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 MAXWELL D. SOLET and CHRISTIE MARTIN

As the Trump administration attempts to substantially reduce the amount of federal regulations, both the Deputy Tax Legislative Counsel of the Treasury Department and an Associate Chief Counsel at the Internal Revenue Service indicated this week that we are likely to see a virtual halt to formal tax law “guidance” for the foreseeable future.  Such guidance includes regulations, revenue rulings, and revenue procedures, the principal means by which Treasury and IRS provide interpretations of tax statutes.  However, both officials stated that the IRS will continue to provide taxpayer-specific private letter rulings (PLRs).  In addition to more PLRs being requested to resolve ambiguities in connection with particular transactions, the freezing of the formal guidance process could result in PLRs being given more weight than ever in the analysis of other transactions.  Not only will bond attorneys have more incentive to read and rely upon the only available tea leaves as to the IRS’s position, but IRS attorneys may write more substantive letter rulings with the expectation that they will guide practice beyond the particular transactions being ruled upon.  While officially non-precedential, PLRs have long been of particular importance in the tax-exempt bond practice, where formal guidance is slow and case law is almost nonexistent. 

 

By MAXWELL D. SOLET and CHRISTIE MARTIN

In August, 2016, the IRS issued Revenue Procedure 2016-44, the first comprehensive revision of its management contract safe harbors since Revenue Procedure 97-13.  Rev. Proc. 2016-44 (see our description here) built upon and amplified principles laid out in private letter rulings issued over many years and in Notice 2014-67.  Now, less than six months later, the IRS has published Revenue Procedure 2017-13, which clarifies and supersedes Rev. Proc. 2016-44 but does not materially change the safe harbors described therein.  The clarifications are in response to questions received with respect to certain types of compensation protected under earlier safe harbors, incentive compensation, timing of payments, treatment of land when determining useful life, and approval of rates.

 

 

By CHRISTIE MARTIN and MAXWELL D. SOLET

After two sets of proposed regulations, Treasury and IRS have now released final regulations on the definition of “issue price” for purposes of arbitrage investment restrictions that apply to tax-advantaged bonds (the “Final Regulations”) and it appears that the third time’s the charm. Practitioners are particularly praising the addition of a special rule for determining issue price for competitive sales and clarification on determining issue price for private placements.  The Final Regulations were published in the Federal Register on December 9, 2016 and can be found here.

Several years ago, tax regulators became concerned that the longstanding practice of allowing an issue price to be calculated based on reasonable expectations could lead to abuse in that “reasonably expected” issue prices for bonds sometimes differed from the prices at which bonds were actually being sold to retail investors. A determination by the IRS that the “issue price” has been erroneously calculated can have ramifications for the calculation of arbitrage yield that could ultimately cause loss of tax-advantaged status.  A clear and predictable definition of issue price is therefore essential for the tax-advantaged bond community.

After the first set of proposed regulations, published in the Federal Register on September 16, 2013, caused an uproar in the bond counsel community as being largely unworkable, they were withdrawn and re-proposed on June 24, 2015 (the “2015 Proposed Regulations”). The 2015 Proposed Regulations were subject to a comment period followed by a public hearing.  These Final Regulations build on the 2015 Proposed Regulations with certain changes in response to the public comments.

The Final Regulations look to actual facts as the general rule for determining issue price. Generally, the issue price of bonds is the first price at which a substantial amount (at least 10%) of the bonds is sold to the public.  For bonds issued in a private placement to a single buyer, the Final Regulations clarify that the issue price of the bonds is the price paid by that buyer.

In recognition of the need in the tax-advantaged bond community for certainty as of the sale date (particularly in the case of advance refundings), the Final Regulations offer a special rule in the event a substantial amount of bonds has not been sold to the public as of the sale date. The special rule allows reliance on the initial offering price to the public if certain conditions are satisfied including evidence that the bonds were actually offered at the initial offering price and the written agreement of each underwriter that it will not offer or sell the bonds to any person at a price higher than the initial offering price during the period starting on the sale date and ending on the earlier of (i) the close of the 5th business day after the sale date, or (ii) the date on which the underwriters have sold at least 10% of the bonds to the public at a price that is no higher than the initial offering price.

