Wednesday, January 21, 2015

NYU Tax Policy Colloquium, week 1: paper by Brigitte Madrian

Yesterday we had the first session of the 2015 NYU Tax Policy Colloquium.  This is the 20th time (in 20 straight spring semesters) that I have done the colloquium.  This year, I am happy to be co-leading it with Alan Viard.  (The full roster of people I’ve co-led it with in the past, ranked by how many weeks or years they’ve done it, except that the last two are tied, is David Bradford, Alan Auerbach, Mihir Desai, Bill Gale, Rosanne Altshuler, and Kevin Hassett.)

One sign of institutional health, I suppose, is that we can’t accommodate all of the students who want to enroll.  Luckily from an overall institutional standpoint, the law school ties my hands so that I can’t act in accordance with what would otherwise be my revealed preference of just letting everyone in.  (The problem is that the feel of the class changes for the worse if the class size grows too great.)

Although lots of other tax policy colloquia around the country have followed in our wake – maybe 20 or more, although they may not all be operating at present or in a given year – we still have a unique format, in which the author doesn’t present the paper, but rather a lead commentator focuses the conversation on a couple of main topics, one at a time.  We consult with each other first, then with the author, and then we run the show at 4 pm.

Not having the author present is admittedly a tradeoff.  I personally find the conventional twenty minute presentation upfront to be boring – including, and indeed especially, when I am the author and presenter at someone else’s session – if I have already read the paper carefully (or wrote it).  And not having the presentation induces the audience either to (1) invest more in reading it in advance or (2) not to come.  The key, for it to be a positive strategy, is that there must be enough people out there who choose option (1) rather than option (2).

For me, the tiebreaker against the author presentation is that, if you do that and then follow it up with your own commentary, the audience is just going to be sitting around forever before it gets to participate.  I don’t find that to be either fun or interesting, whether I’m in the audience or at the front.  So in my view, not shared by everyone who runs a tax policy colloquium, skipping the author presentation verges on being a necessary cost of leading and initially directing the discussion, rather than just asking for audience questions.

Anyway, on to yesterday’s session.  The author was Brigitte Madrian, presenting “Does Front-Loading Taxation Increase Savings?  Evidence from Roth 401(k) Introductions.”

While I thought it was a really good session, I don’t comment here about the content of a given session, because that would be inconsistent with our policy that they are off the record.  So here are some thoughts about the paper and the issues it raises, mainly based on expanding my notes for the session (I was in the lead this week).

The paper reports on the findings of a study of 11 firms that initially had just “pre-tax” retirement saving plans under Internal Revenue Code section 401(k), but then added Roth options.

To illustrate how these two types of section 401(k) plans work, suppose that my marginal tax rate is 35 percent at all times.  Suppose I contribute $100 to a pre-tax plan, and withdraw it after retirement once the money has doubled to $200.  I get to deduct the $100 contribution, generating a $35 reduction in my current year tax liability.  Thus, the cost to me is only $65.  Then, when I withdraw the money, it is taxable at 35%, so I end up with $130.

Under Roth, my contributions are not deductible, but the withdrawals are not taxable.  Thus, it turns out to be exactly identical – again, assuming my marginal tax rate is the same at all times, and ignoring various statutory differences between the two types of plan – so long as my nominal contribution – matching my “true” after-tax cost under the pre-tax option - is $65.  Once again, I have $65 less in my pocket up front, but end up with $130 in retirement once the money has doubled.

Suppose that, under a switch to Roth, I still nominally contributed $100, and thus ended up with $200.  I would then have changed the amount of consumption that I am actually from the present to the future.  Absent more to the story, it would violate consistent rational choice for me to contribute the same nominal $100 under pre-tax as under Roth, given that, in the rational choice model, I am aiming for a particular consumption flow, and wouldn’t change this merely due to form if my true opportunity set was the same in both cases.

