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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.

Burlington Northern receives more than one-third of its gross revenues from the shipment of coal and also carries more than 80 percent of the oil transported by rail in the United States.  Pacific Power’s primary source of energy is coal.

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Below is the link to a press release by Parish & Company in October 2005 which was provided to Berkshire Hathaway’s David Sokol and Warren Buffet for review.

Warren Buffett Dupes Intel with Ingenious Tax Scheme

In typical Buffett fashion, he is providing assurances to “top management,” what some might call insider dealing,  with inevitable devastating cost cuts to follow in mid management along with significant outsourcing to related companies and aggressive use of tax havens. Not to mention erasing long-term oriented shareholder gains as investors are forced to sell the stock.  One can also expect Berkshire Hathaway to use a related subsidiary to loan Precision funds at a rate significantly higher than market rates, that’s the Buffett formula.

The legal team representing Precision Castparts and its shareholders consists of Portland based Stoel Rives, the state’s largest law firm that was also intimately involved in Enron’s affairs prior to its demise, and New York based Swain Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP.

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SEC Chair Mary Jo White’s husband John White is a senior partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP. Most large law firms are now living off merger and acquisition fees and those that are doing straight up legal work have been decimated from a loss of clients due to such consolidations.

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SEC Chair Mary Jo White              John White, Cravath Partner

As a former CPA and auditor I can attest that independence must be achieved both in “appearance” and “in fact,”   the most fundamental principle of auditing. That is a standard question on the CPA exam yet sadly it is impossible  for SEC Chair White to meet.

This is not some small merger or takeover but rather the biggest deal in Berkshire Hathaway’s history and one that will greatly impact the tax base in Portland, Oregon as jobs are cut and outsourcing accelerated.   Police, fire and school budgets will be greatly impacted.

The question is, how on earth are such inside deals between top management and takeover artists like Buffett being tolerated by the SEC?  Put another way, who is advocating for ordinary investors in Precision Castparts?  Remarkably, there has been almost no public discussion of this “deal” between top management at Precision and Buffett, expected to close in early 2016.

And where  is the SEC, the “Investors Advocate,” whose job it is to protect ordinary investors interests.  Granted, the workload for the SEC is staggering, and made more difficult by Buffett’s control of the media.  News coverage has in fact ceased largely due to Buffett’s enormous media clout, which includes his ownership of Business Wire, numerous newspapers and other media channels, not to mention vast advertising budgets capacity to influence news decisions.

White’s job at the SEC is difficult indeed.  For example, last month the Oregonian ran a lead editorial against the “fiduciary standard,”  openly challenging an important SEC initiative White is advocating.  Former SEC Chair Arthur Levitt, on the boards of both Bloomberg and the Carlyle Group, has called failure to establish this standard a “national disgrace.”

Buffett is clearly a political genius.  Rarely discussed is that his father was an influential four term Republican Congressman from Nebraska, who also chaired Taft’s Presidential campaign in the 1950’s.  No one could have started their career more politically connected.

And here in Oregon the joke is that he owns the State Legislature along with taking control of the Governor’s office with the ascension of Kate Brown after popular four term Governor, John Kitzhaber, was run out of office over a scandal regarding his partner’s advocacy of “clean energy.”

Hayes was not a state employee yet emails indicated she was actively acting as if she were. Of course this is nothing new for spouses of public officials.  What really put Kitzhaber’s demise on overdrive was charges against Hayes of tax fraud, specifically, not reporting her consulting income on behalf of clean energy non-profits.

These charges were completely made up and a gross breach of journalistic ethics given that Hayes released her 1040 showing net consulting income yet never provided a schedule C, which would show gross consulting income along with all her various expenses.  Reporters essentially took the net income amount on the 1040, compared it to publicly disclosed gross revenues from consulting contracts, and claimed tax evasion in several major front page stories and editorials.

How do I know this?  I was asked the by key journalist involved, as often is the case, to review the tax returns for major public officials.  In this case I was provided the returns by Nigel Jaquiss of the Willamette Week, completed the review, and clearly indicated there was nothing there.  Nigel followed up with a thoughtful analysis, highlighting net business income.  Sadly, other reporters at major publications then took this “net” number and compared it to the publicly revealed gross consulting revenues and ran major front page stories and editorials, almost on a daily basis, essentially charging Hayes with criminal tax evasion.

What never came out is the Kitzhaber and Hayes filed separate returns in which he used a local CPA firm and Hayes returns were “self prepared.”  Rather than give Hayes the benefit of the doubt and let the IRS do their job, as should be the case with any citizen, public or private, she was crucified in the media and remarkably no one came to Kitzhaber’s defense.

