Despite what bullish Wall Street investors seem to believe, sweeping tax reform isn't imminent -- although we might get more guidance soon on what GOP lawmakers have in store.
The Trump administration and legislators have sent mixed signals on the timing and substance of a tax-reform package. The president last month pledged a "phenomenal" proposal by early March, although U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said August was more likely.
Beyond timing, there's no consensus among Republicans on what tax reform, which has already helped propel banks such as Bank of America (BAC) and JPMorgan (JPM) sky-high, will look like. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said last month that proposal the House put forth wouldn't get 10 votes in the Senate.
Alan Cole, economist at Washington think tank The Tax Foundation, said that "most tax-reform ideas that you are hearing about in the news [are] just one person saying what he or she wants to do. Getting something over the finish line is actually really hard."
But former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, who ran for the Republican nomination for president in 2008 and 2016, told TheStreet recently that "I hope we'll see [a tax proposal] right away. It's going to be hard in the American system to just do a big major tax reform by March."
Trump put forth and revised a tax proposal on the campaign trail, but has been relatively quiet about the specifics since his election and inauguration. The Senate Finance Committee also has a plan in the works, but details likewise remain scarce. The "Better Way" blueprint put forth by the House Ways and Means Committee is the most complete GOP proposal out there.
Apple (AAPL) , Microsoft (MSFT) , Cisco (CSCO) , Alphabet (GOOGL) , Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Oracle (ORCL) are just some of the companies that could benefit from a potential tax holiday, as they have huge hoards of cash overseas. Read more about Trump's tax policies and their impact on the markets here.
"There is probably an unusually high degree of uncertainty right now, because the Trump administration has not really made clear what it's looking for," said Alan Viard, a tax-policy expert at conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute and a former senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. "Everyone's looking at the House Republican plan, but we certainly can't assume that it's going to be adopted as is."
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady promoted the House plan at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week. "We are pushing full steam ahead with bold solutions, once-in-a-generation solutions to get America moving again," the Texas Republican told the audience.
Any tax legislation will almost certainly come through budget reconciliation, which requires a simple majority in the Senate instead of 60 votes. So far, there are three areas where Republicans have reached a relatively strong consensus:
- Business Taxes. Reducing the tax burden for businesses is an across-the-board priority for the GOP. House Republicans have proposed dropping the corporate tax rate from today's 35% to 20%, while Trump campaigned on a 15% rate.
- Corporate Overseas Profit Repatriation. Repatriation is also on the menu. The House plan would allow companies to bring back foreign profits at an 8.75% rate for cash and cash-equivalent profits and 3.5% on other profits. Trump has proposed a 10% tax rate.
- Cutting Individuals' Taxes. Both Trump and congressional Republicans have promised tax cuts and "simplification" for individual taxpayers. House Ways and means chief Brady brags about a tax plan so simple most Americans will be able to file on a postcard, and Trump's campaign-trail plan claimed low-income taxpayers could send a form to the IRS saying, "I win." They tout the proposals as middle-class tax cuts, although the biggest beneficiaries would likely be the wealthy.
But despite broad agreement on the areas above, the GOP faces a fair share of obstacles, too.
The most headline-grabbing has been the debate over a proposed border-adjustment tax, a measure in the "Better Way" proposal that taxes imports and exempts exports. (If you haven't checked out House Speaker Paul Ryan's tape-recorder explanation of it, do so.)
The idea of a border tax has both fierce critics and staunch supporters on Capitol Hill and in corporate America. The retail industry has launched an effort against it, while exporters like Boeing (BA) and Pfizer (PFE) have formed an alliance to support it, coined the "Made in America Coalition" -- a phrase Brady has adopted into his lexicon. "We are going to end the tax on 'Made in America,'" the Ways and Means chair said last week.
But most observers say the chances are that at border-adjustment tax won't end up in final legislation, although there's one person who could change that -- Trump.
"If the White House did release a plan or even a statement making crystal clear what they thought about the border adjustment one way or another, that could have some impact," the American Enterprise Institute's Viard said. "If they say they're against it, that would damage prospects. If they say they're for it, it would breathe some life into it."
The president has given mixed signals about his take on the measure. He told The Wall Street Journal in January it was "too complicated," but swayed the other direction in an interview with Reuters last week, saying the tax could "lead to a lot more jobs" in the United States.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's suggestion that the administration might consider a 20% tariff on imports from Mexico to pay for the border wall seemed to be a reference to it, while Treasury chief Mnuchin said in a Feb. 23 interview with Fox Business that "we're looking closer at the border-adjusted tax."
The border-adjustment tax is intended to raise revenue and prevent other tax cuts from increasing the federal deficit. Other proposed revenue-raising measures like eliminating deductions for business interest expenses or individuals' ability to deduct state- and local taxes could also become causes for conflict, but so far, they've flown under the radar.
Cole said it's unclear if border adjustment has sucked all of the air out of the tax debate, or if those other proposals are more acceptable ways to raise revenue. "Revenue-raisers are hard to do," he said. "People hate losing a dollar more than they like gaining two."
So, while there's clearly a desire among Republicans to enact tax reform, there remains much to be ironed out.
"We're going to have a combined plan," Mnuchin told Fox Business. "When we go to pass this, we're going to have a plan that we all agree with and we're reaching out to a lot of people." However, the treasury secretary added that he thinks any impact of tax reform won't be felt until 2018.
A White House spokeswoman declined give specifics of Trump's take on taxes, but pointed to the president's comments at a Feb. 16 press conference indicating that at least formally, he hasn't moved away from a March target for unveiling his tax-reform plan.
Trump himself made no mention of any timeline during Tuesday night's State of the Union address, nor did he dive deeply into any details. But he did say: "It will be a big, big cut."
A full rundown of TheStreet's guide to trading in March can be found here: