Wednesday, September 03, 2008

McCain or Obama: Who is Better for Taxes?

The following commentary is from the Sept. issue of the Forbes Growth Investor:

The stock market was open for trading last month, but as a former track & field athlete, I have to admit that the Olympics monopolized my attention. Usain Bolt was magnificent, as was the entire contingent of Jamaican sprinters. With a population of just 2.8 million, this small island country managed to win 11 medals on the track—six of them gold.

During the commercials, however, I did notice that stocks were rallying. In fact, the S&P 500 gained 1.22% in August. This is better than it did every month so far this year except for April. At least some of August’s rally was due to the 3.3% preliminary GDP figure for the second quarter, which was announced on August 28. This number was much better than expected and significantly better than the 1.9% advance figure reported a month earlier. Because the preliminary figure is based on more complete data, investors can have more confidence in it. Although overall growth was certainly robust, it came primarily from importing fewer goods and services and exporting more. It turns out the weak dollar is having a much bigger impact on international trade than almost anyone expected. I hope Barack Obama is listening.

Personal consumption expenditures were also very strong in the second quarter. Unfortunately, this is not likely to be repeated during the third quarter because the tax rebate checks have been fully disbursed. Some economists are already calling for another stimulus package. You can put me in that camp. However, tax rebates won’t do the trick. Their impact is just temporary. Tax cuts are the way to go if you really want to boost the economy in a long-lasting manner.

Speaking of taxes, here is something to ponder. Is it possible that taxes could actually go higher in a McCain administration than in an Obama one? That certainly does not sound logical. After all, Obama has been threatening to raise taxes while McCain has been calling for tax cuts. Yet a Congress controlled by Democrats is not likely to help a president McCain reduce taxes. Instead, under McCain, Congress could very well let the Bush tax cuts expire, in effect, giving us a significant tax increase. However, with Obama in the White House, Congress will almost certainly deliver a package of tax hikes. Yet this option could be less onerous than an outright expiration of the Bush tax cuts. “You’re next stop: The Twilight Zone!”

Stocks also may have responded to the latest S&P/Case-Shiller figures on housing prices. As I discussed in last month’s issue, a bottoming out process is underway. Housing prices are still falling at an accelerating rate, but the rate of acceleration is beginning to stabilize. Because the Case-Shiller figures are delayed by almost two months, we could actually learn in October that August was not so bad. Furthermore, we have already seen an uptick in mortgage applications. Yet despite marginally better news in the housing market, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac continue to get crushed. There is even talk that these mortgage giants will be restructured and equity investors will be wiped out completely. However, if these government sponsored entities survive, those who have the guts to buy now could eventually find themselves sitting on huge gains. While this is a distinct possibility, it is a much better bet that an American relay team will drop the baton in the next major track meet.