Inconsistent Treatment Of Guaranteed Payments As Interest Expense

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Guaranteed payments resemble interest expense under section 163 but those payments are not, as a technical matter, interest on actual indebtedness. Recent IRS regulations have treated guaranteed payments inconsistently. Below is the substance of a letter to the editor that I will be publishing in Tax Notes next Monday.

Text Of Substance Of Letter:

How can a guaranteed payment on capital under section 707(c) of the Internal Revenue Code be both an actual item of indebtedness if, but only if, there is a tax avoidance motive for purposes of section 163(j)’s limitation on business interest expense but only be “equivalent to” but not actually be indebtedness for purposes of the foreign tax credit in all cases? Well, if you are the IRS with the “pen in hand”, anything is possible.

The recently finalized foreign tax credit regulations, T.D. 9922, had this to say about the issue:

“The Treasury Department and the IRS have determined that guaranteed payments for the use of capital share many of the characteristics of interest payments that a partnership would make to a lender and, therefore, should be treated as interest equivalents for purposes of allocating and apportioning deductions under §§1.861-8 through 1.861-14 and as income equivalent to interest under section 954(c)(1)(E). This treatment is consistent with other sections of the Code in which guaranteed payments for the use of capital are treated similarly to interest. See, for example, §§1.469-2(e)(2)(ii) and 1.263A-9(c)(2)(iii). In addition, the fact that a guaranteed payment for the use of capital may be treated as a payment attributable to equity under section 707(c), or that a guaranteed payment for the use of capital is not explicitly included in the definition of interest in §1.163(j)-1(b)(22), does not preclude applying the same allocation and apportionment rules that apply to interest expense attributable to debt, nor does it preclude treating such payments as “equivalent” to interest under section 954(c)(1)(E). Instead, the relevant statutory provisions under sections 861 and 864, and section 954(c)(1)(E), are clear that the rules can apply to amounts that are similar to interest.”

OK, so the IRS is saying here that a guaranteed payment on capital is not and does not have to “indebtedness” for the item to be treated the same as interest expense under the enumerated statutory provisions. This is so without regard to there being a tax avoidance reason for the taxpayer to have used a guaranteed payment on capital instead of actual indebtedness. Technically true in the case of the enumerated provisions but does it make good policy sense or is it merely “talking out of both sides of your mouth” and, thus ultra vires?

Take a look at how guaranteed payments on capital recently fared under the final section 163(j) regulations (T.D. 9905). The final regulation preamble had this to say about the issue:

“Proposed §1.163(j)-1(b)(20)(iii)(I) provides that any guaranteed payments for the use of capital under section 707(c) are treated as interest. Some commenters stated that a guaranteed payment for the use of capital should not be treated as interest for purposes of section 163(j) unless the guaranteed payment was structured with a principal purpose of circumventing section 163(j). Other commenters stated that section 163(j) never should apply to guaranteed payments for the use of capital….In response to comments, the final regulations do not explicitly include guaranteed payments for the use of capital under section 707(c) in the definition of interest. However, consistent with the recommendations of some commenters, the anti-avoidance rules in §1.163(j)-1(b)(22)(iv)…include an example of a situation in which a guaranteed payment for the use of capital is treated as interest expense and interest income for purposes of section163(j).”

Without getting into the merits of the example the IRS added to the anti-avoidance rule, suffice it to say that acting “with a principal purpose” of tax avoidance in preferring a guaranteed payment on capital to actual interest on indebtedness is a very low barrier for the IRS to meet. After all, “a principal purpose”, based on existing authority, is merely an important purpose but need not be the predominant purpose and the test can be met even if there is a bona fide business purpose for using the guaranteed payment in lieu of actual indebtedness and even though the transaction has economic substance.

But what about how the U.S. Supreme Court and the IRS itself treated a short sale for purposes of interest deductibility and the unrelated business income tax, respectively? In Rev. Rul. 95-8, 1995-1 C.B. 107, the issue was whether a short sale of property created “acquisition indebtedness” for purposes of the unrelated business income tax under section 514. The IRS concluded, in a revenue ruling that is still outstanding, that the answer was no:

“Income attributable to a short sale can be income derived from debt-financed property only if the short seller incurs acquisition indebtedness within the meaning of section 514 with respect to the property on which the short seller realizes that income. In Deputy v. du Pont, 308 U.S. 488, 497-98 (1940), 1940-1 C.B. 118, 122, the Supreme Court held that although a short sale created an obligation, it did not create indebtedness for purposes of the predecessor of section 163.”

In turn, the U.S. Supreme Court had this to say about what is “indebtedness” under the Internal Revenue Code (Deputy v. du Pont, 308 U.S. 488 (1940)):

“There remains respondent’s contention that these payments are deductible under § 23 (b) as “interest paid or accrued . . . on indebtedness.” Clearly [the taxpayer] owed an obligation….But although an indebtedness is an obligation, an obligation is not necessarily an “indebtedness” within the meaning of § 23 (b)…. It is not enough….that “interest” or “indebtedness” in their original classical context may have permitted this broader meaning.  We are dealing with the context of a revenue act and words which have today a well-known meaning. In the business world “interest on indebtedness” means compensation for the use or forbearance of money. In [the] absence of clear evidence to the contrary, we assume that Congress has used these words in that sense. (footnotes omitted).”

And so, the U.S. Supreme Court says that “interest on indebtedness” means “compensation for the use or forbearance of money”. A guaranteed payment on capital is a return on equity and cannot be transformed into interest on indebtedness based on some general regulatory authority under section 7805(a), no matter how abusive the IRS views a transaction. And effectively treating a guaranteed payment on capital as “equivalent to interest” but not actually indebtedness for purposes of certain enumerated provisions (such as section 901) seems to be overreaching given the mandate of the U.S. Supreme Court on an economic equivalent to interest on indebtedness at that time, a short sale.

Note that this bifurcated treatment of a guaranteed payment on capital “infects” other recent regulations because in one case (T.D. 9866, the GILTI final regulations) there is an explicit cross reference to the definition of interest income and expense under section 163(j) (which presumably includes the application of the interest expense anti-abuse rule in those final regulations), and in another case (T.D. 9896, the section 267A final regulations) the substance of the definition of interest expense and the anti-avoidance rule exception were incorporated into those regulations.

Can the IRS write a regulation that circumvents the dictates of the U.S. Supreme Court using a general grant of regulatory authority under section 7805(a)? I would think that the answer is clearly and obviously no. But what is the price that the IRS will ultimately pay if the results enumerated here are overruled by a court several years down the road? Other than spending taxpayer dollars unnecessarily, it does not appear that there is any downside in doing so. Should that be the way it is?



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