Roundtable Weekly
Top Senate Democratic Tax-Writer Proposes New Capital Gains Regime, Ending Preferred Rate
September 14, 2019

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)

On Thursday, Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) presented and released a detailed white paper outlining his plan to reform the taxation of capital gains.  (News Conference Video, Center for American Progress Action Fund, Sept. 12)   

  • Entitled “Treat Wealth Like Wages,” the proposal is billed by the top Democratic tax-writer in the Senate as “a plan to fix our broken tax code, ensure the wealthy pay their fair share, and protect Social Security.”  Sen. Wyden’s proposal would end the preferred tax rate for capital gains and impose annual mark-to-market taxation of capital assets for taxpayers above certain income thresholds.

  • Both proposals represent dramatic departures from existing tax law.  They are direct challenges to two fundamental principles that support capital formation, entrepreneurship, and long-term investment: (1) tax on capital gain should be deferred until it is realized, and (2) capital gain should be subject to a reduced tax rate.

  • The mark-to-market rules, which Sen. Wyden refers to as “anti-deferral accounting rules, would apply to taxpayers averaging $1 million in income or $10 million in assets over the last 3 years.  “Tradable” assets such as stocks and bonds would be subject to annual taxation of unrealized gains. Taxpayers could take a deduction for unrealized losses.

  • While “non-tradable” assets like real estate would not be subject to mark-to-market on an annual basis, they would be subject to an additional layer of tax – a “look-back charge” – for the theoretical benefit of the tax deferral when the asset is sold, or certain other revaluation events occur.  This look-back charge would be in addition to the capital gains tax, which would be set at the top ordinary income tax rate. 

  • The structure of the look-back charge is undefined.  Sen. Wyden’s paper describes a few options:  (1) an interest charge on deferred tax; (2) a yield-based tax designed to eliminate the benefits of deferral; or (3) a surtax based on an asset’s holding period.  The look-back charge would also be imposed at death, even if the asset is not sold (the basis of the asset would step up at death).

  • Special rules would apply for pass-through entities.  For example, the Wyden proposal would require a partnership to calculate the lookback charge when real estate is contributed to or distributed from the partnership – and report each partner’s share.

  • Built-in gain on existing assets would be subject to the tax, paid over an unspecified transition period.  The estimated $1.5 - $2 trillion of revenue raised from the proposal would be dedicated towards shoring up the long-term solvency of Social Security.  (CNBC, Sept. 12)

  • “Congress should strengthen tax rules that promote capital formation, not weaken them, which is what Sen. Wyden’s proposal would do,” said Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer.  He added, “Rewarding risk-taking, long-term investment, and entrepreneurship is at the heart of the American economic model. By eliminating any tax incentive to pursue projects that have a pay-off that is far in the future, the proposal would discourage businesses and individuals from undertaking the long-term, capital-intensive investments that drive productivity and economic growth by deepening and enriching our Nation’s capital stock, including its commercial real estate.”   

    Sen. Wyden invited comments about the proposal on a wide variety of issues, such as how to calculate the look-back charge and whether debt should reduce the value of property when measuring a taxpayer’s aggregate assets.   The Roundtable’s Tax Policy Advisory Committee (TPAC) plans to review the proposal in detail and submit comments.  

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