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Posts Tagged ‘Capital Gains Tax’

I wrote yesterday about the generic desire among leftists to punish investors, entrepreneurs, and other high-income taxpayers.

Today, let’s focus on one of the specific tax hikes they want. There is near-unanimity among Democratic presidential candidates for higher tax rates on capital gains.

Given the importance of savings and investment to economic growth, this is quite misguided.

The Tax Foundation summarizes many of the key issues in capital gains taxation.

…viewed in the context of the entire tax system, there is a tax bias against income like capital gains. This is because taxes on saving and investment, like the capital gains tax, represent an additional layer of tax on capital income after the corporate income tax and the individual income tax. Under a neutral tax system, each dollar of income would only be taxed once. …Capital gains face multiple layers of tax, and in addition, gains are not adjusted for inflation. This means that investors can be taxed on capital gains that accrue due to price-level increases rather than real gains. …there are repercussions across the entire economy. Capital gains taxes can be especially harmful for entrepreneurs, and because they reduce the return to saving, they encourage immediate consumption over saving.

Here’s a chart depicting how this double taxation creates a bias against business investment.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the Wall Street Journal on the topic of capital gains taxation.

The authors focus on Laffer-Curve effects and argue that higher tax rates can backfire. I’m sympathetic to that argument, but I’m far more concerned about the negative impact of higher rates on economic performance and competitiveness.

…there is a relatively simple and painless way to maintain the federal coffers: Restore long-term capital-gains tax rates to the levels in place before President Obama took office. A reduction in this tax could generate significant additional revenue. …This particular levy is unique in that most of the time the taxpayer decides when to “realize” his capital gain and, consequently, when the government gets its revenue. If the capital-gains tax is too high, investors tend to hold on to assets to avoid being taxed. As a result, no revenue flows to the Treasury. If the tax is low enough, investors have an incentive to sell assets and realize capital gains. Both the investors and the government benefit. …The chance to test that theory came in May 2003, when Congress lowered the top rate on long-term capital gains to 15% from 20%. According to the Congressional Budget Office, by 2005-06 realizations of capital gains had more than doubled—up 151%—from the levels for 2002-03. Capital-gains tax receipts in 2005-06, at an average of $98 billion a year, were up 81% from 2002-03. Tax receipts reached a new peak of $127 billion in 2007 with the maximum rate still at 15%. By comparison, federal capital-gains tax receipts were a mere $7.9 billion in 1977 (the equivalent of about $31 billion in 2017 dollars), according to the Treasury Department. The effective maximum federal capital-gains tax was then 49%. …Using our post-2003 experience as a guide, we can predict a dramatic improvement in realizations and tax receipts if the top capital-gains tax rate is lowered to 15%. …but that’s not the only benefit. Such changes also increase the mobility of capital by inducing investors to realize gains. This allows investment money to flow more freely, particularly to new and young companies that are so important for growth and job creation.

Here’s another chart from the Tax Foundation showing that revenues are very sensitive to the tax rate.

Last but not least, Chris Edwards explains that the U.S. definitely over-taxes capital gains compared to other developed nations.

Democrats are proposing to raise capital gains taxes. …Almost every major Democratic presidential candidate supports taxing capital gains as ordinary income. …These are radical and misguided ideas. …capital gains taxes should be low or even zero. …the United States already has high tax rates compared to other countries. The U.S. federal-state rate on individual long-term gains of 28 percent compared at the time to an average across 34 OECD countries of just 16 percent. …the combined federal-state capital gains tax rates on investments in corporations…includes the corporate-level income tax and the tax on individual long-term gains. …Numerous countries in the OECD study do not tax individual long-term capital gains at all, including Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Hungary, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Singapore, Slovenia, Switzerland, Turkey. The individual capital gains tax rate on long-term investments in those countries is zero. …Raising the federal corporate and individual capital gains tax rates would be a lose-lose-lose proposition of harming businesses and start-ups, undermining worker opportunities, and likely reducing government revenues.

Here’s his chart, showing the effective tax rate caused by double taxation.

As you can see, the 2017 tax reform was helpful, but we still need a much lower rate.

I’ll close by recycling my video on capital gains taxation.

You can also click here to learn about the unfairness of being taxed on gains that are solely due to inflation.

