Mitt Romney’s campaign is taking heat for declining to disclose more than the two most recent years’ worth of his tax information. Even conservative commentators such as The Washington Post’s George Will and the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol are saying it’s past time to come clean. Of course, members of Romney’s team, unlike their friends on the outside, presumably know what the documents would reveal, so we should probably assume that they have fairly good reason not to release them. Could the criticism Romney would suffer over the contents of the returns be worse than the criticism he’s getting for not disclosing them? Here are some guesses about legal — but potentially embarrassing — things in Romney’s tax returns:
Profits from the financial crash
The vast majority of American families lost wealth in the housing bust of 2007-09 and the financial crisis that came in the middle of it, and millions lost jobs or earnings. But it was possible for a canny or lucky investor to profit from the chaos — especially for a wealthy individual with access to unusual financial products. Maybe Romney made a lot of money through bets on skyrocketing foreclosures or well-timed investments in bailed-out banks. There’s nothing wrong with smart financial planning, but making money on the crash could be awkward for a politician. There’s a tension between promising to make things better and profiting off human misfortune.
A low tax bill because of the crash
There’s also the possibility that Romney’s investments lost some value during the crash years and that he combined this with aggressive exploitation of loopholes to pay a strikingly low tax bill. One rumor was that he managed to pay nothing in taxes, something his campaign has denied. But would paying $2.75 really look all that different from paying $0? A super-low tax bill would turn Romney into the poster child for President Obama’s very popular “Buffett rule” proposal, which aims for a minimum tax level on high-income individuals.
Swiss bank amnesty
We know from the tax documents Romney has released that he once had a Swiss bank account, a fact that the Obama campaign has played up in ads. But his 2010 tax return did not include a Report on Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts form (“FBAR” to accountants) detailing his offshore investments. In 2009, the Swiss government began to relent on its traditional banking secrecy rules, and banks turned over information about tens of thousands of American tax scofflaws to the U.S. government. To help deal with the crush, the IRS staged a limited-time amnesty in 2009 for American citizens with previously non-disclosed foreign accounts to pay their back taxes without penalty. It’s possible that earlier tax documents or the 2010 FBAR would show that Romney took advantage of the amnesty. While legal, this would amount to a problematic confession of past wrongdoing.
None of the above
The possibilities are endless. Romney’s vast wealth has already provided plenty of campaign fodder — from his car elevator to his proposed $10,000 bet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry during a debate — so almost any additional details about his finances would add fuel to the fire. But the most likely candidates for compromising revelations could relate to the 2008-09 period. Romney isn’t disclosing his 2006 or 2007 taxes, but by his own two-year standard he would have had to if he had won the 2008 Republican nomination. That makes the time between his presidential runs — a period that coincides with major upheavals in financial markets and bank secrecy practices — far and away the most likely window for something more politically worrisome than a reputation for reticence.
By: Matthew Yglesias, The Washington Post, July 20, 2012
On the issue of Mitt Romney’s tax returns, my colleague George Will put it simply: “The cost of not releasing the returns are clear. Therefore, he must have calculated that there are higher costs in releasing them.”
The question is what could be in them that would be so damaging to the Romney campaign. Right now, the most popular theory is that Romney simply didn’t pay any federal taxes at all in 2009. As Joshua Green wrote, ” It’s possible that he suffered a large enough capital loss that, carried forward and coupled with his various offshore tax havens, he wound up paying no U.S. federal taxes at all in 2009.”
But the tax experts I’ve spoken to are skeptical. “Romney had a $4.8 million capital loss carryover coming into 2010,” says Edward Kleinbard, a professor of tax law at the University of Southern California. “So that means no capital gain income in 2009. If you look on the first page [of his 2010 tax return], though, he had lots of ordinary income (interest mostly), and dividends, which are taxed at the same rate as capital gains but which cannot be sheltered from tax by capital losses. So presumably he had some positive income tax in 2009.”
Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, agrees. “It’s unlikely that his taxable income was zero or even close enough to zero that his credits would zero out his tax liability completely,” he says.
