Let’s talk about tax (and interest deductions for capital gains).
While your correspondent is a confirmed Anglican – Episcopalian actually – I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore and haven’t taken communion for over twenty years. The same cannot be said for the rest of my extended family which is pretty hard core christian and includes three ordained priests. It used to be overrun with lawyers so priests is definitely pareto improvement.
From time to time at family gatherings when my darling christian family is discussing something theological – yes it is fun but I love them a lot – one of them will say ‘but of course it all went wrong at the Council of Nicaea’. That I think was when the Christian Church became a proper institution and started telling its followers what to do. And having seen public institutions operate at times for themselves rather than the people they are serving I am sympathetic to that view.
But for tax – in New Zealand – its Council of Nicaea was the 1986 Pacific Rendezvous case.
Pacific Rendezvous was – and is – a motel. They wanted to sell the business but to get a better price they decided they needed to do some capital works. They borrowed money to do that and claimed most of the interest as a tax deduction.
They were pretty open that the building works were because they wanted to get a better price for the sale of their business. And of course we all know dear readers that the proceeds from a sale of a business that was not started with the intention of sale is tax free.
Unsurprisingly the Commissioner – who was a he at the time – was not best pleased. Deductions to earn untaxed income you cannot be serious. And so he took Pacific Rendezvous to court to overturn the deductions associated with the tax free capital bit.
But the Courts were like ‘nah totes fine’. Coz – get this – the interest was also connected with earning taxable income. You know the like really small motel fees even tho the whole gig was an ‘enhancing the business ahead of sale’ thing.
And that dear readers is why I am so not a lawyer. Having to hold such stuff in my head as legit would totally make it explode.
But I digress.
Now of course Parliament or the government at the time still had the chance to overturn that case coz of course Parliament, not the courts, has the final say. Or it could have simply taxed the capital returns – sorry now I am just being silly.
What actually happened was some 13 years later after a fruitless interpretative tour of the provisions Bill English – when he was just a little baby MoF and long before his two stints at the leader thing – proposed and Michael Cullen enacted – that companies could have as many interest deductions as they wanted because compliance costs. You know coz otherwise ‘they’ll just use trusts’.
It was subject to the thin capitalisation rules and as the banks were to discover to their chagrin – the anti avoidance rules – but deductions to earn capital profits game on.
Now the capital profits thing was considered at the time – chapter 4 – and quite a compelling economic case was made for some form of interest restriction. But by Chapter 6 there became insurrountable practical issues that made this not possible. Those issues included:
- The need for rules to ensure that the deduction was not separated from the capital income;
- Difficulties with bringing in unrealised gains;
- If done on realisation – potential issues with retropective adjustments along period capital gain was earned;
- Need to factor in capital losses.
And it was true that in the past Muldoon – well then must be wrong – had attempted to do something by clawing back interest deductions to the extent a capital gain was made. Imaginatively it was called ‘clawback’ and everyone hated it. And yes people did use trusts and holding companies to avoid it. Oh and soz can’t find a decent link to reference this so you will just have to trust me on this.
But you know what? Tax policy is so much cleverer now and we group companies and treat them as one entity for losses and lots of other stuff all which could get around these issues. In fact the recent National governments in a bipartisan and a thinking only of the tax system way have enacted rules that mean interest restrictions for capital gains are no longer the insurrountable issue they apparently were in 1999. Who says John Key doesn’t have a legacy?
So working up the list.
- Can’t see the issue with capital losses as if that capital was lost in a closely held setting on deductible expenses it is already fully deductible. Outside that any interest limitation for capital gains would only apply to the extent there was untaxed capital income. And as we are talking about losses – not income – no interest restrictions. Simple.
- Would only do it on realisation. Taxing unrealised stuff while technically correct is a compliance nightmare. But the new R&D rules which claw back cashed out losses when a capital gain is made – from page 24 – could totes be made to work here. Interest deductions could be allowed on a current year basis but if a capital profit is made – they are clawed back in the year of sale. If deferral was still a big deal – a use of money charge could be added in too. Personally I would give up the interest charge. Simpler and an acknowledgement of the earning of taxed income.
- And the whole deduction being separated from income was fixed with the debt stacking rules for mixed use assets. So let’s use that.
Coz the thing is while no one seems to be bringing in a capital gains tax anymore it is still massively anomalous that deductions are allowed for earning untaxed income just coz some incidental income was earned as well.
Now Labour is planning to have a bit of a go in this area by going after negative gearing through ringfencing losses. Better than nothing I guess. But still kinda partial as only touches people with not enough rental income to offset the deductions. And Grant, Phil and the new Michael – even for this – you totes will need the debt stacking rules or else ‘they’ll just use trusts’ or holding companies.
And yeah extending the brightline test to 5 years. Again better than nothing but there is still lots of scope to play the whole deductions for untaxed gains for property holdings over 5 years or – as with Pacific Rendezvous themselves – businesses.
