Mitt Romney’s campaign has tried desperately to put a lid back on the can of worms that burst open weeks ago when the one-time GOP presidential front runner declined to release any of his tax returns.
But by actually releasing his 2010 return, and an estimation of his 2011 return, camp Romney has provided reporters with some, but not all, of the answers they’re looking for as they try to paint a complete picture of the finances of one of the wealthiest candidates for President in U.S. history.
Romney’s revelations confirm that his effective tax rates in the past couple years have been as low or lower than those of workers with truly modest means. They also confirm that he’s availed himself of truly complex tax strategies designed to boil his liability down to the lowest level allowed by the country’s heavily rigged, labyrinthine tax code. And we know, too, that these are things Romney didn’t want voters to know — at least not yet.
But they raise a series of new questions that will likely require Romney to disclose several years’ worth of additional tax returns if he wants to answer them satisfactorily. Here are three big ones that touch generally on the theme of Romney’s efforts to reduce his tax burden by taking advantage of areas of the law that simply aren’t available to most people.
How Low Do They REALLY Go
Romney’s effective tax rate was 13.9 percent of his adjusted gross income (AGI) in 2010, and is expected to be slightly higher in 2011. Set aside for now the fact that for a high net worth individual like Romney, AGI often understates what you might call “true” income — meaning these effective tax rates probably overstate Romney’s 2010 and 2011 tax liability. It turns out that in 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis, Romney very likely managed to get his effective tax rate much lower than 13.9 percent. In 2010, Romney carried over $4.9 million in capital losses from 2009. This is a consequence of the tax code’s leniency toward investors who take hits in bad years. But as tax lawyer Ed Kleinbard told reporters during a Tuesday conference call organized by the DNC, “that means he paid no tax on any of his capital gains in 2009, including tax on his carried interest in 2009.” That’s not necessarily because Romney actually lost money in 2009, either. As Kleinbard explained, a common tactic for Americans with capital gains is to “harvest” — by selling off certain investments that lose value investors can count the losses against gains elsewhere in their portfolios. If those losses exceed the gains by more than a certain amount, they roll over into the following tax cycle. Unless Romney had significant sources of non-investment income, that suggests his effective tax rate in 2009 was much lower than 13.9 percent. And remember, he jokes he’s been unemployed for years.
That UBIT Bit
One of camp Romney’s chief claims has been that his offshore investments haven’t been covers for deferring or avoiding U.S. taxation. But as described, here, there is one tax strategy that could have allowed Romney to avoid a big, 35 percent tax on unrelated business income, as it pertains to his massive individual retirement account — if that account is invested in an offshore entity. When asked Tuesday if Romney has ever benefited from this strategy, his trust adviser Brad Malt said, “I don’t know the answer to that — let us get back to you on that.” We haven’t received an answer yet, but we’ll pass it along when we get it.
Romney’s 2010 tax return reveals a Swiss bank account. “It is listed because I set that account up for diversification in 2003 when I became trustee of the blind trusts,” Malt said. “It is a bank account. Nothing more, nothing less. An ordinary bank account. It earns some income which is fully reported on the form 1040. In the 2010 tax return, you’ll see approximately $1,700 in interest earned by this account, which is reported. The tax is fully paid just as if this were a U.S. bank account. Nothing more complicated than that. By the way, I did close this account in early 2010. It no longer exists.”
Some reports suggest that the account was closed for political reasons, but Malt said “I regularly review Governor Romney’s investments just in connection with my periodic reviews, I decided that this account wasn’t serving any particular purpose….Again, taxes were all fully paid etc. But it just wasn’t worth it. And I closed the account.” Tax experts have noted to TPM in recent days that U.S. law changed shortly before then, to make it harder for U.S. persons to avail themselves of tax havens. Shortly thereafter the IRS gave people secreting their money abroad a time window for compliance. Taking camp Romney at its word, that wasn’t really their concern. Even if the account existed for purposes of diversification that could be politically embarrassing in and of itself, constituting a bet against U.S. currency. But to fully answer the question, we’d need to know if that bank account is declared in the years before the law changed. Camp Romney did not respond to a request for comment on this point Tuesday.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.