Monday, February 27, 2012

Brown's Taxing Headace

California Governor Jerry Brown is dealing with a "taxing" headache these days. Within the last week, Brown has taken a jarring one-two punch.

[1] The state is projected to run budget deficits for years to come. Despite rosy economic assumptions, Brown's 2012-13 budget was expected to result in a $9.2 billion deficit. A report issued today by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office concludes that Brown's forecast is overstated by approximately $6.5 billion.

Brown was looking at roughly a $9 billion budget gap. Now he's looking at $15 billion. To quote another governor wunderkind: "Oops"!

Silicon Valley is experiencing a "mini-bubble," and Facebook's pending IPO is expected to create hundreds of new millionaires. Brown's revenue estimate assumes that "social networking" entrepreneurs and investors will pay billions in state taxes on capital gain income. The LAO report emphasizes that capital gain income is highly variable and notoriously difficult to project. California has been down this road before. Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

California is lurching down a path towards Greek-style insolvency. Here's the basic formula. Politicians create an expansive state bureaucracy. The state employees organize into dues-paying members of public employee unions. The unions funnel dues into political elections to support candidates who promise to keep the gravy train running. The politicians become pawns of union bosses. They borrow money to cover budget deficits as state employees become increasingly detached from the public sector.

In the long run, the cycle is unsustainable and doomed to implode. California cannot afford to pay its recurring bills and satisfy its health and pension commitments to retired state employees. However, that's a problem for the next generation. Brown is a political careerist, and he has no interest in disrupting the cozy relationship between Democratic politicians and public employee unions in California.

[2] Brown wants to solve the $9.2 billion budget gap with a two-pronged tax increase. He wants state voters to approve an initiative to raise tax revenue. The "Brown Tax Initiative" would raise the sales tax by half a cent and raise tax rates on families who earn more than $250,000. In a savvy -- but disgusting -- political move, Brown would link a failure of his initiative to automatic cuts in the K-12 education budget.

Does the income threshold sound familiar? Yes, another Democratic politician defines a working family with $250,000 in income as nouveau riche. To give Brown some credit, his initiative would at least "spread the pain around." Everybody pays sales taxes; a vote to increase the sales tax is a vote to tax me and the "man behind the tree." I'm more disgusted by Brown's decision to hold K-12 teachers and students ransom for his tax increase proposal. (Full disclosure: my wife is an elementary-school teacher.)

The LAO report complicates Brown's overall strategy. The Brown Tax Initiative will not cover the LAO's projected revenue shortfall. Brown will have to go back to the drawing board. Or play games with the numbers, which is usually the "solution" to problems in Sacramento.

[3] Meanwhile, recent poll data suggests that the Brown Tax Initiative may be caught in the crossfire among competing initiatives. Someone pass the Tylenol!

Brown is not the only advocate for higher taxes on the "wealthy." Public employee unions are pushing a "Millionaire Tax Initiative." They want to increase tax rates by 3% for incomes over $1 million, and by 5% for incomes over $2 million.

A wealthy lawyer (Molly Munger) and the state PTA is pushing the "Munger Tax Initiative." The Munger Tax Initiative would progressively raise taxes on all taxpayers, and would funnel the revenue into education.

According to the recent poll, likely voters express support for the Millionaire Tax Initiative (63%) and the Brown Tax Initiative (58%). More likely voters oppose (48%) than support (45%) the Munger Tax Initiative. No big surprise. The first initiative provides a "free lunch" courtesy of the highest-income taxpayers. The second initiative echoes Team Obama's drumbeat to raise taxes on the top 3%. The third initiative would require increased taxes for everybody, which triggers some soul-searching among voters.

If you need to guard the entrance to Hades, I'd recommend a three-headed monster named Cerberus. However, a three-headed tax initiative may confuse and fatigue California voters. Team Brown conducted an unofficial poll suggesting that voters will play "knock out" and select one plan while rejecting the others. If so, voters may fragment their support for the initiatives and tank the entire process. (Team Munger disputes Brown's logic.)

A final remark on the California initiative process. Why exactly do we elect state politicians, when they put any tough decision on the ballot?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Obama Woos the Corporate 1%

[1] You really can't make this stuff up. On February 11th, the Wall Street Journal reported that (sub. required):
The Obama administration is attempting to persuade U.S. corporations about the benefits of investing in renewable energy, in an effort to help the industry after a government grant program expired.

