Taxing the Very Rich
It's a lot harder than it looks.
Jesse Eisinger and Paul Kiel have a fascinating report at ProPublica titled “The IRS Tried to Take on the Ultrawealthy. It Didn’t Go Well.”
It’s based on the case of Georg F. W. Schaeffler, a German-born “auto magnate” and Duke-trained lawyer of whom I had not previously heard despite his having been the 30th richest individual on the planet a year ago (he’s now down to a paltry 96th).
In 2009, the IRS had formed a crack team of specialists to unravel the tax dodges of the ultrawealthy. In an age of widening inequality, with a concentration of wealth not seen since the Gilded Age, the rich were evading taxes through ever more sophisticated maneuvers. The IRS commissioner aimed to staunch the country’s losses with what he proclaimed would be “a game-changing strategy.” In short order, Charles Rettig, then a high-powered tax lawyer and today President Donald Trump’s IRS commissioner, warned that the squad was conducting “the audits from hell.” If Trump were being audited, Rettig wrote during the presidential campaign, this is the elite team that would do it. The wealth team embarked on a contentious audit of Schaeffler in 2012, eventually determining that he owed about $1.2 billion in unpaid taxes and penalties. But after seven years of grinding bureaucratic combat, the IRS abandoned its campaign. The agency informed Schaeffler’s lawyers it was willing to accept just tens of millions, according to a person familiar with the audit.
How did a case that consumed so many years of effort, with a team of its finest experts working on a signature mission, produce such a piddling result for the IRS? The Schaeffler case offers a rare window into just how challenging it is to take on the ultrawealthy. For starters, they can devote seemingly limitless resources to hiring the best legal and accounting talent. Such taxpayers tend not to steamroll tax laws; they employ complex, highly refined strategies that seek to stretch the tax code to their advantage. It can take years for IRS investigators just to understand a transaction and deem it to be a violation.
Once that happens, the IRS team has to contend with battalions of high-priced lawyers and accountants that often outnumber and outgun even the agency’s elite SWAT team. “We are nowhere near a circumstance where the IRS could launch the types of audits we need to tackle sophisticated taxpayers in a complicated world,” said Steven Rosenthal, who used to represent wealthy taxpayers and is now a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution.
Because the audits are private — IRS officials can go to prison if they divulge taxpayer information — details of the often epic paper battles between the rich and the tax collectors are sparse, with little in the public record. Attorneys are also loath to talk about their clients’ taxes, and most wealthy people strive to keep their financial affairs under wraps. Such disputes almost always settle out of court.
There’s quite a bit more about the specifics of how Schaeffler and his team defeated the IRS by maneuvering. But I’m more interested in systemic issues. This is the key takeaway:
Most people picture IRS officials as all-knowing and fearsome. But when it comes to understanding how the superwealthy move their money around, IRS auditors historically have been more like high school physics teachers trying to operate the Large Hadron Collider.
For normal people, the IRS is a bogeyman: they simply have more expertise and resources than we can afford to bring to the table. For the very wealthy, though, it’s the reverse. It takes a dedicated public servant, indeed, to work for the IRS for a low-six-figure income if they have the talent to make ten or more times that working for the wealthy.
That began to change in the early 2000s, after Congress and the agency uncovered widespread use of abusive tax shelters by the rich. The discovery led to criminal charges, and settlements by major accounting firms. By the end of the decade, the IRS had determined that millions of Americans had secret bank accounts abroad. The agency managed to crack open Switzerland’s banking secrecy, and it recouped billions in lost tax revenue.
The IRS came to realize it was not properly auditing the ultrawealthy. Multimillionaires frequently don’t have easily visible income. They often have trusts, foundations, limited liability companies, complex partnerships and overseas operations, all woven together to lower their tax bills. When IRS auditors examined their finances, they typically looked narrowly. They might scrutinize just one return for one entity and examine, say, a year’s gifts or income.
Belatedly attempting to confront improper tax avoidance, the IRS formed what was officially called the Global High Wealth Industry Group in 2009. “The genesis was: If you think of an incredibly wealthy family, their web of entities somehow gives them a remarkably low effective tax rate,” said former IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, who was one of those responsible for creating the wealth squad. “We hadn’t really been looking at it all together, and shame on us.”[…]The vision was clear, as Doug Shulman, a George W. Bush appointee who remained to helm the agency under the Obama administration, explained in a 2009 speech: “We want to better understand the entire economic picture of the enterprise controlled by the wealthy individual.”
