Monday, October 03, 2011

Investors Ignore Buffett's Obama Endorsement

Warren Buffett is admired for his investment prowess. Unfortunately for Democrats, that admiration is not translating into influence in the political sphere. The White House is counting on Buffett to help raise lots of money for President Obama's campaign, and for the Democratic party in general. The president even dubbed his initiative of making "millionaires and billionaires" pay at least the same tax rate as those in the middle class the "Buffett Rule." He should have called it the "Buffett Tax."

The name results from Buffett's claim that his tax rate is well below that of his secretary's even though he makes much more money than she does. Although Buffett has not released his tax returns, we can assume his favorable tax rate occurs because his income is primarily in the form of dividends and long-term capital gains, which are taxed at just 15%, and because of the large deductions he probably takes for his charitable contributions. His secretary's income, on the other hand, consists primarily of her salary, which is considered ordinary income and taxed at a higher rate.

Before trying to occupy Wall Street, consider the following: First, it is not true that most millionaires and billionaires pay taxes at a lower rate than the middle class. In fact, figures from the IRS prove they pay taxes at much higher rates. Even if they have a lot of deductions, they get snared by the alternative minimum tax. If Buffett's tax rate is indeed as low as he claims, that's highly unusual. Rather than raising rates on everybody, let's first scrutinize Buffett's tax return.

Second, there is a valid reason why dividends and long-term capital gains are taxed at only 15%. It is because that money has already been taxed at the corporate level. It would make perfect sense to tax dividends and capital gains at the same rate as any other income, but only if we eliminate the tax on corporations first.

Getting back to Warren Buffett's rather insubstantial political influence, The New York Times recently reported that the turnout was disappointing at a recent fundraiser for President Obama hosted by Buffett. While investors no doubt still prize Buffett's keen sense for detecting undervalued assets, they apparently have much less admiration for his political views.