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President Trump’s memorandum to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on payroll tax deferral is bad economic policy, but it might ultimately prove useful as a political weapon. The memo, released in August, instructed the Treasury to allow employers to suspend withholding of the employee’s share of FICA taxes (6.2%) until the end of the year, but it does not forgive the taxes. Only Congress (with the President’s signature) can eliminate the tax obligation. There are several reasons I don’t like it:

  1. Assuming the tax obligation is forgiven, it would provide some relief to those who are already employed (and earning less than $4,000 every two weeks), but not to the unemployed. Thus, as relief from coronavirus-induced job losses, this doesn’t cut it.
  2. It does not reduce the cost of hiring, as would a permanent reduction in the employer’s share, so it does not improve hiring incentives.
  3. The deferral creates uncertainty: will the tax bill be forgiven? If not, will the employee be on the hook? Or the employer? What if an employee leaves the company having received a deferral?
  4. The measure will not be an effective stimulus to spending. It is not an addition to workers’ permanent income since it is a temporary “holiday”. Income perceived as temporary adds little to consumer spending. And it doesn’t constitute a temporary tax break unless employers participate (see below), and even then only if Trump is re-elected and if Congress agrees to forgive the tax.
  5. Trump suggested that the tax will be forgiven if he is re-elected. It’s a rather unsavory proposition: create an immediate tax benefit paired with a matching future obligation with forgiveness contingent upon re-election!
  6. Long-term funding of Social Security is already problematic. Adding a payroll tax holiday on top of that, assuming the taxes are forgiven, only aggravates the situation. Yes, I can imagine various “long-game” reform proposals that might attempt to leverage such a break, but I consider that highly unlikely.

It’s no surprise that a number of large employers are not participating in the tax deferral. such as CVS, JP Morgan Chase, UPS, Home Depot, and Wells Fargo.

Small employers have an even bigger problem to the extent that they lack sophisticated accounting systems to handle such deferrals. Here’s Warren Meyers’ take on the payroll tax suspension:

We have 400 employees today, but since we are a summer seasonal business we will have fewer than 100 in January. If there is a catch-up repayment in January (meaning Congress chooses not to forgive the taxes altogether), most of my employees who would need to repay the tax will be gone. Do you think the government is just going to say, ‘oh well, I guess we lost that money’? Hah! You don’t know how the government works with tax liens. My guess is that for every employee no longer on the payroll for whom back employment taxes need to be collected, the government is going to say our company is responsible for those payments instead. We could be out hundreds of thousands of extra dollars. President Biden will just say, ‘well I guess you should not have participated in a Trump program.’

So this is the vise we are in: Either we participate in the program, and risk paying a fortune in extra taxes at some future date, or we don’t participate, and have every employee screaming at us for deducting payroll taxes when President Trump told them they did not have to pay it anymore. And what happens if Congress does come along later and forgive the taxes, what kind of jerk am I for not allowing my employees to benefit from the tax break?

A payroll tax rollback was considered for the Republican stimulus packages that failed in Congress this summer, but that provision was said to be “negotiable”. In any case, nothing passed. Surely Trump’s economic advisors know that the economics of the payroll tax memo are lousy, even if Trump doesn’t get it.

I can’t decide whether the whole thing is Machiavellian or just a goof. Perhaps Trump is so eager to be seen as a tax cutter that he is willing to gloss over the distinction between a tax cut and a deferral. If the taxes owed are not forgiven, it won’t be on his watch. And Trump might believe he can weaponize the payroll tax deferral against obstinate Democrats in Congress as well as Joe Biden. Maybe he can.