The View From The Fiscal Gorge

fiscal gorgeHappy Fiscal Gorge[1] Day!

Guess who’s really happy from last night’s tax deal? Heirs, financiers, and people who live off their piles of money.

Guess who’s not saddened by the Fiscal Gorge tax deal? The top 2% of earners that Obama spent his campaign promising would pay a larger share of federal taxes if he won.

Let me explain what I mean.

All along this Fiscal Cliff discussion our leaders have focused our attention on top marginal tax rates and top income thresholds for taxing ordinary income, as if that was the most important way to raise revenue while simultaneously addressing growing societal inequality.[2]  The sticking point in discussions, at least in so far as most media followed it, appeared to be whether top income earners would pay the existing 35% income tax rate or Obama’s preferred 39.6% income tax rate, and where in the range between $250K and $1million in income that higher rate kicks in.

Why do wealthy folks celebrate the Fiscal Gorge?  Just this:  If you’re Sheldon Adelson[3] you really couldn’t care less about ordinary income.  What matters most are estate taxes, dividend taxes, and capital gains taxes.  Adelson makes $1 million a year in ordinary income, now taxed at a higher rate.  No big deal.  He makes billions of dollars in dividends and capital gains, now permanently taxed at 20% for Adelson.  Now that’s a big deal.  Now that’s cool.[4]

Did you notice what happened to those taxes?

Estate Tax: The estate tax exemption rises to $5 million, up from the $1 million it would have been without a Fiscal Cliff deal, and up from $675K when George W. Bush came into office.  The tax rate on inheritance locks in at 40%, down from 55% at the beginning of the Bush Administration.  Throughout the Bush administration the estate tax exemption stepped up each year or two, and the estate tax rate stepped down every year or two.  Under the Obama administration, with the new Fiscal Gorge law passed, the W. Bush-era generous estate tax rates become permanent. Richie Rich is so happy.

Dividends Tax: If you were Sheldon Adelson – which you are not, but let’s pretend you were – right now you would be celebrating a Happy New Year because you just took a special dividend payout in December 2012 from Sands Casino of an estimated $1.2 Billion, based on your ownership of 431.5 million shares and a declared dividend of $2.75 per share.  Adelson took the dividend in December fearing that his 15% dividend tax rate might rise to something like the 35% or 39.6% ordinary income tax rates, which would cost him close to $300 million in additional taxes in 2012.  He needn’t have worried.  The Fiscal Gorge law makes a 20% dividend tax rate permanent for folks in Adelson’s income range, a pillar of the Bush administration’s tax cuts.  The dividend rate stays at the 15% rate for those earning less than $450K.

Capital Gains Tax – This tax rises from 15% to 20% under the Fiscal Gorge law.  Given that top earners and top wealth holders benefit substantially from capital gains, the permanence of this change represents another victory for Bush-era tax cuts.

My logical mind tells me that political leaders and the media underplay the importance of these taxes because, firstly, they only somewhat affect the highest earning 10% of American citizens, and secondly, these taxes only substantially affect the highest earning 1% and above.  So the majority of the electorate and the majority of the media-consuming public doesn’t really know or care about these taxes.  It’s only logical they would ignore those taxes that are irrelevant to the majority of people, right?

My more paranoid mind[5] tells me that it’s convenient for political leaders on both sides of the aisle to ‘hide the ball’ when it comes to tax discussions because you can enact a devastatingly effective ‘win’ for Republicans while at the same time allowing Obama and the Democrats to point to higher marginal taxes on ordinary income as if they scored something important.

They didn’t.  They got rolled, at least when it comes to tax policy.

When it comes to spending, of course, they delayed any cuts in government spending.  Which I suppose makes Democrats feel smug as well.[6]

Which leads to the larger critique and larger structural issue highlighted by the Fiscal Cliff process.

