The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (“Tax Act”) has sweeping ramifications. These range from mechanical compliance issues (e.g., revised withholding rates for employees) to strategic concerns that must ultimately be decided in the boardroom. For domestic corporations and foreign corporations with U.S. operations, one strategic imperative is a wholesale re-evaluation of the structure of a company’s operations. In this first of two articles, we identify four significant aspects of the Tax Act with which corporate directors should become familiar.
1. Mandatory “Transition Tax” on Deemed Repatriations of Deferred Foreign Earnings. Many corporations have deferred foreign earnings under Accounting Principles Board Opinion No. 23, recording no associated financial statement U.S. income tax liability based on the position that such earnings are indefinitely reinvested in foreign operations. The Tax Act terminates the deferral and imposes a tax liability on deferred earnings regardless of whether they are actually repatriated. The Transition Tax on this “deemed repatriation” is 15.5 percent on the portion of the earnings represented by cash and cash equivalents and 8 percent on the portion invested in non-cash assets. Although most of the provisions of the Tax Act take effect in 2018, the Transition Tax is due on a corporation’s 2017 tax return and will likely cause a charge to 2017 earnings. There is an election to pay the tax in installments over an eight-year period.
What Directors Should Do. Computing the Transition Tax can be extremely complex and requires data the corporation may not have collected in the ordinary course of its business. This is particularly the case where the corporation has acquired companies that earned foreign profits after 1986. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has issued guidance, including Staff Accounting Bulletin 118, to assist corporations in applying generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) to reflect the impact of the Tax Act where necessary information is not yet available. Directors, and in particular audit committee members, should ensure that the corporation devotes adequate resources to preparing a reasonably accurate computation of the Transition Tax in time to make their disclosures for the fiscal quarter or year ended December 31, 2017. Given the many open issues regarding the Transition Tax that may not be clarified by the filing date of the corporation’s tax return, corporations should enlist expert assistance to interpret the law and refine the company’s computation of the Transition Tax.
The deemed repatriation affords many corporations greater flexibility to utilize previously “trapped” cash (i.e., cash that was held by non-U.S. entities that could not be repatriated without being subject to U.S. tax). This cash might be used to fund acquisitions, capital expenditures, debt repayments, stock buybacks or dividends. Directors should ask management to focus on the corporation’s optimal capital allocation and to report to the board concerning available options.
2. Reduction in Corporate Tax Rate from 35 Percent to 21 Percent. The default rate on corporate taxable income drops from 35 to 21 percent, although there are special lower rates for certain types of foreign earnings discussed below. This 40-percent reduction in the corporate tax rate will affect the value of a corporation’s deferred tax assets and liabilities. For example, all things being equal the value of a net operating loss carry-forward may drop by 40 percent. At the same time, however, the lower tax rate may increase after-tax earnings going forward for many corporations. There are many less obvious implications of the rate reduction, particularly in conjunction with other changes in the Tax Act.
What Directors Should Do. Directors should commission a study by the corporation’s tax department of potential changes in the corporation’s legal entity and operational structures to take full advantage of the rate reductions in combination with other relevant provisions of the Tax Act. Such a study will also be useful in completing the corporation’s tax accounting analysis of the impact of the Tax Act under GAAP and related disclosures in the corporation’s SEC filings.
3. Reform of Taxation of International Operations. The Tax Act radically changes the taxation of profits earned outside the United States.
- First, it eliminates the deferral of U.S. tax on foreign earnings. Thus, U.S. income tax now will be imposed on most current earnings of foreign subsidiaries rather than being postponed until earnings are repatriated.
- Second, as a limited exception, foreign profits amounting to a 10 percent return on certain investments in tangible assets are permanently exempt from U.S. tax.
- Third, profits from intangible assets earned outside the U.S. can be taxed at a special rate of 10.5 percent to the extent those profits result from certain types of revenues. Profits earned by domestic corporations from certain foreign sales of property or services are eligible for a special tax rate of 13.125 percent. Both of these special rates are scheduled to increase after 2025, but to levels well below the general 21 percent corporate rate.
What Directors Should Do. Directors should request a thorough review of the corporation’s international footprint as part of the study described above. This review should consider the optimal location not only of the corporation’s operations, but its personnel, tangible assets and intangible assets. Unlike GAAP consolidation, tax reporting must generally be made on an entity-by-entity basis (although consolidation of affiliates within a single country is often allowed). As a result, the corporation’s legal entity structure and inter-company contracts must be carefully aligned with its commercial arrangements. Given evolving changes in the tax laws of other member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and particularly under the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) initiative, structuring operations to accommodate both foreign tax laws and the new U.S. tax regime may be challenging. Finally, in evaluating any structure, directors should consider the prospects for future tax changes in reaction to the Tax Act in jurisdictions where the corporation operates.
4. Changes to Interest and Depreciation Deductions. The Tax Act gives with one proverbial hand—allowing immediate deduction of 100 percent of the acquisition cost for certain depreciable assets—and takes away with the other by limiting deductibility of net interest expense for many corporations. The “immediate expensing” provision applies only to tangible assets like plant and equipment and is phased down beginning in 2023. This new provision is more generous than prior “bonus depreciation” rules because it also applies to used assets, as well as new assets.
The interest expense rule limits certain corporations’ ability to currently deduct net business interest expense amounts exceeding 30 percent of certain thresholds. These thresholds are based on Earnings Before Income and Tax (EBIT) in years through 2021 and—less favorably—on Earnings Before Income, Tax, and Depreciation (EBITDA) after 2021. Disallowed interest deductions generally may be carried forward indefinitely. Interest expense on existing indebtedness is not grandfathered. Regulated public utilities are automatically exempt from these rules. Corporations in a broad spectrum of real property related businesses, farming businesses, and certain other agricultural businesses may elect to have these rules not apply.
What Directors Should Do. Directors should evaluate the impact of these two provisions on their corporation’s capital structure and its investment decisions. They should understand the implications of immediate deductibility of depreciable assets on acquisition structures. For example, acquiring stock may result in a lower internal rate of return than acquiring assets. Regarding the business interest limitations, directors should encourage management to determine whether the corporation is eligible to elect out of these rules and, if not, to explore alternatives to debt repayment, such as preferred equity instruments or other structures, that might mitigate the impact of these limitations.
Visit the NACD Board Leaders’ Blog again for the second installment in this series.
George M. Gerachis serves as head of Vinson & Elkins’ Tax and Executive Compensation and Benefits department. He represents corporate and individual clients in a wide range of tax planning and tax controversy matters. David C. Cole is a tax partner at Vinson & Elkins and represents corporations, partnerships, and high net worth individuals in a wide range of domestic and international tax matters. Thoughts expressed here are their own.