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Who dares loses: Buffett on luck, taxes and a challenge

“It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” - Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1776

When flicking through The Australian Financial Review last weekend, comments by two of our most-respected fund managers caught my eye. They were a pleasing contrast to the market professionals who base their success on skill in picking trends and identifying great companies.

First, Kerr Neilson, Founder of Platinum Asset Management:

“… as a family, we’ve always understood that good fortune is often just luck. Your origins have a huge impact on how life unfolds, and a single bad turn doesn’t deserve a life of purgatory.”

Then John Pearce, Chief Investment Officer at Unisuper, explained his good run in the last decade:

“There are always many success factors, including luck.”

Some academics spend their lives investigating luck versus skill in investing, and there are shelves of business books on the topic, but this article is about a more fundamental luck at the start of our lives.  

Warren Buffett on luck and the ‘ovarian lottery’

David Kass is a Professor of Finance at the University of Maryland in the US. According to CNBC, he was the first to publish Warren Buffett’s views on luck and the ‘ovarian lottery’ based on notes Kass took when Buffett was speaking at a 2013 graduate student event. Kass recalls:

“Warren Buffett has stressed the importance of luck in his life, focusing not only on where he was born but also when. His primary skill of allocation of capital has worked well for him in the United States and in his lifetime. Having the good luck to win the ‘ovarian lottery’ is a major determinant in success in life in general and in business in particular.”

Buffett was influenced by John Rawls, a philosopher at Harvard who wrote a book called ‘A Theory of Justice’. He argued that a just society must be based on principles everyone agrees to before knowing where they are placed within society.

Buffett explains it this way:

“Just imagine that it is 24 hours before you are born. A genie comes and says to you in the womb, 'You look like an extraordinarily responsible, intelligent, potential human being. [You’re] going to emerge in 24 hours and it is an enormous responsibility I am going to assign to you, the determination of the political, economic and social system into which you are going to emerge.

You set the rules, any political system, democracy, parliamentary, anything you wish. You can set the economic structure, communistic, capitalistic, set anything in motion, and I guarantee you that when you emerge, this world will exist for you, your children and grandchildren. What’s the catch? One catch - just before you emerge, you have to go through a huge bucket with 7 billion slips, one for each human. Dip your hand in and that is what you get …”

Buffett has spoken about this many times since so there are variations on what he said but the principles are the same. Other times he has been more explicit about the individual:

“The catch is that you don’t know any details about what your place in the world will be. Your gender, race, nationality, health, intelligence level and all other defining characteristics are left up to chance.”

What kind of society would you construct?

My guess is that most of us would create a world of opportunity, choice, equality and fairness in case we were about to be born in a refugee camp in Somalia.

Buffett says he and his business partner, Charlie Munger, won the ovarian lottery and after that incredible piece of luck, the rest fell into place. The ovarian lottery is:

“The most important event in which you’ll ever participate. It’s going to determine way more than what school you go to, how hard you work, all kinds of things.”

In another interview, he explained gender and race advantages:

“The womb from which you emerge determines your fate to an enormous degree for most of the seven billion people in the world. Just in my own case: I was born in 1930, I had two sisters that have every bit the intelligence that I had, have every bit the drive, but they didn’t have the same opportunities. If I had been a female, my life would have been entirely different.”

“You don’t know whether you’re going to be born black or white. You don’t know whether you’re going to be born male or female. You don’t know whether you’re going to be born infirm or able-bodied. You don’t know whether you’re going to be born in the United States or Afghanistan ... I mean, Charlie - when we were born the odds were over 30-to-1 against being born in the United States, you know? Just winning that portion of the lottery, enormous plus.”

Even when he started investing, the luck did not stop:

“We won it in another way by being wired in a certain way, which we had nothing to do with, that happens to enable us to be good at valuing businesses. And, you know, is that the greatest talent in the world? No. It just happens to be something that pays off like crazy in this system.”

What would Buffett like to see?

