Monday, November 23, 2009

The Perils of Debt

. Monday, November 23, 2009

Very interesting column in the New Yorker by UNC-Chapel Hill graduate James Surowiecki on the American tax code and the incentives built into the tax code for individuals and businesses to take on increasing amounts of debt. He runs a blog over at the New Yorker called "The Balance Sheet."Here is an excerpt from the column:

The government doesn’t make people go into debt, of course. It just nudges them in that direction. Individuals are able to write off all their mortgage interest, up to a million dollars, and companies can write off all the interest on their debt, but not things like dividend payments. This gives the system what economists call a “debt bias.” It encourages people to make smaller down payments and to borrow more money than they otherwise would, and to tie up more of their wealth in housing than in other investments. Likewise, the system skews the decisions that companies make about how to fund themselves. Companies can raise money by reinvesting profits, raising equity (selling shares), or borrowing. But only when they borrow do they get the benefit of a “tax shield.” Jason Furman, of the National Economic Council, has estimated that tax breaks make corporate debt as much as forty-two per cent cheaper than corporate equity. So it’s not surprising that many companies prefer to pile on the leverage.
There are a couple of peculiar things about these tax breaks—which have been around as long as the federal income tax. The first is that they’re unnecessary. Few people, after all, can save enough to buy a home with cash, so home buyers naturally gravitate toward mortgages. And businesses like debt because it offers them tremendous leverage, making it possible to put down a little money and potentially reap a huge gain. Even in the absence of the deductions, then, there would be plenty of borrowing. The second thing about these breaks is that their social benefits are pretty much nonexistent. Advocates of the mortgage-interest deduction, for instance, claim that it increases homeownership rates. But it doesn’t: in countries where mortgage deductions have been eliminated, homeownership rates haven’t dropped. Instead, the deduction simply inflates house prices.


The Perils of Debt
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