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Posts Tagged ‘blackstone’

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Warren Buffett has announced his largest buyout in history, the $38 billion takeover of Portland, Oregon based Precision Castparts.  This is almost twice the size of the Heinz takeover, one of his largest prior takeovers.

Heinz and other Buffett enterprises, including Burlington Northern and Pacific Power, are having a strong negative impact on the Oregon economy.

This includes potato farmers in Eastern Oregon who had a win/win long term relationship with Heinz cancelled, and local communities battling to prevent oil and coal from being shipped by rail thru their communities without adequate safety guidelines.

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Disclsoure and Media Development Background:  Parish & Company maintains no speculative investments in the health care companies discussed and does not collaborate with any private equity or hedge funds.  It’s goal is to identify high quality health care opportunities suitable for long term oriented investment.

This effort includes providing high quality news material to leading journalists including Gretchen Morgenson of the NY Times, Mark Maremont and Rich Rubin of the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Tanfani of the LA Times and Margaret Collins of Bloomberg.

In doing its research Parish & Company has revealed a massive price fixing scheme, both in medications and medical equipment, being orchestrated by private equity and hedge funds, often financed by public pensions including Oregon PERS.   These firms purchase drug and medical equipment royalty cash flows and, in conjunction with the use of various drug and medical procedure distribution systems, including hospitals, specialized clinics and pharmacies, are price gouging patients and fleecing taxpayers via Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.

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Today Oregon PERS approved a $400 million investment in Stonepeak, a firm that invests in “infrastructure projects.”

In his presentation Stonepeak’s managing director Michael Dorrell noted their strategy is to invest in “essential infrastructure assets with an economic monopoly, much like an airport.”  This includes water, power plants, transportation and telecom with a focus “outside the auction process.”  They expect an annual return of 12 percent over 30 years.

One of their major projects he discussed is the largest desalination operation in the western hemisphere, in Southern California.  The key development partner is Poseidon Resources, “former GE guys.”  Dorrell noted they obtained the exclusive rights to such desalination projects.  They brought these rights over from their former employer Blackstone, who is entitled to 50 percent of the carried interest from this project. The expected return is 14 percent over 30 years and the City of San Diego could not do much about this high rate since Stonepeak has rights to the “only viable site near San Diego.”

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Disclosure:  This post is the first of several regarding the 2016 Presidential candidates.  One post will be done on each major candidate and the focus will be their primary financial backers and their respective foundations.  Bill Parish maintains no ties to any candidate nor does he have knowledge of any client owning positions in private equity or hedge fund partnerships.  Parish & Company only recommends publicly traded securities.

With Hillary Clinton likely to win the Democratic nomination, barring a major mistake, her most influential financial backers will be analyzed first.  They are Tony James of Blackstone and Jim Simons of Renaissance, the world’s largest private equity and hedge funds respectively.

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In a front page story Sunday May 20, 2012, Ted Sickinger of the Oregonian provided a detailed review of private equity valuation concerns.  This portfolio of opaque investments has grown substantially and poses unique risks to Oregonian PERS participants.  In his article, Sickinger notes this analysis is based upon original Parish & Company research.

Although an excellent article, there was still no mention that Oregon PERS does not keep independent records of “carried interest” fees paid to the private equity general partners nor K-1 annual partnership statements summarizing activity.  These private equity firms include Blackstone, KKR and Fortress. The fees cited in the article are for “management” and do not include the carried interest fees which are typically 10 times the annual management fee.

It is indeed remarkable that the Oregon State Treasury does not maintain these independent records.

Here is a link to the story:  Oregon PERS: Private equity investments pose unclear future

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Prior to the fractions rule, investors were investing $1 in order to get $5 to $7 in tax deductions.

President Reagan was so incensed that he signed into law new legislation, the “fractions rule,” specifically designed to end this scheme.  During this period no firm was more abusive with respect to tax avoidance than General Electric. Today Reagan’s reform is being challenged in an assault on taxpayer fairness led by the private equity firm Blackstone and its CEO Steve Schwarzman (pictured below left), in conjunction with the American Bar Association (ABA).  See my August 2010 blogpost “Blackstone: Private Equity or Public Theft,” for expanded background.

Before you consider the proposition of gaining $5 of deductions with a $1 investment preposterous, listen to the brief clip below of Sanford Presant of Greenberg Traurig, one of the nation’s leading real estate attorneys.  It is actually two short clips, the first is his introduction at a major tax conference and the second an explanation of what led to the fractions rule in his own words.

Presant is a national authority in this area and has had major roles with the ABA, in addition to heading up Ernst and Young’s real estate practice. The complete audio recordings for Presant’s remarks, in addition to those of Internal Revenue Service Associate Chief Counsel Curt Wilson, can be purchased at http://www.dcprovidersonline.com.

