Many financial planners and consumers believe any type of debt is bad news. But the right kind of debt offers both opportunities and financial returns. Recognizing good debt and keeping it at the appropriate level is essential.
One type of potentially good debt is student loans. Think of them like a mortgage, which enables a family to enjoy their own home and build equity while paying it off. Student loans can ease the path to a good education and better earnings over a lifetime. But too much student loan debt can become a heavy burden that makes financial independence after college difficult or even impossible. So how much is enough, but not too much?
Many colleges use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (www.fafsa.ed.gov) to determine if a student qualifies for grants or needs-based scholarships, which are free and preferable to loans. But filling out a FAFSA application also starts the process of applying for loans.
Here’s my message to prospective students: You don’t want to be too much in debt when you graduate, but you may not be eligible for certain loans later on. Rates are low–currently between 3.4% and 6.8% depending on the loan type–and some loans don’t accrue interest or require payments until you’re no longer a student. So going through the application process and discovering your alternatives is worthwhile.
For instance, in a school year you can max out the $3,500 you can have in subsidized loans that don’t require payments or interest until after graduation. That might be a better alternative than using education funds all during your early years as a student, then having no funds later on and limited opportunities. If you have funds left over after college, you can pay them off when you’re done or save them to go to graduate school.
One of the areas often out of sync with long-term school loan debt is a student’s career path. If you’re going to be a public school teacher, graduating with a teaching degree and $150,000 in student loans is not a good plan. But it might be feasible if you’re headed to a prestigious law school. There are no right or wrong ratios, but generally you should have less in loans than your new job’s annual salary if you graduate in your 20s.
College funding can be structured in many ways. There are lots of choices, and students and their families will benefit from exploring what makes sense for them. Excellent help is available from the school’s financial aid office, through FAFSA, or working with a financial advisor who consults on this issue.
by Linda Leitz, CFP® Colorado Springs, CO
The author has consented to publication of this article in the Financial Focus newsletter of the Alliance of Cambridge Advisors, Inc. The author furthermore has consented that members in good standing of the Alliance of Cambridge Advisors, Inc. may use this article in newsletters of their own design and publication, provided that full attribution is given - defined as the author’s name, designations, city, and state. No ACA member has any right to edit or alter this article in any way without the express consent of the author.
When it comes to audits, our friends at the IRS are interested in examining returns as accurately as possible. (No, they’re not just interested in squeezing out more tax, and some audits actually result in refunds.) So the folks in the Small Business/Self-Employed area have compiled a series of Audit Technique Guides to help examiners with insight into issues and accounting methods unique to specific industries. As the IRS explains, “ATGs explain industry-specific examination techniques and include common, as well as unique, industry issues, business practices and terminology. Guidance is also provided on the examination of income, interview techniques and evaluation of evidence.”
There are currently dozens of ATGs available. Some are straightforward and predictable, like attorneys, consultants, and child care providers. Others are more specialized or esoteric, like art galleries, cost segregation studies for real estate investors, and timber casualty losses. At one point, there were even two separate guides for Alaskan commercial fishing activities — one for the fishermen who catch the fish and another for the vendors who sell it. You can find all of them online — if you find yourself on the business end of an audit notice, reading your own industry’s guide is like taking a sneak peek at your opponent’s battle plan!
Naturally, the IRS wants to keep up with new challenges in new industries. And identity theft is one of those new industries playing a growing role in today’s electronic and online economy. Identity thieves pretend to be someone else to access resources or obtain credit and other benefits — like fraudulent tax refunds — in that person’s name. The problem is serious enough that the IRS has put identity theft at the top of its annual “dirty dozen” list of tax scams. And now, this year, the IRS has just issued an Audit Technique Guide for identity thieves.
You might be surprised that the IRS is publishing an audit guide for a clearly illegal business. But U.S. citizens are subject to tax on all worldwide income, from whatever source derived. The IRS really doesn’t care how you make your income — they just want their fair share. (Remember who finally nailed Al Capone?)
