PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has managed to grow a tax-free retirement account worth less than $2,000 in 1999 to $5 billion today, according to a report from ProPublica.
Citing a “trove of IRA tax return data” spanning more than 15 years, ProPublica has helped piece together how the country’s wealthiest people avoid paying taxes.
The Roth IRA was created by Congress in 1997 as a way for middle-class Americans to save for retirement independent of their employer. The retirement account initially had a $2,000 per year contribution limit.
Today, that contribution limit is $6,000, and American’s that make more than $140,000 per year are unable to contribute to the account.
That’s because the tax treatment of a Roth IRA account is so beneficial to its users, as it allows after-tax money to compound for decades in the stock market, and then be withdrawn tax-free as long as the owner is 59-and- a-half years old.
That sets the Roth IRA apart from a traditional IRA, which imposes a required minimum distribution that are taxed once the account holder turns 72 years old.
Thiel grew his fortune by using his Roth IRA account to invest in early-stage startups, which translated to massive windfalls when those successful companies went public years later. From there, Thiel was able to use that windfall to invest in more early stage companies within his Roth IRA account.
Thiel was able to put shares of early-staged startups in a Roth IRA account with the help of Pensco, a small firm that “allowed its customers to put nearly any investment they wanted into a tax-advantaged retirement account,” according to the report .
Pensco founder Tom Anderson told ProPublica that in 1999, Thiel and other PayPal executives wanted to put startup shares of that company into a traditional IRA, but Anderson steered them into the newly launched tax-free Roth IRA account.
“They immediately grasped that, and they did it,” Anderson told ProPublica.
The move was confirmed by Thiel’s 2005 New Zealand residency application, which stated, “Mr. Thiel purchased his founders’ shares in PayPal through his Roth IRA during PayPal’s formation,” according to ProPublica.
That move has payed Thiel handsomely. PayPal, which was acquired by eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion and then spun out as an independent company in 2015, is now worth more than $330 billion.
According to ProPublica, Thiel paid just $1,700 for 1.7 million shares of PayPal in 1999. That’s less than the $2,000 Roth IRA contribution limit in 1999. Today, that stake would be worth $501 million.
But Thiel sold the PayPal shares in his Roth IRA following the eBay acquisition in 2002, vaulting his Roth IRA account to be worth nearly $30 million, according to the report.
Since then, Thiel has used his Roth IRA account to buy shares of Palantir when it was still private, along with other silicon valley startups. And in doing so, Thiel has managed to avoid paying a massive tax-bill, assuming he doesn’t withdraw money from his account prior to 2027, when he turns 59-and-a-half years old.