The Energy Department-led effort includes a planned March 13 meeting at which senior financial-firm executives and Energy Secretary Steven Chu would speak, documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal show. The 79 invitees include some of the largest companies in the U.S., from Exxon Mobil Corp. to Walt Disney Co., according to the documents.
Yes, crony capitalism at its best. Team Obama sings a populist tune for its cheerleaders on the political left. Most of the time, someone needs to stand up for the "99%" against the big, bad "1%". But, ahem, there are some exceptions. A big exception involves the much touted "green jobs agenda." Guess what? The "green jobs agenda" can really use some help from the Corporate 1%.

The existing tax subsidy regime for renewable energy development is dysfunctional. Team Obama needs cash from big U.S. businesses with big U.S. tax bills. Without cash from the Corporate 1%, renewable energy development will continue to limp along. Hopefully, the "most transparent administration" in history will release a transcript of the March 13 meeting. But we can be assured that the real "action" will occur behind the scenes. Crony capitalism at its best.

[2] Back in August 2011, I wrote a series of posts describing the relationship between tax subsidies and renewable energy development. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. The political left wants to subsidize renewable energy through federal spending. The political right favors the magic of "tax expenditures" over direct outlays. Together, they devised a laughably flawed regime that provides tax credits for certain types of renewable energy.

Why is the regime laughably flawed? A quick summary of my August posts. I'm focused on wind and solar development, although the same principles apply in other contexts.

Congress wants more development of wind and solar projects. But generating electricity from wind and solar resources costs more than generating electricity from coal and natural gas ("bad" fossil fuels). Because wind and solar are "uneconomic," no rational actor would develop wind or solar projects without some kind of subsidy regime. Put another way, a rational consumer would not choose to purchase expensive, unsubsidized electricity from wind and solar projects.

There are various ways to subsidize energy development. For example, Congress could have passed a direct subsidy for electricity produced by wind and solar projects. The direct subsidy would have been, say, 1.0 cent per kilowatt hours of electricity produced by a "qualified" energy facility for a given number of years. The entire program could have been administered by the Energy Department ... which is, after all, responsible for our national energy policy. Under a direct subsidy regime, a wind or solar project would merit development if (a) sales of electricity to utilities or other unrelated customers, plus (b) the 1.0 cent/KwH subsidy from the Energy Department, exceeded the cost of debt and equity required to finance development. Nice and easy.

Instead of a direct subsidy, Congress enacted a complicated tax subsidy. Actually, a series of slightly different, complicated tax subsidies. For wind, Congress enacted a "production tax credit" or "PTC." For solar, Congress enacted an "investment tax credit" or "ITC." In addition, wind and solar property qualifies for accelerated tax depreciation. Suffice to say, a taxpayer must have positive income tax liability to use PTCs, ITCs and accelerated depreciation. (Unless extended, the PTC regime will expire on December 31, 2012, adding more complexity and uncertainty into the mix.)

Importantly, a taxpayer with positive tax liability cannot simply "purchase" tax credits. On the flip side, a developer without tax liability cannot "sell" tax credits or excess depreciation. Instead, taxpayers with cash and tax liability must invest cash (so-called "tax equity") into qualifying wind and solar projects.

In exchange for its financing commitment, a tax equity investor receives tax credits, accelerated depreciation and some cash until the project satisfies an agreed IRR "hurdle." After the IRR hurdle is satisfied, somewhere down the road, the tax equity or common equity/sponsor exercises a put or call to close the transaction. Under the put/call arrangement, the common equity/sponsor purchases the tax equity investor's position based on its residual value.

[3] And that's why the regime is laughably flawed. It is complex and impenetrable for most taxpayers and most tax advisors. Plus, the commitment of cash to a renewable energy development project is absolutely "non-core" to most corporate treasurers and CFOs. Meanwhile, administering the subsidy regime falls into the lap of the IRS. Why not administer energy subsidies through the Energy Department?

In practice, there are only 15-20 active participants in the tax equity market. The market is dominated by large national banks, some regional banks, and a few other taxpayers in the financial services business (GE; insurance companies).