And once the new Governor Kate Brown stepped in, her first major action was to try and bargain away the “clean energy” bill for a transportation funding package.  And who would be the single biggest beneficiary, that’s right, King Coal Warren Buffett.

Bravo Warren!  You are amazing?

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Investment advisors like myself who walk the walk with respect to long term oriented investment rely on the SEC to function as the “investor’s advocate.”  That is all investors, not just takeover artists like Buffett who have never created anything but rather specialize in inside deals with top management, appeasing shareholders with a short term spike in the stock price and then gutting companies, as was done with Heinz, Burlington Northern and Pacific Power.

One could argue that this takeover should be denied on national security grounds given Precision Castparts key role in the aerospace industry and Buffett’s inability to manage companies in which true innovation is required.  Similarly, if the national power grid is a strategic issue, how can we rely on Buffett to make the key decisions required for security when all he seems to know how to do is gut companies and then thrive on corporate welfare.   And while he boasts about the cash flow Burlington Northern is generated, businesses suffer from gross neglect and related bottlenecks in the rail system.

In 2015 Buffett boasted in a front page Barron’s story that he and his Brazilian private equity partners made $22 billion in the first two years after his $25 billion takeover of Heinz.  Long term Heinz shareholders were stuck with a tax bill and dedicated employees and vendors were betrayed.  Buffett creates one debacle after another yet the media never seems to provide coverage.

Meanwhile here in Oregon the $80 billion state pension fund managers have said nothing about the takeover of Precision Castparts.  They perceive their role as narrow and only related to returns on portfolio investments.  One could argue however that the PERS system needs a strong tax base, in addition to returns on the existing portfolio.   A tax base being decimated by such takeovers.

Oregon PERS was the original large outside investor in KKR and has large investments in both hedge and private equity funds, including KKR, TPG and Blackstone.  These firms make tax evasion a science by gaming residency via tax havens ranging from the Caymen Islands to the UK.

It is ironic that the chair of the Oregon Investment Council, Katy Durant, has not clarified if she is a full resident of the State of Oregon for tax purposes, not only for W-2 wages but also investment income.   Perhaps that is where tax reform should begin, that is, full disclosure regarding tax residency for public officials and for publicly traded companies a footnote that summarizes actual taxes paid, the specific type of tax whether state, federal, property, etc.  and the years to which the taxes paid apply.  This would be great information for investors, advisors like myself and other stakeholders.  In addition, it would meet the spirit of the SEC rules.

A likely impact would be fewer takeovers of companies vital to the economy, like Precision Castparts, leading to stronger local schools and services and better long term returns for investors as tax receipts stabilize.  Put another way, go home Warren.  Enough of the “big con.”

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Sondland is a major real estate developer with numerous points of intersection with real estate investments made by the Oregon Investment Council.   He was also the most ardent opponent of a convention center hotel in Portland,  fearful it would compete with his existing properties, yet when the city finally crossed a legal threshold making it a reality, Sondland proposed that his firm handle the contract.

Even though private equity and hedge funds have produced poor returns for years, the Oregon Investment Council under has dramatically increased investment in this area under Durant with TPG, KKR and Blackstone being three of the primary beneficiaries.

 

 

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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.”

In the old days government entities would issue municipal bonds for such improvements in order to make sure the public interest is served with respect to keeping costs down.  One might question why Oregon PERS is investing in such projects via private equity firms rather than directly funding them via a firm specializing in this area working with the municipality?

This also highlights why it is so important for Oregon PERS to fully disclose carried interest fees and partnership audit reports to the public.  Key questions regarding Blackstone’s participation in 50 percent of the carried interest from the desalination project were simply not asked.  They include noting whether Blackstone has other businesses independent of Stonepeak with a stake in the project,  etc.

Put another way, more disclosure of private equity and hedge fund fees is important, not only with respect to their own funds yet also in terms of how much these funds have allocated fees to outside supposedly independent firms like Blackstone, especially if they come in the form of stock options.  At a minimum, Stonepeak should update its SEC ADV filing noting that Blackstone has a material participation in its largest project.

Remarkably, one of Stonepeak’s principal equity owners, per SEC filings, is TIAA-CREF.  Given that TIAA-CREF is tax exempt, along with Oregon PERS and most of the other limited partners, its not hard to see why tax rates are going up for the rest of us.  The overall corporate tax base is simply vanishing behind tax exempt status.

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Disclosure:  Intel is currently the largest single individual equity holding in both my personal and most of my clients’ portfolios.   No shares will be recommended for sale based upon this original research.

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Intel CEO Brian Krzanich

The purpose of this post, which will be accompanied with an email directly to top management, is to effect positive change and help Intel avoid an inevitable class action lawsuit by employees over mismanagement of its retirement plan.   Already Fidelity Investments itself and Massachusetts Mutual are subject to such lawsuits in which employees are claiming excessive fees and poor choices.  In both cases, employees are absolutely correct.

