Executives duck dollars 1bn of new tax: Clinton supporters join scramble to cash in share options before D-Day

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The Independent Online
THE PERFORMANCE of bond and share markets would seem to suggest that Wall Street is ecstatic about the direction of the Clinton presidency to date. But, for all of the public support the president has received from business leaders for his plan to cut the budget deficit, America's chief executives - including staunch Democrats - have been conspiring to avoid paying new taxes.

Documents filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission suggest that executives, in a scramble to realise earnings before higher taxes come into effect this year, have cashed in share options worth more than dollars 1bn (pounds 670m) in the five months since Mr Clinton's victory.

Heading the list are Hollywood moguls, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Detroit auto executives, all vocal supporters of Mr Clinton's campaign and particularly of his efforts to cut Washington's huge deficits by spending cuts and higher taxes, for both the rich and corporations.

Although 1992 tax filings in the US are due in less than three weeks, the real extent of the Clinton tax dodge will not be known until late in the year, thanks to the 10-month grace period the SEC allows for reporting the exercise of compensation options. But judging from the record number of new options awarded lasted year - 10 executives were granted more than dollars 500m in 1992, more than the total for all of the Fortune 500 last year - some experts now predict that Clinton's 'millionaires' tax' may end up losing money for the US Treasury.

Lee Iacocca, the former Chrysler chairman who was rumoured to have be considered ing a running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, in fact cashed in share options worth more than dollars 5m worth of shares options before election day in late October, once Mr Clinton's victory looked certain.

Last week, it was revealed that Mr Iacocca was granted another dollars 8m worth upon his retirement on 31 December, but it may not be known for many months whether he chose to exercise them immediately.

Mr Iacocca's transaction pales beside the determination of the Walt Disney Company's two top men, chief executive Michael Eisner and president Frank Wells, to avoid contributing to cutting the deficit.

In December, Mr Eisner and Mr Wells, both active in the Clinton election effort in California, exercised options granted them when they joined the studio in 1984, netting almost dollars 260m between them and giving Mr Eisner the record for highest annual compensation ever earned (legally) by a business executive. He said he had to cash in the options for the sake of the company's shareholders.

Mr Clinton's plan not only imposes a surtax on individuals earning more than dollars 250,000, obliging them to pay a marginal rate of 39.6 per cent, it also disallows their employers from claiming business deductions for any salaries in excess of dollars 1m. Given a 34 per cent marginal corporate tax rate, Disney would have had to pay an extra dollars 67m on his dollars 197m cash hand-out alone had he waited to exercise his options until after the passage of the Clinton plan.

'While it may be positive that the new administration plans to raise all sorts of taxes to help reduce the federal deficit, some of the proposals will have a serious negative effect on your company,' Mr Eisner writes in Disney's annual report. 'Like all reasonable people, we must accept new taxes, but we must also protect our shareholders whenever possible.' He also saved himself dollars 15m in taxes.

Mr Clinton's economic aides remained unfazed by the outbreak of tax avoidance, which they say they expected. 'People have a right to manage their own economic affairs as they see fit, and that's what executives have been doing,' said aWhite House spokesman. 'But even at a dollars 1bn, these are isolated incidents.'

(Photograph omitted)

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