But for any other political party with an allergy to a capital gains tax but big on the whole tax fairness thing perhaps you might want to look again at interest clawback on sale? This time thanks to the foresight and the public spirited nature of the John Key led governments – it would actually work.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about tax; interest deductions and private expenditure in companies.
Your correspondent has returned from her ‘retirement cruise’; is recovering from jetlag and has returned to what passes for work these days. That will dear readers include a return to twice weekly posting. As a change from some of the more political posts I thought I’d return to a technical issue for a bit of light relief.
Earlier this year while I was still inside I went to a dinner party in a provincial city. At the party was a delightful gentleman I had met previously and was more than pleased to see again. The feeling appeared to be mutual and our conversation broadly went like this:
DG – Now Andrea tell me – which is better? To pay my mortgage or to pay my tax?
Me – cough, splutter, mumble – well the thing is it isn’t a choice as tax is a legal obligation.
DG- oh don’t be silly of course I know that. What I mean is it better to have a mortgage on my house get the tax deductions and then have money to invest in shares and things for capital gains or have no mortgage not get the tax deductions but have more disposable income?
Me – Ah what makes you think you get a tax deduction for the mortgage on your house?
DG- This is the country – we get tax deductions for all sorts of things and besides I’m the director of a land owning company!
Me – Is that wine over there?
Now dear readers I am sure after Zen and the art of tax compliance you all know that to get tax deductions the expenditure has to be:
- Connected to the earning of income or in the ordinary course of a business and
- not private or domestic expenditure.
So therefore if DG owns his house in his own name – or in a family trust – as neither 1) or 2) is met there is no deduction for interest expenditure.
There is the possibility that if the money were borrowed on his house and used to buy shares THAT WERE DIVIDEND PAYING then the interest would be deductible. But if the money is borrowed to construct the house for him to live in – nuh.
The complication though is the comment about being a director of a land owning company. The rules above do not apply to a company and interest deductions. From about 2000 or so the rule broadly became:
- Are you a company resident in New Zealand?
- Have you incurred an interest expense?
If yes to both, then ‘would you like interest deductions with that?’
The private and domestic test still applies to such expenditure but I have always struggled to align any concept of private and domestic to a company.
So at first pass – yep – if DG holds his house in a company – in your correspondent’s view – he will get an interest deduction.
And yeah the Mixed Use Asset rules won’t apply here because ironically it isn’t a mixed use asset – it is wholly private and domestic.
But – not so fast – the music hasn’t stopped.
While there are special rules for companies and interest deductions there are also special (dividend) rules for transactions involving companies and shareholders aka ‘are policy makers really that dumb?’
These dividend rules say where ever there has been a transfer of value from a company to a shareholder there is a taxable dividend to the shareholder to the extent of the value transfer.
Ok again in English.
If a company gives a shareholder stuff – goods or services – that is a taxable dividend for the shareholder. Here the company has given the shareholder use of a house – so the shareholder DG – gets a taxable dividend.
And by ‘taxable dividend’ yes this means you need to put that value on your tax return and pay tax on it. And yes I know you didn’t get any actual cash but that doesn’t matter. You know how when you tick the box for dividend reinvestment on your publicly listed shares – you know how the dividend is still taxable even though you didn’t get any actual cash. Consider this as the same.
So what is the value that DG has received from the ‘land owning’ company? He has received the benefit of living in that house. And what do people usually pay for the benefit of living in a house they don’t own? You’re onto it – rent.
DG is then up for tax on the value of the rent not paid to the company as a dividend. And once more with feeling – it doesn’t matter that no cash has been paid from the company to the shareholder.
So the benefit DG received – use of the house without paying rent – is taxable to DG.
Now if DG has a tax rate of 33% – as the company tax rate is 28% – there will be a net 5% tax paid on the ‘imputed’ or deemed rent. That is he pays tax at 33% on the deemed rent and the company gets a deduction at 28% on the interest expense. In other words a gift to the people of New Zealand and how tax planning can go wrong. And if he didn’t know this was the case until my former colleagues come along – it will be 33% tax plus interest at about 8% plus a penalty of between 10% and 100%.
Awesome. Can only hope he didn’t also pay an agent for this wizard advice.
If his tax rate though is lower than the company rate this is where it could get really interesting. Technically even with DG putting the value of rent on his tax return there will still be a net tax deduction that ostensibly can be offset against other income.
In this case though the structure – or ‘arrangement’ as my former colleagues may start to call it – is really putting pressure on the whole ‘companies can’t have private expenditure’ thing. And from here we move into a complete world of pain – or ‘good case’ depending on which side you are on this – known as tax avoidance. Now the entire interest deduction is at risk with tax avoidance penalties of between 50% and 100%. Fun huh.
And don’t even think of paying rent to your company and making it a look through company so you get the deductions directly against your other income. The department was very clear with look through companies – the prequel – that this was tax avoidance too.
So DG I am not sure there really is any ‘country immunity’ for interest on your personal mortgage. Pay it but step away from the tax system. There be dragons.