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Specialists Guess at Romney’s Tax Return Issues

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It’s like the next Big Game: the pundits want to talk about the outcome for days before it happens. With Romney’s tax returns, there is no shortage of professional talkers ready to opine. Here’s Reuters, suggesting Romney paid a super low effective tax rate in 2009 or earlier, which would be really something because he paid 13.9% in 2010 and estimated 15.4% for 2011 (he got a filing extension).

Reuters points to his IRA, a ridiculously large $100 million, especially amazing because the maximum contribution was so low, a few thousand a year for us normal people. They talk about the Swiss bank account: perhaps it was invested to bet on foreign currencies against the US Dollar. Or maybe one or more of those offshore investments was a problem, or maybe merely having them is a political problem, exacerbated by the low effective tax rate or something else.

Tax professionals have a broader take. Linda Beale at ataxingmatter takes a look at the Romney’s dressage horses. Horses can be a fantastically expensive hobby, especially when you consider the cost of flying the animal and its entourage to international competitions. For normal people, the cost of boarding, tack and veterinary care is an after-tax expense. But if you can show that you made a profit on your horseplay in four out of the last seven years, you get to deduct these expenses against your profits. We know that the Romneys spend a lot of money on the hobby, and we know they buy and sell horses for profit. So, the question is, do they deduct the expenses for the likes of Olympic hopeful Rafalca, and if so, was it proper? To know that, you’d have to see five years of returns.

Beale also asks whether the returns treat passive activities properly. Passive activities are those in which the taxpayers get income from an activity in which they are not personally engaged, as opposed to those in which they are actively engaged, such as working at a job. Losses from passive activities can only be offset against income from passive activities, not against ordinary income from working. Beale says you need to see several years to reach a conclusion as to whether the filings are proper.

She wonders how much of Romney’s money received the grossly stupid “carried interest” treatment, or the amounts he might have saved under the Bush tax cuts, and how much he would profit from his own proposed tax cuts for job creators like himself. She also points out that seeing the 1999 -2002 returns would help answer the question about Romney’s involvement with Bain Capital.

She suggests that there is some reason to ask if Romney filed his Foreign Bank Account Report properly. This is a form designed to get at secret foreign bank accounts. This post at Tax Blawg explains the complexities.

Dan Shaviro at startmakingsense points out that Romney’s 2010 tax return shows a net capital loss carryforward from 2009, which enabled Romney to zero out his net capital gains in 2010, “…including from carried interest Bain income…”. That might have involved using a tax shelter:

We know from attachments to the 2010 return that some of his “blind trusts” were engaged in transactions identified by the IRS in Notice 2002-35, which pertains to fake loss-generating scams that involved abusing and misinterpreting the notional principal contract regulations. … But I am unclear about how much to make of the 2010 disclosure, given that it would have undermined expecting to get the tax benefits if the deals at issue were complete scams. So it has struck me as conceivable that the blind trusts did something in the ballpark of required 2002-35 disclosure but less extreme and more legally defensible.

A notional principal contract is one in which the apparent amounts set out in the contract are not the true amounts that the parties intend to pay. The classic example is an interest rate swap. That one is for experts, so the release of Romney’s returns would employ a bunch of professionals to explain it to us lay people.

Shaviro also points to the Swiss bank account, asking if perhaps Romney took advantage of the IRS amnesty.

Kenneth Thomas at Middle Class Economist talks about the possible abuse of the IRA. One possible issue is that Romney put Bain Capital stock into his IRA and undervalued it. We’d have to see the size of the IRA over time.

He points to the Obama campaign’s excellent summary of Romney’s use of tax havens. He quotes a British tax haven expert, Richard Murphy, on the possible use of the Cayman Islands secrecy regime to hide the fact that the money for various investors in Bain Capital actually came from the US. The US people send money to their accounts in the Cayman Islands, and then invest it in Bain deals from those accounts. That’s one way rich people avoid US taxes, which, of course, is Romney’s principal business skill. You have to do something with the $21 trillion in financial assets the rich have hidden away in tax havens; and Romney and Bain Capital are there to increase the hoard and invest it for you.

Ed Kleinbard, a law professor and Peter Canellos, a tax practioner, wrote an article for CNN, asking whether Romney paid gift tax on the funding of the Romney family trusts, and whether he used unreasonably low valuations when he calculated those taxes. They also say that the Romney family holdings are so complicated that the tax returns alone won’t be enough to understand them.

Informed speculation gives a lot of reasons to examine Romney’s returns for a number of years, to check for compliance, to see just exactly how he will benefit from the tax reforms he promises, and to learn exactly the nature of the business expertise he claims as the reason we should vote for him.

But the most important reason to me is that these returns open a window into the ways the tax code has been worked over to benefit the rich at the expense of the rest of us. Approximately 92,000 people own $6.3 trillion in wealth. They are rich. They don’t pay taxes. They run the world. They really don’t want us to see how they do it. Things won’t change until every voter sees this with brutal clarity.

Update: Emptywheel has updated figures from the Tax Justice Network: $9.8 trillion for the top 91,000 families, .001% of the world’s population.

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