February 26, 2024

Wealth Matters: ‘Buffett Rule’ Is More Complicated Than Politics Suggest

Wealthy investors and their advisers pondered these questions this week, after President Obama included the “Buffett Rule” in the budget plan he sent to Congress. The rule stipulates that people who make more than $1 million a year should pay at least the same percentage of their earnings as middle-class Americans.

The prospects of the rule ever becoming law are poor — there is strong opposition to it among Republicans in Congress. But some variation is possible. And that prompted David Scott Sloan, co-chairman of private wealth services at the law firm Holland Knight, to spend his lunch hour earlier this week trying to calculate how much Mr. Buffett’s secretary would have to make to pay a higher percentage of her income than one of the richest men in the world. Assistants to high-powered financiers often make six-figure salaries, which put them in a top tax bracket (and presumably out of the middle class).

But Mr. Sloan gave up. “It’s so nonsensical,” he said. “It’s not rich, poor. It’s source of income.”

As Mr. Buffett explained last month, “What I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office.” His income comes mostly from his investments, which are taxed at the capital gains rate of 15 percent. His secretary is most likely paid a salary and bonus, which would be taxed as ordinary income, at a rate that goes as high as 35 percent.

Yet behind the entertaining political theater, some complicated tax questions are being raised. Here is a look at a few.

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS The number of people who fall under the Buffett Rule is quite small, only about 60,000 people. And the amount of revenue that would be generated over the next 10 years from raising their taxes is equally small — just $13 billion over the next decade, if people like private equity, venture capital and hedge fund managers, who receive the bulk of their income from investments, were taxed at the ordinary income tax rate instead of the capital gains rate of 15 percent.

But the president’s plan also has several unintended consequences for people who make far less than $1 million a year. Interest on municipal bonds, for instance, is now tax-free. Under the president’s proposal, only taxpayers who pay an income tax rate of 28 percent or less would continue to get the tax exemption.

Limiting the deduction would surely raise the cost of borrowing for municipalities, a cost that would presumably be passed on to city and state taxpayers. It might also limit the number of people interested in municipal bonds.

Chris Ryon, managing director at Thornburg Investment Management, which manages $6.7 billion in municipal bonds, said he took consolation in knowing that owners of municipal bonds were split fairly evenly between people who made more than $200,000 — the cutoff for higher taxes — and those who made less.

But given how poorly the municipal bond market has performed recently, he said, Mr. Obama’s plan only added “more uncertainty to a market that doesn’t need it.”

Still unknown, too, is what the repeal of the Bush tax cuts would mean for the tax on dividends. That tax is set to rise in 2013 to the ordinary income rate, from the capital gains rate of 15 percent. But assets like stocks that pay dividends are not owned only by the rich. In fact, they have recently become an alternative to low-yielding Treasury bonds for people who need income in their portfolio.

“The vast majority of my clients are retired and living on a fixed income,” said Drew Kanaly, chairman and chief executive of Kanaly Trust in Houston. “If you raise taxes on dividends and capital gains, my clients’ income goes down.”

BUSINESS IMPACT Both political parties like to claim they look after the interests of small-business owners, but what will higher taxes mean to that group?

In reality, most business owners are more focused on how to make their businesses grow than on what Washington is doing. “My belief is I can double my income faster than Obama can confiscate it,” said Mark Matson, whose firm Matson Money manages $2.9 billion. “I think people become negative too fast.”

But higher taxes might dissuade serial entrepreneurs from starting another company. Leslie Quick III was the fourth employee at his father’s discount brokerage, Quick Reilly, which was sold in 1997 for $1.6 billion, with the family’s stake valued at $680 million.

He said 85 percent of the stock he owned had a basis of zero, so basically its entire value was subject to capital gains. But Mr. Quick, who described himself as a centrist Republican, said he and his new partner spent $2 million of their own money to start Massey Quick, a wealth manager and investment adviser — something they might not have done if tax rates were higher.

“If income taxes were at 50 percent and capital gains rates were back to the 1960s, I might have wanted to think about how I’d risk money,” he said. The capital gains tax rose to 39.9 percent in the late 1970s from 25 percent in 1967. “We’re nowhere close to that now, but if you don’t get your arms around spending in Washington, that’s where I fear we’ll end up.”

Increased capital gains taxes could also affect people who have owned assets for a long time. The capital gains rate is set to increase to 20 percent in 2013. At the same time, a new 3.8 percent Medicare tax on investment income is being added.

Advisers say that the current Washington back and forth has led clients with appreciated stock or long-held real estate to consider selling the assets and paying the lower tax. But the decision is more complicated for small-business owners.

“In many ways, it’s part of their identity,” said Stephen Ziobrowski, a partner at Day Pitney, a law firm. “It’s a deep emotional decision.”

ACTIONS For most people, fretting over higher taxes is a waste of time since there is little they can do about it. But the wealthiest have the most to gain by looking at what they can do now.

On the same day Mr. Obama released his plan, a crucial interest rate used for transferring money tax-free to heirs hit its lowest level ever. The applicable federal rate, used for a tax-planning vehicle known as a grantor retained annuity trust, will be 1.4 percent for October.

Richard A. Behrendt, director of estate planning at Robert W. Baird Company, a wealth adviser, said someone who put $10 million in a grantor retained annuity trust for three years could pass $960,444 tax-free to heirs if the assets grew at just 3 percent a year. If the assets grew at 6 percent a year, the trust would give $2,039,343 to heirs.

The Buffett Rule “is just a proposal that may come to something or nothing or something very different than what is written,” Mr. Behrendt said. “Why waste the resources on something that may not happen when we can leverage to tremendous results this one small data point for the wealthy?”

Taking advantage of a tax break that may disappear is something Mr. Buffett can certainly appreciate. In the 1950s and 1960s, he told The New York Times, his partnership was taxed at 25 percent. “I knew I was getting favored treatment compared to the local doctor, lawyer or C.E.O.,” he said. “But I made no voluntary payments to the Treasury, nor does any hedge fund manager of whom I’m aware.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=6760dda74c9d909daf9188458a69798e

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