An article recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Conservative Case for a Wealth Tax.” The proposal is to have a fair exemption, say, $3M, and any amount above this would be taxed each year at 3%. The author, Ronald McKinnon offers an example showing that a couple with $5M would be taxed $60K. I imagine many will think this is hardly enough, those hedge fund managers who make million each year can afford to pay more than this. Perhaps, but in the spirit of “Unintended Consequences” I’d suggest that this tax will hurt some people unfairly.
Take a couple who has made a decent income, $150K-$200K, and after selling their home, decides to take their retirement fund, and rent. They have exactly $4M. They don’t trust the stock market to go back to annual returns of 8-10%, and therefore they only withdraw $120K per year. (Remember, this is a retired couple, whatever their profession, let’s just agree they lived well beneath their means to save this money. They paid their taxes, but invested for the long term, much of it pretax.) The seemingly ‘fair’ 3% is $30K of the excess $1M they have. And it’s 25% of their annual budget. If the entire $120K withdrawal is a 401(k) or pretax IRA distribution, they are already planning to pay about $17K in tax, living off the $103K net. This tax would leave them with $73K.
At $5M, the numbers look even worse for this couple. Planning to withdraw $150K gross, and pay closer to $25K in tax, for a net $125K. Now take off $60K for the wealth tax, and they are left with $65K. Uh, right, they socked away an extra million dollars, but this wealth tax leaves them with a lower annual income. “But Joe, the wealth tax can come off the top, not from the withdrawals.” Agreed. but in the 25% bracket, it would take an extra $80,000 withdrawal to net the $60,000 for the $5M couple. They went from a pretty conservative 3% withdrawal target to $230K, a 4.6% rate. Something about this doesn’t seem right. Yet, when you paint a different picture, the 30 year old Wall Street Exec who has already built a $10M retirement account, the tax doesn’t seem so bad.
When it comes to the tax code, it’s very difficult to have a tax that doesn’t hurt those who are not the intended target. It’s easy to make judgments about who has really earned their money. I for one think there are hundreds of bankers involved in the Mortgage Collapse who deserve long jail sentences. The same folk at S&P who decided when you take enough C rated paper and put together, you can get AAA investments are the ones who pulled Uncle Sam’s AAA rating. These are the people who made us all poorer, along with our children who will inherit the national debt. Why these people are still on the streets (I mean employed and not serving time) I don’t know.
What do you think of the wealth tax? Have you seen any articles on it yet?