Also featured in the recording is Wayne Pressgrove of King & Spaulding, who makes a case to IRS Counsel Wilson for a revenue ruling to disable the fractions rule.   It is ironic that Reagan relied on the same law firm, King & Spaulding, to craft the fractions rule in the 1980’s, and these lawyers did brilliant work.

Audio Clip 1 (0:25)
Hear Sanford Presant Introduction and Background

mp3 file (for iPad users)

Audio Clip 2 (1:26)
Hear Presant Enthusiastically Explain How Investors Received $5 of Tax Deductions for Each Dollar Invested

mp3 file (for iPad users)

At a 2010 ABA conference, Internal Revenue Service Associate Chief Counsel Curt Wilson volunteered to sit on a panel and explained where the IRS stands on fractions rule enforcement. Wilson is introduced by Wayne Pressgrove of King & Spaulding.

Audio Clip 3 (3:32)
Hear IRS Associate Chief Counsel Curt Wilson Discuss the Fractions Rule

mp3 file (for iPad users)

Wilson notes there always seems to be “considerable angst” in the audience regarding compliance with this rule.  He added that one of the American Bar Association’s key initiatives was to amend the fractions rule. Remarkably, Wilson adds that he has seen almost no activity in this area at the IRS for years, either centrally or in the branches.  One might ask if this is just but another GE-like inspired scheme.

Earlier this year Wilson responded directly to me via email that the IRS was not planning to repeal the fractions rule.  However, the Treasury department’s February 2011 General Explanations of the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2012 Revenue Proposals were released and they include a repeal of the fractions rule (see page 90). Wilson now notes that someone else in his office is responsible for the fractions rule, yet he will not disclose who this is.

Why is this important for all investors?

This month NY Times reporter David Kocieniewski wrote a remarkable piece on General Electric, noting the company earned significant profits, yet paid no federal income tax in 2010.  The article also noted that GE maintains a “970” employee tax department headed by John Samuels, a former United States Treasury department official.

Such situations are important for all investors to consider because long-term cash flow is a primary determinant of  investor success.  Next to labor costs, taxes are often the most significant cash outflow for most businesses.  Clearly, tax avoidance alone is not sustainable long term and such a risk should be considered.   Other firms with significant such risk include Google and Cisco Systems.  The overall point again is simply, cash flow matters.

Given the opaque nature of these tax schemes at firms such as GE and Blackstone, it is often helpful to analyze them from the bottom up.   For example, Catalent Pharma Solutions is a Blackstone-owned company that files its own 10K with the SEC.   This provides valuable information including executive non-qualified (NQ) option agreements at Catalent and footnotes explaining how entities roll up to the Blackstone parent.   Much of this information is simply not available in Blackstone’s own 10K filing with the SEC.

The following list of entities shows exactly how Catalent eventually connects to Blackstone, its parent.  The Top Level partnership, Blackstone Holdings III L.P., appears in Blackstone’s SEC filings and org chart. It is mostly owned by tax-exempt public pensions. The carried interest fees these tax-exempt pensions pay is indeed Blackstone’s primary source of income, an expense to the tax-exempt pensions and revenue to Blackstone.

If Blackstone is manufacturing non-qualified (NQ) tax deductions at the Catalent wholly-owned subsidiary level, which are actually a pass-through of the carry fees (internal carry plan) paid from tax-exempt limited partners to company executives, then this could be a significant violation of the fractions rule.  Sound bizarre?   Perhaps that is the beauty of laundering activity through so many layers of entities, combined with transfer pricing algorithms managed by leading accounting firms. Keep in mind that Blackstone has hundreds of individual companies in its various partnerships.

Please note that given the opaque nature of these issues and related complexity, my hope is that a leading journalist will confirm the facts directly with Blackstone.  This material is not copyrighted and has been provided to both Gretchen Morgenson and Floyd Norris of the NY Times for review.  It was Morgenson who reported on my findings regarding the Microsoft Corporation in 2000, similarly noting a scheme which allowed them to pay zero federal income tax.  From an investment point, again, the key observation of this analysis is that “cash flow matters.”

One could argue that the only real company in this whole structure is Catalent.  Imagine how frustrated their competitors who pay significant taxes feel.  Perhaps this is the real nexus of the national debate over taxes.  Rates should be able to come down in all categories, yet this is simply not possible until the basic tax equity issues are addressed.   What we need is enforcement of the fractions rule, specifically with respect to compensation allocations, in my opinion.

