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Trump Floats a Tax Cut, Then Calls It Unneeded and Not Imminent

Laura Davison

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said “a lot of people” would like a cut in payroll taxes, but the White House isn’t likely to immediately reduce that levy -- in part because voters might not even notice it.

While Trump insists the U.S. is “very far from a recession,” he and his economic advisers have been casting about for ways to cut taxes to juice the economy amid signs of slowing growth that have roiled markets.

The president told reporters Tuesday that cutting the payroll tax, which supports Social Security and Medicare, “is something that we think about,” though there’s no need for any immediate action.

“We’re looking at various tax reductions” but the White House does that “all the time,” he said. “I’m not talking about doing anything at this moment.”

While trimming less from paychecks could help increase consumer spending to head off a potential economic slowdown, it would be one of the least visible boosts to workers’ paychecks.

With a payroll tax cut “you’re getting some economic advantages but sacrificing the political advantage of big, fat check signed by President Trump that is very visible and salient to people,” said Ernie Tedeschi, a policy economist for Evercore ISI.

A payroll tax cut has been under discussion, but a White House official said Monday that such a move isn’t currently on the table.

Payroll taxes -- a 7.65% levy automatically taken from paychecks to fund Social Security and Medicare -- are a hidden tax for many people. While taxpayers are likely to spend a modest increase in their take-home pay, they probably won’t recognize that it’s from a federal tax change.

‘Sending a Check’

President Barack Obama didn’t get credit for several tax cuts -- including a temporary reduction in the payroll tax -- implemented at the start of his administration as a counterweight to the recession in 2008.

The payroll cuts under Obama reduced the tax burden for a median-income family by about $996, according to Politifact. Spread over a twice-a-month pay days, that meant about $41.50 extra in each check.

The money got into the economy quickly, but the amounts were so small that people largely didn’t notice, said Dean Baker, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

By contrast, Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, when faced with a slowdown, opted for rebate checks. Still, that wasn’t enough to overcome the financial crisis.

“He lost the chance to get credit for a tax cut,” Baker said of Obama. “The differences between reducing withholding and sending a check are very small, so the psychology is worth just sending the check.”

Voters have also critiqued Trump’s 2017 tax overhaul because it was structured so that taxpayers had less withheld during the year, resulting in lower refund checks when they filed their tax returns this spring. Even though most taxpayers got a tax cut, some felt as though they didn’t because they received a smaller refund check than in year’s past.

Read More: Fear of Filing? Some Taxpayers Finding Tax Bills, Not Refunds

This isn’t the first time the White House has floated a tax cut when facing political headwinds. Last fall, ahead of the midterms where Republicans ultimately lost their majority in the House, Trump suggested he would cut taxes for middle-earners by 10%. The tax cut announcement came as a surprise to administration officials and Trump’s allies in Congress. That plan was never released.

Nearly any tax cut plan would have to go through Congress, meaning Trump would need to convince Democrats in the House that a tax cut is necessary at this point in the economic cycle and not merely a tactic to boost his re-election chances. And any payroll cut would likely be costly -- the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates a payroll tax holiday would cost between $70 billion to $75 billion per percent cut each year.

Trump has also said he is looking at reduction in capital gains taxes for investors, which he could do through executive order to bypass Congress. Indexing capital gains to inflation would slash tax bills when selling assets such as stock or real estate by adjusting the original purchase price so no tax is paid on appreciation tied to inflation. However, such a move would do little to spur economic growth, affects few middle-class taxpayers and could prompt legal challenges.

“It’s hard to answer whether we are really at a point in the business cycle where we should provide a stimulus,” said Alan Viard, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Donald Trump would not be the first president to suggest to stimulate the economy right before an election.”

(Updates with Trump remarks beginning in first paragraph.)

--With assistance from Jordan Fabian.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Davison in Washington at ldavison4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, Anna Edgerton

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