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Musk urged to sell 10% of Tesla stake after holding Twitter poll

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Elon Musk at the weekend asked Twitter users to decide whether he should sell more than $20bn worth of his Tesla shares and pay tax — and the online crowd responded with a resounding “yes”.

Musk’s apparent willingness to cash in a tenth of his stock and incur a tax bill of more than $4bn based on the will of the Twittersphere follows a proposal in the US that billionaires should pay tax on their unrealised capital gain. He warned last month that any new tax would one day be extended to the middle classes, tweeting: “Eventually, they run out of other people’s money and then they come for you.”

Leaving it to the crowd to decide whether he should make his first large-scale sale of Tesla stock was the kind of stunt that has delighted Musk’s fans and made him the most widely followed business leader on Twitter, with 62.7m followers, while needling his many critics.

“Whether or not the world’s wealthiest man pays any taxes at all shouldn’t depend on the results of a Twitter poll,” Ron Wyden, the Democratic head of the Senate finance committee, said before the result of the vote was known. Wyden has proposed a new tax on billionaires’ unrealised capital gains that would hit the 700 wealthiest people in America.

Musk said that he took no salary or bonuses from any of his companies, leaving him no earnings to pay income tax on. However, he has made billions of dollars through a controversial Tesla compensation package agreed three years ago, under which he has been able to exercise large tranches of stock options when the carmaker meets certain performance targets and its shares hit pre-determined levels.

“Much is made lately of unrealised gains being a means of tax avoidance, so I propose selling 10% of my Tesla stock,” the Tesla chief executive tweeted on Saturday. He added that he would “abide by the results of this poll, whichever way it goes”.

The 24-hour poll ended with nearly 58 per cent of the 3.5m responses calling on him to sell. Musk did not immediately respond to the result.

The carmaker’s Frankfurt-listed shares dropped 7 per cent in early trading on Monday.

If he goes ahead, the vote will cause a huge block of Tesla shares to hit the market. Based on Friday’s closing price, Musk’s 17 per cent stake in Tesla was worth $208bn. He did not indicate when or how he would dispose of the stock. Many chief executives use so-called “blind” sales programmes when disposing of large holdings, in order to spread the sales over a longer period and avoid any claims that they are using inside information to time their sales.

Musk’s promised sale would be significantly more than the $12.3bn worth of shares that Tesla itself sold in 2020, when it took advantage of a soaring stock price to pad its balance sheet. The sale was broken into three instalments during the year, with the largest two reaching $5bn each.

Average daily trading volume in the shares has reached $25bn, making it one of the most liquid stocks on Wall Street.

Long-term capital gains face a federal tax rate of up to 20 per cent, though Musk may have saved himself billions of dollars in extra state taxes. California, where Tesla was founded and has been based for most of its life, charges up to 12.3 per cent tax on capital gains. Musk last year put three houses he owns in California up for sale and last month said Tesla was officially moving its headquarters to Texas, which does not levy any personal income or capital gains taxes.

Saying publicly that he would sell such a large block of shares and then not following through could expose Musk to action from regulators, if it was seen as something that could affect the Tesla stock price. Three years ago, the Securities and Exchange Commission required the company to start checking any of Musk’s communications that might affect its share price, after he had inaccurately tweeted that Tesla was close to a buyout.

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