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Suppose your rich uncle buys an old house to do some fix-ups and hopes to resell it at a gain. He has the cash and is willing to split the profit 50-50 if you’re willing to handle a few restorations over the next year. Even better, under the partnership he’ll form with you, your profit will be taxed as a pass-through capital gain. You’ll be taxed at only 15% (or 20% if your income is already very high). You’ll provide the labor, but your cut won’t be taxed at ordinary income tax rates.

That’s Just Like Carried Interest

A similar example is provided by Greg Mankiw, along with several others, to illustrate the ambiguity of “capital gains” under our tax law. What might surprise you is that the tax treatment of the deal with your uncle is exactly the same as the tax benefit received by the general partner (GP) in a private equity fund. The GP is the “worker”, as it were, who manages the capital paid-in by the fund’s investors (or limited partners). The GP attempts to build the fund’s value in various ways. The investors, on the other hand, take the same role as your uncle. The GP earns fees as a cut of the investment gains; those fees are essentially treated as capital gains for tax purposes. In the case of the private equity GP, however, the income is called “carried interest”, but there is no real difference.

The tax treatment of carried interest has been a target of progressives and populist critics for many years. This article in The Hill derides the GOP’s failure to close the carried interest “loophole” in the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) recently signed into law by President Trump. Of course, wealthy private-equity players have sought to protect the rule with generous campaign contributions to key politicians. However, as illustrated by the partnership with your uncle, pass-through business taxation combined with the treatment of capital gains provides the same benefits to any business-person who invests “sweat equity” into the improvement of an asset for ultimate resale, including the business itself.

Should “sweat equity” earned by a worker be taxed more lightly than the direct receipt of “sweat wages”? The worker does not “own” the asset in question prior to the work effort, a fundamental distinction from what we normally consider to be a capital gain. On the other hand, the worker shoulders risk that the asset’s value will fail to meet expectations. My view is that it is not appropriate for the tradeoff between private risk and return to be managed via the income tax code or by government generally. Nevertheless, the sweat-equity conversion of labor value into asset appreciation is treated by tax law as a capital gain and is taxed at a lower rate than wages (except at low levels of taxable income).

Equal Protection Under the Tax Law

The carried interest rule and relatively “light” taxation of returns on capital are not at the root of the problem here. Rather, it is the disparate treatment of different kinds of income for tax purposes and the high taxation of ordinary income, even in the wake of the the TCJA’s passage. Diane Furchtgott-Roth argues that the low carried-interest tax rate is necessary to encourage productive investment. Peter Wayrich agrees, but again, that is not a good rationale for disparate (and high) taxation of labor income. This note in the Economic Policy Journal contains a quote on Senator Ron Johnson’s proposal to tax all productive entities at the 20% carried-interest tax rate. The potential loss of revenue might require a higher rate, but the proposition that rates should be equal across all forms of business organizations is more sensible than the complex changes promulgated for pass-throughs under the TCJA. Moreover, the progressive premise that tax rates on capital income should be high is a prescription for low rates of saving, a diminished pool of investment capital, and ultimately low growth in labor productivity and wages.

Demonizing Private Equity

The private equity business is criticized for reasons other than carried interest, but mainly due to superstition that these firms routinely engage in plundering healthy enterprises to extract value and victimize helpless employees by reducing wages or leaving them without work. Simple economics reveals the shallow thinking underlying such claims. As a first approximation, private equity can be profitable only when target firms are under-performing or undervalued. A healthy market for business ownership is necessary to ensure that firms with untapped value survive. Weak performance might stem from any number of circumstances but must be addressable under new management. That includes a management shakeup itself, and it could include a capital infusion to upgrade facilities, elimination of unprofitable product lines, a spin-off from a neglectful parent company, or wage renegotiation to improve competitiveness (but never ask a leftist if wages are too high, even as the employer fails).

Interest Deductibility

The tax benefits of carried interest enhance private equity deals relative to traditional merger and acquisition activity. Again, that illustrates the oddity of having different tax rules for different firms. In the past, the gains from carried interest have been magnified by another unfortunate aspect of the tax code: the interest-deductibility of business debt. The TCJA doesn’t completely eliminate this economic peculiarity, but it places a severe restriction on its use (see #6 on the list at the link).

In general, interest deductibility has favored the use of debt in the capital structures of all businesses. That leverage increases financial risk and bids up the level of interest rates faced by all borrowers. Private equity firms have made liberal use of debt in structuring buyouts. Their borrowing capacity combined with carried interest and the debt subsidy has undoubtedly made deals more attractive at the margin.

The new restriction on interest deductibility is likely to reinforce an existing trend in private equity: gradually, GPs have been putting more “skin in the game“. That is, they are risking a bit more of their own capital. That is generally a good thing for investors. The article at the last link was written in March 2017, so the data shown for 2017 is almost meaningless. In 2016, however, the average GP commitment as a percentage of fund size was still less than 8% and the median was just 4%. These percentages should continue to increase with competition for deals and more restricted deductibility of interest expense.

Taxes and Value

If you want to encourage value-maximizing behavior, then don’t tax its makers (or its markers) heavily. Carried interest extends the tax treatment of “sweat equity” to those who “police” the private sector for unexploited value: private equity firms. By eliminating waste, resuscitating formerly productive enterprises, and exploiting new profit opportunities, their efforts are socially accretive. The popular narrative of an “evil” and “vulturous” private equity industry is both misleading and destructive. Beyond that, there is no reason to tax different forms of productive activity at different rates, but we do. The TCJA has lessened the tax disparities to some extent, but more equalization should be a priority. At least the business interest deduction has been restricted, which should lessen the artificial reliance on borrowed capital.