For what it’s worth, Senator Wyden wants to force investors to pay taxes on unrealized gains.

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I wrote two days ago about how the White House is contemplating ideas to boost the economy.

This is somewhat worrisome since “stimulus” plans oftentimes are based on Keynesian economics, which has a terrible track record. But there are policies that could help growth and I comment on some of them in this interview.

The discussion jumped from one idea to the next, so let’s makes sense of the various proposals by ranking them from best to worst.

And I’m including a few ideas that are part of the discussion in Washington, but weren’t mentioned in the interview.

  1. Eliminate Trade Taxes – Trump’s various trade taxes have made America’s economy less efficient and less productive. And, as I explained in the interview, the president has unilateral power to undo his destructive protectionist policies.
  2. Index Capital Gains – The moral argument for using regulatory authority to index capital gains for inflation is just as strong as the economic argument, as far as I’m concerned. Potential legal challenges could create uncertainly and thus mute the beneficial impact.
  3. Lower Payroll Tax Rates – While it’s always a good idea to lower the marginal tax rate on work, politicians are only considering a temporary reduction, which would greatly reduce any potential benefits.
  4. Do Nothing – As of today, based on Trump’s statements, this may be the most likely option. And since “doing something” in Washington often means more power for government, there’s a strong argument for “doing nothing.”
  5. Infrastructure – This wasn’t mentioned in the interview, but I worry that Trump will join with Democrats (and some pork-oriented Republicans) to enact a boondoggle package of transportation spending.
  6. Easy Money from the Fed – Trump is browbeating the Federal Reserve in hopes that the central bank will use its powers to artificially reduce interest rates. The president apparently thinks Keynesian monetary policy will goose the economy. In reality, intervention by the Fed usually is the cause of economic instability.

In my ideal world, I would have included spending cuts. But I limited myself to ideas that with a greater-than-zero chance of getting implemented.

I’ll close with some observations on the state of the economy.

Economists have a terrible track record of predicting twists and turns in the economy. This is why I don’t make predictions and instead focus on analyzing how various policies will affect potential long-run growth.

That being said, it’s generally safe to assume that downturns are caused by bad economic policy, especially the Federal Reserve’s boom-bust monetary policy.

Ironically, some people then blame capitalism for the damage caused by government intervention (the Great Depression, the Financial Crisis, etc).

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One of the worst features of the internal revenue code is the pervasive bias against income that is saved and invested.

People who immediately consume their after-tax income are largely untaxed (thankfully, we don’t have a value-added tax), but there are several additional layers of tax on people who set aside income to finance future economic growth.

This is a self-destructive approach since all economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is a key to long-run growth and higher living standards.

The ideal answer is fundamental tax reform. For instance, all forms of double taxation are abolished with a flat tax.

But that’s not a realistic option, so what about interim steps?

Interestingly, some progress may be possible. According to a Bloomberg report, the Trump Administration may be on the verge of getting rid of the hidden inflation tax on capital gains.

The White House is developing a plan to cut taxes by indexing capital gains to inflation, according to people familiar with the matter, in a move that…may be done in a way that bypasses Congress. Consensus is growing among White House officials to advance the proposal soon, the people said, to ensure the benefit takes effect before President Donald Trump faces re-election in 2020. Revamping capital gains taxes through a rule or executive order likely would face legal challenges, a concern that reportedly prompted former President George H.W. Bush’s administration to drop a similar plan. …Indexing capital gains would slash tax bills for investors when selling assets such as stock or real estate by adjusting the original purchase price so no tax is paid on appreciation tied to inflation. …The inflation adjustment would amount to a several percentage point tax cut for investors, depending on the type of asset and how long it’s held, according to 2018 estimates from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. Corporate stock with dividends held for 10 years would be currently be subject to an effective tax rate of 24.3%. That same holding indexed to inflation would be subject to a 21.4% tax rate, CRS said.

Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal opines that this would be a very desirable reform.

