WASHINGTON -- As lawmakers struggle to agree on a plan to avert the series of tax increases looming next year, many investors are taking pre-emptive action to get out of harm's way.
Americans are moving to sell investment homes, offload stocks, expand charitable donations and establish tax-sheltering gifts before the end of the year.
Financial advisers and accountants say people are trying to avoid the higher taxes that will take effect in 2013 if Washington does not avert the "fiscal cliff."
For the most part, the people moving their assets are the wealthy, who have the most to lose even if a deal is struck. Ordinary Americans also are in line for higher income and payroll taxes and fewer deductions and tax credits if the nation goes over the fiscal cliff. But since most of their earnings come through wages, there is little they can do to minimize the impact. Also, the majority of investment income earned by middle-income people comes through tax-deferred vehicles such as individual retirement accounts and 401(k)s, making the possible changes in taxes on investment returns largely immaterial.
"You're not going to refuse your paycheck because the taxes are higher," said Roberton Williams, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Institute. "The people that can make adjustments, who can change the way their world works, are the wealthy."
Democrats and Republicans agree that they want a debt-reduction agreement that does not raise taxes for individuals who make less than $200,000 a year and couples who earn less than $250,000. But those earning more are all but certain to pay higher taxes through increased income tax rates, fewer deductions or a combination of the two.
The maximum tax rate on long-term investment earnings would rise from 15 percent to 21.2 percent in the absence of a deal. In addition, the higher-income earners will face a new 3.8 percent surcharge on investment income to help fund implementation of the 2010 health-care law.
The impending increases are reversing the normal rule of thumb for limiting the bite of income taxes. Rather than accelerating losses and delaying income, some investors are harvesting their profits now, while lower rates are sure to be in effect, and holding on to losing investments until 2013.
For the nation's top earners, who as a group make a large share of their income through investment returns, those moves could have a major impact on their tax bills.
"We are seeing a lot of questions about what assets to sell," said Debbie Haines, a partner at CST Group, an accounting firm. "A lot of people are wanting to liquidate stocks that have a gain. A lot of people are harvesting their capital gains. There is also some concern that itemized deductions will be cut, and some people who are charitably inclined are thinking about making bigger donations this year."
Also, with the tax laws covering gifts set to tighten significantly, several area estate lawyers say they are facing a rush of people interested in establishing trusts that under current law allow a couple to protect more than $10 million in assets from the tax man. Impending changes in the law could reduce the gift exclusion to $1 million for an individual or $2 million for a couple.
An increase in the capital gains rate could potentially hit many middle-income families, particularly since it applies to the taxable portion of the profit from home sales.