The good news is, there are plenty of legitimate deductions you can take to cut the tax on your spoils from identity theft. For example, you can deduct home office expenses if that’s where you phish for information. Your home office qualifies if you use it “exclusively and regularly for administrative or management activities of your trade or business” and “you have no other fixed location where you conduct substantial administrative or management activities of your trade or business.” To substantiate your deduction, keep a log and take photos to record your business use. It doesn’t have to be an entire room — you can claim any “separately identifiable” space you use for work. Rev. Proc. 2013-13 even offers an optional “safe harbor” method for deducting $5/foot for up to 300 square feet!
You can capitalize equipment like computers and printers that you use for hacking, or choose first-year expensing for faster deductions. You can also deduct day-to-day expenses, like internet access, utilities, and vehicle costs for driving to trash dumpsters to find personal information (mileage allowance or actual expenses). Some aggressive practitioners argue that you can even deduct business-related dry-cleaning expenses for “dumpster diving” outfits; however, there’s no formal authority for this position.
We’ll finish here with two important warnings. First, remember that identity theft is still a serious crime. If you’re caught, you can face crushing fines, serious jail time, or both. And second, be very careful with anything you read around April Fools’ Day!
April 15 is almost here, and many of you are still scrambling to get your returns ready to file. Here’s a collection of fun quotes to help you “sprint to the finish” this tax season:
“Another difference between death and taxes is that death is frequently painless.” Anonymous
“A fine is a tax for doing something wrong. A tax is a fine for doing something right.” Anonymous
“A citizen can hardly distinguish between a tax and a fine, except the fine is generally much lighter.” G.K. Chesterton
“Alexander Hamilton started the U.S. Treasury with nothing, and that is the closest our country has ever been to being even.” Will Rogers
“A person doesn’t know how much he has to be thankful for until he has to pay taxes on it.” Ann Landers
“The best things in life are free, but sooner or later the government will find a way to tax them.” Anonymous
“The way taxes are, you might as well marry for love.” Joe E. Lewis
“People who complain about taxes can be divided into two classes: men and women.” Anonymous
“Once — just once — I’d like to be fixed up with a guy who earns in a year what I pay in taxes.” Anonymous Female Lawyer
“I’m putting all my money in taxes — it’s the only thing sure to go up.” Anonymous
Cracking jokes about taxes is easy. Paying less is usually a little harder. That’s why we’re here — to give you the plan you need to minimize your bill. So call us when you’re ready to get serious about keeping more of what you make!
On March 8, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the unemployment rate had edged down to 7.7% for February. That’s good news compared to the high of 10.1% registered back in October, 2009. But unemployment is still unacceptably high, and surveys show Democrats and Republicans alike are citing jobs as our most pressing problem.
You might think that with jobs still scarce, employers would have their pick of applicants. In fact, the New York Times recently reported that some employers are requiring bachelors degrees for positions like file clerk, dental hygienist, cargo agent, and claims adjustor that don’t require college-level skills. Nevertheless, there’s one pretty important organization who’s having trouble with jobs — and that employer, surprise surprise, is our old friend the IRS. It’s a cushy enough gig — air-conditioned offices, great holidays and benefits, no heavy lifting, and flexible schedules that let you hit the road before traffic gets ugly. So, what’s the problem?
On January 13, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administrations (“TIGTA”), an independent board assigned to oversee IRS operations, issued a riveting report with a can’t-miss title: “Improvements Have Been Made to Address Human Capital Issues, but Continued Focus is Needed.” (Seriously, if John Grisham could write like this, he’d have a real future.) It turns out the IRS has addressed most of the issues TIGTA identified four years ago in their last “human capital” audit. But there are still real problems, even in today’s “seller’s market” for jobs:
Total employment is down 9%, from 107,622 at the end of FY 2010, to 97,717 at the end of FY 2012. Simple common sense says that fewer people processing more tax returns means more problems.