To be clear, it should be stated that the employee directed portion of the Intel pension plan is superb, in large part due to its open nature in which employees can invest in virtually anything via a brokerage equivalent account.  The problem is specific to the profit sharing and “Target Funds” portion, both of which have been infiltrated by hedge funds.

What Intel and many other firms still do not seem to fully realize is that these are essentially employee assets, not company assets.  And even though the company is managing the profit sharing component of the plan on behalf of employees, these are still “employee assets.”  Put more directly, within this plan lies the average employee’s life savings and allowing someone to speculate with them is an absolute breach of the ERISA prudent fiduciary requirement, Section 404C.

The problem is simple and involves Intel’s decision in 2011 to allocate 25 percent of its profit sharing and target related retirement options to a basket of approximately 25 hedge funds, affecting billions in employee retirement assets.   “Target funds” are popular with many investors today. The hedge funds that have infiltrated the pension plan include buyout funds, funds speculating on commodities, etc.

Not only do the hedge funds charge annual management fees 10 times higher than standard wholesale level fees for such plans, 1.5 percent versus .15 percent,  they also take 20 percent of all future profits on top of the management fees.   If Intel executives want to make such investments in their personal portfolios, that is one thing yet this level of institutional gambling with employees assets makes no sense.

Returns on these hedge funds greatly lagged the market in 2013 and while some advocates, including Mark Gardiner of Intel Capital, who until recently chaired the Oregon Investment Council’s $70 billion PERS portfolio, claim hedge funds are designed to outperform in more difficult markets,  there is no escaping that this is an absolute mess.  Oregon PERS is similarly aggressively increasing investments in speculative hedge funds.

Further complicating this issue is that Intel labels the hedge funds A thru V, not even having the courage to state exactly who they are in disclosures to employees, thus eliminating an opportunity for participant oversight.  For example, Fund C is a “Directional Fund” that invests in forwards and future commodity markets” while fund F is a “Technology based long/short fund.  Performance metrics include “sharpe” and “sorption” ratios, an explanation of which is not worth your nor my time.

Government Filings Reveal Specific Hedge Funds in Intel Plan

Government filings, not provided to Intel employees, reveal that these hedge funds include  the following (see complete listing at the end of this post):

**  HBK Investment OFF FD LTD Limited Partnership

HBK, whose office is listed as being in Dallas, Texas,  does do the required SEC ADV filing yet in its disclosure it claims it does not manage assets for pensions.  In addition, in the required ADV Part 2 filing it does not directly disclose its fee structure.   This is a clear breach of the SEC requirement, apparently no one at the SEC has looked at the disclosure.

Another complication for Intel is that it has not filed the required 990-T tax form to disclose what it owes in UBIT or unrelated business income tax from these pension based partnership investments.  This is a special tax on tax exempt entities, like pensions, who invest directly in operating businesses via private equity and hedge fund partnerships.  The way to avoid UBIT complications is to invest in publicly traded equities.

This 990-T filing is also designed to prevent tax exempts from trading valuable unusable tax deductions they are allocated in the partnerships to taxable partners who can fully use them.  The IRS rule that specifically prevents this trading of deductions is the “fractions rule.”  Today 95 percent of the investments dollars made into partnerships managed by the largest private equity and hedge funds is composed of tax exempt investors including pensions and endowments.    It is not hard to see the potential for abuse when such a large percentage of these valuable tax deductions being allocated remain unusable because they belong to tax exempts like the Intel pension plan.

Hedge funds may argue that they allocate tax deductions based upon the “economics of the deal,” what they call target allocations, which is simply a euphemism for allocating based upon cash flow, that is, who gets the cash.    It is as if they have invented a separate tax system for themselves, one playing by a different set of rules.   I might say, well, that is fine but there is this thing called the tax code and it does not define profitability based upon who gets the most cash.  Hedge funds primary source of cash is often issuing debt under its portfolio companies name and paying themselves rather than reinvesting in the business.  A leading company like Intel should have no role in enabling such a scheme.

The UBIT’s overall purpose is to maintain a level playing field in commerce and prevent pensions from running active businesses via a partnership structure within the tax exempt structure and allow the business to avoid all tax.  While Intel might claim that there was no UBIT tax generated in any of its 25 hedge fund partnerships,  that is extremely unlikely, some might say ridiculous.

Why Fixing the Pension is More Important Than Quarterly Earnings

Intel is a great company, perhaps the most critical industrial firm based in the U.S.   Often forgotten is the scale of manufacturing Intel does at home and the remarkable peripheral benefits that occur, both in seeding new companies and supporting government services at all levels.

