Business

Democrats' plan would repeal banks' big tax break

WASHINGTON — House Democrats' version of the $825 billion recession rescue package would end billions of dollars in tax breaks the Bush administration quietly gave to banks last fall.

Already almost exclusive beneficiaries of a $700 billion Wall Street bailout, banks are largely left out of the House stimulus package that President-elect Barack Obama wants passed quickly through Congress. Those getting financial bailout money wouldn't even be eligible for one of the main business tax breaks aimed at priming the economic pump.

To address the financial industry meltdown, the Treasury Department last fall issued a new tax rule to make it more attractive for healthy banks to buy troubled ones hit hard by the mortgage crisis. It allowed healthy banks to avoid billions of dollars in taxes by offsetting their profits with the losses of the banks they acquire.

Before, the merged bank could write off only a limited amount of the losses. Removing much of the restrictions enabled the acquiring banks to make huge reductions in their tax liabilities.

In some cases, the tax breaks exceeded the cost of acquiring the troubled banks. Wells Fargo & Co., for example, made a bid to acquire Wachovia Corp., just days after the change in tax rules was issued Sept. 30. Wells Fargo paid $14.8 billion in a stock deal to buy Wachovia, but it stands to reap about $20 billion in additional tax savings from the transaction, according to analyses by private tax experts.

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