Friday, August 29, 2014

What Happens When Hacking Concerns Conflict With A State Electronic Payment Mandate?

Let’s travel to the Bay State for a taxpayer requesting reasonable cause against the imposition of penalties.  

The amount in dispute is $100.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Our protagonist is Jonathan Haar, and he lives in Massachusetts. On April 15, 2011 he had the audacity to file a paper extension and include a $19,517 check for his tax year 2010 state return. The paper extension and payment

“… did not comply with the requirements set forth in Technical Information Release (“TIR”) 04-30 (“TIR 04-30”), which states that if a payment accompanying an extension application equals $5,000 or more, such extension application and payment must be submitted electronically.”

Got it. The state says that it is less expensive to process electronic than paper tax filings and payments. Seems reasonable. How do we get people to follow along, however? One way is to make whatever the state wants mandatory.

Our protagonist unfortunately had travelled this path before, and he had been warned for tax year 2005 and penalized for year 2006.  Massachusetts had a tax recidivist! They assessed the above-mentioned $100 penalty on our ne-er-do-well.

If you were my client, I would have told you to pay the $100 and move on. Mr. Haar is not my client, and he refused to pay. He instead filed an appeal, which appeal went to the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board.

His argument?

“Mr. Haar maintained that the Commissioner’s electronic payment mandate is a ‘serious invasion of both [his] privacy and [his] personal business practices,’ as it exposes his finances to risk of cyber attack.”

 “I intentionally do no electronic banking nor direct bill paying, I have none of my credit cards linked to my bank accounts directly and I think anyone who does any of the above is exposing themselves to multiple risks of cybercrime and identity theft.”

Mr. Haar further expressed doubts as to the security of the computer systems used by the Department of Revenue (“DOR”), noting that "if the Pentagon can be hacked," he had little confidence that DOR could protect his – or anyone’s – personal data from theft.

Massachusetts argued that it had the authority to mandate electronic filing and payment, as well as assess penalties if a taxpayer failed to comply with their filing and payment mandates. Massachusetts does recognize exceptions for reasonable cause, but its own Administrative Procedure 633 (“AP 633”) provides that

… the fact that a taxpayer does not own a computer or is uncomfortable with electronic data or funds transfer will not support a claim for reasonable cause.”

COMMENT: Call me quaint, but I would say that someone not having a computer is prima facie reasonable cause for not being able to file an electronic return or transfer funds electronically. The issue I see with AP 633 is its absolutism: the language “will not support” leaves no room. Why not say instead “generally will not support,” if only to allow space for unexpected fact patterns? 

In support of its position, the DOR trotted out two officials: the first was Robert Allard, a tax auditor. He pointed out that Mr. Haar filed an electronic return, presumably through a professional preparer. I suppose that Mr. Allard felt that if one could electronically file then one should be able to electronically pay. 

The second was Theresa O’Brien-Horan, a 26-year employee and Deputy Commissioner, who testified that

… the mandate at issue in this appeal – requiring individual taxpayers who apply for an extension with an accompanying payment of $5,000 or more to file and pay electronically – is helpful to DOR because it maximized up-front revenue intake.”

… the $5,000 threshold was chosen because it would ‘impact 17% of the taxpayers, but … get the money banked for 84% of the revenue.”

You can virtually feel the customer service vapor emanating from Ms O’Brien- Horan.

When asked whether reasonable cause was the Massachusetts equivalent of an ”opt out,” Ms. O’Brien-Horan answered “yes.”

OBSERVATION: The IRS, for example, prefers that one file an electronic return. The IRS however did not put the burden on the taxpayer; rather it put the burden on the preparer. If a preparer prepares more than a minimal number of returns annually, the preparer is required to file the returns electronically. This is awkward, as the return belongs to the taxpayer and not to the preparer. The preparer is not allowed to release any return – even to the IRS – without the taxpayer’s approval. What does the preparer do if the taxpayer does not grant approval? The preparer includes yet-another-form with the return indicating that the taxpayer has “opted out.” This prevents the IRS from penalizing the preparer for not filing electronically.

If Mr. Haar’s position was reasonable, then Mr. Haar could “opt out,” irrespective of any self-serving Massachusetts Administrative Procedure.