What if President Trump had the authority—on his own—to enact a second powerful tax reform? He does. The momentum is building for him to use it. …forces are aligning behind a plan: a White House order to index capital gains for inflation. It’s a long-overdue move—one that would further unleash the economy and boost GOP election prospects. …At President Reagan’s behest, Congress in the 1980s indexed much of the federal tax code for inflation. Oddly, capital gains weren’t similarly treated. The result is that businesses and individuals pay taxes on the full nominal amount they earn on investments, even though inflation eats up a good chunk of any gain. It’s not unheard of for taxes to exceed real gains after inflation. …the Internal Revenue Code does not require that the “cost” of an asset be measured only as its original price—meaning there is no reason Treasury could not construe it in today’s dollars. …The move would set off an explosion of buying and selling—of which the government would get its cut. The lower tax on capital would also help asset prices grow. All of this would be excellent news for the economy.

This 2010 video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity elaborates on the reasons for indexing.

I especially like the examples showing how, even with modest levels of inflation, the actual capital gains tax rate can be much higher than official rate.

Remember, it’s the effective marginal tax rate that determines incentives for additional productive activity.

This is why any form of capital gains taxation is wrong. And it’s especially wrong to impose a hidden – and higher – tax simply because of inflation.

Indeed, it’s fundamentally immoral to let the government profit from inflation.

So what would happen if the rumors are true and Trump unilaterally eliminates the tax on inflationary gains?

The Tax Foundation estimated how such a change would affect the economy and the budget. The report includes a helpful example of how this reform would protect investors.

…if an individual purchased an asset for $100 in January 1, 2000 and sold that asset for $200 on July 1, 2018, the nominal capital gain would be $100. However, inflation over that period increased the price level by 49 percent. Under an indexing proposal, the individual would be able to gross up the basis of $100 by the total inflation during that period to $149. As a result, the individual would only be taxed on $51 instead of the full $100.

Here’s a table comparing the status quo with indexing.

Here’s the estimate of the economic benefits.

…indexing capital gains to inflation would increase the long-run size of the economy by 0.11 percent, which is equivalent to about $22 billion in 2018. This provision would primarily boost output by reducing the service price of capital, which would increase the incentive to invest in the United States. We estimate that the service price of capital would be 0.15 percent lower under this proposal. The capital stock would be 0.26 percent larger and the larger capital stock would boost labor productivity leading to 0.08 percent higher wages.

And here’s the accompanying table.

The Tax Foundation also prepared an estimate of the impact on tax revenue.

On a dynamic basis, the revenue loss would be…$148.3 billion over the next ten years. The increase in output due to the lower cost of capital would boost incomes, which would boost payroll revenue and slightly offset individual income tax revenue losses.

The bottom line is that this is not a self-financing reform (that only happens in rare instances), but it is a reform that would help the economy by encouraging more jobs and growth.

And, remember, even small improvements in growth have a meaningful impact over time.

Let’s close with a video from an unlikely supporter of inflation indexing.

Notwithstanding these remarks, I don’t think Schumer will applaud if Trump indexes the capital gains tax. Instead, I suspect he’s now more likely to support measures that would exacerbate this form of double taxation. Though I think he’s still on the right side (at least behind the scenes) on the issue of “carried interest,” so maybe he’s not a totally lost cause.

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President Kennedy’s tax rate reductions were a big success. Sadly, very few modern Democrats share JFK’s zeal for pro-growth tax policy.

And there’s another arrow in the class-warfare quiver.

The Wall Street Journal reports on a misguided new idea from Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.

The top Democrat on the Senate’s tax-writing committee proposed taxing unrealized gains in investment assets every year at the same rates as other income…an idea that would transform how the U.S. taxes the wealthiest people. …Under Mr. Wyden’s concept, capital gains would be taxed annually based on how much assets have gained in value. Now, by contrast, gains are taxed only when assets are sold and at a top rate of 23.8% instead of 37% for ordinary income.

There are two big reasons why this is a terrible idea.

First, the right policy is to abolish any tax on capital gains. Drop the rate to zero.

Simply stated, there shouldn’t be an added layer of tax on people who earn money, pay tax on that money, and then buy assets with some of the remaining after-tax income.

Especially since the income generated by that additional investment already would be hit by the corporate income tax and the extra layer of tax on dividends.

This system is also very bad for workers because of the long-standing relationship between investment and employee compensation.

Second, levying such a tax would be a logistical nightmare. Here’s another brief excerpt from the article.

Mr. Wyden’s concept would present logistical challenges. He would need to figure out how to value complex assets, handle declines in value, deal with people without enough cash to pay the tax and address illiquid investments such as closely held businesses and real estate.