In contrast Google and Facebook are wholly structured based upon a desire to sell personal privacy, using ridiculous tax schemes to avoid tax and accumulate cash for acquiring companies and stifling both innovation and competition.  Some would argue these tax schemes should be considered criminal.  Apple engages in similar tax schemes and metes out punishment to any publication that dare disclose how it conducts its business, particularly in China.

In contrast to Google, Facebook and Apple,  Intel stands as a beacon of integrity and opportunity.

While most analysts will focus intently on Intel’s earnings, to be announced later today, of much greater interest to long term oriented investors like myself should be how the company responds to these observations and more specifically how long it takes to remove hedge funds from its employee owned pension plans.

List of Hedge Funds in Intel Pension Plans

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Michael Dell Hopes SEC and IRS Are Sleeping

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What continually makes the United States the place to be with respect to investment is the expectation that, when all is said and done, the rule of law generally prevails.   One need only visit  China, Japan and Russia to see that markets are generally manipulated by insiders.

The big story regarding Michael Dell’s proposed private equity led buyout has yet to be told and it is all about gaming SEC rules designed to promote fairness toward all equity investors, not just a few insiders, and more importantly also gaming key IRS rules.  A few key points:

1)  Tech firms like Dell aggressively compete regarding strategic acquisitions and nothing speaks louder than “cash” or shares assumed to have the potential to appreciate.  For most tech firms the largest source of cash is remarkably non-payment of taxes.  This is due to the large stock option generated tax deductions with no corresponding outlay of cash, deductions associated with restricted stock, etc.  These firms do not generally purchase shares on the open market to fulfill such commitments but rather simply print up new stock.

Put another way, if you can generate a billion dollars of tax deductions, you can effectively reduce your tax bill by 350 million, which is nothing short of cold hard cash in the bank, if you are profitable.  The biggest such deductions come from the issuance of stock or large write-downs of assets, for which there is no cash cost to the company.

If one compares Dell to Apple and Google it doesn’t take long to see that Apple and Google have been veritable tax deduction making machines via the issuance of non-qualified stock options.  Consider the following analysis based upon each companies most recently released 10K reports.  Also consider that large exercises in options at Apple and Google in the last 5 years have generated staggering tax deductions while Dell has generated little.

One could even argue that the whole anti-trust action against Google was misdirected in that the focus should instead be on tax rules that have created a situation in which they are relatively immune to competition.  What tax paying publishing company could possible compete with a firm like Google that “coins” cash, to quote Henry Blodget,  in the form of non-payment of taxes.

Although Apple did not issue any options in 2012, it like Google and Dell, is aggressively issuing Restricted Stock to employees.  Again, there is no “cash” cost to this since it is simply new stock being printed up.  In the old days such stock would be purchased on the open market, resulting in a cash outlay,  yet now it is just printed up.  Consider the following:

Dell Apple Google
Stock Price 2/5/2013        13.5       457.8        765.7
Average Option Exercise Price 25.4 127.5 405.9
Potential Tax Deduction per Share -11.9 330.3 359.7
Options Outstanding 143M 6.5M 8.5M

The key point is that Dell is so underwater with its options that it can’t play the game any longer.  What they need to do is go private, take a massive write-down and revalue the shares lower to create lower strike prices.

Management can then issue two classes of options, not unlike what Bain Capital has done with respect to its own employees participation in deals.  One class will have a greatly reduced exercise price that will accordingly result in massive tax deductions when exercised in a subsequent IPO, when Dell is taken public again.

The beauty of this well worn scheme is that the amount expensed for the options is declared when granted, not when exercised.  This often results in a tax deduction upon exercise years later that are ten times as great as the expense recognized.

If Dell is taken private such deductions can then be allocated among Dell and other taxable private equity partners and result in effective tax rates of close to zero.  This is because many private equity firms have tax exempt limited partners who have no use for tax deductions, examples being public pensions and foundations.   Tax deductions are unusable for tax exempts.

Those private equity firms like Silver Lake, whose largest limited partners are tax exempt investors, including Calpers that owns 10 percent of Silver Lake outright, use well worn schemes to allocate these deductions away from tax exempts, contrary to IRS rules, in particular the “fractions rule.”  Remarkably, there is not only no discussion of this important rule but also no enforcement.

Other major tax exempt investors in Silver Lake include the New Jersey Public Pension System.   Is it not ironic that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie excoriated the Republican party leadership for its slow response in providing Hurricane Sandy relief while the State and other public pensions seek to profit at every turn from “buyout” funds?  Especially when these buyouts decimate the very tax base relied upon to support the public pension system.

In a perfect world Dell would  also take a massive writedown now, prior to the buyout, so that this important value could be captured and quantified, that is the future tax deduction resulting from the write down.  What Michael Dell wants to do is wait until after the buyout and pocket a larger share of any such deduction for himself.