Procedures for satisfying the conditions for use of this special rule will have to be developed but it is reasonable to expect that changes will need to be made to bond purchase agreements and underwriter selling agreements to comply with these requirements.

The special rule for competitive sales provides that in a competitive sale meeting certain requirements, an issuer may treat the reasonably expected initial offering price to the public as of the sale date as the issue price if the winning bidder certifies that its winning bid was based on this reasonably expected initial offering price as of the sale date. This special issue price rule for competitive sales has been repeatedly requested by practitioners and is a welcome improvement over the prior proposed regulations which treated both negotiated sales and competitive sales in the same manner.

The Final Regulations will be effective for obligations that are sold on or after June 7, 2017 and there is no option to rely upon the Final Regulations with respect to obligations that are sold prior to that date. This delayed effective date should allow bond counsel and underwriters time to develop effective and hopefully uniform procedures and documentation to implement the new regulations.

By CHRISTIE  L. MARTIN and MAXWELL D. SOLET

The IRS on August 22, 2016 released long-anticipated Revenue Procedure 2016-44 (Rev. Proc. 2016-44), which substantially increases flexibility in, and provides a less formulaic approach to, the ability of a tax-exempt bond issuer or 501(c)(3) conduit borrower to contract with private parties without jeopardizing the tax-exemption of bonds that financed the facilities at which the applicable services are provided. Under the revised guidance, the term of the contract can be up to 30 years, but not in excess of 80% of the weighted average reasonably expected economic life of the managed property, and there are no restrictions on the percentage of compensation that can be variable, so long as none of the compensation constitutes a share of net profits.

The Internal Revenue Code restricts private use of facilities financed by certain categories of tax-exempt bonds, including governmental bonds and bonds issued for the benefit of hospitals, colleges and other organizations that are tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. A manager of a facility is generally treated as a user of the facility. Rev. Proc. 2016-44 addresses so-called “management contracts” which are defined as “management, service, or incentive payment contracts between qualified users and service providers under which the service provider provides services for a managed property” and provides a revised management contract safe harbor under which a private management contract does not result in impermissible private business use of projects financed with tax-exempt bonds. This revised safe harbor generally permits almost any type of fixed or variable rate compensation for services rendered under a contract provided that the compensation is reasonable for services rendered during the term of the contract. It removes the previous requirements for prescribed percentages of fixed compensation for contracts with different terms. The revised safe harbors add certain new principles-based constraints (governmental control, governmental risk of loss, and no inconsistent tax positions by private service providers). As with the previous safe harbors, there is a prohibition against sharing of net profits.

The new safe harbor components are as follows:

  • Compensation for services rendered during the term of the contract must be reasonable.
  • The contract must not provide the service provider with any share of the net profits from operation of the managed facility. The guidance states that compensation to the service provider will not be treated as providing a share of net profits if no “element” of the compensation takes into account or is contingent upon, either the managed property’s net profits or both the managed property’s revenues and expenses for any fiscal period. For this purpose, “elements” of the compensation include eligibility for, the amount of, and the timing of the payment of the compensation. Incentive compensation will not be treated as providing a share of net profits if the eligibility for the incentive compensation is determined by standards that measure quality of services, performance or productivity.
  • The service provider must not bear the burden of any share of net losses from operation of the managed property.
  • The term of the contract cannot be greater than the lesser of 30 years or 80% of the weighted average reasonably expected economic life of the managed property.
  • The bond issuer or conduit borrower (each a “qualified user”) must exercise a significant degree of control over the use of the managed property. The guidance states that this control requirement is met if the contract requires the qualified user to approve the annual budget of the managed property, capital expenditures with respect to the managed property, each disposition of property that is part of the managed property, rates charged for the use of the managed property, and the general nature and type of use of the managed property (for example, the type of services).
  • The qualified user must bear the risk of loss upon damage or destruction of the managed property.
  • The service provider must agree that it is not entitled to and will not take any tax position that is inconsistent with being a service provider to the qualified user with respect to the managed property (e.g. agree not to take depreciation or amortization, tax credit or deduction for rent).
  • There can be no circumstances that would substantially limit the qualified user’s ability to exercise its rights under the contract based on all of the facts and circumstances. A safe harbor is provided for governance overlap between the contracting parties, under which governance overlap is permitted if (i) no more than 20 percent of the voting power of the governing body of the qualified user is vested in the directors, officers, shareholders, partners, members, and employees of the service provider or a related party thereof, (ii) the governing body of the qualified user does not include the chief executive officer of the service provider or the chairperson (or equivalent executive) of the service provider’s governing body, and (iii) the chief executive officer of the service provider is not the chief executive officer of the qualified user or any of the qualified user’s related parties.