But Daniel Shaviro, a tax professor at New York University, isn’t so sure. “I think there’s an excellent chance that [Romney] didn’t pay any taxes in 2008 or 2009,” he says. But to get from a small federal tax liability to no federal tax liability, Romney would have needed to engage in incredibly aggressive tax planning. Shaviro mentions picking loser investments to get some benefits from “loss harvesting,” unusual tax shelters, and a bevy of other stuff that, frankly, I don’t totally understand.
The overriding question, though, is why would Romney do any of this. As Shaviro says, “If you were running for president and in his position, wouldn’t you think of telling your transaction people not to take you down too low in 2008 and 2009?”
When I asked whether these kinds of structures were simply too difficult to cleanly unwind over a couple of years, Shaviro was skeptical. “The Caymans structures might take some time to unwind, and there might be tax planning issues about not screwing up the unwind too badly, but come on, the guy has been in public life since 2002 and was aiming for the White House from the start. Plus, suppose he had tax shelters in 2009 that created losses. It’s not complex not to do these deals – all you have to do is…not do them.”
For what it’s worth — and, since I haven’t seen Romney’s 2009 tax return, it’s not worth much — my guess is he paid some federal taxes in 2009. The sort of tax sheltering he would have needed to get to zero would be quasi-suicidal for a presidential aspirant. But his effective federal tax rate may only have been 3 or 4 or 5 percent, which would be nearly as bad as zero. Add in a couple of shelters that Romney fears would look particularly bad, and it’s probably enough to persuade him that enduring a bit of bad press for tax decisions people think he might have made is preferable to a media feeding frenzy over tax decisions he definitely made.
The question none of this answers is why Romney didn’t clean up his taxes in 2008 and 2009. But it’s always worth remembering that the people running for office are human beings who procrastinate and make bad decisions and get distracted by other things. And given that Romney moves in a world where aggressive tax planning is the norm rather than the exception, he might simply have failed to recognize what a priority simplifying his taxes really was. My hunch is that the person spending the most time wondering why Romney didn’t get his taxes in order in 2008 is…Mitt Romney.
By: Ezra Klein, Wonkblog, The Washington Post, July 17, 2012
You might think Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of and spokesman for the mighty American gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, has an almost cosmic sense of timing. In 2007, at the NRA’s annual convention in St. Louis, he warned the crowd that, “Today, there is not one firearm owner whose freedom is secure.” Two days later, a young man opened fire on the campus of Virginia Tech, killing 32 students, staff and teachers.
Just last week LaPierre showed up at the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty here in New York and spoke out against what he called “anti-freedom policies that disregard American citizens’ right to self-defense.” Now at least 12 are dead in Aurora, Colorado, gunned down at a showing of the new film, “The Dark Knight Rises,” a Batman movie filled with make-believe violence. One of the guns the shooter reportedly used was an AK-47 type assault weapon that was banned in 1994. The NRA pressured Congress to let the ban run out in 2004.
Obviously, LaPierre’s timing isn’t cosmic, just coincidental and unfortunate; as Shakespeare famously wrote, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. In other words, people — people with guns. There are some 300 million guns in the United States, one in four adult Americans owns at least one and most of them are men. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, over the last 30 years, “the number of states with a law that automatically approves licences to carry concealed weapons provided an applicant clears a criminal background check has risen from eight to 38.”
Every year there are 30,000 gun deaths and perhaps as many as 300,000 gun-related assaults in the U.S. Firearm violence costs our country as much as $100 billion a year. Toys are regulated with greater care and safety concerns than guns.
So why do we always act so surprised? Violence is our alter ego, wired into our Stone Age brains, so intrinsic its toxic eruptions no longer shock, except momentarily when we hear of a mass shooting like this latest in Colorado. But this, too, will pass as the nation of the short attention span quickly finds the next thing to divert us from the hard realities of America in 2012.
We are a country which began with the forced subjugation into slavery of millions of Africans and the reliance on arms against Native Americans for its westward expansion. In truth, more settlers traveling the Oregon Trail died from accidental, self-inflicted gunshots wounds than Indian attacks – we were not only bloodthirsty but also inept.
Nonetheless, we have become so gun loving, so gun crazy, so blasé about home-grown violence that far more Americans have been casualties of domestic gunfire than have died in all our wars combined. In Arizona last year, just days after the Gabby Giffords shooting, sales of the weapon used in the slaughter – a 9 millimeter Glock semi-automatic pistol – doubled.
