Two major tax increases are about to crush middle class Americans. The first tax increase has already been passed into law and will soon go into effect. The second massive tax increase is more sinister. The amount of the increase has yet to be determined, but we can get a good idea how much will be pried from your wallet if you don’t take steps to defend your wealth.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) lowered taxes for the vast majority of individuals and regular corporations. There were a few losers. Taxpayers with high state and local taxes (SALT) found their deductions declining faster than rates fell causing a sharp pain behind their left eye on April 15th.

Other taxpayers feeling the pain of a tax increase include truckers, sales people, artists and others with work related expenses. Unreimbursed employee business expenses were eliminated. Truckers (and others) no longer can deduct their work expenses. The TCJA hurt a large number of hard working Americans. Even the mortgage interest deduction was slightly curtailed. Not as many felt that sting, but all the same, the TCJA was uneven in reducing taxpayer liabilities.

Regular corporations saw the biggest benefit. Corporations now have a flat 21% tax rate. Except for corporations with less than $50,000 in profits, this was a tax cut.

Small business owners fared well, too. The qualified business income deduction (QBID) lopped off 20% of profits from the taxman. Income property owners also benefited from QBID, but with a different formula. 

Here is where is turns ugly. Regular corporations saw a permanent cut in rates; individual tax cuts were only temporary. Truckers might find the reversion back to 2017 tax rules in 2025 a reprieve. The bulk of taxpayers, however, will see a serious tax increase. 

 

Planning for the Inevitable

Rumors have surfaced that a Tax Cut 2.0 is in the works where the temporary tax break for individuals would be extended another 10 years to 2035. The treasury will suffer a $1.4 trillion reduction in tax collections over the time period involved if this is the case. Regardless, the proposal will not pass prior to the election and once the election is past, promises are less likely to be kept.

I place the odds of taxes reverting to 2017 laws at 80%. That assumes taxes are not hiked earlier after the election when the new Congress sits with whomever wins the White House. The odds the temporary tax cuts for individuals get extended to 2035 is less likely at 20%. More on this in the second tax increase discussion below.

Several tax planning opportunities exist under the temporary rules. The amount of long-term capital gains taxed at 0% is much higher right now. Those affected by the SALT limitations need to throw out old tax theory until rules revert back to before the TCJA. Tax brackets are lower and extend to higher income levels. These and other changes from the TCJA mean you must be multi-year tax planning or you will seriously overpay your taxes.

Here are some of the things you need to consider when reviewing your long-term financial planning as it involves taxes:

  • Forget old rules of accelerating deductions and delaying income. It doesn’t work for individuals in most cases anymore. Preserve those deductions as long as possible in anticipation of the old rules kicking back in where they have more value.
  • Business owners need to forget the above rule as well. QBID has turned that philosophy on its head! Business owners — and to a lesser extent, income property owners — want to accelerate income and delay deductions, especially when the end of the temporary tax cuts approaches. Business owners get up to a 20% non-cash deduction on profits under current tax law. 
  • Truckers, musicians, sales people and anyone else with large amounts of unreimbursed employee business expenses needs to think of ways to delay some of those expenses. I understand it is hard to delay many of these expenses and here is an alternative. You must always be aware of any costs you can defer. If you can slip it far enough into the future the expense might reduce future taxes, whereas, they have no current tax benefit.
  • Pay property taxes as late as possible without incurring a late fee. Preserve as many SALT deductions as you can. At some point these expenses will potentially regain their larger deductibility. Pay at least $10,000 of SALT since that amount is deductible if you normally itemize. Otherwise you want to push out as many SALT expenses as possible for as long as you can. Once again, the idea is to preserve as many deductions as possible for when they could regain deductibility.
  • The 0% tax bracket for long-term capital gains is very high at this time. Tax loss harvesting might be the worst idea at this time. Tax gain harvesting has some powerful incentives while the TCJA remains in effect for individual taxpayers. Locking in gains at 0% or even 15% could amount to serious tax savings.
  • Be sure to consider the other effects your actions will have on your tax picture. While you might enjoy a 15% long-term capital gains rate with tax gain harvesting, you also need to consider the Net Investment Income Tax issues if you take this to higher income levels.
  • Lower income taxpayers also need to consider Social Security benefits. Accelerating income might increase the amount of Social Security benefits subject to tax.

There are many additional tax planning options under the TCJA. I encourage a serious conversation with a qualified tax professional to maximize your benefits. (Wait until after tax season before jumping every tax professional you know so they can get their tax season work completed in a timely fashion.)

Virtually nobody is thinking long term with these tax issues. Nearly every client in my office is getting advice that will affect them in future years and the dollar amounts are not small. Consulting clients find I am drifting strongly toward multi-year tax issues. Saving money today is not enough! How much you pay in tax for all years is a far better planning strategy!

 

The Second Secret Tax Increase

The first tax increase discussed above is fairly easy to plan since the rules are defined, at least for now. The rules might change, but the concepts will remain static. Under current tax laws businesses want to accelerate income in most instances and defer expenses to maximize QBID or the lower corporate tax rate. Individual taxpayers want to push out certain expenses to the future where they might have some benefit.