Ms. O’Brien-Horan just didn’t think that Mr. Haar was being reasonable.

But the Board did.

“Given his reference to the hacking of the Pentagon’s computer system, and in light of the many well-publicized instances of large-scale thefts of financial information following computer breaches at businesses and other institutions, and the appellant’s consistent practice of avoiding electronic payment of all his bills, including his tax obligations, the Board found that the appellant’s failure to utilize the Commissioner’s mandated electronic tax payment to be reasonable.”

Two things strike me immediately.

The first is the cause for concern comprising Mr. Haar’s argument. It had not occurred to me to off-grid all of one’s banking transactions, but he gives one pause. I recently read the following on, for example:

A Russian gang has stolen 1.2 billion user names and their passwords as well as more than 500 million email addresses, the New York Times reports.

The information came from more than 400,000 websites, according to the Times, which says researchers at Milwaukee-based Hold Security discovered the cyber heist.

Mr. Haar is highly cautious. His position is somewhat eccentric but not unfounded. A reasonable tax collection agency would have granted him this one and moved on.  

The second is the inanity of Massachusetts DOR. Rather than abate a $100 penalty, it preferred to pursue the matter, at who knows what cost to state and citizens. We know that cost would include Mr. Allard and Ms O’Brien-Horan’s payroll, not to mention that of their superiors, legal counsel and who-knows-what else. I can understand not wanting to set a precedent, but … really? My take is that the DOR is too well-funded if they have the time and money to pursue nonsense like this. Perhaps DOR budgets cutbacks are in order for Massachusetts.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why is Kinder Morgan Buying Its Own Master Limited Partnerships?

I am reading that Kinder Morgan, Inc (KMI) is restructuring, bringing its master limited partnerships (MLPs) under one corporate structure. We have not spoken about MLPs in a while, and this gives us an opportunity to discuss what these entities are. We will also discuss why a company would reconsolidate, especially in an environment which has seen passthrough entities as the structure of choice for so many business owners.

As a refresher, a plain–vanilla corporation (which we call a “C” corporation) pays tax at the corporate level. The United States has the unenviable position of having one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world, which is certainly a strike against organizing a business as a C corporation. Couple this with the tax Code’s insistence on taxing the worldwide income of a C corporation (with certain exceptions), and there is a second strike for businesses with substantial overseas presence.

A passthrough on the other hand generally does not pay tax at the entity level. It instead passes its income through to its owners, who then combine that income with their personal income and deductions (for example, salary, interest and dividends, as well as mortgage interest and real estate taxes) and pay taxes on their individual tax returns. This is a key reason that many tax professionals are opposed to ever-higher individual tax rates. The business owner’s personal income is artificially boosted by that business income, pushing - if not shoving - him/her into ever-higher tax rates. This is not generally interpreted as an admonition from our government to go forth and prosper. 

MLPs are relatively recent creations, entering the tax Code in 1986. They can be the size of publicly-traded corporations, but they are organized instead as publicly-traded partnerships. They are required to generate at least 90% of their revenues from “qualifying sources,” commonly meaning oil, natural gas or coal. The stock market values MLPs on their cash flow, so the sponsor (in this case, KMI) has great incentive to maximize distributions to the unitholders. MLPs have consequently become legitimate competitors to bonds and dividend-paying stocks. You could, for example, purchase a certificate of deposit paying 1.4%, or you could instead purchase a MLP paying 7%. Introduce a low interest rate environment, couple it with expanded activity in shale and natural gas, and MLPs have been in a very favorable investment environment for a while.

One of the granddaddies of MLPs is Kinder Morgan Inc, which placed its operating activities in three principal MLPs: Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, Kinder Morgan Management and El Paso Pipeline Partners. To say that they have done well is to understate.

