One group of workers charges hefty fees for managing the assets of wealthy patrons. The other group educates almost 4 million U.S. kindergarten students annually in reading, writing and arithmetic.
Which group provides more value to America? While that question could be answered on a number of ethical and economic grounds, when boiled down to simple pay, the answer is that hedge fund managers are worth more. Way, way more.
The top 25 hedge fund managers earned a whopping $11.6 billion in 2014, a rich haul for a year that represented the sixth consecutive year that hedge funds have underperformed the broader market. Across the country, schools employ about 158,000 kindergarten teachers. With each one earning an average salary of $53,480, that comes to a total pay pool of $8.5 billion.
The comparison was made this week by President Barack Obama during a panel discussion on poverty at Georgetown University. His point, however, wasn't simply to stir up controversy over the growing fortunes of the 1 percent, but to raise the issue of boosting taxes on the fees collected by hedge fund managers.
To be sure, the comparison between the top 25 hedge fund managers' income could be made with a number of groups. Their $11.6 billion in earnings was also greater than the annual earnings for the country's EMTs and paramedics, for example.
The issue Obama raised gets more to the point of taxation, rather than perceived fairness of income. While the fortunes of the wealthy have been snowballing into unimaginably large bank accounts, the middle class and low-income families are treading water, given stagnant and even falling wages. Real median hourly wages have dipped 3.4 percent since 2009.
That's prompting policy experts and economists to call for changes to the tax system, which benefits capital over earned income. For instance, capital gains on dividends are taxed at either 15 percent or 20 percent, depending on an individual's tax bracket. That's far below the top tax rate of 39.6 percent on regular income.
In 2012, America's top 400 earners reported average income of $335.7 million each, but paid only 16.7 percent of their adjusted gross income in taxes, thanks to the lower tax rate on capital gains, according to data from the IRS.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, sees an injustice in both the pay discrepancies and tax treatments between hedge fund managers and teachers. She told CBS MoneyWatch: "I think we can all agree that the inequity in income in this country is a serious issue when 25 men average $464 million apiece, while our nation's kindergarten teachers -- who are shaping our future and nurturing our children -- earn an average of $53,000. And I'd add that there's something wrong when these hedge fund managers pay lower tax rates than these teachers."
So, how do hedge fund managers make so much money, anyway? It's largely due to the fees they charge their well-heeled investors. Hedge funds are available only to what the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission calls "accredited investors" -- those with earned income of more than $200,000 or a net worth of more than $1 million.
Hedge fund managers typically charge their clients a fee of between 1 percent to 2 percent on assets under management. The management fee is charged no matter how the fund performs, which means big hedge fund managers are guaranteed a nice paycheck regardless of their actual returns. On top of that, the hedge funds tack on an "incentive" fee that's typically 20 percent of annual profits.
The theory is that wealthy investors are paying for hedge fund managers' skill and prowess at managing money, using short and long strategies to find profits where others can't. But given that hedge funds returned an average in the low-single digits last year, compared with a gain of almost 14 percent for the S&P 500, one can't help but wonder if some clients are questioning the value they're receiving for those hefty fees.
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