The tax consequences of acquisition and disposition transactions can dramatically impact deal value. Often the potential tax issues can be resolved in a manner that is consistent with the intention of the parties without changing the economics of the deal. If some of these tax issues are not addressed, however, the parties may not obtain the benefit they had bargained for even though it may have otherwise been possible. This puts a premium on the involvement of tax advisors from the outset of a transaction. Although one rarely wants to see tax be the “tail that wags the dog” in a deal, tax issues can present significant economic opportunities or costs that may often warrant tweaking or changing the deal structure to accommodate these issues.
1. Failure to Solicit Tax Advice at the Letter of Intent Stage
Although not binding, the terms of the letter of intent entered into by the parties in the early stages of the acquisition process can put one of the parties in a superior bargaining position as it relates to which party bears the burden or reaps the benefits of the tax costs and benefits associated with a transaction. Too often, a client does not engage its outside advisors (or significantly limits the involvement of its outside advisors) until after a letter of intent is signed. The failure to include the tax advisor at this early stage can mean lost dollars to the seller or additional cost to the buyers.
For example, if the target is an S corporation, in most cases the buyer should be able to secure the benefit of a tax basis step-up for federal income tax purposes without a material increase in the taxes payable by the seller with respect to the sale. However, if the buyer is not well-advised, the letter of intent may simply indicate that the buyer will acquire the stock of the target for the agreed-upon consideration. If, after the letter of intent is executed, the buyer recognizes that a tax basis step-up can be achieved with little or no tax cost to the seller, the buyer may request that the transaction be converted to an asset purchase or that a Section 338(h)(10) election be made by the parties. At this point, the seller has the leverage and can demand additional consideration from the buyer in exchange for the tax benefits that such a structure would provide.
2. Section 197 Anti-Churning Rules
When the acquisition of a business is structured for income tax purposes as an asset purchase (i.e., an asset purchase in form or a stock purchase coupled with a Section 338(h)(10) election), the buyer usually has bargained for the tax benefits that accompany such a transaction—namely, the ability to tax effect the purchase price by depreciating or amortizing the premium paid for the assets, which premium is usually attributable to the goodwill and going concern value of the acquired business. If the business being acquired was in existence on or before August 10, 1993 and, before or after the transaction, the seller or a related party owns, directly or indirectly, greater than twenty percent of the equity of the buyer – which may be the case, for example, if the deal calls for the seller to receive “rollover equity”—the goodwill and going concern value of the target (as well as other Section 197 intangibles) may not be amortizable by the buyer. As a result, the buyer will not obtain the tax benefits that it anticipated and paid for as part of the acquisition. The economic benefit that is lost can amount to as much as 20-25 percent of the purchase price depending on the discount rate used to calculate tax benefits and other factors.
Moreover, if the acquirer is a limited liability company or the corporate acquirer is owned by a limited liability company, and the seller will have an interest in the limited liability company following the acquisition, the anti-churning rules can be an issue even where the seller owns less than twenty percent of the limited liability company. It is therefore critical that any transaction that calls for the seller or a party related to the seller to obtain (or retain) an equity interest in the buyer in connection with the acquisition, the buyer should closely study whether the anti-churning rules could be applicable. A failure to do so can result in a significant – and perhaps needless—reduction in the buyer’s after-tax cash flow and adversely affect the purchase price payable by a subsequent buyer of the business.
3. Qualified Stock Purchase Failure
As an alternative to structuring an acquisition as an asset purchase in form, a buyer can realize the tax benefits of an asset purchase by structuring the acquisition as a stock purchase and making a Section 338 or Section 338(h)(10) election in connection with the transaction (the latter requiring the consent of the seller and being limited to target corporations that are S corporations or subsidiaries of a consolidated group). In order to be eligible to make a Section 338 or 338(h)(10) election, the acquisition must constitute a “qualified stock purchase”, one of the requirements of which is that 80 percent or more of the target corporation’s stock be acquired in a twelve-month period by “purchase”. For this purpose, “purchase” excludes transactions on which gain or loss is not recognized, including exchanges that qualify for tax-free treatment under Section 351. Frequently, when a new corporation is being organized to acquire the stock of the target corporation, one or more of the sellers may “roll over” a portion his or her target corporation stock for stock of the new corporation. When less than 20 percent of the stock of the new corporation is received by the seller(s) in the exchange such that greater than 80 percent of the stock is acquired for cash, it would appear that the requirement that 80 percent or more of the stock of target be acquired by purchase would be satisfied. However, if any seller receives any stock of the new corporation (even one percent) in a transaction that qualifies as a Section 351 exchange, the acquisition will not constitute a qualified stock purchase and will be ineligible for a Section 338 or 338(h)(10) election.
The solution here is to structure the transaction so as to intentionally not qualify as an exchange under Section 351. Although this will undoubtedly have ramifications to the sellers (who may otherwise have been expecting to not have to recognize gain currently with respect to their rollover equity), the failure to obtain a step-up in basis in the assets of target corporation and consequently, the inability to tax-effect the purchase price (through depreciation and amortization deductions) may have an even larger negative impact on the buyer.
