Companies, tax advisors and investors are scrambling to digest the new U.S. tax law. One taxing question for equity investors: Who are the potential winners and losers?
Overall, we expect U.S. company earnings and spending will receive an early boost under the new tax plan, as we write in our new BlackRock Investment Institute global insights piece Investing after the U.S. tax overhaul. Our analysis finds earnings revisions are solid in Japan, Europe and emerging markets, but the U.S. strength is unmatched. The Great Expectations chart shows 2017 earnings estimates turned the corner after a string of disappointments, with 2015 and 2016 depicting the more typical pattern in post-crisis years. This year shows a clear sprint out of the gate.
Understanding what comes next will require astute listening—particularly given that companies have up to a year to clarify and update their “provisional” estimates—and learning.
What can we say at this early stage?
The new tax law drops the statutory corporate rate 14 percentage points and offers companies easier and cheaper access to cash held overseas. The former is generally a bigger boon for domestically oriented companies, which have likely been paying an effective tax rate closer to the U.S. statutory level. The latter gives multinational companies greater reason to cheer, allowing for more flexibility in deploying cash. We note an uptick in mergers and acquisitions (M&A), for one, and companies generally have more cash to increase their business investment.
Highly taxed companies appear early winners (and those with lower tax losers) on paper, but the top line makes a great deal of nuance. The impact of the various tax provisions will vary across sectors, sub-sectors and businesses. A 30-year rewind also is informative: The dispersion of effective tax rates of Russell 1000 companies peaked in 1986, just before the Tax Reform Act came into effect, and was followed by a decade long convergence, our analysis shows. Effective tax rates started diverging again in the late 1990s as globalization, the adoption of territorial tax systems and relatively high U.S. tax rates encouraged tax reduction schemes.
Something similar could play out today. The top quartile of U.S. companies currently pay an effective tax rate of 34% or more, our analysis shows. This leaves plenty of room for relief as the top rate is slashed to 21%. Multinationals, which enjoyed lower effective tax rates thanks to their international operations, will see less of an immediate benefit.
The most obvious effects of U.S. tax cuts are likely to be front loaded and dissipate with time. Expect multinationals to scrutinize the international rules to manage their effective tax rates; greater clarity on the taxation of foreign assets should help inform spending plans. Beyond that, the details matter and vary by sector and even company, giving stock pickers room to capitalize.
One example: property and casualty insurers. They look to be low-tax payers already, suggesting little room for upside. But the tax changes will allow these companies to lower their tax liability on underwriting revenue while maintaining their low rates on investment income thanks to tax-free municipal bond income. Most will likely be able to lower their effective tax rates further as a result.
Bottom line: The new tax law is complex, and surprises and unintended consequences are expected—and appearing. Read more insights, including the tax overhaul’s implications for fixed income markets, in the full piece.