Victor Fleischer


Two and Twenty: Taxing Partnership Profits in Private Equity Funds

Victor Fleischer

Private equity fund managers take a share of the profits of the partnership as the equity portion of their compensation. The tax rules for compensating general partners create a planning opportunity for managers who receive the industry standard “two and twenty” (a two percent management fee and twenty percent profits interest). By taking a portion of their pay in the form of partnership profits, fund managers defer income derived from their labor efforts and convert it from ordinary income into long-term capital gain. This quirk in the tax law allows some of the richest workers in the country to pay tax on their labor income at a low rate. Changes in the investment world—the growth of private equity funds, the adoption of portable alpha strategies by institutional investors, and aggressive tax planning—suggest that reconsideration of the partnership profits puzzle is overdue.

While there is ample room for disagreement about the scope and mechanics of the reform alternatives, this Article establishes that the status quo is an untenable position as a matter of tax policy. Among the various alternatives, perhaps the best starting point is a baseline rule that would treat carried interest distributions as ordinary income. Alternatively, Congress could adopt a more complex “Cost-of-Capital Method” that would convert a portion of carried interest into ordinary income on an annual basis, or Congress could allow fund managers to elect into either the ordinary income or “Cost-of-Capital Method.” While this Article suggests that treating distributions as ordinary income may be the best, most flexible approach, any of these alternatives would be superior to the status quo. These alternatives would tax carried interest distributions to fund managers in a manner that more closely matches how our tax system treats other forms of compensation, thereby improving economic efficiency and discouraging wasteful regulatory gamesmanship. These changes would also reconcile private equity compensation with our progressive tax system and widely held principles of distributive justice.

A Theory of Taxing Sovereign Wealth

Victor Fleischer

Sovereign wealth funds enjoy an exemption from tax under § 892 of the tax code. This anachronistic provision offers an unconditional tax exemption when a foreign sovereign earns income from noncommercial activities in the United States. The Treasury regulations accompanying § 892 define noncommercial activity broadly, encompassing both traditional portfolio investing and more aggressive, strategic equity investments. The tax exemption, which was first enacted in 1917, reflects an expansive view of the international law doctrine of sovereign immunity that the United States (and other countries) discarded fifty years ago in other contexts. Because § 892 was not written with sovereign wealth funds in mind, the policy rationale for this generous tax treatment has not been closely examined in the aca- demic literature.

This Article provides a framework for analyzing the taxation of sovereign wealth. I start from a baseline norm of “sovereign tax neutrality,” which departs from the current regime under § 892 by treating the investment income of foreign sovereigns no better and no worse than foreign private investors’ income and by favoring no one nation over another. Whether we should depart from this norm depends on several factors, including what external costs and benefits are created by sovereign wealth investment, whether tax or other regulatory instruments are superior methods of attracting investment or addressing harms, and which domestic political institutions are best suited to implement foreign policy. I then consider whether we should impose an excise tax that would discourage sovereign wealth fund investments in U.S. companies. This tax might be designed to complement nontax economic and foreign policy goals by discouraging investments by funds that fail to comply with best practices for transparency and accountability.

The case for repealing the existing tax subsidy is strong. We should tax sovereign wealth funds as if they were private foreign corporations; there is no compelling reason to subsidize sovereign wealth. At the same time, my analysis suggests that policymakers should be cautious about going any further: An excise tax may not be the optimal regulatory instrument for managing the special risks posed by sovereign wealth funds.