By CHRISTIE MARTIN and MIKE SOLET

On September 28, 2017, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) withdrew previous proposed regulations and released new proposed regulations (the “Proposed Regulations”) relating to public approval requirements for tax exempt private activity bonds.  The Proposed Regulations (found at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/09/28/2017-20661/public-approval-of-tax-exempt-private-activity-bonds) are intended to update and streamline implementation of the public approval requirement for tax exempt private activity bonds provided in section 147(f) of the Internal Revenue Code, including scope, information content, methods and timing for the public approval process.   They generally do not change the requirements for issuer approval and host approval set forth in the current temporary regulations originally promulgated in 1983.

Continue Reading IRS Releases New Public Approval Proposed Regulations

By LEN WEISER-VARON

The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 opinion in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, precluding states from discriminating against churches in at least some state financing programs, raises anew the question of whether states may, or are required to, provide tax-exempt conduit bond financing to churches and other sectarian institutions.  The Supreme Court’s decision further complicates an already complicated analysis of that question by bond counsel,  and in some instances may tip bond counsel’s answer in favor of green-lighting tax-exempt financing of some capital projects of sectarian institutions.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution precludes Congress and, via the Fourteenth Amendment, states from legislating the establishment of religion (the “Establishment Clause”), or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (the “Free Exercise Clause”).  Under a line of Supreme Court cases that has been cast into doubt but never expressly repudiated by a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Establishment Clause has been held to prohibit state financing of “pervasively sectarian” institutions, i.e. institutions that “are so ‘pervasively sectarian’ that secular activities cannot be separated from sectarian ones.” Roemer v. Board of Publ. Works of Maryland (1976).   Continue Reading Tax-Exempt Financing of Churches, Parochial Schools and Other Sectarian Institutions After Trinity Lutheran Church: Permitted? Required? Let us Pray for Answers

By LEN WEISER-VARON and MAXWELL D. SOLET

In the aftermath of recent municipal bankruptcies in which issuers proposed and/or implemented bankruptcy plans involving partial discharges of the issuer’s payment obligation on insured bonds, there has been increased focus on whether municipal bond interest paid by a bond insurer after the bankruptcy plan’s effective date continues to be tax-exempt.

Market confusion as to the treatment of bond insurance payments in the discharged issuer context is at least partially attributable to an incomplete understanding of why bond insurer payments of municipal bond interest are deemed tax-exempt in other contexts. Although the IRS has not specifically addressed the tax status of bond insurer payments following the issuer’s partial (or full) discharge in bankruptcy, review of IRS rulings on bond insurance suggests that, in ordinary circumstances, interest on the insured bond continues to be tax-exempt notwithstanding that the only source of payment is the bond insurance.

The technical basis for the continued tax-exemption of post-discharge interest is discussed in detail below.  The analysis is rooted in one simple concept articulated in an IRS revenue ruling: in ordinary circumstances, a payment by a bond insurer is deemed, for tax purposes, to have been made by the issuer of the bonds.  For this reason, although a bankruptcy may, for non-tax purposes, discharge an issuer from further liability on all or a portion of bond payments, for tax purposes the bond payments made by the bond insurer continue to be treated as being made by the issuer.  All else is detail, for those with an interest in such detail.

And so, on to the technical discussion.

The tax-exempt treatment of interest paid by a municipal bond insurer is founded on a trio of favorable IRS revenue rulings, which, unlike private letter rulings, are statements of IRS policy on which the market can rely.

The first such ruling, Revenue Ruling 72-134, dealt with the situation where the issuer pays for bond insurance when the bonds are issued, and concluded that “defaulted interest paid by the independent insurance company is excludable from the gross income of the bondholders.”

Revenue Ruling 72-575 extended such favorable treatment to a bond insurance policy purchased by the underwriter, and Revenue Ruling 76-78 went a substantial step further, upholding the tax-exemption of interest payments received under secondary market bond insurance purchased by a bondholder.

These three rulings state a favorable result without discussing the rationale. The technical basis for the tax-exemption of bond insurance payments is illuminated in Revenue Ruling 94-42, an adverse ruling involving a bondholder that purchased secondary market bond insurance on zero coupon bonds, rerated the bonds AAA and resold the bonds.  The bond insurance premium for the secondary market insurance was an amount sufficient to fund the bond insurer’s purchase of a high-yielding portfolio of Treasury securities that economically defeased most of its insurance obligation. In the ruling, the IRS expressed concern that treating such bond insurance interest payments as tax-exempt would effectively permit a secondary market arbitrage bond, and set about distinguishing the scenario under review from “customary” bond insurance payments treated as tax-exempt in the earlier rulings.