Before the financial meltdown in 2008, tax equity yields ranged from 6-8% on an after-tax basis (10-12% on a pre-tax basis). Then the financial system flirted with Armageddon. All of a sudden, market facilitators (the banks and insurance companies and GE) began running tax losses. Without taxable income, facilitators didn't need tax credits, so the market effectively froze up. This didn't bode well for Team Obama's "green jobs agenda." So the administration's Congressional allies quietly created a program to bail out the developers. During 2010 and 2011, qualifying projects could elect to receive Treasury grants (so-called "1603 grants") in lieu of tax credits. The 1603 grant program permitted the industry to survive the turbulence of the Great Recession.

Time flies, and we're in 2012. The Treasury grant program has expired, and Congress recently declined to renew it. Renewable energy development again hinges on 15-20 banks and insurance companies. Because there is a massive supply/demand imbalance (more renewable energy developers than tax equity), tax equity yields have skyrocketed. Yields for reputable developers have jumped from the 6% range to the 12% range. Yields for marginal developers are in the 15-20% range.

[4] Now we come full circle. The tax equity market is dysfunctional, and would make an interesting study for an economics PhD dissertation. Plenty of corporate taxpayers outside the financial services business (think retail, domestic services) have (a) large U.S. tax bills, and (b) stockpiles of cash earning 1% or less in ultra-secure investments. But tax equity yields are running 12-20% after-tax.

As evidenced by Team Obama's pending meet-and-greet, many of those large corporate taxpayers are probably put off by the complexity of the tax subsidy regime. But many of them routinely invest in other tax credit schemes, including low-income housing tax credits. Team Obama loves to demonize big business and large corporate taxpayers. Can it persuade those "big bad corporations" to commit cash in support of Obama's "green jobs agenda"?

In the world of crony capitalism, anything can happen. It's always a good time when you're rolling in the Corporate 1%.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Obama's Dividend Assault: Silver Lining for Private Equity?

[1] Among the proposals in the 2013 budget, Team Obama wants to increase the tax rates on dividends received by the "rich." Obama defines "rich" to include families that earn $250,000 annually (and single individuals that earn $200,000).

(Any higher thresholds would substantially reduce the amount of taxes raised from increased taxes on the "rich." As government's thirst for revenue intensifies, expect the threshold to drop. It's all relative. A family that earns $150,000 is living large compared to a family that earns $50,000. And an individual that earns $75,000 is sampling the good life compared to an individual that earns $25,000.)

[2] In today's Wall Street Journal, the editors took aim at President Obama's "assault" on dividends. (Sub. required; thanks to Paul Caron for the link.)
Mr. Obama is proposing to raise the dividend tax rate to the higher personal income tax rate of 39.6% that will kick in next year. Add in the planned phase-out of deductions and exemptions, and the rate hits 41%. Then add the 3.8% investment tax surcharge in ObamaCare, and the new dividend tax rate in 2013 would be 44.8%—nearly three times today's 15% rate.

Keep in mind that dividends are paid to shareholders only after the corporation pays taxes on its profits. So assuming a maximum 35% corporate tax rate and a 44.8% dividend tax, the total tax on corporate earnings passed through as dividends would be 64.1%.
The numbers are pretty shocking, but consistent with Obama's core philosophy. Obama is campaigning in 2012 as a populist Robin Hood. As many have noted, the 2013 budget is a political document at its core.

[3] I'm actually more interested in the "knock on" effects of the dividend tax increase. The WSJ editors argue that increased dividend tax rates will "make stocks less valuable." Maybe so, but probably not.

The WSJ article includes a graph that tracks reported dividend payments from 1990 through 2009. The graph suggests that corporations increased dividend pay outs in response to a dividend rate cut in 2003. Let's assume that the relationship is causal, i.e., the decrease in tax rate on dividends caused corporations to increase dividend pay outs.

What happens if tax policy changes, and dividend tax rates are increased (for those "rich" families that earn $250,000 annually and their distant cousins, the mega-millionaires and uber-billionaires)?

If there is a causal relationship between dividend tax rates and corporate distributions, we'd expect corporations to reduce distributions. However, corporations have two ways to return cash to shareholders. They can pay dividends, which is arguably good for retail investors on fixed incomes (traditionally, "widows and orphans"). And they can engage in stock repurchase transactions, which is arguably good for other investors who want capital appreciation without dividend income (and current tax leakage).

