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Economists still hold out hope for tax refund turnaround

Ethan Wolff-Mann
·Senior Writer

Tax refunds are still lower compared with last year. As of the last IRS filing statistics, the 38 million returns processed had led to an average refund down 16.7% from last year – $2,640 compared with $3,169.

However, a number of analysts expect this to turn around sharply.

This drop in average refund amounts has come bit of a surprise to economists and analysts at major banks that had predicted a windfall from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in 2017. The bill overall lowered tax rates – the top tax rate is 37%, down from 39.6% – which means a lower tax bill for many individuals.

New tax rules are always a journey into the unknown until people actually file, but the uncertainty is acute this year. According to economists at JP Morgan, the lag in refund issuance “does not appear to be related” to the government shutdown, leaving improperly adjusted withholding tables as a possible culprit, something that the GAO has noted.

The big question going forward, will refunds pick up? UBS, at least, seems to think so. On Monday, the bank’s economists sent out a note that said the “shortfall is significant but we expect some makeup this week.” Last Feb. 22, refunds with the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) had all been processed, resulting in the Treasury issuing $60 billion in refunds. “On the same day in 2019,” UBS wrote, “refunds were $24.5 billion.”

According to the Treasury, 50% of the EITC has been paid out, so a similar payment should be coming, UBS expects.

While UBS says that “substantial shortfalls [seem] increasingly likely,” its economists are tentatively maintaining their forecast for the refund season to end with a $20 billion improvement over last year’s refund numbers.

JPMorgan economists, who had the same $20 billion prediction, echoed this in a note of their own: “This is starting to look unlikely with refunds tracking so light at this point in the year, and this adds a downside risk to our views on consumer spending.”

Morgan Stanley economists have taken a similar tone. “We continue to emphasize that the slow start to the tax refund season may not be indicative of what’s to come in the next few weeks,” they wrote this week, also citing EITC and Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) payments that are yet to come.

All of this points to a significant possibility of some kind of reversal in the low refund numbers seen so far — which while not an indication of people’s actual tax savings under the new law — are important for economic forecasts and vital for retail, as the spring refund boost traditionally drives the consumer spending.

Wells Fargo economists, which also issued a similar note, summed it up well. “What is unknown: whether once the dust settles the actual aggregate amount and average refund will still be down as precipitously as they are so far.”

So when will that proverbial dust settle? According to Wells Fargo: “If refunds are still down in another few weeks, we believe there could be some downside risk to our Q1 consumer spending forecast.”

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Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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