A Better Way to Handle Capital Gains Taxes

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Includes: DIA, QQQ, SPY
by: Praveen Ghanta

Taxes on long-term capital gains have fluctuated in recent years, with rates as low as 0% (for lower income groups) and as high as 28%. At the end of 2010 capital gains rates will likely revert to 20% after being at 15% for several years. While long-term term capital gains enjoy a tax break, short term capital gains (on positions held less than one year) have long been taxed at marginal income tax rates. While dividends have more recently been accorded the same tax breaks as capital gains, interest payments continue to be taxed as marginal income.

Capital gains tax breaks are designed to encourage investors to invest in the economy for the long term, thereby promoting economic growth. As currently structured, the capital gains tax break doesn’t really achieve this, as it simply rewards investors that hold a position for more than one year. The law does not distinguish between investments in startups or IPOs and in purchases of existing equity shares. With regard to real estate, the law encourages the tax-free flipping of properties via 1031 transactions, but does not reward investors who improve their properties.

Rather than subsidizing investments in existing shares and property, shouldn’t capital gains tax breaks attempt to promote new investments? This could be easily accomplished by lowering the capital gains tax rate to 0% for all new capital investments, irrespective of investment duration. A new capital investment could be defined as an investment in which the target company directly receives the proceeds of the investment. Investments in IPOs, secondary offerings, startup companies (including angels and VCs), and real property improvements would qualify, while purchasing of existing shares and real estate would not.

A 0% tax rate on new investments would incentivize real investment in the economy, rather than encouraging simple tax-related shuffling of existing investments. In order to offset deficit impacts, traditional capital gains tax breaks could be reduced or eliminated. Moving to a system in which new investment is incentivized would tip American finance away from the casino mentality of recent years, and back towards its original purpose: investing in promising companies for profit.