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Will Mark Zuckerberg Ever Pay Taxes Again?

Thursday, 2 Feb 2012 | 10:56 AM ET
Mark Zuckerberg
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Mark Zuckerberg

Next year Mark Zuckerberg’s base salary will receive a dramatic pay cut—going from a base salary of $600,000 to just one dollar.

Which raises the question: will he ever pay taxes again?

Zuckerberg’s salary cut is being compared to similar moves by other tech titans. Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page are paid just $1 annual salaries. Steve Jobs took just $1 in salary from 1997 until his death last year. Other members of the one-percent/one-dollar club include Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman.

Zuckerberg was paid a base salary of $500,000 in 2011 and is set to be paid a base of $600,000 this year. He got a cash bonus of $250,000 for the first half of 2011 and will likely receive a similar bonus for the second half.

Interestingly, he was alone among the top executives at Facebook who got no stock awards for 2011. The board—which is controlled by Zuckerberg himself—decided that he had enough stock to align his interests with the other shareholders. With 28.2 percent of the company, you would hope so.

Zuckerberg’s pay cut could reduce his income tax burden to nothing.

It’s possible that he might even be eligible for certain types of government aid for those with low-income—although it’s unlikely that he would collect them.

In order to reduce his tax burden to zero, Zuckerberg would have to forego any future cash bonuses or additional stock awards. He would also have to stop employing certain Facebook services for personal use. Last year, for example, he had imputed income from the use of aircraft for personal use of about $692,679. He also received $90,850 in estate and financial planning from Facebook.

Can Zuckerberg really live without income?

He almost certainly can. There’s no evidence that he has an exceptionally expensive lifestyle. His biggest annual expense is probably all that flying around. The income he has already received and been paid will go a long way.

Of course, his past income will not really be enough to see him through all of his expenses for his entire life. For those he will need a line of credit, preferably one with a tax advantage, and income that can be earned tax free.

People sometimes talk about the rich “living off the interest” of their wealth. But that’s not really a tax efficient way to live if you are really, really wealthy. It’s better to live off of debt and muni bonds.

The best thing for Zuckerberg would be a home equity line of credit—perhaps multiple home equity lines. He would borrow against the value of real estate he owns. The money he receives from the HELOC is debt rather than income, which means it isn’t taxed. Even better, the interest he pays on the HELOC can be used to offset other income he may earn.

Zuckerberg will also be able to access credit secured by his Facebook holdings—which will amount to billions of dollars. These lines of credit will not be tax advantaged—no deduction for interest payments—but they will supply him with spending money that will not be taxed.

When you have the net worth of Zuckerberg, you can live for a very, very long time on tax-free debt that you can use as income. Let’s say that Zuckerberg needs $2 million of spending power per year and lives another 60 years. That’s $120 million of spending. If he gets an interest rate of 4 percent and just rolls it over as new debt, he’ll eventually accumulate around $520,919,997. Some of that interest, of course, may be deductible against other income.

The might seem like a lot of debt. But for Zuckerberg—who will likely be worth around $25 billion when Facebook goes public—it’s a drop in the bucket. What’s more, if Facebook continues to grow, Zuckerberg’s worth will grow along with his debt. His debt burden will be negligible compared to his net worth. The unimaginably rich really are different from the rest of us.

Zuckerberg could also use the money he has earned, some from his HELOC and some from other loans to purchase income-producing, tax-exempt municipal bonds. The interest on the HELOC would be tax deductible—producing a double-tax advantage. The interest on the other loans would not be—but the income from coupon payments from the muni debt would be. He could even use the income from the munis to pay some of his interest expense, which would substantially reduce the lifetime accumulation of debt.

The best way for Zuckerberg to meet large expenses—like, for instance, if he wants to buy an island in the Caribbean—would be to cash out some of his Facebook shares. He would only pay the 15 percent capital gains taxes on these.

Perhaps most bizarrely, Zuckerberg might be eligible for an Earned Income Tax Credit if he keeps his personal income under $13,000. To be honest, that might be hard to do since a guy like Zuckerberg can produce that income by taking a company car home at night. And, in any case, it’s unlikely that Zuckerberg would find it worth the time to even file for an EITC that maxes out at just a few hundred dollars.

To be clear, I have no idea what kind of plans Zuckerberg has for his future income and taxes. He may not want to accumulate debt for his entire life. Perhaps he has plans to become a big spender and will need to derive income beyond what he can get from muni bonds. But it’s very likely that at least some of the $90,850 worth of financial advice Zuckerberg received went to minimizing tax exposure.

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