It’s particularly important to audit the wealthy well, and not simply because that’s where the money is. That’s where the cheating is, too. Studies show that the wealthiest are more likely to avoid paying taxes. The top 0.5 percent in income account for fully a fifth of all the underreported income, according to a 2010 study by the IRS’ Andrew Johns and the University of Michigan’s Joel Slemrod. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $50 billion each year in unpaid taxes.
The plans for the wealth squad seemed like a step forward. In a few years, the group would be staffed with several hundred auditors. A team of examiners would tackle each audit, not just one or two agents, as was more typical in the past. The new group would draw from the IRS’ best of the best.
That was crucial because IRS auditors have a long-standing reputation, at least among the practitioners who represent deep-pocketed taxpayers, as hapless and overmatched. The agents can fritter away years, tax lawyers say, auditing transactions they don’t grasp. “In private practice, we played whack-a-mole,” said Rosenthal, of the Tax Policy Center. “The IRS felt a transaction was suspect but couldn’t figure out why, so it would raise an issue and we’d whack it and they would raise another and we’d whack it.
The IRS was ill-equipped.”The Global High Wealth Group was supposed to change that. Indeed, with all the fanfare at the outset, tax practitioners began to worry on behalf of their clientele. “The impression was it was all going to be specialists in fields, highly trained. The IRS would assemble teams with the exact right expertise to target these issues,” Chicago-based tax attorney Jenny Johnson said.
Not shockingly, they pushed back. And, sadly, Congressional Republicans helped stymie the project:
The wealthy’s lobbyists immediately pushed to defang the new team. And soon after the group was formed, Republicans in Congress began slashing the agency’s budget. As a result, the team didn’t receive the resources it was promised. Thousands of IRS employees left from every corner of the agency, especially ones with expertise in complex audits, the kinds of specialists the agency hoped would staff the new elite unit. The agency had planned to assign 242 examiners to the group by 2012, according to a report by the IRS’ inspector general. But by 2014, it had only 96 auditors. By last year, the number had fallen to 58.The wealth squad never came close to having the impact its proponents envisaged. As Robert Gardner, a 39-year veteran of the IRS who often interacted with the team as a top official at the agency’s tax whistleblower office, put it, “From the minute it went live, it was dead on arrival.”
But some of the concerns were legitimate. The means of overcoming the massive advantages that the super-rich had were rather onerous:
The team sent wide-ranging requests for information seeking details about their targets’ entire empires. Taxpayers with more than $10 million in income or assets received a dozen pages of initial requests, with the promise of many more to follow. The agency sought years of details on every entity it could tie to the subject of the audits.
In past audits, that initial overture had been limited to one or two pages, with narrowly tailored requests. Here, a typical request sought information on a vast array of issues. One example: a list of any U.S. or foreign entity in which the taxpayer held an “at least a 20 percent” interest, including any “hybrid instruments” that could be turned into a 20 percent or more ownership share. The taxpayer would then have to identify “each and every current and former officer, trustee, and manager” from the entity’s inception.
Now, arguably, this is simply necessary. I’m by no means an expert on tax law or accounting but I’m not sure how you’d go about disentangling novel tax-avoidance schemes otherwise. But this is nonetheless a massive fishing expedition that poses substantial burdens on citizens. It also essentially reverses the presumption of innocence, forcing those being targeted to spend large sums of money to demonstrate that their business dealings are above-board.
Taxpayers who received such requests recoiled. Attacking the core idea that Shulman had said would animate the audits, their attorneys and accountants argued the examinations sought too much information, creating an onerous burden. The audits “proceeded into a proctology exam, unearthing every aspect of their lives,” said Mark Allison, a prominent tax attorney for Caplin & Drysdale who has represented taxpayers undergoing Global High Wealth audits. “It was extraordinarily intrusive. Not surprisingly, these people tend to be private and are not used to sharing.”
Tax practitioners took their concerns directly to the agency, at American Bar Association conferences and during the ABA’s regular private meetings with top IRS officials. “Part of our approach was to have private sit-downs to raise issues and concerns,” said Allison, who has served in top roles in the ABA’s tax division for years. We were “telling them this was too much, unwieldy and therefore unfair.” Allison said he told high-ranking IRS officials, “You need to rein in these audit teams.”
