Politicians May Slow Growth - and Help America’s Competitors - with Big Tax Hike on Capital Markets

The Wall Street Journal appropriately savages a putative Senate proposal to dramatically increase the tax on private equity firms. Senators Baucus and Grassley apparently think it is wrong that fund managers get a slice of the capital gains pie if investments rise in value, and they want to tax those gains as if they were income instead of increases in net worth. In a well-designed system that eliminates double taxation of saving and investment, the capital gains tax rate would be zero, so this proposal clearly would be a big step in the wrong direction. But politicians specialize in bad policy. First, they drove a substantial share of IPO business to Hong Kong and London with Sarbanes-Oxley. Now they want to drive private equity firms out of America as well:

This week Senators Max Baucus and Charles Grassley, the chairman and ranking minority member of the Finance Committee, will hold “informal meetings” to ponder a 133% tax hike on private equity firms. There’s no good rationale for this beyond the fact that Congress wants money and private equity funds have lots of it. Private equity firms will raise and deploy a record one-half trillion dollars of investment capital this year – funds that provide start-up and expansion-phase money for firms large and small. …Senator Grassley says he suspects “subterfuge” that allows fund managers to underpay their taxes. The managing partners of equity funds generally receive compensation in two ways. They charge the fund investors a 1% or 2% management fee for finding high-return business opportunities and for orchestrating the portfolio. Those fees are taxed at the personal income tax up to 35%. But fund managers also typically lay claim to a 20% slice of the fund’s future profits. That return is called “carried interest” and is taxed at the long-term capital gain rate of 15%. Congress is considering reclassifying that income as labor compensation and taxing it at the 35% income tax rate. … Far from being a clever tax dodge, carried interest plays a central role in the performance of private equity funds: It establishes an incentive structure which aligns the financial interests of the managers and investors. …The biggest losers from a private equity tax hike may be pension funds, which have become large investors in these funds; their high performance has made millions of Americans wealthier in their retirement.