Pending retirements are poised to gut senior staff like a trout. 48% of today’s executive managers, 37% of field staff, and 31% of nonexecutive managers will be eligible for full retirement by the end of next year. This lack of experienced leadership will reverberate throughout the organization.
It takes the IRS an average of 30 days to approve filling open positions, and 54 days to hire anyone from outside the organization. That’s down from 157 days in 2009, but still frustratingly long in today’s environment.
New hires report they aren’t getting enough coaching and mentoring. That means the new kids on the block will be even less effective at cutting through the red tape and bureaucracy!
We realize you might think “sequestering” the IRS is a good thing. But the IRS is facing real challenges, and we’ll all be in trouble without experienced leadership at the helm. The tax code is getting more complicated. (“Obamacare” alone includes 42 provisions that add to or amend the tax code, including eight that require the IRS to build new processes that don’t exist within current tax administration.) And the IRS is under increasing pressure to stop billions of dollars in fraudulent or improper tax refunds due to erroneous claims or identity theft. How can they succeed with their most experienced staffers fleeing like lemmings?
What’s the bottom line? “TIGTA made no recommendations in this report; however, key IRS management officials reviewed it prior to issuance.” Comforting, right?
Dealing with the IRS is never fun. Fortunately, you’ve got us here, to fight on your behalf even as the fight gets harder. Let us worry about IRS staffing for you — and remember, we’re here for your family, friends, and colleagues, too.
On January 1, Congress passed a bill to keep the government from leaping off the so-called “fiscal cliff” — a set of tax hikes so devastating that Washington insiders warned they would ricochet through the economy, plunge us back into recession, and possibly even send the earth spinning into the sun. That bill included raising the top marginal rate on taxable income over $400,000 ($450,000 for joint filers) from 35%, where it had stood for the last 12 years, to 39.6%.
39.6% may sound like a lot today. But it’s still really quite low, as far as top rates are concerned. Back in 1935, the nation was mired in the depths of the Great Depression. Inflation was 3.71% and unemployment stood at a whopping 21.7%. As for taxes, the top rate reached 79% on income over $5 million (roughly $85,672,000 in today’s dollars). But — and this is a pretty big but — according to tax historian Joseph Thorndike, just one person actually paid that rate: billionaire John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
So, lots of rich guys still had city mansions and country estates, even in the midst of the Depression. Lots of millionaires had yachts, jewels, and priceless art. But only Rockefeller was rich enough to have his own tax rate. And that got us thinking — what would some of today’s rich and famous pay if they had their own tax rates?
Mitt Romney ran for president on the strength of his business record. He took heat from progressives for using the “carried interest” rules to pay around 14% on his multimillion dollar income. But Romney made bigger headlines for a number he thought he was uttering in private — so we say his bespoke tax rate should be 47%.
A year ago, British author E.L. James was just a former TV executive, wife and mom of two from the London suburbs. Since then, she’s rocketed to fame with three books that some fans prefer to read on their Kindle (to avoid showing the cover). International tax planning leaves room for plenty of shades of grey, so we suggest she pay 50% on her U.S. income.
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has had a big year. Last month, he led his underdog team to a Super Bowl victory over the favored San Francisco 49ers. Last week, he signed a $120.6 million contract making him the highest-paid player in NFL history. And it’s only March! Flacco wears Number 5 for the Ravens, so we think it’s only fair that he pay 5% of his income in tax. (Receiver Anquan Boldin, who wears Number 81, does not like where this discussion is going!)
Reality “star” Kim Kardashian is back in the news again, this time for carrying rapper Kanye West’s baby. Kardashian’s previous relationship, a marriage to Brooklyn Nets power forward Kris Humphries, lasted 72 days — so we’ll tax Kim at 72%.
Kiefer Sutherland should pay 24%. Morley Safer should pay 60%. And Nick Lachey should pay 98%. (Not just because his band is named 98 Degrees, but because we should try and tax all “boy bands” out of existence.)