The world we have created allows people in power, mainly business or politics, to set the rules after they know where they stand in the ovarian lottery. Once we have accumulated our personal wealth, often through diligence, sacrifice and hard work, we feel entitled to keep it.

Warren Buffett is worth over US$100 billion so it’s easy to criticise him, but he says:

“The trick, it seems to me, is to have some balance that causes the people who have the talents that can produce goods that people want in a market society, to turn them out in great quantity, and to keep wanting to do it all their lives, and at the same time takes the people that lost the lottery and makes sure that just because they, you know, on that one moment in time they got the wrong ticket, don’t live a life that’s dramatically worse than the people that were luckier.”

And so when asked about US policies that reduce taxes for wealthy people, he said he does not need a tax cut. He said eliminating estate taxes when assets are passed to another person at the time of death would be a “terrible mistake” because the US system already vastly favours the rich.

“I sure don’t think it’s good for a society where there’s a ton of inequality to start with. I think that’s a terrible mistake.”

He has also spoken out about lower taxes on capital gains than wages, where he has said, I'll probably be the lowest-paying taxpayer in the office." He supported a minimum tax on top wage earners like himself which became known as the Buffett rule.

Who dares loses as Labor is wedged on principles

Without taking sides on individual issues, the main reason the Labor Party has abandoned its previous policies on negative gearing, capital gains and franking credits is not because leaders in the party no longer support the ideas. The same people were arguing fiercely for these policies at the last election.

No, Labor has decided there is no point sinking on a principle and nothing can be achieved from opposition. They have removed the policies because they know they cannot win by threatening the plans millions of voters have made for their wealth preservation. Franking credits became the ‘retiree tax’. Political opponents falsely dragged out a ‘death tax’ at the last election, which was not on the policy agenda. So it's better to be a small target.

Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington have released a new book called 'Who Dares Loses: Pariah Policies'. It explains why no political party is prepared to threaten the favourable tax and social security treatment of the family home although the greatest benefits go to the wealthiest people. The power of property ownership is so strong that even adjusting policies for investors is difficult. They say:

"One of the problems, however, is that the population bubble of baby boomers has a disproportionate impact on electoral politics. While taxing the family home remains in the broader sense a pariah policy, in post-pandemic Australia, it will at least increasingly be discussed."

That's unlikely for some time. No political party dare threaten that sacred cow.

The policy acceptance which must have caused the most angst in the Labor Party is supporting the legislated stage-three tax cuts to come into force in 2024-25. At a time when budget pressure to reign in massive deficits is likely to be greater than ever before, hopefully coming out of the pandemic, the stage-three tax cuts flatten the marginal income tax rate for anyone earning between $45,000 and $200,000 to 30%. A person on $200,000 will receive a tax cut of about $9,000 a year. Between $180,000 and $200,000, the top marginal rate cuts from 45% to 30%. The cost to the Federal budget will be $19 billion a year.

Shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, who would hold the purse strings as Treasurer if Labor wins the 2022 election, previously described these tax cuts as:

"the least affordable, least fair and least likely to be effective because high income earners aren't as likely to spend in the economy as workers of more modest means." 

It is likely that higher income earners have benefitted most from surging house and asset prices in 2020/2021, and now Labor is supporting their tax cuts. That's politics and the price to win office when people vote with one hand on their wallet.

What would you do?

To come back to Buffett's question, it is 24 hours before you are born, and you can set the rules for society. You look into a massive bucket and there are (now) over 9 billion slips in there, and one of them represents your life.

(Or you're an Australian politician facing a trillion dollars of debt and at some stage, taxes need to pay for spending).

Start writing the rules.


Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Firstlinks.


September 03, 2021

America might have a Gini problem but Aust doesn't. We are already a "socialist" orientated nation with a tax system that punishes wealth (not just %'s but also strict rules). I've worked in many jurisdictions are can attest that Aus tax system is skewed away from the wealthy, when compared to other jurisdictions.

The problem we have in this country is a Gov't spending and regulation problem.

Democracy, capitalism, freedom, ethics and transparency work best. All other systems are proven failure and lead to death, corruption and reduced living standards.

