WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mitt Romney tried again on Thursday to shift the campaign conversation away from his refusal to disclose more of his tax returns, raising questions about what may be in them.
While Romney accused President Barack Obama of demonizing business success by hounding the Republican challenger over the issue, tax experts were speculating about what might be in Romney’s undisclosed returns.
So far he has released only his 2010 return and a draft of his 2011 return. He has pledged to release the full 2011 return when it is ready. He has also made disclosures to election officials that shed some light on his personal finances.
Formerly governor of Massachusetts, Romney co-founded private-equity firm Bain Capital, a highly successful investment house, and is one of the wealthiest individuals ever to run for the White House.
Presidential candidates are not required to disclose their tax returns, but it has become common practice. Romney’s father released 12 years of returns when he ran for president in 1968.
Obama, whom Romney presumably will challenge in November, has released returns back to 2000.
Could it be that Romney paid very little in taxes in 2009 or earlier?
Romney’s tax return information released in January showed he paid a 13.9-percent effective tax rate in 2010 and expected to pay a 15.4-percent effective rate on his 2011 income.
Those rates are far below the 35-percent top tax rate for wages, chiefly because Romney gets most of his income from investment gains, which are taxed at a rate of 15 percent.
The 2008 financial crisis hammered many wealthy investors. Some tax experts speculate the crisis may have generated large capital losses for Romney that, carried forward into 2009, might have sharply reduced his tax bill for that year.
Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said on Thursday that there has been no year in which Romney paid zero taxes.
Romney might have had other types of income in 2009 and earlier that could not be offset by capital losses, other experts said.
“The number everyone is focused on is, of course, the effective tax rate,” said University of Notre Dame accounting professor Brad Badertscher.
Obama reported paying effective tax rates of about 26 percent in 2010 and about 20.5 percent in 2011.
Romney’s individual retirement account, or IRA, holds as much as $101 million, despite an annual contribution limit of about $6,000. How could it have gotten so large?
Some tax experts suggest its value has been bloated by stock acquired by Bain at rock-bottom prices. The IRA holds some of Romney’s most lucrative investments, according to a financial disclosure form filed with election officials last August.
Pre-2010 tax returns might reveal little about the IRA, however, since personal returns only show contributions and withdrawals in a given year, and would not show, for example, the values of partnership interests.
Ann Romney, the candidate’s wife, held a trust with a $3 million bank account at UBS AG, the Swiss banking giant that in 2009 agreed to settle U.S. charges that it helped Americans evade taxes. The account was closed in 2010, the Romney campaign said.
University of Southern California Professor Edward Kleinbard wondered if the Swiss account generated income for the Romneys in ways they would rather not disclose, perhaps for instance by investing in foreign currencies against the U.S. dollar.
“Most presidential candidates don’t think it appropriate to bet that the U.S. dollar will lose value by speculating in Swiss francs, which is basically the rationale offered by the trustee of Romney’s ‘blind’ trust for opening this account,” Kleinbard wrote in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece on Wednesday.
The trustee in charge of the Swiss account said it was an attempt to diversify investments.
Romney earned about $13 million in income over the past two years from “carried interest,” a form of earnings available to private-equity firm partners and taxed at the 15 percent investment tax rate, rather than the higher rate on ordinary income, according to the campaign.
The carried interest provision of the U.S. tax code has repeatedly been targeted for elimination by Democrats who call it unfair, but the private-equity industry has fought repeal.
In 2010, Romney and his family had substantial income from private equity, venture capital and other funds, according to disclosures in August to the Federal Election Commission.
Much of this income came from funds organized by Bain Capital. Some of the funds and affiliates are in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and the U.S. state of Delaware.
“The so-called offshore account in the Cayman Islands, for instance, is an account established by a U.S. firm to allow foreign investors to invest in U.S. enterprises and not be subject to taxes outside of their own jurisdiction,” Romney said in a recent interview in National Review magazine.
The tax returns released thus far also show investments in places such as Luxembourg and Switzerland.
No one is claiming these investments were illegal, but the use of offshore tax havens could hurt Romney in the campaign.
Additional reporting by Lynnley Browning; Reporting By Kim Dixon; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Philip Barbara