Posts Tagged ‘Investment’

What’s the worst government statistic, based on whether it distracts from sound thinking and encourages bad policy?

Well, I definitely think gross domestic income is a better measure than gross domestic product if we want insights on growth, so I’m not a big fan of GDP data.

I’m even less enthused about the Gini Coefficient because measures of inequality lead some people to mistakenly think of the economy as a fixed pie, or to falsely think that lots of income for a rich person somehow implies less income for the rest of us. And that then encourages some people to focus on redistribution (i.e., change how the pie is sliced) when it will be far better for the poor if policy makers focus on growth (i.e., expand the size of the pie).

But if you want to know the most unfortunate piece of economic data, I actually gave the answer to this question last year.

…the worst government statistic is the “trade deficit.”This is a very destructive piece of data because people instinctively assume a “deficit” is bad. Yet I have a trade deficit every year with my local grocery store. I’m always buying things from them and they never buy anything from me. Does that mean I’m a “loser”? Of course not. Voluntary exchange, by definition, means that both parties gain from any transaction. And this principle applies when voluntary exchange occurs across national borders.Moreover, people oftentimes don’t realize that the necessary and automatic flip side of a “trade deficit” is a “capital surplus.” In other words, when foreign companies acquire dollars by selling to American consumers, they frequently decide that investing in the American economy is the best use of that money. And the huge amount of investment from overseas is a sign of comparative prosperity and vitality, not a sign of weakness.

And we’re not talking chump change. Foreigners are “voting with their dollars” by making huge investments in the American economy.

According the Commerce Department data, the value of these investments is now well above $10 trillion. Yes, that trillion with a “t.”

That’s something we should celebrate. But you don’t have to believe me.

Let’s see what other have to say, starting with Professor Walter Williams.

There cannot be a trade deficit in a true economic sense. Let’s examine this. I buy more from my grocer than he buys from me. That means I have a trade deficit with my grocer. My grocer buys more from his wholesaler than his wholesaler buys from him. But there is really no trade imbalance, whether my grocer is down the street, in Canada or, God forbid, in China. Here is what happens: When I purchase $100 worth of groceries, my goods account (groceries) rises, but my capital account (money) falls by $100. For my grocer, it is the opposite. His goods account falls by $100, but his capital account rises by $100. Looking at only the goods account, we would see trade deficits, but if we included the capital accounts, we would see a trade balance. That is true whether we are talking about domestic trade or we are talking about foreign trade.

Of course, it’s not surprising that a scholar like Walter Williams is on the right side and puts forth sound arguments.

But it is a bit of a shock when an elected official does the same thing. So I was very impressed when I saw this column in the Washington Post from Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma.

…the administration has…emphasized its desire to reduce the trade deficit… This is a faulty assumption but one that has unfortunately found its way into mainstream political dialogue. Trade deficits are not always bad for U.S. workers and consumers.

Senator Lankford points out a very important reason why Americans buy more from Mexicans than vice-versa.

For starters, a powerful economy such as ours often runs a trade deficit because of the immense buying power of its people. Mexico’s average net per capita income is roughly $13,000, while the average U.S. household brings in more than $41,000 each year. Americans have a far greater capacity to buy goods than do consumers in Mexico. It should come as no surprise that we do exactly that.

But the Oklahoma lawmakers also echoes what others have said about capital flows.

Because we have the world’s largest economy and the strongest currency, more money comes into the United States than goes out. …this foreign cash…is a positive for our economy. When a Canadian company decides to invest in a U.S.-based company, it increases our trade deficit. Similarly, when the Mexican government buys U.S. Treasury bonds (as most of the world does), the likelihood of an American trade deficit increases. Investments such as these are indicative of a strong economy. It should be an encouraging sign that we are by far the world’s largest receiver of foreign direct investment. Our trade deficit means, in part, that U.S. companies are considered to be a better investment than companies in other countries. More investment in American businesses means more jobs and higher wages for American workers.

Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute adds to the discussion.

Foreigners purchase U.S. stocks, bonds and currency. Foreigners invest directly in the United States… Generally speaking, this is good. It is a vote of confidence in the United States economy and, in some sense, in our nation as a whole. …we should think of foreign investment as increasing wages and economic growth by making workers and firms more productive.

