June 7, 2021
POLICY SHIFTS MAY CHALLENGE MARKETS
Barry Gilbert, PhD, CFA, Asset Allocation Strategist, LPL Financial
Ryan Detrick, CMT, Chief Market Strategist, LPL Financial
Fiscal stimulus, which was central to the market rebound in the last year, may start moving to the sidelines over the rest of 2021 and into 2022 as the recovery continues. Economic growth can compensate for the loss of government checks to households and businesses, but potential tax increases may be more challenging for markets to navigate. Business tax increases, in particular, may gradually pull gains out of markets about equal to their size, but with economic growth supporting corporate earnings, we believe a positive backdrop for equities remains in place.
During much of 2020 and early 2021, markets were focused on fiscal policy due to massive government efforts to help bridge the economy past the impact of COVID-19 restrictions. Markets liked stimulus as much in 2020 and 2021 as in 2009, and, to a smaller extent, 2018. Policy will still matter over the rest of 2021 and into 2022, but it will matter far less—despite some important debates going on in Washington. Markets may anticipate an increase in government spending if Congress passes some version of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better (BBB) initiative, but that spending will likely be spread out over almost a decade. The biggest risk may be around taxes, with businesses and wealthy households both facing the prospect of a higher tax burden to pay for BBB and help manage the deficit.
FEDERAL SPENDING UNLIKELY TO CHANGE MARKET TRAJECTORY
Much of the approximately $5 trillion in direct COVID-19 related stimulus in 2020 and 2021 did not flow through directly as government spending. Instead, the federal government used its borrowing power to distribute funds to households and businesses. That impact will fade over the reminder of the year but will be replaced by the private economy accelerating. There is some threat of a fiscal headwind from the decline in government largesse, but that headwind will be felt only if the private economy can’t make up the difference and we continue to expect above-average growth well into 2022.
Actual government spending is likely to continue to grow, but the rate of growth will not make a large difference to overall output in our more than $20 trillion economy. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, federal spending added an average of about 0.15% per year to gross domestic product (GDP) growth between 2000 and 2020, with defense and non-defense spending each contributing about half of that. Federal spending has not contributed more than 0.5% to GDP growth since 1986 and contributed only 0.29% in 2020. COVID-19 stimulus was more about borrowing and writing checks to businesses and households than growth in direct government spending.
But even a small contribution to GDP growth can be massive in absolute terms. With proposals for the two pieces of BBB reaching nearly $4 trillion—including $1.8 trillion for the American Families Plan (AFP) and more than $2 trillion for the infrastructure bill (known as the American Jobs Plan or AJP)—higher taxes would be needed to help finance the new initiatives. Let’s be clear though: With a 50/50 Senate (Vice President Kamala Harris breaks ties) and historically slim Democratic majority in the House, we think these final numbers will likely come at $2–2.5 trillion combined, as these initial numbers from the Democrats were a starting point for negotiations.
TAXES MAY CHANGE MARKET PATH, BUT NOT DIRECTION
Federal spending is generally funded by taxes or debt, and the Biden administration plans to raise taxes to help pay for BBB. President Biden has proposed increasing taxes on both corporations and wealthy households, including an increase in the capital gains tax, the tax on investment profits. Markets so far have taken the proposed changes in stride, largely due to expectations that the proposed tax increases will be reduced during negotiations and the economy will be strong enough to absorb the impact.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), signed into law by President Trump in December 2017, reduced the top tax rate on corporations from 35%, where it had been since 1993, to 21%. Before the TCJA, the top U.S. statutory corporate tax rate had not been under 30% since the 1940s. There were also other structural reforms in the TCJA, including changes to the way U.S. corporate profits from abroad are taxed, in an attempt to make U.S. companies more competitive.
President Biden has proposed increasing the corporate tax rate to 28%, but that should be viewed as a bargaining position and we believe the more likely outcome is that we see the rate end up closer to 25%. Alternative approaches, such as increasing the minimum tax on businesses and raising the top rate less—or not at all, are becoming part of the conversation. The negative news for markets is that corporate earnings growth will likely take a direct hit that is approximately equal to the size of any tax hike. Because the stock market is fundamentally driven by earnings growth, the tax impact will likely be a headwind for equity markets. On the positive side, this move has been anticipated for quite some time and should not be much of a surprise to markets. Further, as shown in [Figure 1], excluding the TCJA rate, this will still be the lowest tax rate in about 70 years and the effective tax rate has also declined.