How a small change in tax policy could mean a big tax cut for the rich

For years, many Republicans and anti-tax advocates have pushed for a change to the way that investment taxes are calculated.

They may get their wish. Steven Mnuchin told the New York Times that the administration is considering whether it can use its regulatory powers to let investors account for the effect of inflation when calculating how much their investments have grown. Treasury is evaluating the economic impact and the process through which it can be achieved, according to a Treasury spokesperson.

When investors sell stocks or other assets subject to capital gains, they are taxed on the difference between what they receive for the sale and what they paid for it originally. That tax rate is usually 20%, which is lower than the rate people are taxed on their income.

By adjusting capital gains to adjust for inflation, the White House could cut the tax bills for the nation’s wealthiest investors by billions of dollars a year.

For example, if an investor bought $100,000 of stock in 1987 right after the stock market crash that year, that stock could easily be worth about $1.4 million today. The tax would be calculated on the $1.3 billion gain, which would mean the investor would owe more than $250,000 in capital gains taxes if he or she sold the stock. But adjusting for inflation, a process known as indexing, the original $100,000 cost of the stock would be estimated to be more than $200,000, saving the taxpayer more than $20,000 in taxes.

All of those savings would add up. The lack of indexing increased tax collections by $34 billion in just the most recent fiscal year, according to an estimate cited by the Congressional Research Service.

The sale of stock that would otherwise not take place would lead to some increase in tax collections should indexing be put in place. But even with those additional sales, the net effect of indexing would be a $102 billion reduction in tax collections over a 10-year period, according to a study at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business.

That study estimated that 86% of that benefit would go to the nation’s wealthiest 1%, with more than 60% going to the top one-tenth of 1%.

Households with income of more than $500,000 a year are in the top 1%, according to the IRS.

Larry Kudlow, who joined the administration as director of the National Economic Council in March, is a long-time advocate of the president taking unilateral action to index capital gains. And conservative groups such as Americans for Tax Reform led by Grover Norquist, also have long advocated presidential action to index capital gains. Mnuchin told the Times the Trump administration is considering whether to take unilateral action — without waiting for Congress to act.

“If it can’t get done through a legislation process, we will look at what tools at Treasury we have to do it on our own and we’ll consider that,” he told the paper.

But in 1992 the Treasury Department under Republican President George H.W. Bush looked at whether they had the power to index capital gains and decided it would take Congressional action to make the change. Although such legislation would have substantial support among Congressional Republicans, including by Kevin Brady, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee which writes tax bills, passing such a change through Congress could be extremely difficult since Democrats have enough seats in the Senate to block such a move.

Advocates of the change argue it would give a fresh jolt to economic growth by freeing investors to sell assets they are holding because of the tax bite they would face. But a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in July questioned that claim.

“It is unlikely, however, that a significant, or any, effect on economic growth would occur from a stand-alone indexing proposal,” the group said in its report.