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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Why Didn't Obama Save for Retirement?

Several bloggers have note another curious fact about Barack Obama's tax returns:  despite over $1.6 million in Schedule C income, most of it from royalties on his book, he did not take the elemental tax planning step of establishing a SEP-IRA.  The tax magic is that you can shelter up to 25% of your self-employment income (up to $180,000 in 2007), and the investment earnings accumlate tax-free until withdrawn at retirement.  Greg Mankiw (Harvard) suggests possible reasons that Obama did not do this:

Maybe he is getting bad tax advice. Or maybe he is expecting vastly higher tax rates in the future when the accumulated savings will need to be withdrawn and taxed. As Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee has written, "Future increases in tax rates potentially threaten to significantly reduce the value of your retirement savings and may even mean that you should not save in 401(k) accounts at all."

See also Joe Kristan, The Audacity of Paying More Taxes Than Necessary.

http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2008/03/why-didnt-obama.html

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Comments

Could it be that he has title to the one of the richest pension schemes imaginable - the Congressional pension?

Posted by: drtaxsacto | Mar 27, 2008 7:21:59 AM

I hate to defend Obama, but might it be possible that, as a True Believer Progressive-type, that he's actually okay with the government taking a bigger chunk of his money than necessary?

Posted by: Ben | Mar 27, 2008 11:24:10 AM

Another point. If you look at the reduction in his tax liability in 2003, you can see that he benefited from the Bush Tax Cuts. Has anyone calculated how much he benefited from the Bush Tax Cuts during the past 5 years? I'm sure that Michelle was very happy with the extra income to help with paying back those burdensome Student Loans!!

Posted by: Doug S | Mar 27, 2008 11:36:07 AM

Note that 401Ks can now offer Roth options, so they can be taxed today and withdrawn tax free later when the tax rates (might?) are higher.

Posted by: andrewdb | Mar 27, 2008 11:39:54 AM

After being a Senator and an aspiring President, I don't think he is worried about retirement. Worst case, he can send more earmarks to his wife's employers and she will make more money, or he can write more books ... he sure is a man with many options!

Posted by: Sagar | Mar 27, 2008 11:56:34 AM

A United States Senator gets paid $165,200, but Barack Obama is only claiming $157,082 as his salary. This means that he deferred 5% of his compensation into the U.S. Thrift Savings plan. You are not allowed to carry a SEP for self-employement if you are already covered by a "employer" retirement plan - which in this case Obama is. The most he could have done is set up an Individual 401K and make an additional $7,382 "employee" contribution to get to the personal maximum of $15,500. Aren't you suppose to know this stuff?

Posted by: Matt K. | Mar 27, 2008 11:58:45 AM

As a US Senator and an aspiring president, I don't think he is concerned about retirement (tax payers will take care of it). Worst case, he can send earmarks to his wife's employer and she can get more money. Or he can write a book ...
He sure is a man with many options!

Posted by: Sagar | Mar 27, 2008 11:59:56 AM

Is accepting tax cuts, then railing against them, the same as accepting affirmative action then opposing such programs later?

Posted by: Kevin Murphy | Mar 27, 2008 12:08:55 PM

Why save for a retirement when you are making plenty of money and you're guaranteed to have a lucrative lobbyist career ahead of you?

Posted by: Daryl Herbert | Mar 27, 2008 12:23:39 PM

Is he maxed out on his Senate retirement contribution? I thought you couldn't put money in a SEP-IRA or any other kind of IRA if you were already covered by your employer's 401(k) or other retirement/deferred income plan.

Posted by: John Skookum | Mar 27, 2008 12:39:23 PM

Note that 401Ks can now offer Roth options, so they can be taxed today and withdrawn tax free later when the tax rates (might?) are higher.

My guess is that "loophole" will be closed with some sort of VAT/National Sales Tax/Consumption tax.

Posted by: SG | Mar 27, 2008 1:04:41 PM

I was wondering why his royalties weren't on Schedule E, where they're not subject to self-employment tax?

And, since he's in the 'evil-rich' category, he's not allowed to do a Roth-IRA or Roth-401k contributions, correct?

Posted by: Brian | Mar 27, 2008 1:05:31 PM

Has Obama ever given anyone the idea that he has even the most basic grasp of the most ordinary, everyday economics laws most of us have to live by just to get by?

Posted by: juandos | Mar 27, 2008 1:24:08 PM

Since Obama was enrolled in a retirement plan (US Senate) for the year in question, it is my understanding that there was no immediate tax benefit (the year for which he filed). Of course he could still have sheltered the earnings on anything he stashed, but he couldn't have reduced his immediate tax liability.