Who do you think should have their own tax rate, and what should they pay? Let us know! In the meantime, remember that you don’t have to have your own tax rate to pay less. You just need a plan. That’s what we’re here for. And we’re always here for your family, friends, and colleagues, too!
On February 22, 2012, a telescope in Spain discovered an asteroid, 150 feet across, in an orbit that would bring it uncomfortably close to earth. Astronomers reassured us that we would be safe — this time — but that it was “a wakeup call for the importance of defending the Earth from future asteroid imacts.” Last month, that asteroid, named 2012 DA14, passed within 17,200 miles of earth at a speed of nearly 17,500 miles per hour. That’s a hairsbreadth in cosmological terms — it actually flew under the ring of communications satellites orbiting earth before it headed safely back out into space.
Earth isn’t always so lucky. Ironically, on the same day that 2012 DA14 flew by, a meteorite struck outside the remote Russian town of Chelyabinsk with the power of 30 atomic bombs. Amazingly, no one was killed. A century ago, a meteor broke up with similar force over Russia’s Tunguska forest, flattening an estimated 80 million trees. Again, amazingly, no one was killed. And just last week, astronomers discovered a comet that could strike Mars next year with an apocalyptic force equal to 25 million times the largest nuclear weapon ever tested on earth.
But what if 2012 DA14 hadn’t passed harmlessly by? What if it had struck the earth, with its estimated 3.5 megatons of energy and 200 times the power of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima? What would our friends at the IRS have done?!?
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the doomsday preppers at the IRS have a well-established disaster plan. Internal Revenue Manual Section 10.2.10 outlines comprehensive continuity planning requirements for all sorts of emergencies, including “natural disasters, accidents, technological failures, workplace violence, and terrorism.” The goal, in all cases, is “to ensure the continuation of IRS mission essential functions under all circumstances.” And Section 25.16.1, updated just last June, lays out pages of disaster assistance and emergency relief program guidelines.
So, what actually happens if a chunk of space rock takes out Washington or another major city? The plan assumes that the IRS will resume assessing and collecting taxes within 30 days of the strike. They might be authorized to make cash grants to survivors, or buy assets destroyed in the disaster (and even pay off any outstanding bank loans or mortgages). IRS employees could be reassigned to any job “regardless of and without any effect on the current positions or grades of the employee.”
At one point, the Manual even appeared to give delinquent taxpayers a “Get Out of Jail free” card. “On the premise that the collection of delinquent accounts would be most adversely affected, and in many cases would be impossible in a disaster area, the service will concentrate on the collection of current taxes,” it said. Of course, that rule would apply only in the disaster area: “However, in areas where the taxpaying potential is substantially unimpaired, enforced collection of delinquent taxes will be continued.” Ouch!
The tax code gives you plenty of breaks if your own stuff gets taken out from space. You can deduct unreimbursed damage caused by a meteor strike or other sudden, unexpected, or unusual event. You’ll have to reduce the amount of your loss by $100, then by 10% of your adjusted gross income. Then you’ll report the remaining amount on Form 4864.
None of us like paying taxes — but you don’t have to wait for an asteroid strike to pay less. The real answer, of course, is planning. And if “continuity planning” is the answer for the IRS, tax planning is the answer for us. So call us before disaster strikes, and see how much you can save!
Cruising the high seas has become an increasingly popular way to travel, with over 14 million Americans cruising in 2010. Cruise fans love the convenience of unpacking just once and letting a floating resort take them from one glamorous destination to another. Cruise critics cringe at the stereotypical cheesy Vegas-style shows, ’round-the-clock buffets, and abbreviated shore excursions to the same chain retailers they can visit at their local mall. But all of us were thoroughly disgusted by this month’s sordid tale of the Carnival Triumph, the mega-ship that lost power in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Four-hour waits for onion sandwiches sound bad enough from a ship that prides itself on a reputation for all you can eat. But just imagine 4,200 passengers and crew lining up to use 12 working toilets, and you’ll immediately understand why observers dubbed the ship a “floating petri dish.”