  1. The Fiscal Cliff was an invented political crisis technique – which managed to hold the economy hostage – to force compromise and hard, responsible, fiscal choices from elected leadership.
  2. The resulting Fiscal Gorge law, in the end, involved no significant compromise.  Republicans got overwhelming tax cuts, permanently enacted, and Democrats got all their desired spending continued for a little while longer.  So we got the crisis, but no real compromise.  Thanks guys, awesome job.
  3. It’s easy to cut taxes.  Everyone’s happy.  It’s also easy to spend a lot of money because, again, everyone’s happy.[7]  The hard part is cutting spending or raising taxes, the two things required to, you know, pay our extraordinary debts.
  4. Hard choices like raising taxes or cutting spending require compromise and long-term thinking, of which we received no evidence of either throughout the Fiscal Cliff crisis.

 

One additional point about tax policy and my use of Sheldon Adelson as an example of a wealthy citizen.

I pick on Sheldon Adelson because, in the new era since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows for unlimited campaign contributions as a First Amendment-protected ‘free speech right,’ Adelson represents the paragon of a stated willingness – and most importantly ability – to use money to tilt the political process in his favor.  Multiples of those same campaign contributions then return to him through favorable tax treatment.

Adelson has become – for me at least – a short-hand way of pointing out a glaring structural flaw in our electoral democracy.  I’ve got no particular animus against his wealth accumulation, and I really don’t blame the guy personally for pursuing his self-interest as he understands it.  But we haven’t figured out a way to prevent, for the sake really of systemic integrity, guys like him from tilting the table too far in their favor.

While acknowledging that I’m re-stating the incredibly obvious, I like to talk about Sheldon Adelson simply because he’s my way of showing we’re light on the whole ‘checks and balances’ thing when it comes to the influence of money in politics.



[1] My friend “The Professor” who recently wrote a guest post about Sheldon Adelson, deserves credit for the “Fiscal Gorge”, which naturally follows when you go over the Fiscal Cliff.  The actual name for the legislation passed yesterday by the House and Senate to address the Fiscal Cliff is The “American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.”

[2] I know, we don’t talk about growing inequality in a straightforward way when discussing tax policy.  But that is clearly what Obama had in mind when he campaigned on raising taxes on people who make more than $250,000 a year.  Yes, it would have a small effect on fiscal solvency, but it would have a larger effect on our notion of what’s fair in an increasingly unequal society.  One simple illustration of the increase in inequality in the United States is captured by the picture of the historical increase in the US’ Gini Coefficient measuring income inequality from 1947 to 2007.

[3] Obviously I’ve written about him already, but he’s an incredibly convenient stand-in for wealthy Americans and their successful capture of the political process.

[5] What!?  You don’t have multiple voices in your head debating tax policy at all times?  Am I over-sharing?  Why won’t you answer me, damn it?

[7] Which reminds me of one of my favorite Jack Handey quotes: “It’s easy to sit there and say you’d like to have more money. And I guess that’s what I like about it. It’s easy. Just sitting there, rocking back and forth, wanting that money.”

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A Tax Proposal Worth Considering

The Center for American Progress (CAP) recently published a summary description of their proposals for addressing tax and spending policy, in the light of the ‘Fiscal Cliff,’ Simpson-Bowles, and the ongoing flustercluck of fiscal policy negotiations going on before January 1, 2013.

Their summary report is as good as anything I’ve seen yet in terms of both credibility and reasonableness for addressing tax policy and fiscal deficits.

Who is the Center for American Progress?  The CAP represents the Clinton Wing of fiscal policy, with such getting-the-band-back-together Clinton Administration veterans as Bob Rubin, Larry Summers, Roger Altman, William Daley, John Podesta, and Leslie Samuels.  Before you roll your eyes at those same-old left-of-center Democrats, consider the facts:

  1. This team produced fiscal surpluses at the end of the Clinton Administration[1]
  2. This team cut Welfare
  3. This team is EXTREMELY Wall Street friendly

And, so, now that I’ve established why both the Left and the Right will hate whatever these guys propose, my reply to the haters is that they have fiscal and financial credibility in a way nobody from the Bush era can claim, and they are far from being European Socialists when it comes to policy.

