Posts tagged ‘Coca Cola’

The State of Anti-Trust

A lot of folks believe that antitrust law is mainly used for consumer protection.  That may have once been true, but it certainly is not true today.  Antitrust laws are used today by one group of competitors to try to hamstring another competitor in their business, usually one that is kicking their collective butts.

Here is the latest example:

The Justice Department is investigating allegations that International Business Machines Corp. has monopolized the market for mainframe computers, broadening Washington's search for anti-competitive behavior in the technology industry.

The requests, a special kind of subpoena used in antitrust investigations, followed a complaint by [the Computer & Communications Industry Association"”a group with many IBM rivals among its members] to the Justice Department accusing IBM of harming businesses by abusing its dominance of the market for mainframes.

Narry a customer or consumer to be found.  So what is the complaint?

the CCIA alleges IBM began to tighten its grip on the market by not allowing its newest software to be used on competitors' machines.

Waaaaaaaa!  Develop your own freaking software.  The only reason these competitors have a product at all is due to another anti-trust settlement 50 years ago:

For decades, [IBM] operated under terms of a 1956 consent decree with the government that required it to license mainframe technology to competitors.

Roughly the equivalent of Coca-Cola being forced to license its formula to whoever wants it.

But I can prove this has nothing to do with consumers.  Take an earlier, similar case against IBM several years ago.

The lawsuits followed IBM's decision not to license its newest mainframe operating system, called z/OS, to customers of Platform Solutions Inc., a company that made cheaper mainframes that were compatible with IBM's.

In its complaint, Platform alleged that IBM was unlawfully "tying" its software to its mainframe hardware and requiring customers to purchase both.

Congratulations, this company was able to beat IBM on price when they bore no hardware development costs (IBM was forced to license its designs to them to copy) and obviously was a free rider on software as well.   But that is beside the point.  Here is the solution that settled the case:

That case was settled last year, after IBM purchased Platform and ended its business.

LOL.  I am pretty sure that if the anti-trust case had anything to do with customers, that increasing IBM's market share and shutting down a low cost competitor would not have been considered an appropriate fix to IBM's supposedly anti-competitive behavior.  Antitrust has devolved nearly entirely into a legal club to wack a competitor who is beating you in the marketplace.  In Europe, it has become a tool to wack foreign competitors to domestic companies without triggering trade retaliations (e.g. Microsoft, Honeywell).

Estate Tax Confusion

It is not surprising that that a debate like the one over estate taxes that attracts so many class warfare fanatics should miss the point on a lot of issues.  However, the estate tax debate has been handled in the media perhaps worse than even other tax debates, which is a pretty low bar to try to crawl under.  The reason I say this is that the most serious "end the estate tax" type proposals out there have two parts, only one of which I have ever seen mentioned in the press:

  1. End the federal tax on estates (this, of course, is the part that gets the press)
  2. End the stepping-up of the cost basis of financial assets at death (this part never gets mentioned)

This 2nd piece of the proposal may seem arcane to some -- let me explain.  Most large estates (ie, the ones that estate tax supporters are concerned about) are dominated by financial assets (e.g. stocks, bonds).  These financial assets, typically held for years, tend to have a cost basis far below their current market value.  An example might be shares of Microsoft held for 10 years that were purchased for only a small fraction of the current price.  The cost basis of a financial asset is generally its purchase price plus commissions and other transaction charges.

Lets take a gentleman who dies and whose estate is made up entirely of $10 million worth of Coca-Cola stock bought years ago for just $5 million.  The estate all goes to his one daughter.  Under estate law, two things would happen.  The estate pays a large tax on the $10 million, and the remainder flows through to his daughter.  Lets say taxes take half, and his daughter now has $5 million of stock with an original price of $2.5 million.  The other thing that happens is the basis of assets is stepped up to current market value.  That means that as far as the IRS is concerned, his daughter owns stock worth $5 million with a basis of $5 million.  If she immediately sold the stock, she would have no capital gains tax.

There are a couple of good arguments against the estate tax.  From an efficiency standpoint, it diverts large pools of capital from private investments into the hands of the Federal Government, where only the most ardent statist would argue that it is better spent.  Also, billions and billions of dollars are spent every year with lawyers, accountants and financial planners to find ways to dampen the impact of the estate tax.  This is all wasted, unproductive effort that would immediately be redirected to more productive uses if the estate tax were eliminated.

From a fairness standpoint, the estate tax acts as a second tax on income that has already been taxed before.  In our example, though the $5 million capital gain is getting taxed for the first time in the estate, the $5 million original costs, which must have come from taxed income at one time, is getting taxed for at least a second time.  The other fairness problem becomes visible if we change the name of the stock from Coca-Cola to "Dad's private company."  For family businesses, ownership is not as easily divisible - you can't sell half or two-thirds that easily in part because there is not much market for minority shares of small family businesses.  What therefore happens in practice is that the daughter must sell the family business to pay the taxes.

The estate tax reform plan outlined above eliminates both these latter problems.  Under these rules, the daughter would inherit the full $10 million of stock, but, unlike today, her basis would remain the same as her dad's -- in this case, $5 million.  She would not pay any tax until she sold any of the assets.  And then she would pay capital gains taxes using the lower basis of her father's.

This results in two beneficial outcomes:  a)  taxes are only charged on the part of estates that have not already faced income taxes and b)  taxes are only paid when the individuals who inherit choose to make an asset sale and convert assets to cash.  The timing of assets sales drive taxes, whereas today, in all too many cases, taxes drive the timing of asset sales.  (By the way, supporters of the estate tax also argue that it is good because the estate tax incentivizes charitable giving.  The argument is that the tax is so confiscatory, and that the government so well-known as a black hole for money, that rich people decide it is better to give it away than to let the government take it all.  This is an odd argument for statists to make, but they do.  Note that in this estate tax proposal, the daughter would inherit a lot of low-basis stocks.  The same charitable giving incentives exist for low-basis stocks, since the IRS will give you credit for the market value as a deductible gift but you don't have to pay the capital gains).

