressional Chambers in 2016. But from what I have seen of the particulars, the revisions to the tax code will offer a marginal, although temporary, win for low income individuals, a major slap for moderately successful wage earners and home owners, (especially in the high tax Blue States) and a huge victory for the extremely wealthy and certain categories of business owners. While it is certain that the plan will add to the growing deficit, its immediate economic and political impact is hard to predict.
For generations, taxpayers and politicians alike lambasted our overly complex tax code for its myriad of economic distorting loopholes that seemed to produce nothing except employment for legions of accountants and tax lawyers adept at gaming the system. As a result, talk about tax reform has always included proposals to make the system simpler, fairer, and more transparent. But on that front, the Republican proposals fail miserably. Trump and Congress will hail this achievement as being a major victory for the American people. But the true winner will be the swamp that Trump promised to drain.
Unlike Ronald Reagan, who passed tax reform in 1986 by striking a deal with Democrat House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Trump and Congressional Republicans faced no particular need to compromise. If Reagan had the benefits enjoyed by Trump, Ryan and McConnell, his tax cuts would have been paired with significant spending cuts and perhaps a balanced budget. But to get O’Neill (and his whopping 71 seat House majority) to go along, Reagan's ideals of fiscal prudence and smaller government had to be set aside. But Trump is no Reagan, and today’s Republican Party has about as much commitment to shrinking the size of government as did the Democrats in the 1980s.
Taxes are the price we pay for government. If Republicans want to reduce the tax burden, they need to make government less expensive. Tax cuts without spending cuts is the Republican version of a free lunch. But if government spending is not paid for with tax revenue, alternate sources must be found that will ultimately prove more costly than the forgone tax revenue.
Despite endless campaign rhetoric to the contrary, the Republican Party is no longer the party of limited government, fiscal responsibility, Federalism, the Constitution, sound money, or any of the principals that they typically espouse while stumping for office or raising money. Instead of reducing the size of government, thereby lightening the burden on taxpayers and limiting the economic drag caused by government, Republicans have chosen the easy course of tax cuts, replete with overly optimistic assumptions and gimmicks meant to disguise their true impact on future deficits. Adding insult to injury, they leave in place an even more complex tax code, replete with even more loopholes, that limits individual freedom and undermines economic growth.
True reform would have eliminated the income tax completely, or at a minimum, replaced it with a flat tax. It would have abolished the corporate income tax, payroll taxes, and the estate and gift taxes, and replaced them with a tax system based on consumption rather than production. Such a system would encourage savings rather than debt accumulation, and would restore some semblance of sanity to a system increasingly dependent on borrowing. Real reform would have included entitlement reform, as well as across the board reductions in government spending. Entire agencies and departments would have been eliminated, making government smaller and less expensive. These are the types of changes that are needed to head off a possible looming debt crisis and put the country back on a path to achieve real economic growth, not the phony financial gains we have seen in the past generation.
But instead, Republicans crafted a plan that would cut taxes for some while raising taxes for others. The political genius of the plan can be found in the elimination of state and local tax deductions that will raise taxes predominantly on higher wage earners in Democrat controlled states with high taxes. This move was a political freebie for Republicans, as it largely spares their constituents from tax hikes, but prevents Democrats from protecting theirs because to do so would require them to argue against raising taxes on the "wealthy." It may also trigger a fiscal crisis in largely Democrat states as high earners, who provide an outsize share of state tax revenue, consider pulling up stakes for lower tax jurisdictions. But Republicans did not leave well enough alone. The taxes raised on rich Democrats will not nearly be enough to pay for the cuts they offer business owners, passive investors, and corporations. The balance will be "paid for" by borrowing. In addition, high tax states may be forced to scramble to adjust their tax policies in an attempt to forestall defections of the wealthy. To do so, they may shift taxes to businesses (for which state taxes will still be deductible from federal taxes). The businesses in turn, can pass these costs onto their employees in the form of lower wages and their customers in the form of higher prices.
Republicans, of course, argue that the economic growth that will be generated by lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20% will generate enough new tax revenue to offset what is lost. While that idea is sound in theory, nothing about our current situation would suggest that a growth surge is around the corner, with or without corporate tax cuts.
We are already in the ninth year of a supposed economic expansion. Over the last century, these expansions (the time between recessions) have lasted, on average, about five and a quarter years. So, already our current “expansion” has lasted nearly twice the average. Also, this expansion has been extraordinarily weak, with growth averaging around 2% since 2009. This is far below the 3% to 4% rate seen in prior recoveries. (data from the National Bureau of Economic Research and Bureau of Labor Statistics) It is also clear that this tepid number has relied heavily on surging asset prices in stocks, real estate, and bonds. But all three of those markets could easily reverse course.
