Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Renaissance Technologies and "basket options"

Earlier this week, I was on MSNBC discussing (with Stephanie Ruhle) Robert Mercer / Renaissance Technologies in re. the "basket options" tax avoidance scheme that they are reported to have used to the tune of $6.8 billion or so. I'm told that the feature may air again later this week, but you needn't wait if you click here. It's about a 4-minute clip, and I first appear at about 2:30. It also features Steve Rosenthal.

The interview was taped a couple of weeks back. So I hadn't known exactly when it would air. But then I heard about it from excited fans (so to speak).

I think there's a possible journalistic backstory to this that doesn't appear in the piece, but that may have helped to motivate general press interest. Mercer's political activism has increased since the IRS started questioning his reported $6.8 billion of claimed tax benefits from the basket options, and I gather that his involvement has extended to the conservative campaign against the IRS Commissioner. One might deem this a bit tactless and tasteless, although Mercer certainly appears to have far bigger (and, I would say, more rancid) fish to fry than "just" a possible $6.8B tax liability.

Another question that I suspect has prompted journalistic interest in the story pertains to whether the Trump Administration would interfere with the IRS to Mercer's benefit. When I've been asked about this, I've said that for decades we have had clear norms that generally prevent any such thing from happening. These norms and institutional barriers date back to Nixon, who tried to weaponize the IRS against his political foes, and thereby provoked a whole lot of pushback.

But we do of course live in an era when norms of fair and honest governance seem to be increasingly under threat. So, while this would not have been a major concern at any time in the last 40+ years, who knows what one should expect today.

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