As the personality-fueled presidential campaign rages on, little time has been spent on how a Clinton or Trump presidency might affect the economy and the markets. Yet the candidates’ respective policy objectives are likely to have profound effects on investors. This paper discusses the fiscal policies a Trump or Clinton administration would likely pursue, whether those policies are likely to be implemented, and how those policies could affect businesses, borrowing, taxes, and the markets.
Our Election Predictions – A Review
Here are the predictions from our July white paper, Sizing Up the General Election:
- The Republicans will keep control of the House of Representatives.
- The party that wins the White House also will control a majority of the Senate.
- Neither party will hold the 67 Senate seats needed to override a presidential veto or the 60 seats required to break a filibuster and allow legislation to proceed. The metrics underlying the presidential election (evolving demographics and the Democrats’ natural advantage in the Electoral College), combined with the manner in which the candidates have operated their respective campaigns to date, make Clinton the heavy favorite. But it is too early to declare the race over. Trump’s uncanny ability to control and bend the rules of engagement give him a “puncher’s chance” of prevailing. Facing a heavily favored opponent, he still could pull off an unlikely win by landing a rhetorical punch that gets through Clinton’s defenses and severely rattles her. Until we see how — and whether — Clinton handles the Trump onslaught in their debates, it is premature to declare her the clear winner.
A Clinton Presidency
Hillary Clinton’s fiscal and tax policies hue to the Democratic Party line. She believes that capitalism has hard edges, and government programs are needed to help those in lower socioeconomic classes move up to the shrinking middle class. Clinton advocates for new or expanded government education and jobs initiatives and a higher minimum age. She would not reduce entitlements, instead leaving in place (or increasing) current Social Security and Medicare benefits even for young workers.
Clinton would pay for her initiatives with new taxes that would fall almost exclusively on affluent families. Higher income families, she asserts, have done far better financially in the economic recovery than have working Americans, and can afford to help those left behind.
Based on our predictions, Clinton will face a Republican-controlled House. In our view, Clinton’s unpopularity (over 50% of voters view her unfavorably), coupled with extant Republican antagonism, will significantly compromise the honeymoon period that typically follows a presidential inauguration. We look for a contentious relationship between the House and the White House from the beginning.
House Republicans are exceedingly unlikely to agree to Clinton’s call for higher tax rates and higher domestic spending. Thus, we see a Clinton presidency as a continuation of the Washington gridlock of the last six years (since the Republicans assumed control of the House in 2010). Few initiatives will be enacted and sweeping legislation will be scarce to non-existent. Instead, Washington will address fiscal deadlines with eleventh hour short term extensions, kicking the can down an abbreviated road.
Although such gridlock is frustrating to many American voters, it might not be detrimental to the markets. Markets react negatively to uncertainty. When one party controls the White House and Congress, the possibility of sweeping legislation antithetical to businesses remains a possibility. During the first two years of his presidency Obama enjoyed a filibuster-proof Congressional majority. Those years saw the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank bank reform, and other sweeping legislation viewed by many as harmful to business. Gridlock virtually eliminates the risk of major legislative changes, freeing the markets to focus less on Washington policy and more on economic developments.
A Trump Presidency
Donald Trump is anything but predictable. That attribute alone has the potential to roil the markets. A number of months ago, Donald Trump, drawing on his bankruptcy experience, ruminated that it might make sense for the U.S. to negotiate a “haircut” on its loan repayments, giving Treasury debt holders less than the face amount to which they are entitled. Trump walked back that comment shortly after making it, but a similarly explosive comment from a sitting president likely would cause significant market turmoil.
Consistent with his “America First” policy, Trump wants to impose hefty tariffs (reportedly as high as 40%) on foreign goods entering the United States. Our trading partners presumably would retaliate with their own tariffs on goods from the United States. Most economists believe the resulting drop in U.S. exports could have a devastating effect on domestic businesses.
In contrast to Trump, most of the House Republican leadership supports broad free trade principles, and thus is unlikely to enact Trump’s radical trade policies. But failure to derail those initiatives quickly could precipitate nervousness in the markets.
