Friday, October 7, 2011

Moe Money, Moe Problems

In today's Wall Street Journal, Randy Noonan offers a portrait of an American success story, Moe the Millionaire.

Moe is an insurance salesman with a minority equity interest in his employer, a mid-size insurance business organized as a C corporation for tax purposes. Moe is retirement age (around age 65, having worked in the insurance business for 40 years). His ending salary, including bonus, was $200,000. In the year he retired, Moe tagged along with a sale of the insurance business, selling his minority interest at an $850,000 gain.

Moe's net worth in the year before retirement was:
Cash in bank: $100,000. Investment in business to be sold: $950,000 [cost basis $100,000]. Value of Moe's home: $450,000 [cost basis $95,000]. Total assets: $1,500,000.*

* Noonan posits that Moe would receive $75,000 in annual pension benefits from the insurance company's defined benefit pension plan, but does not include the "value" of the pension benefit in the calculation of Moe's net worth in the year before retirement.
The year of his retirement, Moe recognized $1,050,000 in total income: $200,000 in salary and bonus; and $850,000 in capital gain from the sale of his interest in the insurance business. Noonan inquires:
Is Moe the "millionaire" that Obama wants to tax? Is it "fair" that his once-in-a-lifetime capital gain of $850,000 be taxed at top tax-bracket rates? Even assuming that the current 15% capital-gain rate would be raised to only 25% for this one-time millionaire (so that his tax rate would not be less than those "middle class" taxpayers), the tax would still be $212,500, more in tax than Moe ever made in salary and bonus in any one year.
A few observations:

[1] Big picture, Noonan is framing the correct issues. The political left believes that we should increase taxes on the "wealthy." The left sometimes defines the "wealthy" as "millionaires and billionaires" (the Buffett view). President Obama takes it further, consistently defining the "wealthy" as married couples earning $250,000 and single individuals earning $200,000 in a year.

I'm unaware of any data that suggests a high proportion of married couples earnings $250,000 (or individuals earning $200,000) are "millionaires and billionaires." I'm sure that Obama would concede that an individual's taxable income during a given year is not a proxy for his or her "wealth." And an individual's "wealth" is not necessarily reflected in his or her taxable income during a given year. I will explore this basic theme in a later post (or posts).

[2] Back to Moe the Millionaire. I believe that Noonan was mistaken in assuming a 25% tax rate on the $850,000 capital gain. President Obama wants to tax a millionaire's entire income at a 30% or higher federal effective tax rate. Tack on another 5% to reflect state income taxes, and the tax leakage on $1,050,000 in income is around $368,000. In other words, Moe would bring home around $683,000 after the payment of taxes on his retirement-year income.

When the dust settles, Moe is still a millionaire, but not by much. His liquid assets of $783,000, if invested conservatively, might yield around $40,000 annually before taxes. Almost everyone on both sides of the political would agree that this is a modest pre-tax income, even if the recipient is a "millionaire" on paper.

From a tax perspective, the main "problem" here is the lack of income averaging. Arguably, Moe should not be penalized for an extraordinary one-time gain. I'm sympathetic to Moe's plight, but I'm hesitant to endorse income averaging because I favor tax reform that will streamline -- not further complicate -- the tax code.

[3] Despite framing the correct issues, Noonan's hypothetical contains a couple of flaws. The first relates to his assumed savings balance upon retirement. Noonan stipulates that Moe earns $200,000 in salary and bonus after 40 years in the insurance business. Let's assume his salary increased no slower than the rate of inflation between year 1 and 40. He purchased a modest home for $95,000 decades ago, and had a $100,000 bank account the year before retirement.

Moe must have suffered from a drug or shopping addiction, because he should have had more than $100,000 in a bank account upon retirement. Noonan stipulates that Moe made "regular but modest" charitable contributions at church (deductible for tax purposes). Moe would have paid taxes at an effective tax rate around 20% (perhaps 25% including state income taxes). During the decade before retirement, with a six-figure income, 20% effective tax rate, "modest" charitable donations and negligible housing costs, Moe's savings account should have increased substantially.

Moe's net wealth is foundational to Noonan's analysis, so Noonan should have been more careful with his assumptions about Moe's spending and savings profile.

[4] Noonan also fumbles with respect to Moe's pension benefits. According to Noonan, the insurance company's defined benefit plan will provide Moe with $75,000 annually. Noonan characterizes $75,000 as "enough to live on but only just."

We know that Moe lives in a relatively affordable community, because his home value in the year of retirement is $450,000. Moe owns his home outright, so has relatively low costs associated with outright home ownership (maintenance and property taxes). He's retired, so he won't have commuting expenses and a number of other expenses associated with life as a working stiff. He's presumably eligible for Medicare and Social Security. All in all, $75,000 in annual pension benefits should provide a comfortable existence for our retired friend.

Morever, the pension benefits reflect a substantial "asset" that we should not disregard in computing Moe's net wealth. However, in fairness, the political left disregards the value of defined benefit pensions when focusing on "income as a proxy of wealth." So I can't be too critical in this instance.

[5] Enough tax for a Friday post. Noonan's portrait of an American success story was almost certainly moe-tivated by a success story from the 1990s. Let's kick it to Notorious B.I.G:

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