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But the Fed’s premature rate hikes aren’t why the Trump tax cut is failing. How do we know that? Because all those boasts about why the tax cut would work miracles were based on a specific story about what is holding the U.S. economy back. And that story was and is all wrong.
The Trumpist theory — which was, I’m sorry to say, endorsed by conservative economists who should have known better — was that there was a huge pile of money sitting outside the U.S. that companies would bring back and invest productively if given the incentive of lower tax rates. But that pile of money was an accounting fiction. And the tax cut didn’t give corporations an incentive to build new factories and so on; all it did was induce them to shift their tax-avoidance strategies.
As Brad Setser of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, a casual glance at the data seems to suggest that American companies earn a lot of their profits at their overseas subsidiaries. But a closer look shows that the bulk of these reported profits are in a handful of small countries with low or zero tax rates, like Bermuda, Luxembourg and Ireland. The companies obviously aren’t earning huge profits in these tiny economies; they’re just using accounting gimmicks to assign profits earned elsewhere to subsidiaries that may have a few factories, but sometimes consist of little more than a small office, or even just a post-office box.
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