United States Supreme Court Holds United Kingdom Windfall Profits Tax Creditable For U.S. Income Tax Purposes
In PPL Corporation & Subsidiaries, 111 AFTR 2d ¶2013-723 (5/20/2013), the Supreme Court, in an unanimous decision, per Justice Thomas, resolved a split of authority between the Fifth and Third Circuits, and held that the United Kingdom’s one-time “windfall tax” paid by the taxpayer through a U.K. based partnership, were creditable foreign taxes under §901(a). The Supreme Court agreed with the Tax Court below and the taxpayer that the windfall tax in issue had the predominant characteristic of an “excess profits tax” within the meaning of Treas. Reg. §1.901-2(a) and therefore was creditable under §901. Thus, the Court reversed the decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals holding to the contrary.
The “windfall tax” in issue was imposed under a new Labour Party adopted rule when it took over control of the Parliament in 1997. Previously, the Labour Party objected to the concept of privatization embraced by the Conservative wing. The new tax was imposed on 32 U.K. companies that were authorized to privatize between 1984 and 1996 by the Conservative government. PP&L Resources, Inc. (PP&L) was a global energy company. Through various subsidiary corporations, it produced electricity, sold wholesale and retail electricity, and delivered electricity to customers. It provided such services in the United States in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions and also in the United Kingdom. During 1997, South Western Electricity plc (SWEB) a U.K. private limited liability company, was PP&L’s indirect subsidiary. Its principle activities at the time included distribution of electricity to 1.5 million customers in England.
In 1990, the U.K. privatized 12 regional electric companies including SWEB. The ordinary shares or common stock of these companies were sold to the public as part of a “flotation”. Some of the companies were required to continue providing services for a fixed period at the same rates offered under government (pre-privatized) control. Many of these companies became far more efficient and earned substantial profits in the process of the privatization. The one-time windfall profits tax was 23% of the difference between each company’s “profit-making value” and its “flotation value,” the price for which the U.K. government sold the stock which many British subjects felt was priced below value.
The relevant statute defined each company’s “profit-making value” as its average annual profit times its price-to-earnings ratio. Average annual profit was defined as the average daily profit over a stated “initial period” which for SWEB was the first four years after privatization times 364. Instead of using the companies’ actual price-to-earnings ratios, the statute imputed a ratio of 9 for all companies, as the government thought that such ration “approximates to the lowest average sector price-to-earnings ratio of the companies liable to the tax”. SWEB filed the windfall tax return with the Department of Inland Revenue in November 1997 and paid its windfall tax obligation.
Under §901(b), a credit for foreign taxes accrued or paid by a taxpayer is allowed only for those taxes imposed by a foreign country or U.S. possession which are income, war-profits, or excess profits taxes; or taxes imposed in lieu of income taxes upon gross income, gross sales, or units of production. For a foreign tax to be creditable, its predominant character must be that of an income tax in the U.S. sense. The predominant character of a foreign tax is that of an income tax in the U.S. sense if the foreign tax is likely to reach net gain in the normal circumstances in which it applies and isn't a soak-up tax (i.e., a tax liability which depends on the availability of a credit for the tax against an income tax liability to another country). Treas. Regs. §§ 1.901-2(a)(1)(ii), Reg. § 1.901-2(a)(3).
The petitioner in the tax case, PPL Corporation, was a part owner of the privatized SWEB, and claimed, against its U.S. income tax liability, its pro rata share of the credit for the windfall tax the plc paid in 1997. In doing so it relied upon §901(b)(1) which provides that any “income, war profits and excess profits taxes” paid overseas are creditable against U.S. income taxes. Treas. Reg. §1.901-2(a)(1) provides that a foreign tax is creditable if its “predominant character” is that of an income tax in the U.S. sense. This regulation codified a longstanding principle that can be sourced to Biddle v. Commissioner, 302 U.S. 573, 578-579 (1938). See also United States v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 493 U.S. 132, 145 (1989(application to §902)).
