November 18, 2008

PNC Bank: Next in Line at the Bailout Trough

In the wake of revelations that Wells Fargo Bank stands to reap $20 billion in federal tax cuts from a probably-illegal tax giveaway imposed on us by departing leaders in the Bush Treasury Department, the most obvious question was which other large corporation would be next in line to cash in on this particular tax break. The answer: PNC, which just bought Ohio-based National City Bank.

As with the Wells Fargo case, the generosity of the tax break leaves one dumbfounded. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer asks:
How can PNC pay $5.6 billion for National City and get back more than $5 billion in tax breaks?
It's a rhetorical question, of course: the Plain-D guys know that this tax break exists because of clever back-room maneuvering by Bush Administration Treasury officials. The short explanation: 20 years ago, Congress passed a law (as part of the justly-celebrated Tax Reform Act of 1986) that prohibited banks from buying loss-ridden banks as a tax dodge. While lobbyists pushed hard for Congress to undo this change for, well, the next 20 years, they were unsuccessful-- until the Treasury Department decided to change the law themselves by issuing a notice saying that they've changed their interpretation of the law. Oversimplying a bit, Treasury officials have taken a law that says "this tax scam is not allowed" and basically crossed out the "not".

Plenty of people are now paying attention to this anti-democratic outrage, not least among which are the members of Congress who view the creation of absurd tax breaks as their domain alone. (They're right, for better or for worse.) But the real question remains: what can be done about this?

An incoming Obama Administration can (and should, if all else fails) simply rewrite the administrative regulations. Again resorting to a gross oversimplification, this means un-crossing-out the "not" mentioned above.

Alternatively, tax writers in Congress (who are peeved that Treasury usurped their authority on this one) could pass a law preventing banks from using this made-up loophole going forward.
A stickier issue is whether anything can be done to take away the tax breaks already claimed by Wells Fargo and PNC. If their purchases of unprofitable banks were driven by the tax break, it may seem unfair to take the tax breaks away retrospectively, but there's enough unfairness to go around: Wells Fargo got a tax break that Citigroup didn't, entirely because Wells Fargo tried to buy Wachovia right after Treasury's announcement-- and Citigroup had the bad luck to make its acquisition bid right BEFORE Treasury's announcement. Ain't nothing fair about that.

It would probably be best for Congress to tackle this one head on, even as it deals with allegations that the direct bailout costs (the much-ballyhooed $700 billion) are being doled out indiscriminately. Let's hope they do!

November 11, 2008

Wells Fargo Tax Giveaway (Finally) Attracting Some Notice

Better late than never?
The truth of this saying may be tested in coming weeks, as lawmakers and regulators grapple with the question of how to fix an under-the-radar corporate tax break for a few large banks (the federal tax cut for Wells Fargo alone has been estimated at over $20 billion, and the new tax break overall could cost US taxpayers $140 billion) that seems to have been approved without Congress agreeing to it.

A Citizens for Tax Justice report from last week outlines the story:
When one company buys another company that has tax losses, the law prevents the acquiring company from using the purchased company’s tax losses. There’s a very sensible reason for this rule: to ensure that companies don’t purchase other companies simply as a tax dodge.
But a little-noticed September IRS administrative ruling creates a specific, temporary exemption from this rule for banks acquiring other banks whose tax losses are attributable to bad loans.
It's not that often that a new tax cut gets implemented without Congress ever lifting a finger, but that's what happened when the Bush Administration's Treasury officials decided to reinterpret an existing law in a way that would cut taxes dramatically for a few well-off banks. Senator Charles Grassley, who's accustomed to being at the steering wheel (or at least in the car!) when the tax policy express hits the road, is very angry about it, although he's stopped short of saying that the Administration's move is illegal.

Yesterday's Washington Post has a detailed story discussing how this came about, and today's Los Angeles Times has this story noting that the state if California stands to lose a couple of billion dollars of its own corporate income tax revenue to boot.

This is obviously an important issue for Congress-- the bailout was unpopular enough before it became widely known that it was being hijacked to benefit a few big corporations, so Congressional tax writers have a real incentive to clean this mess up in a way that makes it clear the bailout ultimately benefits America's economy, not a few fat cats.

But, as Citizens for Tax Justice notes in its analysis of the problem, this is also something state lawmakers need to worry about:
Because states with corporate income taxes almost universally base their corporate taxes on federal rules, federal tax cuts for corporations generally result in state tax cuts as well. When affected states have rules making it difficult to enact tax increases (as istrue of California, whose budget deficit is already in the billions of dollars), state governments find themselves practically unable to avoid costly corporate tax cuts they never wanted... At least eighteen states that tax corporate profits will likely take a hitfrom the new IRS ruling—and any state that taxes the profits of financial companies is at riskof helping to fund the next bank that chooses to purchase another financial company.

With state budgets already going up in flames, this is a problem state lawmakers don't need. Stay tuned...