Anyway, the paper finds evidence that people didn’t reduce their nominal contributions by reason of the firms’ adding Roth to pre-tax employer retirement plans.  The apparent violation of consistent rational choice (unless otherwise explainable) might come as a surprise if not for twenty years of excellent empirical research into retirement savings behavior, much of it by Madrian herself, that finds even greater violations of consistent rational choice regarding even simpler decisions, such as whether or not to save for retirement.  (I discuss this evidence and its broader implications in a recent paper that you can find here.)

I proffered two discussion topics: the paper’s empirical analysis, and the broader policy implications.

1) Empirics.

The paper is based on studies of 11 firms that added a Roth option between 2006 and 2010.  As one would expect given the skill of the researchers, it is normalized for age, salary level, and gender.  It compares people who were hired just before the Roth option was added, to those who were hired 12 months later (and thus at the same time of year) when the Roth option was available.

Suppose marginal tax rates are entirely fixed, even for the future, will be the same for each individual all times, and that there are no relevant differences between the actually available pre-tax and Roth style 401(k) plans.  Then any individual who contributes $X under pre-tax should contribute $X(1 – t) under Roth, where t is that individual’s marginal tax rate.

To know how much employee contributions should drop when a Roth option is made available, we have to know how much they utilize it.  E.g., suppose everyone’s marginal tax rate is 35%, and that given everyone’s hypothesized complete indifference they are simply told which type of plan they were in.  Then contributions should drop by 35% if everyone is put in Roth, 17.5% if it’s half-Roth and half-pretax, and zero if no one uses Roth.

The paper shows that only about 15% of the money that employees were contributing ended up in Roth plans after the option was introduced.  Hence, if we posit that everyone has a marginal tax rate at all times of 33.3%, the expected drop in pretax contributions would only be 5%.

This alone might be small enough for one to worry about losing it amid the statistical noise.  (The authors had only limited data, and published to get the ball rolling in terms of academic study of the issue – they not only acknowledge the need for further research, but very likely will be doing some of that further research themselves.)

Now let’s add the fact that pretax and Roth plans are not entirely identical in practice.  For example, Roth is better if you expect your tax rate at retirement to be higher than it is at the time of contribution.  Optionality – pretax versus Roth – inherently makes retirement saving through the employer plans more attractive (although admittedly this might lead not just to increased true saving via substitution effects, but also reduced true saving via income effects).

Anyway, the bottom line is that one can’t be sure the “rational adjustment” effect would actually show up here in the data.  So while I believe the result, this reflects my priors, as much or more than what we learn from the study.

One bit in support of independently crediting the paper’s finding was that pretax contribution rates did not discernibly differ as between firms which had different levels of Roth utilization.  I would guess the authors’ reason for not highlighting this potentially very helpful point more (although they do mention it) was that the amount of data involved was admittedly limited.

They did apparently find, although not reported in this paper, that peculiar behavior around 2008, when the financial crisis hit and (obviously) may have strongly affected people’s thinking, does not appear to have a measurable effect.

2) Policy implications

(a) Zero long-term budgetary cost – or zero “unintended” long-term budgetary cost? – The paper concludes: “These results raise the possibility that governments may be able to increase after-tax private savings while holding the present value of taxes collected roughly constant by making savings non-deductible up front but tax exempt in retirement, rather than vice versa.”

Just as a quibble, if people make (in real terms) more use of Roth than pre-tax 401(k) plans, because their fixed nominal contributions are equivalent to making what are actually greater tax-adjusted contributions, implies that there might be a positive long-term budgetary cost.  To be sure, this is an “intended” budgetary effect if we think of policymakers as wanting to encourage greater utilization of the retirement savings provisions.

(b) Pre-tax vs. Roth if Congress uses time-limited budget windows. – Because Congress tends to use short-term, rather than infinite horizon, budget windows, Roth saving “looks” cheaper than pre-tax in budgetary terms even if the true  long-term cost is the same.  Both Congress and particular legislators, making supposedly budget-neutral proposals, have not been shy about exploiting this point to engage in bogus “deficit reduction” or “budget neutrality.”  So it is plausible that, even if using Roth in lieu of pretax increased private saving, it might induce increased government dissaving.

