Archive for the ‘Economic Substance’ category

Apple’s Double Irish With A Dutch Sandwich Goes Down Easy with SEC

October 9, 2013

By Phil Karter

Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) may have tried to take a bite out of Apple (AAPL) in congressional hearings last May examining the company’s overseas tax structure, calling it “the holy grail of tax avoidance.” However, it appears that more than just Irish eyes are smiling on the company these days, for in the eyes of the SEC, Apple’s efforts to minimize its tax burden are just fine thank you.  See e.g., O’Brian, Chris, “SEC reveals review of Apple’s Irish tax disclosures.” Los Angeles Times, 3 Oct. 2013, LATimes.com, 9 Oct. 2013.

But is that the happy end of the story for Apple and the many other companies such as Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB), Microsoft (MSFT) and Oracle (ORCL) that have replicated the Double Irish structure in one form or another?  Not necessarily given the continuing threat posed by a sweeping application of the economic substance doctrine.  For example, does the creation of foreign subsidiaries for the primary purpose and intent of minimizing tax liabilities meet either or both prongs of the infamous two-prong test examining objective non-tax profitability and subjective non-tax intent?

It very well should if cases like IES v. Comm’r. 253 F. 3d 350 (8th Cir. 2001) and Compaq Computer Corp. v. U.S., 277 F.3d 778 (5th Cir. 2001) continue to represent the state of the economic substance law.  IES’s and Compaq’s transactions were pure tax arbitrage plays whose profitability was derived solely from the monetization of foreign tax credits.  Is anything conceptually different really happening here? Yes, all the fuss over the Double Irish centers around keeping profits abroad beyond the reach of U.S. tax collectors but at bottom, each situation involves ways to reduce ETR and increase after-tax net profits (presumably along with shareholder value) through effective tax structuring.  At this point, the Supreme Court’s pronouncement in Gregory, v. Helvering, 293 U.S. 465 (1935), comes to mind: “The legal right of a taxpayer to decrease the amount of what otherwise would be his taxes, or altogether avoid them, by means which the law permits, cannot be doubted.”

The problem is that there remains considerable uncertainty about the potential reach of the economic substance doctrine based on the plethora of less taxpayer-friendly decisions, particularly recent ones.  Moreover, uncertainty about how and when the ESD could apply – along with the new strict liability penalty under § 6662(b)(6) – has only been heightened by the enactment of a statute, § 7701(o), containing far too many undefined terms.  For example, left open under the codified doctrine are such critical questions as when the doctrine is relevant and what the threshold is for non-tax profits to be substantial relative to tax benefits.

Finally, as reflected by taxpayers’ unsuccessful litigation of leveraged lease (LILO and SILO) transactions, the imprimatur by a government agency blessing the transaction is no assurance that it will thereafter be respected by the IRS.

During his illustrious career, the legendary Steve Jobs was renowned for his prescience.  Such talents would have come in handy in foreseeing the end to this story.  For the legion of companies employing these tax strategies, the hope is for a happy ending rather than a  Tofflerian “Future Shock.”

Cleaning Up After The Elephants – A Practical Reminder On Document Preservation Policies and Litigation Holds In Tax Disputes

September 2, 2013

By Phil Karter

Any corporate tax executive who has ever been involved in contesting an audit adjustment knows all too well how unfavorable documents relating to the subject of the adjustment – particularly improvident comments reflected in email correspondences – can be an ongoing impediment to resolving a tax dispute from the audit phase right up to and through litigation with the IRS or Department of Justice.  When such documents exist, even where taken out of context, the government will zealously sink its teeth into them like a junkyard dog, making the prospects of reaching a reasonable settlement or gaining an IRS concession all the more difficult.  One can’t fault the government for taking a hardline position.  Precedent reflects that this is a good strategy, particularly in economic substance cases, as demonstrated by the numerous times these unfavorable documents work their way into the text of court opinions as the factual underpinning for an adverse finding against the taxpayer.  Like a Dickensian character, they will come back to haunt you again and again.

