By David Henry
Is there no end to the ugly superlatives that fallen telecom giant WorldCom Inc. is amassing? First, its top execs reigned over the greatest alleged accounting fraud in history. Then, the company filed the largest corporate bankruptcy. Now, it is lining up to collect what could be one of the biggest single corporate tax breaks of all time.
To the fury of its competitors, WorldCom is angling to snare a $2.5 billion benefit from Uncle Sam. How? By exploiting a provision in the Internal Revenue Service code so it can hang onto previous losses of at least $6.6 billion and enjoy years of tax-free earnings. What's more, the ploy would protect new management against any takeover for at least two years. And, WorldCom could use the losses to offset even income it picks up by taking over other companies. "WorldCom is in an enviable position," says Robert Willens, tax accounting analyst at Lehman Brothers Inc. "It will have copious tax losses and can be a powerful acquirer."
WorldCom's new owners -- the holders of its $41 billion of bad debt -- are driving a truck through a loophole that needs to be closed pronto. It was left open by Congress when the lawmakers overhauled IRS rules to stamp out a notorious trade in corporate tax losses. At one time, owners of loss-making businesses could sell their companies along with their accumulated tax loss -- often their only asset -- to profitable companies. Now, tax losses are snuffed out when company ownership changes hands.
So, WorldCom is going through hoops to avoid that fate. Pending a final vote by creditors later this year, the company is changing its bylaws to prohibit anyone from building a stake of more than 4.75% in the company. They have to keep bidders at bay for at least two years, otherwise the IRS would argue that control of WorldCom has changed hands and that the tax losses -- which, assuming a 38% tax rate, could give a $2.5 billion boost to earnings -- should be wiped out. "It is the perfect poison pill," says Carl M. Jenks, tax expert at law firm Jones Day.
The perverse tactic is increasingly popular. The former Williams Communications Group put a similar 5% ownership limit in place last fall when it became WilTel Communications Group Inc. after a bankruptcy reorganization. The bankruptcy judge overseeing UAL Corp. agreed on Feb. 24 to a similar restriction on UAL securities in order to preserve its $4 billion of tax losses. "We will generally recommend that any company with net operating losses worth anything adopt these restrictions," says Douglas W. Killip, a tax lawyer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
For WorldCom's rivals, the tax break is salt on a wound. William P. Barr, a former U.S. attorney general and now general counsel of Verizon Communications, fumes that WorldCom is trying to "compound its fraud by escaping the payment of taxes." WorldCom's bankruptcy reorganization will eliminate the cost of servicing some $30 billion of debt. That, the company projects, will help it to make $2 billion before taxes next year. By using the tax losses, it will be able to keep about $780 million in cash it would otherwise owe the government. In fact, it won't be liable for any tax at least until the accumulated losses are worked through. And, because it racked up the $6.6 billion in losses just through 2001, WorldCom could have billions more to play with once the numbers for 2002 are finally worked out.
What's more, the poison pill is likely to deter any company from buying WorldCom and dumping some of the obsolete assets still clogging the telecom industry. That will slow any recovery in capital spending and hurt WorldCom's competitors. "It is bad when business decisions are motivated by tax reasons and not based on sound economics," says Anthony Sabino, bankruptcy law professor at St. John's University.
Rivals are likely to push the IRS to find a way to stop WorldCom from utilizing the losses, observers say. But their chances of success are slim because the IRS never issued regulations that could have nullified the ploy. And the courts generally rule against the agency when it attempts to write rules retroactively, Willens says.
Still, it's time to close the stable door before any more horses bolt. Besides, Uncle Sam could use the money right now.
Henry covers corporate finance.