Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Largest Marginal Tax Rate Ever?

Copyright, The New York Times Company In 2012, the Treasury Department began a new phase of its Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP. In doing so, it may have the distinction of putting into place the largest marginal income tax rate ever in a non-Communist country.

For home mortgage borrowers who appear to be headed for foreclosure, mortgage programs typically recommend a revised mortgage payment amount that is lower than the payment specified in the original mortgage contract. The new payment is set in proportion to the borrower’s income at the time of the modification.

The more the borrower is earning at the time of the modification, the more she will be required to pay her lender over several years. Typically, each additional $100 a borrower is earning (on an annual basis) at the time of the modification adds $31 to the annual amount of the mortgage payment recommended by the Treasury’s mortgage modification guidelines. (This modification is not revisited over time; the income is examined one time and payments set.)

The HAMP program, and its predecessor at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, usually modified the mortgage payments by adjusting the loan interest rate over the subsequent five to seven years.

Thus, assuming a five-year modification time frame, each $100 earned at the time of the modification would add $155 to the borrower’s total mortgage payments, or about $130 in present value.

It is done this way with the intention of creating a monthly payment that is “affordable” (defined as 31 percent of income). But there’s a flip side to the argument: the disadvantage of higher earnings in calculating the resulting payment. To an economist looking at it that way, it’s the equivalent of a 130 percent marginal tax rate: a $130 payment differential solely as a consequence of earning an extra $100.

This year the Treasury decided to encourage changes in this procedure. In particular, it will now subsidize lenders for modifying mortgage principal balances rather than interest payments. Because the principal balance determines payments for the life of the loan, in effect Treasury is asking lenders to modify payments for the life of the loan and not just five to seven years.

Take a 30-year mortgage originated in 2006: it has 24 years left. Under the new rules, an extra $100 earned by the borrower at the time of modification costs her $31 a year for 24 years, which amounts to a total of about $390 in present value. That’s a 390 percent marginal tax rate that applies to borrowers who are having, or expect to have, their mortgage modified.

Economists agree that marginal income tax rates of 100 percent or more are destructive to the labor market and strongly encourage corruption. The best we can hope for is that people subject to such confiscatory marginal tax rates are and remain oblivious of the incentives that Treasury is presenting them.

Marginal tax rates in excess of 100 percent are also present in antipoverty programs, especially in what is known as the Medicaid notch, where an additional $1 of income can mean the complete loss of coverage. In a sense, the Medicaid notch is a marginal tax rate in the thousands of percent, because beneficiaries lose benefits valued in thousands of dollars as a consequence of earning an additional $1.

But while a few thousands of dollars are at stake with one family’s Medicaid coverage, tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, are at stake in each mortgage modification transaction.

For this reason, I think Treasury officials have earned the award for largest marginal income tax rate ever. Let’s hope they are not in training to yet again break their record.


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