But if President Trump succeeds in limiting the ability of Americans to buy from foreign producers, he will also limit the ability of foreigners to invest in America’s economic future.

…when the president and his administration attack the trade deficit, they are attacking foreign investment in the United States. …when we import capital from abroad, we run a trade deficit. Trade deficits and capital flows from abroad go hand in hand. …If the president wants to significantly reduce the trade deficit, he also wants to significantly reduce inflows of foreign capital. Waging a war on the trade deficit is waging a war on foreign investment.

Here’s what Kevin Williamson wrote about this topic for National Review.

…investing in the United States…is a very attractive proposition, which is…the main reason why we have trade deficits. Trade deficits are partly a question of consumer preference…but they are not mainly a question of consumer preference. They are mainly a question of investor preference — and investors prefer the United States, which is why there is almost twice as much foreign direct investment in the United States as in China, even though China’s economy has grown at a much faster rate over the past 20 years. …When Walmart orders $1 million worth of flip-flops from a Chinese concern, those Chinese gentlemen receive 1 million delicious U.S. dollars, which they are very happy and grateful to have. But what can you do with U.S. dollars? You can buy stuff from U.S. companies or you can buy assets from sellers who take U.S. dollars, which ultimately means U.S.-based investments. …But it isn’t only the Chinese. The Japanese, the British, the Germans and the other Europeans, the Canadians, the Mexicans, and practically everybody else in the world with a little bit of coin to invest likes to buy American assets. And why wouldn’t they? The American economy is the most wondrous thing human beings have ever managed to do… Trade deficits don’t happen because the wily Japanese juke us on trade policy. They happen because intelligent people holding a fistful of dollars very often decide to forgo the consumption of American consumer goods in order to invest in American assets. In economics terms, what this means is that the trade deficit is a mirror image of the capital surplus.

By the way, there are two ways that foreigners invest in the American economy.

Most of their money is for “passive” or “indirect” investments, which is simply a way of saying that they buy lots of stocks and bonds.

Those investments are very important for our economy. As I wrote just a few days ago, investment is what leads to productivity growth, and that’s how we earn higher wages and get higher living standards.

But foreigners also engage in “direct” investments, such as BMW building a factory in South Carolina. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute points out that this also is a recipe for lots of job creation.

Since I’ve shared a lot of information on why a capital surplus is good, I supposed I should share some information explaining why protectionism is bad.

We’ll start with a column from the Wall Street Journal that looks at the impact of protectionist policies in Brazil and Argentina.

For decades, South America’s two largest economies have tried to shield their workers from global trade, largely through high tariffs and regulations that promote domestic production over imports. The World Bank ranks Argentina and Brazil among the world’s most closed big economies. …These protectionist policies have…come at a huge cost to consumers, who now pay higher prices, and to taxpayers, who underwrite the subsidies. …air conditioners and other products are…sold for two to three times the market price of other countries. The cost to Argentina’s taxpayers of these jobs is steep: up to $72,000 per factory worker a year… But for ordinary Argentines, the products’ price tag can be hefty. An unlocked Samsung J7 smartphone sells for $240 in the U.S. but costs nearly $500 in Buenos Aires. …Brazil’s long history of protectionism bred complacency… Consider Brazil’s auto industry, until recently one of the world’s 10 largest. Shielded for decades by high tariffs, it has devolved into a peddler of rinky-dink hatchbacks… And for Brazilian consumers, cars are far pricier: A new Volkswagen Gol Comfortline lists in Brazil at $15,231—nearly twice as much as in Mexico, which has low tariffs and an efficient car industry.

George Will looks at the cost of similar (but thankfully mostly in the past) policies in the United States.

…there are more than 45 million Americans in poverty, “stretching every dollar they have.” The apparel industry employs 135,000 Americans. Can one really justify tariffs that increase the price of clothing for the 45 million in order to save some of the 135,000 low-wage jobs? …A three-year, 15 percent tariff enabled domestic producers to raise their prices, thereby raising the costs of many American manufacturers. By one estimate, each U.S. job “saved” cost $550,000 as the average bolt-nut-screw worker was earning $23,000 annually. …Ronald Reagan imposed “voluntary restraints” on Japanese automobile exports, thereby creating 44,100 U.S. jobs. But the cost to consumers was $8.5 billion in higher prices, or $193,000 per job created, six times the average annual pay of a U.S. autoworker. And there were job losses in sectors of the economy into which the $8.5 billion of consumer spending could not flow. …In 2012, Barack Obama boasted that “over a thousand Americans are working today because we stopped a surge in Chinese tires.” But this cost about $900,000 per job, paid by American purchasers of vehicles and tires. And the Peterson Institute for International Economics says that this money taken from consumers reduced their spending on other retail goods, bringing the net job loss from the job-saving tire tariffs to around 2,500.