For years, politicians have hammered the IRS for its supposed abuse of taxpayers. Congress created a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” in the mid-1990s. Today, the IRS often refers to its work as “customer service.” One result of constant congressional scrutiny is that senior IRS officials are willing to meet with top tax lawyers and address their concerns. “There was help there. They stuck their necks out for me,” Allison said.
The result of this multi-front pressure is hardly shocking:
The lobbying campaign, combined with the lack of funding for the group, took its toll. One report estimated that the wealth team had audited only around a dozen wealthy taxpayers in its first two and a half years. In a September 2015 report, the IRS’ inspector general said the agency had failed to establish the team as a “standalone” group “capable of conducting all of its own examinations.” The group didn’t have steady leadership, with three directors in its first five years. When it did audit the ultrawealthy, more than 40 percent of the reviews resulted in no additional taxes.The inspector general also criticized the IRS broadly — not just its high-wealth team — for not focusing enough on the richest taxpayers. In 2010, the IRS as a whole audited over 32,000 millionaires. By 2018, that number had fallen to just over 16,000, according to data compiled by Syracuse University. Audits of the wealthiestAmericans have collapsed 52 percent since 2011, falling more substantially than audits of the middle class and the poor. Almost half of audits of the wealthy were of taxpayers making $200,000 to $399,000. Those audits brought in $605 per audit hour worked. Exams of those making over $5 million, by contrast, brought in more than $4,500 an hour.
Or, in picture form:
The IRS didn’t even have the resources to pursue millionaires who had been hit with a hefty tax bill and simply stiffed Uncle Sam. It “appeared to no longer emphasize the collection of delinquent accounts of global high wealth taxpayers,” a 2017 inspector general report said.
In recent years, the number of Global High Wealth audits has been higher — it closed 149 audits in the last year — but tax lawyers and former IRS officials say even that improvement is deceptive. A major reason is that the audits are much less ambitious. “They were longer at the beginning and shorter as the process moved on,” Johnson, the tax attorney, said.
Inside the IRS, agents seethed. “The whole organization was very frustrated,” Gardner said. “They were just really not sure what the hell their mission was, what they were supposed to be accomplishing.”
I simply lack the expertise to have a strong opinion as to how long or short these audits
- People ought to pay the taxes they owe,
- Higher scrutiny is warranted towards people making more money, and
- Government shouldn’t impose a higher burden than necessary on its citizens in enforcing its laws, whether the tax code or any other
Interestingly, Schaeffer comes across as a somewhat sympathetic figure here:
In 2008, Schaeffler Group made a big mistake. It offered to buy Continental AG, a tiremaker, just days before the stock and credit markets experienced their worst crisis since the Great Depression. Even as Continental’s stock price crashed, Schaeffler was legally obligated to go through with its purchase at the much higher pre-crash price. Schaeffler Group flirted with bankruptcy and pleaded for aid from the German government. The media began to pay closer attention to the private company and the low-profile family that ran it. German press accounts dismissed Schaeffler’s mother as the “billionaire beggar” for seeking a bailout and pilloried her for wearing a fur coat at a ski race while seeking government help.
No German government aid came. The Schaeffler Group teetered, and the family’s fortune plummeted from $9 billion to almost zero. Amid the crisis over Continental, Georg accepted his fate and took up a more prominent role at the company; he’s now the chairman of its supervisory board.
To pay for Continental, Schaeffler Group borrowed about 11 billion euros from a consortium of banks. At the time, Schaeffler’s lenders, including Royal Bank of Scotland, were desperate, too, having suffered enormous losses on home mortgages. They wanted to avoid any more write-downs that might result if the company defaulted on the loans. So in 2009 and 2010, Schaeffler’s lenders restructured the debt in a devilishly complex series of transactions.
By 2012, these maneuvers had caught the eye of the Global High Wealth group. Paul Doerr, an experienced revenue agent, would head the audit.
Eventually, the IRS discerned what it came to believe was the transaction’s essence: The banks had effectively forgiven nearly half of Schaeffler’s debt.
To the IRS, that had significant tax implications. In the wealth team’s view, Georg Schaeffler had received billions of dollars of income — on which he owed taxes.
The auditors’ view reflects a core aspect of the U.S. tax system. Under American law, companies and individuals are liable for taxes on the forgiven portion of any loan.