Repealing the fractions rule is now the “Holy Grail” for many private equity firms, in particular with respect to the allocation of compensation deductions.  The 2012 Treasury Department revenue proposal refers to using a less restrictive rule that does not deal with the key issue involving tax exempt entities, perhaps returning us to the days when certain insiders can invest $1 and get $5 in tax deductions.

Despite all the controversy surrounding Reagan’s Presidency, one can be certain that he would have dealt with this nonsense swiftly.  We will soon see how the current Administration does.

These private equity firms failed to get the fractions rule repealed in Congress.  They then failed again in their request to obtain a revenue ruling, sponsored by the ABA, from IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman.  The ruling was designed to exempt compensation (carry fees) from fractions rule considerations. They now have remarkably gotten the United States Treasury Department itself advocating their cause per the 2012 Treasury Revenue Proposals which effectively repeal the fractions rule.

Somewhere out there is an underpaid lobbyist and about the only thing standing between their success in repealing the fractions rule is a good journalist.

The following letter was sent to Warren Buffett and his heir apparent, David Sokol, on March 24, 2011 because he like all investors will see diminished opportunities as companies are taken private by private equity firms such as Blackstone in order to implement what might be called a tax deduction pyramid scheme.

Interestingly,  Sokol resigned shortly thereafter on March 30, 2011.  By the way, does anyone really believe Warren Buffet would invest $9 billion in Lubrizol so Sokol could earn a profit of $3 million, perhaps the equivalent of a rounding error for his personal portfolio?  Similarly, does anyone really believe Sokol resigned solely based upon this investment?

In any event, here is the letter to Buffett, whom some argue is a leader in key corporate governance issues, including tax equity.


March 24, 2011

Warren Buffett

Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

3555 Farnam St.

Suite 1440

Omaha, NE 68131

cc: David Sokol

Dear Warren,

I hope you are well and enjoying things. The last correspondence we had resulted in that most memorable letter from David Sokol regarding the purchase of PacifiCcorp here in the Northwest.

The reason I am writing today is that I would like to reveal, similar to the work I did regarding Microsoft in 1999 that ultimately resulted in two reporters earning Pulitzer prizes and a veritable cottage industry of media tag alongs, a most astonishing taxation story. One that, if you do not address, will clearly hobble many of your portfolio companies.

On this issue, we should be on the same page. The challenge is that we will need to briefly visit what leading tax attorneys call the Mariana Trench of the Internal Revenue Code, that is the fractions rule, scheduled to be repealed per Obama’s 2012 revenue proposals. See link to blogpost titled “Blackstone, Private Equity or Public Theft,”at http://www.billparish.com

Recommendation: Have your top analyst take a look and confirm you will not only be priced out of many acquisitions but also see your portfolio companies hobbled if this is repealed. No matter how well run and efficient you are, and no matter how great the sloth at these PE firms, this will greatly impact you in my opinion.

There are many specific facets to this scheme yet they all revolve around ultimately allocating unusable tax deductions belonging to tax exempt partners to taxable partners. Most remarkable is that these are not real expenses such as depreciation but rather mostly compensation in the form of carried interest fees.

Substantive Facts:

1) Private equity funds now receive most of their funding from tax exempt sources, in particular public pensions. George Roberts and others now spend most of their time gathering such tax exempt investors.

2) The fractions rule was put in place to prevent GP’s like Blackstone and KKR from trading additional partnership benefits with tax exempts LP’s who had vast amounts of deductions that could not use, since they are tax exempt. As one leading attorney put it, investors were trading on tax benefits, at times getting 5-7 dollars of deductions for every dollar invested, and that is what brought us the fractions rule.”

3) Here is how the current scheme works and how it will cumulatively hobble you over time:

PE firms portfolio acquire companies and create vast stock option programs, what some call internal “carry plans,” and by doing so take NQ option deductions at the individual portfolio company level. In reality, this is nothing but a push down of the carry fees paid from mostly from tax exempts, which is non-deductible. These carry fees are an economic expense belonging to tax exempt, often booked as a balance sheet transfer, never hitting the P&L statement.

4) The reason this impacts Berkshire is that everything else equal, you cant compete on a long term cash flow basis with firms that pay no taxes at all In addition, as Roberts states, their strategy is to aggressively price competitors out of the various markets and then later raise prices.

While you may say, this won’t effect us Bill, do have one of your best analysts take a good took. Quite remarkable. I’ve also provided this information to the Internal Revenue Service yet they will not comment.

My basic point is that if the fractions rule is eliminated and compensation deductions, in particular carry fees, can be allocated without restriction by only needing to conform to more lenient rules, it will be one big mess. See http://www.billparish.com for link to blog post titled “Blackstone, Private Equity or Public Theft.”

