Monday, August 22, 2016

Go for the Gold

For awhile there, it looked like the just-concluded Rio Olympics would be a carnival of chaos. Golfers boycotting to avoid the Zika virus? Check. Swimmers making their way through raw sewage? Check. And those were just the disasters we anticipated before the opening ceremonies! Who could have predicted divers splashing into a pool of green water, or Ryan Lochte "over-exaggerating" making up a whopper about a drunken robbery?
In the end, it all worked out, and we got to witness the usual quadrennial spectacle of sport, livened with a dose of Latin color. Swimmer Katie Ledecky earned five gold medals and, in one race, beat a woman on a jet ski. Gymnast Simone Biles is headed for the cover of Sports Illustrated and has gone viral with her quote, "I'm not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I'm the first Simone Biles." And none of Rio's projected shortfalls disrupted the spirit of competition.
Olympic games are full of upsets, disappointments, and uncertainty. But there's one team that's always guaranteed to win, and that's the team at the IRS. They're not taxing winners on the value of their medals, at least not yet. But the U.S. Olympic Committee awards cash prizes to U.S. medalists: $25,000 for bringing home the gold, $15,000 for the silver, and $10,000 for the bronze. Uncle Sam's teams finished #1 in the medal race, combining for 46 golds, 37 silvers, and 38 bronzes. That means over $2 million in new income to tax!
How do those cash awards compare with our competitors across the globe? Well, we're nowhere near #1 in that race, for sure. If you live in Azerbaijan, bringing home the gold puts the Azerbaijani equivalent of 510,000 pretax dollars in your pocket. (We're not sure where you can actually spend $510,000 in Azerbaijan, but men's taekwando champ Radik Isaev probably can't wait for the challenge.) If you live in Russia, and you aren't disqualified for doping, bringing home the gold means an extra $135,000. Thailand's Sopita Tanasan, who dominated the women's 48kg weightlifting competition, will enjoy a $314,000 annuity to be paid out over the next 20 years.
Of course, the keepsie money isn't in the prizes, it's in the endorsements. Swimmer Michael Phelps cemented his Olympic legend by breaking a 2,168-year-old record for most individual medals. (Leoniodis of Rhodes, the previous record holder, had to win a footrace while carrying a 50 pound shield and wearing a complete suit of armor.) Phelps has won "just" $1.9 million from his actual swimming. But he's parlayed his fame into $94 million of taxable endorsements and a $55 million net worth. Maybe there's really something to that "cupping" nonsense?
Winning at the Olympics can open doors we can't even imagine yet. Consider this theory. In 1976, a young Bruce Jenner packed up his hopes and dreams and headed to Montreal. What if he gave it his all in the decathlon and finished . . . fourth? No medal, no Wheaties box, no Playgirl cover. Would we be keeping up with those krazy Kardashians today? (And for that matter, which of today's stars will be headlining a reality-TV train-wreck while we're watching the 2056 games?)
Here's the final result. Planning for one-time windfalls (like Olympic gold) can be just as important as planning for periodic income (like endorsements). The IRS wants a piece of it all. So call us before you earn your medals and we'll help you make the most of your gold!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Up in Smoke