(c) Other pre-tax versus Roth issues – The tax benefits for retirement saving under Roth are less truly pre-committed than those under pre-tax.  We can be confident that in, say, 2030, Congress won’t increase particular individuals’ taxes because they got deductions in 2015 from using pre-tax retirement savings plans.  But Roth exemption would effectively remain on the table in 2015 even if Congress didn’t explicitly and directly renege.  An example would be partly or fully replacing the income tax with a VAT or an X-tax (i.e., an individual-level progressive consumption tax that effectively combines a VAT with low-wage subsidies).

This difference could be either good or bad from the standpoint of evaluating Roth.  It makes the tax benefit less credible, but leaves Congress with more discretion.  (Those are basically two different ways, with seemingly opposite normative implications, of saying the same thing.)

One thing I don’t like about Roth style exemption is that it can result in effectively exempting extraordinary returns that people have a limited opportunity to generate.  E.g., Mark Zuckerberg would have done a whole lot better with Roth than pre-tax treatment for his initial investment in Facebook.  This is a real issue when you recall the evidence suggesting that, say, Romney (along with lots of other financial sector insiders) appears to have played games with the IRA contribution limits by grossly undervaluing initially contributed assets.  The answer, when using Roth-style savings rules, is to require that only true arm’s length asset purchases and contributions be permitted.
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(d) Construing the choice set more broadly – It makes perfect sense for this paper to research pre-tax versus Roth, and then in its conclusion to spell out the main direct implication of its empirical finding.  But obviously policymakers should be thinking in broader terms than just pre-tax versus Roth.  The big items on the agenda today are Social Security, the use of “nudges” such as automatic enrollment in employer plans, and whether to continue using income tax “incentives” to encourage / increase retirement savings.

But note that income tax “incentives,” such as pretax and Roth, actually result in tax-neutral treatment of retirement saving – not in tax-favoring it – if one’s marginal tax rate is the same at all relevant times.  Thus, despite my general admiration for Raj Chetty’s work (with coauthors such as John Friedman) in this area, it makes my teeth ache a bit they describe the income tax rules (for example, here)  as providing “subsidies” for retirement saving.  This is only so (a) relative to an income tax baseline that discourages saving, or (b) when one uses a pre-tax plan and one’s marginal tax rate is lower at retirement than in the year of the contribution (which is, admittedly, likely to be a common scenario).

(e) Income tax vs. consumption tax – As discussed in my article on behavioral economics and retirement saving  a lot of evidence suggests that people have a great deal difficulty with intertemporal choice.  This has important implications for the income tax versus consumption tax policy debate that have not as yet been widely recognized.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Taxing capital gains at death

I'm pleased by the headline item in the tax proposals issued by the White House in connection with tomorrow's State of the Union address: the proposal to tax capital gains at death.

Current law, with its stepped-up basis at death, is  rightly called, by the write-up "perhaps the single largest loophole in the entire individual income tax code."  It means that asset appreciation that accrued during one's life will never be taxed.  (The possible, but today relatively limited, application of the estate tax, is quite different - it applies to value without respect to appreciation.)

Here is a simple hypothetical illustration of why this matters.  Despite my personal fondness for Apple products, I will take the late Steve Jobs as my example.  Suppose - no doubt exaggerating the actual facts, but probably in close relationship to them of Jobs, and even if not for him than for others - that he paid $1 for his initial stake of Apple stock when it was founded, and that the value of this stock appreciated to $1 billion by his death.  The income tax will never reach this enormous gain under stepped-up basis.

What about Jobs' salary from Apple?  With his famous dollar-a-year salary, this wouldn't have done anything either.  But even if Apple had paid him an arm's length salary, rather than effectively compensating him via stock and option appreciation, each dollar of salary it paid him would be includable by him yet deductible by it, leading to zero net tax revenue if their tax rates were the same (as during the long period when the top marginal rate was 35 percent for both individuals and corporations).

