Explaining Southern California's economy

Fred Wilson lobbies for a flat tax, but why not just raise taxes on capital gains?

Mercer 17130

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The top of a form 1040 individual income tax return.

Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist at Union Square Ventures in New York, blogs daily at AVC and blogs well. His is the first post I read almost everyday, from a Google Reader that pipes in hundreds. I've written about his thinking before. There are times when he's great. And there are times when he drives me crazy.

On Sunday (he doesn't take the weekend off) the crazy was in evidence (in me, not Fred). After some speculation on where Mitt Romney's income comes from and why it's taxed at 15 percent, he goes on to discuss his own misgivings about getting a similar deal in his own business, due to the "carried interest" exception that allows him to treat income as capital gains. Then this:

...I am bothered by the unfairness of the situation. When I get a big distribution from our funds, I always ask my accountants how much of the distribution I should set aside for federal, state, and local taxes. The answer is usually something like 28% (the difference between 28% and 15% is the state and local taxes). And then I often think of my two brothers who probably pay 40-50% of their income each year in federal, state, and local taxes. It just seems so unfair.

And so lately I've been more and more attracted to the idea of a flat tax where everyone pays the same tax rate on income above a minimum amount. In this model, we would eliminate all tax deductions; for mortgages, charitable giving, for medical expenses, etc. There would be no difference in tax rates for ordinary income vs other forms of income (ie capital gains).

If we did that maybe everyone could pay a 15% tax rate like Mitt Romney and our family does. We would have a fair tax system.

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Private-equity champion says attacks on Romney have 'tinge of McCarthyism'

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Rom

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney greets supporters after addressing a primary night victory rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, January 10, 2012.

At DealBook, Andrew Ross Sorkin talks to Paul Levy of JLL Partners and a self-confessed small-fry among the big fish of the private-equity world. As you probably know, in recent weeks, private-equity — the practice of buying struggling companies, usually with debt, taking them private, turning them around, and re-selling them — has taken a drubbing, based on the notion that successful PE guys, like GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, are Gordon Gekko-esque in their commitment to greed.

Levy thinks this is terrible. How terrible? It's nearing red-scare levels:

...Mr. Levy has been dismayed that the industry’s heavyweights have not sought to publicly defend their industry in recent days. Private equity came under attack when Mitt Romney’s political rivals put his career at Bain Capital in the spotlight as part of the Republican primary.

“There’s a tinge of McCarthyism here,” Mr. Levy said in an interview. “I think it’s a pretty honorable industry, and I don’t know why people aren’t stepping up and defending the careers that define their lives. That’s a sad thing. What do they fear it will cost them?”

Mr. Levy, who voted for President Obama in 2008, is right. Virtually none of the big names in private equity have spoken up to defend the industry. Over the past several weeks, anytime my colleagues or I have sought comment about attacks on the industry, private equity’s kingpins have declined. (The industry’s lobbying group, the Private Equity Growth Capital Council, has been working behind the scenes to shore up support and plans a more public campaign in the coming weeks, but with none of the leading private equity executives playing a significant role.)

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Romney tax returns: What would we learn?

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Rom

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney addresses a primary night victory rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, January 10, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

At last night's Republican debate, Mitt Romney said that if he sews up the nomination, he would likely release his tax returns, as opponents and the Obama Administration have demanded. This is from USA Today:

I think I've heard enough from folks saying, look, let's see your tax records. I have nothing in them that suggests there's any problem and I'm happy to do so. I sort of feel like we are showing a lot of exposure at this point. And if I become our nominee, and what's happened in history is people have released them in about April of the coming year and that's probably what I would do.

OK, so Romney isn't necessarily the most blissfully fluid speaker in the land. It's hard to blame him for nonlinear sentence structure after the 734 debates he's endured in his quest to take on the president in November. But a more important question looms: What would we learn from Romney taxes?

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Mitt Romney and Bain Capital: He did what he had to do

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Rom

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Mitt Romney has been taking it on the chin from the unlikeliest of places: his fellow Republican candidates, especially Newt Gingrich, have claimed that Romney's time at private-equity firm Bain Capital was all about killing jobs, not creating them. Mitt says he "created" 100,000 jobs. Not so fast, say his detractors.

At the Huffington Post, Robert Lipton explains why this he-said/he-said doesn't entirely make sense:

The reality is both more simple and more complex than all those allegations would have one believe. It is simple because the function of Bain and other private equity funds has no planned relation to job creation or job losses. It is more complex, because the activities of Bain do tell us something about Mitt Romney -- having nothing to do with jobs. Let's look at how Bain and other private equity companies actually operate.

The business goal of private equity companies is to make profits for investors in the equity funds they manage. The greater the profits for the investors, the larger the take of the fund managers, who typically receive a base management fee of about 2 percent plus a portion of the fund profits, generally around 20 percent. If the fund manager is very successful then the manager's participation in profits may run as high as 30 percent, which investors may be prepared to accept just to be able to invest with that manager. We're told that Bain was very successful in creating very high returns on investment for its investors, said to be an astounding 88 percent per year, to the point where it could get 30 percent participation in profits. One tax advantage of the fund mangers is that although their business is to get paid by creating values, unlike other payment for services, which is taxed as ordinary income, their return for their services is treated as capital gain and taxed at the lower capital gains rate.

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Eurozone Crisis: Enter the economists to save the sinking ship

TO GO WITH STORY "Papademos : Greek tech

GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images

This is what a European "technocrat" looks like. Lucas Papademos will take over from Georges Papandreou as prime minister of Greece, as the Eurozone continues to sink.

Europe is full of flamboyant politicians, but when it comes to rescuing the continent from financial ruin, the money right now seems to be on the most technocratic of technocrats: economists who have served time in the trenches of the very common currency they helped to create in the 1990s. As the euro has melted down, the Greek prime minister, George Papandreou, has stepped aside, replaced by Lucas Papademos, an economist. In Italy, the embattled billionaire PM, Silvio Berlusconi, is being moved aside to make room for Mario Monti, another economist.

The message to Europeans is pretty clear: politicians created this mess, and now the people who actually know what they're doing with the economy will get us out. Try to imagine what this would be like in America. We'd kick Obama out of the White House and replace him with...an executive from a consulting firm. Oh, wait...didn't Mitt Romney work for Bain & Co. back in the day?

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