5) IRS Perspective to Date: Curt Wilson in the office of passthroughs and special industries has noted in national ABA conferences that “although their is considerable angst regarding the fractions rule,”it has been off the IRS radar screen. He also responded to me via email earlier this year when I expressed concern over the ABA aggressively pushing for repeal, specifically lobbying him hard at national conferences, that the IRS did not support that. Remarkably, however, in February the Treasury issued guidelines for 2012 which include its repeal. When asked for additional information, Wilson replied that someone else is handling this in his office but I can’t get a response from him who this is, much less any specifics.

Please do take a look. and naturally I will make myself available if someone there would like to discuss in more detail. By the way, as you likely know, all four of the major CPA firms are making very significant revenues servicing private equity and hedge funds who aggressively use carry fees. I began my career at Arthur Anderson when it was a great firm in 1980’s. Perhaps helping prevent this repeal will also help prevent an Anderson like moment in the future for one of these firms. It is indeed possible that this is a bigger situation than LILO leasing.

Best regards.

Bill Parish

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Note (Not Copyrighted) : This basic post was updated December 10, 2010 given the current debate in Congress over extending the Bush tax cuts and numerous inquires regarding my position in this debate.  The purpose of this post is to highlight that although rates are important, perhaps more important are overall fairness issues associated with two situations in particular.  Put another way, why don’t we all forget about the rates and focus on basic fairness first.  Doing that should allow rates to come down in all brackets.

With the financial reform package now passed, all eyes are on the setting of specific rules regarding its implementation.  And while lobbyists attempt to direct the debate away from where it should be, let’s instead visit the core issue, tax rules.

This rollout of specific rules related to the Volcker Rule and related tax considerations will squarely position Paul Volcker, pictured on the lower left below and current IRS commissioner Doug Shulman, lower right, against Blackstone Group LP’s Steve Schwarzman and other leveraged buyout artists operating under the guise of “private equity.”  Why are tax rules key one might ask, especially if these rules have nothing to do with the debate over carried interest?

This is because two specific tax rules have profoundly shaped the current investment markets via a major impact on cash flow. They have also in a more basic fashion functioned as the seeds from which all the other market dysfunctions have originated. The purpose of this post is to briefly explain these two rules and then connect the dots.  Also see related March 31, 2011 post titled Blackstone Tax Engineers, Inspired by GE, attempt to repeal the fractions rule.  This post includes brief audio recordings from leading attorneys and an IRS official regarding the fractions rule.

1)  Net Operating Losses: This involves the practice of creating large pools of net operating loss tax deductions, mostly from unusable technology firms’ stock option deductions when these firms are bought by private equity funds.  These private equity firms then do leveraged buyouts of profitable companies and offset these profitable companies profits into the pool of losses to make the profitable companies tax exempt.

Back in the 1980’s this loophole was intended to be closed when Congress prohibited profitable companies from purchasing such losses and using them all immediately.  The new law required they be amortized over several years.   As former Senate Finance Chair Bob Packwood noted in an Oregonian article, the Treasury never foresaw firms escaping the loophole by using partnerships with large pools of losses to purchase profitable companies.   Essentially, the same transaction in reverse.

Who would think that a partnership whose primary asset were losses would be able to purchase profitable companies. All that was needed in the legislation to prevent this was the term “and vice versa.”  Remarkably, there has been no discussion of this amazing situation, perhaps the biggest tax story in 10 years.

2)  “The Fractions Rule” This rule was put in place at about the same time and designed to prevent tax exempt entities such as public pensions from trading tax deductions they were not entitled to use with taxable partners.  The fractions rule also was designed to discourage tax exempt entities from investing in leveraged buyouts (LBO’s) via partnerships with private equity firms and other taxable partners.   Clearly this would give such firms purchased an unfair marketplace advantage when competing with tax paying businesses.  Or put another way, who would be left to pay tax if all the tax paying firms got gobbled up by partnerships in leveraged buyouts fueled with tax exempt investor funds.

Perhaps one of the nations leading attorney regarding the Fractions Rule, Sanford Presant of GreenburgTaurig, put it best in a 2008 American Bar Association meeting when he said.  “Back then it was tough to get in to our Thursday night committee dinners, they were by invitation only.  Boy was it tough to get in to listen to some of these people and their intelligent pearls.  The real debates were… Can you get 5 to 1 write-offs.  5 to 1?  How do you get 7 to 1!  Everybody was trading on tax benefits and as part of all this backlash, we got the fractions rule.”

Presant is pictured below on the left with Wayne Pressgrove of King and Spaulding on the right.  These two brilliant lawyers represent the leading private equity and hedge funds.