You can't lift a country up by penalising those who carry the economic load. If you want to excessively redistribute income then you will be successful in redistributing people and effort.

D Ramsay
August 13, 2021

Its time our pollies had a long look at some better run economies like Germany.
Here is a link that speaks of the measure of fairness in wealth distribution using the Lorenz curve and the ginni coefficient and this link also shows how its calculated in Python if you are interested.

The next link shows what the above maths reveals about this fairness country by country - worth a scroll through - check out South Africa and the USA

August 09, 2021

Deeply meaningful yet divinely hilarious, this ovarian lottery business. Warren, Graham, I and the rest of us are lucky more than we realise. Richard Dawkins explains this well in his seminal 'God Illusion': that we the chosen sperms among the zillions were conceived, incubated and then delivered is a biological lotto by itself, and according to rationalists, enough of a miracle that no more including positing a supernatural being is needed. But how would those who miss out this bit of being born be compensated? Class action lawyers must be salivating as the cohort cannot opt out...

August 09, 2021

Why not start by tidying up the current tax system so that more wealthy people don't get to use all the loopholes. What about plain English information for people who don't have a team of accountants working to save them money and easier processes?

August 09, 2021

Four Corners ran an interesting programme a few years ago about the widening gap between haves and have nots . They featured an interview with a British billionaire stating that eventually, violence and extreme social unrest will erupt. The working poor will get fed up with working hard and getting nowhere compared to the rich. I found myself thinking about this when the riot at Capitol Hill at the end of Trump's rein happened. There's a limit to how much the little people will put up with. When this social unrest erupts, the whole of society will be worse off.

Peter A
August 09, 2021

N.B. the Death Benefit Tax (DBT) on our superannuations benefit to the Govt is close to zero, because most super is spent, or withdrawn and transferred to aged care bonds or next generation, before death. There is almost no DBT benefit to Govt without a superannuation withdrawal tax.

August 09, 2021

or recontributed to Super

Graeme B
August 07, 2021

More equitable rules across a range of issues to at least slow down the creep of inequality:
1. No negative gearing and no capital gains tax concessions on domestic (housing) property; do what you will with commercial property.
2. A progressive tax on inheritances ie on all assets at death.
3. Find a fix for the franking credit fiasco which is nothing more than an unintended consequence of the original plan.
4. End the company tax rorting (tax havens, exorbitant intellectual property fees, transfer pricing abuse etc etc)
5. Tighten up the rules on family and testamentary trusts which only the wealthy seem to really benefit from.
6. Apply an "empathy and ethics" test to all politicians, senior public servants, directors on boards, and CEO/CFOs as a mandatory qualification to hold these appointments (this might cause disruptive shortages of candidates. in the short term.
7. More effective sanctions ( yes, including jail time) on political and corporate transgressors.
Above all though, I'd hope to be born with above average intelligence into a family/society that pays more than lip service to equal opportunity. And yes, I do believe in a capitalist-oriented system as the only proven model to effectively and efficiently mobilise capital, but the accountability rules need tightening

Mike Howson
August 08, 2021

8. International companies taxed at Australian equivalent rate after subtracting tax paid by country of origin or convenience. The unfair advantage of higher profit margins allows them to drive to the wall, ihome grown companies who pay all of their share of tax here.
9. Perhaps in super funds, franking could be gradually graded out only when the Government manipulated interest rates return to normal.

August 06, 2021

......"At a time when budget pressure to reign in massive deficits"......Really? Are you getting ideas above your station, Lord Graham? "To come back to Buffett's question, it is 24 hours before you are born, and you can set the rules for society. You look into a massive bucket and there are (now) over 9 billion balls in there, and one of them represents your life."

How about just requesting that everyone is born healthy, honest and intelligent? That way everyone would be capable of making their own way in the world and we could forget all these stupid artificial "political correctness" , "social justice" , "equity" issues ; which are ALL simply driven by "aberrant ideology", envy and covetousness by immature and unsuccessful people, usually under the guise of "compassion" for others!