4. Acquisition of Shares of “Loss Stock” from Consolidated Group
A recent overhaul of the so-called “loss disallowance rules” changed the rules that apply when a buyer acquires the stock of a target company out of a U.S. federal consolidated group in a transaction in which the seller recognizes a loss. Prior to the change in the law, any limitation on the recognition of that loss for tax purposes would impact only the seller; the buyer was unaffected. However, under the new rules, if the buyer acquires shares of stock from a consolidated group that constitute “loss stock” (i.e., the consideration paid for the stock is lower than the selling consolidated group’s tax basis of the stock), absent a special election made by the seller, the tax basis in the assets of the target corporation (as well as other target corporation tax attributes) may be subject to reduction in an amount equal to some or all of the seller’s loss.
As a result, in all stock purchase agreements where the seller is a member of a U.S. federal consolidated group, the buyer should insist on a representation that none of the acquired shares are “loss shares” and, to the extent any of the shares are “loss shares”, the buyer should insist on a covenant that would require the seller to make the election that would, in lieu of reducing the target corporation’s tax basis in its assets and other tax attributes, cause the loss recognized by the seller to be reduced. In situations where the tax benefit to the seller from the loss is greater than the tax cost associated with the reduction in tax attributes, the seller should compensate the buyer for this tax cost.
5. Phantom Income/AHYDO Rules
Whenever an acquisition is financed, in part, through borrowing, and interest on the loan is not required to be paid at least annually (or there are warrants or other equity instruments issued to the lender in connection with the loan), the parties should consider the potential application of the original issue discount (OID) rules. Generally, subject to certain de minimis rules, if interest on a debt instrument is not required to be paid at least annually—i.e., the interest simply accrues automatically or accrues at the option of the borrower—the interest income and interest expense will be recognized for tax purposes notwithstanding that the interest is not actually paid on a current basis. This means that the holder of the debt instrument will recognize taxable income without receiving any cash—i.e., the holder recognizes so-called “dry income” or “phantom income.” Although the phantom income resulting from the characterization of a debt instrument as an instrument issued with OID is generally manageable (either because the holders are tax-exempt or that portion of the interest needed to cover taxes can be paid on a current basis), in certain circumstances, there are special rules that may result in the borrower’s tax deduction for the interest/OID being deferred or disallowed.
Specifically, the tax rules defer and, in some circumstances, permanently disallow deductions for OID on certain applicable high yield discount obligations (AHYDOs). An AHYDO is defined as a corporate debt instrument that meets three requirements. First, the debt instrument must have “significant OID.” Second, it must have a term exceeding five years. Third, it must have a yield to maturity that is at least five percentage points above the applicable federal rate (AFR) in effect for the calendar month during which the debt instrument is issued. A debt instrument is treated as having significant OID if, at the end of the first accrual period following the fifth anniversary of the issuance of the debt instrument (and at the end of each subsequent accrual period), an amount greater than one year’s worth of OID (the yield to maturity multiplied by the issue price of the debt instrument) can remain unpaid.
Where warrants or other equity-type instruments are issued along with the debt instrument (i.e., as part of an investment unit), there is a greater potential for OID and classification of the debt instrument as an AHYDO because the issue price of the debt instrument will be reduced by any value attributable to this equity thereby reducing the issue price and creating a greater spread between the instrument’s stated redemption price at maturity and its issue price—thus creating more OID.
Advance planning can often neutralize the effect of these rules without significantly changing the business deal. By simply adding a provision to the debt instrument that requires (i) all accrued but unpaid OID (in excess of one year’s worth) to be paid on the first interest payment date following the five year anniversary of the issuance of the debt instrument and (ii) all interest thereafter to be paid on a current basis, the debt instrument can escape classification as an AHYDO. Of course, this change has the potential for real, economic consequences which should not be minimized. However, where, as is frequently the case, the deal contemplates this debt being refinanced before the five-year anniversary (or the borrower is comfortable that a refinancing can be negotiated at that time), the borrower can avoid having its interest/OID deductions deferred or disallowed. In this regard, it should be noted that a debt instrument is tested for AHYDO classification at the time it is issued and is based on when payments on the debt instrument are unconditionally obligated to be paid. If a debt instrument is characterized as an AHYDO, the borrower’s interest/OID deductions are subject to the rules regarding deferral or disallowance even where the borrower actually pays the interest on a current basis.
The foregoing are just a few of the many tax issues that can arise in any deal. If they are spotted early enough, most tax issues can be addressed with relatively inconsequential structural changes to the deal and/or creative planning without changing the underlying business deal. However, if the opportunity to address the tax issues is missed, there are often material economic consequences to one or more of the parties. To the extent that there are tax costs inherent in the deal that cannot be ameliorated through creative planning, the parties need to address how such costs will be shared among the parties; otherwise, the burden of these tax costs may be borne by the wrong party.