In the ensuing years, once again the industry has attempted to sidestep the fractions rules intent, which applies only to “partnerships,” by using blocker “corporations” set up in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens.  As a trained CPA I find this most disappointing since the IRS rules should be based upon the “substance” of the economic activity rather than the form or structure.  In any event, there is a whole cottage industry of law firms selling advice based upon such  blocker corporation schemes.

A brilliant team of lawyers at King and Spaulding helped write the fractions rule and key to it is the expression “and vice versa.”  This is key because it would prevent the gamesmanship that has occurred with operating losses noted above. Put another way, it would limit allocating deductions from tax exempt to taxable partners in addition to allocating income from taxable partners to tax exempt partners.

What surprises many non tax experts is that these special allocation partnerships can have one set of allocation rules for taxable income and deductions, and a completely different set of rules for cash flow.  The second key aspect of this situation that is creating considerable uneasiness among taxable partners in these partnerships is the rule regarding substantial economic effect, that is, you can’t be simply moving deductions and income between taxable and tax exempt investors unless the transaction has “substantial economic effect.”

This is particularly important with compensation, the numbers of which can be particularly large with private equity and hedge funds.   Large CPA firms now have entire divisions focused upon transfer pricing and expense allocations yet again one has to ask the question, if these transfers do not have underlying economic effect other than moving deductions around, why is this allowed.

It is somewhat ironic that King and Spaulding, the same firm that helped draft the fractions rule, is now leading an effort via the American Bar Association to gut the fractions rule by exempting certain key expenses and transactions.  One recent King and Spaulding partner, Dan Coates, was just elected to the US Senate and expressed interest in being on the Finance Committee, which oversees these rules via the IRS.

We’ve given up on repealing it all together, the ABA notes, and so we are now trying to be more tactical.  This has resulted in the fractions rule becoming what one leading attorney calls the “Mariana Trench” of the Internal Revenue Code.  Perhaps it is also why there has been so little enforcement to date from the IRS,  as noted by Curt Wilson, Associate Chief Counsel in the the office of Passthroughts and Special Industries, at the 2010 ABA Mid Year Tax Section meeting. Wilson noted, I find this surprising especially given the level of angst in industry over compliance with these rules.  See my letter to Wilson opposing granting this revenue ruling.

As an investment advisor I find this remarkable given the current debate over extending the Bush tax cuts.  While smaller LLC based businesses pay federal, state, property and various other forms of taxes and fees, it appears that these private equity and hedge funds are skirting the rules and paying close to nothing.  This of course introduces a significant fairness issue.

Again, the fractions rule specifically limits the trading of tax benefits from tax exempt entities to taxable partners, or vice versa.  Put another way, imagine if you were a taxable partner in a partnership and 90 percent of the other investors were tax exempt entities?  Imagine how difficult it would be to leave 90 percent of valuable tax deductions on the table as unusable?

Perhaps this is why gutting the fractions rule is one of the American Bar Association’s top priorities. (See ABA letter to IRS Commissioner later in this post.)

It could be argued that some private equity firms have become but a sophisticated shell for tax avoidance based upon a maze of interconnected companies and effectively converted to tax exempt status through the aggressive use of net operating loss tax deductions involving executive compensation and transfer pricing.  This has resulted in an unfair competitive advantage against profitable companies that pay taxes.  This has also enraged ordinary small business owners who are not using such schemes.

Investors in profitable companies that actually pay taxes get lower returns than they otherwise would have, making competing with such a scheme on a long term basis difficult.  The situation is even worse for their productive employees who suffer job losses due to takeovers inspired by this scheme, and essential government services which rely on a broad tax base.  This could be the big untold story of the current economic decline, a decline inspired and manufactured by certain private equity firms.  It also explains in large part the constant drumbeat of job outsourcing in that the first thing these private equity firms do is outsource everything off shore possible, no matter the long term consequences.

Again, Congress supposedly foresaw this potential with passage of the “fractions rule”, Internal Revenue Code 514(c)(9)(e) in the late 80’s, to prevent tax exempt entities from trading deductions they cannot use with taxable entities.  One need only examine the growth in tandem of public pensions and private equity investment to see the dimension of this issue.

In the 1980’s the big issue was depreciation on real estate being given to taxable partners by tax exempt partners in exchange for other benefits.   If this were allowed to proliferate there would be no corporate income tax as private equity partnerships manage companies from a tax exempt status and drive tax paying competitors out of the market with lower prices.

One can forget that taxes are indeed one of the most significant business expenses and eliminating this expense would provide a significant competitive advantage for these private equity firms.

