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A new short report from Citizens for Tax Justice explains that House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp has put forward an intriguing proposal to reform the tax treatment of derivatives — the complex financial instruments that played a starring role in the financial collapse. As the report explains, Camp unfortunately proposes to use any revenue saved from his reforms to pay for reductions in tax rates.
Derivatives can create huge opportunities for tax avoidance. To take just one example explained in the report, Ronald S. Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder fortune, used a derivative called a “variable prepaid forward contract” to sell stock without paying taxes on the capital gains for a long time. Lauder entered into a contract to lend $72 million worth of stock to an investment bank and promised to sell the stock to the bank at a future date at a discounted price, in return for an immediate payment of cash. The contract also hedged against any loss in the value of the stock.
The contract put Lauder in a position that is economically the same as having sold the stock — he received cash for the stock and did not bear the risk of the stock losing value — and yet he does not have to pay tax on the capital gains until several years later, when the sale of the stock technically occurs under the contact.
The most significant of Chairman Camp’s proposals would subject most derivatives to what is called “mark-to-market” taxation. At the end of each year, gains and losses from derivatives would be included in income, even if the derivatives were not sold.
Assuming the mark-to-market system is implemented properly without loopholes or special exemptions for those with lobbying clout, the result would be that the types of tax dodges described above would no longer provide any benefit. The taxpayers would not bother to enter into those contracts because they would be taxed at the end of the year on the value of the contracts (meaning they are unable to defer taxes on capital gains) and the gains would be taxed at ordinary income tax rates.
The reform could be key to blocking the sort of tax dodges available only to the very rich.