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Policy: Economy

Biggest U.S. banks said to face asset tax under Republican plan

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Politics,Congress,Taxes,Republican Party,Finance and Banking,Economy,Bloomberg News,House Republicans

The biggest U.S. banks and insurance companies would have to pay a quarterly 3.5 basis-point tax on assets exceeding $500 billion under a plan to be unveiled this week by the top Republican tax writer in Congress.

The proposal by Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, would raise taxes for about 10 companies -- the largest banks along with nonbank institutions such as General Electric Co.'s financing arm -- that are deemed systemically important by the federal government. A House Republican aide with knowledge of the plan described it on condition of anonymity.

The tax, which would raise $86.4 billion for the U.S. government over the next decade, would likely affect JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley, all of which had more than $500 billion in assets as of Dec. 31, according to the Federal Reserve.

The bank tax, which isn’t likely to become law this year, is part of a comprehensive plan to be released by Camp that would lower corporate and individual rates and broaden the tax base.

Including a bank tax in the plan is a notable step by the Republican tax-committee chairman because it echoes an Obama administration proposal that Republicans and some Democrats have blocked since 2010.

‘Tonal shift’

“It’s very meaningful that it’s Camp, a senior Republican, doing this,” said Isaac Boltansky, a policy analyst at Compass Point Research & Trading LLC in Washington. “It’s a tonal shift that we haven’t seen. To me, it underscores Camp’s motivations at this point, to leave his mark on tax reform no matter the viability of actually advancing a proposal.”

Banks, which had been preparing for the possibility that the tax would be included in Camp’s plan, have opposed what Obama has called the “financial crisis responsibility fee.” Banks maintain that it would counter Camp’s goal of setting up a tax code that is neutral across industries.

“A tax on banks and financial institutions, regardless of form, is misguided, would foster continued uncertainty and could have adverse impacts on economic recovery efforts,” a group of trade associations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Financial Services Roundtable, wrote to Camp and top Ways and Means Democrat Sander Levin of Michigan in 2010.

Unlike Obama’s plan, which would apply to banks with more than $50 billion in assets, Camp’s proposal is targeted at the very largest banks and insurers.

Assessed quarterly

Camp’s proposal would take effect Jan. 1, 2015, and the levy would be assessed each quarter, applying the 0.035 percent rate to each company’s total consolidated assets after subtracting the $500 billion exemption.

In addition to banks, systemically important financial institutions would have to pay the tax. The government has already designated GE’s finance arm, American International Group Inc., and Prudential Financial Inc. as such institutions. MetLife Inc. is in the final stage of the designation process.

MetLife had $885.3 billion in total assets as of Dec. 31, according to a document on the company’s website. Prudential has $663.4 billion in assets, according to a document on its website.

The basic arithmetic suggests that JPMorgan, which had $2.4 trillion in assets at the end of 2013, would pay $2.7 billion a year, or about 15 percent of 2013 net income. The tax would be deductible against the corporate income tax, reducing the net cost to the companies.

No discount

Unlike in Obama's proposal, the banks wouldn't be eligible for a discounted rate or an exemption applied to safer assets, such as insured deposits or long-term liabilities, the aide said. The definition of total consolidated assets comes from the 2010 Dodd-Frank law.

Though Camp’s version affects fewer companies, it would raise $27 billion more over a decade than the president’s plan would.

“It’s hard to find fans of too big to fail banks in this town, so it’s a pretty easy hit,” Boltansky said. “You can say it’s to the benefit of the community and regional banks.”

The fate of Camp’s broader tax proposal won’t become clear until after he releases the full plan. Many Republicans worry about the political costs of proposing limits on popular tax breaks and Democrats object to his decision to revise the tax code without raising additional revenue for the government.

Permanent feature

If Camp prevails, the bank tax would become a permanent feature of the tax code with the $500 billion threshold indexed to the growth in the gross domestic product. Obama's proposals had been structured to end when the Troubled Asset Relief Program was repaid.

The proposal could serve as a counterweight to the industry-by-industry effects of the rest of Camp’s plan.

Unlike manufacturers that can accelerate write-offs of capital equipment or technology companies that conduct tax- advantaged research, banks are eligible for few breaks and typically have higher effective tax rates.

That means a rate-lowering, base-broadening tax plan like the one Camp is proposing could provide a significant net tax cut to banks.

The full picture of winners and losers won’t be clear until after Camp releases his full plan.

Camp, 60, is a Michigan Republican. He has already released drafts on several pieces of the tax code, including changes to the taxation of derivatives that would require mark-to-market accounting.

--With assistance from Jesse Hamilton and Ian Katz in Washington and Zachary Tracer in New York.

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