The Mafia. The Mob. La Cosa Nostra. Call it what you will, this "certain Italian-American subculture" has a long and storied history. Mobsters like Al Capone, Henry Hill, and John Gotti have become folk heroes of a certain sociopathic sort. Fictional mobsters make special guest appearances alongside pop culture icons — witness The Simpsons' "Fat Tony" D'Amico, crime boss of Springfield.
Organized crime also has a long history of tangling with tax authorities. Try as they might, Elliot Ness and his fellow "Untouchables" couldn't jail Al Capone for bootlegging, bribery, or the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. It took IRS agent Frank Wilson three years of dogged investigation to finally put Capone behind bars for the pedestrian offense of failing to pay his taxes. Even Tony Soprano knew enough to report a salary from his waste management business to keep the IRS off his back.
Earlier this month, the Mob was back in the news as the FBI unsealed an indictment and arrested 46 members of various New York and Philadelphia-area crime families. The suspects sported the usual collection of colorful nicknames like "Tony the Wig," "Anthony the Kid," "Tony the Cripple," and "Mustache Pat." But their actual crimes seemed a far cry from the wars that defined the Mob's glory days. While the indictment included old-school staples like gunrunning, loansharking, and bookmaking, it also featured "participation trophy" offenses like health care fraud, credit card fraud, and selling untaxed cigarettes.
Cigarette smuggling might sound like a penny-ante crime, especially compared to the whacking, kneecapping, and "protection" rackets of mob legend. ("Nice business ya got here. Be a real shame if anything happened to it.") But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives estimates that black-market smokes cost governments $5 billion per year. In New York, where the tax is $4.35 per pack, an estimated 57% of all sales involve smuggled cigarettes. And every time the tax goes up, so do the incentives to smuggle.
How does the scheme actually work? Simple arbitrage. Buy your cigarettes someplace cheap like Virginia, where the tax is just 30 cents per pack. Truck them up I-95 to New York City. Sell them at a discount to bodegas and other independent retailers. Then conveniently "forget" to tell the tax man about it. Smugglers generally make between $4 and $6 per pack. That means a single truckload, which contains 48,000 cartons, can light up nearly $3 million in profit.
Numbers like that make "bootlegging" so attractive that terrorists have fired up their own efforts. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing, in fact, was financed by cigarette smuggling. In 2002, a federal jury convicted a Lebanon native of smuggling cigarettes from North Carolina to Michigan to funnel profits for Hezbollah. And investigators believe that European cigarette smugglers help pay for ISIS's reign of terror, too, both in the Middle East and throughout Europe.
Here's the lesson from today's sad story of Mob decline. Every financial move you make involves at least some tax consideration. Now, snuffing out those taxes shouldn't be your sole priority. But once you've made the right financial choice, your next step should be to find the most tax-efficient way to do it. That's where we come in. So call us for the plan you need, and watch those unwanted taxes go up in smoke!

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Darker Side of Reality TV

Americans can't seem to get enough of reality television. Most critics think that's because reality TV presents us as we all aspire to be. Something about the camera seems to bring out the best in people, whether they're bachelorettes, drag queens, or cake chefs. Reality TV is where we go to restore our faith in the simple human dignity in everyone, from hoarders to pawn stars to ice-road truckers. (Right?) Besides, what kind of masochist would voluntarily waste an hour of their precious life watching a gaggle of "real housewives" fighting like a sack full of drunken cats?
That's why it was so disappointing to hear that Abby Lee Miller, star of Lifetime's Dance Moms, has pled guilty to federal tax fraud and money laundering charges. It's a bit like finding out the mighty Wizard of Oz is just a little man behind a curtain. (Think of the children!)
If the Kardashians are the bright shining sun of the reality TV solar system, Abby Lee Miller is a minor outlying planet, or maybe a famous comet. Dance Moms has spent six seasons following Miller, her Pittsburgh studio, her dance team, and of course the dancers' moms. (We don't have to actually watch this stuff to write about it; the show even has its own Wikipedia page.)
Miller may be a whiz at choreographing routines like the one highlighted in "Topless Showgirls," featuring her preteen troupe performing a burlesque routine in flesh-toned bra tops and tights. (The show's producers mercifully pulled that episode from the season's DVD compilation.) But when it comes to business, she's got two left feet. In 2010, she filed for bankruptcy, claiming $325,000 in assets and $400,000 in debt. As part of that process, the court ordered her to do all her banking out of a single central account and file monthly operating reports disclosing her finances.
But Miller failed to disclose she would be profiting once her show debuted on July 14, 2011. In 2013, the judge supervising her affairs found himself channel-surfing one night and clicked onto Dance Moms. Naturally, he wondered why he wasn't seeing that income.
Miller could have cleaned up her act. Instead, she choreographed more scheming. She held on to checks to deposit them after her case was discharged, deposited money into hidden accounts, and asked customers to pay her mother instead of herself. And of course she didn't show that little pirouette to the IRS. How much are we talking? According to prosecutors, $755,492.85. That's a lot of sequined leotards!
Last October, a federal grand jury indicted Miller on 20 counts of fraud. For an encore, prosecutors added a money-laundering charge after discovering she and her employees had smuggled $120,000 in cash from Australia in Ziploc bags hidden in their suitcases. A week later, she pled guilty to one count of bankruptcy fraud and one count of not reporting an international currency transaction. Now she's looking at 24 to 30 months in a place where sequined leotards are in very short supply.
Ironically, Miller's cheating didn't save her anything — once the judge found her television gold mine, she wound up using it to pay her creditors in full! And that's the lesson of our story. Cutting corners and breaking the rules may seem to offer short-term relief. But survivors know that long-term planning is the key to financial success. So call us for help with your planning and enjoy some real world savings!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Like This!

