Ain’t no Bonanza
Jay Leno once went walkabout in New York asking innocent passers-by if they could name a country beginning with the letter ‘U’. Apart from the usual camera induced deer-in-the-headlights non-responses, a few bright sparks came up with Uganda and Uruguay. At the close of the piece, as the camera faded out, Leno was heard asking: ‘Have you ever heard of the United States of America?’
Judging by the above experience, it can safely be assumed that, had Leno carried on to ask the name of the alphabetically last of the 50 States, at least one person – having realized there was no State starting with Z – would have thought long and hard about Y and come up with Utah. Alternatively, still on Y, they might have gone for Wyoming. And Wyoming, dear readers, is actually the correct answer.
Although there is a tendency to think of Wyoming as still set in the 19th century, with characters like Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock, Doc Holliday and Calamity Jane ambling around the state capital, Cheyenne, it was the birthplace – in 1977 – of one of the most important tax sanitizers in US history.
The Limited Liability Company (LLC) – a mongrel of the corporation and partnership with descriptive terminology all of its own – crawled along at cowboy pace until 1988 when the Internal Revenue Service issued a ruling that LLCs were transparent for tax purposes. At the speed of a Colt 45, American taxpayers could suddenly combine the limited liability of a corporation with the personal taxation of a partnership or sole trader. This was particularly important in America where, despite Reagan’s major tax reform two years earlier, there was no correlation between the tax paid by an individual (up to 28%), and that paid by a corporation (up to 34%) followed by 28% individual tax on a subsequent dividend (over 52% in total). Congress failed to recognize that inanimate companies – while being vehicles of tax liability – cannot pay tax. Unlike Shylock, if you prick them, they do not bleed. Human beings pay the tax – either through the higher prices suffered by the consumers, or the lower profits earned by the shareholders. There is little justification economically for wide differences in total rates.
As it turned out, it took until 2018 for the tax rates to be aligned. In the meantime, the vast majority of American private businesses organized themselves as either sole-proprietorships (and partnerships) or – thanks to Wyoming’s pioneering spirit – the new fangled LLCs.
And, thereby, hangs a tale. It was all well and good that America – with the biggest economy in the world – knew how to treat her LLCs, but other countries struggled with defining their treatment under their own laws. They ended up one of the major ‘culprits’ in hybrid mismatch tax planning that was so fiercely attacked in the OECD’s BEPS initiative.
Put simply, tax transparent companies in Israel are a rare and specific phenomenon. On the principle that, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck, LLCs fit the bill as companies. Therefore, according to statute law, they are not transparent. However, given the large exposure of Israelis to the American economy, ever since its big 2003 tax reform the Israeli Tax Authority has been finding accommodation for these hybrid beasts. As long ago as 2004 it produced a circular that reiterated the corporate nature of the LLC, but offered solutions to the availability of a foreign tax credit for US individual tax being paid (since the LLC is tax transparent in the US). If the LLC is deemed controlled and managed from Israel, despite being liable to Israeli corporate tax, a credit is given for the US individual tax on profits attributed to the US (up to the level of the corporate tax). Alternatively, the taxpayer can elect at first filing to be taxed on the profits in Israel at the member (Google translate: shareholder) level, with credit for the US taxes. Some have incorrectly interpreted that as complete transparency for the LLC. In fact the circular stresses that the LLC is a body of persons and, in practical terms, that means that losses of one LLC cannot be offset against those of another. As LLCs are set up at the drop of a cowboy hat in the US, this represents a real problem for many Israeli investors. There are certain planning devices, but advisors have always been aware that the problem exists.
Remarkably, 15 years after the issuing of that circular, essentially an extra-statutory concession, some jester with nothing better to do recently inexplicably allowed – not for the first time – a no-hope case to be brought before the courts. The claimant had set off losses between LLCs – in defiance of the circular – basing his claim on (1) Israeli law determining that when a word is stated in the singular, it also means the plural, unless – inter alia – the context does not support that interpretation, and (2) an informal conversation with a senior tax officer who allegedly told him that the problem could have been solved if all the LLCs had been held under a single holding LLC.
The judge swatted away the first argument – the context clearly didn’t support the multiple LLC claim. But, the second argument was even more off the wall. Whether or not the senior tax officer had been quoted correctly about forming a group of LLCs, THE CLAIMANT HAD NOT DONE SO. Robert Frost wrote a famous poem on the subject, ‘The Road Not Taken’