The Carried Interest Debate: Funding Government for 3.1 Hours

March 6, 2013

President Obama and others have pointed to carried interest as one specific “loophole” that should be eliminated, with Lynn Forester de Rothschild calling it a “costly and unjust perk for financiers.” Steve Judge, writing in the New York Times, disagrees:

Carried interest, therefore, is the profits share on the sale of a capital asset and not “ordinary income” as some would have it treated. In other words, it is a capital gain within a partnership and is rightfully taxed at the long-term capital gains rate — provided that the asset, or company, is held for more than one year.

The aristocratic argument presented by Ms. de Rothschild and others that capital gains treatment should only be available to those with money to invest would advance a policy that puts a higher value on financial contributions than vision, hard work and other forms of “sweat equity.”

The underlying principle is no different than two friends who partner together to purchase a restaurant. One might bring capital and the other brings expertise. The restaurant could be in disrepair or a great concept that needs additional capital to expand. The chef identifies the restaurant to buy and possesses the skills to manage the restaurant and add value to the enterprise over time. The friend has the capital to invest, but doesn’t possess the operational or investment skills to generate a return.

When they sell the restaurant years later, both partners receive capital gains treatment on their long-term investment. A private equity partnership works in the same way. This is Partnership Law 101.

The capital gains rate exists to provide incentive for investment partnerships to take risks, invest hundreds of billions of dollars of capital into new and existing businesses and contribute operational expertise to improve these businesses over time.

The Joint Committee on Taxation, a nonpartisan committee of Congress, has pegged the additional revenue from carried interest at just $16.85 billion over 10 years. The joint committee estimate even includes the controversial enterprise value provision, which experts believe constitutes two-thirds of the total revenue assumption.

Permanent tax increases on private equity, venture capital and real estate in exchange for a short-term spending patch does not come close to solving our country’s fiscal situation. Policy makers should reject calls to eliminate this incentive for long-term economic growth in exchange for 3.1 hours of federal government operations.

Follow William McBride on Twitter @EconoWill

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