Carnival’s spinmeisters clearly recognize a PR disaster when they see a towboat dragging it past them at 5 knots. They’ve agreed to give passengers a full refund for cruise and transportation costs, plus $500 in cash, plus a credit for a free future cruise. (Wonder how many will take them up on that offer?) That didn’t stop passengers from suing, however, with the first action filed mere hours after the boat finally docked in Mobile harbor.
But it turns out the Triumph’s passengers aren’t the only ones who are less-than-delighted with Carnival. Would it surprise you to learn that our friends at the IRS aren’t fans either?
Carnival takes a lot of help from the government. As the New York Timesreports, “The Carnival Corporation wouldn’t have much of a business without help from various branches of the government. The United States Coast Guard keeps the seas safe for Carnival’s cruise ships. Customs officers make it possible for Carnival cruises to travel to other countries. State and local governments have built roads and bridges leading up to the ports where Carnival’s ships dock.”
Those government subsidies have helped Carnival become the biggest cruise line in the world, based on passengers carried, annual revenue, and total number of ships. The company’s “fun ships” earned $11.3 billion in profit over the last five years. So, how much did the IRS get in exchange for all that government help? Well, Carnival’s total “cash taxes paid,” including federal, state, local, and even foreign taxes, add up to a miserly 1.1%.
How does Carnival do it? Mainly through “offshoring,” a popular strategy for corporations in industries as diverse as technology, pharmaceuticals, and even online advertising. Carnival’s executives work out of offices in Miami, and the holding company’s stock trades on the New York Stock Exchange. But the operating company is incorporated in Panama, and the actual ships are “flagged” in Panama or the Bahamas.
Offshoring has been so successful that Carnival’s founder Ted Arison offshored himself — he renounced his U.S. citizenship and moved back to his native Israel to avoid U.S. estate tax back in 1990. Arison was one of the world’s richest men at his death, with an estimated net worth of $5.6 billion. Unfortunately, at least for his heirs, he died nine months before achieving the 10-year absence from the U.S. that was necessary to avoid the tax.
Carnival is hardly the only U.S. corporation to use perfectly legal strategies to cut its tax. The Times reports that over the last five years, Boeing has paid just 4.5% (in part by making outsized contributions to its pension fund and taking advantage of tax breaks for research and development on new planes); Southwest Airlines paid 6.3% (in part through accelerated and bonus depreciation on new plane purchases); and Yahoo paid 7% (in part through net operating losses the company racked up in previous years). But Carnival’s planning just seems more shrewd than most.
We can’t imagine anything much worse than spending five days in the open sea with no power for lights, air conditioning, or hot water. But paying more tax then you legally have to is no boatload of fun, either. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend days adrift at sea to accomplish that. You just need a plan. And we’re here to get you shipshape. So call us when you’re ready to pay less!
Here in America, we’re used to people running to court every time life throws a curveball. Spill hot coffee in your lap? Sue McDonald’s! Get drunk, drive your car into a bay, and drown because you can’t open your seat belt underwater? Mom and Dad can still sue Honda and win $65 million! Electrocute yourself trying to rob a bar? There’s a lawyer for that!
Earlier this month, though, we saw some satisfying comeuppance in one of those cases that makes us roll our eyes in amazement.
First, a little history. UBS is Switzerland’s biggest bank — and, like most Swiss banks, it used strict Swiss secrecy laws to attract depositors. They solicited Americans to open accounts, knowing full well that many of them were using those accounts to cheat the IRS — and in some cases, even advising them how to do it. In 2007, a disgruntled employee blew the whistle (and earned a record $104 million reward in the process). Two years later, UBS paid $780 million and ratted out 4,700 clients to settle charges. The scandal scared 35,000 taxpayers into joining an IRS amnesty program, coughing up over $5 billion in back taxes to dodge criminal charges.
