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Private Equity Tax Break ‘Indefensible,’ Calpers’ Dear Says

The tax rate paid by private equity managers on much of their income, less than half that for ordinary wage earners, is an “indefensible” tax break, the chief investment officer of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System said.

Calpers, as the pension fund is known, is one of the largest investors in private equity with about $50 billion as of June 30. The fund, the largest public pension in the U.S., has $234 billion of assets under management.

“General partners should recognize that tax treatment of their income has become indefensible,” said Joe Dear, the fund’s chief investment officer, at a meeting of Calpers’ board today in Sacramento.

Private equity managers’ carried interest is taxed at the 15 percent rate for capital gains, rather than the 35 percent top rate that applies to regular income. U.S. public and private pensions provide 42 percent of the capital for all private equity investments, according to the Private Equity Growth Capital Council in Washington.

“The tax treatment is incomprehensible to ordinary taxpayers and citizens,” Dear said in an interview. “Ultimately private equity depends upon a public policy environment which encourages and fosters their investment style. If people come to believe that private equity general partners are reaping giant returns while paying less in taxes than wage earners do, their support for those policies that enable private equity to work will be withdrawn.”

‘Gross Unfairness’

Mitt Romney’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has put a spotlight on the industry, including Romney’s former firm, Boston-based Bain Capital LLC. President Barack Obama’s budget proposal today reiterates his proposal to tax carried-interest income earned by hedge fund managers and private equity partners at ordinary income rates, raising $13 billion over a decade.

Private equity firms typically charge about 1.5 percent of assets to cover their expenses, and 20 percent of the profits from investments as compensation, or carried interest.

Under pressure from rivals, Romney, whose wealth is estimated at between $190 million and $250 million by his campaign, last month disclosed tax returns showing he paid a 13.9 percent tax rate in 2010 on income of $21.6 million.

“The private equity industry can use logical argument all day long,” Dear said. “It does not diminish the gross unfairness that people perceive. That some of the wealthiest and most prosperous people in this county pay a lower tax rate on their income than wage earners.”

U.S. Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said on Jan. 18 that he plans to reintroduce legislation that would tax carried interest at ordinary income rates.

To contact the reporters on this story: Michael B. Marois in Sacramento at mmarois@bloomberg.net; Cristina Alesci in New York at calesci2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net

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