Clear disclosure of all existing unused net operating losses able to be used in future years should also be prominently disclosed.

Overall, this is a brilliant plan and would be just another day at the office if this were Bejing, Moscow or Tokyo.   Let’s hope for the sake of long term shareholders that both the SEC and IRS give Mike a call and say,  “nice try.”

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One of the sacred tenets of good corporate governance is separating the roles of Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer.   This provides a critical oversight function with respect to the activities of the CEO.  Exhibit one supporting this concept is perhaps JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon’s role in the current multi billion dollar scandal regarding trading losses in its risk management unit.

Meanwhile over at Intel the current Chairman of the Board is former Chief Financial Officer Andy Bryant.  The CEO is Paul Otellini.   Otellini can run the business as he wishes yet he is accountable to the board and specifically Bryant.

At JP Morgan, Jamie Dimon, in a spectacle of abject arrogance, assumes both roles and is accountable to no one.  Even more remarkable is that JP Morgan, as one of the nation’s largest FDIC insured institutions, is putting taxpayers at risk by this breach of good governance.  It is noteworthy that JP Morgan could well have gone under in the recent crisis if the FDIC had not allowed it to assume Washington Mutual’s large deposit base while only assuming minimal liability with respect to its loan portfolio.

Further degrading good corporate governance principles is Dimon’s role as a board member on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, one of the banking industry’s primary regulators.  Clearly, Dimon should resign immediately and spend more time with his lawyers given the increasing scrutiny from the SEC, FBI and other regulatory agencies regarding the massive trading losses under his watch at JP Morgan.

Parish & Company has been a leading advocate of sound corporate governance for more than 15 years.

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In the world of chess being too aggressive at the outset, advancing too far, is perilous. For Romney, his refusal to acknowledge his aggressive financial engineering and tax avoidance strategies could indeed result in an open convention.  One in which the party is free to forward a higher quality candidate.

Here is a list of the facts surrounding the Reid Romney dispute:

1)  On July 20, 2012 I published a blog post noting for the first time that Mitt Romney has not filed the required 990-T form and paid the related UBIT tax with his 2010 tax return, nor has he made this required filing in prior years.   This filing is essential for tax exempt accounts, including IRAs, if they contain related business interests, what I call leveraged transactions in Romney’s case since Bain is an LBO firm.

Remarkably, these 990-T filings are all publicly available by law.  One need only write to the IRS, specify the taxpayer, and within 30 days you will receive a reply if these 990-T filings have been made.   My request regarding Romney applied from 1992-2011, 19 years, and the IRS confirmed none had been filed.

2)  On July 31, 2012 Harry Reid made a claim to the Huffington Post that Romney paid no taxes for more than 10 years.  While Romney may claim that he paid “lots of taxes,” Reid is technically correct in that he has failed to pay taxes on the largest share of his wealth, what is believed to be an IRA worth as much as $100 million, for more than 10 years.

3)  Romney’s only defense is to claim that all his Bain related IRA investments were through foreign blocker corporations, thereby using a loophole that eliminates the need to file the 990-T and pay the required UBIT tax.   Disclosing this of course proves Reid’s claim regarding him paying no taxes, even though he may have used a technically legal scheme.  It is unlikely the public will care that Romney paid other taxes when he has avoided significant required taxes on Bain deals in his largest asset, the IRA.

4)  Worse for Romney would be what is noted in the July 20, 2012 blog post, that being that many of his investments, in particular those in BCIP Trust Associates I and II, were via a Delaware Partnership, not availing him of the foreign blocker exemption.  SEC documents clearly indicate this is the case.  The most recent personal financial disclosure shows BCIP Trust Associates III in his IRA, a foreign blocker, yet previous filings show domestic partnerships.

Even more troubling for Romney would be any transfer of Bain interests from the Delaware based partnerships, non valid blockers, since domestic partnerships are fully subject to UBIT,  to foreign blocker corporations such as BCIP Trust Associates III, after the initial investment, that is re-characterizing the fundamental nature of the partnership.

5)  Prior to 2008 Bain Capital utilized a scheme involving SEP IRAs that allowed employees, including Romney, to invest in Bain deals.  My best guess is that Reid’s office asked someone at Bain to look at the July 20 blog post and they confirmed that while at Bain they also filed no 990-Ts.  What this means, since the SEP is a company sponsored plan,  is that no one likely made the required filing, including Romney.  This simply confirms my original analysis.

Reid therefore stands on sound footing with his claim and the Romney campaign is foolishly self destructing by not coming clean and clarifying the issue.

Romney should step up, say they have a problem and commit to fixing it, but this of course would cost his fellow associates at Bain a bundle in back taxes.