So why would Sen. Wyden propose such a clunky class-warfare scheme?

Because it would generate (at least on paper) a lot of money that could be used to buy votes.

This mark-to-market tax concept…could raise substantial money. A similar proposal…would generate an estimated $125 billion in 2025 alone… Democrats, who are campaigning on wide-ranging and costly ideas for more spending on health care, infrastructure and education, can point to plans by Mr. Wyden and others to explain how they would pay for policy proposals.

Of course, no amount of tax increases would generate the revenue to finance the so-called Green New Deal.

In reality, a major reason for Wyden’s plan is that the left is motivated by class warfare rather than revenue collection.

Democrats have frequently found unfairness in the different ways that the U.S. tax system approaches wage and investment income. They have focused their response, in part, on the “Buffett Rule”, inspired by Warren Buffett’s claim that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.

I added this final excerpt simply so I can point out that Buffett’s claim is utter nonsense.

And so is the “Buffett rule” that some folks on the left have proposed.

I’ll close by noting that the United States has one of the world’s least friendly tax codes for investment.

The lower corporate rate in the Trump tax plan was a step in the right direction.

But even with that positive reform, the overall tax burden on capital gains is very high compared to America’s major trading partners.

And now Senator Wyden wants to make a bad situation worse.

For further information, here’s my video explaining why there shouldn’t be any tax on capital gains.

P.S. Uncle Sam also forces investors to pay capital gains tax when assets rise in value because of inflation.

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I wrote last month about a new book from the Fraser Institute about demographics and entrepreneurship.

My contribution was a chapter about the impact of taxation, especially the capital gains tax.

At a panel in Washington, I had a chance to discuss my findings.

If you don’t want to watch an 11-minute video, my presentation can be boiled down to four main points.

1. Demographics is destiny – Other authors actually had the responsibility of explaining in the book about the importance of demographic change. But it never hurts to remind people that this is a profound and baked-in-the-cake ticking time bomb.

So I shared this chart with the audience and emphasized that a modest-sized welfare state may have been feasible in the past, but will be far more burdensome in the future for the simple reason that the ratio of taxpayers to tax-consumers is dramatically changing.

And it goes without saying that big-sized welfare states are doomed to collapse. Think Greece and extend it to Italy, France, Japan, and other developed nations (including, I fear, the United States).

2. Entrepreneurship drives growth – Capital and labor are the two factors of production, but entrepreneurs are akin to the chefs who figure out news ways of mixing those ingredients.

For all intents and purposes, entrepreneurs produce the creative destruction that is a prerequisite for growth.

3. The tax code discourages entrepreneurship – The bulk of my presentation was dedicated to explaining that double taxation is both pervasive and harmful.

I shared my flowchart showing how the American tax code is biased against income that is saved and invest, which discourages entrepreneurial activity.

And then showed the capital gains tax burden in developed countries.

The U.S. is probably even worse than shown in the above chart since our capital gains tax is imposed on inflationary gains.

4. The United States need to be more competitive – Last but not least, I pointed out that America’s class-warfare tax policies are the fiscal equivalent of an “own goal” (soccer reference for World Cup fans).

And this chart from my chapter shows how the United States, as of mid-2016, had the highest combined tax rate on capital gains when including the effect of the capital gains tax.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Trump tax cuts did produce a lower corporate rate. So in the version below, I’ve added my back-of-the-envelope calculation of where the U.S. now ranks.

But the bottom line is still uncompetitive when looking at the tax burden on investment.

And never forget that this ultimately backfires against workers since it translates into lower pay.

P.S. The Wall Street Journal produced an excellent description of why capital gains taxation is very destructive.

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I’ve written over and over again that changing demographics are a very under-appreciated economic development. I’ve also written about why entrepreneurship is a critical determinant of growth.

But I never thought of combining those topics. Fortunately, the folks at the Fraser Institute had the foresight to do just that, having just published a book entitled Demographics and Entrepreneurship: Mitigating the Effects of an Aging Population.

There are chapters on theory and evidence. There are chapters on specific issues, such as taxes, regulation, migration, financial markets, and education.

