by Gayl Mileszko
All the daily headlines lead us to believe that significant tax hikes are inevitable. There are innumerable fiscal challenges. We have spent $5.3 trillion so far in response to the pandemic-induced recession. There is serious talk of another multi-trillion infrastructure package. The balance sheet of the Federal Reserve has ballooned to $7.7 trillion. Our projected budget deficit — just halfway through the fiscal year — exceeds $1.7 trillion. The national debt now exceeds $28.2 trillion, a figure so large that it has lost meaning for most of us. The President who took office 100 days ago is seen by a good portion of the electorate as having a “mandate” to impose higher taxes on wealthy citizens and big business.
It is easy to understand why tax-exempt municipal bonds are now becoming scarcer and pricier amid all this tax hike chatter. The financial markets seem to sense a growing consensus for action based on media attention to various policymakers with platforms if not jurisdiction. Last year there was a “tax the rich” and “stick it to the corporations” campaign narrative that appeared to generate support for bogeys at around $400,000 in income, $1 million of gifts, and estates over $3.5 million. There are big bulls-eyes on companies seen as benefitting from the 2017 Trump tax cuts. Talk of retroactive applications makes the current grab for tax advantages all the more understandable.
Not a lot of opposition to the talk of tax increases has yet emerged. First of all, the specifics have not been presented, so special interest groups have nothing solid yet to analyze and object to. Some information was expected in the President’s address to the Joint Session of Congress on Wednesday, but the real details are being fleshed out and will take time. U.S. stocks nevertheless took a dive last Thursday on mere reports of plans to almost double the capital gains tax. The Dow dropped more than 320 points. The S&P 50, Nasdaq and Russell 2000 also fell, as did Treasury, corporate and muni yields.
In America, a tax rebellion is always right around the corner. And, given the changes in work and living arrangements brought about by the coronavirus, we are seeing how quickly our fellow citizens in states like New York and New Jersey now vote with their feet when informed that they must pay a higher so-called “fair share”. Companies with operations in multiple nations do not hesitate to move their headquarters, jobs, ingenious products and tax revenue to more friendly host nations. Any efforts to standardize tax laws among 195 different sovereign nations have about a zero chance of success.
We know of no legal prohibition against tax measures that apply retroactively. However, for a variety of reasons, retroactive tax provisions are not common or practical. In Washington, there are strong accounting, financial planning and litigation lobbies. There is also the simple matter of IRS logistics: printing the new forms and instructions affecting virtually every taxpayer and business, publishing the necessary regulations and guidance, educating customer service representatives and enforcement staff, and so on. If you examine past tax legislation, you will note that some provisions have different forward effective dates. Others may be temporary, with sunset dates in order to conform with the requirements of the enabling legislation. There are quite a few provisions in the 2017 Tax Reform bill that expire in 2025 without further action.
As many presidents have learned, tax reform bills are not so easy to get through Congress. They are nearly impossible if rolled out in pieces or phases. There have been at least 21 bills that increased federal tax revenues over at least one fiscal year since 1940 but the only recent major overhauls took place in 1986 and 2017. In order to succeed with cuts — never mind hikes — an administration has to draft very detailed proposals, preferably supplying specific statutory and explanatory language in its annual budget. Given the number of departments, agencies and offices involved, internal consensus is not easily obtained. The Tax Code is so unwieldy there are really no single source experts. In 2020, there were nearly 10 thousand sections. On the legislative side, numerous congressional committees and subcommittees are involved, with testimony, drafting and re-drafting, mark-ups, votes, speeches, and dialogue with constituents. As we saw in 2017, there are leaks, deep intra-party divisions, odd rules and unusual motivations. It is just plain impossible to “fast-track” anything without very heavy and sustained leadership pressure. In the process, hundreds of errors are made and so many unintended effects are revealed that there is typically at least one “technical corrections” bill required within a year or so of passage. That in and of itself can be a magnet for many unrelated and controversial provisions, and difficult to pass.
In the end, so much horse trading for votes is involved that passage of a 500+ page tax bill with an explanatory report of similar size would likely come at the price of all other major administration priorities. This time, it could possibly come at the expense of health care reform, civil rights, climate change, immigration, and infrastructure initiatives. The infrastructure details mean a lot to those of us in the municipal bond markets, most notably tax provisions involving advance refundings. But bear in mind that there are more than 12,000 active, registered lobbyists in DC and almost all of them have at least one special tax provision that they may want included or excluded. The budget committees, Congressional Budget Office, Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury, and the Joint Committee on Taxation are all involved in “scoring” the revenue impact of legislative proposals. These are not simple exercises and they are highly political. If reform is not achieved early in the honeymoon period, sophisticated vote counters and insider knowledge can lead to early pivots by certain classes of taxpayers and international/supranational corporations, significantly altering the projected revenue impacts before debate on the reforms is even over. The 1981 Reagan cuts and 1993 Clinton hikes were enacted by August of the first year in office; the 2001 Bush cuts were agreed to by May.
We will hear more debate on tax policy in Washington in the coming months as plans unfold and we encourage our readers to become involved. There are thin Democrat margins in the House and Senate, and Senate passage would entail a vice presidential tiebreaker and complete loyalty from the caucus. In the current environment, there will have to be close coordination with the Federal Reserve and monetary policy, and with the budget, taxation, and appropriations committees. If reform is enacted this year, mid-term elections may not be seen as a referendum as the full impact will not be felt by all taxpayers until forms are filed in 2023. If a tax reform bill is not signed into law by December, the odds are that tax hikes are unlikely to happen in 2022, an election year. In the meantime, 26 states and the District of Columbia had notable tax changes take effect in January, and more are on tap for new state fiscal years; in New York, the FY22 increases began this month.
In the past week, municipal bonds in high tax states have traded at extraordinarily high prices. Stanford University bonds with a 5% coupon due in 2049 traded this week at $159.792. Hamilton College bonds issued through Oneida County’s Local Development Corporation with a 5% coupon due in 2051 priced at $158.567. New York City Municipal Water Finance Authority bonds and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bonds with 5% coupons due in 2031 are trading in the $136-$137 range. Long Island Power Authority and Monmouth County Improvement Authority bonds with a 5% coupon due in 10 years offer yields of only between 0.975% and 1.077%. Many individual and institutional investors are holding on to the bonds with federal as well as state tax exemption while looking for more to buy directly or through mutual funds and exchange traded funds. However, new supply is lacking. This week’s calendar, for example, totals only about $5.5 billion, and more than 20% is being issued for refunding purposes in federally taxable structures, and more than 20% is offered with forward settlements. Last week, the most yield we found was in a $10.9 million BB+ rated Michigan Math and Science Academy bond deal that had 2051 term bonds priced with a 4.00% coupon to yield 3.03%
This week, the Federal Open Market Committee met on Tuesday and Wednesday and kept its ultra-loose policy and near zero rates in effect, as expected. Investors are obsessed with guessing how much more economic ground has to be gained before the Fed begins tapering its monthly Treasury and mortgage bond purchases of $120 billion, and official conversations about rate increases begin. To be clear, Fed futures traders expect no changes in rates this year.
Where do you invest? We encourage you to contact your HJ Sims representative. Our banking, trading and sales executives are active in the day-to-day markets. For investors, our credit-driven strategies are designed for the outcome of income.
Is this the right time to borrow? For senior living communities, we point out that we are seeing some of the strongest lending conditions in our 86-year history. Our aim as always is to Partner Right, Structure Right and Execute Right.