This article is the second half of the discussion of the sweeping ramifications of The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (“Tax Act”). Part one discussed the transition tax on deemed repatriation of foreign earnings, the reduction in the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, the changes in the taxation of the international operations of U.S. companies, and changes to interest and depreciation deductions.
In this article, we address provisions of the Tax Act that potentially accelerate tax liabilities, repeal the performance-based exception to the limits on compensation deductions for certain corporations, change the treatment of net operating losses, and cut back the favorable tax treatment of research and development expenses.
1. Potential Acceleration of Tax Liabilities. Before the Tax Act became law, the requirements for the recognition of taxable income were independent from those for financial reporting—or so-called “book” purposes. In fact, certain types of income could be recognized for tax purposes later than the period in which they were recognized as revenue for book purposes. The Tax Act narrows these taxable income deferral opportunities by accelerating the recognition of certain taxable income to more closely match financial reporting.
This new rule is of particular concern in light of the new accounting rules under the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s Accounting Standards Codification (ASC) Topic 606. Under those accounting rules, expected revenue must generally be recognized as goods or services are provided to customers. Thus, unbilled receivables for partially performed services might be recognized for book purposes—and now for tax purposes, too—ratably as the services are performed, rather than when the services are complete or when the taxpayer has the right to demand payment from the customer. Similarly, items such as performance bonuses might be recognized for book purposes—and now for tax purposes—over the life of the contract, rather than when the standards for receiving the bonus have actually been met.
The new tax rules may also affect taxpayers whose contracts with customers contain multiple-element deliverables (e.g., software sales agreements that include a license, updates, and support services, or sales of goods that include a warranty), because the rules now require that the allocation of payments among these deliverables be the same for tax and financial reporting purposes.
What Directors Should Do. This potential acceleration of the recognition of taxable income could have significant cash flow consequences for certain businesses. Directors, and in particular audit committee members, should ensure that the company’s treasury and tax departments have coordinated and evaluated the potential acceleration of tax liabilities as a result of the combined effect of the Tax Act changes and ASC 606. Depending on the extent of any accelerated tax liabilities, it may be necessary for a company to consider potential liquidity sources to meet its 2018 tax obligations.
2. Repeal of Performance-Based Exception to Limits on Compensation Deductions. Public companies may not deduct compensation paid to certain executives in excess of $1 million. Previously, there was an exception to this rule for performance-based compensation that met certain requirements. However, the Tax Act removed the performance-based exception effective for tax years beginning after December 31, 2017. As a result, a public company will generally not be able to deduct compensation in excess of $1 million paid to its chief executive officer, chief financial officer, or its three other most highly-compensated officers. The Tax Act provides some relief through a transition rule, which preserves the deduction for performance-based compensation that is paid pursuant to a written binding contract that was in effect on and not materially modified after November 2, 2017 (the “Transition Rule”).
What Directors Should Do. In light of the removal of the tax incentives for granting performance-based compensation to certain executives, companies may be interested in revising their performance-based compensation programs by, for example, shifting a greater percentage of a covered executive’s compensation to guaranteed salary. However, the terms of some equity and cash incentive plans nevertheless require performance-based compensation to comply with the now-repealed requirements for deductibility, which would limit the changes that could be made to programs without amending the plans. As such, before changes are made to a company’s compensation programs, directors should ensure that the terms of the applicable plans are reviewed to determine if amendments to the plans are necessary to accommodate such changes to the compensation programs.
Additionally, some large institutional investors and proxy solicitation firms have indicated that they expect companies to continue with their existing compensation programs that condition awards on the achievement of rigorous, transparent, pre-established performance goals. Directors should also consider how changes to a company’s performance-based compensation programs will be viewed by the company’s shareholders.
Finally, it will be important for companies with outstanding long-term, performance-based awards to preserve the deductibility of those awards pursuant to the Transition Rule. As such, companies should determine whether performance-based compensation arrangements that were in effect on November 2, 2017 qualify as grandfathered under the Transition Rule and, if so, consider the implications of any potential modifications to such plans.
