Roth IRAs were intended to help average working Americans save, but IRS records show Peter Thiel and other ultrawealthy investors have used them to amass vast untaxed fortunes.
Billionaire Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal, has publicly condemned “confiscatory taxes.” He’s been a major funder of one of the most prominent anti-tax political action committees in the country. And he’s bankrolled a group that promotes building floating nations that would impose no compulsory income taxes.
But Thiel doesn’t need a man-made island to avoid paying taxes. He has something just as effective: a Roth individual retirement account.
Over the last 20 years, Thiel has quietly turned his Roth IRA — a humdrum retirement vehicle intended to spur Americans to save for their golden years — into a gargantuan tax-exempt piggy bank, confidential Internal Revenue Service data shows. Using stock deals unavailable to most people, Thiel has taken a retirement account worth less than $2,000 in 1999 and spun it into a $5 billion windfall.
To put that into perspective, here’s how much the average Roth was worth at the end of 2018: $39,108.
And here’s how much $5 billion is: If every one of the 2.3 million people in Houston, Texas, were to deposit $2,000 into a bank today, those accounts still wouldn’t equal what Thiel has in his Roth IRA.
What’s more, as long as Thiel waits to withdraw his money until April 2027, when he is six months shy of his 60th birthday, he will never have to pay a penny of tax on those billions.
ProPublica has obtained a trove of IRS tax return data on thousands of the country’s wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years. This data provides, for the first time, an inside look at the financial lives of the richest Americans, those whose stratospheric fortunes put them among history’s wealthiest individuals.
What this secret information reveals is that while most Americans are dutifully paying taxes — chipping in their part to fund the military, highways and safety-net programs — the country’s richest citizens are finding ways to sidestep
the tax system.
One of the most surprising of these techniques involves the Roth IRA, which limits most people to contributing just $6,000 each year.
The late Sen. William Roth Jr., a Delaware Republican, pushed through a law establishing the Roth IRA in 1997 to allow “hard-working, middle-class Americans” to stow money away, tax-free, for retirement. The Clinton administration didn’t want to give a fat tax break to wealthy people who were likely to save anyway, so it blocked Americans making more than $110,000 ($160,000 for a couple) per year from using them and capped annual contributions back then at $2,000.
Yet, from the start, a small number of entrepreneurs, like Thiel, made an end run around the rules: Open a Roth with $2,000 or less. Get a sweetheart deal to buy a stake in a startup that has a good chance of one day exploding in value. Pay just fractions of a penny per share, a price low enough to buy huge numbers of shares. Watch as all the gains on that stock — no matter how giant — are shielded from taxes forever, as long as the IRA remains untouched until age 59 and a half. Then use the proceeds, still inside the Roth, to make other investments.
About a decade after the creation of the Roth, Congress made it even easier to turn the accounts into mammoth tax shelters. It allowed everyone — including the very richest Americans — to take money they’d stowed in less favorable traditional retirement accounts and, after paying a one-time tax, shift them to a Roth where their money could grow unchecked by Uncle Sam — a Bermuda-style tax haven right here in the U.S.
To identify those who have amassed fortunes in retirement accounts, ProPublica scoured the tax return data of the ultrawealthy for IRA accounts valued at more than $20 million. Reporters also examined Securities and Exchange Commission filings, court documents and other records, including a memo detailing Thiel’s wealth that was included in his 2005 application for residency in New Zealand…