Budget Basics that could Benefit Individuals and Governments Alike

With U.S. government debt at record levels and a large tax cut recently announced while corporate profits are soaring, I often reflect fondly on the movie “Dave,” starring Kevin Kline. The movie warms my heart because it shows us what could be – within the realm of government budgets (and politics). While I’ll leave the political commentary to someone else, I will say that politicians and our government could benefit from a return to budget basics.

In the movie, the White House Chief of Staff decides to use a stand-in for the President during a public photo opportunity. Things get interesting when the actual President suffers a massive stroke at the time of the publicity event. Looking to hold onto power, the Chief of Staff has the Presidential double, a small business owner named Dave, continue to fill the Commander in Chief’s shoes. While Dave has a big heart and a do-good attitude he also starts to use his new-found power. He first tests these waters by calling his friend and accountant Murray to the White House to review the annual budget. After reviewing the government ledger, Murray declares that if “[he] ran his business this way, he’d be out of business.”

There’s no doubt that the U.S. financial system is a much more complicated structure than an individual household or small business, but as the movie “Dave” suggests, it can still benefit from the simple principles you and I use regarding our own financial affairs. One such principle is debt management. As it stands, U.S. debt to gross domestic product (GDP) is around 105%. Gross domestic product (GDP) is the total dollar value of all goods and services produced over a specific time period. While GDP is a measure of the size of our economy it also describes how much the U.S. produces or earns.

The point is that a higher GDP (i.e. earnings) suggests the government can handle higher debt levels. The same principle applies to an individual: someone with a larger salary can typically handle a higher level of debt, all else equal. But when you divide debt by income or GDP – the debt to GDP ratio mentioned above – lower is usually better. For example, most banks will consider an individual a high credit risk if their total debt level to gross income is above 36%. Now compare that to 105% of U.S. debt to GDP and you can see that our government might do well to start reducing its reliance on debt.

Looking at the historical record, U.S. debt to GDP has averaged 62% since 1940. Today’s levels are well above that and the second highest in our history. Debt to GDP reached an all-time high in 1946, at 119%, when the U.S. issued a significant amount of debt to fund our efforts during World War II. Given the serious threat to world stability during the 1940’s, most would argue the additional debt issuance was a risk worth taking. However, today’s elevated debt levels come during a time of relative peace and following nine years of U.S. economic expansion – the second longest on record.

Shifting back to budget basics, most would agree that times of prosperity and stability are ideal periods in which to reduce the deficit and thus national debt. Or at least not add to existing levels.  Unfortunately, the U.S. government has not followed these principles in recent years. Granted, we’ve had some extenuating circumstances such as the Financial Crisis but we’ve also had steady if not subpar GDP growth since then. Most economists – and budget basics – would argue for increasing taxes or at least holding them steady towards the later innings of an economic expansion, when corporate profits are high. However, this time around Congress passed a tax bill that significantly reduced company taxes.

To be fair, there are well documented benefits to running a budget deficit (for a country) and cutting corporate taxes. However, if deficits continue over the long-term, debt levels can mount, ultimately becoming a headwind to future economic growth and prosperity. As interest rates climb from currently depressed levels, so will debt servicing costs. On top of higher interest expense tied to rising yields, the historical record has shown that large tax cuts can boost inflation – especially when implemented towards the end of an economic expansion – and thus contribute further to rising interest rates. At the same time, lower taxes reduce the government’s revenues and make weathering the next recession more difficult.

While the recent tax bill is clearly a near-term positive for companies, employment, and the economy, it can also bring long-term benefits if our politicians implement sound financial policies that balance the budget and bring down government debt levels. In short, our Congressional and Executive leaders might do well to take a page out of the movie “Dave” and return to some budget basics. They might also enjoy a little break in the process.

 

 

 

 

 

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Get Ready for Tax Season

Regardless of whether you prepare your own tax return or hire a professional to do it for you, you are still responsible for collecting the information necessary to complete it.  Well-organized records can make the process significantly easier and potentially save money with your CPA who typically charges by the hour.

One way to tackle this chore is to create a checklist of the documents and information needed to complete your return.  As you gather the documents, start to organize them in a file by the following categories and check them off the list.

Prior Year’s Tax Return

Use last year’s tax return as a starting point to create your checklist.  Although you may have new sources of income or different deductible expenses for the current year, this is usually a fairly comprehensive list of needed documents such as Form 1099 or 1098.  It will also serve as a reminder of information you may need to determine from bank statements or receipts such as medical expenses.

Sources of Income

This category generally includes wages, dividends, interest, partnership distributions, retirement and rental income.  You may receive a Form W-2, 1099, or K1 that indicates the amount of income reported to the IRS.  For other types of income, such as alimony received, you may need to determine the amount to report from bank statements.

Adjustments to Income

These are direct reductions to taxable income that commonly include deductible IRA contributions, alimony paid, Health Savings Account (HSA) contributions, SEP, SIMPLE or other self-employed pension plan contributions,  and self-employed health insurance payment records.

Deductible Expenses

If you itemize deductions rather than taking the standard deduction, you may need to collect source documents indicating the amount of mortgage interest paid (Form 1098), real estate and personal property taxes paid, medical expenses, and charitable contributions to be reported on Schedule A.

Tax Credits

Tax credits are a direct reduction of your tax bill so take a few minutes to research available 2017 credits.  You may be able to claim the American Opportunity Credit if you have a child in college or a Residential Energy Credit if you have made any “green” home improvements.

Basis of Property

This is also a good time to review and update the basis of property if necessary.  Home improvements made during the year may have increased the basis so collect and file those valuable receipts.

Taxes Paid

Federal and state taxes you have already paid may be found on your W-2 but if you pay quarterly estimated taxes you may need to collect records of payment.

While this is not a comprehensive list of every possible tax document needed to complete a tax return, it is a starting point from which you can develop your own, one that reflects your unique life circumstances.  Start organizing now and maybe tax season won’t be your least favorite season of the year.

Nancy Blackman - Parsec Financial Corporate Headshots
Nancy Blackman – Portfolio Manager
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