When Congress reconvenes for the New Year, few chores will be as urgent as reconciling differences between the House and Senate over keeping the tax on stock dividends as low as the tax on capital gains after 2008, preferably indefinitely (as Ed Prescott argued in The Wall Street Journal). Unfortunately, many reporters and pundits are trying to obscure all the key issues by making a big deal out of one tiny tidbit of substandard economics.
Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson wrote, "A new study by staff economists at the Federal Reserve finds little independent effect of the dividend tax cut on stock prices." Gene Sperling, former director of the National Economic Council under President Clinton, wrote that "economists at the Federal Reserve found no evidence that the dividend tax cut raised stock market prices as a whole."
But this study by Fed staffers found nothing of the sort. It only claimed to find that news about the dividend tax cut was not instantly reflected in much higher stock prices during two amazingly brief periods before the law was passed. That is a far less interesting topic, and one that depends entirely on the authors' immature opinion that investors remain clueless about what is going on in Washington until the news finally appears in print.
This study is not really new (it is dated Sept. 26), just newly leaked. It was prepared for one of the Fed's conferences by Gene Amromin of the Chicago Fed and Washington Fed staff economists Paul Harrison, Nellie Liang and Steve Sharpe. It is a "preliminary draft," and "the views expressed are those of the authors." This is no more an official Fed publication than a paper I presented at the Fed in 1989.
The authors claim the market suddenly became aware that the tax rate on dividends might be cut on Jan. 3, 2003, because that is when some big newspaper first wrote about it. Yet I had already published three columns about plans to cut the dividend tax in 2002 -- the first appearing in September of that year and the last at year-end in The Washington Times and New York Post. "Dividend Taxes Are Going Down" was the unambiguous title of my fourth column in early February.
I did not argue, by the way, that boosting stock prices was an important reason for having the same tax rate on dividends and capital gains (and perhaps estates). That's a red herring.