The overall impact of Rev. Proc. 2016-44 would seem to be an increase in the ability of bond issuers and tax-exempt users of bond-financed facilities to use for-profit contractors at bond-financed facilities. However, practitioners have already noted that the increased flexibility comes with less certainty and more facts and circumstances analysis with respect to many aspects of the safe harbor. One area in which flexibility may be diminished is in the conditions under which payments may be subordinated or deferred, as the guidance indicates that timing of payment may not be conditioned on tests involving both the managed property’s revenues and expenses for any fiscal period.

The revised safe harbors are effective for any management contract that is entered into on or after August 22, 2016, and an issuer may apply these safe harbors to any management contract that was entered into before August 22, 2016. In addition, an issuer may apply the safe harbors in Rev. Proc. 97-13, as modified by Rev. Proc. 2001-39 and amplified by Notice 2014-67, to a management contract that is entered into before February 18, 2017 and that is not materially modified or extended on or after February 18, 2017 (other than pursuant to a renewal option as defined in Treasury Regulations §1.141-1(b)).

By MAXWELL D. SOLET

On November 13, the IRS issued Notice 2015-78, providing favorable guidance on topics of interest to providers of “supplemental” or “alternative” student loans financed with tax-exempt bonds and to underwriters of such student loan bonds. Such guidance confirms that loans financeable under such programs include (i) parent loans as well as student loans and (ii) loans that refinance or consolidate prior loans that were or could have been financed on a tax-exempt basis.

Tax-exempt bonds used to finance student loans, so-called “qualified student loan bonds,” come in two flavors under the Internal Revenue Code, those issued to finance federally-guaranteed loans made under the Federal Family Education Loan Program (“FFELP”) and those issued to finance certain loans issued under programs created by the states, generally known as “supplemental” or “alternative” loan programs. While the FFELP program, historically much larger, terminated in 2010, tax-exempt financing for new loans under state supplemental programs has continued in approximately fifteen states.

Notice 2015-78 appears to have been prompted by recent efforts by governmental issuers to provide refinancing of student loan debt through non-federally guaranteed “consolidation loans”, which presented questions on which the IRS had not previously provided guidance.  The IRS also used the notice as an opportunity to address selected other issues applicable to all tax-exempt financed supplemental loans, not just refinancing loans. The Notice clarifies the following:

  • Eligible Borrowers.  Notwithstanding the widespread practice of making higher education loans to parents, a practice provided for by statute under FFELP through the Parent Loan to Undergraduate Students (PLUS) program, the IRS had expressed concerns in the context of ruling request discussions about whether loans to parents were bond-financeable student loans.  Notice 2015-78 clarifies that the student, the parent, or both can be an eligible borrower of a bond-financed “student loan.”  The Notice attempts to provide a similar rule for refinancing loans, stating, “An eligible borrower of a refinancing loan … is the student or parent borrower of the original loan.”  In the refinancing loan context the Notice’s particular wording leaves unclear whether if the sole borrower on the original loan was the parent, the sole borrower on the refinancing loan can be the proud young graduate who wishes to take on the debt through a consolidation loan.  Such a fact pattern clearly satisfies the policy underlying this otherwise expansively drafted notice.
  • Nexus to State.  The Internal Revenue Code requires the student to be a resident of the state which provides the “volume cap” allocation for the bonds or enrolled at an educational institution in that state.  In the case of a refinancing or consolidation loan, there has been some question whether such “nexus” is required to be established at the time the original loan was made or at the time the refinancing loan is made.  The Notice provides the broadest rule, stating that a “refinancing loan,” including a loan which allows the borrower to consolidate prior debt, complies with the statutory nexus requirement either if that requirement was satisfied at the time of the original loan or if it is satisfied at the time of the refinancing loan.  If reliance is placed on nexus at the time the original loan is made,  in the case of a consolidation loan care may need to be exercised to establish nexus for all underlying loans.
  • Loan Size.  The Code limits supplemental loans to “the difference between the total cost of attendance and other forms of student assistance … for which the student borrower may be eligible.”  The “may be eligible” language has resulted in troublesome challenges in IRS audits, where IRS agents have suggested that issuers might be responsible for documenting that students actually had applied for all other potentially available student assistance, or obligated to downsize loans by the amount of other student assistance that was hypothetically available but not received by the student.  The Notice confirms that tax-exempt bond issuers may rely on certifications from the student’s school as to total cost of attendance and as to other student assistance.  Further, the school may rely on definitions provided under the Higher Education Act, including a definition of “estimated financed assistance” which looks only to assistance the student “will receive.”
  • Type of Loans Eligible for Refinancing.  The Notice states that supplemental student loan bonds can be used to refinance not only original loans which were themselves supplemental loans but also other loans, “for example, a FFELP loan or a student loan made by a private lender, provided that the refinancing loan meets all of the requirements for a State Supplemental Loan.”   Although not addressed by the Notice, it should be noted that tax-exempt bonds issued to refinance prior loans, including consolidation of prior loans, generally will require an allocation of state volume cap, which in some states is a scarce commodity.  The need for volume cap may be avoided to the extent the refinancing loans made with proceeds of a bond issue refinance loans financed with other tax-exempt bonds issued by the same issuer or a related issuer and the payoffs on the refinanced loans are applied to redeem such other tax-exempt bonds in a manner that qualifies for the volume cap exception for current refunding bonds.

As a general proposition, the national student loan market is growing and dynamic.  Notice 2015-78 will assist governmental issuers in fulfilling their intended role.

By MAXWELL SOLET and CHRISTIE MARTIN

Treasury and IRS today announced a decision to withdraw the much-criticized portion of the notice of proposed rulemaking published in the Federal Register on September 16, 2013 (the “2013 Proposed Regulations”) related to the definition of issue price for tax-advantaged obligations and to propose a revised definition of issue price in its place. A determination by the IRS that the “issue price” has been erroneously calculated can have ramifications, including for the calculation of arbitrage yield, that could ultimately cause loss of tax-exempt status in the case of tax-exempt bonds and loss of federal subsidy in the case of Build America Bonds (BABs), hence the importance to the tax-exempt bond community of a clear and predictable definition.

The new proposed regulations (the “2015 Proposed Regulations”) are scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on June 24, 2015 and can be found here. A 90-day comment period will be followed by a hearing on October 28, 2015.

The 2015 Proposed Regulations eliminate most of the troublesome features of the 2013 Proposed Regulations, including maintaining a 10% standard rather than the 2013 Proposed Regulations 25% standard for what constitutes a “substantial amount” of obligations sold to the public. However, the 2015 Proposed Regulations do not maintain the long-established “reasonable expectations” standard for establishing issue price. Instead, the 2015 Proposed Regulations look to actual facts as the general rule.

In recognition of the need in the tax-advantaged debt world for certainty as of the sale date (particularly in the case of advance refundings), the 2015 Proposed Regulations helpfully provide an alternative method in the event a substantial amount of bonds have not been sold to the public as of the sale date. The alternative method allows reliance on the initial offering price if certain conditions are satisfied.

Procedures for satisfying the conditions for use of this alternative method will have to be developed, and underwriters may conclude that compliance will be difficult. In particular, a preclusion of sales at prices above the initial offering price unless it can be demonstrated that the differential is based on market changes could be problematic.

The 2015 Proposed Regulations will be effective for obligations that are sold on or after 90 days after final regulations are published in the Federal Register. However, issuers may rely upon the 2015 Proposed Regulations with respect to obligations that are sold on or after June 24, 2015, the date the 2015 Proposed Regulations will be published in the Federal Register.

By LEN WEISER-VARON

Pi Day comes but once a century, on 3/14/15. The Internal Revenue Service receives praise approximately as frequently. But the IRS deserves applause for its Notice 2015-18, released March 10, 2015, giving the green light to states to proceed with the establishment of tax-free investment programs for the disabled under new Section 529A of the Internal Revenue Code.