While it’s hard to be too sympathetic to someone born on third base, Schaeffler was a victim of a global recession. It’s strange, indeed, that having loans forgiven to avoid having to declare bankruptcy is considered “income” for tax purposes. But it’s a fundamental principle of our system:
This frequently comes up in the housing market. A homeowner borrows $100,000 from a bank to buy a house. Prices fall and the homeowner, under financial duress, unloads it for $80,000. If the bank forgives the $20,000 still owed on the original mortgage, the owner pays taxes on that amount as if it were ordinary income.
This levy can seem unfair since it often hits borrowers who have run into trouble paying back their debts. The problem was particularly acute during the housing crisis, so in late 2007, Congress passed a bill that protected most homeowners from being hit with a tax bill after foreclosure or otherwise getting a principal reduction from their lender.
Tax experts say the principle of taxing forgiven loans is crucial to preventing chicanery. Without it, people could arrange with their employers to borrow their salaries through the entire year interest-free and then have the employer forgive the loan at the very end. Voila, no taxable income.
The notion that forgiven debt is taxable applies to corporate transactions, too. That means concern about such a tax bill is rarely far from a distressed corporate debtor’s mind. “Any time you have a troubled situation, it’s a typical tax issue you have to address and the banks certainly understand it, too,” said Les Samuels, an attorney who spent decades advising corporations and wealthy individuals on tax matters.
And, returning to a familiar theme, it’s a lot more complicated when we’re dealing with people like Schaeffer:
But the efforts to avoid tax, in the case of Schaeffler and his lenders, took a particularly convoluted form. It involved several different instruments, each with multiple moving parts. The refinancing was “complicated and unusual,” said Samuels, who was not involved in the transaction. “If you were sitting in the government’s chair and reading press reports on the situation, your reaction might be that the company was on the verge of being insolvent. And when the refinancing was completed, the government might think that banks didn’t know whether they would be repaid.”This account of the audit was drawn from conversations with people familiar with it, who were not authorized to speak on the record, as well as court and German securities filings. The IRS declined to comment for this story. Doerr did not respond to repeated calls and emails.
A spokesman for Schaeffler declined to make him available for an interview. “Mr. Schaeffler always strives to comply with the complex U.S. tax code,” the spokesman wrote in a statement, saying “the fact that the refinancing was with six independent, international banks in itself demonstrates that these were arm’s length, commercially driven transactions. The IRS professionally concluded the audit in 2018 without making adjustments to those transactions, and there is no continuing dispute — either administratively or in litigation — related to these matters.”
Schaeffler’s lenders never explicitly canceled the loan. The banks and Schaeffler maintained to the IRS that the loan was real and no debt had been forgiven.
The IRS came not to buy that. After years of trying to unravel the refinancing, the IRS homed in on what the agency contended was a disguise. The banks and Schaeffler “had a mutual interest in maintaining the appearance that the debt hadn’t gone away,” a person familiar with the transaction said. But the IRS believed the debt had, in fact, been canceled.
Which, again, points to both the ability of the ultra-rich to shield themselves from taxes and of the government to claim that income existed when it doesn’t appear to on paper. It’s next to impossible for ordinary citizens to understand the issues involved because they’re just so different from our own financial circumstances.
For most of us, income is rather straightforward: we’re paid a salary, which gets reported on a W-2. Even for those of us who have small businesses on the side, it’s not all that complicated: we have income and expenses. The latter can get a bit questionable but there are reasonably clear rules about such things.
People like Schaeffler and their advisors are essentially making up complex transactions and the IRS is trying to retrofit existing laws to fit the mold.
Indeed, reading through the exhaustive ProPublica report—and despite my generous excerpting here, there’s a whole lot more in it—I’m not really sure Schaeffler and his people did anything wrong, let alone illegal.
I have often invoked Edward S. Corwin’s description of the Constitution’s “invitation to struggle” with regard to foreign policy. The tax code is essentially the same thing: people and corporations are naturally going to pursue every legal avenue for diminishing their tax liability. In the leagues Schaeffler and the megabanks who loaned him money play, those avenues are extensive.
Further, in Schaeffler’s case and many others, it’s even more complicated than that. The United States government naturally has a huge incentive to tax people like Schaeffler. But, because their money is earned through a complex web of international transactions, so do many other governments. So, naturally, the wealthy are going to do what they can to not only avoid as much taxation as possible but position their taxable income in the most advantageous jurisdiction possible.
I simply don’t know that it’s possible for the IRS to keep up. Or to know when the United States is getting its just share of the pie.
UPDATE: See my follow-up, “It’s Hard to Audit the Rich, So We Go After the Poor.”