Some specific things I like about the CAP proposals:

  1. They eliminate the ‘Carried Interest’ loophole, which I wrote about here.
  2. They tax dividends like ordinary income – as they were taxed for 90 years before 1993[2]
  3. They raise long-term capital gains taxes from 15% to 28% – as they were taxed after the Reagan tax reform of 1986[3]
  4. They limit the kind of tax breaks which disproportionately favor high earners, such as mortgage interest tax deductions[4]
  5. They simplify and reduce the need for itemization of one’s personal tax returns
  6. They eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, aka the Tax Accountants and Preparers Full Employment Act[5]

Here’s the most compelling statement from the summary report:

[T]he real-world experience of raising taxes on those with higher incomes in the 1990s and cutting them in the 2000s strongly supports the view that higher taxes for those at the top – in the range seen in the United State in recent decades – don’t depress growth, and lower taxes don’t spur it.  In 1993 when President Bill Clinton raised taxes on the top income earners, his opponents argued loudly that such tax hikes would mean economic decline, with some even promising lower tax revenues as a result.  Needless to say, they were proven wrong in spectacular fashion with the longest period of economic growth in US history, increased business investment, 23 million jobs added, and, of course, budget surpluses.  Eight years later, President Bush promised that his tax cuts would spark an economic boom.  That boom never materialized, but renewed large deficits did.  In addition to the clear historical record, study after study has found no relationship between deficit-financed tax cuts and economic growth.

 

On the other hand, here’s some things I don’t like or don’t understand well enough from the CAP proposals on spending to find credible:

  1. They rely on a series of health care delivery reforms for fiscal savings.  I’ve heard that one before.  I’m calling BS on that one.
  2. They rely on lowering drug costs and Medicare payments for savings.  I’ve heard that one before too.  If it was easy they’d have done it by now.
  3. They propose $100 Billion in savings from nondiscretionary programs.  “Non-discretionary” to me implies that somebody is going to squeal very loudly when you try to save $100 Billion on their particular non-discretionary item.  I’m seeing a political hot mess.
  4. They propose $300 Billion in new “job creation” spending by the Federal Government.  Hey guys?  Now you’re just opening yourselves up to being accused of typical lefty Democratic thinking.  Just stop it.

In sum, I like the tax side of this CAP Report, and either can’t agree or remain skeptical of the spending side of the CAP Report.  But hey it’s a start.



[1] Which is a reminder of the enraging fact that only 12 years ago the big problem was figuring out what to do with the expected fiscal surpluses we’d have by 2012.

[2] And the world didn’t end

[3] And again, the world didn’t end

[4] A helpful reminder of why this is, from their report: A high earner who pays $10K in mortgage interest could potentially deduct $3,500, while a low earner who pays $10K in mortgage interest could potentially deduct only $1,500.  They both paid $10K in mortgage interest over the year, but the higher earner gets a much better deal on the deduction

[5] In other words, eliminating the AMT could greatly increase the # of folks who could file their own taxes.  Which seems like a good idea to me.

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Powerball – A Horrific Tax On The Poor

In recent posts I argued that current tax policy for the wealthiest people in the United States incentivizes inheritance over effort, encourages getting ahead either from:

  1. Gifts from Daddy or
  2. Living off your wealth,or
  3. Owning a hedge fund,

…all the while punishing people who actually, you know, work for a salary to achieve the American Dream.

In response, many outraged readers commented that the poorest Americans pay no income taxes, and that the real injustice wasn’t Richie Rich starting out life with $10 million tax free, but rather that Welfare Queens and moochers were living high on the hog of their $28,000 in annual transfer payments, off the sweat of the brow of the upper classes.

Ah, but dear outraged reader, do not worry and do not be alarmed – the poor do not slide by tax free.  No, no, no.  If those poor people want good schools and good roads, our leaders have devised extraordinary measures to tax people who pay no income taxes.

Moreover, taxes on the poor have been rising steadily in the past two decades.  What is this hidden tax?

Lotteries!  Casinos!  The great thing about lotteries and casinos is that the government can capture significant revenue[1] from those Welfare Queens and moochers, without having to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for stuff like, you know, schools and roads.[2]

Indeed last night’s extraordinary Powerball drawing reminds us that governments constantly levy hefty taxes on poor people, especially poor people who are bad at math.[3]

Lotteries, which generate state revenue of approximately 30 cents for every dollar spent by purchasers, implicitly tax participants much more heavily than other revenue sources, between 25% and 56%.

