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Fallout from the plunge is hard to call, but the view may not be so blue

HERE are a few questions for which economists don't really have an answer: Will the stock market's recent plummet depress or raise government revenues?

``Nobody has a fix on it,'' a Treasury official notes.

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The Oct. 19 bust essentially wiped out the rise in share prices from the start of this year to late August. Not known is how many of the 604 million shares sold and bought on that day, or on post-plunge days, were sold at a capital loss or at a capital gain.

If the stocks were bought earlier than this year, the investor may still have racked up a handsome capital gain. In that case, this person will pay taxes at the same rate paid on his or her regular income - a maximum of 28 percent. Capital gains no longer get a special tax break.

The Treasury doesn't really expect an answer to this question until next spring, when the tax returns are examined in volume.

Another question concerns how much the drop will hurt consumer spending.

Two analysts at Bear, Stearns & Co., Peter J. Canelo and Linda Darro, agree that not everyone bought stocks at the top of the market. Since the current price level of stocks remains about 20 percent higher than it has been, on average, over the past 48 months, many investors are still sitting pretty.

Will those latter investors feel wealthy enough to spend freely, offsetting the new stinginess of those harmed by the market slump?

Most economists doubt it, and they have marked down their forecasts for economic growth next year by 1 or 2 percent. For example, Lincoln Anderson, a Bear Stearns economist, now expects 2 percent growth in real gross national product next year, down from his 3.3 percent forecast before the record drop.

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Mr. Anderson figures consumers will start saving more to offset their market losses. When stock prices were higher, consumers felt wealthy enough to spend more of their current earnings. Savings declined from a poor 4.3 percent of national income to only 3 percent in the second and third quarters of this year.

But there are other factors that could boost consumer incomes. The final stage of the tax cut will save consumers $17 billion next year - though this could be offset to some degree by the deficit-reduction package being negotiated by Congress and the administration. Further increases in employment will boost income. Interest costs are lower.

Further, direct ownership of stocks has declined in recent decades. Many investors own common stocks through pension funds or insurance portfolios. These indirect losses may not hit consumer spending as hard as direct market losses.

Finally, economists wonder whether other positive elements in the economy will offset the negative effect of the market plunge.

The jump in exports, reported last week for October, will boost national production. The continued fall in the dollar could add to this impetus, making American exports even more competitive internationally. Inventories are low. There is a strong backlog of unfilled orders. Higher rates of capacity utilization in industry should encourage more spending on plant and equipment.

Further, the Federal Reserve System has stepped on the monetary gas after letting the economy coast for a while.

How all these factors will balance out is uncertain.

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