A remarkable Washington Post story
on how long-standing tax policy was changed by administrative notice hit the wires last Sunday.
It’s not every day that a popular press story deals with an obscure section of the tax code. But these aren’t regular times. Amit R. Paley does a good job explaining how, in the heat of financial chaos and the clamoring to do something, a tax policy of some 22 years was quietly reversed by a mere memo published by the Treasury Department.
In a nutshell, Congress passed Section 382 in the 1980s to attack certain kinds of tax shelters. The code had allowed corporations to buy companies that had a “net operating loss” or “built in loss” and then apply that loss to their books to reduce taxable income. The loss companies had no real value except for the tax benefit. Section 382 drastically limited the types and amounts of loss that the buying company could write off.
Although many business-oriented economists and tax policy experts (certainly not all) argued that the rule was too heavy-handed, Congress steadfastly refused to change it. This is consistent with Congress’s general power to set tax and fiscal policy.
Until Treasury, in the heat of the financial meltdown, decided to do away with it by an administrative notice.
The notice essentially does away with the limitations for institutions that participate in the “Capital Purchase Program (CPP) implemented by Treasury under the authority of the “Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (aka Bailout Bill). The idea was to ease the tax consequences of bank mergers. The Washington Post article points out:
The Treasury notice suddenly made it much more attractive to acquire distressed banks, and Wells Fargo, which had been an earlier suitor for Wachovia, made a new and ultimately successful play to take it over.
But, apparently, Congress was surprised and not happy about what has come to be called “the Wells Fargo Ruling.” According to the article, estimates of the hit to federal revenue range from $105 billion to $140 billion.
Some commentators are very surprised as well. From the article:
“Did the Treasury Department have the authority to do this? I think almost every tax expert would agree that the answer is no,” said George K. Yin, the former chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the nonpartisan congressional authority on taxes. “They basically repealed a 22-year-old law that Congress passed as a backdoor way of providing aid to banks.”
Reading the Notice, I can see why he said this. It is only 2 ½ pages long. The memo is written in technical terms that are incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with the operations of Section 382. However, under the “Background” header is a paragraph that insouciantly states the authority for the action:
Section 101(c)(5) of the Act provides that the Secretary is authorized to issue such regulations and other guidance as may be necessary or appropriate to carry out the purposes of the Act. Section 382(m) of the Code provides that the Secretary shall prescribe such regulations as may be necessary or appropriate to carry out the purposes of sections 382 and 383.
Parse that a little. The first sentence says that “the Act” (aka Bailout Bill) gives the Treasury Secretary authority to issue regulations for the purpose of carrying out “the Act” (aka Bailout Bill). OK, nothing very controversial about that.
The next sentence says something similar about Section 382 of “the Code” (in Treasury lingo, this means the “Tax Code”). The Treasury Secretary is authorized to issue regulations “to carry out the purposes of section 382. . . .”
The problem is obvious. The “purposes of section 382” has nothing to do with the Bailout Bill. The purpose of 382 is to stop a certain kind of tax shelter.
And, as far as I know, the Bailout Bill did not grant the Treasury Secretary authority to amend the Tax Code. The Bailout Bill did deal with the tax code in three separate areas: capital gains, executive compensation, and help for homeowners. It does not give the Treasury Secretary authority to amend the Tax Code. (The Bailout Bill is a mere 451 pages long, maybe you can find something in there I have missed, but I doubt it.)
Yet the Secretary of Treasury did amend the tax code because, apparently, it seemed like a good idea. Certainly the merging banks are getting a huge break. And maybe it is a good idea, but this sort of sweeping change to tax policy, under cover of administrative ruling and in the heat of confusion, is decidedly unusual and ominous.
BTW, don’t expect this change in the law to benefit any small companies that might want to buy out other struggling companies. It’s only for the big kids, the “too big to fail finance companies,” who have been able to sell their smoldering and nearly worthless instruments to the government.