Paying a million dollars in taxes?

It’s time to pay our taxes and for many people it’s a painful chore. Whether you’re getting a refund or sending the US Treasury a check, the amount of money the government takes from our hard-earned income is never pleasant.

But I have told people that one year I would like to actually have to pay the government $1 million in taxes. Why? Because it means that I probably earned in the neighborhood of $2 million and that’s a nice neighborhood.

I have had a number of conversations this year with clients who have to write big checks to the government. The question always comes up “is there a way to pay less?” The answer is “yes” but the trade-off is not always to their advantage.

Tax free bonds (“munis”) have been a traditional way of avoiding taxes. Unfortunately the Federal Reserve’s zero interest rate policy has reduced the yield on munis to the very low single digit range. A triple A rated Virginia muni maturing in 10 years yields a touch over 1.5%. Unless you are very taxaphobic the idea of tying your money up for a decade at a rate below inflation is not very attractive.

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) have been touted for their tax efficiency. That’s true, but unless you buy and hold them forever, at some point you will have to sell them to get money for living expenses.  That’s when the tax comes due. And the tax rate could actually be higher.

The same argument goes for buying individual growth stocks. At some point, you will want to turn them into cash that you can spend for, say, a new car, travel, or all the other things you need money for and that’s when the tax man wants his share. Keep in mind that today’s growth stock can be tomorrow’s bankruptcy. Trees don’t grow to the sky and at some point even Apple may find that there’s a worm in the core. Individual stocks are fine, but lack of diversification is one of the biggest risks to wealth.

The US tax rate reached 94% during WW II in 1944. In the years that followed the rate never dropped below 70% until 1981. Investments were offered whose primary goal was to shelter income from taxes. These were often extremely poor investments. One shelter I recall was an investment in an aircraft leasing company that owned used aircraft. When the price of fuel rose, these planes were sidelined for more efficient models.  Some of the used planes were sold for parts.  Most investors eventually broke even … after a decade or so. The lesson here is that you should not let tax avoidance drive your investment decisions.

Top federal tax rates
These “tax shelters” mostly dried up during the Reagan era when top tax rates dropped to 28% in 1988.

They have been rising gradually since then.

Regular garden variety mutual funds have been getting a bad press because their capital gains distributions are not predictable. However, they have two advantages: (1) they focus on the primary objective of growth of capital rather than secondary issues, and (2) they allow you to pay your taxes as you go. The benefit of that is that when you want to turn your mutual funds into cash to pay for groceries – or whatever is you need money for – most of your tax may already have been paid and the tax man will take a smaller bite.

The desire to avoid taxes is natural, but the best way to manage money is to focus on avoiding major losses and getting a fair return. If taxes bother you, vote for the candidate who you think will lower the tax rate. That’s the smart way to manage your taxes.

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