Observing this conflict between Reid and Romney,  Paul Volcker comes to mind.  In particular Volcker’s assertion that engineering belongs in product development, not finance.

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The following letter was sent to SEC Chair Mary Schapiro and IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman on “tax day” with the hope they will jointly work at restoring the integrity of cash flow statements, without question the most important analytical tool for investment advisors like myself.  It is simply astonishing, given their material nature, that listed companies are not fully disclosing purchased and accumulated net operating losses nor the impact of complying with the “fractions rule” in the case of private equity partnerships.

 

Parish & Company
10260 S.W. Greenburg Rd., Suite 400
Portland, OR 97223
Tel:(503)643-6999 Fax:(503)293-3507
Email: bill@billparish.com

April 15, 2011

Mary Schapiro
Office of the Chairman
Securities and Exchange Commission
Mail Stop 1070
100 F Street NE
Washington, D.C. 20549

cc: Elise B. Walter – SEC Commissioner
Troy A. Parades – SEC Commissioner
Robert Khuzami – SEC Director
Doug Shulman – IRS Commissioner
Heather Maloy – IRS Commissioner Large Business Division
Walter Harris – IRS Director Financial Services
Elise Bean – Congressional Oversight Committee

Dear Chair Schapiro,

In 15 years as an investment advisor I have always done my best to support the SEC’s work, having led many key corporate governance related initiatives. Past Chairs Levitt, Pitt and Donaldson are all familiar with my work, which has also been reported in front page stories in leading publications including Bloomberg, the New York Times, Barrons and USA Today.

The purpose of this letter today is to alert you directly to an alarming trend with respect to the rapidly eroding integrity of cash flow statements filed with the commission. The culprit is non-disclosure of important tax related transactions involving material net operating losses, in addition to compensation and related expense allocations subject to the “fractions rule”and NOL loss limitation rules that are material to past, present and future cash flows involving publicly traded partnerships, such as Blackstone, in which tax exempt investors participate. The NOL related limitation issues are also a significant issue in mergers and buyouts of public companies.

Back in late 1999 when I provided original research to Gretchen Morgenson, David Cay Johnston and Floyd Norris of the NY Times regarding how Microsoft paid no federal income tax I was told that this was ridiculous. You discredit your excellent work by saying such a thing, Morgenson added. Six months later she did a front page story outlining the scheme involving the issuance of NQ stock options. Similarly Bob Herdman, Chief Operating Officer at the Commission, thought the idea ridiculous at first.

While everyone was focused on the future dilution of options, my focus was instead on the historic tax based cash flow impact of options. What made this original research possible was a cash flow statement that analyzed cash flow and, in conjunction with footnotes, provided a good general idea of tax related impacts.

More recently, since last summer, I have tried to get the NY Times to do a story on how major private equity and hedge funds may indeed be escaping taxation completely via gaming carried interest deductions in violation of two key IRS reforms established by former President Reagan, the “fractions rule”and limitations on purchased NOLs.

The Times chose to focus on publicly traded GE and in their story never fully highlighted how GE is using NOLs. How could the Times put their reputation on the line based upon my work without adequate SEC disclosure? Also interesting to note is that at one time over the last two years, one private equity firm, Harbinger, owned more than 10 percent of the NY Times. Similarly, per Yahoo finance, JP Morgan owns almost 10 percent of Gannett, parent to USA today.

Media consolidation and outright ownership of media by major financial institutions, including private equity and hedge funds that have bitterly fought to undermine both the SEC’s and IRS efforts, has complicated this task. Perhaps now is a good time for the SEC and IRS to be more vigilant and oriented at making news aimed at solving fundamental problems before they accumulate and lead to major market problems. While leading attorneys at major law firms representing the private equity crowd enjoy great access with top officials via conferences and other venues, independent advisors like myself with a distinguished record can barely get a phone call returned.

GE was low hanging “media fruit” so to speak. Clearly the much bigger issue is that involving the takeover of public companies by private equity and hedge funds, effectively converting these formerly tax paying entities to the equivalent of tax exempts using NQ option and carried interest schemes resulting in an NOL pyramid scheme. Again, the bulk of these NOLs were never cash expenses but simply NQ options and carried interest.

If these private equity and hedge funds were indeed catering only to affluent investors that would be fine yet today many of these organizations receive most of their funding from public pensions. I have written about this extensively over the last 5-7 years and pushed hard to get the concept behind carry fees fully understood and disclosed. Again, numerous examples of this work appear in major publications.

One of the big lessons of the dot.com era was the need for the SEC to collaborate more with the Federal Reserve and see the economic impact of accounting irregularities. Most notable of course back then were merger and stock option accounting related issues. Former San Francisco Fed President Robert Parry told me, look Bill, “accounting issues were not in the fed’s purview” in late 1999. This was when the market was more focused upon whether Alan Greenspan took a bath before a meeting of the Federal Reserve.