In the 1994 ruling, the IRS noted that customarily bond insurance enhances marketability and reduces interest rates, which is consistent with the IRS’s objective of preventing overburdening of the market with tax-exempt interest. The ruling stated that such tax-exempt treatment is accomplished by “integrating the insurance contract with the obligation of a political subdivision” instead of treating the bond insurer’s obligation as a separate debt instrument.

According to this key ruling, “an insurance contract or similar agreement is treated as both incidental to bonds and not a separate debt instrument … only if, at the time it is purchased, the amount paid is reasonable, customary, and consistent with the reasonable expectation that the issuer of the bonds, rather than the insurer, will pay debt service on the bonds.” The ruling concluded that at the time the bond insurance policy under review was purchased, the insurance premium was not reasonable and customary and reflected an expectation of default by the issuer.  The IRS ruled that because the insurance purchaser looked primarily to the insurer for payment of the debt service on the bonds, the bond insurance was not incidental and should be treated as a separate non-municipal obligation rather than integrated with the insured bonds.  The conclusion that the interest payments by the bond insurer were taxable followed from the treatment of the bond insurance as a non-municipal obligation.

Two significant concepts are articulated in Revenue Ruling 94-42. First, the technical basis for treating bond insurance interest payments as tax-exempt is that, for customary bond insurance transactions, the bond insurance is integrated with and treated as the same debt instrument as the insured municipal bond. Second, the treatment of bond insurance as integrated with the insured bond versus as a separate debt instrument that is not a municipal bond is determined based on reasonable expectations at the time the bond insurance is purchased.

In other words, provided the bond insurance is “customary” at the time it is purchased, it becomes another source of payment by the issuer of the insured bonds, albeit one that, at the time the insurance is purchased, is not expected to be needed. If circumstances change and defaulted interest is paid from the bond insurance, it is deemed a payment by the municipal issuer on the insured bond, not a separate payment by the bond insurer.

Nothing in the revenue rulings on the tax-exemption of interest payments sourced to a bond insurer makes the integration of the bond insurance with the bond dependent on the continuing legal obligation of the issuer to make the insured debt service payment. The above-summarized favorable revenue rulings describe customary bond insurance as including provisions under which a bond insurer’s payment to a bondholder does not discharge the bondholder’s payment claim against the issuer, to which the insurer becomes subrogated. But such revenue rulings do not suggest that if a bondholder has no claim against the issuer because the issuer has received a bankruptcy discharge, the worthlessness of the bond insurer’s subrogation claim alters the character of the bond insurance payment as an integrated tax-exempt payment on the municipal bond constructively made by the issuer, notwithstanding the issuer’s discharge as a source of payment for non-tax purposes.

The utility of bond insurance, and the reduction in bond interest rates and the aggregate amount of tax-exempt bond interest that have justified its tax treatment, would be substantially eroded if the IRS were to rule (which it never has) that the tax-exempt nature of bond insurance payments hinges on abstract distinctions between whether non-payment from other sources is due to the issuer’s financial condition or to the legal discharge in bankruptcy of the issuer’s duty to make such payments. Bond insurance is purchased for the precise purpose of insuring against default by the issuer, foreseeably and prominently including the possibility of the issuer’s bankruptcy and the potential legal discharge of part or all of its legal obligation to pay debt service.

The cause of non-payment of the bonds from sources other than the bond insurance is immaterial for tax-exemption purposes once the bond insurance payment is recognized as integrated with and indistinguishable from the other sources of payment of the bond.  Moreover, the line between an issuer’s lack of a legal obligation to pay and factual insolvency is often vague, and if such a distinction affected tax-exemption of bond insurer payments, uncertainty would prevail.  For example, a conduit bond issuer whose obligation to pay is limited to loan or lease payments from a conduit obligor that is not making any payments could be characterized as lacking a legal obligation to pay and/or the financial ability to pay.  Similarly, an issuer that ceases to operate and is dissolved without assumption of its liabilities by another party could be characterized as legally non-existent and/or factually unable to pay.

The tax treatment of bond insurance should not, and the relevant revenue rulings support the view that it does not, depend on distinctions that are esoteric, unpredictable and impractical. Notably, in a slightly different context, the market does not doubt the continued tax-exemption of interest on innumerable “legally defeased” bonds payable solely from portfolios of Treasury securities, although the issuer is contractually discharged from making payments from other sources.

