A Master of Tax Avoidance
Warren Buffett has an op-ed in today's NY Times on one of his most popular themes: The rich should pay more in taxes. At first blush, his position seems noble: A rich guy says that people like him should pay more to support the commonweal. But on closer examination, one realizes that Mr Buffett never mentions doing anything to eliminate the tax-avoidance strategies that he uses most aggressively. In particular:
1. His company Berkshire Hathaway never pays a dividend but instead retains all earnings. So the return on this investment is entirely in the form of capital gains. By not paying dividends, he saves his investors (including himself) from having to immediately pay income tax on this income.
2. Mr Buffett is a long-term investor, so he rarely sells and realizes a capital gain. His unrealized capital gains are untaxed.
3. He is giving away much of his wealth to charity. He gets a deduction at the full market value of the stock he donates, most of which is unrealized (and therefore untaxed) capital gains.
4. When he dies, his heirs will get a stepped-up basis. The income tax will never collect any revenue from the substantial unrealized capital gains he has been accumulating.
I suspect this is only part of the tax avoidance methods Buffett uses. Some of the trades he has made that have been publicly disclosed appear to be a very aggressive tax avoidance trades, e.g. in some cases buying certain stocks for his personal portfolio that would be of no benefit unless he was aggressively trying to avoid taxes, e.g. stocks that are going to have a huge dividend pay out because of some kind of restructuring.