Monday, September 3, 2012

Bain Capital's Tax Dodge- How David Callahan Gets it Completely Wrong

Far be it for me to take on a supposed expert such as David Callahan, senior fellow at Demos. He presumably has an education that I clearly do not have. But his piece today, "Bain Capital's Tax Dodge", in the Huffington Post is wrong. Plain and simple, wrong. 
His facts are right, as far as I know, but he comes to the absolutely wrong conclusion based entirely on his own anti-Romney bias. 
And so, because I have never been one to keep my mouth shut, I must address just how wrong he is. His text is "normal" below, my insertions in red. 

It's not often that we get a detailed look inside the tax strategies of a private equity firm, so Gawker's publication of a trove of documents related to Bain Capital is a welcome event.
Meh. They are private for a reason. Why should we get to look at the tax strategies of a business that doesn't have our money or interests?

The documents show -- once again -- how sophisticated business people have myriad ways to avoid taxes and, in the case of Bain anyway, will readily skirt or break the law.
Oops, your bias is showing.

The main revelation so far is that Bain seems to have pushed the envelope and misrepresented some of its income -- saying that management fees, which would be taxable as regular income, were actually capital gains, which are taxed at a much lower rate thanks to the infamous "carried-interest" loophole.
About that loophole. Hedge funds and private equity firms make their big money by taking a cut of the returns on client money they invest. So if I invest $10 million with a hedge fund or private equity firm, and they make a 30 percent return on that money next year -- or $3 million -- they would typically take 20 percent of that return, or $600,000. In addition, they would charge me an annual management fee of probably 2 percent, or $200,000. Thanks to the carried-interest loophole, the $3 million cut is treated as capital gains earnings by the firm, and taxed at a mere 15 percent, and only the management fee is taxed as regular income.
The reason the carried-interest loophole is so outrageous is that, of course, that $3 million cut is not capital gains made by the firm. It is the firm's cut of somebody else's capital gains -- the investor who actually took the risk. The theory behind low taxes on capital gains is that it incentivizes risk-taking investment by people who might otherwise stash their wealth in safer but less productive places. But hedge funds and private equity firms are not risking their own money; they are risking somebody else's and their cut simply is not a capital gain. It is regular income and should be taxed as such.
I don't disagree with any of that. In fact, this is one of the best explanations of capital gains taxes I have read yet. Good work, Callahan. I agree completely, it is regular income and should be taxes as such. 

All this is bad enough. One reason that private equity types like Mitt Romney have such large fortunes is because their taxes are so low, leaving other taxpayers to pay more.
Wait, no. Not true. That's a popular twist of the facts. They have large fortunes because they earned the money. Not because they have lower taxes. They have lower taxes because government taxes them less. You earn what you earn. 
And just because he pays what he is taxed, does not leave other taxpayers to pay more. They pay more, because that is how much the government taxes them. 
Those are the facts. 
Is it fair? No. But it doesn't become fair by twisting the facts. Romney made more money than you. He also paid a lot more in taxes than you even earned. (You're a fellow at a small name think tank, I can just assume you make in a year what he makes in a speaking fee.) Because he has a great deal of experience understanding wealth, laws, and taxes (see: Harvard MBA, law school, and being a Governor), he pays a smaller percentage of his money to the government. The percentage he pays has no bearing on the percentage of your wealth that you pay. 
If you think he should have to pay a larger percentage than you, take it up with your Congressional representative.  

But the Bain documents show something worse. Apparently, Bain's partners resented paying regular income taxes on their management fees, and so maneuvered to represent those fees as capital gains and pay a lower rate. 
Are you suggesting that Bain's partners are somehow unique in resenting paying taxes? I thought pretty much every American ever resented paying taxes? Maybe you are different? You like giving Uncle Sam your money?
Also, let's say you really did have $10 million to invest. Who would you rather invest it with- the private equity firm that knows the laws so well as to be able to take advantage of loop-holes? Or the firm that is paying millions more in fees because they don't know the laws? 
Again, if you have a problem with the tax code (and I'm not arguing that there isn't one) your issue shouldn't be with the people paying the taxes. It should be with the people who pass taxes (ahem, the Democrats).  

As reported in the New York Times:
Bain private equity funds in which the Romney family's trusts are invested appear to have used an aggressive tax approach, which some tax lawyers believe is not legal, to save Bain partners more than $200 million in income taxes and more than $20 million in Medicare taxes.

Annual reports for four Bain Capital funds indicate that the funds converted $1.05 billion in accumulated fees that otherwise would have been ordinary income for Bain partners into capital gains, which are taxed at a much lower rate. Although some tax experts have criticized the approach, the Internal Revenue Service is not known to have challenged any such arrangements.
In a blog post Thursday, Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of Colorado, said that there was some disagreement among lawyers, but that he believed: "If challenged in court, Bain would lose. The Bain partners, in my opinion, misreported their income if they reported these converted fees as capital gain instead of ordinary income."
You would think that the super wealthy might shrug at paying taxes they can easily afford, but here the opposite appears to be the case: Bain's wealthy partners have been hyper-aggressive about lowering their tax bill.
Good for Bain! Did you really think people who know how to make millions, billions actually, would want to readily hand over their money? No, they want to make more. That is what they do! They are an equity firm!

The Medicare dodge is especially notable, given how conservatives endlessly trumpet the financial troubles of that program. Capital gains are not subject to payroll taxes, which means that one effect of the carried-interest loophole -- which the right defends -- is that it weakens the financial situation of Medicare and Social Security.
Again, your problem here should be with the law, not Bain. Also, "how conservatives endlessly trumpet"- gag me. You are so biased here you don't even see how ridiculous you sound. 

Also notable in this story is that the IRS has not moved more aggressively to crack down on tax cheats who misrepresent management fees as capital gains. Presumably that is because the IRS doesn't have firepower to go up against some of the best tax attorneys in the nation in legal disputes that could take years.
I am surprised that as a Democrat you don't suggest that the best tax attorneys should HAVE to work for the IRS. And again, your problem here isn't with Bain, it is with the IRS. You really have some misdirected anger issues. You really ought to get that checked out. 

All in all, the revelations about Bain's taxes confirm what New York Times tax reporter David Cay Johnston told us eight years ago in his book Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super-Rich-and Cheat Everybody Else.
Only in this case, it's not clear that what Bain did was, in fact, perfectly legal.

Do you really think they would release all of their paperwork if they weren't confident that they know the laws, considering, as you put it, they are the best tax attorneys in the nation? 

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