Over-the-Top Thanks for This Tax "Break"
Ernie Neve, CPA
November 21, 2018
Wall Streeters have a lot to give thanks for this holiday season. Earnings are up, so bonuses are up. And that, in turn, means taxes are up, too. The New York Post just reported that Wall Street Bankers Are Throwing Excessive Parties To Dodge Taxes. But will the wining and dining actually put money back in their pockets? Or is the tax angle just a convenient excuse to party up a storm on the company tab?
Wall Street culture rewards bankers for results. They generally start out with low fixed salaries, at least as a percentage of their overall pay. Then, around this time of year, the bosses get together to count their profits, and shower producers with whatever bonuses it takes to keep them from jumping ship to the competition. In 2017, Wall Street pay jumped 13% to average $422,500 per head. And one consultant predicts sales and trading pros could see 20% more this year in their stockings.
Here's the problem for all those Masters of the Universe glamming it up in their Manhattan condos. Last year's tax bill cut the top federal rate from 39.6% to 37%. However, it also capped deductions for state and local taxes to a flat $10,000. That's a real punch in the gut for Manhattanites paying 13% to the state and city. Throw in 3.8% more for Medicare, and that brings the total skim up to 54%. That's not as bad as the "one for you, nineteen for me" the Beatles sang about in Taxman. But it's hard to get rich if tax collectors are taking home more than you do!
And so, concludes the Post, "Bankers and traders will be celebrating the prospect of massive, multimillion dollar payouts — and they'll use the mega-expenses of year-end blowouts as write-offs for their inflated tax bills, according to industry sources."
It turns out, though, writing off a pricey dinner isn't a very tasty tax shelter. Let's say you treat yourself and three colleagues to the $795/person "white truffle" extravaganza at Daniel, an Upper East Side mainstay. (Relax, your wine pairings are already included in that price!) $3,200 sounds like a lot to shell out for dinner. But after you deduct 50% and multiply it by the 54% tax you save, Uncle Sam covers $864 of that bill.
Now, $864 might cover the sales tax and tip. But in the end, it's a subsidy, not a savings. Nobody puts money in their pocket by splurging on Florida frog leg mousseline with porcini mushrooms in a white truffle white wine sauce. It's delicious, if you're into that sort of thing, and it looks great in your Instagram feed. But you can't retire on it (unless you're the celebrity chef selling it.) You'd think seven-figure financial wizards would be smart enough to figure that out! (Or maybe they're making so much it doesn't really matter?)
While bankers are out celebrating, they should raise a toast to a different blessing. The law that capped deductions for state and local taxes also eliminated them altogether for business entertainment. But Washington did such a clumsy job writing it that tax pros across the country worried it might have killed writeoffs for meals, too. Last month, the IRS clarified that meals are still deductible, so long as they're not "lavish or extravagant." So you tell us — does $795 for five courses of white truffles pass the test?
Nobody likes paying more tax than they have to, especially when they're paying 54%. But we understand the best tax plans are the ones that help you accomplish financial goals beyond a night out on the town. So call us when you're ready to save, and we'll give you something to celebrate!