President Donald Trump’s administration is now responsible for collecting nearly $7 billion in unpaid taxes from the company of one of its biggest hedge fund backers.
In July 2014, a Senate committee inquiry found that Renaissance Technologies allegedly tried to transform short-term trades into long-term ones (which are taxed at a lower rate) in transactions with Barclays and Deutsche Bank. Their goal, according to the committee: Avoid paying $6.8 billion in taxes between 1999 and 2014.
The IRS has since attempted to collect the taxes, and Renaissance maintains it has “cooperated fully.”
New Yorker writer Jane Mayer wrote on Twitter Monday that hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, whom she recently profiled as the “reclusive hedge fund tycoon behind the Trump presidency,” is co-CEO of Renaissance, and that Trump’s administration “can now decide whether to press for payment – or not.”
Thank you, Alec. It’s true. Trump’s admin. can now decide whether to press for payment – or not. This is a huge financial issue for Mercer. https://t.co/3ZLlWoCk5O
— Jane Mayer (@JaneMayerNYer) April 2, 2017
Renaissance declined to comment to Business Insider, and provided a 2014 statement on the issue.
“We believe that the tax treatment for the option transactions being reviewed by the PSI [Passthroughs and Special Industries] is appropriate under current law. These options provide Renaissance with substantial business benefits regardless of their duration,” the 2014 statement said. “The IRS already has been reviewing these option transactions for over five years, and Renaissance has cooperated fully with both reviews.”
Bob Willens, president of a New York-based hedge fund managing consulting service and a former Lehman Brothers managing director, said that for individual partners, converting rapid trading into long-term capital gains can be “immensely beneficial” because it decreases the tax rate by nearly half.
“Most hedge funds do not practice the same strategy that Renaissance has championed,” Willens told Business Insider in an email. “Most have less ambitious objectives and may, on occasion, accomplish this alchemy, but not, in my experience, on the scale that Renaissance attempted.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump team’s connections to Mercer
- Thomson Reuters
A staunch conservative who started his career as a computer scientist at IBM, Mercer bankrolled a number of projects that contributed to Trump’s rise in advance to the 2016 presidential election, the New Yorker reported in March.
In addition to giving millions of dollars to the pro-Trump Make America Number One super PAC, Mercer sponsored public-opinion research suggesting an outsider candidate was likely to take over the presidency.
Multiple members of the Trump administration reportedly have longstanding ties with Mercer – top advisers Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway advised him on various projects for years. When Breitbart News started experiencing financial difficulties in 2011, Mercer invested more than $10 million for a 50% stake in the controversial right-wing site.
In 2015, The Washington Post named Mercer as one of the “10 most influential billionaires in politics.”
Mercer’s middle daughter Rebekah Mercer also “lives in a beautiful apartment in one of Trump’s buildings on the Upper West Side overlooking the Hudson River,” The Hill reported.
How likely it is Trump’s administration will press to collect
- Thomson Reuters
With Mercer making significant contributions to the Trump campaign, hedge fund and tax experts say it’s unclear whether Trump’s win will affect the outcome of the tax dispute.
David Herzig, a tax law professor at Valpraiso University Law School, told Business Insider in an email that any executive interference with a taxpayer audit is unlikely because it’s illegal under a section of the country’s tax code.
“If the IRS audits and finds a deficiency and issues a notice, the agency makes a determination of its litigation position in tax court,” he said. “The administration might play an informal role in setting agency litigation priorities and potentially settle the case.”
While it is nearly unheard of for an administration to attempt to influence a dispute between the IRS and an individual taxpayer, cuts to the IRS could result in a lower rate of enforcements in general, said Willens, the president of the hedge fund consultancy.
“That said, the strategy [Renaissance Technologies] adopted is generally regarded as ‘aggressive’ and it’s far from clear that a court would uphold it, rather than side with the IRS’s views,” he said.
But Dennis J. Ventry, an expert in tax law policy from the UC Davis School of Law, said the IRS commissioner reports to the president and could be removed for any reason.
“Trump could direct the IRS to stop auditing or investigating or prosecuting a taxpayer,” he told Business Insider in an email.
Both on Twitter and in the New Yorker article, Mayer suggested that the ultimate decision on whether to push forward on the tax payment rests with the Trump administration.