You would think that people ‘fessing up to a pretty serious felony would just slink back home with their tails between their legs. Right? Well, you would be wrong . . . at least here in America. What do we do here? We sue the bank for not stopping us from cheating!
The three plaintiffs in Thomas V. UBS each hid money with the bank, in amounts ranging from $500,000 to $2 million. They didn’t report the existence of the accounts on their tax returns, as the law requires. They didn’t report the interest they earned on their accounts. And of course, they didn’t pay tax on that interest. When the scandal broke, they scurried to the shelter of the amnesty program, paying taxes, interest, and a 20% penalty.
Then, what did they do? They hauled UBS into court to recover the penalties, interest, and other costs they incurred to come clean. Why? Because UBS profited from the fraud and other wrongful acts they committed when they induced depositors to bank with them in the first place!
Fortunately for those of us on the side of common sense, the case ended up before Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner. Posner is one of the judiciary’s most colorful characters, author of nearly 40 books, and not afraid call B.S. when he sees it. His comments dismissing the plaintiffs’ complaint are especially scornful — you can almost hear him literally laughing them out of court:
“Our plaintiffs do not argue that they (or other members of the class) received tax advice from UBS. They argue rather that the bank should have prevented them from violating the law. This is like suing one’s parents to recover tax penalties one has paid, on the ground that the parents had failed to bring one up to be an honest person who would not evade taxes and so would not subject himself to penalties. There is in general no common law duty to prevent another person from violating the law.
We needn’t discuss the plaintiffs’ remaining claims—of negligence and malpractice—as they are frivolous squared. This lawsuit, including the appeal, is a travesty. We are surprised that UBS hasn’t asked for the imposition of sanctions on the plaintiffs and class counsel.”
The irony here is that none of the plaintiffs who spent their money on alpine vacations had to cheat to pay less tax. They just needed a plan to take advantage of perfectly legal concepts and strategies. We give you that plan to pay less tax, legally. So now you can spend time in Switzerland visiting chocolate factories and cuckoo clocks — not your hidden bank accounts!
Getting audited by the IRS is rarely anyone’s spot of tea — unless, of course, you’re the auditor. But at least our IRS “plays fair” and uses your actual return to decide whether to audit you. Not so for the folks at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Service across the pond!
Here in the former colonies, the IRS uses statistical analysis to find most of their audit targets. Every return gets a super-secret score called a Discriminant Information Function, or “DIF.” The higher your DIF, the more potential the IRS sees for bringing in additional taxes in an audit. So, with limited resources available for auditing returns, the IRS naturally strives to audit the higher-scoring returns first. (It’s like why Willie Sutton robbed banks — because that’s where the money was!) Generally, small businesses organized as sole proprietorships face the greatest chance of audit — as high as 4% or more — because they have the greatest opportunity to underreport income and overstate deductions.
But back in the old country, HMRC is getting a little more aggressive. They’re not just looking at tax returns. They’ve just announced a new program to use credit checks to find suspected tax cheats. The plan is to cross-check details of the income people report on their return against their actual spending, to identify those at risk of both legal and illegal tax avoidance. Officials have just finished a pilot program involving 20,000 people — but they expect to expand it to as many as two million. Blimey!
The program sounds straightforward enough. Let’s say you operate Ye Olde Cock & Bull Pub in a small town somewhere outside London. You report £20,000 in income. But your credit file shows you spending closer to £30,000. Now ye olde tax authorities have reason to believe you’re not reporting all those pints of Boddingtons you’ve served — and they have actual evidence to make their case.