Section 529A, which became effective January 1, 2015, grants tax-free treatment to the earnings in so-called ABLE accounts established for eligible disabled beneficiaries and used for qualified disability expenses. As is the case with Section 529 programs, which offer tax-free investment for higher education expenses, Section 529A programs must be established by state instrumentalities and must comply with a variety of statutory requirements. But unlike Section 529, which permits anyone to establish a Section 529 account (subject to the imposition of taxes and tax penalties on amounts withdrawn for purposes other than the account beneficiary’s higher education expenses), Section 529A imposes restrictions on the front end designed to ensure that the account beneficiary is disabled. (Section 529A likewise imposes taxes and tax penalties on amounts withdrawn for purposes other than the account beneficiary’s qualified disability expenses.)

Many families with children or other relatives who meet Section 529A’s disability definition and the statute’s requirement that the disability have occurred before age 26 are understandably eager to establish nest eggs that are not only tax-free but also, by statute, disregarded (up to a balance of $100,000) for purposes of determining the beneficiary’s financial eligibility for federal disability benefits. However, states seeking to make ABLE accounts available to their residents must work through a host of legal, contractual and investment option issues before launching these new programs.

By releasing Notice 2015-18, the Treasury Department and IRS have addressed, wisely and effectively, one factor that threatened to delay the launch of ABLE programs: uncertainty over how the Treasury Department and IRS will interpret certain provisions of Section 529A.

In particular, while Section 529A is clear that an ABLE account beneficiary’s disability qualification is determined by or through the federal government (through the beneficiary’s receipt of Social Security disability benefits or the beneficiary’s filing with the Treasury Department of a disability certification accompanied by a physician’s diagnosis), it is silent on whether the state program has some unspecified duty to obtain assurances or confirm that such actions, which don’t involve the state program, have occurred. Section 529A, which permits disability status to be established at any time during a tax year, also does not specify the treatment of account contributions made to or received by an ABLE account on a date in a tax year that precedes the date on which the beneficiary satisfies the disability status requirements for the applicable tax year. In addition, there is no statutory clarity on what a program is required to do to confirm compliance with Section 529A’s state residency restrictions.

The legislation pursuant to which Section 529A was enacted requires that the Treasury Department promulgate regulations under Section 529A by June 19, 2015 (six months from enactment.) It is unclear whether the Treasury Department will be able to meet this deadline. Even if the Treasury Department were to meet that deadline, some states might have concerns about structuring, much less launching, an ABLE program before there is regulatory guidance resolving some of the statutory ambiguities potentially affecting the program’s tax-exemption under Section 529A.

Notice 2015-18 straightforwardly acknowledges the tax uncertainty concerns and addresses them, asserting that “[t]he Treasury Department and the IRS do not want the lack of guidance to discourage states from enacting their enabling legislation and creating their ABLE programs, which could delay the ability of the families of disabled individuals or others to begin to fund ABLE accounts for those disabled individuals.” The Notice goes on to state that “the Treasury Department and the IRS are assuring states that enact legislation creating an ABLE program in accordance with section 529A, and those individuals establishing ABLE accounts in accordance with such legislation, that they will not fail to receive the benefits of section 529A merely because the legislation or the account documents do not fully comport with the guidance when it is issued.”

The Notice further states that “the Treasury Department and the IRS intend to provide transition relief with regard to necessary changes to ensure that the state programs and accounts meet the requirements in the guidance, including providing sufficient time after issuance of the guidance in order for changes to be implemented.”

This language represents a fairly extraordinary expression by the Treasury and the IRS of their intent to get out of the way as a potential obstacle to, or delaying factor in, the launching of ABLE programs. This approach is sympathetic to the cause and needs of families of disabled individuals, and deserves commendation. Although the Notice will not result in instantaneous availability of ABLE programs given the non-tax complexities of structuring the programs, it makes the states’ task in launching such programs appreciably less daunting.

Notice 2015-18 also includes an advance notice which acknowledges that, although Section 529A requires that the disabled beneficiary of an ABLE account be the account owner, someone other than the disabled beneficiary may have signature authority for the account. The advance notice, unsurprisingly, indicates that the regulatory guidance when issued will preclude any such person with signature authority who is not the account owner from acquiring a beneficial interest in the account, and will require such person to administer the account in the interests of the account owner/beneficiary.