We are fooling ourselves. Fooling ourselves that the law could allow even an inflamed lunatic to easily acquire murderous weapons and not expect murderous consequences. Fooling ourselves that the Second Amendment’s guarantee of a “well-regulated militia” be construed as a God-given right to purchase and own just about any weapon of destruction you like, a license for murder and mayhem. A great fraud has entered our history.
Maybe you remember a video you can still see on YouTube. In it, Adam Gadahn, an American born member of al Qaeda, the first US citizen charged with treason since 1952, urges terrorists to carry out attacks on the United States. Right before your eyes he says, “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check, and most likely, without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”
The gunman in Colorado waited only for his opportunity. So there you have it – the arsenal of democracy has been transformed into the arsenal of death. And the NRA? The NRA is the enabler of death — paranoid, delusional and as venomous as a scorpion. With the weak-kneed acquiescence of our politicians, the National Rifle Association has turned the Second Amendment of the Constitution into a cruel and deadly hoax.
By: Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, BillMoyers.com, July 20, 2012
Mitt Romney has an identity problem. He is running for president by making promises about America’s future, but as a man who is largely without a past. Not only has Romney renounced many of his previous positions — on abortion, immigration, gun control, climate change, and the individual mandate he once championed as Massachusetts governor. He also refuses to divulge many details about what even he has said is his main qualification for the White House in a faltering economy: his successful career in “private equity” from 1984 to 1999 (or thereabouts).
What is it about the private equity world that Romney doesn’t appear eager to bring up? As I explain in an article in the current issue of National Journal, “Mystery Man,” Romney was basically what used to be known as a “barbarian at the gate.” The term “private equity” sounds respectable, but it is a euphemism for the old leveraged buyout deals we remember from the 1980s, the era of corporate raiders like T. Boone Pickens and Henry Kravis. After junk-bond king Michael Milken, who funded a lot of those takeovers, went to jail, the industry decided to rename itself in order to remove the taint.
This is Mitt Romney’s true world. As the founder of Bain Capital, Romney became a brilliant LBO buccaneer who specialized in buying up firms by taking on a lot of debt, using the target firm as collateral, and then trying to make the firm profitable — often by breaking it up or slashing jobs — to the point where Bain and its investors could load up the firm with even more debt, which Bain would then use to pay itself off. That would ensure a profit for Bain investors whether or not the companies themselves succeeded in the long run. Often, burdened by all that debt, these bought-out companies did not succeed, costing thousands of jobs as they were downsized, sold off and shuttered. Other times they did phenomenally well, as in the case of Sports Authority and Domino’s Pizza.
But job creation is irrelevant to Bain’s business model, which is all about paying back investors. Nor does the long-term fate of the companies that private-equity firms buy up matter crucially to Bain’s bottom line (though of course success is better). The only real risk for Bain is that these companies fail to make enough initial profit in order to permit Bain to pile on more debt and extract a payout, so that it can make back its investment quickly.
Though he started off dabbling in less profitable “venture capital,” Romney quickly saw the high-return, low-risk potential of LBOs in the mid-1980s and ultimately was involved in about 100 such deals, which made him a true Wall Street tycoon. He then maximized his take further by socking away his gains in offshore shelters from Bermuda to the Caymans and using capital gains tax breaks and loopholes to reduce the rate of his 2010 tax return (the only one he’s released) to 13.9 percent, a far lower rate than the one paid by middle-class Americans. Many of Wall Street’s big dealmakers do the same with their profits, employing whole teams of international tax accountants.
But none of these dealmakers has ever run for president. This is perhaps the main reason for Romney’s reticence: It’s not just that being honest about Bain’s real business pulls back the veil from the ugly heart of financial capitalism. It’s also that this may be the hardest year since 1932 for a Wall Street big-shot to make a bid for the White House: The former Masters of the Universe remain unpopular because of the historic recession they did so much to create. So it’s hardly a surprise that Romney won’t dwell on practices that his onetime GOP primary opponent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, labeled “vulture” capitalism.