The problem, of course, comes when the program finds stashes of suspicious but legitimate assets. Let’s say you’re Robert Crawley, the 6th Earl of Grantham. Your own family money, which dated back to the Wars of the Roses, is long since gone. So you marry an American heiress. You make a genteel living managing Downton Abbey and occasionally sitting in Parliament. But if HMRC reviews your credit file, they’re likely to find spending way out of line with your stated income! You can explain it, of course, as part of your wife Cora’s inheritance. But who wants to have to explain that sort of thing to the tax man, even if you are paying your fair share?
Of course, the program also raises enormous privacy concerns. It’s fashionable to say that in today’s internet age, privacy is a relic of the past. But it’s also hard to see a program like that flying here in the United States — at least not without howls of protest.
We all know that proactive planning is the key to paying the least amount of tax allowed by law. But did you know that planning can also cut your chance of getting audited? Reorganizing your sole proprietorship as a partnership or subchapter-S corporation, for example, can cut your risk of audit by as much as 90%. So call us when you’re ready for a plan that lets you pay less tax and attract less attention!
Investing isn’t easy these days. Bank savings accounts and money market funds earn next to nothing. Bond yields are at historic lows. The stock market is at a recent high, but full of volatility. And alternative investments like real estate and private equity can be illiquid or bring with them other drawbacks.
If you’re a corporate treasurer, you might consider investing in a Washington lobbyist. Back in 2009, three professors conducted a study revealing that companies who helped lobby for one particular tax break earned a staggering 22,000% return on every dollar they invested in lobbying! (For those of you who didn’t major in accounting, that’s $220 dollars coming back on every dollar going in.)
Back in 2004, when Congress was considering the American Jobs Creation Act, an ad-hoc group calling itself the Homeland Investment Coalition lobbied for it to include a “tax repatriation holiday.” Multinational corporations often structure their operations to earn profits overseas, then leave those profits overseas to avoid U.S. tax. The repatriation holiday cut the regular tax rate on those profits from 35% to just 5.25%, which encouraged them to bring those profits back home. The stated goal, naturally, was for those companies to reinvest those profits and create new jobs.
More than 800 companies ended up celebrating the “holiday.” Together, they saved an estimated $100 billion in tax, which certainly sounds worth celebrating! Winners included pharmaceutical and technology companies (Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Merck), technology companies (Hewlett Packard and IBM), and financial services (Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch). Not all of those companies “invested” in lobbying for the law, but even those that did, won big. For example drugmaker Eli Lilly reported spending $8.5 million to lobby for the tax break in 2003 and 2004 — and saving more than $2 billion in tax. Not a bad “ROI”! (The jury is still out on whether the law actually created any jobs — many of its beneficiaries actually cut jobs after the tax break, and most of the money went to stock buybacks or dividends.)
Of course, not every lobbying “investment” pays off. Sometimes lobbyists strike out. And successful lobbying is harder in today’s hyper-partisan gridlocked Congress. But shrewd lobbying still pays off. The New York Times reported earlier this week that lobbyists representing Amgen, the world’s largest biotechnology firm, completed a “Hail Mary” pass by tucking language into the recent “fiscal cliff” bill. The provision delays a set of Medicare price restraints on a category of drugs that that includes Amgen’s own Sensipar. This legislative goodie is estimated to benefit Amgen and other drugmakers by $500 million over the next two years. And it comes just two weeks after Amgen pled guilty to marketing another one of its drugs illegally, agreeing to pay a record $762 million in fines and penalties! And while the new law isn’t a tax provision, p er se, it still illustrates the power of lobbying.
Individual taxpayers like you and me can’t lobby for millions in tax breaks. But we can take advantage of the hundreds of tax breaks that somebody else has already created. The key, of course, is research to find those breaks and planning to take advantage of them. That’s why we focus so much effort on proactive planning.
Consider this as the 2013 tax season approaches. Any competent tax preparer can put the “right” numbers in the “right” boxes on the “right” forms. But then, most of them pretty much call it a day. They really just help you record history. Our job is much broader and much more valuable. So call us when you’re ready to start writing your own history! And remember, we’re here for your family, friends, and colleagues, too.