WSJ Op-Ed on Dividend and Capital Gains Tax Rates

WSJ Op-Ed on Dividend and Capital Gains Tax Rates

January 24, 2006

A number of subscribers have sent emails saying they had difficulty in accessing the op-ed I wrote in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal on why permanently low dividend and capital gains tax rates are important for keeping capital in America where our workers can use it to earn paychecks. The text below is an earlier draft. Hope you enjoy it.

Why Dividend and Capital Gains Tax Rates are Important for Growth

When the Senate and House get back to work this week, the clamor for protectionism, in the wake of new numbers on our trade deficit with China, will drown out every other issue. But the key to U.S. growth and trade is not bashing the Chinese currency—it’s the Tax Reconciliation Bill that will emerge from Senate-House Conference in early February. At stake–tax rates on the capital that determines our productivity and workers’ paychecks.

America is not competing for jobs with China. We are competing for capital. Double-taxing dividend and capital gains income drives capital to China where it earns higher after-tax returns. When that happens, American workers are left behind with falling productivity and uncompetitive companies.

Reducing or eliminating dividend and capital gains tax rates keeps capital in America, where it makes workers productive and supports high incomes. Congress must act now to keep rates from increasing in 2008 by extending or eliminating dividend and capital gains taxes.

The 2003 cuts in both dividend and capital gains tax rates hit the stock market and corporate boardrooms like a bunker buster. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 32% since 12/31/02, one week before President Bush announced the dividend and capital gains tax rate cuts. The S&P 500 large-cap index is up 47%. Mid-cap are up 79%, and small caps up 81%.

Overall, the value of U.S. equities increased $6.0 trillion (+50%) since the dividend tax cut first appeared in the headlines, from $11.9 trillion on 12/31/02 to $17.9 trillion on 9/30/05, according to the most recent Federal Reserve Flow of Funds Report. Household net worth increased $12.1 trillion over the same period, from $39.0 trillion on 12/31/02 to $51.1 trillion, an increase of $40,631 for every person in America. These gains accrue to the 91 million Americans who own shares of stock directly or through mutual funds and to more than 80 million private and government workers through pension funds. Growth, profits, and investment spending also grew, and we have created 4.4 million jobs. Tax cuts were a major factor in producing these gains.

Dividend and capital gains tax cuts are not trickle-down economics as claimed by opponents. They work by jolting asset markets, stock prices, and capital spending and by altering business decisions about capital structure, dividend payout, and capital deployment.

In December, 2002, I prepared a report for a White House working group detailing how the dividend tax cut would impact the U.S. stock market and its major sectors through two different channels 1) recapitalizing the stock market and 2) restructuring corporate balance sheets. You can read the report by clicking on the link above.

Tax cuts initially impact asset prices by making investors recapitalize, or revalue, the equities of existing companies to reflect higher after-tax returns relative to interest-bearing securities like CDs, T-bills, bonds, and REITs, tangible assets like land and collectibles, and foreign assets. The return gap—more than 100 basis points for the 2003 tax cuts—makes investors sell relatively low-return assets, driving their prices down, and buy relatively high-return assets, driving their prices up, until after-tax returns have been driven together again. My estimates showed an initial impact of $560-938 billion, or 6-10%.

The restructuring impact of tax cuts on stock prices plays out over several years but is potentially several times larger than the initial price impact. The 2003 tax cuts were larger for dividend income (from 38.6% to 15%), than for capital gains income (20% to 15%); tax rates on interest income were unchanged. This made the impact on a stock’s value greater: the greater its profitability; the greater the percentage of equity, rather than debt, in its capital structure; the greater its payout rate; and the greater its duration (a stock with a greater duration is more sensitive to changes in cost of capital).

In 2003, U.S. companies were poorly structured to benefit from the changes. Decades of high dividend tax rates and deductible interest payments had encouraged managers to finance companies with debt instead of equity, which reduced profits and increased bankruptcy risk, and to reinvest profits and hoard cash for acquisitions rather than pay out dividends, regardless of the company’s prospects. According to the American Shareholders Association, the number of S&P 500 companies paying dividends fell from 469 in 1980 to 351 in 2002. By 2002 the S&P 900 (large and mid-cap) companies paid out just 53% of profits, and financed companies with only 27% equity and 73% debt.

Once tax rates were cut in 2003, managers quickly learned they could profit from lower tax rates by restructuring balance sheets (issuing equity to buy back debt, e.g., Nextel), initiating new dividends and cleaning out their cash hoards through one-time special dividends (e.g., Microsoft), and increasing dividend payout ratios. As a result, dividend payments received by shareholders have doubled since the tax cuts.

As companies, one by one, made these changes, their equity values increased. But changing capital structure takes time, one reason I believe equities will enjoy strong returns for many years if tax rates remain low.

We need permanent tax cuts, not temporary extensions, to fully realize these benefits. Managers do not make decisions about leverage and dividend payouts lightly; they will do so only if they believe tax rates will remain low. But Congress gives them temporary rate cuts and temporary extensions in order to comply with the bizarre Congressional budget scoring ritual.

Equities are a long-term investment. Based on our estimates, the duration of the S&P 500 is over 22 years. Each of the first 5 future years of expected free cash flow contributes only about 5% of the stock market’s intrinsic value. That means 90% of the value of the stock market depends on expected after-tax profits after year 2, the date when tax cuts are currently scheduled to expire. We need to make tax cuts permanent so investors can fully reflect them in stock prices.

Congress can adopt the 2 year extension in the house bill and keep the recovery strong and net worth growing. Better still, they could make current tax rates permanent, which would encourage managers to speed up restructuring activities, accelerate stock market gains, reduce cost of capital, and increase capital spending. Best, they should end double taxation by making both dividend and capital gains rates permanently zero.

America enjoys the highest living standards in the world because American workers enjoy the use of the largest and most advanced stock of tools in the world. But tools are mobile, workers are not. While America continues to double-tax capital income through dividend and capital gains taxes, China, India, and other countries are aggressively competing for American capital with increasingly investor-friendly policies.

When the capital leaves, the paycheck goes with it. We can’t afford to let that happen.


John Rutledge

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