Always on the lookout for a better way to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner, I recently came across what I believe to be the latest and greatest method: Spatchcocking. By removing the backbone of the Turkey, you are able to lay the Turkey flat on a cookie sheet, and roast it in a little over an hour. According to my research, the bird will cook thoroughly & evenly, and the shortened roasting time (not to mention height in the oven) makes preparation incredibly efficient.
Interestingly, it appears that spatchcocking is also the rage on Capitol Hill. After a year with few achievements to show for it, there are many members of Congress who appear to have very little left in the way of a backbone. As a result, the current tax plan is being rushed through the legislative process at an incredible pace. Whether this level of efficiency is as desirable in re-writing the tax code as in cooking turkeys seems highly questionable.
As investment professionals, how can we make sense of this process, and incorporate the proposed changes into our analysis? I don’t think we can. There seems to be overwhelming agreement that the tax code is too complex, and needs to be simplified, and that taxes (especially corporate taxes) are too high, and need to come down. The headline grabbing number of reducing the statutory tax rate from 35% to 20% suggests that a lot more money will be dropping down to the bottom line, and this belief has fueled the continued rally in equities.
However, if you look at what corporations actually pay in cash taxes, the Companies in the S&P 500 are, in the aggregate, paying an effective tax rate of – you guessed it, 20%. If the deductions and tax breaks that currently riddle our system are eliminated at the same time, there shouldn’t be any drop in taxes paid. Instead, you will see a shift in the winners and losers. Some companies that currently pay next-to-nothing will have to start writing checks, and others will likely get some relief.
It is virtually impossible to anticipate all of the implications of such a significant structural shift in the tax system. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico provides a cautionary tale as to the dangers of such dramatic shifts. In the 1970s, Congress passed Section 936 of the tax code to encourage manufacturing companies to locate on the island, which spurred growth. When the tax break was eliminated in the 1990s, it kicked of a long cycle of deterioration from which Puerto Rico has yet to extricate itself.
Now, I am not arguing that we ought to use the tax code to achieve such narrow policy objectives. In fact, I think it is a terrible idea. I mean – Section 936? That’s a lot of sections of code. I do think that simplification is good idea. But unwinding this mess will be hard. Our entire economy has evolved alongside this current tax system over years, and companies have structured themselves, made investment decisions, and planned for a future based on that system. A complete and sudden shift will be economically jarring. There is enormous complexity to simplification, and the risk of unintended consequences will be high. Before running off spatchcocked to push through this turkey of a bill, I really hope Congress slows down a little. Instead of ending up with a tasty roast, the long-term impact of hasty tax reform could be pretty foul.