Prior to 2018, widely-used tax plans of U.S.-based multinational groups were designed to achieve three basic goals in connection with European operations: (i) the reduction of European taxes as European profits were generated, (ii) the integration of European tax plans with U.S. tax concepts to prevent Subpart F from applying to intercompany transactions in Europe, and (iii) the reduction of withholding taxes and U.S. tax under Subpart F as profits were distributed through a chain of European companies and then to the global parent in the U.S.
Reduction of Taxes in Europe
The first goal – the reduction of European taxation on operating profits – often entailed the deconstruction of a business into various affiliated companies, which can be illustrated as follows:
- Group equity for European operations was placed in a holding company that served as an entrepôt to Europe.
- Tangible operating assets related to manufacturing or sales were owned by a second company or companies where the facilities or markets were located.
- Financing was provided by a third company where rulings or legislation were favorable.
- Intangible property was owned by a fourth company qualifying as an innovation box compan
If the roadmap was carefully followed, European taxes on operations could be driven down in ways that did not result in immediate U.S. taxation under Subpart F. A simplified version of the plan that was widely used by U.S.-based multinational groups involved the following steps:
- Form an Irish controlled foreign corporation (“TOPCO”) that is managed and controlled in Bermuda.
- Have TOPCO enter into a qualified cost sharing agreement with its U.S. parent providing for the emigration of intangible property to TOPCO for exploitation outside the U.S. at an acceptable buy-in payment that could be paid overtime.
- Have TOPCO form a Dutch subsidiary (“DCO”) to serve as a licensing company, and an Irish subsidiary (“OPCO”) to carry on active business operations.
- Make check-the-box elections for DCO and OPCO so that both are treated as branches of TOPCO.
- Have TOPCO license the rights previously obtained under the qualified cost sharing agreement to DCO and have DCO enter a comparable license agreement with OPCO.
The use of check-the-box entities within Europe eliminated Subpart F income from being recognized in the U.S. A functionally comparable arrangement could be obtained for intercompany loans where such loans were required for capital investments. The qualified cost sharing arrangement eliminated the application of Code §367, which otherwise would mandate ongoing income inclusions for the U.S. parent as if it sold the intangible property pursuant to a deferred payment arrangement with the sales price being contingent on future revenue. Any intercompany dividends paid within the group headed by TOPCO were ignored for Subpart F purposes because of the check-the-box elections made by all of TOPCO's subsidiaries. At the same time, deferred taxes were not reported as current period expenses on financial statements prepared by the U.S. parent provided the underlying earnings were permanently invested abroad.
Meanwhile, earnings were funneled up to the European group equity holder and recycled for further expansion within the European group. Intragroup payments typically did not attract withholding tax under the Parent-Subsidiary Directive (“P.S.D.”) or the Interest and Royalty Directive (“I.R.D.”) of the European Commission (“E.C.”).
For other U.S.-based groups – primarily, those companies that regularly received dividend payments from European operations – the use of a holding company could reduce foreign withholding taxes claimed as foreign tax credits by the U.S. parent in many instances. This was true especially where the U.S. did not have an income tax treaty in force with a particular country or the treaty provided for relatively high withholding tax rates on dividends. Nonetheless, sophisticated planning was often required to take full advantage of the foreign tax credit because of various limitations and roadblocks that existed under U.S. tax law.
Foreign Tax Credit Planning in the U.S.
Although the foreign tax credit has often been described as a “dollar-for-dollar reduction of U.S. tax” when foreign taxes are paid or deemed to be paid by a U.S. parent company, the reality has been quite different. Only taxes that were imposed on items of “foreign-source taxable income” could be claimed as credits.1 This rule, known as “the foreign tax credit limitation,” was intended to prevent foreign income taxes from being claimed as a credit against U.S. tax on U.S.-taxable income. The U.S., as with most countries that eliminate double taxation through a credit system, maintains that it has primary tax jurisdiction over domestic taxable income.
The foreign tax credit limitation was structured to prevent so-called “cross crediting,” under which high taxes on operating income could be used to offset U.S. tax on lightly taxed investment income. For many years, the foreign tax credit limitation was applied separately with regard to eight different categories, or baskets, of income designed to prevent the absorption of excess foreign tax credits by low-tax foreign-source income. In substance, this eviscerated the benefit of the foreign tax credit when looked at on an overall basis. The problem was eased when the number of foreign tax credit baskets was reduced from eight to two: passive and general.
