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Value acceleration in times of uncertainty

05.15.20

Read this if you are a business owner.

While recent articles within the exit planning community have noted a slowing of business transitions and exits, during times of uncertainty it may be even more important to focus on the opportunity at hand. Rather than waiting it out, we recommend that business owners try to be active, involved, and focus their efforts on improving their business.

The situation is similar to the ebb and flow of the tide. The current economy is the tide at an extreme low point. We know that the economy will recover, so what can be done in the meantime to take advantage of opportunities, and be ready to succeed when the tide rises?

Changing of tides

Suddenly, there has been a rapid and seismic shift in the landscape. Weaknesses and threats, rocks and hazards, may have emerged. How you choose to approach these perils will make a difference in the long term. Will you take the opportunity to discover, identify, assess, shore up, and mitigate these elements?

It is important to view this current state in the context of the larger, long-term perspective. Once the tide comes back, will you be able to set full sail ahead having built resiliency, redundancy, and strength into those areas while you had the opportunity? While the water is low, it presents a great opportunity for business owners to discover and understand: 

  • What broke first and why? 
  • How can you shore it up for better operations in the days ahead?
  • What weak spots you didn’t know about are now apparent?
  • How can you address those weaknesses?
  • How can you leverage existing resources differently to chart a path forward?

Models of priority

There are various stages or hierarchies of priority in thinking about the progress of a business. 

Each priority model features bases and pinnacles. The pinnacles of each model are realized in a long-term setting, after the remaining bases have been solidified. While continued development of a clear vision for your business is paramount, dynamic shifts in the landscape call for reassessment of the bases. In the long-term, self-fulfillment manifests from properly executed strategy, but in the near- and mid-term, these various frameworks force strategic planning back to assess and address the base components. 

The bases of each model should serve as safe havens for reversion. When facing uncertainty and failure, have you made your base strong enough to redirect your efforts in an actionable plan for the long-term?

Action Planning Pyramid and Value Maturity Index

Action Planning
Five Stages of Value Maturity

The Value Maturity Index, broken into five stages is a stepwise assessment of active exit and business strategy. Inherent in the value acceleration framework are the concepts of resiliency, redundancy, disaster recover, and actionable planning.

While we may have been fully entrenched in the build phase, setbacks due to dynamic changes in the landscape force us back to protect mode—the assessment and methodical shoring up of weaker points of the operation to protect against future downside risks.

Though this stepwise progression is linear in nature, keep in mind that flexibility and adaptability are paramount in changing course to address needs of your current state.

When we look at action planning, parallels can be drawn to the various models. Certainly, we are focused on continuing sales, marketing, and customer relationships, but it becomes a question of reversion to meeting the basic needs and serving client’s pain points rather than  beginning ground-breaking efforts. 

The current climate forces us to the base, with a focus on solidifying the exposed areas that may have been made apparent, and likely compounded, by the current realities. Concerns on management, metrics, core values, and priorities serve as the bases in need of coverage.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs1 is a well-known motivational theory in psychology that comprises a five-tiered model of human needs, whereby each successive tier must be fulfilled (beginning at the base) before rising to the next tier. It can be used to view similar information from a psychological perspective.

Value acceleration and creating successful outcomes are largely tied to a clear long-term vision. We typically reside in the Self-actualization level of the hierarchy of needs when undertaking the high-level view of the framework.

Based on the adaptability and call for sudden directional changes in today’s climate, we are not as concerned with these top levels. We have them in our back pocket for easy recall, but they are not the pressing issue staring us in the face.

If we think about shoring up bases (the Protect Stage), in considering this psychological model, our focus is on the “basic needs” level. That is, keeping people (self, family, and employees) safe and remaining connected for immediate continuity.