The solution, of course (conveniently ignoring the practical realities of many understaffed and overburdened tax departments), is for the tax function to do a better job of policing both document production and retention policies, particularly outside of its own direct jurisdiction and normal supervision.  Non-tax business justifications pervade so many tax disputes that it is incumbent on the tax executives to ensure that these justifications are not only well-documented, but consistently followed in practice after the transaction is put into place.  The tax folks are, after all, the ones ultimately on the front lines defending the non-tax business justification.  As they say, it’s like cleaning up after the elephants in the circus parade – unpleasant but necessary.

In the course of this process, it is important to remain mindful that once documents are created, particularly in connection with a transaction where future litigation may reasonably be anticipated, a duty to preserve via a litigation hold may override a company’s normal document destruction policies.  See e.g., Silvestri v. General Motors Corp., 271 F.3d 583, 591 (4th Cir.2001)  (duty to preserve evidence “arises not only during litigation but also extends to the period before the litigation when a party reasonably should know that the evidence may be relevant to anticipated litigation.”)  Indeed, the failure to put a litigation hold in place can have deleterious consequences, from waiver of attorney work product protection (see e.g., Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.. v. Rambus, Inc., 439 F. Supp. 2d 525 (ED Va. 2006) (rev’d on other grounds, 523 F.3d. 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2008)), to IRS challenges regarding the completeness of a taxpayer’s Schedule UTP disclosures (which does not require reserves to be recorded for positions “expected to be litigated”), a topic I have written about before.  Simply put, it is difficult to persuasively argue that an issue was reasonably anticipated to be litigated (e.g., for work product protection or UTP purposes), where there is a failure to implement a litigation hold predicated on that very anticipation.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin (S.D.N.Y.), author of the landmark Zubulake opinion on electronic discovery, raised the stakes further when she ruled, in Sekisui American Corp. v. Hart, 2013 WL 4116322 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 15, 2013), that a party who failed to preserve electronically stored information (ESI) by not implementing an adequate litigation hold was subject to an adverse inference about the content of such evidence.  The ruling was notable because it bucked the trend of courts to overlook a party’s destruction of ESI in the normal course of its business practices, notwithstanding the obligation the party may have had to implement a litigation hold to preserve such documents.  (See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e), requiring “exceptional circumstances” to impose sanctions.)  In Sekisui, Judge Scheindlin imposed the adverse inference sanction (in addition to monetary damages) even without finding any malevolent intent or substantial prejudice to the opposing party.  The court simply ruled that the failure to implement a litigation hold was enough to constitute a willful intent to destroy documents.

It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to appreciate that a ruling invoking an adverse influence as a result of the failure to preserve documents can be fatal, an even more likely outcome in a bench trial where the judge making the ruling is also the trier of fact.  At the very least, being slapped with such a sanction will preclude any benefit of the doubt that documents interpreted negatively by the IRS may be accorded a more favorable interpretation by the trier of fact.

I have heard – certainly more than once – government counsel advocate to a court words to the effect that “memories fade but documents never lie.”  It is true that the odds of prevailing in a tax dispute are not helped by poor recordkeeping practices, by which I include both shoddy documentation as well as carelessly policed documentation containing ill-conceived content readily subject to misinterpretation and misuse.

If nothing else, the ruling of an influential jurist like Judge Scheindlin should heighten tax departments’ sensitivities about monitoring company recordkeeping practices from the outset of a transaction.  These efforts should be quantitative in terms of fully apprehending the documents to be generated and maintained, and qualitative to reduce the risk that problematic documents are generated carelessly and maintained thoughtlessly.  No less thought should be put into the timely implementation of litigation holds to ensure that company records – hopefully those that will help it carry the day in a tax dispute – are adequately preserved, particularly when the ramifications of their destruction can exponentially increase the likelihood of an unfavorable outcome.

