Seizing Assets

April 3rd, 2013 by Potato

Cyprus has been in the news a lot lately for the seizing (“taxing”) of some assets. Some have questioned whether the same could happen here. The sad truth is that there is always the possibility of the government deciding to seize your assets; whether they’re insured or not, in a bank account, mutual fund, or real; through legislation, crooked courts, or by military force.

But it is not an event that happens often or lightly. In general, governments do not suddenly seize assets — that’s not what good governance is about. Of course, if the hole is big enough and the options limited (as in Cyprus) they may not have a choice, which gets into a moral lesson about not choosing “bread and circus” leaders.

There’s a slightly higher chance of loss with more “virtual” assets and those that can be divided for tax (e.g., the income trust Halloween massacre). But the government could decide to appropriate your house, eliminate your principal residence capital gains exemption, or tax your assets instead of just your income.

This knowledge may not help you sleep well tonight. Do remember that it is quite unlikely. Ideally, your government would be open and logical, so you could anticipate such moves (or rather, sleep soundly anticipating the lack of such moves). Of course, for the Harper government that was my big beef with the income trust fiasco — not that they decided to tax them, but that they broke an explicit promise not to do so, with no justification given. How were we to know what the next materially important decision would be? Ditto with strategically important takeovers — there was next to no way to anticipate what might or might not be allowed. In the depth of the US financial meltdown some (e.g. John Hempton) complained that the FDIC just stepped in and closed certain banks over the weekend, arbitrarily deciding to make bondholders whole while wiping out equity and preferred holders — though in a more controlled liquidation and wind-up, it’s likely that either the bondholders would take a haircut, or the preferred shareholders would be left with some value. The process is often just as important as the outcomes…

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