They would soon realise and develop a just, humanitarian, 'Capitalist', democratic civilization which benefits all who participate fairly in it! Problem solved. Capitalist because it is the only system that creates wealth for everyone ! All the others systems fail! Of course the "baby-boomers" are wealthy! They are also old! They managed to save a little each year....but would you swap your youth [ and relative poverty for their wealth and old age? 

Dean Tipping
August 06, 2021

Re the level of federal govt. debt and how it will be managed/repaid, surely some bright spark out there has factored in the impact of 'death benefit tax' (DBT) in all of this?

I don't have the time to research it but surely the balance sheet of the Commonwealth would be carrying a contingent asset for the expected DBT of 15% plus Medicare Levy charged on the taxable component of one's super that passes to a deceased estate?

Given the immense size of the super pool, which must be north of $3,000,000,000,000 and growing exponentially, think about the arithmetic in light of how most money is contributed into super and thus, is sitting in that taxable component waiting to have 17% diverted off to Canberra to the detriment of your beneficiaries.

APRA and the ATO will know exactly how much is sitting in the taxable component in Australia's superannuation system and of that, how much is held by our seasoned citizens that have the day they will meet their maker closer to them than the day they entered this world. By extension you would think politicians know also.

For the sake of the exercise, let's assume that 80% of that 3 trillion is in the taxable component, which = $2,400,000,000,000 (this could be very well under the mark given how contributions are mostly made 'pre-tax').

17% of $2,400,000,000,000 = $408,000,000,000 in DBT that is sitting there waiting to find its way to Canberra and whilst of course it is not going to come in all at the one time, the boffins in Treasury will know some of will its way to them and you would think, have modelled for it accordingly.

Maybe our politicians have realised this...

Bob T
August 08, 2021

But your starting point is AFTER the superannuation legislation made all this income tax-advantaged in the first place. Were all that forgone tax benefit included in the calculus, the result would be much the opposite, especially considering the time value of money.

As a further aside, where does the assumption come from that 80% of super is in the taxable component. I would think that it it is more likely to be the other way around, though I admit that that is just a half-educated guess.

August 06, 2021

So I said to the genie, 'Make the world like Australia'.

August 07, 2021

AlanB - you might just be onto something there!

What if the whole world had good sanitation and water supply, healthcare, education (especially for girls and women), transport systems, and governance. What would it be like if everyone who made money paid a fair amount of tax. And where the government, the military and police, and the judicial system were appropriately separated - and corruption was not tolerated (let alone endemic). What if those who needed a hand up received it without stigma? What if we cooperated more and charged those we elect to do likewise? Then there’s the air, the water, and the soil - what if everybody thought those were collectively ours, and we audited them regularly to ensure the survival of future generations?

What if we those of us who read the business and financial press had a mindset to be better humans and even better ancestors? The byproduct of course would be better, bigger, fairer economies where inadvertently, we made even better return returns.

What if we were a tad more humble as well?

August 12, 2021

Nailed it!

August 05, 2021

I'm going to say it. We're all tone deaf!
If this was an exam or assignment everyone would have scored an F with the only marker comment: Read the question.
Buffet, Hand, et al., are inviting us to consider making the world a better, fairer place. We're talking about: the risk of paying some extra tax because our Sydney property is more valuable than one elsewhere; the absurd notion that we're rich simply because we work very long and hard (not because we live in a uniquely privledged country); taxing or not of franked dividends; etc.
Please re-read the question, and re-submit your paper. Or withdraw from the course and avoid the course fee.

Graham Hand
August 05, 2021

I'm going to say it, too! Thanks, DanM, great comment. Not much making the world a better place going on.

August 06, 2021

We’ll said DanM.

August 07, 2021

In a fair world we’d all get equal opportunities!
Equal opportunities doesn’t equate to equal outcomes (nor should they)
I’m sure we all know people who’ve had plenty of opportunity but squandered it, made bad choices or simply weren’t prepared to work hard.
I’ve little sympathy for those people.
Do I envy those that have more than me? No! If that’s what makes them happy, good for them.
Socialist doesn’t work!

