Thursday, February 4, 2016

Benefits and Compensation After the Elections

Suppose there was a presidential election this year. Just suppose. And, further, suppose that election had a winner. Just suppose.

It is extremely likely that the winner will be someone nominated by either the Democratic Party or by the Republican Party. And, it is not at all unlikely that the party of the winner will keep or gain control of both houses of Congress.

From the standpoint of tax policy, and by extension, benefits and compensation policy, what will this mean for you, the employer or employee? Should you care?

I don't think we're far enough along to do a candidate-by-candidate analysis, but I do think that we are aided by the fact (at least I think it's a fact) that the remaining viable candidates fall generally into a few small buckets from these standpoints (yes, Carly Fiorina will give us a 3-page tax code (no idea what it might say) and Gary Johnson who has declared for the nomination of the Libertarian Party is a Fair Tax proponent). In fact, I think there are at most four such buckets remaining.

Let's identify them from left to right (that is how we usually read):

  • The Democratic Socialist (DS) Bucket whose main component, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT, but caucuses with the Democrats and running for the Democratic nomination) has recently told us, "Yes, your taxes will go up."
  • The Mainstream Democratic (MD) Bucket whose main component, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will, according to her website today (it did say something somewhat different on this topic at the end of last year), lower taxes for the middle class (and by extension the lower class) and raise taxes on the wealthy including big business.
  • The Traditional Republican (TD) Bucket that includes the likes of [alphabetically] Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey; John Kasich, governor of Ohio; Marco Rubio, junior Senator from Florida; and Donald Trump (yes he is mainstream for this purpose), businessman from New York, which generally would lower tax brackets and flatten, or make less progressive, the tax code.
  • The Conservative Republican (CR) Bucket that includes Ben Carson, retired physician from Maryland, and Ted Cruz, junior Senator from Texas which would replace the current income tax structure with a flat tax.
I'm going to make things a little tougher on you here Rather than reiterating these buckets, I'll comment on how different philosophies might affect things.

We all know the health care debate. Sanders wants to move to a single-payer system. Clinton likes the status quo under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Republicans with the exception of Kasich want to repeal the ACA and start over again. Kasich, on the other hand, thinks that this is an impractical solution and would keep some portions of the ACA and change others.

On the pension side, Republicans as a group are in favor of self-reliance. This would tend toward a world of nothing but 401(k) (and similar) plans. Their philosophy is that prudent Americans should be able to save enough for their own retirements, especially with the benefits of an employer match. Of course, many of them will be dismayed WHEN they read my blog to know that I disagree with that.

Clinton is much tougher to figure out on this. But, we can look to her stated tax policy and work our way back. When taxes on high earners and large corporations increase, so does the value of tax deductions. So, under a Clinton presidency, we might expect to see more high earners and profitable corporations accelerate contributions to benefit plans in order to accelerate tax deductions. Could this result in somewhat of a rebirth of defined benefit (DB) plans? Theoretically, it should, but in practice, I would expect that even if that rebirth occurs, it will be very limited.

Sanders would prefer to see a single government-run retirement system for everyone; that is, we would have expanded Social Security and Medicare with smaller benefits and less availability for those who have been the highest earners. In this scenario, although I personally don't see Congress going along with it, the prevalence of employer-provided retirement plans could decline significantly. On the other hand, it would not be antithetical to his philosophy to see a DB requirement in much the same way that the ACA leaves employers with a health care requirement. Could we see pay or play here?

With regard to executive compensation (nobody is saying much about broad-based compensation other than to say that under their Presidency, there will be more and better jobs and pay will increase rapidly), we have another large rift between the candidates. Here, one of the biggest elements is the view of what has probably been President Obama's second signature bill, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Dodd-Frank). (Why couldn't they have given the law a short name like Fred so that I don't have to test my typing skills every time I cite the law?) 

Sanders is a huge fan of Dodd-Frank. That said, he doesn't think the law has gone far enough. He has said many times that the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall should have been part of Dodd-Frank. Sanders, much like Senator Warren (D-MA) as well as former Senator Dodd (D-CT) and former Representative Frank (D-MA) believes that one of the most important parts of Dodd-Frank is Title IX, the section on executive compensation. Sanders is a huge proponent of tieing levels of executive compensation to that of the rank and file and of their companies as well as generally limiting executive compensation. Under a Sanders presidency, do not be surprised to see a presidential proposal that would limit CEO compensation for example to a pay ratio as defined in Section 953(b) of Dodd-Frank to something like 10.

Clinton is also a Dodd-Frank fan. But, there is a big difference here. Secretary Clinton has long had both ties and obligations to the large Wall Street banks. She periodically invokes Glass-Steagall, but knows that its repeal allowed Goldman Sachs, for example, to grow into the financial giant that it has. At the same time, though, Clinton, who I believe is still far more likely than not to be the Democratic nominee, knows that the Democratic platform will be influenced by the likes of Sanders and Warren. Expect that the compromise will be in the form of promises to scale back executive compensation. As broad-based plans in which executives participate tend to be exempt from similar scrutiny, those higher-paid individuals may look to solutions that have been proposed over time in this blog.

On executive compensation, Republicans are fairly united. All, that I am aware, would push for the repeal of Dodd-Frank and for no more (or fewer) restrictions on executive compensation. As free market proponents, they would tell us to let the fair markets determine how top executives should be paid. All that said, proposals like that will be anathema to most (perhaps all) Democrats and unless the GOP were to gain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, such proposals are not likely to become law. However, as Republicans without exception are looking to lower the top marginal tax rates as well as corporate tax rates, look for more emphasis on current compensation and perhaps less emphasis on deferral opportunities.

As the 2016 election process matures and there are fewer candidates, we'll be able to dig deeper. In the meantime, you have my opinion. What's yours?

And, if you think my opinions have any merit, let me help you address what will be coming with the 2016 elections.


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