As I wrote before, what I really find offensive about the abolition of the estate tax and the loopholes for the wealthy is the message that government leaders implicitly send about the value of work and government-incentivized methods of accumulating wealth.[4]  Likewise, what I really find offensive about lotteries and casinos is the clear message from government leaders to the poor about the way to get ahead in life, and the way to accumulate wealth.

The implicit message of taxation through lotteries and casinos is the following: Never mind trying to work for a living.  It’s best for you to try to reach the American Dream through pure dumb luck: the roll of the dice, the spin of the wheel, the turn of the card, or the scratching off of the ticket.  Money is best made not by discipline, sacrifice, intelligence, education, or work, but rather by playing a game, secretly knowing that the odds are rigged against you and that you’re going to lose anyway.

That’s our hugely regressive tax policy for the folks who don’t pay income tax.  That’s the message to poor people from our leaders rushing to promote lotteries and casinos.[5]



[2] How, besides common sense, do I know poor people pay these Lottery and Casino taxes in disproportionate numbers?  Great stats and facts accumulated here.  To highlight a few: 1. Instant tickets in Texas were more likely purchased by someone out of work than someone working or retired.  2. 49% of Californians without a college degree play the lottery, versus 30% with a college degree.  3. 54% of lottery players in South Carolina earn less than $40K a year, although they account for 28% of the state population.

[3] Of course, last night’s estimated $580 million Powerball lottery payout was exceptional – in that the expected value of $1 spent on a lottery ticket was actually positive – an unusual case.  The government still seeks to tax the poor with this lottery, but at least it wasn’t, for this brief instance, taxing both the poor and the innumerate.

 

[4] To be specific about that message:  “The best way to get wealthy is to be born in to the right family.  The best way to earn a living is to have your money make money for you.  The best business you can set up is a private equity or hedge fund, as we will give you generous tax breaks on your income if you do that.”

[5] Also of course the fact that I bought two Powerball tickets and did not win has fueled my anti-lottery feelings this morning.  Go ahead, call me a hypocrite.  I can take it.

 

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SHHHHHH…Please Don’t Talk About My Tax Loophole

I wrote last week that one of the great lessons of the recent Presidential campaign, for me, is how little we as a country understand income tax policy.

Since we’re about to engage in a crash course in fiscal policy[1] it’s worth focusing on the loophole of carried interest.

Both Presidential candidates referred in the debates to closing income tax loopholes, yet both were deathly afraid of mentioning anything specific, such as the egregious carried interest income tax loophole for hedge funds and private equity funds.  Romney skipped it because his entire Bain Capital career benefitted from it, and Obama skipped it because he’s derived a healthy portion of campaign funding from the same industry.[2]

Industry-specific loopholes like this always prove notoriously difficult to close, because benefits accrue to an intensely interested, knowledgeable, and well funded group, while the general public has minimal to no knowledge of the loophole, no voice at the table, and only earns a very diffuse benefit by closing the loophole.

If you don’t know what carried interest is, then you’re not particularly close to anyone in the hedge fund or private equity world.  Frankly, that is the way we in the investment world would like to keep things.  You – in the dark.  Us – avoiding taxes.

However, as a recovering fund manager dedicated to a fearless moral inventory of all things financial, I’ll explain what you’ve been missing by telling my story.

How I tried, ignorantly, to forgo my right to an awesome loophole

When I set up my private limited investment partnership – also called, inaccurately, a hedge fund[3] – my attorney insisted I set up not one additional Limited Liability Company in Delaware, but rather two.  I tried to resist him, saying I felt most comfortable with just one new business entity.[4]  I was so averse to two new entities that I asked another attorney for a second opinion.  He told me the same thing.  I needed two entities.  I asked my accountant.  His response was, of course, “two entities,” and complete puzzlement at my resistance.  Clearly, they knew something that I didn’t.  That something is the awesomeness of the carried interest loophole.  Needless to say, I got the extra LLC.[5]

Two types of income require two entities

Why did my attorney and accountant insist I create a separate entity?  Because that separate entity can collect payments in the form of ‘incentive allocation,’ also known as ‘carried interest,’ which is taxed advantageously, at the same rate as long-term capital gains[6] rather than as ordinary income.  Here’s how it works.