On the fiscal side, like Clinton (and unlike the other Republican presidential candidates), Trump would not reduce Social Security or Medicare benefits even for young workers. Also like Clinton, Trump would initiate a large scale infrastructure repair program. And he would spend significantly more to shore up the military. But while Clinton calls for increased taxes on the wealthy, Trump would reduce taxes significantly across the board. Trump’s tax plan is in line with that of the House Republicans, and thus would have a good likelihood of passage.
Although markets initially might cheer lower taxes, the negative consequences to the federal deficit of more spending and reduced taxes could cause overleveraging problems down the road. Thus, a Trump presidency could follow the arc of the George W. Bush presidency, with exploding debt leading to an economic (and market) downturn.
The Fiscal Situation and Taxes
Over the past several years, the deficit has declined steadily from its all-time high in 2009. But, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the deficit is now rising again: the 2015 deficit will grow by a third in 2016. Congressional Budget Office, Long Term Budget Outlook (August 2016). Even in the absence of additional spending, this deficit increase will accelerate in coming years as major entitlement expenditures (Social Security and Medicare payments) grow with the aging population.
Neither presidential candidate seeks to reduce the federal deficit. With spending up, entitlement reform off the table, and the deficit growing, we believe the deficit hawks in the House leadership will be forced to undertake a constant search for revenue. Of course, Republicans will not seek to enact broad tax increases – such as higher tax rates or the elimination of popular deductions or exemptions. Instead, the House leadership is likely to look at less controversial tax changes — smaller items that curtail tax treatment that many in Washington believe is inappropriately generous.
Indeed, this process has already begun. The last government funding compromise (in December 2015) sought partially to recoup increased spending by eliminating a popular (and, in the eyes of many politicians, overly generous) Social Security planning strategy called “file and suspend”.
We believe eliminating the “file and suspend loophole” is a harbinger of things to come. Future funding bills could close other perceived loopholes, resulting in a whittling away of techniques investors use to reduce taxes. Examples of other loophole closures that have been under discussion include:
- Tax the sale of “carried interests” as ordinary income.
- Curtail “stretching” of inherited IRAs and 401k’s.
- Apply required minimum distribution rules to Roth accounts beginning at age 70-1/2.
- Limit Roth IRA conversions to pre-tax dollars.
- Treat all distributions from S corps and partnerships to owner-employees as subject to employment taxes.
- Curtail sophisticated wealth transfer techniques.
Most investors note that taxes already are high. In 2013, tax increases to avoid the “fiscal cliff” and to fund the Affordable Care Act caused the top tax rates on investment income to jump by ten percentage points. As a result, the top 10% of tax returns by income now pay 82% of all federal individual income taxes, the highest number ever recorded. Fairness and Tax Policy, Joint Committee on Taxation (February 2015). Tax rates imposed on upper income taxpayers are now the highest they have been in the past 35 years. The Distribution of Household Income and Federal Taxes (CBO November 2014). And the effort to raise revenue through loophole closers could eliminate many current tax reduction techniques, effectively raising taxes further.
High and increasing taxes make effective tax planning for investments paramount. We review a number of tax planning suggestions – and discuss possible loophole closers in more detail — in our white paper, Investing in a Rising Tax Environment – 2016, published earlier this year.
After the election and before the new administration takes office, we will prepare a white paper that discusses in more detail the new president’s policies and their likelihood of enactment, including how the policies could affect individual economic sectors.
Andrew H. Friedman is the principal of The Washington Update LLC and a former senior partner in a Washington, D.C. law firm. He and his colleague Jeff Bush speak regularly on legislative and regulatory developments and trends affecting investment, insurance, and retirement products. They may be reached at www.TheWashingtonUpdate.com.
The authors of this paper are not providing legal or tax advice as to the matters discussed herein. The discussion herein is general in nature and is provided for informational purposes only. There is no guarantee as to its accuracy or completeness. It is not intended as legal or tax advice and individuals may not rely upon it (including for purposes of avoiding tax penalties imposed by the IRS or state and local tax authorities). Individuals should consult their own legal and tax counsel as to matters discussed herein and before entering into any estate planning, trust, investment, retirement, or insurance arrangement.
Copyright Andrew H. Friedman 2016. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the view of M Holding Securities or WealthPoint, LLC.