The stock market has surged to all-time highs based on the expected likelihood that tax reform would be passed early in the Trump Administration. When this hope becomes reality, it may be that we will get a “buy the rumor, sell the fact” decline, especially if the final package is not all that investors hoped it would be. The real estate market may actually suffer under the new rules as high-end properties become more expensive to own and less attractive to buy given the limits on property tax and mortgage deductions. On the lower end of the market, the expansion of the standard deduction could mean far fewer will receive a tax benefit from buying modestly priced homes, thereby mitigating the advantages of buying over renting. (It is no accident that some of the biggest objections to the new proposals have come from real estate industry groups). And lastly, the bond market faces no shortage of headwinds. With the Fed threatening to sell much of its $4.5 Trillion holdings of Treasury and Mortgage bonds, the likelihood of falling bond prices and rising yields looms large. (In the past three months, 10-year Treasury yields have increased 30 basis points). Even the tax bill’s supporters acknowledge that it will increase the deficit significantly in the near term, thereby requiring the Treasury to sell more bonds to fill the gap. The extra supply could put downward pressure on bond prices and raise yields on the long end, creating losses in the bond market and raising borrowing costs for government, businesses and consumers.
For these reasons, it is logical to assume that the current tax proposals will have a more modest economic impact than the Tax Cuts of 1986 or even the Bush tax cuts of 2001. It is important to note that the Bush tax cuts occurred while the economy was already in recession, a time where economists could at least plausibly argue that fiscal stimulus was needed. But by putting these cuts through now, while the economy is still expanding (at least on paper), by the time the next recession arrives, the fiscal bullets will have already been fired.
Assuming that the hoped for economic growth does not materialize, the money borrowed now must eventually be repaid. Deficit spending means that today’s tax cuts merely sow the seeds for tomorrow’s tax hikes. But since taxpayers will not only be on the hook for the money borrowed, but the added interest associated with that debt, the future tax hikes could be larger than today’s cuts.
Of course, instead of raising future taxes to repay the money borrowed to fund today’s cuts, a cooperative Federal Reserve could simply print the money needed to buy the additional Treasury debt. But this does not mean we get all this government for free. The cost will come in the form of higher consumer prices as a new round of monetary expansion could cause a continuing drop in the dollar. So Americans may end up with more after tax dollars in their paychecks, but the reduced value of those dollars means they will actually be able to afford to buy less stuff. Just because it appears consumers dodged this bullet during the first three phases of Quantitative Easing does not mean that we will be as lucky with additional rounds.
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In light of the 30-year anniversary of the Black Monday Crash in 1987 (when the Dow lost more than 20% in "one day", we should be reminded that investor anxiety usually increases when markets get to extremes. If stock prices fall steeply, people fret about money lost, and if they move too high too fast, they worry about sudden reversals. As greed is supposed to be counterbalanced by fear, this relationship should not be surprising. But sometimes the formula breaks down and stocks become very expensive even while investors become increasingly complacent. History has shown that such periods of untethered optimism have often presaged major market corrections. Current data suggests that we are in such a period, and in the words of our current President, we may be "in the calm before the storm."
Many market analysts consider the Cyclically Adjusted Price to Earnings (CAPE) ratio to be the best measure of stock valuation. Also known as the “Shiller Ratio” (after Yale professor Robert Shiller), the number is derived by dividing the current price of a stock by its average inflation-adjusted earnings over the last 10 years. Since 1990, the CAPE ratio of the S&P 500 has averaged 25.6. The ratio got particularly bubbly, 44.2, during the 1999 crescendo of the “earnings don’t matter” dotcom era of the late 1990’s. But after the tech crash of 2000, the ratio was cut in half, drifting down to 21.3 by March of 2003. For the next five years, the CAPE hung around historic averages before collapsing to 13.3 in the market crash of 2008-2009. Since then, the ratio has moved steadily upward, returning to the upper 20s by 2015. But in July of this year, the CAPE breached 30 for the first time since March 2002. It has been there ever since (which is high when compared to most developed markets around the world). (data from Irrational Exuberance, Princeton University Press 2000, 2005, 2015, updated Robert J. Shiller)
But unlike earlier periods of stock market gains, the extraordinary run-up in CAPE over the past eight years has not been built on top of strong economic growth. The gains of 1996-1999 came when quarterly GDP growth averaged 4.6%, and the gains of 2003-2007 came when quarterly GDP averaged 2.96%. In contrast Between 2010 and 2017, GDP growth had averaged only 2.1% (data from Bureau of Economic Analysis). It is clear to some that the Fed has substituted itself for growth as the primary driver for stocks.
Investors typically measure market anxiety by looking at the VIX index, also known as “the fear index”. This data point, calculated by the Chicago Board Options Exchange, looks at the amount of put vs. call contracts to determine sentiment about how much the markets may fluctuate over the coming 30 days. A number greater than 30 indicates high anxiety while a number less than 20 suggests that investors see little reason to lose sleep.
Since 1990, the VIX has averaged 19.5 and has generally tended to move up and down with CAPE valuations. Spikes to the upside also tended to occur during periods of economic uncertainty like recessions. (The economic crisis of 2008 sent the VIX into orbit, hitting an all-time high of 59.9 in October 2008.) However, the Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing bond-buying program, which came online in March of 2009, may have short-circuited this fundamental relationship.