The tax impact of bankruptcy plan modifications of an issuer’s rights and duties on insured bonds are often an afterthought not adequately focused on in the plan or the plan disclosure. Documentation and characterizations of what is technically occurring to the insured bonds under the plan may be imprecise. A bankruptcy plan may suggest that portions of insured bonds that the issuer will be discharged from paying are being extinguished, when what is actually meant is that such bonds will remain outstanding and payable from bond insurance that for tax purposes is attributed as an issuer payment.

To be sure, some bankruptcy plans may purport to make changes to insured bonds beyond the full or partial discharge of the issuer’s liability.  Presumptively, a modification of the issuer’s contractual duties under a bankruptcy plan does not change the payment obligations insured by the bond insurer. Nonetheless, to avoid muddying the waters plan language should be crafted in a manner that ensures that any portion of the original insured bond from which the issuer is discharged remains outstanding for tax purposes as well as for purposes of claiming against the bond insurer.

Any purported changes by a bankruptcy plan to the terms of the bonds beyond a reduction or elimination of the issuer’s liability require separate tax analysis. The devil is frequently in the details, and the debtor and its representatives may not be focused on or impacted by the tax treatment of insured future bond payments from which the issuer has been discharged. Holders of insured tax-exempt bonds that are being modified in any manner by a bankruptcy plan may wish to obtain input from tax counsel experienced in bankruptcy-related tax-exemption issues in time to impact the plan wording and structure relating to such bonds. But, although the IRS has not directly addressed the topic, there is no reason to presume that interest paid by a bond insurer on an outstanding municipal bond will be taxable simply because the issuer will have no remaining legal obligation to make the insured payment from another source.

BY LEN WEISER-VARON

As reported in the April 21, 2011 Bond Buyer, Assured Guaranty has announced its willingness to  insure directly bonds originally insured by CIFG bond insurance, provided the existing CIFG bond insurance is extinguished.  http://www.bondbuyer.com/issues/120_77/-1025816-1.html  Most CIFG bond insurance policies have been reinsured by Assured since 2009.  CIFG’s ratings have been withdrawn, whereas Assured has AA ratings. The Assured reinsurance has not produced a AA rating on the reinsured bonds, because Assured’s payment obligation runs to CIFG, not to the bondholders.  Direct insurance by Assured would raise the affected bonds’ ratings to Assured’s AA level.

The interesting element from a legal and practical perspective is that Assured’s offer is conditioned  on the bond trustee’s or issuer’s consent to the novation (i.e. replacement of the obligated party) of the applicable CIFG bond insurance policy, and Assured’s offer expires July 15, 2011.  A novation would release CIFG as the bond insurer on the policy and make Assured the insurer.  Although the policy itself would not change, a novation effectively amounts to the extinguishing of CIFG’s policy and its replacement by Assured’s policy.  Outside of a bankruptcy or other judicially approved context, stripping bond insurance policies from existing bonds without the consent of all affected bondholders raises thorny questions, and a substitution of bond insurer would likely raise the same questions.   100% bondholder consent is difficult and sometimes impossible to obtain, particularly on widely distributed bond issues, irrespective of the substantive merits of the requested amendment.

In some instances, indentures permit amendment without bondholder approval if the amendment adds security to the bonds or is not materially adverse to the interests of the bondholders. Although a novation of the CIFG policy into a AA rated Assured policy may appear to be an easy call under such provisions, it is possible that some bond counsel will struggle with the issue if the bond trustee or issuer request an opinion that a bond insurance novation transaction without 100% bondholder consent is permissible under the applicable bond documents.  The judgment call may relate to whether it is sufficiently clear that, over the remaining life of any specific bond issue,  the Assured bond insurance will provide better protection than the CIFG bond insurance. That is a forecast based on factual details of CIFG’s current status and future prospects, if any, as well as Assured’s status and prospects. 

A second question is whether under insurance law, a bond insurance policy that is either expressly or implicitly irrevocable while the insured bonds are outstanding can be extinguished (or the obligated insurer replaced) without the consent of all policy beneficiaries.  This in turn raises the question of whether the beneficiary of a bond insurance policy is the bond trustee or the bondholders, and accordingly whether the bond trustee’s consent with less than 100% bondholder approval validly extinguishes the original insurer’s obligation on policy, whether or not such consent is permitted under the bond documents.  Based on the reporting to date, Assured is seeking bond trustee or issuer consent, but has not specified that 100% bondholder approval is required.  See Assured’s answers to FAQs at http://www.cifg.com/media/Novation%20FAQ.pdf?PHPSESSID=ca4493697a366cc858353cf7465ebaaa.  So it would appear that Assured believes that as an insurance law matter such trustee or issuer consent is sufficient, irrespective of the existence or level of bondholder consent.  

Affected bondholders will look on with interest as the July 15 deadline approaches.