Tax

The Class-Warfare Crowd (as Well as Donald Trump) Is Wrong on Carried Interest

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Time for a boring and wonky discussion about taxes, capital formation, and growth.

We’ll start with the uncontroversial proposition that saving and investment is a key driver of long-run growth. Simply stated, employees can produce more (and therefore earn more) when they work with better machines, equipment, and technology (i.e., the stock of capital).

But if we want to enjoy the higher incomes that are made possible by a larger and more productive capital stock, somebody has to save and invest. And that means they have to sacrifice current consumption. The good news is that some people are willing to forego current consumption if they think that saving and investment will enable them to have higher levels of future consumption. In other words, if they make wise investments, it’s a win-win situation since society is better off and they are better off.

And these investment decisions help drive financial markets.

Now let’s focus specifically on long-run investments. If you have some serious money to invest, one of your main goals is to find professionals who hopefully can identify profitable opportunities. You want these people, sometimes called “fund managers,” to wisely allocate your money so that it will grow in value. And in some cases, you try to encourage good long-run investments by telling fund managers that if your investments increase in value (i.e., earn a capital gain), they get to keep a share of that added wealth.

In the world of “private equity” and “venture capital,” that share of the added wealth that goes to fund managers is known as “carried interest.” And as a Bloomberg article notes, it has played a big role in some of America’s great business success stories.

Venture capitalists…helped transform novel business ideas into some of the world’s most valuable companies, including Apple, Alphabet Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc., and Microsoft Corp. According to a 2015 study by Stanford University, 43 percent of public U.S. companies founded since 1979 had raised venture cash.

An article from the National Center for Policy Analysis has some additional data on the key role of investors who are willing to take long-run risks.

…up to 25 percent of pre-initial public offering (preIPO) startup funding comes from private equity or venture capital backers. Increasing the tax burden on these entities would damage a valuable access-to-capital pipeline for some startups — particularly in the energy, technology and biotech sectors where large up-front investments could be required.

The obvious conclusion is that we should be happy that there are people willing to put their money in long-run investments and that we should not be envious if they make good choices and therefore earn capital gains. And most people (other than the hard-core left) presumably will agree that people who take big risks should be able to earn big rewards.

That consensus breaks down, however, when you add taxes to the equation.

There’s the big-picture debate about whether there should be “double taxation” of income that is saved and invested. There are two schools of thought.

  • On one side, you have proponents of “consumption-base” taxation, and they favor reforms such as the flat tax that eliminate the tax code’s bias against saving and investment. These people want to eliminate double taxation because a bigger capital stock will mean a more prosperous economy. Advocates of this approach generally believe in equality of opportunity.
  • On the other side, you have advocates of the “Haig-Simons” or “comprehensive income tax” approach, which is based on the notion that extra layers of tax should be imposed on income that is saved an invested. These people want double taxation because it is consistent with their views of fairness. Advocates of this approach generally believe in equality of outcomes.

In the United States, we’ve historically dealt with that debate by cutting the baby in half. We have double taxation of capital gains and dividends, but usually at modest rates. We have double taxation of interest, but we allow some protection of savings if people put money in IRAs and 401(k)s.

But the debate never ends. And one manifestation of that ongoing fight is the battle over how to tax carried interest.

Folks on the left want to treat carried interest as “ordinary income,” which simply means that they want regular tax rates to apply so that there’s full double taxation rather than partial double taxation.

So who supports such an idea? To quote Claude Rains in Casablanca, it’s the usual suspects. Strident leftists in Congress and their ideological allies are pushing this version of a capital gains tax hike.

Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and a group of millionaires made a push on Wednesday for consideration of legislation to close the carried-interest tax “loophole.” “We have to eliminate this loophole to make that sure everyone is paying their fair share and especially so that we can invest in an economy that creates jobs and lifts working American wages,” Baldwin said during a news conference on Capitol Hill. …The carried interest tax break is “the most egregious example of tax unfairness,” said Morris Pearl, chair of the Patriotic Millionaires — a group of 200 Americans with annual incomes of at least $1 million and/or assets of at least $5 million.

