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Billionaire Phil Knight is laughing

Co-founder and chairman of Nike, Phil Knight attends day nine of the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at the Hayward Field on June 30, 2012 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Phil Knight: A Case Study in to How Dodge Over $3.6 Billion in Taxes

The billionaire Nike founder has seen his fortunes almost double during the pandemic, but it's where he is hiding his massive fortune that exposes just how corrupt this system has become.

Chuck Collins

Nike founder and billionaire Phil Knight, worth an estimated $58 billion according to Forbes, is the subject of an expose informed by research conducted by IPS associate fellow Bob Lord, published by Bloomberg Businessweek, along with terrific explanatory graphics.

Using public SEC filings and other publicly available data, Lord “reverse engineered” an analysis of Knight’s tax planning techniques.  Knight has already transferred about $10 billion in wealth free of estate and gift tax (avoiding roughly $3.6 billion in tax) and could avoid estate tax on up to an additional $9 billion if he died today, according to Bob Lord, in an interview with Inequality.org

The Bloomberg Businessweek article is "The Hidden Ways the Ultrarich Pass Wealth to Their Heirs Tax Free."  While Knight has declared he intends to give most of his wealth to charity, the Bloomberg expose documents that for years, Knight has "been using a range of legal techniques to ensure his heirs keep control of most of his assets and profit from them in the process, quietly transferring vast piles of money in a textbook example of how the rich avoid taxes."

"Phil Knight's estate plan demonstrates beyond doubt that loopholes in America's estate and gift tax have rendered it useless," said Bob Lord in a statement to IPS and Inequality.org.  "But this story is not about Phil Knight, it's about the abject failure of Congress to address this situation for several decades now. With Bloomberg's expose going to press at the same moment Congress is considering tax reform to fund vital social needs, we'll either see the loopholes closed once and for all or know the system is irreparably broken."

Knight has seen his fortunes almost double during the pandemic, according to an analysis of Forbes data by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies. The value of Knight's assets increased from $29.5 billion in March 2020 to $57.9 billion on October 15, 2021, an increase of 96.4 percent.

Knight's wealth defense industry advisors created a series of Granter Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs), a popular tax avoidance mechanism deployed by many of the super-wealthy, according to a recent expose by ProPublica

As the Bloomberg article observes, GRATs "have the basic goal of making wealth look much smaller than it really is.  It's possible to have your gifts appear to be worth almost nothing, even as you move millions or even billions of dollars tax-free."  They "construct a legal fiction that this is a normal transaction and not a taxable gift to the trust."

IPS and Inequality.org feature an exclusive interview here with Bob Lord about this research (for the full extensive interview, see here).

Helen Flannery and I point out in this blog post how Knight's philanthropic activity mostly takes the form of donations to his own private family foundation of highly appreciated Nike stock. Billionaires like Phil Knight are the largest beneficiaries of the tax reductions provided in our tax code. As we've documented, for every dollar a billionaire like Phil Knight gives to charity, taxpayers chip in 74 cents in lost tax revenue. Yet for billionaires like Knight, charitable giving becomes an extension of their tax reduction planning and power and influence.

Phil Knight is the latest in a wave of disclosures, from the Pandora Papers to ProPublica’s expose on billionaire tax avoidance, that point to the urgent need for Congressional lawmakers to ensure the wealthy pay their fair share. 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies where he co-edits Inequality.org, and is author of the new book, "Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good."  He is co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good, recently merged with the Patriotic Millionaires. He is co-author of "99 to 1: The Moral Measure of the Economy" and, with Bill Gates Sr., of "Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes."

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