Romney's Bain Capital under investigation for tax dodging

New York's attorney-general starts examining private equity firms

Bain Capital – the company formerly run by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney – is among a number of private equity firms being investigated for underpayment of taxes, according to a report in the Financial Times:

[New York's attorney-general, Democrat Eric] Schneiderman has issued subpoenas as part of an investigation into the “fee-waiver” strategy, in which executives invested management fees paid by investors back into one of the investment funds. Any profits on those fees would be taxed at the capital gains rate – a much lower tax rate than if it were treated as ordinary income. There is debate over whether the strategy is legal, aggressive or illegal. The strategy was risky and could have resulted in losses for the manager if the investment funds were not profitable.

The fact that Bain Capital is being investigated has led to some – including one "private equity executive" quoted by the FT – to brand the move as a political one, but other equity groups are being investigated as well, including KKR (part owners of Alliance Boots, amongst others) and Apollo Group (an education-focused firm which owns one of Britain's two private universities, BPP University College).

Bain is being roped into the investigation – run by the state's Taxpayer Protection Bureau – due to the hundreds of pages of the company's internal financial documents which were leaked by Gawker, which reveals that the Bain partners save more than $200m in federal income taxes and more than $20m in Medicare taxes.

The New York Times reports that there is widespread belief that the practice is not only legal, but ethically justifiable as well:

Tax lawyers have justified the arrangements by arguing that converting the management fees into carried interest, which could lose some or all of its value if a fund does poorly, entitles the managers to the lower capital gains rate, which is intended to help mitigate the risks taken by investors.

“They’re risking their management fee — they’re giving up the right to that management fee in any and all events,” said Jack S. Levin, a finance lawyer whose firm has represented Bain on some matters. Mr. Levin said he did not consider the practice risky or even aggressive.

“The I.R.S. has known that private equity funds have been doing this for 20 years,” he said.

If the move is politically motivated, it's likely to prove rather successful. Romney's tax status has been under examination since the day he made his first presidential bid, and he has been extremely unwilling to reveal anything but the barest minimum of information about it. The most compelling theory as to why is the suggestion that, in 2009, he may have taken advantage of an IRS amnesty into illegal Swiss bank accounts. And the status of Romney at Bain is similarly murky.

All of which is to say that the candidate has the whiff of financial impropriety floating around him most of the time, and it doesn't take much from, say, a Democratic attorney-general to make more bad news for him.

Obama and – Bane? Bain? Romney. Obama and Romney.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.