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Polity: What tax would Warren Buffet pay in New Zealand?

Written By: - Date published: 1:58 pm, June 26th, 2014 - 14 comments
Categories: uncategorized - Tags: , , ,

polity_square_for_lynnReposted from Polity

I show that a large-scale equities investor in New Zealand can pay less than 10% in income tax.

Some commentary on my post yesterday about tax rates suggested that, while New Zealand has relatively low headline tax rates for top earners, the various exemptions that people can claim in other countries mean we actually tax top earners more heavily. The famous example cited was Warren Buffet, the billionaire investor who has access to enough tax exemptions that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.

I think this critique is wrong for two reasons, one very simple and the other a bit more involved.

Wage earners

First, there a good percentage of top earners in all countries earn most of their money through wages. Top public servants, Ministers, senior staff in big corporates, and so on. For those people, the headline rates really are what we should look at, because most of the exemptions overseas do not apply to wage income.

Earners from capital

Second, and more involved, what kind of tax rate would a person who does a lot of investing pay in New Zealand? And how does that compare to Warren Buffet’s tax rate in the US?

The key point is that capital gains are currently not taxed at all in New Zealand. Unless, that is, the IRD thinks you purchased your assets with the intention of reselling them for profit. In practice, this mind-reading clause is not often used by the IRD, which means the super rich can mostly make capital gain returns on housing1, shares, and the like without paying any tax at all.

But investors in equities will often also receive some dividends, which are taxable. So how does it all shake out?

Consider a very rich person who has $10 million in assets. If they invest that in the share market, their capital growth rate is likely to be around 5% in an average year, which is $500,000. They may choose to take that gain as cash by selling some shares, or keep it in shares for later use. For these purposes it does not matter. Whenever they realize these gains, it will be tax free, whether it is $500,000 every year, or nothing for three years then $2,000,000 in year four.

They will also likely collect dividends that are worth a bit less, somewhere around 2.5% of their portfolio a year based on long term average payout rates. That would be $250,000 in income in our example, and that money can be taxed.

Under New Zealand tax rates, the total tax on that dividend income is $73,420, or 29.4% of the dividends2But as a percentage of the total income (capital gains plus dividends), that $73,420 plummets to just 9.8%.

And there you have it. A Warren Buffet-style character in New Zealand would likely pay less than 10% in tax. Even in the USA Warren Buffet pays 17.4% in federal income tax.

That is the kind of absolute outrage you invite when you do not have a capital gains tax.

  1. Unless they are a professional property developer, which most are not
  2. This estimate uses ordinary income tax rates, because the company tax paid on the pre-dividend corporate profit can be offset against personal tax liability using imputation credits. So in technical terms, the investor would be voted $250,000 in pre-tax dividends, and some of the tax taken out would be company tax, the rest personal income tax, leaving the investor with $250,000 – $73,420 = $176,580 in the bank.

14 comments on “Polity: What tax would Warren Buffet pay in New Zealand? ”

  1. ianmac 1

    No wonder English/Joyce are so upset about the possibility of a CGTax. The silly thing is those very rich like Mr Key would probably not even notice if they had to pay CGT. Someone Labour NZF Internet Party please persue the CGT.

  2. Ennui 2

    I think that capital gains on shares is NOT the real issue here. Lets face it, we can impose it on shares and company related property quite easily BUT remember it would only become payable on sale of the share or property. The problem there is that the owner may just hold so no revenue or tax.

    The real question is how best to tax capital? Some parameters around that might be:
    1. Defining the productiveness of the capital we tax.
    2. Prevention of rentier attitudes to capital such as capital just appreciating at the cost of somebody else (interest, market price appreciation etc) whilst not “paying” for itself with production or something socially useful.
    3. Designing tax that prevents aggregation of capital.

    • In Vino 2.1

      “BUT remember it would only become payable on sale of the share or property. The problem there is that the owner may just hold so no revenue or tax.”

      This is a crock of an argument. If everyone holds there are no sellers and the market dies. If some hold, the price possibly rises, and the sellers can afford the CGT, as they could have all along. If only a few hold, minimal effect anyway.

      I am sure that the glorious invisible hand of the market can cope with CGT here, just as it already has almost everywhere else in the world.

      In the ideal world of true justice there would be NO income tax: what you work for would be yours. Social services would be adequately paid for through CGT and Transaction Tax – a much more socially equitable system. The aggregation of capital would still work, and fund society much more fairly. Only the exceptionally greedy would feel aggrieved.

