The Trickle-Down Mythmaking Begins

Several companies gave out raises after tax cuts passed Congress. But that was probably already going to happen anyway.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

It’s Christmastime for workers, and companies want everybody to know.

After Congressional Republicans passed their $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts on Wednesday, a number of companies responded by announcing raises or bonuses for their workers. Comcast said it would give $1,000 bonuses to more than 100,000 workers. Fifth Third Bancorp said it would give out bonuses and boost its minimum wage, with the cut giving the bank, in its words, “the opportunity to reevaluate its compensation structure and share some of those benefits with its talented and dedicated workforce.” AT&T, Boeing, Washington Federal, and Wells Fargo did much the same.

The announcements seemed the result of some basic financial logic: Lower corporate taxes— the Republicans’ bill cut the corporate rate to 21 percent from 35 percent and included provisions to encourage businesses to bring cash back from overseas—would mean higher corporate profits and thus more money to pay workers with.

Indeed, the White House itself has estimated that tax reform would add $4,000 to the average worker’s annual paycheck, as a conservative estimate. And President Trump lauded the companies’ announcements, tweeting: “Our big and very popular Tax Cut and Reform Bill has taken on an unexpected new source of ‘love’—that is big companies and corporations showering their workers with bonuses. This is a phenomenon that nobody even thought of, and now it is the rage. Merry Christmas!”

But many economists, including the government’s own nonpartisan scorekeepers, dispute the notion that workers will get much of the gains from corporate tax reform, which President Trump signed into law on Friday. They argue that shareholders, not workers, stand to benefit the most. Recent history suggests the same, with the wealthy the primary beneficiaries of soaring corporate earnings and a booming market.

Contrary to companies’ stated reasoning, many of those wage increases and bonuses would have happened anyway, it seems, given how low the unemployment rate is right now. Though wage growth has been in a long-term slump, paychecks are finally rising as the jobless rate has fallen below 5 percent and stayed there, with earnings growing the fastest for the lowest-wage workers. Plus, 18 states are raising their minimum wages in 2018, requiring businesses to pay out an estimated $5 billion more to 4.5 million workers.

Given those dynamics, businesses are likely using the tax cuts in part as a way to advertise pay increases that were already planned and to curry favor with the Trump administration and Republicans on the Hill. To wit: Wells Fargo waffled on whether its pay increases had anything to do with tax reform, first saying they did not and then correcting the record and saying they did. “Minimum pay is a topic that we continue to review as part of our efforts to attract and retain talent, and we have been on a path to increasing the minimum hourly rate,” a spokesman told The Los Angeles Times.

More broadly, while economic evidence suggests that cutting taxes on corporations does lead to some trickle-down benefits for workers, it also suggests that the sums are smaller than the White House has projected and would likely take some time to show up in paychecks. “These raises have zero economic connection with the tax cuts,” said Josh Bivens, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-of-center think tank. “We know this because the theory linking cuts to wage gains requires other mechanisms to fire first—mainly the rise in capital investment and productivity growth,” which would “permanently reset salaries at higher levels, not get firms to bestow one-time bonuses.” Businesses would need to use their additional funds to invest in machinery, equipment, and research and development, making their workers more productive, and then paying those workers for that additional productivity, in other words. Of course, these companies could claim they are issuing payouts now in anticipation of that chain of events, but the real process would take some time.

Still, the Trump administration has argued that workers would get most of the benefit of the corporate tax cuts, through mechanisms like the one Bivens outlined. But while it expects workers to get 70 percent of the savings from tax reform, most economists argue they would get something like a quarter. That includes the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Treasury—three government sources of dependable economic projections. Workers very well might see some earnings gains because of the tax bill, but in all likelihood they will not be on the scale that the White House is talking about.

So, if corporations are about to start saving a lot of money, and most of it is not going to workers, where is it going? Most will go to shareholders, whether people with retirement accounts, rich investors, or corporate executives compensated with equity, economists think. Numerous companies—three dozen of them and counting—have announced that they will buy back shares with the additional funds. Home Depot is planning to spend $15 billion on buybacks, Oracle $12 billion, and Pfizer $10 billion. All in all, 15 companies have said they each plan to spend more than $1 billion on buybacks, and many have also announced plans to boost their dividends.

Buybacks reduce the number of shares a company has in circulation, pushing up the price of the ones that remain on the market and making shareholders richer. The reason this primarily benefits the well-off is that lower-income and middle-income families do not tend to have many equity investments, if any at all. The New York University economist Edward Wolff has estimated that the top 1 percent of households in terms of wealth owned 40 percent of all stocks in 2016, and the top 20 percent of households owned 93 percent. The fact that these households gain so much from a rising stock market  is part of the reason that wealth inequality has increased so sharply.

Of course, it would have been possible to construct a tax plan that would have both cut the corporate income tax and ensured that workers earned more. Pairing the former with an increase in the federal minimum wage and mandatory paid leave for parents would have done so, for instance. Instead, Congress is leaving it up to businesses to benefit workers as they see fit.