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Debunking the Warren Buffett Tax Deception

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A quick review of business taxation in the US today will show that Buffett pays in excess of 30% of his income in taxes.

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It is an election year, so the media makes a big deal out of Warren Buffett's assertion that the tax system unfairly taxes his supposedly "working class" secretary at 33% (we've also seen 34% and 35.8%), while he only pays 13.7% (we've also seen 17.4%) on the millions that he makes.

The political implication is that he, and others like him, such as GOP hopeful Mitt Romney, somehow aren't paying their "fair share" of taxes.

But instead of doing even superficial analysis, the media carries the story at face value. That is naive. Even a slight amount of digging will turn this story upside down.

Let's start with Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek. In order to pay a marginal tax rate of 33% (or 34% or 35.8%), she would have to be in Occupy Wall Street's 1%, not the 99%. Using the 2011 tax tables for individuals, if she were single making a $250,000 adjusted gross income (that's after deductions!), she would be in the 33% marginal tax bracket and would have a 27% effective tax rate. To get to the 35% marginal tax bracket, her adjusted gross income would have to be more than $379,000. Isn't a $250,000 income the magic line that [President Barack] Obama has drawn that demarcates those who he is targeting as "rich" and should be paying more taxes? So, let's not be deluded into thinking that his woman somehow represents America's working class.

But the bigger deception is Buffett's claim that he pays a much lower tax rate than he supposedly should. A quick review of business taxation in the US today will show that Buffett pays in excess of 30% of his income in taxes.

Most small-business owners choose the Subchapter-S or LLC format for their businesses. Any profit from their business flows directly to their personal taxes (form 1040). Assume two similar businesses, one owned by X and the other by Y. Both businesses make $450,000 in pretax income. Owner X has chosen the LLC format. Owner X's company pays no taxes to the IRS, but sends Owner X a K-1 requiring X to declare $450,000 on his form 1040. His marginal tax bracket is 35%.

Owner Y has chosen the C-Corp format. Y's company also had a pretax income of $450,000, which is taxed at the corporate 35% tax rate. Y has chosen to declare a $50,000 dividend to himself which shows up on his 1040 and is taxed at 15%. Looking only at his 1040, you would think that Y doesn't pay much in taxes. In fact, Y pays more taxes than X because the dividend is double taxed – that is why most small businesses choose the LLC or Sub-S format.

Now let's talk about Buffett. He is famous for buying large stakes or even controlling interests in large C-Corps. He is the equivalent to Owner Y. So, the taxes that Buffett pays go well beyond what is shown on his 1040. Like Owner Y, the 13.7% rate on Buffett's 1040 shows only the taxes he pays on the dividends and therefore is only part of the story. I looked up Buffett's 13F SEC filing dated January 30, 2011. That filing shows nine major holdings.

Using the share price of each holding and the number of shares shown on the 13F, I estimated the value of each of those holdings. Then, using the C-Corp's reported effective tax rate, the pretax income per share, and the dividends per share (taxed at 15%), I calculated Buffett's effective tax rate on each holding. Finally, using the market value of each holding to form a weighted average, I then calculated that Buffett's effective tax rate on these nine holdings was more than 32%.

Buffett Holdings from September 30, 2011 13F


Click to enlarge

This should debunk the myth that America's investor class does not pay its "fair share" and that we should put a minimum of 30% on their 1040 filings.

Finally, some advice for Romney. Should you become the GOP candidate, I would advise that you do an analysis on your income similar to what I did for Buffett in the table above. If you are the GOP candidate, you can take the issue of paying your "fair share" of taxes off of the table.

Editor's Note: Dr. Robert Barone is a Managing Partner / Portfolio Manager of Universal Value Advisors.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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