The second tax increase is harder to quantify and involves some logic and deduction. We know the tax increase is coming, but the timing and amount is uncertain.

Estimated federal government revenues for the 2019-20 fiscal year are estimated at $3,644.8 billion; outlays are projected at $4,745.6 billion. (See tables.) This leaves us with a projected deficit of $1,100.8 billion. This gets added to the credit card, aka the national debt which is now over $23 trillion. The actual deficit will be different, of course. It could be better or worse. In any case, the amount of debt being added is huge and these are economic good times. What happens when the economy slows?

At some time the party will end. I refuse to call an expiration date because many people much smarter than I am have called it wrong up until now. What we do know is this cannot go on forever. Eventually the price will be paid. Inflation or lack of confidence in the government’s ability to repay the debt will effectively end the party. If the government can’t support the debt the house of cards collapses.

The national debt in and of itself is not bad. If the debt rises at less than the rate of economic growth the debt would actually be getting easier to support. Unfortunately, the debt is rising faster than economic growth currently. Therefore, the national debt, as a factor of GDP, is growing. That is unsustainable. The only question is: When will it end? And will we regain fiscal sanity before the forces of nature enforce it upon us?

A closer look at the federal budget will outline the seriousness of the issue and why it will end sooner rather than later. 

We have an estimated revenue for the federal government of $3,644.8 billion this fiscal year. We will assume this number holds true for our examination and no recession makes an appearance. Most of the revenue comes from personal income and payroll (Social Security and Medicare, aka, FICA) taxes. (Table 5)

We need to make some logical conclusions on where the nation’s finances are headed and the likely consequences. The real question is: How many bills can be paid with $3,644.8 billion of revenue?

Looking at Table 6 we see the biggest expenses for 2020, in order, are: Social Security, national defense, Medicare, health, income security and interest on the debt. If we drop income security to zero and forget every other item on the spending side of the budget we can balance the books! Of course that means TSA is gone. Just think! No more waiting in line to enter a plane. Very convenient. No more Ag Department. Yeah, food will go unregulated. But the corporations will take care of that just fine. Right? No more R&D, no more housing or FHA loans, no student loans, no development, no international or wall on the southern border, no energy, no immigration policy. It would be funny if not such a serious issue.

All that remains are Social Security and Medicare, national defense, health and interest on the debt. Obviously we can’t cut spending close to enough to balance the budget. Well, unless you want to cut Social Security and/or Medicare. But do we still collect the payroll taxes for these expenses if we no longer provide the benefit? So Social Security and Medicare are a nonstarter. 

We could default on the debt and refuse to pay the interest. But, that would destroy American banks and insurance companies. Also, we would never have the ability to borrow again regardless the crisis, so we probably should pay the debt.

Maybe we can cut national defense? Is there anyone in the room who wants to cut the military the amount needed to balance the budget? We could save some by reducing waste. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough waste to cut to solve the budget deficit problem in more than a token amount.

Then we come to health. Well, America has such an enviable health care system it can take come cuts. We are the most expensive in the world and no longer rank in the top 25 in most surveys of health. Besides, a little coronavirus never hurt anyone. Again, this is no joke. We could make meaningful changes to medical care to reduce federal spending and for individuals as well. Still, it will not be enough to stem the red ink.

Obviously this does not work. We can’t cut government spending enough to come close to balancing the books. And all the money printing hasn’t given us economic growth above 3%. The only remaining variable is taxes. Whether we like it or not, they will eventually go up in the near future. (For the record, I like lower taxes. Don’t take my conclusions as wanting higher taxes. My job is always to help clients pay the least tax by law.)

How much will taxes have to rise? We don’t have to cover all spending. If the national debt climbs at a slower rate than economic growth the debt becomes easier to manage in the same way Bill Gates can manage a million dollar mortgage better than someone in the middle class. 

If we assume (I know, I know) inflation hovers around 2% and real economic growth does the same, we get nominal economic growth of around 4%. Yes, that means the national debt can grow around $920 billion per year without the national debt becoming a larger burden compared to the size of the economy. 

There are two issues with my simple analogy. First, it assumes interest rates never climb and forgets about the unfunded liabilities (Social Security and Medicare, most notably) facing the federal government in the near future.

A $300 – $500 billion tax increase could solve the budget problems for the foreseeable future. We would still run large deficits, but if the economy kept growing it would not be a serious issue. The national debt looks big because we are largest economy on the planet. 

There is no doubt sovereign debt is climbing worldwide. U.S. debt is also piling on rapidly. At some point, under the current system, we face a fiscal crisis. A recession throws my modest proposal out the window and balloons the debt fast. Taking steps while the world is wonderful and kind economically makes sense to this weary old accountant.

Taxes will go up. The federal government has shown no desire to stop spending. Individuals received a temporary tax cut only. And still, to fulfill all the promises the government has made will require more money. And you can’t just print it out of thin air unlimited. At some point Uncle Sam will eye your wallet.

There are 6 tables for your review in this post. You can come to your own conclusions with the data. I spent a lot of time playing with the numbers. I will be interested in your prediction for future tax rates and the steps individuals can take to reduce the bite. You can read more about how the federal budget works here.

 

 

 

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