Thursday, June 28, 2007

Mr Buffett's Tax Bill

Warren Buffett says he does not pay enough in taxes:

Warren E. Buffett was his usual folksy self Tuesday night at a fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as he slammed a system that allows the very rich to pay taxes at a lower rate than the middle class.

Buffett cited himself, the third-richest person in the world, as an example. Last year, Buffett said, he was taxed at 17.7 percent on his taxable income of more than $46 million. His receptionist was taxed at about 30 percent.

You might wonder how Mr Buffett managed such a low tax rate. Most likely, it arose because corporate dividends and capital gains are taxed at only 15 percent. But the corporate income that funded those returns was already taxed at the corporate level, where the tax rate is 35 percent. Mr Buffett seems to be ignoring the first round of taxation. Is it possible that the world's most successful has failed to pierce the corporate veil? (If you want to more reliable data on the progressivity of the tax code, see this old post for numbers from the CBO.)

Even more striking to me is a fact that Mr Buffett did not emphasize: how low his taxable income is. His income of $46 million represents a mere 0.1 percent of his reported net worth of over $50 billion. That is not an impressive rate of return!

Why is it so low? I can think of at least four possible ways investors like Mr Buffet can keep their taxable income, as opposed to their true income, low:
  1. They hold stocks that pay minimal dividends.
  2. They avoid realizing capital gains.
  3. They hold some of their portfolios in tax-free municipal bonds.
  4. They give appreciated assets to charity, getting a deduction for the current market value without ever having to realize and pay tax on the capital gain.

Notice that raising tax rates, as Mr Buffett seems to want to do, would not much affect any of these tax avoidance strategies. Even if tax rates were raised substantially, the tax savvy Mr Buffet probably wouldn't be paying much in taxes as a proportion of his wealth or as a proportion of his true income.