Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Edward Conard is a Douche

The New York Times is running an article by Adam Davidson entitled The Purpose of Spectacular Wealth, According to a Spectacularly Wealthy Guy, which addresses arguments around inequality put forth by Edward Conard of Bain Capital.

Conard understands that many believe that the U.S. economy currently serves the rich at the expense of everyone else. He contends that this is largely because most Americans don’t know how the economy really works — that the superrich spend only a small portion of their wealth on personal comforts; most of their money is invested in productive businesses that make life better for everyone. “Most citizens are consumers, not investors,” he told me during one of our long, occasionally contentious conversations. “They don’t recognize the benefits to consumers that come from investment.” 
This is the usual defense of the 1 percent. Conard, however, has laid out a tightly argued case for just how much consumers actually benefit from the wealthy. 

Davidson then goes to completely avoid that tightly argued case, perhaps because it doesn't exist. Davidson does retell a story about how investment and innovation in computers has made them affordable to nearly everyone. And he even gets known pinko Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research to acknowledge this is a true.

Baker estimates the ratio is 5 to 1, meaning that for every dollar an investor earns, the public receives the equivalent of $5 of value. 
Wow, that's pretty good!

So what's the problem? It has to do with what qualifies as an investment. Providing start-up capital to a new business, or additional capital to an already existing company, is an investment. Buying stock in the secondary market -- what most investors think of investing -- is not. It's gambling.

As we wrote here:

Unless you're involved in a public offering, all of the securities you've purchased have been in the secondary market. This means that not one dollar of the purchase price you paid went to the issuer. Instead, all of the purchase price went to someone who purchased those securities before you. You've made a bet that the security will rise in price and, if you're right, you'll win! But you won't owe taxes on gambling winnings -- which are taxed as regular income. Instead, these winnings are classified as capital gains, and taxed at a much lower rate.
Here is another example of how the tax code works to the betterment of the 1%. Capital gains (and their preferential tax treatment) are very much skewed towards the wealthy. In fact, in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2007 (the last year for which data is available), more than 10% of all of the capital gains in the country went to just 400 tax payers.  
And those 400 returns represents those filed by the the top 0.00026%. Not the top 1%, but the top 0.026% of the top 1%. The remaining 90% of capital gains is filtered down to the 99.99974% of us.
Except that it doesn't. The top 0.1% ends up with nearly half of all capital gains, so that leaves 50% for the 99.9% of us.  
And all of that is taxed at 15%, the same tax rate which would kick in at $17,000 if you actually worked at a job. So if you made $8.50 an hour (and worked a forty hour week, fifty weeks a year), you'd be taxed at exactly the same rate which applies to the gambling winnings of the nation's wealthiest individuals.  
But it's actually worse than that, because we haven't figured in Social Security and Medicare taxes. As we noted in our discussion of Social Security,  capital gains are currently excluded from Social Security (usually 6.2%, but currently 4.2%) and Medicare (1.45%) taxation, So that's an additional 5.65%. 
This means that the lowest combined tax rate applicable to working stiffs -- 15.65% - will always be higher than the combined tax rate -- 15% -- applicable to the gambling winnings of the well-off. Always.
And it's not like Conard is an investor, at least in his professional capacity at Bain Capital. As we discussed here, private equity firms like Bain Capital are merely the leverage buy-out firms of the '80s with a makeover. Josh Kosman explained to Mike Konzal:
JK: The whole industry started in the mid-to-late 1970s. The original leveraged buyout firms saw that there were no laws against companies taking out loans to finance their own sales, like a mortgage. So when a private equity firms buys a company and puts 20 percent down, and the company puts down 80 percent, the company is responsible for repaying that. 
Now the tax angle is that the company can take the interest it pays on its loans off of taxes. That reduces the tax rate of companies after they are acquired in LBOs by about half. Banks, also realizing this tax effect, were willing to finance these deals. At the time, you could also depreciate the assets of the company you were buying — that’s not true today. 
They saw that you could buy a company through a leveraged buyout and radically reduce its tax rate. The company then could use those savings to pay off the increase in its debt loads. For every dollar that the company paid off in debt, your equity value rises by that same dollar, as long as the value of the company remains the same. 
MK: So the business model is based on a capital structure and tax arbitrage? 
JK: Yes. It’s a transfer of wealth as well. It’s taking the wealth of the company and transferring it to the private equity firm, as long as it can pay down its debt.  
James Surowiecki of the New Yorker noted:
The rewards can be extraordinary: when Romney was at Bain, it supposedly earned eighty-eight per cent a year for its investors. But piles of debt also increase the risk that companies will go bust. 
[B]etween 2003 and 2007 private-equity funds took more than seventy billion dollars out of their companies. These dividends created no economic value—they just redistributed money from the company to the private-equity investors.

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