3. Changes to the Treatment of Net Operating Losses. The Tax Act makes significant changes to the utilization of net operating losses (“NOLs”). Previously, NOLs could generally be carried back to a taxpayer’s prior two tax years and carried forward for 20 years. Extended carryback periods applied to certain product liability-type losses and casualty and disaster losses. Also, under prior law, the corporate alternate minimum tax precluded corporations from completely eliminating their tax liability through NOL deductions. Instead, the alternative minimum tax (AMT) imposed an effective 2 percent tax rate on a corporation that otherwise would owe no tax because of NOLs.
Under the Tax Act, corporations (other than certain farmers and property and casualty insurers) cannot carry back NOLs arising in tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2018. Those losses are no longer a means to generate cash refunds of previously paid taxes. Also, a corporation may not eliminate more than 80 percent of its taxable income (determined without regard to the NOL deduction) for a given year. Thus, although the corporate AMT was repealed under the Tax Act, this limitation effectively results in a minimum tax of 4.2 percent on a corporation suffering losses (more than doubling the previous effective rate). On the positive side, NOLs now can be carried forward indefinitely instead of only 20 years.
What Directors Should Do. The changes to NOLs are particularly troublesome for early stage companies, corporations in cyclical businesses, and companies that suffer product liability-type and substantial casualty or disaster losses. Losing the ability to carry back NOLs to generate tax refunds and the ability eliminate all taxable income with NOL deductions will negatively affect cash flow. Because of these changes, corporations should attempt to better match their income and deductions annually to reduce the extent of the NOLs they generate.
Directors of companies that incur NOLs should ensure that their tax departments are sensitive to this issue and are considering ways to better match income and deductions. For example, in years that appear likely to generate a net operating loss, opportunities to trigger or accelerate taxable income should be considered. Also, the new 100 percent deduction for the acquisition of tangible assets (discussed in Part I of this article) is not mandatory. Accordingly, consideration should be given to electing out of that “immediate expensing” if doing so avoids creating NOLs.
4. Cutbacks to the Favorable Treatment of Research and Development (R&D) Expenses. The tax laws have long provided favorable treatment for certain R&D expenses in order to encourage U.S. companies to invest in research. These include a current deduction for such expenses and a tax credit based on specified increases in the level of certain R&D spending. Under the Tax Act, however, the favorable treatment of R&D expenses is scheduled to be reduced in future years.
First, beginning in 2022, corporations may no longer currently deduct R&D expenses. Instead, those expenses must be capitalized and amortized over 5 years (in the case of U.S. research) and 15 years (in the case of non-U.S. research). Also, the Tax Act created a new Base Erosion and Anti-Abuse Tax (BEAT) that applies to larger U.S. corporations that make certain payments to non-U.S. affiliates. Beginning in 2026, the amount of tax a U.S. corporation would owe under the BEAT will no longer reduced by its R&D credit—potentially resulting in a significant decrease in the value of such credit.
What Directors Should Do. Given the future effective date of the R&D changes, companies may wish to consider lobbying Congress to repeal the Tax Act changes before they become effective. In addition, the numerous changes to the taxation of international operations discussed in Part I of this article should be considered as part of any restructuring or expansion decisions. In the case of locating or expanding R&D centers, the pending changes reducing the tax benefits of U.S. R&D expenses should be included in that analysis.
George M. Gerachis serves as head of Vinson & Elkins’ Tax and Executive Compensation and Benefits (ECB) department. He represents corporate and individual clients in a wide range of tax planning and tax controversy matters. David C. Cole is a tax partner at Vinson & Elkins and represents corporations, partnerships, and high net worth individuals in a wide range of domestic and international tax matters. David C. D’Alessandro is an executive compensation and benefits partner at Vinson & Elkins and advises employers and executives in the structuring of employment agreements and executive compensation arrangements.