Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Thomas L. Hungerford
Specialist in Public Finance
Jane G. Gravelle
Senior Specialist in Economic Policy
According to the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the U.S. economy was in recession from December 2007 to June 2009. Congress passed and the President signed an economic stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-5), in February 2009. The $787 billion package included $286 billion in tax cuts to help stimulate the economy. Among the tax reductions, many were tax incentives directed to business. The preliminary estimate of fourth quarter real gross domestic product (GDP) growth is 5.9%; the unemployment rate, a lagging indicator, averaged 9.6% in the third quarter and 10.0% in the fourth quarter of 2009. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke expects the economy to continue growing at a modest pace, but predicts that bank lending will remain constrained and the job market will remain weak into at least 2010. To further assist unemployed workers, help business, and stimulate housing markets, Congress passed the Worker, Homeownership, and Business Assistance Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-92). The Obama Administration has advocated further business tax incentives to spur investment and employment, especially for small business. The House and Senate passed the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment (HIRE) Act, which includes an employment tax credit. The President signed the act into law on March 18, 2010. In December 2010, P.L. 111-312 extended and expanded the business tax provisions, among other provisions, including a temporary reduction in the employee’s portion of the payroll tax.
Several proposals, largely relating to the extension and increase of the temporary payroll tax, included further investment incentives as well as reductions in payroll taxes by employers. While a payroll tax on the individual side expands demand in the same way as other income tax cuts, the employer tax forgiveness is similar to an employer-side wage subsidy, which acts through a different mechanism.
The two most common measures to provide business tax incentives for new investment are investment tax credits and accelerated deductions for depreciation. The evidence, however, suggests that a business tax subsidy may not necessarily be the best choice for fiscal stimulus, largely because of the uncertainty of its success in stimulating aggregate demand. If such subsidies are used, however, the most effective short-run policy is probably a temporary investment subsidy. Permanent investment subsidies may distort the allocation of investment in the long run.
Employment and wage subsidies are designed to increase employment directly by reducing a firm’s wage bill. The tax system is a frequently used means for providing employment subsidies. Most of the business tax incentives for hiring currently under discussion are modeled partially on the New Jobs Tax Credit (NJTC) from 1977 and 1978. Evidence provided in various studies suggests that incremental tax credits have the potential of increasing employment, but in practice may not be as effective in increasing employment as desired. There are several reasons why this may be the case. First, jobs tax credits are often complex and many employers, especially small businesses, may not want to incur the necessary record-keeping costs. Second, since eligibility for the tax credit is determined when the firm files the annual tax return, firms do not know if they are eligible for the credit at the time hiring decisions are made. Third, many firms may not even be aware of the availability of the tax credit until it is time to file a tax return. Lastly, product demand appears to be the primary determinant of hiring, and this issue would affect the effectiveness of a payroll tax holiday on the employer side.
Date of Report: December 7, 2011
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: R41034
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