McKinsey & Company Event Horizons

McKinsey & Company Event Horizons

Many others in related fields are viewing the current situation in similar terms. In the McKinsey & Company Events Horizon view2:

  • Resolve addresses those immediate hurdles and challenges a business is currently facing.
  • Resilience focuses on near-term items to be addressed once the initial base is covered. 
  • Return views the mid-term horizon in understanding how to return to scale by focusing on understanding metrics and increasing the frequency of measurements for informed decision making. 
  • Reimagination and Reform typically go hand in hand, but without covering bases of needs, crafting a dynamic shift in operations to incorporate new environments may be counterproductive. 

However, once these bases have been clearly assessed and addressed, the path forward may appear dramatically different, in which case creative solutions to enhance opportunity should begin to form. Examples of this may include newly emerged revenue streams and opportunity areas, fully integrated systems and dashboards to capture timely decision making data points, or pivots in your business model adaptable and reactive to new environments.

One example that has been in the news recently involves CEOs being pleasantly surprised that productivity of employees has not dropped even though people are working from home. How sustainable is this productivity? What implications might this have for corporate real estate and office settings? The answers will vary widely, depending on your business and competitive environment.

Exposure, discover, and control

Back to our tides analogy for a moment. As the water receded, what new rocks were exposed or what existing challenges became more apparent? What is your plan to address these areas? Is this the time to make large investments in your company or the right investments? Now that the tide is out, it is time to shore up, move the rocks, and address elements of your business to prepare for long-term successes. Through our assessments, risk profiling, and benchmarking analyses, we help business owners discover the largest gaps across the company, prioritize the most impactful problem areas to address, and implement changes to enhance business value through continuous improvement. 

Taking stock of your company’s future through the incorporation of lessons learned will bolster value in the long-term by de-risking and developing new opportunities, methods, work, shifts in productivity, and shifts in mentality. That approach also brings lots of questions: If there are no early warning signs, why not? What should your indicators be? What metrics are crucial in identifying the pulse of your current situation? What is your business reliant on? How can you build information and indicators for rapid shifts in decision making? How strong are your current controls and how integrated are your management and information systems?

To answer these questions, you need to quantify and develop metrics that will aid in the early identification of future challenges, thus increasing your responsiveness with data-driven decision mechanisms. Having your fingers on the pulse of your company and understanding the impact of each input to your strategy will focus your attention on the information that matters most. This allows you to understand, position, and adapt to changes in your business and community environment in a proactive and agile manner. Measurements, forecasts, and dashboards should provide you with regular, valid, and relevant information you can use to take informed action in decision making.

Historical look backs during various points of time will allow you to key in on pivotal data indicators and inflection points. When looking at this from an operational view, industry and economic factors impacting your company can serve as corroborating pieces of evidence to further support data metrics analyzed.

As you perform look backs, it is also best practice to regularly study and update development, pipeline, and reliance metrics for feedback and information discovery with data integrated throughout your operations. This helps avoid lag time in reporting on stale information towards real-time actionable data points.  

Each metric is specific to your business and can be directly mapped back to increases in shareholder value. Understanding these drivers of business value will focus your attention and intention on improving in the right areas, while avoiding distracting and less impactful pain points.

Don’t fret over precision, rather build in flexibility and adaptability with scenario- and sensitivity-based criterion to understand changes, implications, and reliance of each input. Understanding these relationships in a broader scheme aid you in quick, impactful decision making guiding you towards enhanced value.

Resilience until the tides rise

This approach allows opportunity to fully assess the known and unknown problem areas, weaknesses, perils, and hazards your business may be facing. From that base you can begin to address these issues to scale effectively with lower overall risk when activity picks up.

Management metrics, core values, and priorities drive resilience for long-term continuity by shoring up the foundation to build for the future. Assembling evidence in troubled times provides opportunity to capitalize on and fulfill core values. Documenting these decisions and improvements memorialize your decision making, impact on value enhancement, and should serve as a playbook for future events.

