Briefing Underway in Barnes as Second Circuit Considers Application of Step-Transaction Doctrine to Impose Dividend Treatment on Movement of Foreign Cash
February 21, 2014
In Barnes Group v. Commissioner, the Tax Court (Goeke, J.) looked askance at the taxpayer’s strategy for minimizing the tax consequences of a movement of foreign cash to U.S. affiliates. As the taxpayer explained it, its foreign subsidiary in Singapore had excess cash and borrowing capacity that Barnes wanted to use to finance international acquisitions. For the time being, however, there was no suitable acquisition target, and the cash was earning only 3% in short-term deposit accounts while it could have been used more profitably in the U.S. to reduce Barnes’s expensive long-term debt. Barnes hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to help it develop an approach to allow the foreign cash to be used in the U.S. without incurring the adverse U.S. tax consequences of a direct loan or distribution to the U.S. parent.
The resulting “reinvestment plan” involved the creation of two new subsidiaries, one in Bermuda and one in Delaware, and two successive contributions of cash in section 351 exchanges – first from Singapore to Bermuda and second from Bermuda to Delaware. The Delaware subsidiary then loaned the cash to Barnes. Feel free to examine the opinion linked below for the details of the transaction, but suffice it to say here that a linchpin of the tax planning was reliance on Rev. Rul. 74-503, which concluded that when two corporations exchange their own stock under circumstances similar to the section 351 exchange between the Bermuda and Delaware subsidiaries, they take a zero basis in the stock received. (Rev. Rul. 74-503 was revoked by Rev. Rul. 2006-2, but the earlier ruling is still relevant in this case because Rev. Rul. 2006-2 is prospective and provides that the IRS will not challenge positions already taken by a taxpayer that reasonably relied on Rev. Rul. 74-503.) Although Bermuda’s ownership of stock in its Delaware affiliate was an investment in U.S. property under section 956 and therefore would typically result in adverse U.S. tax consequences similar to a distribution, Barnes argued that Bermuda’s basis was zero and therefore that its section 956 inclusion should be zero.
The Tax Court disagreed, holding that the U.S. tax consequences of the transaction were different from those anticipated by Barnes. The court first determined that Rev. Rul. 74-503 did not preclude the IRS from challenging the taxpayer’s position, giving two reasons. First, the court briefly stated that, because it believed that “the substance of the reinvestment plan was a dividend from [Singapore] to Barnes” (as it would explain later in the opinion), the court did not “respect the form of the reinvestment plan” and therefore the ruling was irrelevant. Second, the court said that the ruling was irrelevant in any event because of the “substantial factual differences” between the ruling and this case. The court acknowledged that the section 351 exchanges, “considered alone, do have factual similarities to the revenue ruling,” but noted that they also were different in that they involved new subsidiaries, including a controlled foreign corporation. In addition, the Tax Court emphasized that the Barnes transaction was more complex than the one described in the ruling and listed seven “vast factual disparities” between the two situations. The court, however, devoted little attention to explaining why these factual differences were material to whether the principle of the ruling should apply here. Instead, the court simply recited the factual differences and then concluded that, “because the reinvestment plan far exceeded the scope of the stock-for-stock exchange addressed in Rev. Rul. 74-503,” the IRS was not precluded from challenging the taxpayer’s position.
The court then applied a step-transaction analysis to support its holding that “the substance of the reinvestment plan was a dividend” from Singapore to Barnes and should be taxed as such. According to the court, the step-transaction doctrine provides that “a particular step in a transaction is disregarded for tax purposes if the taxpayer could have achieved its objective more directly but instead included the step for no other purpose than to avoid tax liability.” The court stated that the doctrine applies if any of three tests are satisfied: (1) the binding commitment test; (2) the end result test; and (3) the interdependence test. Finding the third test to be the most appropriate, the Tax Court concluded that the various steps were “so interdependent that the legal relations created by one step would have been fruitless without completion of the later steps.” The key premise underlying that ultimate conclusion was the court’s determination that there was no “valid and independent economic or business purpose . . . served by the inclusion of Bermuda and Delaware in the reinvestment plan.” This analysis is an aggressive application of the step-transaction doctrine, taking it beyond its usual sphere, given that the steps ignored by the court were not transitory and that the characterization of the transaction as a dividend did not leave the parties in an economic position consistent with their legal rights and obligations following the actual transaction.
The court further found that Barnes did not “respect the form of the reinvestment plan” as Barnes made no interest payments to Delaware on the loan (even though interest had been accrued) and did not provide sufficient evidence that Delaware made any preferred dividend payments to Bermuda.