What about taxing Apple at the entity level?  In principle, taxing Apple at the corporate level could be a proxy for taxing Jobs as an individual, subject only to the question of whether its marginal tax rate was as high as the rate that one might have wanted to apply to him.  But Apple famously has minimized its tax liabilities through clever international tax planning.

In sum, Jobs' income may never be taxed to any significant degree absent a tax on capital gains at death.  And note that, in this instance, we are talking about labor income that any sensible tax base - including, for example, a well-designed consumption tax - would have reached at some point.  It is not just a question of taxing "capital income."

The tax on capital gains at death really is directed at the top 0.1 percent, especially with the bells and whistles that the White House proposal adds to address political concerns about "small business" and the like.  Note also that, in at least one respect, it actually increases the efficiency of the tax system.  Lock-in, or tax-induced reluctance to sell appreciated assets even if one would otherwise like to do so, is greatly worsened by the tax-free step-up in asset basis at death.  With step-up, selling one's appreciated assets while alive means that one is not merely accelerating a tax that will be due at some point in any event, but incurring a tax liability that would simply go away if one waited.  Hence, it encourages the simple tax planning trick that Ed McCaffery has labeled "buy, borrow, die."  Without step-up, capital gains taxes can achieve a decent tradeoff between revenue raised and distortionary costs from lock-in at a higher rate than is possible today.

The White House fact sheet calls tax-free step-up the "trust fund loophole," which is fair enough although we will see whether or not it catches on.  Obviously, there is not a snowbill on the Sun-facing side of Mercury's chance that the repeal of tax-free step-up will be enacted any time soon, but, if it enters the conversation as a serious reform proposal, this could matter down the road.  And note that sincere progressive consumption tax advocates should recognize that present law's step-up undermines their vision, not just the achievement of more comprehensive income taxation.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Someone has attacked my work!

It was unprovoked, and not on the merits.  Here is the evidence.

The attacker was sharp-clawed Sylvester, the individual on the lower step in this picture.  
From this picture alone, it should be obvious that serene Gary, unlike the crazed Sylvester, would never do such a thing.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Stanford talk on behavioral economics and retirement saving

This past Tuesday, I flew to Stanford Law School for a one-day visit, and presented my paper "Multiple Myopias, Multiple Selves, and the Under-Saving Problem" at Joe Bankman's and Dan Kessler's tax policy colloquium.

My slides, revised from when I presented the paper at the National Tax Association annual meeting last November, are available in pdf form here.

Although I struggled a bit writing this paper, some have told me that it makes a couple of reasonably new contributions to the literature on behavioral economics and retirement saving.  One is to connect the issue about retirement savings "incentives" in the income tax to the fundamental tax reform debate.  For example, I note that if we take the Chetty et al point that "subsidies don't work" in increasing retirement saving, the underlying claim is highly relevant to the relative merits of income and consumption taxation.  The case for income taxation is potentially strengthened if people are relatively oblivious to the deferred taxation of saving.

Second, I talk about the labor supply issues raised by, say, reducing under-savers' take-home pay via "nudges" that cause them to enroll in employer retirement savings plans.  These are at least conceptually important, as they are part of understanding how people make decisions, even if short-term labor supply responsiveness is generally low for the relevant population.

I'm aware of no empirical work on this issue.  As the paper notes, under some of the explanations for under-saving one would expect to have offsetting substitution and income effects, making the research problem more complicated than it would otherwise be (though surely not impossible to address).

I also haven't seen anything discussing the labor supply issues from a theoretical standpoint, with the exception of this article by Louis Kaplow, which helped to inform my own thinking.

The article will be appearing in the Connecticut Law Review sometime this year, as the focus of a symposium issue that will also have three or more papers commenting on it.

One of the questions I was asked at the Stanford session was: What sort of responses have you gotten to the article?  I answered: I've gotten some nice feedback from commenters, and from a few other people to whom I sent it.  But other than that, it was exactly the same as what almost always happens when you post or publish something.  Out it goes, you don't hear much back, and you just go on to your next project, whatever it might be.