There is a tax downside to MLP investing, however. A MLP does not pay dividends, as Proctor & Gamble would. Instead it pays distributions, which may or may not be taxable. You do not pay tax on the distributions per se. You instead pay tax on your distributable income from the MLP, reported on a Schedule K-1. A partner pays tax on his/her income on that K-1; by investing in a MLP you are a partner. To the extent that the K-1 numbers approximate the distribution amount, your tax would be about the same as if you had received a dividend. That, however, almost never happens. Why? Let’s look at one common reason: depreciation. As a partner, you are entitled to your share of the entity’s depreciation expense. Depreciation reduces your share of the distributable income. To the extent that there is heavy depreciation, less and less of your distribution would be taxable. What type of entity would rack up heavy depreciation? How about a pipeline, with hundreds of millions of dollars tied-up in its infrastructure? 

This leads to an (almost) win:win situation for the investor. To the extent there is outsized depreciation, or perhaps depletion or tax credits, you can receive generous distributions but pay tax on a considerably smaller number. There is a tax downside however. To the extent that the distributions exceed the K-1 income, you are deemed to have received a return of your capital. This means that you are getting back part of your investment. This matters later, when you sell the MLP units. Your “basis” in the MLP would now be less (as your investment has been returned to you bit by bit), meaning that any gain on a subsequent sale would be larger by the same amount. Many MLP investors have no intention of ever selling, so they do not fear this contingency. No later sale equals no later tax.

Almost all MLPs pay someone to actually manage the business, whether it is a pipeline or timberland. That someone would be the sponsor or general partner (GP). The general partner receives a base percentage to manage the operations, and many MLPs also further pay an incentive distribution right (IDR) to the general partner, which amount increases as the MLP becomes more and more profitable. For example:

·        A GP receives 2% base to manage the business
·        Then there is an IDR at certain steps
o   At step one, the GP receives 15% of the increment over the first step,
o   At step two, the GP receives 25% of the increment over the second step
o   At step three, he GP receives 35% of the increment over the third step

How high can this go? Well, KMI and its MLPs have done so well that approximately 50% is going to an IDR payment.

This means that KMI is receiving up to 50% of the MLP income it is managing, so 50% comes back to the KMI (a C corporation) anyway. One really has not accomplished much tax-wise as far as that 50% goes.

But that leaves the other 50%, right?

MLPs can have difficulty borrowing money because they pay-out such an outsized percentage of their income, whether as IDRs or distributions. A banker wants to see a profitable business, as well as see the business retain some of that profit, if only to repay the bank. This leads to complicated bank loans, as the GP has to step in as a borrower or a guarantor on any loan. Banks also like to have collateral. Problem: the GP does not have the assets; instead the MLP has the assets. This causes banking headaches. The headache may be small, if the MLP is small.  Let the MLP grow, and headaches increase in intensity. 

Remember what we said about KMI? It is one of the granddaddies of MLPs. Banking and deal making have become a problem.

So KMI Inc has decided to do away with its MLP structure. It has proposed to buy back its MLPs in a $44 billion deal, bringing everything under the corporate roof. It now becomes the third largest energy company in the United States, behind only Exxon Mobil and Chevron.

The stock market seemed to like the deal, as KMI’s stock popped approximately 10% in one day.

What is the tax consequence to all this? Ah, now we have a problem. Let us use Kinder Morgan Energy Partners as an example. These investors will have a sale, meaning they will have to report and pay taxes on their gains. Remember that they have been reducing their initial investment by excess distributions. I have seen estimates of up to $18 tax per KMEP MLP unit owned. Granted, investors will also receive almost $11 in cash per unit, but this is a nasty April 15th surprise waiting to happen.

The restructuring should reduce KMI’s taxable income as much as $20 billion over the next dozen years or so, as KMI will now be able to claim the depreciation on its corporate tax return. In addition, KMI will be able to use its own stock in future acquisitions, as C corporations can utilize their stock to structure tax-free mergers. Standard & Poor’s has said it would upgrade KMI’s credit rating, as its organizational chart will be easier to understand and its cash flow easier to forecast. KMI has already said it would increase its dividend by approximately 10% annually for the rest of the decade.

By the way, are you wondering what the secret is to the tax voodoo used here? Kinder Morgan is bringing its MLPs onto its depreciation schedule, meaning that it will have massive depreciation deductions for years to come. There is a price to pay for this, though: someone has to report gain and pay tax. The IRS is not giving away this step-up in depreciable basis for free. It is however the MLP investors that are paying tax, although KMI is distributing cash to help out. To the extent that KMI optimized the proportion between the tax and the cash, the tax planners hit a home run.   