What you make of the time you have now through identification, assessment, and addressing newly emerged risk areas provides the opportunity to increase success once the economy rebounds. We are here to help. If you have questions about your particular situation, or would like more information, please contact the business valuation consulting team

1Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Saul McLeod, updated March 20, 2020. SimplyPsychology. www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html.
2Beyond coronavirus: The path to the next normal, Kevin Sneader and Shubham Singhal, McKinsey & Company, March 23, 2020.  www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/beyond-coronavirus-the-path-to-the-next-normal. COVID-19: Briefing note, March 30, 2020, Our latest perspectives on the coronavirus pandemic. Matt Craven, Mihir Mysore, Shubham Singhal, Sven Smit, and Matt Wilson. McKinsey & Company. www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/risk/our-insights/covid-19-implications-for-business.

Related Services

Related Professionals

Read this if you are a business owner or advisor to business owners.

With continued uncertainty in the business environment stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, now may be a good time to utilize trust, gift, and estate strategies in the transfer of privately held business interests.

In simple terms, business valuation is a function of future cash flow and the risk in achieving those cash flows. As uncertainty in the ability to achieve future cash flow rises, risk rises at the same time. The value of a business is driven by risk. Holding all else equal, as risk continues to increase, the value of a business decreases. Similarly, if all else is equal, a continuing decline in anticipated cash flow results in decreased business values. An increase in risk, coupled with growing uncertainty and decline in cash flow may create a compounding effect of depressing business values. 

Cash flow challenges

Even if the cash flow of a privately held business has held up thus far, there is great uncertainty as to future cash flow. The duration of this uncertainty is a major concern for many business owners in the current environment. It was not long ago that many were anticipating the pandemic impact would be short-lived, resulting in a v-shaped recovery. Those expectations have given way as national unemployment numbers continue to climb. This continued uncertainty may lessen the value of privately held businesses. Depending on the company, its expectations, and impact from industry and economic factors, the effect on future cash flow may be significant.

With these elements in mind, the current and near-term may serve as an advantageous time to consider the transfer of interests in a privately held business. Increased risk and lowered future expectations will combine, resulting in lower values—particularly as compared to performance during the recent strong economy. 

Further opportunities exist if you are considering transferring a non-controlling interest in a company. Discounts applicable to minority or fractional interests typically include discounts for lack of control and lack of marketability, and in some cases discounts for lack of voting rights. These discounts may serve to further reduce the overall value transferred through a given strategy. 

What strategies can be used to capitalize in this environment?

From a federal perspective, gift and estate tax lifetime exemption amounts are at all-time highs; currently, $11.58 million per individual in 2020. With portability, a married couple can gift or transfer over $23 million in value without incurring a federal gift or estate tax.

Coupled with the ever-increasing annual gift tax exclusion amount of $15,000 per recipient in 2020, executing a succession plan could not come at a better time. Individuals should be aware of the scheduled sunset of the above referenced amounts in 2025 with reversion back to previous levels of $5.0 million (adjusted for inflation).

Building on future uncertainty, the 2020 presidential election is quickly approaching, as well as budget concerns from federal and state administrative agencies resulting from COVID-19. As it is unknown whether the current estate gift and estate tax exemptions will remain at these all-time highs, it may be an opportune time to leverage the current lifetime exemption or annual gift tax exclusion. 

Given the likely decline in value of closely held business interests or marketable securities combined with historically low interest rates currently, transferring assets now that will likely rebound in value later will provide transferors/donors with the most bang for their buck. 

Certain trust vehicles are often beneficial in a low-interest rate environments and provide varying forms of flexibility to the grantor or donor. When combined with the increase in the charitable deduction limits for taxpayers who itemize their deductions, this is an optimal time for transferring assets.  

One of the most important aspects of estate planning is to review and update your estate plan regularly for changes in your financial or family situation. Estate plans are not static and should be periodically reviewed to ensure they achieve your goals based upon your current situation.

Our mission at BerryDunn remains constant in helping each client create, grow, and protect value. If you have questions about your unique situation, or would like more information, please contact the team.

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2020 estate strategies in times of uncertainty for privately held business owners

Read this if you want more information about the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

Most likely you have heard of the PPP within the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was passed into law March 27, 2020. Below, we’ve shared some of the questions we have heard from many of our clients. If you need more information or have questions regarding your specific question, please contact us

Question #1: What was the PPP designed for? 
Answer:
The PPP was designed with the goal of keeping American workers paid and employed. It aims to accomplish this by issuing loans to qualified businesses so that they can continue paying employees and other qualified expenses.