Ramon Vasquez
August 05, 2021

Please note that Labor in W.A. is implementing a law which enables developers to "kick a granny out of her flat" by allowing a compulsory purchase of a unit in a block of flats if the developer owns 80 % of the units in any given block. Furthermore, the W.A. Government, through one of its bureaucratic arms, allows it to over-ride any local government's development rules whatsoever anywhere in the state. So much for the Labor party's "social conscience"! Best wishes , Ramon .

August 05, 2021

I love how Labor politicians and Labor voters think they have an entitlement to increase tax and remove wealth from our most successful workers and business owners. If you used the old adage -Time in money- you will find that most people who got ahead in life put in very long hours and saved hard and tried hard to improve their lot in life.
They didn’t get ahead in life by coveting the wealth of others. The harder you work in life , the luckier you get !

August 08, 2021

Absolutely ??

August 05, 2021

I agree with Simon. It is frustrating to hear politicians and journalists criticising policies that were implemented previously for very valid reasons, without understanding the original objective and tailoring their justification for a change to take into account those origins.

August 05, 2021

Nice commentary but please don't overlook what it would be like to live and grow-up in the US versus Australia. I don't think many would be willing to swap the alternative ticket. On balance we have moderate and social orientated economic policies in place. We should be proud of how well we do in fact look after the less privileged segments of society. Yes there is always room for improvement, which generally gets the required focus debated, but overall we're still miles in front of our direct peers.

Tony Reardon
August 05, 2021

To try to take the Buffett/Rawls question seriously, how would you approach this? I would suggest that the first thing you might do is to inspect all the societies that exist and make some judgement as to where you would wish to exist. You then wave the genie's magic wand over all the others and have them change to the same structures as the ones you prefer. Of course, how the genie would make such disparate places as India, China, virtually everywhere in Africa, etc. come up to the standard of a modern, liberal, free market, small government state with a reasonable social welfare structure (my choices) is beyond me.

August 05, 2021

Wouldn't you love to have been a fly on the wall at the labor meeting with Chalmers, Albanese, Bowen, Shorten and co, debating the dumping of all those precious policies and (Chalmers turning red in the face) supporting the high-income tax cuts. Albo serving stiff drinks all round.

Kien Choong
August 05, 2021

I don't have any problems with taxing Franking credits per se. My main objection to the Labor policy was how regressive it was. They could have simply treated Franking credits as part of a taxpayer's taxable income, and apply the relevant marginal tax rate. Instead, Labor's proposal was simply to withdraw Franking credits altogether, without regard to the individual taxpayer's income level.

So yes, I would support taxing Franking credits in a progressive manner, not in the arbitrary way that Labor had proposed. I did write to Labor MPs suggesting that they improve their policy on this, but did not get any response that actually addressed my argument. (Tanya Pilbersek's office simply replied to me with a general response about having to shore up tax revenues or something like that ...)

It's a pity that not more thought was given to the impact of policies on social equity.

If I were to pre-determine societal rules without knowing which social class I end up in, I would include a rule saying that all government policies must pass a "social equity assessment" test before they are implemented, and reviewed regularly to ensure consistency with social equity.

Jan H
August 05, 2021

Absolutely agree with you, Kien Choong, My ire re Labor's policy was that Shorten ignited a public condemnation of retirees, classing them as over-privileged, greedy and selfish. Completely ignoring the fact that many of these retirees had fought in the World Wars, had lived a thrifty life post-war due to the shortages and war memories, had much lower wages, especially women, and no super scheme before Hawke/Keating introduced it in the 1980s.
I thought the Labor MPs were absolutely disgraceful to attack older citizens as they did. It has certainly irrevocably changed my views of Labor's "vision" as I am sure it has for many retirees, many of whom were Labor voters, even party members. I would support a policy "social equity assessment" test. For a rich country like Australia, the widening social inequity is disgraceful and should not be tolerated.

