Back in 2009, hedge fund manager Phil Falcone came up with an idea considered genius only if you take an elastic view of securities laws, which Falcone certainly did (does?). Upon being notified by his personal accountants that he owed the government more than $100 million in state and federal taxes, and turning down the suggestion to borrow against various assets including his Manhattan townhouses, artwork, interest in the Minnesota Wild, and an estate on St. Bart’s, Falcone decided to just borrow the money from a gated investor fund, despite being told in no uncertain terms it was a bad idea by Harbinger’s “longstanding” outside counsel. Investors in that fund turned out not to like the idea very much, with the SEC feeling similarly. But while the regulator felt 5 years (plus an $18 million fine) was enough time for Falcone to really think about what he’d done– a punishment Falcone described as a blessing in disguise–, the New York Department of Financial Services felt otherwise. Read more »

  • 01 Jul 2013 at 10:13 AM

Renaissance Technologies: Buy-And-Hold Investor

You can think of a margin loan as being like an option on the underlying security: if I lend you $50 (nonrecourse) against a $100 share of stock, and tomorrow the stock is worth $45, then you’ve lost $50 and I’ve lost $5, same as if I wrote you a $50 strike put option on the stock.1 This isn’t quite right – margin calls, etc. – but what it lacks in precision it gains in tax efficiency:

James H. Simons, who became a billionaire when he turned his extraordinary mathematical ability from defense work to investing, has deployed an unusual strategy at Renaissance Technologies LLC to skirt hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes for himself and other investors, said people with knowledge of the matter.

The Internal Revenue Service is challenging the technique, which it called “particularly aggressive,” without identifying the hedge fund in the dispute. … Renaissance’s strategy involved buying an instrument called a “basket option contract,” from banks including Barclays, the people said.

That’s from today’s wonderful Bloomberg article about the IRS’s investigation. Here’s the IRS memo about the trade. Here’s the trade.2 Actually wait: here’s the trade, twice. You can just read down the left side if you enjoy getting mad at evil tax-dodging hedge funds, or just read down the right side if you don’t want to believe that Jim Simons could ever get up to no good:
Read more »

  • 21 May 2013 at 11:06 AM

Senate Discovers There’s A Tax Code

Here’s a math problem: what does this sentence, from John McCain, tell you?

“Apple claims to be the largest U.S. corporate taxpayer, but by sheer size and scale, it is also among America’s largest tax avoiders,” he said in Monday’s pre-hearing comments.

The answer, of course, is that Apple is among the most profitable companies in America.1 If you have a lot of profits, you can not pay taxes on a lot of them, and still pay lots of taxes on a different lot of them. There is much focus on the exceptions, but for the most part I’d guess that “biggest taxpayers” and “biggest tax avoiders” are both highly correlated to “biggest profits.” Warren Buffett pays more taxes than his secretary, but at a lower rate.

The Senate, not being known for its quickness with math, is holding hearings today on the avoiding part; here you can read (pdf) the committee’s report. Apple does two main things to avoid taxes that the committee doesn’t like:

  • It incorporated two of its main foreign subsidiaries, Apple Operations International (AOI) and Apple Sales International (ASI), in Ireland. Those subsidiaries are, however, managed and controlled in the U.S. by their California-based directors. The U.S. taxes corporate income based on place of incorporation; Ireland taxes corporate income based on place of management and control. So if you’re incorporated in Ireland and managed and controlled in the U.S. you pay taxes nowhere, as AOI does and ASI more or less does. This is … honestly isn’t the surprise that everyone doesn’t do this?2 I’m incorporating myself in Ireland as we speak.
  • It entered a cost sharing agreement that gave ASI the economic rights to Apple intellectual property outside of America, in exchange for ASI funding a share of Apple’s California-based R&D proportional to its share of Apple’s total sales. Apple is in the business of manufacturing cheap electronic components in China, slapping expensive cool on them in California, and selling the package for $500. ASI effectively got the California cool at cost, rather than paying retail, which means that the international share (some 60%) of the profits of that cool are, for tax purposes, “earned” abroad (in a zero-tax subsidiary!) rather than in California.

That’s the main stuff; there’s some stupid stuff too.3 Apple’s response is a lot of blather that boils down to: Read more »

I’ve never heard of a “pint” before, but I hear the working classes like them.

What do you do when you’re Chancellor of the Exchequer and everything’s going wrong, possibly because of your policies, and you have to introduce a budget today full of evidence of failure? Do you abandon those policies in favor of something that might work and might not cause a triple-dip recession? Read more »

Despite reports to the contrary. Nueva York it is. Read more »

The U.S. territory’s leaders are seeking to lure mainland residents such as hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson. Moving to Puerto Rico could allow Paulson and other top-earning taxpayers to shield future income from the Internal Revenue Service without giving up their passports…Even with potential tax advantages, Paulson and others considering a move to Puerto Rico should be wary, said Argeo Quinones Perez, a professor of economics at the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras campus. “For people as wealthy as Mr. Paulson and the like, spending half a year in this provincial, third-world environment would be like spending half a year in minimum-security prison,” he said in an e-mail. [Bloomberg, related]

  • 07 Feb 2013 at 7:13 PM

If You Tax Derivatives, Only Derivatives Will Pay Taxes

In general when something is headlined “A Sensible Change in Taxing Derivatives,” or “A Sensible Anything,” that’s a good sign that it’s not; things that are sensible don’t have to advertise. Also: ooh derivatives are evil ooh, so the odds are even worse. But this particular sensible change – a Victor Fleischer DealBook column about a Republican House proposal to tax derivatives on a mark-to-market rather than “open transaction” basis – is more sensible than you might initially expect; it’s mostly plausible and inoffensive and non-pitchforky.1 (The idea is straightforward: if you own a derivative, and it went up in value this year, you pay taxes on the increase in value. Unlike with, say, stock, where you only pay taxes on the increase in value when you sell the stock.)

One way to tell it’s not too bad is that various reports suggest that the Wall Street reaction so far has been “meh?” or “huh?”; this is presumably in part because it’s not clear how real this is and in part because it’s not clear how bad it’d be if it was real. Wall Street, in the sense of derivatives dealers, already pay taxes on their derivatives inventory on a mark-to-market basis, so the dealers’ dog in this fight is not their own taxes but rather the marketability of various products, from boring ETNs to lovely variable share forwards, to customers focused on tax efficiency.

Nonetheless! There are two ways to think of derivatives. One is they are a specific class of evil things, often involving acronyms, designed to let banksters get up to dirty tricks. This line of thinking goes along with words like “complex” and “opaque” – “derivatives are complex instruments …” etc.

The other way to think of the term is as a catch-all for any sort of contract whose value is determined in part by something in the world. Read more »