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What Does It Take To Claim a Business Bad Debt Deduction?

Do you know what it takes to support a bad debt deduction?

I am not talking about a business sale to a customer on open account, which account the customer is later unable or unwilling to pay. No, what I am talking about is loaning money.

Then the loan goes south, other partially or in full.

And I –as the CPA - find out about it, sometimes years after the fact. The client assures me this is deductible because he/she had a business purpose – being repaid is surely a business purpose, right?

Unless you are Wells Fargo or Fifth Third Bank, the IRS will not automatically assume that you are in the business of making loans. It wants to see that you have a valid debt with all its attributes: repayment schedule, required interest payments, collateral and so forth. The more of these you have, the better your case. The fewer, the weaker your case. What makes this tax issue frustrating is that the tax advisor is frequently uninformed of a loan until later – much later – when it is too late to implement any tax planning.

Ronald Dickinson (Dickinson) and Terry DuPont (DuPont) worked together in Indianapolis. DuPont moved to Illinois to be closer to his children. DuPont was having financial issues, including obligations to his former wife and support for his children.

Dickinson started up a new business, and he reached out to DuPont. Knowing his financial issues, Dickinson agreed to help:

Anyway, I want to reiterate again my commitment to you financially, and what I would expect from you in paying me back. I am not going to prepare a note, or any form of contract, because I trust you to be honest about this matter, just like all of the other people I have loaned money.

Anyway, I agree you loan you money to get settled in over here, and help you out financially as long as I see our new company is working, and you are going to work as hard as you did for me the last time we worked together.”

Sounds like Dickinson was a nice guy.

Between 1998 and 2002, Dickinson wrote checks to DuPont totaling approximately $27,000.

DuPont acquired a debit card on a couple of business bank accounts, and he helped himself to additional monies. He was eventually found out, and it appears that he was not supposed to have had a debit card. By 2003 the business relationship ended.

Dickinson filed a lawsuit in 2004. He wanted DuPont to pay him back approximately $33,000. The suit went back and forth, and in 2009 the Court dismissed the lawsuit.

Dickinson, apparently seeing the writing on the wall, filed his 2007 tax return showing the (approximately) $33,000 as a bad debt. He included a long and detailed explanation 0f the DuPont debacle with his return, thereby explaining his (likely largest) business deduction to the IRS.

The IRS disallowed the bad deduction and wanted another $15,000-plus from him in taxes. But - hey – thanks for the memo.

Dickinson took the matter pro se to Tax Court.

And there began the tax lesson:

(1)   Only a bona fide debt qualifies for purposes of the bad debt deduction.
(2)   For a debt to be bona fide, at the time of the loan the following should exist:
a.      An unconditional obligation to repay
b.      And unconditional intention to repay
c.       A debt instrument
d.      Collateral securing the loan
e.      Interest accruing on the loan
f.        Ability of the borrower to repay the alleged loan

Let’s be honest: Dickinson was not able to show any of the items from (a) to (f). The Court noted this.

But Dickinson had one last card. Remember the wording in his letter:

            … just like all of the other people I have loaned money.”

Dickinson needed to trot out other people he had made loans to, and had received repayment from, under circumstances similar to DuPont. While not dispositive, it would go a long way to showing the Court that he had a repetitive activity – that of loaning money – and, while unconventional, had worked out satisfactorily for him in the past. Would this convince the Court? Who knows, because…

… Dickinson did not trot out anybody.

Why not? I have no idea. Without presenting witnesses, the Court considered the testimony to be self-serving and dismissed it.

Dickinson lost his case. He took so many strikes at the plate the Court did not believe him when he said that he made a loan with the expectation of being repaid. The Court simply had to point out that, whatever Dickinson meant to do, the transaction was so removed from the routine trappings of a business loan that the Court had to assume it was something else.

Is there a lesson here? If you want the IRS to buy-in to a business bad debt deduction, you must follow at least some standard business practices in making the loan.

Otherwise it’s not business.