If you set up a traditional hedge fund[7], first things first: you’ll want to charge the traditional “2/20.”[8] Embedded in this short-hand lingo of “2/20” for hedge fund fees are two types of income.

With the two types of income, you need the two entities to keep the income tracked separately.  Entity #1 collects the “2,” which is taxed like regular business income, and Entity #2 collects the “20,” which collects your totally awesome income at a lower tax rate.

The “2” refers to an annual management fee of 2% of assets under management.  On a small/medium-sized hedge fund of, for example, $500 million under management, you will collect $10 million in management fees per year.  The purpose of this money is to pay for rent, staff, overhead, technology, research – in short all the things you need to do as a fiduciary for the proper care and feeding of the client’s money.  This management fee income will net out with business expenses, and may or may not ever generate “profit” for the manager.  In some fundamental sense, it’s not supposed to generate profit; hedge fund managers are fine earning zero profits from management fees since the $10 million is taxed like ordinary income at 35%, which is, as you know, kinda lame.

The “20” refers to the incentive allocation, meaning specifically that 20% of all annual gains are retained by the manager, in entity #2, as ‘carried interest.’  Here, the hedge fund manager takes full advantage of the loophole.  If the $500 million fund has a gain on investments of 10% this year, fully 20% of the $50 million gain on investments – that is to say $10 million – gets earned by the hedge fund manager’s entity #2 as the ‘incentive allocation’ or ‘carried interest.’

At this point, that ‘carried interest’ gets treated at the rate of capital gains, a 15% tax rate, rather than the 35% taxable rate of ordinary income.  Often, by design, the hedge fund manager leaves the entire 20% incentive allocation inside the fund for it to grow long term.  The manager only owes $1.5 million in taxes (15% of $10 million, at the capital gains tax rate) instead of $3.5 million (35% of $10 million, at the ordinary income tax rate).  As a result of the special tax treatment for ‘carried interest,’ the small/medium hedge fund manager in our example keeps $2 million more than he otherwise would have been entitled to keepThat’s a good deal, for him.

And that’s just one year.

And that’s just for kind of a small hedge fund.

You can imagine the bigger, scale-able results available for when a John Paulson-type fund manager scores  big by shorting the subprime mortgages market in 2007 (probably saved about $740 million in taxes with the loophole) or buying gold in 2010 (probably saved about $980 million in taxes with the loophole)[9]

You can also see why my attorneys and accountant insisted that I set up a separate entity that could take advantage of the tax loophole for carried interest.  My keep-my-life-simple approach made absolutely no sense in the face of potential millions in tax savings year after year.  And they knew that.

Is carried interest deserving of special treatment?

Is there anything special about ‘carried interest’ that justifies the preferred tax treatment?

Proponents argue that because much of ‘carried interest’ stays invested inside of hedge funds, still at a risk of loss, that additional risk justifies the 15% preferred tax rate.

But typically much of that ‘carried interest’ left in the market could be liquidated and taken out by the hedge fund manager anytime.[10]  (You know what else is risky?  Having a job, with a salary, that you could be fired from next week, but you have to pay a much higher tax rate on that salary.  That’s pretty risky too.)

Other proponents of ‘carried interest’ argue that tax policy should incentivize the accumulation of our economy’s scarce investment capital, basically the Ed Conard argument for lower taxes on wealth and investments.

In my opinion, that’s bunk.  Capital is not that scarce for any truly innovative segment of the economy.  Most hedge funds and private equity investments offer little value-added as innovative engines of the economy.  I know that’s my hypothesis, not a provable assertion, but I’ve seen enough on the inside to know – these hedge funds are not the engines of innovation you’re looking for.

At the end of the day, the ‘carried interest’ money is treated better than salary money because it’s been earned by a special class of people – hedge fund and private equity fund managers – who are much more influential in the political process than the average worker.  Full stop.

