Romney’s gift to reporters

A Bloomberg investigation details yet another aspect of the candidate's tax avoidance

The decision by Republicans to run a super-wealthy former financier for president four years into a serious economic downturn triggered by a financial crisis was a contrarian political move, to put it mildly, and it has had unwelcome consequences for some of the party’s core constituencies.

Mitt Romney’s presidential star turn has put the private equity industry in an uncomfortable spotlight. He’s put an almost cartoonish voice (backed by a soundtrack of clinking china, no less) on how uber-rich conservatives think about the people who trim their hedges and haul their garbage. And his tax returns have highlighted how the very richest Americans pay lower tax rates than many middle-class households.

Most of the reason for Romney’s 14 percent effective tax rate is because we tax capital income far lower than we tax work. But that hardly means it’s not worth him paying tax attorneys to find other ways to avoid taxes.

Jesse Drucker’s excellent Bloomberg News investigation of Romney’s gift tax avoidance unearths details on how the very wealthy ensure that the estate tax—the most progressive part of the tax system— doesn’t downgrade their offspring’s inherited lifestyles.

The tax shelter Romney used is called “I Dig It,” which is nicer sounding than “intentionally defective grantor trust,” a vehicle that triggers low capital gains taxes (paid by the donor as an additional subsidy) on investment gains rather than higher gift and estate taxes. While it may be obscure to most of us, it’s not to the very rich (or to their attorneys, anyway) who constitute the 0.3 percent of American estates subject to the estate tax.

Bloomberg reports that the Obama administration, which wants to close the loophole, says this particular tax shelter costs the Treasury a billion dollars a year, an estimate one tax attorney it quotes finds so low it’s “laughable,” saying that I Dig It is “a more powerful driver of wealth transfer in estate planning than almost anything else.”

That tax attorney, Stephen Breitstone, gives Bloomberg some great quotes, including the kicker:

Romney “uses every trick in the book,” Breitstone said. “It’s going to be harder to do tax planning in the future. He’s bringing attention to things that weren’t getting attention.”

Beyond what it says about how high-income taxpayers are able to game the system, Romney’s use of the shelter at least raises questions about whether he properly valued the DoubleClick shares, which the trust would eventually sell at a nearly 1,000 percent markup, when he initially donated them.

So excellent reporting by Bloomberg News.

The story’s diligence stands in sharp contrast to an op-ed in Bloomberg View, which claims that “Only Mitt Romney Can Reform the Tax Code” to make it fairer and more progressive. It’s unclear why it’s more likely that Romney, who has campaigned on making the tax code more regressive, would reform it to make it more progressive than Obama, but never mind.

What’s really bad is this about Romney’s tax shelter:

In theory, such techniques are available to all Americans to pass on their wealth to their heirs and family. The trouble is that most people don’t have the kind of assets that are worth very little when they are passed on and whose value jumps 1,000-fold by the time they are sold. Instead, most Americans’ wealth is in their home, and they must pay the rate for gifts or estates, not the 15 percent for capital gains.

First, a 1,000 percent gain is elevenfold, not 1,000-fold.

Second, “most people” don’t get taxed when they die. You have to give away $5 million to get hit by the gift tax or the estate tax—and even then only the amount above that gets taxed (business journalists: make sure you know about marginal taxes). Again, only 0.3 percent of estates get taxed.

It’s long past time to quit perpetuating the false notion that anyone but a tiny handful of super-rich people get hit by “death taxes.”

Fortunately, the limp op-ed is more than offset by strong reporting from the news side.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,