Private equity funds have grown dramatically since then, most notably Blackstone, KKR and TPG.  These firms now receive most of their funding from tax exempt public pensions, foundations and endowments, at times more than 80 percent for particular partnerships.  At the same time they are aggressively investing in businesses which derive most of their revenue from government programs.  A good example is Blackstone’s recent purchase of Oregon’s largest assisted living center, Sunwest, an entity whose primary source of sales are government medicare and medicaid payments.

Somehow the public has been fooled into thinking private equity is something other than a euphemism for leveraged buyout.  And while tax exempt investors, mostly public pensions, use sophisticated LBO strategies including  these Caymen Island based “blocker corporations” to avoid paying UBIT (unrelated business taxable income), they appear to have altogether neglected the significance of the “fractions rule” and basic economic substance requirements regarding allocations of financial results.

Congress set up the UBIT rules specifically to avoid a situation in which tax exempt entities are partners in private equity partnerships and investing in leveraged buyouts, to maintain a level playing field.  The idea was to tax these tax exempt entities on profits gained from such leveraged buyouts, that is UBIT tax.

As noted, the UBIT rules regarding leveraged buyouts have  however been circumvented through the use of off shore “blocker corporations” set up as an intermediary so that the tax exempt entities are seen as investing in a corporation rather than a partnership in which activity flows directly to them as a partner, for example profits and tax deductions.

Nevertheless, the fractions rule math is pretty simple as follows: if for example 70 percent of Blackstone’s investment partners are tax exempt, then 70 percent of certain tax deductions are unusable and can not be transfer priced or allocated into a situation, whether by using equity compensation, carry fees or other expenses in which they are transferred to and used by taxable partners.

While the nation debates whether to tax private equity and hedge fund partners at ordinary or capital gains rates, more interesting is whether or not these partners like Schwarzman are in clear violation of existing IRS tax rules due to an aggressive tax strategy using stock options and carry fees, and other deductions.  Once these machinations are fully understood, the tax benefits could be disallowed if the fractions rule has been violated.

As an example, let’s briefly examine the Blackstone Group more closely, whose President Tony James visited Portland, Oregon in July 2010.  Blackstone is arguably the global leader in private equity investment.  They are also a major risk for investment advisers like myself given their ability to takeover good companies and remove them from the marketplace.  This makes my job much more difficult, not only in selecting good investments, yet also in maintaining clients who suffer an unnecessary job loss due to one of these senseless takeovers that are now proliferating.

Blackstone and other private equity firms including KKR and TPG essentially set up partnerships with tax exempt entities like Oregon PERS, LLC’s,  and often have as little as 10 percent of their own equity in the deals.  “Tax efficiency reasons” are often cited for private equity funds’ low equity participation.  The partnerships then do buyouts of both public and private companies.  The above agenda summary is from a recent presentation by Blackstone in Oregon.

As Tony James noted in his presentation which led to a $200 million investment in a Blackstone partnership, they can now use Blackstone stock as currency to attract top executives by swapping out their unvested stock options for Blackstone options.

That may be convenient yet IRS rules are very clear in prohibiting the trading of valuable tax deductions between taxable entities and tax exempt entities such as public pensions due to abuses in the 1980’s.

Specifically, the “fractions rule”., IRC, 514(c)(9)(E)  was adopted and it only allows the taxable entities to take their share of economic interest in the partnerships.  For example, the taxable partners could only take 100 percent of the equity compensation tax deductions when there are no tax exempt partners.

What it also does not allow is an aggressive strategy using transfer pricing and allocations to circumvent the rule.  Such strategies may reduce tax exempt entities exposure to UBIT yet the fractions rule must still be met.

What the IRS clearly did not want was tax exempt entities like CalPERS and Oregon PERS taking a greater share in profits in lieu of trading unusable tax deductions, deductions they were not entitled to  as a tax exempt entity.  A related specific purpose of the rule was to provide a disincentive to do leveraged buyouts, thereby capturing large interest expense deductions and allowing taxable partners to avoid all tax on their profits.   And while Congress debates whether or not to levy ordinary income or capital gain tax rates on private equity managers, it is conceivable that a tax rate of 75 percent could still result in no tax being paid by general taxable partners such as Blackstone’s Schwarzman.

Many creative and aggressive tax strategies have been adopted by large law and accounting firms to try to get around this fractions rule.   These firms, once referred to as the Big 8, yet now the “Final 4,” all have large divisions focused on hedge funds, private equity and transfer pricing related strategies, to minimize taxation.  In addition to being Blackstone’s auditor, Deloitte is also the auditor of record for Oregon’s private equity portfolio.

