Share story

Millions of Americans have come to count on tax refunds to fuel their spending in the waning days of winter. But as income tax filing season opens on Monday, a sweeping tax code overhaul and the lingering effects of a government shutdown could squeeze taxpayers’ refund checks and delay them, too.

The monthlong government shutdown coincided with one of the Internal Revenue Service’s busiest times, and while 46,000 employees were called back to work without pay, many did not show up. Many taxpayers calling with questions faced delays of over an hour. While furloughed federal workers will return to their jobs on Monday, it will take time to get parts of the IRS running smoothly again. And the workers’ time on the job could be brief, with a temporary measure funding the government expiring in three weeks.

Even before the shutdown, big questions loomed about this year’s tax season. The $1.5 trillion tax overhaul that took effect at the beginning of 2018 lowered individual income tax rates, doubled the standard deduction and eliminated or capped many personal exemptions and tax breaks, such as the state and local tax deduction. All told, the overhaul threw a cloud of confusion over the correct amount to withhold in advance from workers’ paychecks.

The Treasury Department was given discretion to set new withholding levels, which IRS officials finished early last year to help taxpayers ensure they would not have too much — or too little — held back from their paychecks.

But the actual effect of those changes will only be known for sure once the returns are processed. The lack of clarity over what has been an annual injection of cash into the consumer economy is adding a layer of uncertainty just when the United States is already contending with slowing global growth, trade tensions and recent jitters in financial markets. Whether the new law will lead to a surge in refunds, a modest bump or even a decline could also have political implications.

A Treasury Department analysis provided to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, projects that about 4 million more filers will have a balance to pay on their taxes this year, and 4 million fewer will receive refunds, compared what would have been the case under the old withholding system. The Congressional Budget Office said in a budget review last year that it “now expects tax withholding to be lower during fiscal year 2018; that effect will be offset by higher tax payments (or smaller refunds) when taxpayers file their tax returns next spring.”

The uncertainty extends to Wall Street.

Economists at Morgan Stanley expect that refunds will send savings and spending sharply higher early this year.

“For your average taxpayer it’s going to be a record high tax refund season. Much higher than they expected,” said Ellen Zentner, chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley.

The bank’s economists expect roughly $62 billion in additional tax refunds attributable to changes from the tax overhaul. That would be a 26 percent increase over last year, they said, and they estimate that a burst of refund-related spending should help consumer expenditures grow at a peppy 3 percent annual rate in the first quarter, before slowing sharply in subsequent quarters.

At JPMorgan Chase, economists have estimated that there could be a $20 billion increase in refunds this year related to the tax law. But the bank’s economists have also noted the “considerable uncertainty” surrounding the extent of the household benefits from the law. In a recent report, they noted the possibility that all of the tax cut’s benefits for households may have already made their way to taxpayers’ pockets, in the form of lower withholding last year. Such a situation would result in smaller refunds than many might expect.

“I’ve seen estimates that are all over the map,” said Michael Feroli, JPMorgan’s chief U.S. economist.

The size of a refund has nothing to do with benefits taxpayers receive from a tax cut — it’s simply the difference between the amount Americans withheld from their paychecks to cover their expected tax bill and the amount they actually owe.

Americans generally prefer to have too much withheld, even though that amounts to lending the government money without interest until tax filing season arrives and refunds are sent out. Typically, three-quarters of tax filers receive refunds — including last year, when more than 102 million tax filers got money back.

Their refunds totaled nearly $285 billion, with the average refund around $2,800. Americans often spend that cash on relatively big-ticket items such as cars, vacations, household appliances and furniture.

A lower refund total would mean that, in the switch to the new tax code, companies and taxpayers made better guesses on how much they actually owe the government. But some Republicans in Washington are privately worried taxpayers might not see it that way and that smaller refunds will cause many Americans to think they were penalized, not helped, by the new tax law.

Independent analyses, including by the Tax Policy Center in Washington, project that the vast majority of Americans received a tax cut from the new law in its first year, and only 5 percent saw a tax increase, including some higher-earning Americans in high-tax states who will no longer get as big a state and local tax break. But opinion polls show the law has struggled to attract support from a majority of voters.

Some of the taxpayers hit hardest by the law’s changes could also be in for an unwelcome surprise this filing season. Higher-income taxpayers in high-tax states like California, New York and New Jersey could be particularly at risk for an unexpected tax liability, Morgan Stanley analysts estimate. That is because those taxpayers are more likely to have claimed large deductions for state and local taxes paid on their federal returns. Trump’s tax law capped that deduction, known as SALT, at $10,000 per household per year.

Across the country, unexpectedly large refunds would be a welcome injection of cash into an economy facing a potential slowdown. Business spending tapered in late 2018, and that slowdown most likely worsened as financial markets convulsed in December, weighing on corporate and consumer confidence. The government shutdown is also expected to sap economic growth in the first quarter, since workers and contractors were not paid and vast amounts of government work went undone.

Not paying workers drained significant consumer spending power from the economy. Some workers will catch up on their spending once they receive back pay; others, including contractors and business owners that cater to government employees, will have suffered a permanent loss. Federal workers may not be in a rush to spend any money, given the White House and Congress have only given themselves a three-week reprieve to try to resolve the differences that led to the longest shutdown in history.

Economists are divided on how much the economy has permanently lost from the shutdown, but many analysts agree that first-quarter growth will be several tenths of a percentage point lower than they had anticipated.

“An increase in refunds would be sort of a shot in the arm at the right time, if it came in Q1, early Q2,” Feroli said. “It would be nice to have consumers sort of have something to smooth over that raw patch.”

The recent shutdown-related uncertainty about possible delays in paying out refunds could also counteract some of the traditional economic fuel from refund season, said Zentner of Morgan Stanley.

The shutdown, on the heels of an awful December for the stock market, has already contributed to a recent decline in consumer confidence. Such declines are typically associated with a softening in spending behavior and an increase in savings as consumers brace for a more uncertain future.

“When the government is not functioning it’s quite scary for households,” Zentner said. “You’re just going to pile up on top of another big pile of uncertainty, if their tax refunds are delayed.”