The key lesson in the recent crisis involving mortgage financing and related derivatives was of course that conflicts of interest with key regulators and rating agencies can lead to similarly disastrous results. If Moody’s had done their job, we would have had no crisis. Also germane was the impact of top government officials such as Robert Rubin moving to industry and aggressively attacking important safeguards, Glass-Steagall in his case.

The reason I have copied your former colleague at FINRA, current IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman, is that to date there has been almost no discussion regarding how tax policy played a major role in both crises and in my opinion, with the proposed repeal of the fractions rule, could ignite the next. My work in this area goes back to 1999.

My hope is that you will work together to restore integrity in what is clearly the most important disclosure of all for any public company, the cash flow statement and related footnotes. Doing so will also greatly enhance overall tax equity, in my judgement. The notion that major tax related impacts not be disclosed is a significant fraud upon all statement users and puts the whole system at risk.

More specifically, someone at the Treasury has proposed repealing the fractions rule in the 2012 revenue guidelines. To that, I only have the following thoughts: Robert Rubin/Glass-Steagall; Wendy Graham/Derivatives Deregulation. It is absolutely ridiculous when it was such an important reform and there has been almost no enforcement of it for years, perhaps not unlike mortgage underwriting standards. The industry failed in Congress and failed to get an American Bar Association sponsored revenue ruling ,yet now it the Treasury itself advocating the repeal of the fractions rule.

While some companies will argue rightfully that tax returns are private and not required to be disclosed, such material NOL and “fractions rule” related information must be disclosed when public firms are taken private or in the event of significant sales or mergers. This is fundamental accounting 101. Some would add that failure to do so is the very essence of fraud because it fuels the notion that investing is an insider’s game. What it also does is allow problems to accumulate and ultimately exacerbate major problems in the market.

These cash flow based disclosures are vital information to an SEC Registered advisor like myself, and other investors. And for the last couple of years I have found increasing frustration in dealing with leading journalists because they are simply not getting the mandatory public disclosure required to corroborate my research findings and forward key corporate governance initiatives.

A good recent example is the General Electric sale of NBC to Comcast. So why do these two completely independent firms get to “game the system” with respect to the allocation of net operating losses belonging to GE via a special allocation partnership, subsequent to a sale of the business? One might ask, is this a fraud upon taxpayers, investors, both or simply much ado about nothing? When I make such an observation to a leading journalist, they need to be able to see a footnote that confirms or refutes my claim. This is as basic as corroborating total revenues per the income statement.

It is understandable that many journalists have expressed no interest in covering the proposed repeal of the “fractions rule,”simply because they don’t understand it. The reason of course is that these public partnership firms are not providing adequate disclosure to the SEC. In addition, something appears very amiss at the Treasury department. Who is behind this repeal, really? If you do a search of Blackstone’s 10K you will find no references to the fractions rule, nor related financial adjustments made to confirm to it. Similarly, no one at the Internal Revenue Service is willing to discuss this. (See attached letter to Curt Wilson, Associate General Counsel Passthroughs at the IRS).

At https://billparish.wordpress.com you can also see a blogpost that features a brief audio, taken from an American Bar Association Conference in which one of the nations leading attorneys, Sanford Presant, explains how investors received $7 in tax deductions for each $1 invested prior to the fractions rule. Also included is a brief audio clip from a top IRS official, Curt Wilson, who volunteered to sit on a panel, noting he sees no enforcement issues with the “fractions rule.”

How can we transfer our angst over the fractions rule to you,”a King and Spaulding attorney asked the IRS’s Wilson? Wilson later told me that the fractions rule was not being considered for repeal yet it is now in the 2012 Revenue Guidelines for repeal. Wilson will not confirm who is involved in the repeal nor its specifics. Again, in my mind this will be the genesis of a crisis if not prevented, similar to the repeal of Glass-Steagall or the rules regarding derivatives trading.

Per my analysis, firms with inadequate cash flow disclosure to the commission with respect to NOL and fractions rule related considerations include, but are not limited to Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, General Electric, Comcast, Blackstone, KKR, TPG (via acquisitions including J Crew since TPG is not publicly traded), Apollo and Fortress.

For example, if Blackstone is going to purchase a publicly traded company and thereby assumes significant accumulated NOLs, those valuable NOLs must be disclosed fully to existing shareholders prior to a sale. In addition, the same partnership must disclose the impact of the fractions rule, specifically, how much of the deductions cannot be taken due to having tax exempt investors in the purchasing partnership. Such investors often represent more than 80 percent of all funds in major private equity partnerships.