It’s basically the literary equivalent of one-stop-shopping. You’ll learn why you should be concerned about demographic change. More important, since there’s not much policy makers can do to impact birthrates, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the potential policy changes that could help nations adapt to aging populations.

This short video is an introduction to the topic.

Let’s look at just a few of the highlights of the book.

In the opening chapter, Robert Murphy offers a primer on the importance of entrepreneurship.

…there is a crucial connection between entrepreneurship and economic prosperity. …There is a growing recognition that a society’s economic prosperity depends…specifically on entrepreneurship. …Two of the top names associated with the theory of entrepreneurship are Joseph Schumpeter and Israel Kirzner… Schumpeter famously invoked the term “creative destruction” to describe the volatile development occurring in a capitalist system… Kirzner has written extensively on entrepreneurship…and how…the alert entrepreneurial class who perceive these misallocations before their more complacent peers, and in the process earn pure profits… Schumpeter’s entrepreneur is a disruptor who creates new products first in his mind and then makes them a reality, whereas Kirzner’s entrepreneur is a coordinator who simply observes the profit opportunities waiting to be grasped. …If the goal is maximum economic efficiency in the long run, to provide the highest possible standard of living to citizens within the unavoidable constraints imposed by nature, then we need bold, innovative entrepreneurs who disrupt existing modes of production by introducing entirely new goods and services, but we also need vigilant, alert entrepreneurs who spot arbitrage opportunities in the existing price structure and quickly move to whittle them away.

Murphy describes in the chapter how there was a period of time when the economics profession didn’t properly appreciate the vital role of entrepreneurs.

But that fortunately has changed and academics are now paying closer attention. He cites some of the recent research.

An extensive literature documents the connection between entrepreneurship and economic growth. The studies vary in terms of the specific measure of entrepreneurship (e.g., small firms, self-employment rate, young firms, etc.) and the size of the economic unit being studied. …Carree et al. (2002) look at 23 OECD countries from 1976 to 1996. …They “find confirmation for the hypothesized economic growth penalty on deviations from the equilibrium rate of business ownership… An important policy implication of our exercises is that low barriers to entry and exit of businesses are necessary conditions for the equilibrium seeking mechanisms that are vital for a sound economic development” …Holtz-Eakin and Kao (2003) look at the birth and death rates of firms across US states, and find that this proxy for entrepreneurship contributes to growth. Similarly, Callejón and Segarra (1999) look at manufacturing firm birth and death rates in Spain from 1980 to 1992, and conclude that this measure of “turbulence” contributes to total factor productivity growth. …Wennekers and Thurik (1999) use business ownership rates as a proxy for “entrepreneurship.” Looking at a sample of 23 OECD countries from 1984 to 1994, they, too, find that entrepreneurship was associated with higher rates of employment growth at the national level.

In a chapter on taxation, Seth Giertz highlights the negative impact of taxes on entrepreneurship, particularly what happens with tax regimes have a bias against saving and investment.

High tax rates discourage both consumption and savings. But, for a given average tax rate, taxes on an income base penalize savings more heavily than taxes on consumption. …a consumption tax base is neutral between the decision to save versus consume. By contrast, an income tax base results in the double taxation of savings. …three major features of tax policy that are important for entrepreneurship. First, capital accumulation and access to capital is essential for innovation to have a big impact. Despite this, tax systems generally tax savings more heavily than consumption….Second, the tax treatment of risk affects incentives for entrepreneurship, since entrepreneurship tends to entail high risk. …progressivity can sometimes discourage entrepreneurship. This is because tax systems do not afford full offsets for losses, making progressivity effectively a tax increase. …Third, tax policy can lead entrepreneurial activity to shift from productive toward unproductive or destructive aims. Productive entrepreneurship tends to flourish when the route to great wealth is achieved primarily through private markets… High taxes reduce the rewards from productive entrepreneurship. All too often, smart, talented, and innovative people are drawn out of socially productive endeavours and into unproductive ones because the private returns from devising an innovative tax scheme—or lobbying government for special tax preferences—are greater than those for building the proverbial better mousetrap.

In a chapter I co-authored with Brian Garst, Charles Lammam, and Taylor Jackson, we look specifically at the negative impact of capital gains taxation on entrepreneurship.

We spend a bit of time reminding readers of what drives growth.

