Wyden’s Proposal for taxing oil and gas speculators

Ron Wyden, Democratic Senator from Oregon who serves on the Senate Finance Committee and the Energy Committee, is generally considered a liberal, though with a mixed bag of positions that hardly qualify on all grounds. He is against the estate tax and favors lowering rates of capital gains taxes, neither of which makes sense, from my perspective, in an economy already tilted to favor capital (and hence those in the upper distributions) and in need of revenue. His positions on the environment have been fairly consistently progressive. Back in 2004, for example, he worked on legislation to “get tougher” on responses to oil spills and get kinder in expediting loans to people impacted by those spills. See this press release. He has supported the US addressing CO2 emissions even if the big economies of China and India don’t (S. Con. Res. 70, May 15, 2008).

So what happens when you put tax policy (where I’m not terribly impressed with many of his positions) together with environmental policy (where he seems to have a fairly decent record)?

Today, Wyden introduced a bill (S. 1588) that deals with both of these issues. It would end a tax break currently enjoyed by speculators who trade in oil and gas. They’d have to pay tax at the ordinary income rates, rather than getting the preferential capital gains rates (o% for the first two income brackets, then 15%). This would be achieved by treating the gains as short-term capital gains (or losses) even if they would be treated as long-term under other provisions. Gains in trading by tax-exempt investors–e.g., Harvard’s endowment and similar funds– would be taxed as unrelated business income.

What’s the rationale? “To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide the same tax treatment for both commercial and non-commercial investors in oil and natural gas and related commodities, and for other purposes.” The first section has a short title that perhaps reveals more–it is the “Stop Tax-breaks for Oil Profiteering Act” (STOP Act). The bill also calls for a study of commodities exchanges and the effect of tax policy on the demand and price of commodities, and particularly of oil and gas.

I’m no expert in this area, but this sounds at first impression like a good idea. Wyden’s point is that those who use such fuels in their businesses have to purchase those commodities and treat any profits on related trading as ordinary. But speculators pay lower capital gains rates on trading profits, which may well mean that their trading distorts the market and raises prices.

Of course, I’ve long argued for eliminating the capital gains preference altogether, either through repeal of the provision in the regular tax or adding it as an adjustment in the alternative minimum tax. While I’d rather there be a wholesale change–to remove all the characterization games that taxpayers play and to help move the tax system towards a fairer one that does not give such inordinate preference to owners of capital over workers, these commodities trades may be an appropriate target, especially given their likely impact on pricing in an era when we can expect increasing oil and gas scarcity.

Any thoughts?

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