Tax Break for Commercial Real Estate Investors

COVID-19 impacted the economy dramatically and commercial real estate was no exception in terms of decreased values. Often, the real property could no longer service the debt used to finance it. This debt restructuring and resulting debt forgiveness can result in taxable income.

Taxable Income and Debt Cancellation

If you have a $80,000 loan and the bank reduced the amount you owe down to $50,000, then you have an economic benefit of $30,000, which should be treated as taxable income. This is indeed how cancellation of debt is treated, but there are exceptions such as in the case of bankruptcy or insolvency. There is another unique scenario that applies only to commercial real estate.

Assuming that the taxpayer is not a C-corporation, debt cancellation is excludable from taxable income if it results from qualified real property business indebtedness (QRPBI). QRPBI is debt taken on to buy real property used for commercial purposes. Starting in 1993, debt used for building or improving a property also qualify.

As we all know, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In order for debt cancellation to not be considered current taxable income, the taxpayer must reduce their basis in the real property by this same amount. This does not cancel the income; instead, it defers its recognition and helps cash flow as a result. Below, we look at an example of how this works.

Illustrative Example

Assume David bought a property in 2017 and he uses it for business purposes. In 2022, the property has a first mortgage of $200,000 and a second mortgage of $100,000 (both with the same bank), with a fair market value (FMV) of $240,000. He negotiates with the bank to reduce the second mortgage down to $20,000, resulting in income from the cancellation of debt of $80,000.

The amount of debt cancellation that can be deferred is equal to the amount of the second mortgage before the debt cancellation, less the FMV minus the first mortgage. In David’s case, before debt cancellation, the FMV ($240k) minus the first mortgage ($200k) was $40,000. The balance of the second mortgage ($100k) exceeded this by $60,000. Out of the total debt cancellation of $80,000, this $60k is subject to deferral, with only the remaining $20,000 reported as immediate taxable income.

The $60,000 is not considered as taxable income only to the extent that David has sufficient adjusted tax basis in the depreciable real property to absorb this as a reduction in basis. Assuming this is the case, the reduction in basis applies the first day of the tax year after the debt cancellation (unless the property is sold before year-end – then it applies immediately).

In the example above, David would include the $10,000 of cancellation of debt income on his 2022 tax return and adjust his basis in the real property by $60,000 as of Jan. 1, 2023.

Filing Mechanics

For real estate held via partnerships instead of by individuals, determining if debt is QRPBI qualified happens at the entity level, although reductions of basis are done at the individual level for each partner, allowing individual planning. The election to defer cancellation of debt income is recorded on Form 982.

Conclusion

The COVID pandemic caused many real estate investors to restructure their debts. The option to defer debt income cancellation offers a great tax planning opportunity by delaying taxable income and improving cash flows.

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Impact on the Capital Markets      

Stock buybacks have had a significant impact on the markets. Not only are companies using excess cash to buy back shares, but with interest rates so low for so long, many companies have even taken on debt to buy back shares. Still, excess cash that can’t just sit on the corporate balance sheet is the main driver of the largest buyback programs. Established, cash-flush tech companies such as Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft are the dominant players, accounting for nearly one-third of all buyback activity in the first half of 2021.

Given the recent run-up in the markets, buyback programs have not kept up. Couple this with the proposed increases in corporate tax rates from 21 percent to 25 percent, and there’s even less cash to fund buyback programs. Generally, most experts believe these macro-economic factors combined with the new 2 percent tax will cause a shift toward dividend payouts as they will be more favorable to shareholders.

Conclusion

The main idea behind the proposed 2 percent excise tax on stock buybacks is to both raise revenue and encourage corporate investment. Critics of stock buyback programs believe this is better for the economy and workers, whereas buybacks favor corporate shareholders at their expense. While a 2 percent tax might not be enough to create wholesale change, it appears to have enough teeth combined with corporate tax rate changes to change most public company CFOs.

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