All of this is why I wrote last week that I would appreciate it if both sides of the political aisle would just stop lying to us about fiscal policy and loopholes and treat us like adults.  I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised.  But I’m not going to turn blue holding my breath.



[1] Thanks to the overheated discussion of a completely politically synthetically created crisis known as the Fiscal Cliff.

[2] Don’t be overly misled by some of the anti-Obama rhetoric from titans of the hedge fund industry like Omega’s Leon Cooperman.  Despite Cooperman’s choice comparisons to Nazism, or Dan Loeb saying Obama’s treats them like ‘battered wives,’ hedge fund and private equity managers know that Obama’s been all talk and no action when it comes to what they really care about.  Which is the carried interest loophole.

[3] A pet peeve of mine as well as for many people in the industry, the use of the term ‘hedge fund’ to describe what is better described as a ‘private investment limited partnership.’  ‘Hedge fund’ implies something that has no relation to my business.  I did no hedging.

[4] My reason at the time was that as a small business, I wanted to keep things simple.  A new entity meant the additional cost of entity creation and maintenance, a separate set of accounting books, a separate set of tax returns, etc.  Boy was I wrong about the potential costs and benefits, as I’ll explain below.

[5] Here’s a handy rule of thumb for non-financial people:  Whenever you see a company or business situation with lots and lots of separate business entities, you can be confident there’s tax avoidance going on.  It’s possible there’s also an attempt to shield the principals from bankruptcy, but it’s either that, or tax avoidance.  Anyway, just an FYI.

[6] See my earlier posting on tax rates for different types of income.

[7] Or private equity fund, but for the purposes of this illustration I’ll just refer to a ‘hedge fund.’

[8] Industry folks, bear with me, as you already know this, but the non-financial types don’t:  Insiders refer to hedge funds not as an asset class but as a compensation scheme.  The “2/20” is why.

[9] I’m assuming his reported gains of $3.7Billion and $4.9 Billion respectively, the largest portion of which would be in the form of tax-advantaged incentive allocation.

[10] Admitedly less so for a private equity manager, whose investments tend to be less liquid.

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Adult Conversation About Income Tax Policy

With the Fiscal Cliff[1] looming, kids, it’s time for “The Talk.”

By ‘The Talk,’ I mean yank our minds into the grown-up world.  We have been innocent about how money really gets made, and kept, and taxed.  The ‘adults’ know, but they haven’t felt comfortable sharing the real truth.  We didn’t know, and we didn’t think we could talk about it.  It seems embarrassing for some reason.  Almost dirty.  Maybe it’s the way we were brought up.  Nevertheless, now’s the time for ‘The Talk.’

Here it is in a nutshell: The way the ‘grown-ups’ – our elected officials – set tax policy tells us how they value different ways of making money.  They see three different ways to make money, and they clearly favor the first two.

Inherited Money

According to our tax code it turns out the very best way to make money is the old-fashioned way:  Inherit it.

As of this writing, the first $5 million from a deceased individual can pass to you tax free.  Our elected leaders want you to know that the best way to get rich is to be born into a rich family and have the right people die at the right time.[2]

Stated that way, it seems a bit un-American, no?  A bit, well, aristocratic.  Nevertheless, that’s far and away the best way to earn your first $5 million.  Our leaders want you, Richie Rich, to have your first $5 million tax free.[3]  Mwah!

Make money with your money

The second best way to get wealthy, according to the tax code, is to already have a lot of money, and then earn money on your money.

If you already have a lot of money, then a significant proportion, probably a majority of your income, will come from three sources: Tax Free Bonds, long-term capital gains on your investments, or corporate stock dividends.[4]

The best of these investments, tax wise, is Triple Tax Free municipal bonds, which are exempt from local, state and federal income taxes.  You earn just about 0.5% interest[5] these days, but if you’ve got $100 million in triple tax free muni bonds then you’ve got yourself $500,000 a year, tax free!  That pays for quite a few golf outings a year, with money left over for the lobster roll at the club and a tip for the valet.

The next best way to make a living from your investments, according to the tax code, is to buy and hold stocks for at least 18 months before selling at a profit, so that your earnings will be taxed at a rate of only 15%, the long-term capital gains rate.

