Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Retirement Funds Vanish as Bankruptcies Hit Tax-Deferred Scheme : Bloomberg's Erik Larson

The story is about an intermediary and some section 1031 exchanges gone very bad. Money not there. Now I'm neither a CPA nor a tax practitioner. From a very general investment and personal finance perspective, what are the lessons?

Businesses built around the tax code's loopholes can turn out to be very poor places to put your money. There must be a "valid business purpose" somewhere in there. I'm not just talking about such a business purpose for IRS purposes, but for investment purposes, such as "has this thing made money?" and "has it ever paid back the investors' principal?". When a very big tax loophole gets lobbied into existence, legitimate businesses will be built which also accommodate it, and then sometimes more exploitative types come in, for the big, quick bucks which might be hustled. No specific characterizations of such intended here, but generally, it should always be a concern if it is your money that is involved. When the tax consequences of a transaction, or a use of a specific intermediary look to you, as a lay person, to be the key drivers, rather than the making of a profit or gain, then, caveat emptor.

Another lesson, for business owners such as the person mentioned in the story, is to surround yourself with reputable people, to run something like the transaction described in the story by both your lawyer and accountant, and listen to them.

Seek real diversification, not just apparent diversification, when you can. If one thing goes very badly, will you be washed up?

Finally, if in a situation somewhat like the one in the story, if there is not a way to get the favorable tax outcome you would prefer, a way which passes the "smell" test, look for a fall-back approach, perhaps a less aggressive approach, with a still pretty good outcome. Beware people giving you a hard sell on some sure-fire tax-avoidance scheme, which just happens to compensate them handsomely. Ask how they are compensated! Demand specific written disclosure! The proposed actions might look like tax evasion, not tax avoidance, to the authorities. There's a world of difference. Even when the "intermediary" doesn't lose or steal your money.

Bloomberg.com: Exclusive

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