Finally, the court rejected the taxpayer’s contention that the reinvestment plan was intended to be a temporary structure under which the Singapore funds would ultimately be invested overseas when the right target appeared, noting that Barnes did not return any funds to Singapore.
The Tax Court also upheld the government’s imposition of a 20% accuracy-related penalty. The taxpayer raised two defenses to the penalty, arguing that its position was based on “substantial authority” and that it reasonably and in good faith relied on the PwC opinion letter. The court gave the “substantial authority” argument short shrift, simply repeating that Rev. Rul. 74-503 was “materially distinguishable” and hence should be afforded little weight. In response to the taxpayer’s additional citation of a 1972 General Counsel Memorandum, the court stated that GCMs “over 10 years old are afforded very little weight.” Given that taxpayers are generally invited to rely on the legal principles set forth in revenue rulings as precedent (see Treas. Reg. § 601.601(d)(2)(v)(d)), the court’s perfunctory dismissal of the taxpayer’s reliance on Rev. Rul. 74-503 as substantial authority – and consequent imposition of a penalty – appears fairly harsh.
With respect to reliance on the PwC opinion, the court rested its decision on its finding that Barnes and its subsidiaries did not respect the structure of the reinvestment plan by failing to pay loan interest or preferred stock dividends. In the court’s view, “by failing to respect the details of the reinvestment plan set up by PwC, . . . [the taxpayer] forfeited any defense of reliance on the opinion letter.”
The taxpayer’s opening brief contends that all of these determinations by the Tax Court are erroneous. The first and longest section of the brief criticizes the court’s step-transaction analysis and ultimate conclusion that the transactions simply amounted to a dividend from Singapore to Barnes. In the taxpayer’s view, the court’s analysis “invent[s] a new step” of a constructive dividend that “fails to account for all of the commercial realities that continue to this day for the four legally separate corporate entities.” For example, the taxpayer argues that the evidence showed that Barnes intended to repay the loans and therefore it could not be a constructive dividend. Much of this portion of the taxpayer’s brief argues that the Tax Court’s key factual findings were clearly erroneous – namely, that the two new subsidiaries lacked a non-tax business purpose; that Barnes paid no interest to Delaware; that no preferred dividends were paid; and that the reinvestment plan was not intended to be temporary.
Second, the brief argues that the government impermissibly disavowed Rev. Rul. 74-503. The taxpayer points to Rauenhorst v. Commissioner, 119 T.C. 157 (2002), for the proposition that the IRS cannot challenge the legal principles set forth in its own revenue rulings. It then argues that the factual differences identified by the Tax Court are irrelevant to the rationale for Rev. Rul. 74-503 and thus provide no basis for the government’s failure to abide by that rationale.
It will be interesting, and instructive for other cases, to see how the government deals with this point. If it is true that revenue rulings are supposed to provide guidance on legal principles on which taxpayers can rely, and if the IRS is constrained to some extent by its own rulings, it would seem apparent that merely identifying factual differences is not enough of a justification for disregarding the legal principles articulated in a revenue ruling. There are always going to be factual differences, especially when the ruling at issue contains only a brief and generic description of the facts, like Rev. Rul. 74-503. Will the government question the premise of the taxpayer’s argument in any way? Or will it accept the taxpayer’s statements about Rauenhorst and limit itself to defending the Tax Court’s position that the facts at issue are so materially different that the rationale of Rev. Rul. 74-503 cannot reasonably be applied here? Will it try to buttress the Tax Court’s reliance on the “vast factual disparities” between the two situations or will it simply focus on the argument that the tax effect of any individual step viewed in isolation is irrelevant (and therefore so is the ruling) because the transactions in substance amounted to a dividend?
Third, the taxpayer contests the court’s penalty determination. With respect to “substantial authority” the taxpayer relies primarily on the earlier discussion in the brief and maintains that it was reasonable to rely on the revenue ruling. With respect to the good faith argument, the taxpayer repeats its earlier discussion disputing the Tax Court’s finding that it did not respect the form of the transaction. It also argues that the PwC opinion, in any event, did not even address the loan and preferred dividend details on which the Tax Court rested its findings, and therefore the taxpayer’s alleged failures regarding those details do not undermine its claim of reasonable reliance on the PwC opinion. Finally, the taxpayer argues broadly that the Tax Court could not rest its good cause determination “on events that occurred after the returns were filed.”
The government’s brief is due May 15.