Suppose that an investor you admire and trust comes to you with an investment idea. “This is a good one,” he says enthusiastically. “I’m in it, and I think you should be, too.”MBA final exam question: Explain the mistake in this paragraph.
Would your reply possibly be this? “Well, it all depends on what my tax rate will be on the gain you’re saying we’re going to make. If the taxes are too high, I would rather leave the money in my savings account, earning a quarter of 1 percent.” Only in Grover Norquist’s imagination does such a response exist.
How do we decide whether to invest in a project? Discounted cash flow.
For example, suppose you’re thinking of building a factory (or starting a business). Once built, your best guess is that the factory will produce $10 profit every year. Discounting at a 5% required return, typical of stock market investments, the value of that profit stream is 1/.05=20 times the yearly profit, or $200. If the factory costs $150 to build, it’s a good deal and will return more than its costs. You build it. If the factory costs $250 to build, you walk away.
Did you forget to put in after-tax cash flows? Whoops, that's a B- now at best. For example, if the tax rate is 50%, then your after-tax profits are only $5 each year. Now the value of the profit stream is only $100. The factory still costs $150 to build however, so now you’d be a fool to do it. It truly is better to leave your money in the bank earning a quarter of a percent.
Mr. Buffett made an elementary accounting mistake. How did he get it wrong? Implicitly, he is thinking that he pays $100, then gets back $100 for sure, and only the profit is taxed. He's thinking that a 5% rate of return gets cut to 2.5%, which is still better than 0.025%. But when you build a factory or start a business, you are not guaranteed return of principal. You only get the profits, if any. If the government taxes half the profits, that’s like taking half the initial investment away.
This is perhaps an understandable mistake for a financial investor such as Mr. Buffett. In my example, the market value of the factory was $200, and falls to $100 when the tax is imposed. Mr. Buffett doesn't build factories or start businesses, he buys them. Now, Mr. Buffett -- ever the "value" investor -- can swoop in, buy the factory for $100, and a $5 per year after-tax cashflow generates the same 5% rate of return. But nobody will build new factories, and that’s the economic damage.
Ok, now you get an A. Let's go for the A+.
Mr Buffett ignored risk. If somebody offers you a 5% rate of return, risk free, when Treasury bills offer you a quarter of 1 percent, his name is Madoff, not Buffett-Buddy.
Mr. Buffett wants you to think his investments are arbitrage opportunities, and a 2.5% arbitrage is as attractive as a 5% arbitrage. That's false. Investments involve bearing risk, and taxes make those investments directly worse.
Now, the effect of taxes here is subtle. Yes, a 50% tax rate cuts a 5% expected return down to 2.5%. But it also cuts volatility too. Isn't this just like deleveraging? Answer: no, because unless you're investing in green energy boodoggles only available to Administration cronies, the government takes your profits, but does not reimburse your losses.
If the investment makes 10%, you get 5%. If it makes 5%, you get 2.5%. But if it loses 10%, you lose 10%. It's a strictly worse investment when taxed. (Yes, you might be able to sell the losses if the IRS doesn't notice what you're up to... but now you know why Buffett is a "master of tax avoidance.")
And there is always another margin: If rates of return on investment look lousy, just stop investing at all and go on a consumption binge. The estate tax is a big subsidy to the round-the-world cruise and private jet industries.
I am really amazed by how this argument has evolved. Only a few months ago, supporters of the Administration's plans for higher tax rates admitted the plain fact that higher tax rates on investment are bad for growth. But, they argued that higher taxes would be good for other goals, like "fairness," redistribution, or winning elections important for other policies they like such as ACA. (These taxes are not going to put a dent in the deficit.) And we had a sensible argument about how bad the growth effects would be, and how long it would take for them to kick in.
Now they're trying to argue that taxes aren't bad for the economy at all. Some are suggesting higher investment tax rates are actually good for the economy. All in the face of the natural experiment playing out in front of us across the Atlantic. The contortions needed to make this argument are just embarrassing. As above.
It seems clear to me that the Administration wants to raise the tax rate on high income people for political reasons, whether or not they raise tax revenues from such people; witness the deafening silence about reforming the chaotic tax code. The Buffetts of the world who can exploit the loopholes in the tax code and lobby for more will do fine in the new world. But they shouldn't stoop to such obvious silliness to try to fool the rest of us that pain don't hurt.
(Thanks to Cliff Asness who brought this to my attention and suggested some of the arguments.)