Also relevant are the limitations on the deductibility of purchased NOLs, and whether they are being fully deducted using a reverse scheme, in which an entity with significant NOLs purchases a firm paying significant taxes, thereby escaping the required amortization reform put forth by Reagen. My original research identified this scheme in 2001 subsequent to the takeover of Time Warner by AOL.

It is not enough to say, we need not disclose such information since it is an item on our tax return. Full disclosure and materiality mandate such disclosure of material tax driven cash flow items directly on the cash flow statement or in the footnotes.

In another example, if TPG purchases J Crew and by doing so receives $1 billion in net operating losses, a large part of which are tax deductions created from stock options, how are these valuable net operating losses treated. These expenses never resulted in a cash outlay, and if the partnership at TPG buying J Crew has 80 percent tax exempt investors, are these NOLs being stripped away in violation of the fractions rule prior to being put in the partnership? And, if so, is this not a violation of the fractions rule resulting in a LILO like leasing doubling up of tax deductions for taxable general partners, etc?

One could argue such non-disclosure to the SEC is manufacturing a tax deduction pyramid or flipping scheme in which private equity firms take companies private, public, private again and then public. Each time creating staggering NOLs in the form of stock option or carried interest deductions, not resulting from an outlay of cash for equipment or wages, but rather a paper tax deduction pyramid scheme.

Regarding Blackstone, another potential issue includes the valuation of partnership interests that create valuable tax deductions? Are these straight up or are they the equivalent of a stock option back dating scheme being used that is aimed to increase tax deductions by awarding such units at artificially low strike prices, achieving the same impact as backdating? Of course tax exempt partners may not care, yet what of the future cash flow impact for public unit holders? In reviewing the history and Blackstone’s limited public disclosure, something just does not look right, in my opinion.

Furthermore, if Blackstone executives exchange unvested NQ options with Blackstone partnership units based upon carried interest, the strike price value difference between each should be fully disclosed to shareholders, not simply in aggregate.

In my original research on stock options back in 1999 I often noted this backdating impact and was simply amazed that at the time there was no concern. It was sad to see how this developed into a legal feed bucket for law firms that never acknowledged the most damaging part of the scheme, that being the creation of a tax deduction pyramid scheme.

In 2000, I arranged a related story on this for Gretchen Morgenson of the NY Times involving two employees at Microsoft who expressed an interest in becoming clients. I tentatively agreed to accept them as clients only if they were willing to discuss their situation with Morgenson given the important tax governance related involving their situation. Similarly, Morgenson agreed that, if she did the story, she would mention my simple idea regarding a pivotal tax reform.

The couple had exercised options but failed to sell shares to pay the tax until they filed their return several months later. The subsequent drop in Microsoft’s stock price left them with a large tax bill and insufficient assets to pay the tax. I had expected that the story, which appeared on the front page, would include my comment that the IRS provide a one-time adjustment in such situations, provided the total options were less than x in value. Unfortunately the comment did not appear yet it was however recognized as a key story with Morgenson being awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

My guess is that the Times advertisers, including Microsoft and Cisco Systems, did not want the story done because if employees were allowed to “look back” on a one time basis, this would clearly eliminate the tax deduction the companies were taking. More centrally, it would challenge the stability of this innovative tax deduction pyramid scheme that began with NQ options and has now morphed into carried interest.

Of course this is particularly germane if a CEO orchestrates the sale of a public company and stays on with the private equity firm as a shareholder. Perhaps Tony James, Blackstone’s president, put it best by saying,“Now we can just exchange the unvested portion of an executive’s NQ options with our partnerships units and not expend valuable cash in order to bring them on board and get the deal done.” You can see this summarized at https://billparish.wordpress.com in two blog posts. One is dated August 2010 and the second March 31, 2011. Both provide important background for this letter.

I spoke with Mark Zehner in your office about this issue last fall, specific to the fractions rule, and frankly must reflect significant disappointment at the lack of follow up, especially given the stellar work he did in the municipal finance area. This is not a UBTI driven issue unique to tax exempt investors in public partnerships but rather an assault on the basic integrity of“the key financial statement” used by advisors like myself to analyze the merits of a particular investment opportunity, the cash flow statement.

We all want the economy to turn around, yet in my opinion, that will only happen when integrity and confidence are restored to the cash flow statement. Doing so will allow numerous peripheral areas to self correct ranging from capital flows to overall tax equity.

Thank you for considering these thoughts and of course I will make myself available for follow up commentary. The opportunity to develop some level of dialogue with the commission would be much appreciated. This could include someone at the commission suggesting I be invited to speak at a major conference, etc.

Sincerely,

Bill Parish

** Blog posts and related audio clips at https://billparish.wordpress.com

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