Supreme Court’s Review of Valuation Misstatement Penalty Leaves the Door Open for Appellants

April 16, 2013

By David J. Shakow

On March 25, the Supreme Court accepted certiorari in U.S. v. Gary Woods.  (Supreme Court order) The issue presented to the Court arose from a split in the Circuits over whether a taxpayer can avoid the valuation misstatement penalties of section 6662(e) and (h) by conceding that there was no economic substance to its return position (and thus that the valuation misstatement was not the basis for its tax deficiency).  Compare, e.g., Todd v. Commissioner, 862 F.2d 540 (5th Cir. 1988) (no penalty imposed under predecessor of section 6662), with e.g., Gustashaw v. Commissioner, 110 A.F.T.R.2d 2012-6169 (11th Cir. 2012) (9/28/12) (criticizing Todd).

In accepting the case, the Supreme Court also directed the parties to address an additional matter – whether the trial court even had jurisdiction under section 6226 (dealing with TEFRA partnership-level proceedings) to consider the valuation misstatement penalty.

Taxpayers who have disputed and lost cases involving the same issue would be wise to preserve their appeal rights, if still available, so that they can potentially benefit from a favorable decision by the Supreme Court.

Could The New Economic Substance Statute Apply To End-Of-Year Stock Sales And Repurchases?

December 28, 2012

By Phil Karter

With the looming increase in tax rates on investment income and capital gains in particular, a large number of stock market investors have been selling long-term positions to lock in the 2012 rate, which currently tops out at 15%.  Come January 1,2013, gain on the same sale could be taxed at a rate as high as 23.8%, consisting of a long-term capital gains tax rate of 20% plus a Medicare surtax of 3.8% imposed on joint filers with AGI greater than $250,000 and single filers with AGI greater than $200,000.  (See Internal Revenue Code § 1411).

A question attracting attention as the year draws to a close and the pace of this activity has accelerated has been whether a stock sale undertaken solely to take advantage of the lower 2012 capital gains tax rates might fall within the scope of Code § 7701(o), the relatively new economic substance statute codified as part of the landmark Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 (Pub. L. 111-152, 124 Stat. 1029).  Concerns about coming within the scope of this statute are that it might subject the investor to a 20% penalty enacted as part of the new law.  See Code § 6662(b)(6).  The penalty, if applicable, is a “strict liability” one, which means that taxpayers cannot avoid it on grounds of reasonable cause, such as reliance on a tax advisor. (The penalty for a transaction determined to lack economic substance is also increased to a whopping 40% if the transaction is undisclosed.  See Code § 6662(i).  However, as long as a taxpayer reports the transaction on his or her tax return, the 40% penalty should not apply.)

Thankfully, the eleventh hour concerns expressed about this issue should be put to rest for stock investment gain-recognition transactions in 2012.  Even assuming the economic substance statute is conceptually broad enough to ensnare stock sale transactions undertaken to lock in lower capital gains tax rates, the penalty is only applicable to “underpayments.”  Because a long-term capital gain recognized in 2012 does not reduce a taxpayer’s taxable income but rather increases it (unless the gain is offset by otherwise unused capital losses), there is no underpayment against which to apply a penalty.

Now let’s vary the circumstances by introducing a simultaneous buyback of the stock at the time of sale to reestablish the same position.  Does that change anything vis a vis a potential penalty risk?  We still have a gain recognition transaction in 2012, so there is no tax underpayment against which a penalty could apply for this year.  As for the repurchased stock, its cost basis is at the repurchase price, which means that a subsequent sale in a future year will either produce a smaller taxable gain or larger taxable loss than would have occurred had the original share lots with their lower cost basis simply been maintained.  Some have speculated that this could produce a tax underpayment against which the strict liability economic substance penalty might apply in the year of sale.  After all, in defining a transaction that has economic substance, § 7701(o) requires (1) that the transaction change in a “meaningful way” the taxpayer’s economic position apart from federal tax benefits, and (2) that the taxpayer have a non-tax purpose for entering into the transaction.

In theory, a sale and instantaneous repurchase might fail to satisfy both of these tests.  On the other hand, a repurchase transaction that occurs sometime after the sale introduces an element of market risk from stock price fluctuation that should mitigate any penalty risk.  Similarly, a repurchase in a different type of account (e.g., in a tax-deferred account where the original sale was in a taxable account or vice versa) should also put the taxpayer on firmer ground.

