Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Foreign Mutual Funds
Let’s talk about PFICs.
It is pronounced “Pea Fick,” and it is shorthand for a passive foreign investment company. We are continuing our “foreign” theme of late.
A PFIC is a foreign mutual fund. Think about your funds at Fidelity or Vanguard and relocate them to Bonn or London. That is all you have done, but with that act you have entered a twilight world of odd tax reporting.
Why? Treasury does not like foreign mutual funds. Why? That question has several possible answers, but I believe that a large part is because Treasury cannot control the taxation. A mutual fund in the United States is a “regulated investment company.” One of the requirements is that it has to pass along its taxable income to its investors in order to preserve its tax standing. Shift that fund to Bonn, and the German fund manager may not have the same level of concern in maintaining that “regulated investment company” status. The German fund manager may do something unconscionable, such as not declare dividends or distribute income to investors. That would allow the German fund to delay tax consequence to its U.S investors, possibly for many years. Why, the U.S. investor may eventually report the income as capital gain rather than ordinary dividend income. This is clearly an unacceptable scenario.
It didn’t use to be this way. The law for PFICs changed in 1986.
You are going to be specially taxed. You however can choose one of three methods of taxation:
(1) The Excess Distribution Method
This is the default method and is found in Section 1291 of the Internal Revenue Code.
At first glance it sounds good. You pay no tax until you either sell or receive an “excess distribution.” When you do, the IRS presumes that the income was earned ratably over the years you owned the fund. You have to pay tax at the highest marginal tax rate. It does not matter what your actual tax rate was. What if the fund lost money for 8 years, had one great year that made up for all losses and then you sold at a profit. ? Doesn’t matter. The IRS presumes that your profit was earned pro rata over 9 years. Now you are late on your taxes (remember, you did not include the profit in your prior year returns because there WAS NO PROFIT). You now have to pay tax using the highest-marginal tax rates. For 9 years. And then there is interest on the late taxes.
Oh, you may not be allowed to claim the loss if you sell the PFIC at a loss.
You really do not want to use this method.
(2) The Mark to Market Method
This option was added to the Code in 1997.
You mark your PFIC to market every year-end. In other words, you pay taxes on the difference between the share price on January 1st and December 31st. Every year.
You forfeit capital gains and losses. Whatever income or loss you report is ordinary. Sorry.
The big requirement here is that the PFIC has to have published fund prices. If the prices are not published, you simply cannot use the mark to market method.
(3) The Qualified Electing Fund
This is the method I have normally seen. The problem is that the fund has to provide certain information annually. As that information has meaning only to a U.S. taxpayer, the fund may decide that it is not worth the time and cost and refuse to provide it. In practice, I have seen these funds go through investment houses such as Goldman Sachs. Goldman can pool enough U.S. investors to make it worthwhile to the foreign fund manager, so the fund agrees going in that it will provide this additional information annually.
A QEF is basically like a partnership. It passes-though its income to the U.S. investor – whether distributed or not – and the U.S. investor pays taxes on it. Ordinary income is taxed at ordinary rates, and capital gains at capital gains rates. What changes is that Treasury does not wait for a distribution.
A QEF should be elected in the first year you own the QEF. If so, you avoid the “excess distribution” regime altogether. If you make the election in a later year, then there is a procedure to “purge” the earlier PFIC treatment.
The QEF election is made fund by fund.
Yes, there is a special form to use with PFICs. It is Form 8621 “Information Return by a Shareholder of a Passive Foreign Investment Company or Qualified Electing Fund.” It can be an intimidating three pages of tax-speak.
I saw PFICs a few years back, as we had several well-heeled clients. What I generally saw was a K-1, perhaps from a hedge fund. That fund in turn invested, and some of its investments were PFICs. The fund K-1 would arrive with its booklet of information, explanation and disclosures. The PFICs inside would further swell the page count. I remember these K-1s going on for 30 or 40 pages. These K-1s are not for young tax accountants.
As I said, Treasury really does not like foreign mutual funds.