If you're like most Facebook users, you get plenty of friend requests from people who aren't really friends. Co-workers you never respected from your last job; classmates you never really liked 30 years ago; annoying blowhards you meet at your in-laws' anniversary party. If you're lucky, you can just ignore those requests and hope they go away.

But sometimes a request is harder to ignore. That includes the friend request the IRS just sent to Facebook itself, in the form of a Statutory Notice of Deficiency, for $3-5 billion dollars. (Plus interest and penalties, of course.)

Here's the scoop. Facebook has 1.23 billion friends across the world. (Probably not too many more than you do, but who's counting?) That was enough for Facebook to make $3.69 billion selling advertisements last year. But who likes paying tax on all that income at the top corporate rate of 35%? So Facebook set out to edit its profile, at least where the IRS is concerned.

In 2010, Facebook transferred rights to some of its "online platform" and "marketing intangibles" to an Irish subsidiary. The Emerald Isle is a lovely place to do business — who wouldn't want to "make their green" in a place where the wearing of green is a thing? But Ireland's top corporate tax rate is just 12.5% — barely a third of our own. That difference lets Facebook license the intellectual property from its Irish subsidiary, deduct those license payments to save 35% here in the US, and pay just 12.5% on the resulting income in Ireland. Slick, right? Lots of companies have moved their intellectual property to Ireland, and by one study, this sort of profit shifting will cost the Treasury $135 billion in tax revenue this year. If you're counting, that's over 4% of our total tax receipts.

Facebook friended the accounting firm of Ernst & Young to assign a value to the assets it transferred. That's important because the lower Facebook values those assets, the less taxable income they have to bring back from the foreign subsidiary. At the same time, it's a difficult job because there's no real market for them. Who else besides Facebook could possibly use Facebook's marketing intangibles?

There's enough at stake that in 2013, the IRS opened an audit. They saw that Ernst & Young valued each of the transferred assets independently, rather than as part of an integrated whole. And they said this undervalued the assets by billions of dollars. But the IRS needed more information to calculate exactly how much. So they sent Facebook a series of "friend requests," in the form of summonses to produce documents and appear at the IRS's office in San Jose. The company ignored those requests just like you'd ignore a friend request from that drunk loudmouth you met at your spouse's company golf outing.

Last week, with the statute of limitations for the audit closing in, the IRS gave up on requesting information and just sent Facebook the bill. Naturally, Facebook will fight back in court. If they lose, it could cost them enough that investors stop liking their stock! Stay tuned for the rest of the story.

Here's today's lesson. Proper planning is key to keeping your tax bill down. But it's not enough just to plan. You have to implement, too. That takes work, and it means dotting your i's and crossing your t's. So call us for the help you need. Stop wasting money on taxes you don't need to pay. And post a picture for your "friends" to see what you do with the savings!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Now That's Prime

Americans love peeking into the wallets of the rich and famous. Just how much are they really worth? How did they get there? And who's on top of the pile? For years, Microsoft founder Bill Gates ($76 billion) has been the king of that particular gilded hill, with Berkshire Hathaway chief Warren Buffett ($65 billion) capturing a respectable second place.

