. . . . If Romney has paid taxes, as he insists, he could clear up the whole controversy by simply releasing several years' worth of tax returns, beyond the 2010 return and the 2011 estimate he's already released. But he has refused, and there may be good reason for that. "I wouldn't be surprised if he paid nearly zero taxes in 2008 and 2009," says Brad Badertscher, an accounting professor at the University of Notre Dame.
"It's going to look bad no matter what he does."
Theories about Romney's tax strategy tend to focus on offshore investment vehicles and secretive accounts, but basic investing and accounting scenarios could easily explain a low tax bill. The clue comes in Schedule D of his 2010 return, in which he claimed a $4.8 million loss carried over from prior years
. That helped reduce his tax bill for 2010, in which he paid $3 million in taxes on $21.7 million of income, for an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent.
The carryover means that Romney probably claimed a much bigger loss a year or two earlier, which could easily have pushed his tax rate for 2008 or 2009 down to the low single digits.
. . . .During bad years, wealthy investors often use a legal strategy called "tax harvesting" in which they sell weak investments at a loss, which they can use to offset the tax they'd need to pay on gains from better-performing investments. The loss can be carried forward, to help lower the tax bill in later years when investments might have done better. "It's very common for sophisticated investors," says Badertscher.
. . . .About half of Romney's income in 2010 came from capital gains. If that were zeroed out in 2008, say, on account of the crumbling economy, it could have cut his income for that year to $10 million or less, with a huge deduction for a capital loss. Combined with the same sorts of charitable donations and other deductions he claimed in 2010, that could have pushed his tax burden close to zero. If Romney's losses were big enough in 2008, he could have carried a portion of the loss forward into 2009, helping lower his taxes then, too. The fact that the loss carryover appeared on his 2010 return suggests that may well have happened.
. . . . a typical worker earning $50,000 faces a maximum tax rate of 25 percent, so Romney's tax rate could have been a fraction of what most middle-class earners pay. Nor do most workers employ complex strategies to whittle their tax rate down to single digits.