Let’s close with some good news.

Here’s a poll showing that Americans are increasingly supportive of trade.

I don’t know why the numbers have improved so much since 2008, but I’m happy with the outcome.

And one of the big reasons I’m happy is that the global shift to more open trade has been very beneficial to the global economy.

Indeed, expanded openness to trade in the post-World War II era has helped offset the damage caused by a bigger fiscal burden.

And more trade has been very good for the poor, as Deirdre McCloskey explains in this video.

I’ll close by recycling my column that challenges protectionists with eight questions. I wrote that column also six years ago and I still haven’t received any good answers.

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One of the principles of good tax policy and fundamental tax reform is that there should be no double taxation of income that is saved and invested. Such a policy promotes current consumption at the expense of future consumption, which is simply an econo-geek way of saying that it penalizes capital formation.

This isn’t very prudent or wise since every economic theory agrees that capital formation is key to long-run growth and higher living standards. Even Marxist and socialist theory is based on this notion (they want government to be in charge of investing, so they want to do the right thing in a very wrong way – think Solyndra on steroids).

To help explain this issue, the Wall Street Journal today published a very good primer on taxing capital gains.

The editors begin with an uncontroversial proposition.

The current Democratic obsession with raising the capital gains tax comes from a mistaken belief that the preferential rate applied to the sale of a family business, farm or financial asset is a “loophole” that mainly benefits the rich.

They offer three reasons why this view is wrong, starting with a basic inequity in the tax code.

Far from being a loophole, the low tax rate applied to capital gains is beneficial and fair for several reasons. First, under current tax rules, all gains from investments are fully taxed, but all losses are not fully deductible. This asymmetry is a disincentive to take risks. A lower tax rate helps to compensate for not being able to write-off capital losses.

Next, the editors highlight the unfairness of not letting investors take inflation into account when calculating capital gains. As explained in this video, this can lead to tax rates of more than 100 percent on real gains.

Second, capital gains aren’t adjusted for inflation, so the gains from a dollar invested in an enterprise over a long period of time are partly real and partly inflationary. It’s therefore possible for investors to pay a tax on “gains” that are illusory, which is another reason for the lower tax rate.

This may not seem like an important issue today, but just wait ’til Bernanke gets to QE24 and assets are rising in value solely because of inflation.

The final – and strongest argument – is that any capital gains tax is illegitimate because it is double taxation. I think this flowchart is very helpful for those who want to understand the issue, but the WSJ’s explanation is very good as well.

Third, since the U.S. also taxes businesses on profits when they are earned, the tax on the sale of a stock or a business is a double tax on the income of that business. When you buy a stock, its valuation is the discounted present value of the earnings. The main reason to tax capital investment at low rates is to encourage saving and investment. If someone buys a car or a yacht or a vacation, they don’t pay extra federal income tax. But if they save those dollars and invest them in the family business or in stock, wham, they are smacked with another round of tax.

There’s also good research to back up this theory – some produced by prominent leftists.

Many economists believe that the economically optimal tax on capital gains is zero. Mr. Obama’s first chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, wrote in the American Economic Review in 1981 that the elimination of capital income taxation “would have very substantial economic effects” and “might raise steady-state output by as much as 18 percent, and consumption by 16 percent.”

Summers is talking about more than just the capital gains tax, so his estimate is best viewed as the type of growth that might be possible with a flat tax that eliminated all double taxation.

Nobel laureate Robert Lucas also thinks that such a reform would have large beneficial effects.

Almost all economists agree—or at least used to agree—that keeping taxes low on investment is critical to economic growth, rising wages and job creation. A study by Nobel laureate Robert Lucas estimates that if the U.S. eliminated its capital gains and dividend taxes (which Mr. Obama also wants to increase), the capital stock of American plant and equipment would be twice as large. Over time this would grow the economy by trillions of dollars.