Friday, January 09, 2015

2015 NYU Tax Policy Colloquium

We start up in less than two weeks, on January 20 at 4 pm.

Our first two papers, by Brigitte Madrian of the Harvard Kennedy School and David Kamin of NYU are now available through our website. Madrian's paper, "Does Front-Loading Taxation Increase Savings?  Evidence from Roth 401(k) Introductions," is available here.  Kamin's paper, In Good Times and Bad: Designing Legislation That Responds to Fiscal Uncertainty, is available here.

Both should be good sessions and, as we like to do from one week to the next in the colloquium, on wholly different topics.

Both will be followed small-group dinners.  Interested attendees can sign up in advance, and can also get on the regular weekly mailing list for the papers, by contacting me off-line.

Monday, December 15, 2014

New article in Tax Notes

I have an article in today's Tax Notes, entitled "Evaluating the Case for 1986-Style Tax Reform."  You can download it here.

This is the piece, expressing skepticism about the degree of policy gain that would result from lowering the corporate tax rate plus broadening the business tax base, that I presented at the Boston College-Tax Analysts Conference on Reforming Entity Taxation on October 10, 2014.  As per earlier blog posts, you can find slides for the talk here, and an account of the day's proceedings (from a Tax Notes article by Amy Elliott) here.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Spring 2015 Tax Policy Colloquium

The time is now drawing near - January 20, or just under 7 weeks away - when I'll be co-leading my/the twentieth (!) NYU Tax Policy Colloquium.  I've previously posted the speaker schedule, and noted that my co-convenor will be Alan Viard of the American Enterprise Institute, but the following is a first-time-posted full schedule with tentative paper titles (many of them placeholders and/or subject to change):

SCHEDULE FOR 2015 NYU TAX POLICY COLLOQUIUM
(All sessions meet on Tuesdays from 4-5:50 pm in Vanderbilt 208, NYU Law School)

1.  January 20 – Brigitte Madrian, Harvard Kennedy School.  “Does Front-Loading Taxation Increase Savings? Evidence from Roth 401(k) Introductions.”
2.  January 27 – David Kamin, NYU Law School.  "In Good Times and Bad: Designing Legislation That Responds to Fiscal Uncertainty."  
3.  February 3 – Kimberly Blanchard, Weil, Gotshal & Manges.  "The Tax Significance of Legal Personality: A U.S. View."
4.  February 10 – Linda Sugin, Fordham Law School.  “Invisible Taxpayers.”
5.  February 24 – Eric Toder, Urban Institute.  “What the United States Can Learn From Other Countries’ Territorial Tax Systems.”
6.  March 3 – Ruth Mason, University of Virginia Law School.  “Citizenship Taxation.”
7.  March 10 – George Yin, University of Virginia Law School.  “Protecting Taxpayers from Congressional Lawbreaking.”
8.  March 24 – Leigh Osofsky, University of Miami School of Law, “Tax Law Non-Enforcement.”
9.  March 31 – Shu-Yi Oei, Tulane Law School.  “Human Equity? Regulating the New Income Share Agreements.”

10.  April 7 – Lillian Mills, University of Texas Business School.  “Topics [to be determined] in Financial Reporting and Corporate Tax Compliance.”
11.  April 14 – Lawrence Zelenak, Duke University School of Law.  “Up in the Air over the Taxation of Frequent Flyer Benefits: the American, Canadian, and Australian Experiences.”
12.  April 21 – David Albouy, University of Illinois Economics Department. “Should we be taxed out of our homes? Leisure and housing as complements and optimal taxation.”
13.  April 28 – David Schizer, Columbia Law School.  “Tax and Energy Policy.”
14.  May 5 – Gregg Polsky, University of North Carolina School of Law, "Private Equity Tax Games and Their Implications for Tax Practitioners, Enforcers, and Reformers."