Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Buffett Bandwagon (Part Two)

Warren Buffett recently published a lecture on tax policy in the New York Times. I discussed Buffett's article here, and a response from the Wall Street Journal here. Today is my last day beating this dead horse.

The Double Taxation Dilemma

In sum, Buffett's main concern is the preferential tax treatment of capital gains for "millionaires and billionaires." Unlike the WSJ, I agree that we should tax capital gains at the same rates as ordinary income. That remains a topic for another day. For now, a relatively quick observation, beginning with Corporate Tax 101.

Most public companies are C corporations, and most of those C corporations pay some U.S. tax on their earnings. The earnings are taxed a second time when the C corporations pay taxable dividends to their shareholders. We refer to this tax law mechanic as "double taxation."

(Likewise, if a shareholder disposes of her shares at a gain which reflects the increased value resulting from the corporate earnings, the gain is subject to tax, resulting in an effective "double tax" on the shareholder. This entire double-tax "problem" could be solved if we treated all corporations as flow-through entities, taxed shareholders on their interest in corporate earnings, and gave shareholders a basis increase for the underlying earnings. Yet another topic for a later post.)

Under current tax rules, qualified dividends and long-term capital gains are subject to preferential tax rates. As the WSJ correctly observes, the lower tax rates reflect a crude attempt to blunt the impact of the "double taxation" dilemma. If a C corporation pays tax at a 40% blended federal-state tax rate, it seems like an overreach to tax dividends at ordinary income rates (35% under current rules). So far, so good.

At this point, the WSJ oversimplifies the commercial and tax landscape. It is true that some amount of capital gains reflects sale of stock in public C corporations (resulting in double taxation). However, I suspect that a large amount of capital gains are derived from the sale of other assets.

For example, if I purchase a bond, and the value of the bond increase because Treasury rates decline, capital gain from the sale of the bond would qualify for a preferential tax rate. However, unlike the shares in a C corporation, which derive their value from the after-tax earnings of the corporation, bonds reflect the valuation of pre-tax cash flows. The WSJ argument falls over when you introduce capital assets other than shares in a C corporation. We don't have a "double taxation" dilemma to solve!

As I'll discuss later, I would tax capital gains at the same rates as ordinary income. In connection with that change, I would reform the tax code to treat all business entities (including public C corporations) as flow-throughs. This one-two punch would eliminate the "double taxation" dilemma. More to come on all of the above.

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