None of this is necessarily disqualifying for a presidential candidate; on the contrary. Americans have always admired business success, no matter what package it comes in. It is part of the nation’s lore going back to the rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the storied careers of Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. Romney is undoubtedly one of the most successful capitalists ever to run for president. Based on his record at Bain, as governor, and at the Olympics, there is little doubt that he is a numbers whiz who is handy with a budget, and America has serious budget problems. “At the end of the day, people are going to know Mitt Romney was a super-successful businessman, and they’re going to factor that in,” says Vin Weber, a senior Romney adviser. “And most people will find that attractive and not negative.”
Maybe so. But as the Obama attacks persist, even some in the Romney camp fret that they are watching a Democratic version of the attacks that permanently defined Michael Dukakis as weak in 1988 and “Swift-boated” an unresponsive John Kerry in 2004. “That worries me a little bit,” Weber admits.
The Obama attacks also may be resonating because they compound an image of aloofness, of detachment from the lives of ordinary Americans, which has dogged Romney for many years. He is hardly the first rich man to run for president, yet he lacks the populist touch of previous successful candidates. Franklin Delano Roosevelt also came from a wealthy patrician family, but by the time he ran for president as a polio victim who had suffered among the people in Warm Springs, Ga., FDR had reputation for transcending that background. So did John F. Kennedy, whose father’s vast but somewhat shady Wall Street fortune financed a rich-kid bid for Congress, the Senate, and then the presidency. But JFK’s charisma and war-hero reputation, and his ability to connect with people — for example, by famously telling a hushed crowd of mothers who had lost sons in World War II that “I think I know how you mothers feel, because my mother is a Gold Star mother too” — made him a popular figure.
Not so Romney. His record contains few such man-of-the-people moments (ironically, his best argument may be his successful health-care law in Massachusetts, another thing he doesn’t want to talk about). And his uncommon Mormon religion, about which he is also reticent, further contributes to the image of a Man Hard to Know. This is the same Romney who declared during the hard-knocking primaries that the $350,000 he earned in speaking fees wasn’t a lot of money, who said that his wife drives a “couple of Cadillacs,” who grinningly bet Rick Perry $10,000 on a whim, and who boasted that even wealthy Ted Kennedy had to “take a mortgage out” to beat him. And those are moments when Romney was trying to be one of the guys. What has become clear is that he is part of a world of super-elites who live in a universe apart from most Americans.
Romney may well make a very good president. But we should know who we’re getting.
BY: Michael Hirsh, The Atlantic, July 21, 2012
The first indicators came during the Republican primaries, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry attacked Bain Capital-style capitalism. Perry even branded onetime Bain CEO Mitt Romney a vulture capitalist. The season has moved on — in fact, Perry campaigned for Romney last week in Elk City, Nev. – and the rhetoric has subsided.
But the reality is turning out to be quite problematic for Romney. Some kinds of free enterprise – such as a small family business – are perfect resume entries for a political candidate. But certain kinds of high-flying capitalism come across as cold-blooded and indecipherable, and they’re vulnerable to attack. Anything that involves the phrase “creative destruction,” for instance, would be risky.
What Romney is going through now is an experience neither major party may want to repeat. So if you are interested in running for president, here’s how to preserve your future viability:
1. Get rich the old-fashioned way. Create a product or service or business. Write a best-seller, like President Obama did. Run a successful company, like Herman Cain did. Jump on a trend early, like Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who saw the potential of cell phones.
2. When you file your tax returns, imagine they will be on the homepages of every website in the world. Be prepared to defend your low tax rate and explain how you’ve used your untaxed money to create jobs. Alternatively, say you’d like to change the tax code so people like you pay more.
3. Related: Keep your money in the United States. Do not shelter income in Switzerland, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands or anywhere else. Repeat: keep the money at home.
4. If you have a lot of money, give away a lot of money. Think Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. If you have enough excess cash, you might be able to help eradicate AIDS or revolutionize inner city education. Tithing to your church and creating trusts for your kids don’t count.
5. When you leave a position, leave the position. Make a clean break. If you don’t, you will have a hard time arguing you are not responsible for what happened after you kinda-sorta departed, but were still CEO and sole owner. Sure, you may not be able to claim credit for good things that happen after you’re gone. But you won’t be on the hook for developments that are politically unpalatable, and possibly a serious threat to your presidential hopes.
By: Jill Lawrence, The National Journal, July 16, 2012