Spring tax refunds typically give the economy a boost as the money rolls in and people either pay down debt or go out and spend, so economists and analysts pay close attention to the size of these windfalls.
A new research note from UBS finds that net payments to households are now running below its economists’ forecast, a shortfall of $11.5 billion of the $20 billion in extra cash that the economists had expected compared to last year.
As of the latest IRS numbers, 27 million returns have been processed and the average refund is $1,949, down 8.7% compared to last year .
It is still relatively early in the refund season, but UBS noted that should this continue, it would have a “meaningful effect” on its Q1 forecast. The economists, “with hesitance,” maintain their forecast for the additional $20 billion coming to households compared to last year by the end of May.
Once again, UBS repeated its mantra for the 2019 tax season: “Nobody—not us, not other economists, not the US government—knows whether refunds will be larger or smaller than in past years.”
Many economists from banks like UBS and Merrill Lynch expected tax refunds to be especially large, given the changes in the tax code. For example, Merrill Lynch expected refunds to be 26% larger this year.
Unfortunately, changes to the IRS’s withholding tables were not aggressive enough, and refunds are down. Though withholding errors are a big factor that cause a drop in refunds, changes to the state and local tax deductions have caused many unpleasant surprises for families. Still, the overall numbers for taxes paid by families should be lower given the changes in the law, a point that Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) pointed out recently.