But last week brought news that there's a shakeup near the top — and taxes played a big role in that change. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns about 18% of the company, has seen his stock shoot up over 50% since its recent low in February. At the same time, Warren Buffett has seen his Berkshire Hathaway shares languish. On Friday, July 22, Bezos's uptick and Buffett's downtick crossed, making Bezos the second-richest man in America and the third-richest man on earth.

Now let's look at just a few of the ways taxes played in growing Bezos's wealth:

    Amazon got an early boost by helping customers avoid the state and local sales taxes they would pay at a local brick and mortar retailer. Buying online already meant saving a trip to the store. But skipping the tax bill made the whole proposition even more attractive. Even today, the company collects sales tax in just 28 states.

Amazon's international headquarters is based in low-tax Luxembourg, where it benefits from a sweetheart ruling negotiated with local authorities seeking to lure multinational corporations. Low taxes mean the company has more to reinvest in growing its business.

The company profits from an elaborate structure, dubbed "Project Goldcrest," designed to shift income from high-tax jurisdictions to low-tax jurisdictions. (It sounds like something a James Bond villain would name his tax plan, but it earned the name because the goldcrest is Luxembourg's national bird.) For example, Amazon used a 28-step (!) series of intracompany transfers to shift income from intellectual property like software, trademarks, and brand names to a nontaxable Luxembourg partnership before passing anything back to the United States.

Bezos's taxable salary is $81,840 — just $14,000 more per year than what a lowly Facebook intern makes for fetching Mark Zuckerberg's coffee. (Bezos has no nanny for his four kids, and his wife picks them up from school in a Honda minivan.) His net worth grows through stock appreciation, which isn't taxable until he sells his shares. If he dies while he still owns the stock, his heirs will avoid income tax on that appreciation entirely.

Finally, on July 14, Buffett donated $2.9 billion to a group of private foundations. Buffett is a legendarily generous guy, who's already pledged to give away the bulk of his fortune at his death. But he's also a legendarily smart guy, and he certainly won't be passing up the sweet tax deduction he gets for his gift. Of course, that tax-advantaged gift helped close the final gap between Bezos and Buffett.

Here's the moral of the story. Smart tax planning didn't just help Jeff Bezos make Amazon more valuable. It was a crucial part of his strategy, right from the start. Shouldn't it be part of your strategy? Call us to learn more!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Shell Games on the Big Screen

The dog days are here, and multiplexes across America are delighting audiences with the usual summer fare. Down to the left in Theatre Three, a motley crew of undersea chums are busy finding their friend Dory. Across the hall in Theatre Five, Universal Studios has ripped off reimagined the Toy Story premise with pets instead of playthings. Around the corner in Theatre Six, you can watch the earthlings unite once again to defeat the aliens in Independence Day: Resurgence 3D. (Don't forget your $10 tub of popcorn and your $6 soda!)

Director Steven Soderbergh has shot his share of thrillers, including the Oscar-winning Traffic and the casino-caper series Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve, and Ocean's Thirteen. Now he's launched work on a different kind of thriller that the critics at the IRS will be sure to applaud: an as-yet unnamed project based on (you guessed it) the pulse-pounding Panama Papers.

Need a quick refresher? Back in April, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism released bombshell results from a year spent combing through 11.5 million documents leaked from the Panamanian law firm of Mossack Fonseca. The papers revealed the owners of 214,000 mostly-secret shell companies. Mossack Fonseca's clients included the king of Saudi Arabia, the presidents of Argentina and Ukraine, and the former prime ministers of Georgia, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, and (again) Ukraine.

There's nothing inherently illegal about using offshore entities. Investors often find it easier to own assets outside their own countries through shell companies, and there are legitimate tax advantages as well. But not everyone unmasked by the leak appears to have been operating entirely aboveboard. The prime minister of Iceland resigned after his citizens learned that he and his wife secretly owned millions of dollars worth of Icelandic bank bonds while he was in charge of negotiating their bailout. (Oops.) And it's hard to believe that Mallory Chacón Rossell, an "alleged" money launderer tied to Mexican druglord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, was using her offshore entity to hold, say, bank CDs.