Folks on the right, by contrast, don’t think there should be any double taxation. And that means they obviously don’t favor an increase in the double taxation on certain types of capital gains. And that included carried interest, which they point out is not some sort of “loophole.” As Cliff Asness has explained, the treatment of carried interest is “consistent with the way employee-incentive stock options and professional partnerships are taxed.

But this isn’t just a left-right issue. Some so-called populists want higher capital gains taxes on carried interest, including the President-Elect of the United States. Kevin Williamson of National Review is not impressed.

Trump doesn’t understand how our economy works. …The big, ugly, stupid tax hike he’s planning is on Silicon Valley and its imitators around the country, the economic ecosystem of startup companies and the venture capitalists who put up the cash to turn their big ideas into viable products, dopey computer games, social-media annoyances, and companies that employ hundreds of thousands of people at very high wages. Which is to say, he wants to punish the part of the U.S. economy that works, for the crime of working. The so-called carried-interest loophole, which isn’t a loophole, drives progressives batty.

Kevin points out how carried interest works in the real world.

If you’re the cash-strapped startup, you go to venture capitalists; if you’re the established business, you go to a private-equity group. In both cases, the deal looks pretty similar: You get cash to do what you need to do, and the investor, rather than lending you money at a high interest rate, takes a piece of your company as recompense (for distressed companies being reorganized by private-equity firms, that’s usually 100 percent of the firm) on the theory that this will be worth more — preferably much more – than the money they put into your business. Eventually, the investor sells its stake in the company and pays the capital-gains tax on its capital gain.

And he doesn’t hold Trump in high regard.

Donald Trump does not understand this, because he isn’t a real businessman — he’s a Potemkin businessman, a New York City real-estate heir with his name on a lot of buildings he doesn’t own and didn’t build and whose real business is peddling celebrity and its by-products. He’s a lot more like Paris Hilton than he is like Henry Ford or Steve Jobs. Miss Hilton sells perfumes and the promise of glamour, Trump sells ugly neckties and the promise of glamour.

In her syndicated column, Veronique de Rugy explains why Republicans shouldn’t make common cause with the class-warfare crowd.

Trump…has seemingly swallowed a key assumption of the left. During the campaign, Trump and Hillary Clinton both pledged to raise taxes on carried interest. …sensing an opening, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer recently indicated that he’d be willing to work with Trump on the issue. Of course he would. Democrats have been trying for years to raise taxes on capital. In fact, they see the reduced rate on all capital gains as a loophole. Their goal is to treat all capital gains as ordinary income because they want higher tax burdens overall. …Republicans need to remember that the left’s goal is not fairness but higher taxes. Treating carried interest as ordinary income for tax purposes would simply be the first step toward higher taxes on capital in general. That would be bad for economic growth and for our wallets.

Chuck Devore of the Texas Public Policy Foundation also has a sensible take on the economics of this issue.

…If the investment professional sees his marginal tax rate on capital gains from carried interest almost double, from 23.8 percent to 43.4 percent, he’ll change his behavior and charge more for his services. Pension funds and colleges will get less… Increasing taxes on investment success would mean less investment and consequently, fewer jobs, less innovation, and less prosperity. According to the Tax Foundation, the U.S. already levies the 6th-highest capital gains taxes among the 34 developed nations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development… Generating capital gains means that money was used efficiently, benefiting not just the professional investment manager, but savers and the world. Losing money, on the other hand, is nothing to celebrate.

I agree.

The carried interest right is really a proxy for the bigger issue of whether there should be increased double taxation of capital gains. Which would be the exact opposite of what should happen if we want America to be more competitive and prosperous.

For more background on the issue of carried interest, this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity is very succinct and informative.

And if you want more info on the overall issue of capital gains taxation, I’m quite partial to my video on the topic.

This is a guest post by Dan Mitchell “a high priest of light tax small state libertarianism”

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