Our favorite tax fashionista, Lee Sheppard, has an interesting article out today. See "News Analysis: The Fashion in Interest Deduction Restrictions," Tax Notes, Nov. 28, 2011, p. 1061.
What is earnings stripping? First, some background. Many jurisdictions, including the United States, permit taxpayers to deduct interest expense in computing net taxable income. Deductible interest reduces pre-tax income and taxes owed to the revenue authority. The deductibility of interest expense creates a difficult challenge for policy makers. The issue will be lurking below the surface as Congress begins wading into the waters of tax reform.
Deductible interest creates a "bias" for debt-heavy capital structures ("overleverage"). The deduction for interest expense artificially decreases the "real" cost of debt relative to the "real" cost of equity. Overleveraged capital structures are more likely to capsize during the "trough" of business cycles, creating turmoil and trauma for stakeholders of the overleveraged business (employees, customers, local communities, etc.).
Deductible interest also permits business owners to "strip" taxable income out of the the tax base. This "earnings stripping" or "base erosion" involves variations on a theme. Sheppard's article focuses on cross-border earnings stripping.
A corporate parent with a foreign subsidiary may be able to fund the subsidiary with "shareholder loan" capital that pays interest. With proper treaty planning, (i) the shareholder loan pays interest, (ii) the interest expense is deductible, reducing taxable income and tax liabilities in the subsidiary's jurisdiction, and (iii) low or no withholding taxes apply to the interest payment. This type of structure permits the parent to "strip" earnings out of a higher-tax jurisdiction into a lower-tax jurisdiction.
Designing an "interest strip" is not rocket science. Tax advisors can use the basic structure in domestic transactions. Assume a group of pension funds pools capital and purchases a U.S. business organized as a corporation. The pension funds capitalize an acquisition vehicle with a mix of equity capital and "shareholder loan" capital. The decision to capitalize with equity and debt is effectively "deemed" to have economic substance. The target business generates taxable income after the acquisition. But the acquisition vehicle pays deductible interest expense on its shareholder loans. The pension funds are tax-exempt entities, so pay no tax when they accrue or receive interest. Voila, an "interest strip" -- shifting tax revenue from the U.S. Treasury to the pension funds.
(In the long run, query whether foreign and domestic pension funds will be able to use their tax-advantaged status to purchase every commercial enterprise on Earth. Marx would be vindicated. The working class -- through pension funds and their investment managers -- would control the means of production.)
Congress understands that earnings stripping can be a big problem. It enacted Code section 163(j) to address the issue. Sheppard snorts at the U.S. rules: "[I]t remains ridiculously easy to strip [income out of the United States] using interest deductions, despite a statute squarely aimed at foreign-parented groups."
I won't go into section 163(j) in detail. It limits a corporation's related-party interest deductions if the corporation has too much leverage and too much interest expense. It works in some cases, but has a couple obvious shortcomings. First, it doesn't apply to my domestic example above (where a group of pension funds acquire a U.S. business and use shareholder loans to interest strip). The statute only bites if the shareholder loan capital is provided by a "related" person.
Second, the U.S. limitation does not expressly contain any transfer pricing limitation. Take a technology business. Many technology businesses are capitalized with low ratios of third-party debt to equity ("leverage ratios"). But let's assume that a foreign parent corporation purchases a U.S. target corporation and injects leverage (a shareholder loan) into the target's capital structure. Assume that external leverage ratios in the industry are very low (10% or lower). But the foreign parent capitalizes its new subsidiary with $20x of equity capital and $80x of shareholder loan capital (an 80% leverage ratio).
The U.S. earnings stripping rules do not prohibit the legal structure. And while the U.S. transfer pricing rules impose "arm's length" pricing requirements on intercompany transactions, IRS agents do no commonly focus on shareholder loans (in my experience). Unlike Sheppard, I don't fault section 163(j), so much as lax or unsophisticated U.S. tax administration.
German Rules (and Copyists)
Historically, the U.S. has exported principles of tax law and administration. But the rest of the world has caught up. Sheppard summarizes discussion at a recent International Bar Association annual meeting in Dubai. Tax professionals explored various European earnings stripping limitations. At some point, U.S. policymakers will start paying attention.
According to Sheppard, Germany was the first country to revise its earnings stripping rules. The German rules have serious teeth. The rules apply to all debt of a German affiliated group (an organschaft). The deduction for net interest expense is limited to 30 percent of EBITDA, regardless of whether the payer is related to the lender. EBITDA for this purpose is capped by the group's taxable income. (This effectively limits the benefit of timing or temporary differences to an organschaft with external or internal leverage.)
Practitioners apparently regard the limitation as "stingy." In my view, this is another example of German sensibility and efficiency. The rule is simple to describe and understand. It keys off EBITDA of a business; the financial metric that lenders and equity investors care about when financing an enterprise. The limitation may get low marks on "elegance," but it gets high marks from an administrative perspective. From a tax compliance perspective, policymakers should balance ease of administration against "technical perfection."
Italy has adopted a close variation of the German rule. The French legislature is considering a similar regime to address perceived abuse of French thin cap rules. The Dutch, Irish and Swedish are openly struggling with excessive leverage in domestic capital structures due to cross-border private equity transactions.
If you work in the international tax space or the domestic M&A space, Sheppard's article is definitely worth a quick read.