Should you be so fortunate as to start out in life with a massive stock portfolio, your elected officials say to you: “Good Job!  That’s an excellent way to make a living!  Let us incentivize you to earn the majority of your living by having your pile of money do all the work, while you join that swell municipal bond fellow at the club.”

The third best way to earn money from your money is to hold stocks for at least 60 days, thereby earning qualified dividends, likewise taxed at a comfortable 15% rate.[6]

I interpret all of these three tax policies combined as our elected officials’ way of saying that the next best way of making a living – after being born into a rich family – is to sit around like Scrooge McDuck investing money, and only paying 0% and 15% on one’s income.[7]

Mitt Romney’s 14% effective tax rate in 2011 derives from this tax advantaged way to ‘earn’ a living, just as your elected officials would like you to.

Working for a living

The ‘grown-ups’ who make tax policy tell us this is the worst way to make money.  You see, if you work for a salary, that income is liable to be taxed at the maximum income tax rate.

If you can make less than $35,350 a year, fine, they’ll tax you at a 15% rate.

But over that, you’re looking at 25%, 28%, 33%, or up to 35% for those making over $388,351.  The lesson of the tax code is that people who actually work for a living, rather than inherit from Daddy or live like Scrooge McDuck, should be taxed the most.  “Working for a living?” they taunt us, “that’s for chumps!  Tax that man at the maximum possible rate!”

That’s “The Talk” about our tax policy which creates better and worse ways to make money in this country.  No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, but there is a Richie Rich and a Scrooge McDuck.  And our elected officials just love them!

 



[1] Is it weird that I love the sound that the phrase ‘Fiscal Cliff’ makes in the mouth?  Its poetry, really.  To mangle a bit of Nabokov:  “Fis.Cal.Cliff.  Taking a trip of three steps through the split fricative to tap front teeth, at three, on the lower lip.”

[2] Yankees owner and billionaire George Steinbrenner famously died in 2010, the one year in recent memory during which the Estate Tax was wholly repealed.  George was worth an estimate $1.1 Billion, so the fact of the Estate Tax repeal in 2010 made the Steinbrenner heirs $500 million richer than they would have been had he died in 2009, as the estate tax rate was 45% of inherited wealth that year.  As a Red Sox fan, I’m just so happy for those boys, Hal and Hank.  It couldn’t have happened to a nicer family.

[3] We will hear, or we should hear, quite a bit about the estate tax in the coming weeks, as the limit exemption on tax-free inheritance reverts back to $1 million and a 55% rate in 2013, if Congress does not take action. “Death Taxes on Small Businesses” is how one political side always describes the Estate Tax, but that’s mostly a load of bull.  The real implication of the estate tax is to what extent our leaders signal that the best way to get $5 million is to be born into the right family.

[4] If you’re not making any money through tax free munis, long term stock holdings and dividends, well then you can just skip to the third section, you working stiff.  Our elected officials can’t be bothered with you, if you can’t take a hint about how to make money.  Jeez.

[5] On 5 year municipal bonds, for example.

[6] The low 15% ‘qualified dividends’ tax incentive ends in 2012, unless Congress acts to extend or modify it, as Congress did, with Obama’s approval, in 2010.

[7] The other great advantage to being Scrooge McDuck from a tax perspective, is that – unlike a working-stiff salaryman – you can choose what year to harvest stock market gains.  Scrooge McDuck can end up with virtually no taxable income in any given year should he choose to sell no appreciated stock.  Or Mr. Duck can match up investment losses with investment gains to have no net taxable income, or even to trigger a tax refund.  In a related story, did you know Mitt Romney got a $1.6 million tax refund last year?

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Four Reactions to the Election

Four quick thoughts now that the elections are over, from a recovering banker.

1. The equity indexes fell immediately at the open today, and remain down over 2% on the day.  Do not let any talking head from the financial-industrial-infotainment industry try to suggest that this is in response to Obama’s election.  Every trader on the planet knew that Obama had a 60% chance of winning as of last month, a 75% chance of winning as of last week, and a 90% chance of winning as of the final 48 hours.[1]  Nobody who manages capital for a living was caught off-guard by the Obama victory, so nobody suddenly had to reposition their portfolio as a result this morning.  Markets and the people with real capital who participate in them are forward-looking and probabilistic; equity markets  already reflected widespread expectations of an Obama victory.

