Saturday, March 21, 2009

Congressional Pandering and the 100% Income Tax on Compensation

Congress does a number of things very well. Pandering to the populace is one of them, and nothing demonstrates this as well as the House's attempt to punish AIG. The other thing they do well is pass a bill that has popular appeal, and then hope that someone else stops them, or there is a presidential veto, or the courts strike it down. Then they get to say "we tried to fix it but the [opposing party][the President][the Courts] wouldn't let us!"

We all know that Congress screwed up on the AIG bonuses. They prevented the use of bailout funds for bonuses, but exempted any bonus payable pursuant to a contract that existed prior to February 2009. That might not have been a screwup, on some levels, it makes sense. However, as we all know, there was a huge backlash from the public, since the bailout money was going to pay "executive bonuses." Congress, in its usual pandering, fueled that fire. Ignoring the fact that they expressly permitted those bonuse payments, they began railing against "bonuses" to "executives" at AIG too.

Mixing terminology is another thing Congress does well, since those "bonuses" are not really "bonuses" and the majority of people getting those bonuses are not "executives" but rather technical staff, analysts, assistants, in-house counsel, etc.

Then the House passed legislation on Thursday to impose a 90% surtax on bonuses granted to employees with household income of more than $250,000 at companies that received at least $5 billion from the government's financial rescue program.The Senate is considering a similar plan that could be up for a vote as soon as next week.

Let's follow the bouncing ball. First, the tax is on HOUSEHOLD incomes over $250,000. That covers a whole host of families. Two professionals, a nurse and a lawyer; a stock broker and a teacher.

Second, almost everyone on Wall Street has a compensation package that is salary plus "bonus." Wall Street structures its compensation packages this way intentionally. You see, they don't pay the "bonus" until March of the following year. Not only do they keep the float on the employee's money for the extra months, if you are not at the firm when the "bonus" is paid, you don't get it. So, folks stay until bonuses are paid in March. By then, the employee has worked three months, receiving a vastly reduced "salary" and is 1/4 of the way towards earning next year's bonus. Makes it hard to quit, since you will lose 1/4 of your compensation if you do. And round and round it goes.

Back to the tax. The tax applies to any bonus paid to any employee of any company who received more than $5 billion from the TARP funds, which includes Citi, JPMorgan, BofA, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, PNC Financial Services Group Inc. and U.S. Bancorp.

Morgan Stanley staff gets paid salary plus bonus. Secretaries, IT folks, internal accountants, attorneys, all get bonuses as part of their overall compensation. It is almost guaranteed that most of those folks who are married with a working spouse make over $250,000 a year, combined. It's relatively easy, given the cost of living in a major city these days. An in-house attorney makes something on the order of $200,000. Her husband probably makes over $100,000 and BAM, they get hit with a 90% tax on her bonus, and she has absolutely nothing to do with the bank's current problems. Some of the IT professionals make over $200,000. Same situation. There are assistants who make significant amounts of money working at these firms, who get paid with a bonus, and the government is going to tax them too at 90%.

Congress cannot possibly justify this. They have created this mess and they are now pandering to the public. AND, they are too lazy to write a bill that actually addresses what they are trying to address. While I wouldn't agree with it, if you want to get the bonuses that were paid to executives, use the power of additional TARP funds to do it, not the tax code.

If you want to use the tax code, then apply the tax to bonuses over one million dollars. I would still have a huge problem with that, but you would not be taking money from the innocent secretary, bookkeeper and IT guy.

Don't believe it? Read it yourself, it's only one page long - The House Bonus Bill



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