So why aren’t these reforms happening, either the medium-sized goal of getting rid of the capital gains tax, or the larger goal of junking the corrupt internal revenue code for a simple and fair flat tax?

A big obstacle is that too many politicians believe in class-warfare tax policy, even though lower-income people are among the biggest victims when the economy is weak.

For more information, here’s my video explaining that the right capital gains tax rate is zero.

P.S. Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t make a Laffer Curve argument for a lower capital gains tax. The main reason is because I have no interest in maximizing revenue for the government. I simply want good policy, which is why the rate should be zero.

P.P.S. I also didn’t bother to make a competitiveness argument, mostly because the WSJ’s editorial didn’t focus on that subtopic. But check out this post to see how Obama’s policy is putting America at a significant disadvantage.

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I’ve written several times about a proposed IRS regulation that would force American banks to put foreign law above U.S. law. I’ve repeatedly warned that the scheme, which would force financial institutions to report the deposit interest they pay to foreigners, is bad economic policy, bad regulatory policy, and bad banking policy.

My arguments have included:

But these points don’t seem to matter to the Obama Administration, which is ideologically committed to the anti-tax competition agenda of Europe’s welfare states. This is why the White House supports all sorts of destructive policies, including not only this misguided regulation, but also the creation of something akin to a world tax organization that will have power to block free-market tax policy.

A new article in the Weekly Standard explains what’s at stake.

Early last year the Treasury Department published its “Guidance on Reporting Interest Paid to Nonresident Aliens,” which would require banks to report to the Internal Revenue Service the interest paid to foreign depositors with a U.S. bank account. While the Treasury and the regulatory apparatus insist that the cost and inconvenience of adhering to this regulation is next to nothing, the rule may cost the U.S. banking system hundreds of billions of dollars in lost deposits, in turn costing our economy billions of dollars, while providing no discernible benefit to banks, depositors, taxpayers, or the U.S. economy. …a much bigger problem—for banks and the economy—than the compliance costs is the threat of a massive capital flight. The United States is a very popular place for foreigners to park their savings, for a variety of reasons. For starters, we offer a stable government that can be trusted to keep its hands off deposits—something that appeals greatly to residents of Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, and any number of other unstable countries. …As a result, a staggeringly large amount of savings from abroad is currently held in U.S banks. While the Treasury asserts that “deposits held by nonresident alien individuals are a very small percentage of the [total] deposits held by U.S. financial institutions,” that very small percentage amounts to more than $3.7 trillion, according to a 2011 Bureau of Economic Analysis report, hardly a pittance. The massive amount of foreign savings here is a boon to the U.S. economy. Banks lend against these deposits, mainly to companies here in the United States. Jay Cochran, an economist at George Mason University, studied the impact that the more limited 2002 reporting requirements would have had on the banking system, estimating that it would have resulted in nearly $100 billion in deposits leaving the U.S. banking system. A reporting regulation that covers all foreign accounts would likely result in two to three times more capital flight. The impact would be harmful not just for the banks but for the broader economy. The decline in profits in the banking sector alone from a roughly quarter-trillion-dollar capital flight would be in the range of $5-10 billion—which makes a mockery of the notion that the costs of the regulation are under $100,000.

For more information about this wretched proposal, here’s a video I narrated on the topic.

To put it bluntly, the Obama Administration is pushing this regulation because it thinks the anti-tax competition agenda of Europe’s welfare states is so important that it is willing to risk the health of the American economy, undermine the soundness of U.S. financial institutions, disregard the rule of law, and abuse the regulatory process.

Indeed, this proposal is even worse than the increasingly infamous Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.

And that’s saying something, because with each passing day, it is more and more obvious that FATCA is a destructive law that will significantly harm the American economy. But at least it’s a law, one that was approved by Congress and signed by the President. And the costly FATCA regulations being developed by the IRS are for the purpose of enforcing the law.

The interest-reporting IRS regulation is also costly and destructive, to be sure, but what makes it so perverse is that it is – at best – completely gratuitous. It is being advanced solely for reasons of ideology, regardless of the law and consequences be damned.