2. The next Treasury Secretary matters tremendously for the biggest financial-regulatory issue of the day – the unaddressed problem of Too Big To Fail banks.  Secretary Geithner pre-announced that he would not serve in a second Obama administration[2] so the hunt for a new Treasury Secretary is now underway.  Geithner’s utterly failed to address the TBTF problem and pushed the Obama administration into a business-as-usual, same-guys-in-charge approach to Wall Street reform.  Secretary Paulson’s background as the former Goldman chief who grew up professionally with the rest of Wall Street’s heads played an inordinate role in selecting the winners and losers of the Credit Crunch of 2008, along with in providing the ultimate government backstop for the country’s biggest financial firms.  Had Paulson come from any other industry – instead of finance – he would have seen what the rest of us saw: It’s unconscionable to allow firms to pay executive bonuses[3] in the same year that the firms were bailed out by taxpayers.  Geithner continued Paulson’s protective approach to Wall Street banks, rather than seizing the opportunity to extract real concessions or reform when the industry needed the government to survive.

I’m not suggesting we put someone like Elizabeth Warren[4] in charge, but we need someone who can independently evaluate what parts of Wall Street need supporting and which parts need curbing.  Somebody, in other words, who didn’t spend his or her entire life working on the Street.

3. The “Fiscal Cliff” and fiscal responsibility.

Obviously the FC now becomes the next hot topic for overheated punditry, at least until we pass the January deadline.

I’m not optimistic about the tone of the discussion nor about the possible results of fiscal compromise, but I do have my wishes.

I wish that, with elections for Congress now two years away, can we have less complete bullshit when it comes to fiscal policy positions?  Would that be too much to ask?

One party’s leader says the solution lies in tax cuts.  The other party’s leader says the solution lies in more generous social spending.  One party’s leader says military spending is untouchable.  The other party’s leader says transfer payments and social safety net spending is untouchable.  All those proposals leave us in a worse fiscal position as a nation.

Hey guys?  Can you treat us like grown-ups?  We can handle a bit more truth than you’re giving us credit for.  We know budget deficits have a terrible trajectory and only a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts will correct the course.

Say what you will about the 2016 Republican nominee, Gov. Chris Christie, he’s proved that refreshingly blunt and seemingly unpopular – but honest talk – can appeal to both sides of the political aisle.  Let’s have some more of that as we drive, full throttle, toward the Fiscal Cliff.

4. Tax policy

I’ll have more to write about this shortly, but one of interesting lessons of Mitt Romney’s candidacy is how little the US electorate understands, or cares to understand, about our income tax policies.

By releasing only his 2010 and 2011 income tax returns, Romney effectively obfuscated his financial background.  He signaled (albeit quietly) that his tax-planning strategies were so aggressive that their release would explode his electoral chances.  And yet, I don’t think this cost him anything real in the end in terms of votes.  He calculated – correctly! – that the electorate’s ignorance of current tax policies, and popular tax-planning strategies of the wealthy would protect him.

Despite heightened resentment toward the wealthy, I observe the “99%,” for the most part, has no idea what they don’t know.  They can’t even conceive of the many ways someone like Romney avoids paying his proportionate share of taxes.  Romney knew that, and he was not about to wake that ignorant, sleeping giant by revealing his methods in the unreleased tax returns.



[1] Because professional traders pay attention to data and evidence, not pundits trying to hype a competitive race.  Which is why Nate Silver is a the mutherflipping P.I.M.P. of the moment.

[3] Bonuses are for success.  Bonuses are optional.  Bonuses should reflect private profit and should never be paid by borrowing from taxpayers.  Only a deeply embedded executive like Paulson could have missed the implications of this.

[4] I know I may sound strident when it comes to Wall Street reform, but I actually admire the industry very much and I want it to thrive.  Warren, by contrast, strikes me as overly ideological when it comes to Wall Street, incapable of seeing the positive.

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