The Internal Revenue Service, in auditing PPL’s 1997 corporate income tax return, denied the foreign tax credits for the “windfall tax” paid by the U.K. plc for 1997. SWEB’s windfall tax was approximately 90.5 million pounds. In response to proposing a deficiency in federal income tax for the believed to be “non-creditable” foreign tax, the taxpayer filed a petition with the Tax Court. The Tax Court found for PPL since the windfall tax was an amount, under U.S. tax principles, which could be viewed as a tax on excess profits in accordance with the regulations, i.e., its “predominant character” is that of an income tax in the U.S. sense. The tax was on the “net gain” derived by the U.K. plc of which a pro rata portion directly passed through to its U.S. partner. See 135 T.C. 304 (2010).
The government appealed the Tax Court’s decision before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The Tax Court’s decision was reversed. 665 F.2d 60, 68 (2011). The appellate court opined that the terms “income, war profits, and excess profits” referred to in Treas. Reg. §1.901-2 should be thought of in the singular sense of whether it is an “income tax”. Accordingly, the Third Circuit stated that a foreign assessment is an “income tax” if it has the predominant character of an income tax in the U.S. tax sense. It therefore must satisfy the U.S. income tax concepts of: (i) a realization event requirement; (ii) the gross receipts requirement; and (iii) the net income requirement. See Treas. Reg. §1.901-2(b). The Service argued that the windfall tax did not meet either the gross receipts or net income requirement. The Third Circuit felt that that the tax base used in the windfall tax could not be the initial period profit alone unless the Court rewrote the tax rate. In its view, the windfall tax is in substance a tax on the difference between the company’s “flotation value” and its imputed “profit-making value” the later term being based on a formula. It is the price that the Labour government believed that each company should have been sold for given the actual profits earning during the initial period. The Third Circuit’s decision was in conflict with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals taxpayer-favorable decision in Entergy Corporation & Affiliated Subsidiaries v. Commissioner, 683 F.3d 233, 239 (5th Cir. 2012).
The Supreme Court held that the “predominant character” of the windfall tax is that of an excess profits tax and is creditable under §901. In reviewing the subject regulation, Treas.Reg. §1.901-2(a)(1), there are several principles that must be addressed. First, the “predominant character” of a tax or the normal manner in which a tax applies is controlling. A foreign tax on income, war profits, or excess profits, in most instances will be creditable even where it affects a handful of taxpayers differently. Second, a foreign government’s characterization of the tax is not determinative for purposes of Treas. Reg. §1.901-2(a), instead it is its economic effect. Stated more directly, “foreign tax creditability depends on whether the tax, if enacted in the United States, would be an income, war profits, or excess profits tax”. Third, the regulation provides that the predominant character of the tax is like a U.S. income tax “[i]f …the foreign tax is likely to reach net gain in the normal circumstances in which it applies”. There are three tests under the regulations for determining whether a foreign tax is imposed on net gain. Again, as mentioned, those three parts are realization, gross receipts and net income . See Treas. Regs. §§1.901-2(b)(2), 2(b)(3) and 2(b)(4). The Supreme Court viewed the windfall tax as imposed on realized net income which was disguised as a tax on the difference between flotation value and initial period value. In analyzing the algebraic formulation of the tax, the Court noted that the economic effect of the formula was to convert floatation value into the profits a company should have earned given the assumed price-earnings ratio.
The Supreme Court stated that the rearranged tax formula demonstrates that the windfall tax is economically equivalent to the difference between the profits each company actually earned and the amount the Labour government believed it should have earned given its floatation value. For the 27 companies that had 1,461-day initial periods, the U.K. tax formula effectively imposed a 51.71% tax on all profits earned above a threshold; “a classic excess profits tax”. It is not, as argued, an imputed gross receipts tax and not creditable.
Based on the logic set forth in the Tax Court’s opinion below and as further magnified in the opinion of Justice Thomas, it may be contended that reason and logic prevailed. It did. Clearly the regulation in issue should not have been “compressed” into solely a tax on income as the Third Circuit felt. The fact the Court was unanimous in its view, although Justice Sotomayer, in her concurring opinion, wanted to note that if the record were different the tax may not have been analogous to an excess profits tax, is indeed important and may even be surprising to some. For PPL as well as many tax practitioners, the result made perfect sense.