So what are the real risks that the IRS might choose some unfortunate taxpayers to assert a strict liability penalty?  It has, after all, been less than forthcoming in providing guidance on what types of plain vanilla transactions, if any, may be viewed as falling within the scope of the new economic substance statute.  Perhaps the best indicator one can draw upon is the title of § 7701(o), “Clarification of Economic Substance Doctrine.”  The codified doctrine has been portrayed as merely a clarification of the economic substance law in effect for transactions entered into before March 30, 2010. Under the pre-codification doctrine, which is derived solely from the common law, there do not appear to be any reported economic substance cases involving a taxpayer’s sale and repurchase transaction that results in accelerated gain recognition. Couple this with the fact that no court has been asked to interpret the breadth of the new economic substance statute since it was passed in 2010, and it is reasonable to believe that the IRS would prefer to choose a different, and presumably more compelling battleground to make its first stand defending the application of Section 7701(o) and the strict liability penalty.

Finally, in the case of a 2012 gain-recognition stock sale and simultaneous repurchase, it cannot be entirely certain that the transaction will even produce a tax savings when all is said and done.  This is because of the difference between the tax rates for long and short term capital gains (which are taxed at ordinary income rates).  Because a new holding period is established for the repurchased stock, it remains possible that the stock, when sold, will produce a short-term capital gain subject to a larger tax burden than might have occurred if if the original long-term position was held into 2013 or beyond.  In the end, the lack of certainty about the ultimate tax effect until the second sale occurs may be taxpayers’ best argument that the sale and repurchase transaction had economic substance after all.

Southgate Master Fund: The Sham Partnership Doctrine Gets Messy… Or Does It?

December 13, 2011

By Jonathan Prokup

Two weeks ago, the Fifth Circuit summarily rejected a taxpayer request for an en banc rehearing in Southgate Master Fund LLC v. United States.  The appellate court had previously concluded that the taxpayer was not entitled to a claimed capital loss from a transaction involving the acquisition of distressed debt via a partnership because the partnership was a “sham” that should be disregarded for federal tax purposes.  The taxpayer’s petition for rehearing, along with two amicus briefs, raised the specter that the Fifth Circuit’s opinion would require taxpayers to have a non-tax business purpose for choosing to conduct business activities in a partnership rather than a corporation. (more…)

Merck (Shering Plough) v. U.S.: Will One Taxpayer’s Loss Benefit Other Taxpayers Grappling With The Codified Economic Substance Doctrine?

June 21, 2011

By Jonathan Prokup

The Third Circuit yesterday issued a harshly worded rebuke to the taxpayer in Merck v. United States, No. 10-2775 (Jun. 20, 2011), affirming the District Court’s decision that the taxpayer’s swap-and-assign transaction was really a disguised loan that gave rise to Subpart F income.  (See TaxProfBlog for a link to the opinion.) (more…)

Will IRS Limit Exam’s Assertion of the Economic Substance Penalty? TIGTA Report Suggests Not.

December 31, 2010

Since codification of the economic substance doctrine in March 2010, taxpayers have expressed fears that IRS will assert the doctrine unpredictably, resulting in an in terrorem effect among taxpayers because of the lack of clear authorities interpreting the doctrine and the new 40% strict-liability penalty for falling on the wrong side of it.  To promote predictability in the exam processes, taxpayers have requested that Treasury or the IRS issue formal guidance instituting prescribed procedures to assert the penalty.  The government had declined these requests, but officials have promised queasy taxpayers that IRS will only assert the penalty after certain approvals.  For example, in September, LMSB Commissioner Heather Maloy issued a directive mandating that any assertion of the penalty during exam must be approved by the appropriate director of field operations.  Then, as reported by Tax Analysts, Associate Chief Counsel (Procedure and Administration) Deborah Butler said in October that Chief Counsel would review any notice of deficiency that applied the economic substance penalty before it was sent to the taxpayer.

(more…)


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