The question becomes, are the taxable partners at Blackstone using capitalized carry fees and aggressive transfer pricing rules to avoid all taxation?  My practice includes roughly 20 PERS participants here in Oregon and I made a public records request for Blackstone, KKR and TPG’s K-1 partnership filings, yet was told that Oregon does not receive them for most partnerships and for those it does, maintains no file of them.

Remarkably, the Oregon Attorney General’s office adopted the philosphy that since Oregon PERS is tax exempt they need not ask for nor review this critical document reported to the IRS, but rather rely exclusively on documents prepared by Blackstone, KKR and TPG for information.  For this reason the OIC does not even maintain files for K-1’s in general.  This is somewhat ironic since the current Chair of the Council is Harry Demorest, former managing partner of Arthur Andersen’s Portland Office.  Demorest  managed the tax practice at Arthur Andersen before assuming control over the entire office and clearly if anyone should understand the importance of receiving a K-1, it is Demorest.  Another council member, Richard Solomon, is also a practicing CPA.

The following are samples of the few K-1’s they maintain at Oregon PERS.  They are for KKR and TPG  and were obtained via public information request.  When asked for a simple description regarding the accounting treatment for carry fees, which do not appear directly on these K-1’s as capital transfers,  the Treasurer’s office refused to provide this information.

One obvious question is why the K-1 capital accounts are so low in relation to the publicly available investment summary by partnership.  Many things could explain this yet where is the basic transparency.  And why won’t the Oregon Investment Council even disclose the accounting treatment they are using for the significant carry fees being paid to general partners?  Also of interest is perhaps that KKR’s K-1 is done on a “tax books” basis while TPG uses GAAP accounting.

One could argue that tax exempt investors have nothing to gain from receiving a K-1, yet that is simply ridiculous.  The K-1 is a key document that includes information regarding values, distributions, etc.  My guess is that this is prevalent among public pensions and would it not be interesting to compare the K-1’s provided to taxable partners to those provided to tax exempt partners?

These private equity firms are famous for providing a wide range of “figures” on key reports and related valuations.   The Financial Times, (see summary visual) has reported that Blackstone valued one  investment at 125 percent higher than TPG when even though this investment is in the latter company for an equal amount.   These valuations are critical because they drive transfer pricing, related deductions and allocations, etc.

Goldman Sachs even has its own internal specialized exchange which values private equity interests and is where many such private equity interests are bought and sold.  It is called the GSTrUE system and is only accessible on approved Bloomberg terminals.  Remarkably, not even the Institutional Trading areas at TD Ameritrade or Charles Schwab have access.  Perhaps this “dark exchange” needs a little daylight cast, especially since the biggest investors in such partnerships are taxpayers via the various public pension systems.

Let’s face it, taxes can be boring yet this discussion is important to all investors given that the current level of “buyouts” is removing many quality investments from the market that are later loaded up with debt so that the private equity firms can more quickly earn their “carry fees,” which are generally 20 percent of all profits after returning the original investment to partners.   What also results is a job destruction machine that undermines the economy and stability of the financial markets, not to mention the tax base.  Most importantly, this undermines investor confidence with the perception that investing has become an insiders’ game of manipulation.

Here is a summary of a few potential “discussion issues” to consider affecting just one private equity firm, Blackstone.

1)  The CEO of Blackstone Tony James noted in a public meeting in Oregon that Blackstone options are being used in exchange for unvested options for various purposes, including attracting key management talent.   He also noted that Blackstone uses numerous internal “non-profit” cost centers to serve its various portfolio companies in the subsidiary partnerships, many of which have tax exempt investors.   The question becomes how this impacts transfer pricing and the allocation of valuable tax deductions.

One related question is the following: by manipulating the cost of products and services provided to portfolio companies, are they essentially creating compensation related carry/stock option tax deductions at the Blackstone level to be allocated to taxable partners, when they belong to tax exempt investors and should be unusable?

2)  Blackstone’s 10K for the period ending 12/31/2009 does not disclose what would be material adjustments for disallowed equity compensation deductions belonging to tax exempt investors.  These pertain to equity compensation in which the executives provide services to portfolio companies.  At the July 2010 Oregon PERS  public meeting, James used the example of hiring Gerry Murphy of Kingfisher, one of the UK’s largest firms, by swapping his unvested options for Blackstone options.  James also highlighted the service Murphy provides to specific portfolio companies in the partnerships.

If Blackstone is creatively allocating expenses to its various partnerships, why hasn’t it disclosed the portion of this equity compensation and other related deductions which should be disallowed because they belong to tax exempt partners via an allocation of related expense.

Blocker corporations may solve their UBIT tax issues, yet the fractions rule must also be independently satisfied.

