As companies operate with lower taxes and a greater ability to reduce what they owe, the federal government is receiving far less than it would have before the overhaul.
The amount of corporate taxes collected by the federal government has plunged to historically low levels in the first six months of the year, pushing up the federal budget deficit much faster than economists had predicted.
The reason is President Donald Trump’s tax cuts. The law introduced a standard corporate rate of 21 percent, down from a high of 35 percent, and allowed companies to immediately deduct many new investments. As companies operate with lower taxes and a greater ability to reduce what they owe, the federal government is receiving far less than it would have before the overhaul.
The Trump administration had said the tax cuts would pay for themselves by generating increased revenue from faster economic growth, but the administration has acknowledged in recent weeks that the deficit is growing faster than it had expected. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said this month that it had revised its forecasts from earlier this year to account for nearly $1 trillion of additional debt over the next decade — on average, almost $100 billion more a year in deficits.
In the trough of the Great Recession in 2009, when companies were laying off hundreds of thousands of workers each month, corporate tax collections plunged by almost a third. It was the largest quarterly drop since the Commerce Department began compiling the data in the 1940s. No other period came close — until this year.
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From January to June, according to data from the Treasury Department, corporate tax payments fell by a third from the same period a year ago. The drop nearly reached a 75-year low as a share of the economy, according to federal data.
“If we hadn’t changed our tax system,” said Kimberly Clausing, an economics professor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, who studies business taxation, “you would be expecting rising revenues.”
The corporate tax payments have been tumbling as Congress careens toward a fiscal showdown in September that will take still more money to resolve. The spending bill that Trump signed this year expires at the end of September. Congress is unlikely to pass another comprehensive spending bill before then. Instead, Republican leaders will have to press for a stopgap spending bill if they want to prevent a government shutdown a month before the midterm elections.
The new law has proved to be a boon for companies, with corporate profits after taxes at the highest level the United States has ever seen. (As a share of the economy, though, profits are still below their peak reached under President Barack Obama.)
White House officials say the new law, which changed how the U.S. taxes multinational companies that operate here, is spurring a wave of so-called repatriation: businesses returning money to the United States that they had booked on their balance sheets abroad to defer American taxes. In the first quarter of this year, according to Commerce Department data, multinationals repatriated $306 billion, in the form of dividends. That was $270 billion above the average quarterly amount over the past five years. White House officials say that’s a sign the tax law is working.
It is not clear that repatriation is generating additional economic activity. Companies can spread out the tax bill for repatriation over the next eight years, which is why those payouts are not lifting corporate tax payments in the near term. The law forces multinational companies to pay a one-time tax on cash and assets held abroad, but the Internal Revenue Service allows firms to pay that bill in annual installments, even if they choose to pay out the money in dividends right away.
Administration officials have said that timing has contributed to corporate collections running 20 percent below initial forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office and 10 percent below predictions from the Penn Wharton Budget Model, a nonpartisan research initiative that forecast large deficits from the tax law.
Other factors could be holding tax receipts down. Some analysts think the so-called expensing provisions of law that allow companies to write off new investments immediately, may prove more popular than some forecasters anticipated.
Multinationals could also be shifting money — on paper, basically — into the U.S. solely to take advantage of the expensing provision and reduce their U.S. tax bills. “This tax law is working, in the sense that now shareholders have access to their cash,” said Reed College’s Clausing, “but whether that translates to investment is a much different question.”