This morning, The New York Times ran a story with the title, “How Tech Billionaires Hack Their Taxes with a Philanthropic Loophole.” The piece, written by finance journalist David Gelles, uses Nicholas Woodman, founder and CEO of GoPro, as a case study in how the rich can use ostensibly charitable giving to protect their assets and shield themselves from the sort of tax burdens associated with sudden windfalls.
As Woodman’s company, writes Gelles, approached a 2014 stock price of $95 per share, he created a charity called the Jill and Nicholas Woodman Foundation and then promptly donated $500 million worth of those shares to it. Gellman continues:
But four years on, there is almost no trace of the Woodman Foundation, or that $500 million. The foundation has no website and has not listed its areas of focus, and it is not known what — if any — significant grants it has made to nonprofits. An extensive search of public records turned up just one beneficiary.
The Woodman Foundation’s money lives inside a greater charitable organization, called the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which also holds foundation money for people like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sergei Brin. While such umbrella organizations often do give to charities, they also can be used, as Gelles suggests was the case with Woodman’s GoPro stock, to park money while avoiding taxes. Nowadays, GoPro is trading at around $6 per share, but by donating the shares at an all-time high, he avoided paying capital gains tax on the $500 million while reducing his future tax burden based off of the value of the shares at the time of donation, rather than their worth come tax season.
In other words, if you take $500 million in stock, sell it, and then light the money on fire, you have to pay about $100 million in capital gains taxes, but if you create a charity, donate your shares to it, then sell the shares and light the money on fire, you pay nothing in tax now and less in tax in later years. If you’re a billionaire, it rules. If you aren’t, it feels deeply unfair.
Anyways, after reading the piece, I did my favorite thing to do after I find out about a sneaky thing tech billionaires can do to cheat the system: I tried to figure out if Elon Musk does it, too.
It turns out that Elon Musk has a charity called the Musk Foundation, and according to its tax documents, on May 19, 2016, he gifted the Musk Foundation 1.2 million shares of Tesla stock — worth $254,454,000 at the time. 2016 was a crazy year for Tesla stock — it had dipped to $160 per share in February, only to jump to $254 per share in April. In early May, it stabilized around the $200 mark, remaining within a moderate range for the month. Funnily enough, Musk’s then-wife Talulah Riley had filed for divorce from him in March, which meant that before the divorce was finalized, over a million shares of Musk’s Tesla stock was no longer his. Of course, this could all be a coincidence, just as it was a coincidence that shortly before his donation to the Musk Foundation, Tesla announced they’d be selling a shitload of shares to finance the production of the still-not-quite-out-yet Model 3 — a market-flooding move that could have lowered the per-share value of Musk’s personal Tesla stock.
Meanwhile, if you go to the official website of the Musk Foundation (listed as one of the “Five Ugliest Billionaire Websites” by Forbes!), all you see is this:
This all reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza started “The Human Fund”, except rather than giving fake donations to a bogus charity in someone else’s name to get out of giving them a gift, it kinda seems like Elon Musk might have given real money in the form of Tesla stock to his legally non-bogus charities to get out of giving the government and/or his soon-to-be ex-wife gifts in the form of money he would have had to pay them.