      • Ennui 2.1.1

        In Vino, I don’t think it is a crock of an argument or I would not have posited it. It is an observation based upon how long individuals and institutions hold onto their “capital” in the form of shares, stocks, property etc. Take IBM shares for example, the vast majority never get traded, they get held onto for decades. My contention is that this may be too long to make the tax effective, and if capital gains are applied it might send a signal of “hang on”.

        The comment you make about markets dying, we are merely talking the well known bull and bear phenomenon. Some markets go into hibernation, others euphoria. My favourite hibernating share was Poseidon!

        I like your ideal of no income tax, my fear is that without strong counters to capital such as compulsory unionism that those wages will just get pushed down to the pre tax level, and capital take the surplus.

    • DH 2.2

      “The real question is how best to tax capital? ”

      I think yr points have some merit, in particular defining productiveness of capital

      I can think of at least two fairly straighforward means of taxing capital gains on property that don’t require waiting for the property to be sold.

      The first is easy, link it to council rating valuations. If the value goes up, time for a CGT bill

      The second is a bit more cunning. It’s a fundamental truth of investing that an increase in the yield is an increase in the asset value (all other variables remaining equal). The yield on investment properties is the rent so the property investors can be taxed for capital gains whenever they put their rents up.

      Either would be dead easy to implement. The rent one would be a fairer system, the investor has a choice there.

      • Ennui 2.2.1

        I have always struggled with rental property taxes. I dont see any reason why an individuals PAYE can be set off against costs from renting out a property. For example I buy a property and take an income from it, the income becomes taxable. This gets added to my PAYE but I can then deduct costs like depreciation and interest. Its a real scam. ( I have a feeling the IRD changed the rules to prevent capital gains on this tax relief, not sure).

        I like the ideas around how to tax property, it may drive dollars away from real estate. But where would they go? The money fled to hard assets when the return on capital elsewhere diminished and looked risky.

  3. vto 3

    That is a well written post which describes this phenomenon clearly.

    It is indeed an outrage that people who make money by capital income (gain) do not pay tax…….
    ….while those who make money by wage and salary income do pay tax.

    It is an outrage.

    I have noticed that this thought is catching on, seemingly big-time. The notion that only certain forms of money-making should be taxed and others not is a distortion of the highest form and discriminates to an extreme extent between people and their activities in the world.

    The right wing have no true answer to this, as exhibited by Joyce’s fluster and bluster today.

    Push it hard and relate it to the wage and salary earners …. 2c

  4. dimebag russell 4

    Warren Buffer is to all and intents an honest man.
    His books are informative and interesting.
    He says he wouldnt last five minutes if he was parachuted into Afghanistan.
    In other words his fortune is a result of circumstance.
    Not so with the creepy gang of tories running the country at the moment.
    They think they are supermen and they did it all themselves but they are really little money grabbers who need money to demonstrate to the world that they are superior type people.
    Nah.
    They just a horde of little wimps hiding behind commercial law and accountants to grab everything they can.
    they are like malignant evil spirits uglifying and destroying all the beauty in the world.

  5. xtasy 5

    BUFF IT, BUFFET, WE HAVE YOU FOR A FUCKING BUFFET, SOON THAT IS YOU DAMNED CLASS TRAITOR, SUCK ON THIS TRAITOR:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxCjNiaYCnI

    EL CHE, VIVA, VIVA EL CHE!!!

    • Richard McGrath 5.1

      I hope you’re not serious. Ernesto Guevara was a psychopathic killer, not averse to shooting children.
      Some quotes from your hero:

      “A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate. We must create the pedagogy of the The Wall!” The Wall is a reference to the wall where Che’s enemies stood before his firing squads.

      Che wanted the result of the Cuban missile crisis to be an atomic war. “What we affirm is that we must proceed along the path of liberation even if this costs millions of atomic victims.”

      “In fact, if Christ himself stood in my way, I, like Nietzsche, would not hesitate to squish him like a worm.”

      “To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary … These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution!”

      “Crazy with fury I will stain my rifle red while slaughtering any enemy that falls in my hands! My nostrils dilate while savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood. With the deaths of my enemies I prepare my being for the sacred fight and join the triumphant proletariat with a bestial howl!”

      What a lovely misunderstood man he was.

      • McFlock 5.1.1

        Could have been worse.
        He could have been a libertarian.

        • One Anonymous Bloke 5.1.1.1

          Surely any self respecting Libertarian would regard Guevara as:

          “A wonderful, free, light consciousness” devoid of “the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people.”

  6. Richard McGrath 6

    I think IRD would take a different view on the capital gain from investing $10m. They might just regard the $500,000 per annum or $2m lump sum as that person’s primary income – and would tax it, as well as any dividends.

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