The 2003 Dividend Tax Cut Did Nothing to Help the Real Economy

January 20, 2015

President Obama is going big on capital taxation in the State of the Union tonight, including a proposal to raise dividend taxes on the rich to 28 percent. The President is probably not going to frame this as a move away from the George W. Bush economy, but Bush’s radical cuts to capital taxes are part of his legacy that we are still living with. And it’s a part that the latest evidence tells us did a lot to help the rich without helping the overall economy at all.

In the response to Obama’s proposal, you are going to hear a lot about how lower dividend rates increase investment and help the real economy. Indeed, lowering capital tax rates has been a consistent goal of conservatives. As a result, one of the biggest capital taxation changes in history happened in 2003, when George W. Bush reduced the dividend tax rate from 38.6 percent to 15 percent as part of his rapid and expansive tax cut agenda.

There’s been a lot of research about the effect of this massive dividend tax cut on payouts to shareholders (kicked off by an important 2005 Chetty-Saez paper), but very little on its effect on the real economy. Did slashing the dividend tax rate boost corporate investments, perhaps because it made funding projects easier? We don’t know, and it’s not because economists aren’t interested; it’s because it’s very difficult to construct a control group with which to compare the results. Investments increased after 2003, but they likely would have to some degree independent of the dividend tax cut, as we were coming out of a recession. So did the tax cut make a difference?

This is where UC Berkeley economist Danny Yagan’s fantastic new paper, “Capital Tax Reform and the Real Economy: The Effects of the 2003 Dividend Tax Cut,” (pdfslides) comes in. He uses a large amount of IRS data on corporate tax returns to compare S-corporations with C-corporations. Without getting deep into tax law, C-corporations are publicly-traded firms, while S-corporations are closely held ones without institutional investors. But they are largely comparable in the range Yagan looks at (between $1 million and $1 billion dollars in size), as they are competing in the same industries and locations.

Crucially, though, S-corporations don’t pay a dividend tax and thus didn’t benefit from the big 2003 dividend tax cut, while C-corporations do pay them and did benefit. So that allows Yagan to set up S-corporations as a control group and see what the effect of the massive dividend tax cut on C-corporations has been. Here’s what he finds:

The blue line is the C-corporations, which should diverge from the red-line if the dividend tax cut caused a real change. But there’s no statistical difference between the two paths at all. (Note how their paths are the same before the cut, so it’s a real trend in the business cycle.) There’s no difference in either investment or adjusted net investment. There’s also no difference when it comes to employee compensation. The firms that got a massive capital tax cut did not make any different choices about things that boost the real economy. This is true across a crazy-robust number of controls, measures, and coding of outliers.

The one thing that does increase for C-corporations, of course, is the disgorgement of cash to shareholders. Cutting dividend taxes leads to an increase in dividends and share buybacks. This shows that these corporations are in fact making decisions in response to the tax cut; they just happen to be decisions that benefit, well, probably not you. If right now you are worried that too much cash is leaving firms to benefit a handful of investors while the real economy stagnates, suddenly Clinton-era levels of dividend taxation don’t look so bad.

This is interesting for people interested more specifically in corporate finance theory. Because this is evidence against the theory that firms use the stock market to raise funding, and toward a “pecking order” theory that internal funds and riskless debt are far above equity in a hierarchy of corporate funding choices. In models like the latter, taxation of dividends does very little to impact the cost of capital for firms, because equity isn’t the binding constraint on marginal investment options.

President Obama will likely focus his pitch for the dividend tax increase on the future, when, in his argument, globalization and technology will cause compensation to stagnate while investor payouts skyrocket and the economy becomes more focused on the top 1 percent. But it’s worth noting that while capital taxes are a solution to that problem, the radical slashing conservatives have brought to them are also partly responsible for our current malaise.