Senate Investigation: Major Financial Institutions Helped Hedge Funds Avoid Taxes

A year long probe by Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations which relied on internal bank documents and emails has found that some of the nation’s biggest investment banks and brokerage firms including Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch & Co marketed allegedly abusive transactions that helped foreign hedge fund investments avoid withholding taxes imposed on dividends paid by U.S. companies over the past decade. These funds are liable for tax on the dividends they receive from investments in the U.S. at a rate of 30%. The amount of tax avoided could well be in billions of dollars.

The banks actually competed with one another to dream up complex transactions for foreign hedge funds to avoid taxes. The probe also found that some of the internal communications show that the bank officials were concerned that they could run into trouble with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

The results of the probe clearly highlight the failure of the IRS and Treasury Department to enforce the law. The banks entered into agreements to give the hedge funds the economic value of dividends, without actually triggering a withholding tax on dividend payments. The foreign hedge funds would sell their stock to an U.S. investment bank just before a dividend was to be paid and simultaneously enter into a swap arrangement with that bank to retain the economics of stock ownership. The U.S. bank paid the foreign hedge fund a dividend equivalent but did not withhold any taxes. The funds technically didn’t own the shares. A few days later, the hedge funds would repurchase the stock from the U.S. bank.

The $32 billion special dividend by Microsoft in 2004 is said to be the trigger that spurred the investment banks and brokerage firms to sell products that would allow their hedge fund clients to avoid paying the associated taxes.

The investigation had some effect. Merrill Lynch & Co stopped doing some of the deals after the committee began its investigation although the investment bank claimed that it acted in good faith when it advised its clients – foreign hedge funds – and it acted appropriately under existing tax law. Citigroup voluntarily approached the IRS and paid $24 million in withholding taxes after an internal audit.

One of the beneficiaries of such transactions – Maverick Capital Management – estimated that such deals helped it avoid $95 million in taxes over an eight-year period.

The result of the probe raises one very important question – where does the loyalty of these investment banks and brokerage firms lie? They are American companies who have reaped all the benefits of being American companies. They have openly helped foreign hedge funds flout U.S. tax laws. Is there something called patriotism or is it profit at any cost?

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