STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Hedge fund managers and real estate developers are among those who have been able to take advantage of a controversial tax loophole. They are considered managers of investment partnerships. This allows them to pay less than half the regular tax rate on much of their income. The Senate is expected to vote, this week, on a bill that would partly close this loophole.
NPR's John Ydstie reports.
JOHN YDSTIE: Closing this loophole would more than double the tax paid on something called carried interest income.
Take for instance a hedge fund manager. He invests money on behalf of wealthy individuals or institutions and he's paid a percentage of what the fund makes -usually around 20 percent. If the fund gains $100 million in a year, the investors pay the manager $20 million. But instead of paying the top income tax rate of 35 percent on what he earns, the manager could pay just 15 percent -the standard rate on capital gains.
Professor LEN BURMAN (Syracuse University, Fellow, Brookings Institution) It's really a huge windfall to some of the best-off people in society.
YDSTIE: That's Len Burman, a Brookings Institution fellow and professor at Syracuse University.
In addition to largely benefiting wealthy Americans, says Burman, the provision also is a huge hit to government revenues. It's estimated closing the loophole completely, would bring almost $25 billion into the U.S. Treasury over the next 10 years. The tax fairness issue is important too, says Burman, because the U.S. is supposed to have a progressive income tax system.
Prof. BURMAN: High-income people are supposed to be taxed at the highest rates, 35 percent, but people who are lucky enough to be in the private equity or hedge fund business get their income taxed at a 15 percent rate.
YDSTIE: Representatives of the hedge fund industry say that's not totally true. They say hedge fund managers actually pay the higher rate on most of their income because they trade constantly and hold most of the assets in their funds for less than a year. To qualify for the 15 percent capital gains rate, assets must be held more than one year.
Jeff DeBoer, president of the Real Estate Roundtable, says the commercial real estate industry would actually be hardest hit by the tax increase. He says those proposing the tax change are focusing on hedge fund managers, largely because they're an easy target.
Mr. JEFFREY DEBOER (President, Real Estate Roundtable): There's a lot of red herrings, a lot of smoke over this issue. And what we're trying to do is make people understand, this is very much a Main Street tax increase, not a Wall Street tax increase.
YDSTIE: DeBoer says nearly half the investment partnerships in the United States are real estate investment partnerships. He argues that with more than one in four construction workers unemployed and the commercial real estate sector struggling, now is not the time to raise the tax rates paid by real estate developers.
Mr. DEBOER: More than doubling the tax on a general partner who wants to redevelop a dilapidated building somewhere - those people hire construction workers. They hire all kinds of other people around the construction project. And this proposal, again, discourages that kind of activity.
YDSTIE: But Len Burman argues, favoring one kind of activity or business over others by giving it a lower tax rate, can distort investment decisions and make the economy less efficient.
Prof. BURMAN: I think, actually, you know, aside from the equity issues and the fact that the government might need the money, it would be worth taxing these guys the same as others just so that you don't have this artificial incentive for people to choose this kind of investment as opposed to others, or this kind of line of work.
YDSTIE: Jeff DeBoer insists investors who take risks should be treated differently.
Mr. DEBOER: These are risks that people take in order to build value. And the American system has always rewarded risk-taking.
YDSTIE: The Senate will likely vote on the bill this week. If it passes, it would shrink the loophole on carried interest income but not close it completely. The House has already passed a similar provision.
John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.