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I’m not a big fan of the IRS, but usually I blame politicians for America’s corrupt, unfair, and punitive tax system. Sometimes, though, the tax bureaucrats run amok and earn their reputation as America’s most despised bureaucracy.

Here’s an example. Earlier this year, the Internal Revenue Service proposed a regulation that would force American banks to become deputy tax collectors for foreign governments. Specifically, they would be required to report any interest they pay to accounts held by nonresident aliens (a term used for foreigners who live abroad).

The IRS issued this proposal, even though Congress repeatedly has voted not to tax this income because of an understandable desire to attract job-creating capital to the U.S. economy. In other words, the IRS is acting like a rogue bureaucracy, seeking to overturn laws enacted through the democratic process.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The IRS’s interest-reporting regulation also threatens the stability of the American banking system, makes America less attractive for foreign investors, and weakens the human rights of people who live under corrupt and tyrannical governments.

This Center for Freedom and Prosperity video outlines five specific reason why the IRS regulation is bad news and should be withdrawn.

I’m not sure what upsets me most. As a believer in honest and lawful government, it is outrageous that the IRS is abusing the regulatory process to pursue an ideological agenda that is contrary to 90 years of congressional law. But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see this kind of policy from the IRS with Obama in the White House. After all, this Administration already is using the EPA in a dubious scheme to impose costly global warming rules even though Congress decided not to approve Obama’s misguided legislation.

As an economist, however, I worry about the impact on the U.S. banking sector and the risks for the overall economy. Foreigners invest lots of money in the American economy, more than $10 trillion according to Commerce Department data. This money boosts our financial markets and creates untold numbers of jobs. We don’t know how much of the capital will leave if the regulation is implemented, but even the loss of a couple of hundred billion dollars would be bad news considering the weak recovery and shaky financial sector.

As a decent human being, I’m also angry that Obama’s IRS is undermining the human rights of foreigners who use the American financial system as a safe haven. Countless people protect their assets in America because of corruption, expropriation, instability, persecution, discrimination, and crime in their home countries. The only silver lining is that these people will simply move their money to safer jurisdictions, such as Panama, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, or Switzerland, if the regulation is implemented. That’s great news for them, but bad news for the U.S. economy.

In pushing this regulation, the IRS even disregarded rule-making procedures adopted during the Clinton Administration. But all this is explained in the video, so let’s close this post with a link to a somewhat naughty – but very appropriate – joke about the IRS.

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Thanks to the Obamacare legislation, we already know there will be a new 3.9 percent payroll tax on all investment income earned by so-called rich taxpayers beginning in 2013. And the capital gains tax rate will jump to 20 percent next year if the President gets his way. This sounds bad (and it is), but the news is even worse than you think. Here’s a new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that exposes the atrociously unfair practice of imposing this levy on inflationary gains.

The mini-documentary uses a simple but powerful example of what happens to an investor who bought an asset 10 years ago for $5,000 and sold it this year for $6,000. The IRS will want 15 percent of the $1,000 gain (Obama wants the tax burden on capital gains to climb to 23.9 percent, but that’s a separate issue). Some people may think that a 15 percent tax is reasonable, but how many of those people understand that inflation during the past 10 years was more than 27 percent, and $6,000 today is actually worth only about $4,700 after adjusting for the falling value of the dollar? I’m not a math genius, but if the government imposes a $150 tax (15 percent of $1,000) on an investor who lost nearly $300 ($5,000 became $4,700), that translates into an infinite tax rate. And if Obama pushed the tax rate to almost 24 percent, that infinite tax rate gets…um…even more infinite.

The right capital gains tax, of course, is zero.

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Every economic theory – even socialism and Marxism – agrees that saving and investment (a.k.a., capital formation) are a key to long-run growth and higher living standards. Yet the tax code penalizes with double taxation those who are willing to forego current consumption to finance future prosperity. This new Center for Freedom and Prosperity video explains why the capital gains tax should be abolished.

Unfortunately, Obama wants to go in the wrong direction. He wants to boost the official capital gains tax rate from 15 percent to 20 percent – and that is after imposing a back-door 3.8 percentage point increase in the tax rate as part of his government-run healthcare scheme.

Share this post with your friends and neighbors. If enough people understand why the capital gains tax is a job killer that reduces American competitiveness, perhaps the wrong thing won’t happen.

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