Federal deficit vanishing act
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist
Federal revenues have grown over 12% a year for the past 30 months, 11.5% over the past year, and at a 9% annual rate in the past six months. Things have cooled off a bit, but revenues have far exceeded expectations and continue to grow at an impressive rate, thanks to corporate profits, capital gains and incomes that continue to beat most expectations. Meanwhile, despite President Bush's inability to wield his veto pen, and despite the military buildup and the Iraq War, federal government spending has grown only 6.5%, 5.6%, and 3.2% over those same periods. The result is a dramatic decline in the budget deficit, which totaled only $192 billion in the 12 months ended January, or about 1.4% of GDP. At this rate, budget surpluses could be making headlines before the 2008 presidential elections.
Budget opportunists might argue that since conditions have rarely been so good, now is the time we are most able to afford higher taxes. After all, unemployment is low, inflation is relatively low, credit spreads are relatively low, financial market volatility is relatively low, the stock market is rising, household net worth has soared to $53 trillion from its $41 trillion peak before the stock market bubble burst, and the global economy has never been so strong.
Let's stipulate, for the sake of argument, that by next year the electorate generates enthusiasm for a presidential candidate that proposes tax hikes on the rich and profitable, in the spirit of Hillary Clinton's recent declaration: "I want to take those [oil company] profits, and I want to put them into a strategic energy fund … ." In other words, higher taxes are OK because some parts of the economy are doing too well, while others aren't. What impact would this likely have on the overall economy, considering that the new president probably couldn't pass any major tax-hike legislation until the middle of 2009 or later?
As Art Laffer has taught us, higher taxes, especially on those that are the most productive, would probably be bad for the economy ("tax something more and you'll get less of it"). However, Art also reminds us that the prospect of a future tax hike would likely have the perverse effect of boosting the economy in the short run. That's because as people anticipate that taxes will be raised significantly at some future date, they are likely to do everything possible to accelerate and realize income and gains before the tax hike takes effect. It is only after the tax hike takes effect that economic growth would be likely to fall off. Thus we might see the stock market decline in 2008, in anticipation of the weakness to come in 2009 or 2010, even as the economy was to all appearances quite healthy. The bond market might also have some difficulties around that time, since a stronger economy would increase the Fed's concern over the risk of higher inflation.
Some things to ponder and worry about, since otherwise the only obvious negative out there is the ongoing housing market correction which, so far, the economy has been able to digest relatively easily.