In a rare unanimous decision with potentially far-reaching impact on taxpayers claiming foreign tax credits, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a “windfall tax” imposed by the United Kingdom was creditable under IRC Section 901.

On May 20, 2013, in a rare unanimous decision with potentially far-reaching impact on taxpayers claiming foreign tax credits, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a “windfall tax” imposed by the United Kingdom was creditable under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 901.  This decision definitively establishes the principles to be applied when determining whether a foreign tax is creditable under Section 901, expressly favoring a “substance-over-form” evaluation of a foreign tax’s economic impact.

The UK windfall tax was enacted in 1997 as a means to recoup excess profits earned by 32 UK utility and transportation companies once owned by the government.  During the 1980s and 1990s, the UK sold several government-owned utility companies to private parties.  After privatization, the UK Government prohibited these companies from raising rates for an initial period of time.  Because only rates and not profits were regulated, many of these companies were able to greatly increase their profits by becoming more efficient.  The increased profitability of these companies drew public attention and became a hot political issue in the United Kingdom, which ultimately resulted in Parliament enacting a windfall tax designed to capture the excess or “windfall” profits earned by these companies during the years they were prohibited from raising rates.  The tax was 23 percent of any “windfall” earned by such companies, which was calculated by subtracting the price for which the company was sold by the United Kingdom from an imputed value based on the company’s average annual profits.  Both PPL Corporation and Entergy Corporation owned interests in two of these 32 privatized companies and took a U.S. tax credit for the windfall taxes paid to the United Kingdom.

IRC Section 901 grants U.S. citizens and corporations an income tax credit for “the amount of any income, war profits and excess-profits taxes paid or accrued during the taxable year to any foreign country or to any possession of the United States.”  Whether a foreign tax is creditable for U.S. income tax purposes is based upon the “predominant standard for creditability” laid out in Treasury Regulation §1.901-2.  Under that approach, a foreign tax is an income tax “if and only if the tax, judged on the basis of its predominant character,” satisfies three tests.  The foreign tax must be imposed on realized income (i.e., income that has already been earned), the basis of gross receipts (i.e., revenue) and net income (i.e., gross receipts less significant costs and expenditures).  See Treas. Reg. §1.901-2(a)(3).

The Supreme Court’s decision resolved a split between the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Third and Fifth Circuits on how to apply the predominant standard for the creditability test set forth in the regulations.  The Third and Fifth Circuits took opposite views of two U.S. Tax Court decisions, PPL Corp.  v. Commissioner, 135 T.C. 304 (2010), and Entergy Corp.  v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2010-197, which both held in favor of the taxpayers that the practical effect of the UK windfall tax, the circumstances of its adoption and the intent of the members of Parliament who enacted it evidenced that the substance of the tax was to tax excess profits, and therefore was creditable.

In PPL Corp. v. Commissioner, 665 F.3d 60 (3d Cir. 2011), the Third Circuit reversed the Tax Court, refusing to consider the practical effect of the UK windfall tax and the intent of its drafters.  Instead, the court focused solely on the text of the UK statute, which in its estimation was a tax on excess value and not on profits.  In contrast, in Entergy Corp. v. Commissioner, 683 F.2d 233 (5th Cir. 2012), the Fifth Circuit affirmed the Tax Court, finding that the tax’s practical effect on the taxpayer demonstrated that the purpose of the tax was to tax excess profits.  The court explained that Parliament’s decision to label an “entirely profit-driven figure a ‘profit-making value’ must not obscure the history and actual effect of the tax.”

In its decision, the Supreme Court agreed with both the Fifth Circuit and the Tax Court.  In applying the rules of the Treasury Regulations, the Supreme Court reinforced the three basic principles to determine whether a tax is creditable.  First, a tax that functions as an income tax in most instances will be creditable even if a “handful of taxpayers” may be affected differently.  This means that the controlling factor is the tax’s predominate character.  Second, the economic effect of the tax, and not the characterization or structure of the tax by the foreign government, is controlling on whether the tax is an income tax.  This extends the principle of “substance over form” to the characterization of a foreign tax.  Third, a tax will be an income tax if it reaches net gain or profits.  Applying these principles to the PPL case, the Supreme Court found that the predominate character of the windfall tax was that of an excess profit tax and was therefore creditable.

The PPL decision will likely have far-reaching affects on courts that wrestle with whether certain taxes paid overseas are creditable for U.S. income tax purposes.