We are frequently asked by our fund manager clients about what tax issues they should consider when forming a new venture capital fund or investing in portfolio companies. In this post, we outline a few key considerations for fund managers, highlighting changes included in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (the “TCJA”). This post is limited to U.S. federal income tax considerations, but state, local and non-U.S. tax considerations may also apply to situations discussed below and should be considered where applicable.
Three Year Holding Period for Carried Interest
This blog has previously discussed how to structure a fund manager’s carried interest, meaning the contractual right of a fund manager to receive a percentage of the fund’s profits that is unrelated to any capital commitment. Prior to the enactment of the TCJA, both carried interest holders and capital interest holders were entitled to long-term capital gains rates (for individuals, generally 23.8% at the federal level) on gain from the sale of a portfolio company held longer than one year. However, the TCJA introduced a new three-year holding period requirement solely applicable to carried interest in the fund context. If an investment fund holds stock in a portfolio company for three years or less and sells it at a gain, the fund manager will now be taxed on its share of the gain allocated in respect of its carried interest at short-term capital gains rates (for individuals, as high as 40.8% at the federal level).
In order to mitigate the impact of the new three-year holding period, many fund agreements drafted after the enactment of the TCJA provide fund managers with the option to waive their right to receive carried interest from an investment that does not meet the three-year holding period. In return, fund managers have a right to receive a corresponding increased amount of future appreciation in investments that do meet the three-year holding period requirement. In ideal circumstances, this would permit a fund manager to achieve the same results economically while avoiding the higher tax imposed on short term capital gains. The waiver is typically drafted such that limited partner investors are generally not disadvantaged (e.g., the fund manager generally cannot waive interest or other ordinary income, or gain from the sale of investments held for one year or less). It should be noted, however, that this strategy involves inherent risks. Catch-up allocations of profits must derive from appreciation in portfolio company equity after the waiver is made, making the catch-up entirely contingent on future upside. There is no guarantee that the fund’s investments will continue to rise in value (or will rise in value in an amount equal to the waived carry), in which case the fund manager will not have new gains to completely (or partially) recover the waived carry. In addition, this structure has not been blessed by Treasury or the IRS, and may be subject to challenge by the IRS, or may be prohibited by future legislation. Nevertheless, managers we work with are somewhat regularly inserting this architecture in their existing and/or new partnership agreements and will decide whether to utilize the waiver depending on the facts at the time of an exit.
Passive Foreign Investment Companies
U.S. investors in non-U.S. corporations that are classified as passive foreign investment companies (“PFICs”) are subject to special anti-deferral rules under U.S. federal income tax law.
At a high level, a foreign corporation is a PFIC if either 50% or more of the foreign corporation’s assets are passive assets (such as cash, securities, or certain intangible assets) or 75% or more of the foreign corporation’s grossincome is passive income (such as dividends, interest, and certain rents or royalties). Technology companies, life science companies, and other IP-driven companies are often categorized as PFICs because these businesses are less likely to generate any active income during the early stages of their life cycle but can often generate passive interest income.
Typically, a U.S. investor in a PFIC is required to recognize ordinary income instead of capital gain as well as interest charges upon a distribution from the PFIC or a disposition of its stock. These are harsh consequences that can significantly decrease an investor’s profits on an eventual disposition. However, a U.S. investor can avoid these consequences by making a “QEF Election”, which will cause the investor to be currently taxable on the net income of the PFIC (whether or not distributed). Many PFICs have little or no net income, so the practical cost of this election is often minimal. In addition, an investor with leverage may be able to negotiate for distributions from the PFIC in order to pay its tax liability.
When investing in a foreign corporation, it’s important for a U.S. fund to request covenants in the deal documents that require the foreign corporation to cooperate to manage any negative tax consequences to the U.S. fund (or its investors) that could result from the corporation being a PFIC. The foreign corporation should be required to consult with U.S. tax advisors to determine if it is a PFIC on a yearly basis. This can be a complicated analysis that requires detailed information about the corporation and the corporation’s shareholders. Accordingly, the foreign corporation is in the best position to make this determination. The deal documents should require that, if the foreign corporation determines that it is a PFIC, the foreign corporation will provide its U.S. investors with any information that they need in order to fulfill their tax reporting obligations or make a QEF Election. Taking these steps could help mitigate the negative consequences that otherwise arise from investing in a foreign corporation that is treated as a PFIC.
Controlled Foreign Corporations (CFCs) and Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income (GILTI)
U.S. investors in foreign corporations should also consider whether those corporations are classified as controlled foreign corporations (“CFCs”). A foreign corporation is a CFC if U.S. shareholders each owning at least 10% of the corporation’s voting power or value (“Significant U.S. Shareholders”) collectively own over 50% of the total combined voting power or value of the corporation’s stock. This determination is made by applying a complex constructive ownership regime, pursuant to which shareholders can be attributed ownership by certain related parties.
If a foreign corporation is a CFC, its Significant U.S. Shareholders will be taxed on their share of certain types of income of the CFC (whether or not distributed). In the past, CFCs were only taxed on certain types of income (known as “Subpart F Income”), which includes dividends, interest, and certain income generated from related party sales and services. However, the TCJA greatly expanded the scope of current taxation to Significant U.S. Shareholders by creating a new, shareholder-level tax based on the CFC’s global intangible low-taxed income (“GILTI”). GILTI generally includes all of the income of a CFC that is not Subpart F Income (other than a deemed modest return on tangible property).
When investing in foreign corporations, investment funds should carefully consider the impact of their choice of investment entity. When determining if a foreign corporation is a CFC, a U.S. partnership is treated as a separate entity and all stock owned by the U.S. partnership is included to determine whether the partnership is a Significant U.S. Shareholder and the foreign corporation is a CFC. In contrast, a foreign partnership is disregarded as a separate entity for CFC testing purposes and each of its partners are treated as owning a proportionate amount of the stock held by the foreign partnership. As a result, an investment by a U.S. partnership is more likely to cause a foreign corporation to become a CFC than an equal investment by a foreign partnership, even if the ultimate beneficial owners of each investment are the same.
New tax rules now treat domestic partnerships like foreign partnerships for purposes of applying the GILTI rules, meaning the U.S. partners of domestic partnerships can account directly for GILTI and if no U.S. partner is a Significant U.S. Shareholder, no GILTI tax should apply. Proposed tax rules (which can be applied now under certain circumstances) would extend this treatment to Subpart F determinations, i.e., the proposed rules, like the final GILTI rules, would treat U.S. partnerships like foreign partnerships for purposes of determining if a U.S. partner has taxable Subpart F income under the CFC rules. However, a U.S. partnership would still be treated as a U.S. entity for purposes of testing whether a non-U.S. company has the status of a CFC. The IRS and Treasury have not yet clarified how the new CFC rules that treat a U.S. partnership like a foreign partnership will impact PFIC reporting and PFIC taxation,
Funds with U.S. investors should require a foreign portfolio company to determine its status as a CFC each year, and to covenant to assist each U.S. investor of the fund to determine if it is a Significant U.S. Shareholder if the foreign portfolio company is a CFC. In addition, the foreign corporation should be required to provide its Significant U.S. Shareholders with the information that they need in order to comply with their tax reporting obligations and determine the amount of any current income inclusions. Funds making significant investments in a portfolio company may be able to require the portfolio company to make tax distributions to cover any tax triggered by the CFC rules, although distributions to cover GILTI tax are not common in our experience.