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Companies are announcing raises and bonuses, but is Trump's tax plan the reason?

What kind of economic impact are President Donald Trump's tax cuts having on corporations’ employees and business investments? It depends on whom you ask.
Image: President Donald Trump visits Coraopolis
President Donald Trump speaks during a visit to H&K Equipment Company in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania on Jan. 18, 2018.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

What kind of economic impact are President Donald Trump's tax cuts having on corporations’ employees and business investments? It depends on whom you ask.

J.P. Morgan Chase is the latest company to hike wage for employees in response to the White House tax overhaul, with CEO Jamie Dimon announcing on Tuesday that the bank will spend $20 billion to increase hourly pay as part of a “long-term, sustainable investment” in the economy.

Experts say an increasingly tight labor market might have already forced corporate America’s hand on compensation — and that doling out year-end bonuses before the new, lower tax rates kicked in delivers accounting benefits.

“Those immediate actions were really about optics,” said Alex Lifson, principal of the compensation and benefits practice at BDO. “Pay is ultimately set by the labor market.”

With unemployment hovering around 4 percent and predicted to drop further this year, growing competition for workers would likely have prompted more companies to increase pay or sweeten their benefits packages anyway, said Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at Gartner.

“The vast majority are doing it to win battle for talent, not because of the tax situation,” he said.

“Companies are struggling to find new employees and they’re struggling to hold on to existing ones, so they have to raise wages,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “Wage pressures are going to develop more fully here in 2018 — this is something that’s been building,” he said.

Zandi also pointed out that a number of minimum wage increases were set to kick in at the beginning of 2018 as a catalyst for pay increases. “This puts real pressure on companies like a Walmart that hires a lot of people that are over minimum wage, but just above,” he said.

Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform is keeping a running tally, which currently includes more than 200, including many small and mid-sized companies, that announced bonuses, raises or better benefits for workers since the tax bill was signed into law.

A survey of S&P 100 companies conducted by CNBC, however, came to a different conclusion: Only 10 of these businesses responded in the affirmative that they intend to use the savings from the tax cuts to pay workers more or invest more in their business operations.

While the types of businesses on ATR’s list range from a bouncy-house rental company to an online gun retailer, there are a few industries that stand out: Banks, utilities, airlines, telecom, and broadcast companies all figure prominently.

Kropp suggested this preponderance of heavily regulated companies — some of which are awaiting decisions that could materially affect their business in the future — indicate that these announcements are at least partially intentioned to curry favor with the White House.

When perception matters

“There’s a theme of companies that are in the news where the government can make a decision to impact their fortunes,” Kropp said. “Either companies that have business in front of the administration … or have been a target — certainly, there’s a sense of doing that to get back in the good graces of the administration,” he said. “The reality with this administration is perceptions matter a lot.”

And in some cases, companies’ announcements have been paired with news of belt-tightening, or caveats: Walmart said it will spend roughly $700 million to raise pay and give bonuses, but the retail behemoth also plans to close more than five dozen of its Sam’s Club warehouse stores.

Apple won praise for the news that it would repatriate part of its $252 billion in overseas cash and contribute $350 billion to the American economy, but CEO Tim Cook emphasized that while the tax cuts played a role, the company was on track to undertake some of these initiatives anyway.

While some companies are raising pay or enhancing other benefits like 401(k) matching, most crediting the tax cut for their newfound largesse are giving one-time bonuses, which don’t deliver the same ongoing benefits to workers, human resources experts say.

"One-time bonuses don’t deliver the same ongoing benefits to workers [as a raise]."

“A higher wage certainly is something that an employee builds on … which has the potential to be [a] longer-term benefit,” Mary Mohney, chief financial officer of the Society for Human Resource Management, told NBC News. In general, companies prefer giving bonuses to raises because they don’t incur an ongoing cost to pay for them.

In this case, businesses benefit from giving those bonuses for another reason, as well. Craig Wild, a CPA and senior partner at Wild, Maney & Resnick, LLP, pointed out that timing announcements about bonuses around the end of the year was no coincidence.

Companies can deduct the cost of those bonuses in 2017, reducing their taxable income at the old tax rate (which is technically 35 percent, although Wild said most large firms, in reality, pay considerably less), rather than at the new 21 percent top rate.

“If they pay that same bonus a week later, then they get a substantially lower tax deduction,” he said.

Technicalities in accounting and tax law even make it possible for some companies that announced bonuses in January to capture those deductions at the higher 2017 rates, Wild told NBC News.

More broadly, big business stands to benefit handsomely under the new tax changes. “For the larger companies, this is a windfall — no doubt about it,” Wild said.