Uberbillionaire Warren Buffett recently declared tax rates don’t matter to investors, but the actions of publicly owned companies and investors as the nation nears the “fiscal cliff” say otherwise.
Numerous companies have announced special dividends ahead of the end of the year, when tax rate cuts that were approved during the George W. Bush administration will end unless Congress and President Obama agree to extend them. New taxes tied to the ObamaCare health care law also will go into effect.
On November 28, for instance, Costco announced it would declare a special dividend that will deliver $3 billion to shareholders. The money will be taxed at the 2012 rate of 15 percent instead of the 43.4 percent rate (39.6 percent because it would be taxed as regular income, plus a 3.8 percent ObamaCare surcharge) that could hit top earners at the beginning of 2013.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported 173 large publicly traded companies had announced special dividends, up from 72 in the same period a year ago, and noted a Bloomberg analysis that showed 59 companies on the Russell 3000 Index had declared one-time payouts from September to mid-November, four times the number during that period last year.
“It’s certainly not surprising. What companies are doing is very wise. They’re saying, ‘You’re our shareholders, we had an intention of paying a dividend, so why not pay it now to make it worth more to you?’” said Robert Genetski, an economist, author, financial consultant and operator of the classicalprinciples.com Web site.
In a November 28 column, Chicago Tribune business reporter Gail MarksJarvis also noted individual investors are taking action: “Nervous investors fear that all three [utilities, real estate investment trusts, and master limited partnerships] could face higher taxes next year, and some have been selling high-yielding investments rather than wait for them to decline in value amid tax concerns later.”
‘Destructive of Growth’
Genetski said businesses and investors are signaling “the ball has started to roll. I mean everyone is figuring out ways to avoid as much of the tax hike as possible. That’s what’s so damaging about this. The methods that are used to do this are destructive of economic growth. People don’t go to work to pay taxes, and they work hard to avoid taxes.”
In a November 25 column for The New York Times, Buffett called for a minimum tax of 30 percent on taxable income between $1 million and $10 million, and 35 percent on amounts above that.
“Between 1951 and 1954, when the capital gains rate was 25 percent and marginal rates on dividends reached 91 percent in extreme cases, I sold securities and did pretty well,” Buffett wrote. “In the years from 1956 to 1969, the top marginal rate fell modestly, but was still a lofty 70 percent — and the tax rate on capital gains inched up to 27.5 percent. I was managing funds for investors then. Never did anyone mention taxes as a reason to forgo an investment opportunity that I offered.”
But Genetski pointed out virtually no one paid those tax rates. Personal exemptions adjusted for inflation were higher, there were more allowable deductions and exemptions, and there were easy ways to reduce taxable wages, such as taking company stock and cashing out with a capital gains tax rate in the range of 25 percent.
“If the tax hikes [that could occur if the government goes over the fiscal cliff] hit, I believe it’s going to have a negative effect on the economy,” he said. “The first place we will see it is in financial markets. In terms of how much impact on the economy, it all depends on how large the tax hikes happen to be. My guess is, along with a lot of people, we will see some hikes. But what’s unknown is the magnitude of the hikes they’ll finally approve.”
Larry Kaufmann, an economic consultant and senior adviser at Pacific Economics Group, likewise is not surprised at a surge in special dividends.
“This is exactly how corporations looking out for their shareholders should act,” he said.
“As of right now, I expect the U.S. to go over the fiscal cliff and let all the Bush tax cuts expire,” he said, and added, “The impact of tax increases and the increased regulatory burden from Obamacare will be disastrous.
“I fully expect another recession [in 2013], with both residential demand and especially capital investment by business plunging,” Kaufmann said. “I wouldn't be surprised if 2013 makes people long for the good old days of 2008-2009, especially if the euro and the European Commission melt down and there is a new Mideast war -- both of which I think are more than 50 percent probable.
“Sorry to be so pessimistic, but we're living through some ugly times,” Kaufmann said.
Ross Kaminsky, a self-employed