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In another defection from the corporate income tax base, last Tuesday Windstream Holdings, Inc. announced that it will be spinning off part of its telecommunications assets into a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) after it recently received a Private Letter Ruling (PLR) from the IRS approving the transaction. The company, whose 5-year effective federal income tax rate for 2008-2012 was already a paltry 11 percent, will be able to lower its tax rate even more through use of the REIT.
A REIT is to real estate what a mutual fund is to stock and bonds: a way for smaller investors to diversify their holdings by owning a share of a large pool of assets rather than owning individual stocks or properties directly. A REIT, just like a mutual fund, doesn’t pay an entity-level tax. Instead it distributes its income to the REIT shareholders who pay tax on their respective shares.
REIT rules were added to the tax code in 1960 so small investors could invest in pools of real estate (or mortgages on real estate). To qualify as a REIT, the trust must have at least 100 shareholders. Seventy-five percent or more of the REIT’s assets must be related to real estate: real property or mortgages on real property. Traditional REITs hold property such as office buildings, warehouses, and shopping centers. Another requirement for REIT tax status is that at least 75 percent of the REIT’s income must be from real estate (such as rents or interest on mortgages).
Windstream Holdings is a Fortune 500 company that, according to its website, “is a leading provider of advanced network communications, including cloud computing and managed services, to businesses,” and offers “broadband, phone and digital TV services to consumers.”
It shouldn’t qualify as a REIT. As Windstream itself said, the company is putting its copper and fiber networks into the REIT along with “other” real estate. The Internal Revenue Service opened this can of worms with PLRs allowing wireless communications companies, billboard owners, data centers, and prisons to elect REIT status. Casinos, too. Prison operators argued they were receiving rent for holding prisoners.
Is Windstream in the business of providing communications services or owning and managing real estate? Is Corrections Corporation in the business of operating prisons or holding real property? Are casino operators in the business of real estate or emptying your wallet? The answers seems pretty clear to me.
We don’t need these companies to spin off their “real estate” assets so small investors can own a piece. These companies are already publicly traded and investors can buy stock or mutual funds that hold the stock.
Many states are losing tax revenue. First, unlike corporate dividends, there’s no corporate income tax paid first. Then, after the REIT pays dividends to its shareholders, they pay tax to their resident state, say, New York, rather than in the state where the properties are located, say, prisons in Mississippi. Companies are also using REIT subsidiaries to dodge state-level income taxes. Mega-retailer Wal-Mart was assessed $33 million in 2005 by North Carolina related to its use of a 99-percent owned “captive” REIT (executives owned the other 1 percent to reach 100 shareholders); its REIT strategy cut its state income taxes by 20 percent during a four-year period.
The initial motivation behind enacting special tax treatment for REITs might have made sense. But give someone a tax break and other folks, for whom it was not intended, will try to figure out how to use it. This is why we continually argue in favor of a simple, broad-based tax system that has few exceptions. Limit the exemptions, credits, and other special rules and you limit the opportunities for taxpayers to game the system. Until we have a tax system that works like that, Congress should close as many of the loopholes as it can. This is one of them.
The Windstream ruling opens the floodgates for REIT spin-offs for all kinds of companies, from Amazon to Zynga, with AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon in between. Congress should enact rules to prohibit REIT spin-offs from publicly-traded companies and limit the favorable REIT treatment to the types of activities it was originally intended to benefit.