Many other related questions arise when exchanging options for firms acquired.  These deductions need to stay at the acquired firms, yet their value would have been created by the transfer of the Blackstone options, even if the Blackstone Group LP company is not taking a deduction.

Where is the disclosure in Blackstone’s 10K regarding the disallowed carry executive compensation expense?  The firm recognized almost $24 billion of such carry related compensation expense reducing its income by more than $3 billion in 2009.

3)  The Blackstone 12/31/2009 10K displays the line item stating “non-cash equity compensation” of $3 billion.  This resulted in a net loss as shown of approximately $2.4 billion in 2009.

If this entire amount of equity based compensation listed above pertains to a tax deduction, as it usually does with respect to such a line item on a “cash flow statement,” this would imply that Blackstone pays no federal income tax for activity in 2009.

Granted they may indeed pay tax related to other areas, for example, property tax, timing differences from prior year.  The key question becomes, how much of this equity compensation amount pertains to services provided to portfolio companies and what part should be disallowed given that the portfolio company is now partly owned by a tax exempt entity?   Also, is this a material omission by Blackstone’s auditor, Deloitte?

4)  The Chair of the Section on Taxation for the American Bar Association wrote the following letter directly to the IRS commissioner Doug Shulman on January 19, 2010 concerning partnership allocations permitted under section 514(c)(9)(E).    What he is specifically asking for is a revenue ruling to permit more aggressive strategies with respect to the allocation rules regarding partnerships with tax exempt entities, i.e, violating the spirit of the fractions rule.  The entire letter with extensive comments can be accessed on-line with a Google search.

Following the letter in this blog post is a list of clients for the lawyer whose firm King &  Spalding was a key contributor in authoring the letter.

The key attorneys noted as contacts involved with drafting this letter to IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman on behalf of the American Bar Association are the following.

In a testament to their legal prowess, the first attorney noted works for King & Spalding, a firm that lists three of the four largest CPA firms, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Ernst & Young and KPMG as  clients, along with Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

At the same time the ABA is seeking a revenue ruling waiver from the IRS, the private equity and hedge fund industries are pursuing a simultaneous track in Congress.  This was introduced in the 110th Congress and reintroduced as H.R.3497 in the 111th Congress.  Both bills are sponsored by Sanford Levin of Michigan (not to be confused with younger brother Carl Levin in the U.S. Senate).   H.R. 3497 has only three co-sponsors and has been referred to the appropriations committee where Sanford Levin is chairman.

Perhaps most interesting is that at the same time U.S. Representative Sanford Levin is introducing a bill that could dilute the fractions rule, he is also introducing another bill, H.R. 1935, to tax private equity partners at ordinary income rates.  The irony is that his one bill, H.R. 3497, could indeed result in no tax, regardless of the rate.

Meanwhile his younger brother Carl Levin is co-sponsoring a bill with Jeff Merkley of Oregon designed to help states avoid teacher layoffs.  Carl Levin has also been a leader in the effort to reform stock option accounting.  It is unfortunate that a key driver in the funding gap in state governments is increased Public Employee Retirement System contributions due to significant investment losses and concern over the lack of liquidity with respect to their private equity portfolios.

I have some simple advice for the current administration.  Aggressively enforce the fractions rule and prohibit tax exempt organizations from using blocker corporations or any other vehicle that ultimately results in a leveraged buyout within three years of a firms’ acquisition by a partnership in which they participate.  If we simply eliminate the fuel for these senseless takeovers, that is tax exempt pension and endowment money, we’ll go a long way toward protecting good companies along with their employees and current investors.

For those of you wanting to enjoy a little Sunshine and rub shoulders with Wayne Pressgrove and other key voices from the American Bar Association in this debate, including leaders at the Internal Revenue Service, consider attending the upcoming conference in January at the Boca Raton resort.  Details are provided below.  Perhaps it is somewhat ironic that indeed the Blackstone Group now owns the Boca Raton resort via one of its real estate partnerships.

Perhaps also ironic is that Blackstone’s novel approach of issuing a publicly traded security on the New York Stock Exchange, one that is not a stock but rather a partnership allowing tax benefits to flow directly to general partners, may afterall allow many of those same benefits, if indeed such deductions lack economic substance, to flow right back to the Treasury.   For taxpayers, both individuals looking at higher rates and corporate alike, including the likes of Warren Buffett who has roundly criticizes this structure,  this could amount to “sweet justice.”

Perhaps my alma matter, the University of Oregon, may indeed set a good precedent by defeating the Auburn Tigers, Pressgrove’s alma matter, the week prior in the BCS championship series.  Spending several hours putting this post together should allow me at least a little comic relief 🙂

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