By LEN WEISER-VARON

The IRS recently published a December 9, 2014 Chief Counsel Advice Memorandum to the effect that the defeasance of taxable Build America Bonds (BABs) causes a tax reissuance of the bonds, with the consequence that the municipal issuer ceases to be eligible for federal government interest subsidies for the period from the defeasance date to the redemption date.  (A “reissuance” means that from a tax perspective existing bonds are deemed exchanged for new bonds issued on the reissuance date.)  The BABs subsidy was available for bonds issued in 2009 and 2010; bonds issued or deemed issued in 2014 are ineligible.

This internal counsel advice is not particularly consequential in the specific context to which it applies.  As noted in a Bond Buyer article on the advice memorandum, defeasance escrows for taxable bonds tend to be established for short periods, usually the thirty day period between the date a redemption notice is mailed and the redemption date.  Accordingly, any loss of BABs subsidy to the issuer resulting from a purported reissuance is minor.  Similarly, though a reissuance of taxable bonds may accelerate realization of gain or loss by a bondholder, if the reissuance occurs 30 days before the redemption date, it is unlikely to change the tax year in which such gain or loss occurs.

The larger point is that the advice memorandum reflects a troubling approach by the IRS to the interpretation of its rules.  A legal defeasance of taxable bonds generally causes a reissuance (which is why taxable bond indentures provide for “covenant defeasance”, which permits the creation of a defeasance escrow that economically defeases the bonds while the issuer retains theoretical liability for any escrow shortfall.)  However, the reissuance regulations provide an exception for municipal bonds.  The reissuance exception applies to “tax-exempt bonds”, which IRS Regulation 1.1001-3(f)(5)(iii) defines as “a state or local bond that satisfies the requirements of § 103(a).”  Section 103(a) of the Internal Revenue Code sets forth the requirements that must be satisfied by tax-exempt municipal bonds.

BABs are required to meet the requirements of Section 103(a) in order to be eligible for the federal subsidy.  This is because the BABs subsidy, which is paid by the Treasury to the issuer and offsets the issuer’s interest cost, is merely an alternative mechanism for lowering the interest costs to a municipal issuer of issuing bonds that satisfy the criteria for a federal subsidy.  Instead of exempting the bondholder from income tax on the bond interest, thereby lowering the rate the issuer must pay to attract bond purchasers, the BABs mechanism pays a subsidy directly to the issuer, which some believe to be a more cost-effective form of federal subsidy.  But in order to be eligible for either form of subsidy – tax-exemption of interest, or direct subsidy payments to the issuer by the federal government – the applicable bonds must comply with the same Section 103(a) requirements.

So why does the IRS advice memorandum conclude that the reissuance exception for defeasance of bonds that satisfy the requirements of Section 103(a) is inapplicable to BABs?  The memorandum acknowledges that the legislation creating BABs was enacted subsequent to the promulgation of the relevant reissuance exception, and that the regulatory exception was not revised at that time to exclude BABs from  the exception.  But the memorandum asserts that the concerns that gave rise to the reissuance exception for such defeasances focused on preserving the tax-exemption of interest to bondholders, and that taxable BABs do not present the same concerns for bondholders.  Respected bond counsel dispute the advice memorandum’s characterization of the regulatory history of the reissuance exception.

But the more troubling feature of the IRS analysis is that BABs satisfy the literal requirements of the reissuance exception for defeasance.  Regulatory history and speculation as to whether the rulemakers would or wouldn’t have included BABs if they had focused on the question should only be relevant if there is ambiguity in the regulation.  In this instance, there is none.

Issuers should be entitled to rely on the plain meaning of IRS regulations in structuring their bond issues and/or refinancing their bond issues.  If circumstances change and the IRS does not wish a rule that literally applies to such changed circumstances to be applicable, the burden should be on the IRS to change the rule, versus expecting issuers and practitioners to pre-clear with the IRS whether some unwritten carveout to the rule exists in the minds of individuals at the IRS.  A more famous (and tonally adept) Babs once sang “If You Could Read My Mind,” but that is no way to run a tax system.

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.