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What Some Investors Are Doing to Anticipate a Tax Increase

One thing is certain this fall: there will be a lot of talk about taxes. But without a broad agreement, a series of automatic increases will take effect next year. What are investors to do?

While there are still three months until Election Day, recent action in Washington did little to suggest the spirit of compromise is in the air. The Senate has voted to raise taxes on the wealthy, while the House has voted to keep taxes low for everyone.

I was curious to see how people affected by any increases in the tax on investment income were dealing with the uncertainty. That tax is set to go up at least 3.8 percentage points — the amount of the surtax on high earners in President Obama’s health care legislation. But it could go up much more if lawmakers do not come to an agreement.

I decided to call a few wealthy investors to ask how the prospect of the increase was affecting their investment decisions. More on them in a bit.

First, what are the increases? The 3.8 percent surtax will be levied on investment income for individuals who earn more than $200,000 a year, or $250,000 for a couple. The Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has said he will repeal the health care law on his first day in office. But his first day, if he wins, won’t be until Jan. 20, 2013, and even then, the most he could do would be to send legislation to Congress. So it is best to plan as if that tax will be levied. The more difficult taxes to estimate are on capital gains and dividends. The capital gains tax is 15 percent and is set to go to 20 percent next year if the tax cuts from the George W. Bush administration expire. (Counting the 3.8 percent surtax, the capital gains tax will be either 18.8 percent or 23.8 percent for high earners.)

The dividend tax is also 15 percent, but it could go as high as the income tax rate. If the Bush tax cuts expire, the rate for the highest earners would be 39.6 percent. But those people would also be subject to the additional 3.8 percent surtax, bringing the total dividend tax to as much as 43.4 percent. (Until 2003, dividends were taxed as income.)

It is easy to see how the dividend tax could quickly wipe out the benefit of holding dividend-paying stocks. The capital gains tax is trickier because it is paid only when someone sells an investment that has appreciated. Still, the addition of the 3.8 percent to the existing capital gains tax can be a big number on any transaction that results in a large capital gain. Michael E. Goodman, a certified public accountant and president of Wealthstream Advisors in New York, said he had a client who was trying to sell an apartment in Manhattan for a price that would result in a taxable gain of $2 million. This year, she would pay $300,000 in capital gains taxes.

But if she cannot sell the apartment until next year, she would pay at least an additional $76,000 because of the 3.8 percent surtax. If the capital gains rate goes up to 20 percent as well, her total tax bill on the sale of the apartment would be $476,000, or nearly 60 percent more than today.

So what should people do? I spoke to several members of Tiger 21, an investment club that requires its members to have a minimum net worth of $10 million. Tiger 21 members have substantial wealth, and they spend time each month going over one another’s portfolios. They raised three points that could help any affluent person.

One strategy is to use the prospect of increased taxes to examine all long-held investments and sell any with big gains before the end of the year.

That is what Leslie C. Quick III says he is doing. His wealth came from the sale of Quick & Reilly, the discount brokerage firm that was started by his family and bought by Fleet Financial Services in 1997. After subsequent mergers, his Fleet stock is now Bank of America stock. That stock peaked at nearly $55 in late 2006 but is now trading around $7 per share.

“Our basis was zero, so even at $7 you still have a gain,” he said. “You keep hoping against hope that it’s going to recover, but it’s going to be a long slog.”

Mr. Quick said he was focusing on cleaning up various portfolios of securities that he had neglected over the years. “Some have done well, so I’m thinking before the end of the year I should sell some of these positions before taking another 3.8 percent hit,” he said.

The Tiger 21 members also recommended that the wealthy modify their investments to reduce the impact of the increase.

Randy R. Beeman, who made his fortune buying and selling businesses and is now a financial adviser with Baird, a wealth management firm, said he was looking to buy more municipal bonds. For the last couple of years, he has owned more taxable corporate bonds because their yields were high enough to offset the tax-free benefits of municipal bonds. Now, he said, the tax increase makes municipal bonds more attractive.

He is making a bigger change with his real estate holdings. Mr. Beeman said his wife would start to actively manage the properties they rent out. He says he believes that by doing this, the rents will no longer be categorized as passive income, which is subject to the surtax.

“If you have one town house generating a couple of thousand dollars a year, it’s probably not worth it,” he said. “If you have 10 properties and each one is generating $15,000 in net income, then it is worthwhile. It’s a matter of size and if you have the time and ability to do it.”

For the most part, though, the Tiger 21 members said their bigger concern was finding investments that actually rose in value, regardless of what tax they might eventually pay.

Reginald K. Brack, the former chairman and chief executive of Time Inc., said he was now more focused on making long-term investments.

“I sell these investments when there is a profit to be made,” he said. “Now, if the capital gains tax is changed dramatically, that might change things. But it was higher at one time. We’ll live through it.”

Michael Sonnenfeldt, who became wealthy in real estate before starting Tiger 21, said a poll of the group’s 192 members after the second quarter found that, on average, they had increased their allocation to private equity by four percentage points. He interpreted this as meaning members were more concerned about getting a return on their money than about any tax they might later pay.

Personally, he said, the increased investment tax would affect his thinking only on investments that had a low return or that he was hesitant about in the first place.

“If someone came to me and said, ‘I have a software program that rivals Facebook and you can put $1 million into it today and we’ll have one billion customers in eight years,’ the 3.8 percent doesn’t matter,” Mr. Sonnenfeldt said. “But when you get down to investments where the risks are lower and the returns are lower, then the 3.8 percent will make more of a difference.”

How any tax increases will cause investors to act is, in many ways, anyone’s guess. Taxes on capital gains and dividends have been much higher in the past. The wild card is the weak economy.

“There is some evidence that when you raise the capital gains rate, people hold on to assets longer,” said Eric Toder, co-director of the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group. “Fifteen to 18.8 percent is not a big deal; 23.8 is somewhat bigger. But, in historical terms, it’s not a particularly big tax.”

Mr. Goodman noted that people could lose out on high returns if they fixated on taxes. Real estate investment trusts, for one, pay out high dividends, but they are taxed at the income tax rate. He recommends that people put high-tax assets into tax-deferred retirement accounts.

In reality, most people are better at complaining about taxes than calculating the actual impact on their lives. So their reaction to the increases may not register until 2014, when the taxes come due.

“Some people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s only 3.8 percent,’ ” Mr. Goodman said. “But if you have a large portfolio and you get that call next year from your accountant saying you owe $15,000, $20,000 more, I think it’s going to surprise people.”

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