Soderbergh previously turned the price-fixing scandal at Archer Daniels Midland into a serviceable film called The Informant, and even convinced Matt Damon to star. In this film, he'll be dramatizing the upcoming book Secrecy World, which recounts the tale of the journalists who broke the story. So we won't just be watching a bunch of lawyers in tropical-weight pinstripes filing corporate documents with various governments.

Casting hasn't yet been announced. But there are some stars who may not want to audition. Emma Watson is rumored to have made £24 million for her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series. But her name turned up in the Papers as beneficiary of a British Virgin Islands company. (No points for Gryffindor!) And martial-arts star Jackie Chan owned at least six BVI companies, including one called Jackie Chan Ltd. (If he really was trying to hide something, he probably should have worked harder on a name.)

We have no idea how much Soderbergh will make from this latest project. But we trust he's smart enough to realize he doesn't have to hide it offshore to pay less tax on it. All he really needs is a plan — and we would be happy to provide it! We can do the same thing for you, too. So call us if you want to pay less without winding up in an unwelcome spotlight!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Harry Potter and the Deathly Tax Bill

Harry Potter's sidekick Ron Weasley has challenged opponents from a mountain troll to the Horcruxes to the Death Eaters. Now the actor who plays him, 27-year-old Rupert Grint, is taking on a foe as powerful as Voldemort himself. Last month, he challenged a squad of dementors taking on the deceptively ordinary appearance of bureaucrats at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, Great Britain's equivalent of our IRS.

Grint has conjured up a fortune since being plucked from his local theatre group to play Harry Potter's friend. He's rumored to have collected about £24 million for his work in the series. (That's about $32.4 million, give or take, depending on how panicky currency traders are feeling about last month's Brexit vote.)

In Harry Potter's world, the Ministry of Magic imposes a Hexing Tax of up to 3,000 galleons on the privilege of wizarding. (Junior Wizard Savings Accounts at Gringott's Bank are thankfully free from this tax!) But in our Muggle world, Her Majesty's Revenue and Custom wants considerably more, taxing non-wizardry income at rates up to 40%.

Grint's accountant, Dan Clay, doesn't have a magic wand. But he does appear to have taken a class or two in Defence Against the Dark Arts. On April 6, 2010, the top tax rate on incomes over £150,000 leapt from 40% to 50%. Because the higher rate took effect in the middle of the year, the law required high-income taxpayers to split the 20-month period leading up to the transition into two separate tax periods, of eight months and 12 months. Clay chose a split that let his client report his income from the sixth and seventh films into the period before rates went up so that he could pay the lowest possible bill. But tax inspectors found documents during an unrelated audit suggesting Grint had intended to choose a different split, and imposed the higher tax.

Grint has paid the new tax in full and his barrister is quick to point that out. "There is no tax avoidance involved here." But after paying the tax, Grint filed suit to request a refund in the neighborhood of £1 million. (Pricey neighborhood!) Thus he found himself at a Tax Tribunal sitting at the high court in London, where he told Judge Barbara Mosely that his knowledge of taxes was "quite limited" and he had trusted the details to his father and his accountant. If we had Hermione Grainger's Time Turner, we'd tell you whether he wins. But we don't, so we'll just have to wait for the judge's decision.

Sometimes tax planning involves big-picture concepts and strategies like tax-efficient entity structures for business owners. (If we were to advise the barman at the Leaky Cauldron Inn that opens into Diagon Alley, we might suggest the British equivalent of an S corporation.) Sometimes it involves arcane technical details like accounting periods. And sometimes you have to resort to potions and spells. (We've got those, too. We just can't give them to you because you're a Muggle. Sorry.)

Has the Sorting Hat placed you in a top tax bracket? Here's the good news: You don't have to take on the Ministry of Magic to pay less. You just need a plan. So pick up the phone and call us — or have your owl bring us a letter — and let's see what we can do for you!