Simon N
August 05, 2021

So what you would support with regards franking credits is the current situation. Franking credits do form part of a taxpayer's taxable income, and relevant marginal tax rates apply. Labor's proposal was actually to favour the higher income earners by still allowing them the full benefit of the franking credits while denying that to those whose tax payable ended up less than the franking credits already paid to the tax office. As far as I could tell no-one in Labor actually understood the current system, nor the impact of their proposed change.

So one of my rules would be that no politician is allowed to promote a policy unless they can demonstrate their understanding of law as it stands and how their proposal will change things.

August 05, 2021

Spot on Simon. It astounded me at the time that even some opining professionals in funds management did not understand this. The problem was and remains with the different tax rates applied to individuals in retirement versus those in their working years.

Chris Bowen seemed to have no understanding that his policy effectively proposed robbing the smallest shareholders while leaving the wealthiest untouched. A small shareholder receiving a tiny fully-franked dividend faced an effective 30 percent flat tax rate on that dividend.

August 08, 2021

I think the franking credit debacle was so enlightening in that it showed how Bowen et al actually view self funded retirees - they're all rich bastards from the top end of town. To rely on extreme examples of how many franking credits someone like Dick Smith got and apply that to everyone was a gross example of uncontrolled envy. I expected (presuming they won the election) that it would be watered down by the senate to allow say $5k or $10k per person as a cap on refunds, so still getting the top end of town but not causing as much collateral damage. The fact they didn't show any sign of compromise sealed their fate.

August 05, 2021

What Shorten, Bowen et al missed on the franking credits issue was that it would have destroyed the returns of all funds in the Superannuation Retirement income phase in a rather unpleasant manner. Superannuation Retirement income Funds generated from Tax Paid Accumulation Funds pay no tax whatsoever on income earned or Capital Gains Tax on realisation of assets.

If it had come to pass what an uproar it would cause with the heavyweight Labor Union stalwarts - ISA and IFM and every single Member of a Fund in the Superannuation Retirement Income Phase irrespective of their political leanings.

Political suicide.

August 08, 2021

Retail Funds, Industry Funds and Unions were to be exempted from the retirement tax as accumulating members taxes would continue to soak up retirement members refunds. This is why the public never heard from Trustees from these funds and Union Officials about the proposal. The retirees in Retail and Industry funds would just further subsidize accumulation members, something most of them simply do not understand.

These exemptions rarely made to the news and opinion articles/broadcasts which leaves me to question if anyone except SMSF retirees actually understood what Labors punishing policy (now thankfully deceased) was fully about.

August 05, 2021

The family home shelter is the most ridiculous concession of all (worse that the stupid discussion of who benefits from tax cuts...of course the people who pay tax benefit more, and so they should). Put a cap on the exempt value of a house

August 05, 2021

The problem of a cap on the exempt value oh a house is the enormous difference in house prices across Australia, and the same applies to land tax values. My simple block of land in Sydney is valued close to 2 million, but I do not live near the water, or any special location, this reflects Sydney values. Move to Adelaide and a similar block would be about 500,000, but I live and used to work in Sydney. So is it fair to tax my home for its apparent value relative to Adelaide, or to say that the family home is tax exempt on the grounds that families live where the job is. Incomes to not vary across the states to the same extent that land/housing prices do. we bought in Sydney at the same time as friends bought in Adelaideover50 years ago, Sydney 27000, Adelaide 13000 for a larger home and block in better suburb. The situation has never changed.

August 06, 2021

Well now if I live in Adelaide and earn a $180k salary where wages are lower, I only incur a marginal tax rate of 37c (simply because I live in Adelaide), but lets say I live in Sydney and do the exact same job, but where its far more expensive (simply because its Sydney where houses cost $2m+ for example) should I have to pay a higher marginal tax rate of 45% because I need to earn more?

You could argue the same applies to houses

August 08, 2021

Yes, and the more you hit the other stuff, the bigger the relative benefit provided by the family home exemptions (tax and social security). Funny how the first contributor above threw the kitchen sink at everything except the family home.


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