Asymmetrical Information has been on this case for a while:

There is no case for saying, as the New York Times inexplicably does, that "Repeal would shield
the estates of the very wealthiest Americans from the tax." It does not. It
does, however, defer taxation. Because basis will no longer be 'stepped-up'
after death (except for a $1.3 million exemption) they will simply be taxed like
all other capital gains - at the time those gains are realized.

Stepped-up basis is one of the four legs of the estate-planning stool along
with the life insurance tax exemption, minority discount valuations and the division of income and
principal interests (such as the "estate
"). It is not entirely clear that beneficiaries of large estates are
better off after repeal when the full toolkit of estate planning techniques is
taken into account - unless capital gains tax is done away with altogether and
the states stop taxing estates. Neither is likely to happen.

Given the large estates I've seen avoid taxes, I am skeptical of analyses
that suggest an enormous impact to revenues from this repeal. I don't believe
they factor in the new potential revenues from carryover basis outside the
traditional estate tax shelter vehicles. Certainly, the capital gains rate is
lower than the estate rate, but when estate tax shelter vehicles dwindle away,
more assets will ultimately be subject to capital gains taxation. Based on what
estate planning professionals tell me, it will be a wash in many cases and more
expensive in some significant estates. In other words, with respect to the
Estate Tax, we may still be in the fat part of the Laffer curve, where a lower statutory rate may yield higher
revenues over time (due to avoidance behavior, not a lack of work

This post also cites a study that says that increased capital gains taxes on inherited assets could offset estate tax losses to the government.  That seems aggressive, assuming a lot of assets are getting passed in vehicles (trusts?) that avoid or limit estate taxes, but the offset is there never-the-less and is something you will never ever see in a newspaper article about the estate tax.

I haven't paid attention to the current Congressional proposals out there, but the post goes on to argue that Congress, as is its wont, has chosen the worst of both worlds while maximizing rent-seeking opportunities.

postscript: By the way, shame on all of those accountants, lawyers, and others in the estate planning profession.  They all tell their clients that the estate tax is confiscatory, and can go on for hours with a client about various things that are unfair in the system.  But at the same time they run to Congress begging them to keep the whole tottering complex system in place to protect the rent they extract from inefficiencies in the system

Heads You Win, Tails I Lose, Part 2

In my earlier post, I lamented the fact that "progressives" who criticize Bush for being undemocratic, illiberal, overly dependent on the military, and theocratic are proposing alternatives that are much, much worse.  In that post, they were championing Hugo Chavez of Venezuela as their savior.  Now, they seem to be latching on to Muslim countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran as their champions of liberal values. In this interview of George Galloway, recently feted by liberals and progressives on both sides of the Atlantic:

M.B.H.S.: You often call for uniting Muslim and progressive forces globally.

How far is it possible under current situation?

Galloway: Not only do I think it's possible but I think it is vitally necessary

and I think it is happening already. It is possible because the progressive

movement around the world and the Muslims have the same enemies.

*Their enemies are the Zionist occupation, American occupation, British

occupation of poor countries mainly Muslim countries. * * *

*They have the same interest in opposing savage capitalist globalization which

is intent upon homogenizing the entire world turning us basically into factory

chickens which can be forced fed the American diet of everything from food to

Coca-Cola to movies and TV culture*. And *whose only role in life is to consume

the things produced endlessly by the multinational corporations.* And the

progressive organizations & movements agree on that with the Muslims.

Otherwise we believe that we should all have to speak as Texan and eat McDonalds

and be ruled by Bush and Blair. So *on the very grave big issues of the

day-issues of war, occupation, justice, opposition to globalization-the Muslims

and the progressives are on the same side*.

By the way, this is the movement that calls itself "reality-based".

Can't someone today emerge as a rallying point for those of use who are classical liberals and libertarians?

Hat Tip LGF.

Bailing out Euro Disney

This, from Marginal Revolution, is kind of funny for its irony value:

For years, France has fought what is sees as an American cultural invasion, powered by Hollywood movies, U.S. pop music and giant brands like Coca-Cola.  Now, it is going to great lengths to save an American cultural icon in its backyard: Disneyland

The French government has just finished helping Walt Disney Co. bail out Euro Disney SCA, the operator of two Disney theme parks outside Paris.  A state-owned bank is contributing around $500 million in investments and local concessions to save Euro Disney from bankruptcy.  This comes after 17 years during which French leaders have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours to ensure that the land of Money [ed: Monet?] could keep Mickey Mouse.  Still saddled with debt, Euro Disney is gambling that expensive new attractions and an improved tourism climate will deliver a turnaround.

I am not sure the Euro Disney site will ever work.  The main problem is that it was put in the wrong place.  The plurality of European tourists go to Spain for vacation - Spain is the Florida/California of Europe, with its warm weather and nice beaches.  Putting a theme park in northern France may seem geographically logical, on the transportation nexus between England, France, and Germany, but it makes no sense for tourism -- its in a great place for a distribution warehouse, but no one wants to take their vacation there. 

The equivalent would be putting a Disney theme park in Chicago.  Chicago is a wonderful town and sits astride the #1 transportation hub in the US, but few people want to go there on their vacations, at least not for about 9 months of the year (by the way, due to ocean currents the situation is not that comparable, but note that Euro Disney is actually NORTH of Chicago!)