Is that incorrect?

Posted by: Knucklehead | Mar 27, 2008 1:27:00 PM

Did Obama benefit from the Bush tax cuts? OF COURSE he did. For 10 years prior to 2007 my husband and I never made more than $43,000 combined. Some years as low as $28,000 joint income, and WE benefited from the Bush tax cuts to the tune of several hundred dollars.
So if those tax cuts only helped the rich, well, I guess we were living mighty large in our $450/month apartment and sharing one 15 year old car.

Posted by: tsiroth | Mar 27, 2008 2:35:02 PM

Sen. Obama most assuredly could do both a SEP-IRA for his self-employment income and contribute his 5% to the Thrift Savings Plan. He would have to integrate his contributions to both so that he didn't go over his 415 limit of $15,500.

A better alternative would be to do a Single or Individual K whereby he could contribute up to 25% of his self-employed income (to a max income of $230,000) along with the remainder of his elective deferral. Combined he could do a max of $46,000 between his Single K and his Thrift Savings Plan.

Posted by: John R | Mar 27, 2008 2:37:27 PM

If you love power and position more than money, and power and position might confer huge sums of money later on (writing the presidential memoir, or giving Reagan [$2M] or Clinton [$even more] speeches), then you want to avoid the killer charge of hypocricy in the election that gets you your sought after goal of power and prestige. Thus, if your path to greatness is going to be as a champion of the "forgotten" little guy, you might avoid taking advantage of some legitimate tax planning so that you can campaign on "tax fairness" and "closing loopholes" or the like. If BHO had taken every last deduction or tax planning opportunity, he might not be the knight in shining armor that he wishes to portray himself to the little people. I wander how many tax courses he took at Harvard? Just asking.

Posted by: Jim | Mar 27, 2008 3:56:51 PM

Paul,

You gotta love that someone (tsiroth, 3/27/08 5:35 PM) whose annual combined income is between $28-43,000 is not only readying your blog but posting here too!

You can't buy that kind of exposure.

Paul, forget your page hits, forget your blog rank, forget your SSRN rank, you are reaching the WORLD!

- ATP

Posted by: Adjunct Law Prof. | Mar 27, 2008 7:40:16 PM

LOL! I have read your site occasionally, although in this particular case I followed a link from Instapundit. But my husband has always been interested (really!) in tax stuff, and our income went up quite a bit in 2007 with my husband's shiny new job, and we in our early 30s are now playing catch up on retirement savings, which just makes it that much more interesting. :)

Posted by: tsiroth | Mar 27, 2008 8:18:31 PM

Folks, the plain truth is that Obama is confident that ordinary taxpayers will pick up the tab for supporting him in retirement.

Posted by: Jake | Mar 27, 2008 8:32:34 PM

"Future increases in tax rates potentially threaten to significantly reduce the value of your retirement savings and may even mean that you should not save in 401(k) accounts at all."

I'm putting as much as I can into my 401k provided through my job. I do this by sacrificing things I want right now.
However, I think that in 30 years, SS will be so eff'ed up that the politicians will look around and say, "Hey, look at how much Les has saved! He's got a pile of retirement money. He has more than 'enough'. Let's reduce or eliminate his SS benefits while continuing to pay people who didn't plan ahead." And so all that money that I paid in for all that time will be wasted. Plus, since I will (hopefully) have a nice nest egg saved up, I think there will be a significant tax increase on us 'rich' retirees.

I will not be surprised for events to unfold this way; in fact I mostly expect it. But, knowing myself, I will still be mightily pissed; possibly to the point of doing something 'unfortunate' in my geezer years.

You have all been warned.

Posted by: Les Nessman | Mar 28, 2008 6:42:18 AM

Jake has it right. See 11:32 Mar 27 above and copied below:

"I'm putting as much as I can into my 401k provided through my job. I do this by sacrificing things I want right now.
However, I think that in 30 years, SS will be so eff'ed up that the politicians will look around and say, "Hey, look at how much Les has saved! He's got a pile of retirement money. He has more than 'enough'. Let's reduce or eliminate his SS benefits while continuing to pay people who didn't plan ahead." And so all that money that I paid in for all that time will be wasted. Plus, since I will (hopefully) have a nice nest egg saved up, I think there will be a significant tax increase on us 'rich' retirees.

I will not be surprised for events to unfold this way; in fact I mostly expect it. But, knowing myself, I will still be mightily pissed; possibly to the point of doing something 'unfortunate' in my geezer years.

You have all been warned."


Posted by: Hags | Mar 28, 2008 9:17:40 PM