Balance in the Taxation of Derivative Securities: An Agenda for Reform
84 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2004
Date Written: March 4, 2004
By now, it is well understood that aggressive tax planning among high-income individuals and corporations represents a grave threat to the U.S. tax system, and that derivatives are staples of this planning. In response, the usual recommendation is consistency, which means that the same tax treatment should apply to economically comparable bets, regardless of what form is used. Yet because consistency is unattainable, this Article develops an alternative theory: Policymakers should strive instead for balance. This means that for each risky position, the treatment of gains should match the treatment of losses. For example, if the government bears 15% of losses, it has to share in 15% of gains. On a different derivative, if the government bears 35% of losses, it should share in 35% of gains.
As long as this matching is achieved across the board for all risky bets, the admittedly counterintuitive reality is that taxpayers need not prefer, or engage in planning to attain, a low effective rate. A low rate obviously is appealing for gains, but it is correspondingly unappealing for losses (i.e., since deducting the loss is less valuable). Moreover, even if a low rate is desired, taxpayers can get the same aftertax return by increasing the size of their bet. The main advantage of this reform agenda is flexibility. To prove this point, this Article outlines three ways to match gains and losses on derivatives: mark-to-market accounting; a novel reform called the stated-term approach, in which gains and losses are deferred until the scheduled maturity date of the derivative, even if the contract is terminated earlier; and a zero tax rate. The provocative conclusion is that these thoroughly inconsistent approaches can coexist for economically comparable derivatives, without prompting planning. Yet this flexibility is not free, so the limitations of this reform agenda are considered as well, along with implications for cutting edge problems in the taxation of derivatives, including the timing and character rules for swaps, Section 1032, and the wash sale rules.
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