One of the more uncontroversial propositions in economics is that output is a function of labor (the workforce) and capital (machines, technology, land, etc.). Indeed, it is almost a tautology to say that growth exists when people provide more labor or more capital to the economy, or when—thanks to vital role of entrepreneurs—labor and capital are allocated more productively. In other words, labor and capital are the two “factors of production,” and the key for policymakers is to figure out the policy recipe that will increase the quantity and quality of those two resources. …In the absence of taxation, people provide labor to the economy so long as they value the income they earn more than they value the foregone leisure. And they provide capital to the economy (i.e., they save and invest) so long as they value future consumption (presumably augmented by earnings on capital) more than they value current consumption.

And we highlight how entrepreneurs generate the best type of growth.

this discussion also helps illustrate why entrepreneurship is so important. The preceding analysis basically focused on achieving growth by increasing the quantity of capital and labor. Such growth is real, but it has significant “opportunity costs” in that people must forego leisure and/or current consumption in order to have more disposable income. Entrepreneurs, by contrast, figure out how to increase the quality of capital and labor. More specifically, entrepreneurs earn profits by satisfying consumer desires with new and previously unknown or underused combinations of labor and capital. In their pursuit of profit, they come up with ways of generating more or better output from the same amount of labor and capital. This explains why we have much higher living standards today even though we work far fewer hours than our ancestors.

And here’s what we say about the counterproductive impact of capital gains taxation, particularly when combined with other forms of double taxation.

…the effective marginal tax rate on saving and investment is considerably higher than the effective marginal tax rate on consumption. This double taxation is understandably controversial since all economic theories—even Marxism and socialism—agree that capital is critical for long-run growth and higher living standards. …capital gains taxes harm economies in ways unique to the levy. …entrepreneurs play a vital role in the economy since they figure out more efficient ways to allocate labor and capital. …The potential for a capital gain is a big reason for the risk they incur and the effort they expend. Thus, the existence of capital gains taxes discourages some entrepreneurial activity from ever happening. …the capital gains tax is more easily avoidable than other forms of taxation. Entrepreneurs who generate wealth with good ideas can avoid the levy by simply choosing not to sell. This “lock-in effect” is not good for the overall economy… Most governments do not allow taxpayers to adjust the value of property for inflation when calculating capital gains. Even in a low-inflation environment, this can produce perverse results. …taxpayers can sometimes pay tax even when assets have lost value in real terms. …Capital gains taxes contribute to the problem of “debt bias,” which occurs when there is a tax advantage for corporate investments to be financed by debt instead of equity. …Excessive debt increases the probability of bankruptcy for the firm and contributes to systemic risk.

We then cite a lot of academic studies. I strongly encourage folks to peruse that section, but to keep this column manageable, let’s close by looking at two charts that reveal how some nation – including the United States – have uncompetitive tax systems.

Here are long-run capital gains tax rates in developed nations.

By the way, even though the data comes from a 2018 OECD report, it shows tax rates as of July 1, 2016. So not all the numbers will be current. For instance, I assume Macron’s reforms have mitigated France’s horrible score.

Speaking of horrible scores, here are the numbers showing the combined burden of the corporate income tax and capital gains tax. Sadly, the United States was at the top of this list as of July 1, 2016.

The good news is that the recent tax reform means that the United States no longer has the world’s most punitive tax system for new investment.

Though keep in mind that the United States doesn’t allow investors to index capital gains for inflation, so the effective tax rate on capital gains will always be higher than the statutory tax rate.

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Ideally, there should be no capital gains tax.

After all, the levy is a self-destructive form of double taxation that reduces the quantity and quality of investment. And that’s not good for wages and jobs.

To add insult to injury (to be more accurate, to add injury to injury), the tax isn’t indexed for inflation. So investors get taxed on the full increase in the value of an asset even though a significant chunk of the increase often is due solely to inflation.

Steven Entin of the Tax Foundation has some new research on this issue.

Many elements of the income tax are adjusted for inflation, such as tax brackets, standard deductions, and income thresholds or dollar amounts of some tax credits. However, the purchase price of assets later sold for capital gains or losses is not adjusted for inflation. As a result, inflation can do a real number on savers by turning real losses into taxable nominal gains. To avoid such outcomes, it would make sense for the government to allow an inflation adjustment for the cost of assets.