Before the crisis, there was still a strong belief that stock investing entailed real risk. The period of stock stagnation of the 1970s and 1980s was still well remembered, as were the crashes of 1987, 2000, and 2008. But the existence of the Greenspan/Bernanke/Yellen “Put” (the idea that the Fed would back stop market losses), came to ease many of the anxieties on Wall Street. Over the past few years, the Fed has consistently demonstrated that it is willing to use its new tool kit in extraordinary ways.
While many economists had expected the Fed to roll back its QE purchases as soon as the immediate economic crisis had passed, the program steamed at full speed through 2015, long past the point where the economy had apparently recovered. Time and again, the Fed cited fragile financial conditions as the reason it persisted, even while unemployment dropped and the stock market soared.
The Fed further showcased its maternal instinct in early 2016 when a surprise 8% drop in stocks in the first two weeks of January (the worst ever start of a calendar year on Wall Street) led it to abandon its carefully laid groundwork for multiple rate hikes in 2016. As investors seem to have interpreted this as the Fed leaving the safety net firmly in place, the VIX has dropped steadily from that time. In September of this year, the VIX fell below 10.
Untethered optimism can be seen most clearly by looking at the relationship between the VIX and the CAPE ratio. Over the past 27 years, this figure has averaged 1.43. But just this month, the ratio approached 3 for the first time on record, increasing 100% in just a year and a half. This means that the gap between how expensive stocks have become and how little this increase concerns investors has never been wider. But history has shown that bad things can happen after periods in which fear takes a back seat.
Past performance is not indicative of future results. Created by Euro Pacific Capital from data culled from econ.yale.edu & Bloomberg.
On September 1 of 2000, the S&P 500 hit 1520, very close to its (up to then) all-time peak. The 167% increase in prices over the prior five years should have raised alarm bells. It didn't. At that point, the VIX/CAPE ratio hit 1.97…a high number. In the two years after September 2000, the S&P 500 retreated 46%. Ouch.
Unfortunately, the lesson wasn’t well learned. The next time the VIX/CAPE hit a high watermark was in January 2007 when it reached 2.39. At that point, the S&P 500 had hit 1438 a 71% increase from February of 2003. As they had seven years earlier, the investing public was not overly concerned. In just over two years after the VIX/CAPE had peaked the S&P 500 declined 43%. Double Ouch.
For much of the next decade investors seemed to have been twice bitten and once shy. The VIX/CAPE stayed below 2 for most of that time. But after the election of 2016, the caution waned and the ratio breached 2. In the past few months, the metric has risen to record territory, hitting 2.57 in June, and 2.93 in October. These levels suggest that a record low percentage of investors are concerned by valuations that are as high as they have ever been outside of the four-year “dotcom” period.
Investors may be trying to convince themselves that the outcome will be different this time around. But the only thing that is likely to be different is the Fed's ability to limit the damage. In 2000-2002, the Fed was able to cut interest rates 500 basis points (from 6% to 1%) in order to counter the effects of the imploding tech stock bubble. Seven years later, it cut rates 500 basis points (from 5% to 0) in response to the deflating housing bubble. Stocks still fell anyway, but they probably would have fallen further if the Fed hadn't been able to deliver these massive stimuli. In hindsight, investors would have been wise to move some funds out of U.S. stocks when the CAPE/VIX ratio moved into record territory. While stocks fell following those peaks, gold rose nicely.
Past performance is not indicative of future results. Created by Euro Pacific Capital from data culled from Bloomberg.
Past performance is not indicative of future results. Created by Euro Pacific Capital from data culled from Bloomberg.
But interest rates are now at just 1.25%. If the stock market were again to drop in such a manner, the Fed has far less fire power to bring to bear. It could cut rates to zero and then re-launch another round of QE bond buying to flood the financial sector with liquidity. But that may not be nearly as effective as it was in 2008. Given that the big problem at that point was bad mortgage debt, the QE program’s purchase of mortgage bonds was a fairly effective solution (although we believe a misguided one). But propping up overvalued stocks, many of which have nothing to do with the financial sector, is a far more difficult challenge. The Fed may have to buy stocks on the open market, a tactic that has been used by the Bank of Japan.
It should be clear to anyone that since the 1990s the Fed has inflated three stock market bubbles. As each of the prior two popped, the Fed inflated larger ones to mitigate the damage. The tendency to cushion the downside and to then provide enough extra liquidity to send stock prices back to new highs seems to have emboldened investors to downplay the risks and focus on the potential gains. This has been particularly true given that the Fed’s low interest rate policies have caused traditionally conservative bond investors to seek higher returns in stocks. Without the Fed’s safety net, many of these investors perhaps would not be willing to walk this high wire.
But investors may be over-estimating the Fed's ability to blow up another bubble if the current one pops. Since this one is so large, the amount of stimulus required to inflate a larger one may produce the monetary equivalent of an overdose. It may be impossible to revive the markets without killing the dollar in the process. The currency crisis the Fed might unleash might prove more destructive to the economy than the repeat financial crisis it's hoping to avoid.
We believe the writing is clearly on the wall and all investors need do is read it. It’s not written in Sanskrit or Hieroglyphics, but about as plainly as the gods of finance can make it. Should the current mother-of-all bubbles pop, for investors and the Fed it won’t be third time’s the charm, but three strikes and you’re out.