ProPublica, How the Trump Tax Law Created a Loophole That Lets Top Executives Net Millions by Slashing Their Own Salaries:
The 2017 tax cuts made it more attractive for certain company owners to be paid in profits instead of wages. Some cut their own wages, expanding a loophole that was already costing the U.S. billions.
In the months after President Donald Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December 2017, some tax professionals grew giddy as they discovered opportunities for their clients inside a law that already slashed rates for corporations and wealthy individuals.
At a May 2018 conference of financial advisers, one wealth planner told the room that a key provision of the new law “leaves a gaping hole in the tax code.” As he put it, “The goal by the end of the presentation today is to make you guys the bus drivers, or the truck drivers, to drive right through that hole with your clients.”
Among the tax-saving opportunities offered by the law: Taxes on profits from certain types of businesses were cut dramatically, while the rate on salaries those businesses paid was reduced only slightly.
That created an alluring opportunity. People who were both owners and employees of a company could make the same amount of money but change how they label it, by lowering their salaries and in turn increasing the company’s profits, which they shared in. That would reduce their tax bill by moving money from a high-tax category to a lower one: Wages are taxed at a top rate of 37% plus an additional 3.8% Medicare levy, while profits, under the new law, are taxed at a top rate of 29.6% (with no Medicare tax). Proponents of this provision claimed it would foster increased investment in American businesses (economists say it’s too early to determine whether that’s true). But even before the bill passed, prominent tax academics warned, in an article titled “The Games They Will Play,” that the tax break would be abused.
Their fears appear to have materialized. Secret IRS data shows multiple instances in which salaries for top executives and owners suddenly and inexplicably dropped in the first year after the Trump tax cut, reducing their tax bills even as their companies appeared to thrive. The mysterious pay cuts played out across industries, from logistics companies to real estate firms to makers of bathtubs, and among executives of varying degrees of prominence. The salary for one construction firm executive dropped from more than $4 million in 2017 to $105,000 in 2018. ...
It’s impossible to say how much money was reclassified as a result of the new law, but consider this: The loophole already existed, in much smaller form, before the Trump tax overhaul. A government report in 2009 estimated the U.S. Treasury was losing billions to this strategy. Back then, an owner could save the Medicare tax by counting a dollar as profits rather than salary. But after the Trump law, the tax savings roughly tripled, to about 11%.
The revelations about the wage maneuvers come from a trove of IRS records obtained by ProPublica covering thousands of the wealthiest Americans. Previous articles in “The Secret IRS Files” series have detailed how the wealthy avoid paying taxes legally, including a story last week exploring the massive benefits the Trump tax overhaul provided billionaires.
The sudden shifts in compensation revealed in the tax returns of wealthy business owners show how they may be gaming federal law to further slash their taxes. They also highlight how, unlike most Americans, whose taxes are automatically taken out of each paycheck, wealthy business owners have a menu of avoidance techniques afforded to them by the tax code. ...
ProPublica analyzed years of wage and profit data and found that for each of the companies named in this story, company profits rose even as wages were cut.
Unlike publicly traded corporations, private companies are not required to publicly report profits, salaries for top executives or their rationales for compensation decisions. But experts who spoke to ProPublica said that, if audited, these executives would have to justify why the value of their labor plunged in a given year. The secret tax data does not answer that question.
Taking an unreasonably low salary in order to avoid taxes is illegal. But the IRS’ definition of “reasonable” is vague, and the vast majority of business owners will likely never have to justify the salary cuts. Only a tiny fraction of such companies have their salaries examined by the IRS. Karen Burke, a tax law professor at the University of Florida, said, “For a business owner, there’s every incentive to do this and every reason to believe you’ll get away with it.”
Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:
- ProPublica: America's Richest People Pay Little To Nothing In Federal Income Taxes (June 8, 2021)
- Dorothy Brown And David Cay Johnston Discuss Yesterday's ProPublica's Report On The Tax Secrets Of The .001% (June 9, 2021)
- Dorothy Brown On The ProPublica Tax Report, Racial Justice, And The Gig Economy (June 14, 2021)
- ProPublica: How Peter Thiel Turned $2,000 In A Roth IRA Into $5,000,000,000 (June 28, 2021)
- ProPublica: The Billionaire Playbook — How Sports Owners Use Their Teams To Avoid Millions In Taxes (July 12, 2021)
- ProPublica: The Number Of People With IRAs Worth $5 Million Or More Has Tripled, Congress Says (July 29, 2021)
- ProPublica: Secret IRS Files Reveal How Much the Ultrawealthy Gained by Shaping Trump’s “Big, Beautiful Tax Cut” (Aug. 11, 2021)