Steve points out that the absence of indexing is very brutal during periods of high inflation – which may soon become a relevant issue again.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, when inflation was high and the stock market was flat, it was not uncommon for people who sold assets to report inflated nominal capital gains that were negative in terms of purchasing power. In effect, the savers were taxed on a real loss. …Suppose one had bought $100 of stock in the XYZ Corporation in 1965, and sold it in 1981, for $110. This looks like a $10 gain. But…The stock would have had to rise to $286 just to keep pace with inflation. …the investor lost $176, in 1981 dollars ($286 – $110). Any tax collected on the nominal $10 gain was, in fact, a tax on a real loss.

But even if inflation remains low, this is still an important issue.

Taxing genuine capital gains is bad enough, so it’s not a surprise to learn that taxing inflationary gains is even worse. It exacerbates the anti-capital bias in the current tax code.

Taxation of fictitious gains or other capital income reduces saving and raises the cost of capital, thereby retarding investment, productivity growth, and wage growth. …In an ideal tax system, saving would not be treated worse than consumption. …When we earn income and pay tax, and use the after-tax income for consumption, the federal government generally leaves the consumption alone, except for a few excise taxes… The earnings are taxed, but not the enjoyment of the subsequent purchases. Saving is a purchase too. It lets us “buy” a stream of future income with after-tax money. But if we buy a bond, the stream of interest is taxed. If we buy a share of stock, the dividends are taxed, and any reinvested earnings that increase the value of the company are taxed as capital gains.

Here’s Steve’s conclusion.

Inflation raises the price of many assets acquired by savers. When they sell the assets, much of their capital gains may be due only to inflation. Inflation-related gains are not a real increase in wealth. Indexing the purchase price (tax basis) for inflation would provide savers some relief for this type of tax on fictitious income.

Well said, though I have one minor quibble. A capital gain, whether real or caused by inflation, is not income. It’s a change in nominal net worth.

Though I’m sure Steve would agree with me. He’s presumably using “income” because the tax code treats that change in net worth as income.

There is a chance we’ll see some progress on this issue. Ryan Ellis, writing for Forbes, is optimistic that the newly appointed head of Trump’s National Economic Council will try to fix this problem.

There’s one project that Kudlow needs to get to work on right away: indexing the basis of capital gains to inflation. …Just last August, Kudlow wrote an op-ed…urging President Trump to do this by executive order. …This finally may be the time that this issue is ready to cross the finish line.

Executive order?

Yes, because the law specifies the rates for capital gains taxation, but it’s up to the Treasury Department to specify what counts as a gain. And there’s a very strong argument that it’s not a genuine gain if an asset rises in value solely because of inflation.

Ryan explains the mechanics of how indexing would work..

How would indexing capital gains basis to inflation work? In the tax world, reporting a capital gain is a pretty simple exercise. When you sell an asset, like a stock, you report how much you sold it for. You can subtract what you bought it for (your “basis”) from what you sold it for to arrive at your gain. …If you’ve held the asset longer than a year, you generally pay tax at…20 percent, plus the 3.8 percent Obamacare investment surtax… A problem arises in that your basis purchase may have happened many years ago. The real value of the money you used to buy a stock has been eroded by inflation. For example, $100 in 1990 is only worth $51.41 today, a little more than half the supposed basis in real terms. …Someone whose $100 initial investment has grown to $500 would see a big difference in taxes.

Here’s the table showing that difference.

And here’s what it means.

Uncle Sam still gets to tax the gain–he just doesn’t get to take the phantom gains attributable to inflation. In fact, $22.50 of the current law tax–nearly one quarter of the tax bill–is entirely due to inflation, not any real increase in wealth. …This law change would help owners of real estate, including corporate owners of real estate. It would help small businesses who pay the capital gains tax when acquired by larger firms. It would help everyone in America with a prized collection of old baseball cards or stamps sitting in an album in their den. This is truly a tax cut for everyone.

For more information, here’s a video on the topic from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

As was pointed out in the video, Ronald Reagan indexed much of the tax code as part of his 1981 tax cut. Now it’s time to take the next step.

But let’s not forget that indexing should only be an interim step (assuming, of course, that the White House and Treasury are willing to do the right thing and protect investors from inflation).

The real goal should be total repeal of the capital gains tax.

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