A dividend tax increase does not impact the cash from operations available for distribution to a corporation's shareholders. It simply impacts the form of distribution. Ironically, this flexibility at the corporate level makes static budget forecasts unreliable. A dividend tax rate increase may raise immaterial revenues if corporations shift gears and increase stock repurchase activity. So what's the point? Political distraction. And, if nothing else, President Obama gets to wear his Robin Hood tights and cape for his political admirers.

[4] Finally, let's assume that higher taxes on dividend income do, in fact, take some air out of the market for public equities. In other words, assume that Obama's assault on dividends "make stocks less valuable." Would this be bad for the "tens of millions" of Americans that own stock "through pension funds"?

In fact, lower equity valuations would probably benefit pension funds and their individual beneficiaries. Ironically, lower equity valuations may provide a silver lining for their private equity advisors.

I won't get into a full-blown discussion of the relationship between pension funds and private equity. Suffice to say, despite all the hype about private equity, a substantial majority of the capital for private equity managers is invested by pension funds.

Unlike high-income individuals, pension funds generally pay no income tax on dividend income (or interest income, or other forms of passive income). If increased dividend tax rates decrease equity valuations, private equity managers will have "cheaper" opportunities to deploy their investment capital. They can improve the performance of portfolio companies, strip out operating cash flows through tax-exempt interest and dividend payments, and flip investments at slightly lower earnings multiples.

Big pension funds win. Private equity fund managers win. Only small individual retail investors lose. But what else is new when government interferes with capital markets?

Back in Action

For readers that paid attention to this blog in the second half of 2011, I apologize. I intended to take a one-month hiatus in December. The one-month hiatus turned into two months and then three months.

Meanwhile, there has been no shortage of "tax news." Most of it is politically motivated rubbish. Team Obama continues to hype its class warfare fantasy that increased taxes on the "rich" will solve virtually every social, economic and environmental problem that has surfaced in the past decade. The political right has countered with its own policy lies and distortions. It's going to be a long year for us political independents.

I can't possibly "catch up" on the barrage of tax news clippings over the past 10 or 11 weeks. So I'll jump back into the fray as developments catch my eye.

* * * * *

As I've previously observed, Team Obama is completely incoherent when it comes to tax policy. Sometimes, Obama talks the talk of common sense tax reform. Mostly, Obama walks the walk of a populist Robin Hood. Sure, he wants tax simplification ... but he also wants to expand tax incentives for "favored" industries and activities. Sure, he wants to improve the competitiveness of U.S. businesses ... so long as the government can use tax policy to shape the winners and losers in the domestic business landscape.

The President's fiscal 2013 budget proposal reflects his irreconcilable tax priorities: simplification; competitiveness; corporate welfare; income redistribution. The former two goals would be good for all of us. The latter two goals are good for politicians seeking annuities -- in the form of political donations -- from corporate lobbyists, unions, and other special interest groups. Martin Sullivan puts it this way:
As it is trying to promote tax reform [in its fiscal 2013 budget proposal], the Obama administration is defying the logic of real tax reform -- the economic logic that tax neutrality is best for growth and job creation except in extraordinary circumstances.

What administration incentives hinder true tax reform efforts? A conversion of the already complicated section 199 manufacturing deduction into a two-tiered incentive. A temporary incremental wage credit for small business. A tax credit for investment in communities that have experienced a job loss event. A tax credit for moving expenses when companies move jobs to the United States. New tax credits for alternative energy to replace the existing ineffective and outdated ones.

This is big government through tax policy. The complexity of these new tax breaks is extraordinary even by the standards of our tax code... And as for the coming corporate tax reform, there is no more place for them there than there is for a fox in the henhouse. (134 Tax Notes 922 (Feb. 20, 2012))
In his 2008 election campaign, President Obama vowed that he would renounce "politics as usual." That empty promise, like so many others, was simply "politics as usual." No surprise that, come 2012, we're getting more "politics as usual."

Team Obama is not interested in, nor committed to, fundamental tax reform. The existing system creates winners and losers, and the Obama administration believes that the government exists to create winners and losers. Team Obama is very comfortable with the status quo, so long as it can influence the choice of winners and losers.

The media and the blogosphere will spill much ink on the topic of "fundamental tax reform" this year. The Obama administration will give a wink to simplification and a nod to increased competitiveness. But it's all about distraction in 2012. Any debate about "tax reform" takes some of the focus off trillion dollar budget deficits as far as the eye can see. It's savvy "politics as usual" from a master of smoke and mirrors.