Additionally, the foreign tax credit was reduced for dividends received by U.S. citizens and resident individuals from foreign corporations that, in the hands of the recipient, benefited from reduced rates of tax in the U.S. A portion of foreign dividends received by U.S. individuals that qualify for the 0%, 15%, or 20% tax rate under Code §1(h)(11)(B)(i) was removed from the numerator and denominator of the foreign tax credit limitation to reflect the reduced U.S. tax rate imposed on those items.2 This treatment reduced the foreign tax credit limitation when a U.S. citizen or resident individual received both qualifying dividends from a foreign corporation – subject to low tax in the U.S. – and other items of foreign-source income within the same basket – subject to much higher ordinary tax rates. Another reduction in foreign source gains applied when U.S. source losses reduced foreign source gains. The goal of the provision was to eliminate a double benefit for the taxpayer regarding foreign source gains in that fact pattern. The first benefit was use of a domestic loss to reduce the foreign gain when computing taxable income. The second benefit was the elimination of U.S. tax due by reason of the foreign tax credit.3
As a result of all the foregoing rules, a U.S.-based group was required to determine (i) the portion of its overall taxable income that was derived from foreign sources, (ii) the portion derived in each “foreign tax credit basket,” and (iii) the portion derived from sources in the U.S. This was not an easy task, and in some respects, the rules did not achieve an equitable result from management's viewpoint.
Allocation and Apportionment Rules for Expenses
U.S. income tax regulations required expenses of the U.S. parent company to be allocated and apportioned to all income, including foreign dividend income.4 The allocation and apportionment procedures set forth in the regulations were exhaustive and tended to maximize the apportionment of expenses to foreign-source income. For example, all interest expense of the U.S. parent corporation and the U.S. members of its affiliated group were allocated and apportioned under a set of rules that allocated interest expense on an asset-based basis to all income of the group.5 Direct tracing of interest expense to income derived from a particular asset was permitted in only limited circumstances6 involving qualified nonrecourse indebtedness,7 certain integrated financial transactions,8 and certain related controlled foreign corporation (“C.F.C.”) indebtedness.9 Research and development expenses, stewardship expenses, charitable deductions, and state franchise taxes needed to be allocated and apportioned among the various classes of income reported on a tax return. These rules tended to reduce the amount of foreign-source taxable income in a particular category, and in some cases, eliminated all income in that category altogether.
The problem was worsened by carryovers of overall foreign loss accounts.10 These were “off-book” accounts that arose when expenses incurred in a particular prior year that were allocable and apportionable to foreign-source income exceeded the amount of foreign-source gross income for the year. Where that occurred, the loss was carried over to future years and reduced the foreign-source taxable income of the subsequent year when computing the foreign tax credit limitation.
Self-Help Through Inversion Transactions
The pressure that was placed on the full use of the foreign tax credit by U.S.-based groups resulted in several public companies undergoing inversion transactions. In these transactions, shares of the U.S. parent company held by the public were exchanged for comparable shares of a newly formed offshore company to which foreign subsidiaries were eventually transferred. While the share exchange and the transfer of assets arguably were taxable events, the identity of the shareholder group (i.e., foreign persons or pension plans) or the market value of the shares (i.e., shares trading at relatively low values) often eliminated actual tax exposure in the U.S. Thereafter, the foreign subsidiaries were owned directly or indirectly by a foreign parent corporation organized in a tax-favored jurisdiction and the foreign tax credit problems disappeared.
1 Section 904(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended from time to time (“Code”).
2 Code §§1(h)(11)(C)(iv) and 904(b)(2)(B).
3 Code §904(b)(2)(A).
4 Treas. Reg. §§1.861-8 through 17.
5 Treas. Reg. §§1.861-9T(f)(1) and (g).
6 Treas. Reg. §1.861-10T(a).
7 Treas. Reg. §1.861-10T(b).
8 Treas. Reg. §1.861-10T(c).
9 Treas. Reg. §1.861-10T(e).
10 Code §904(f).
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