Question #2: Do you or your business qualify for this? 
Answer: There are several considerations when determining whether or not a business qualifies. For more information, see this recent blog post from Seth Webber, which address a number of these considerations. 

Question #3: What should the PPP loan be used to cover in your business?
Answer: The intent of allowable uses includes: (i) payroll costs, including (a) employee salaries, commissions, or similar compensations, (b) group health care benefits, (c) paid vacation, parental, sick, medical, or family leave, (d) allowances for dismissal or separation, (e) retirement benefits, and (f) state or local tax assessed on the compensation on employee;  (ii) payments of interest on any mortgage obligation, but not prepayment or payment of principal amounts; (ii) rent (including rent under a lease agreement); (iv) utilities; and (v) interest on any other debt obligations incurred before February 15, 2020. However, certain payroll costs are excluded, including salaries and wages which annualized amounts would result in compensation over $100,000 and sick and family leave wages for which a credit is allowed under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.  

Additionally, you should consider the time period your allowable expenses are designated for. The Small Business Administration (SBA), in consultation with the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) issued a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) and responses to these FAQs as of April 10, 2020, Paycheck Protection Program Loans FAQs. Within these FAQs, Question 20 asked, “The amount of forgiveness of a PPP loan depends on the borrower’s payroll costs over an eight-week period; when does that eight-week period begin?” The SBA and Treasury noted, “The eight-week period begins on the date the lender makes the first disbursement of the PPP loan to the borrower. The lender must make the first disbursement of the loan no later than ten (10) calendar days from the date of loan approval.” 

Question #4: What portion of the loan, if any, can be forgiven?
Answer:
The Treasury Department issued guidance on March 31, 2020 indicating that at least 75% of the forgiven amount should be used for qualified payroll costs. Although the covered period is specified as February 15, 2020 through June 30, 2020, forgiveness amounts of the loan are based on expenses (primarily payroll) during the eight-week period following the receipt of the loan. There are other aspects of the forgiveness provisions that impact the actual amount forgiven, including maintaining or quickly rehiring employees and maintaining salary levels, with the overall forgiveness amount being reduced if full-time headcount declines, or if salaries and wages decrease more than 25%.

Question #5: What about the portion of your loan that is not forgiven?
Answer:
For the portion of loan not forgiven, the life and terms of the residual loan appear favorable. Current guidance indicates a repayment period of two year loan at 1% interest. Included within this is a six-month deferral period on principal repayment. The loan does not require collateral or a personal guarantee.

Question #6: How should you keep track of the funding and allowable costs?
Answer
: Best practice would be to set up a separate banking account. This will allow you to bifurcate the funding source and offset that amount by costs tracked over the covered period directly. This allows you to use other cash reserves and funding sources to meet other expense needs during the covered period. The funds need to be brought over (into that separate banking account) within 10 days of the application being approved.

Question #7: What other resources are available if the PPP is not a good fit for you?
Answer:
There are additional programs available through the Small Business Administration (SBA) including the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, which features an advance amount (EIDL Emergency Grant) of up to $10,000. Guidance remains outstanding on exact implications of the EIDL Emergency Grant amount with some SBA offices pointing to $1,000 per employee up to a total max of $10,000. This EIDL Emergency Grant does not have to be repaid, but if you subsequently receive funding through the PPP, your forgiveness amount will be reduced by the EIDL Emergency Grant amount. The EIDL program also features a max life of 30 year loan with interest rates of 3.75% and 2.75% for entities that are for-profit and non-profit, respectively. More information on this is detailed in Dave Erb’s recent blog post.

If you do not need to make use of the PPP and EIDL programs, but still face significant downturns in your revenue base, tax relief in the form of the Employee Retention Credit (ERC) may also be an option. The provisions of the ERC within the CARES Act specify eligibility as, an employer that does not participate in the PPP and: (i) a complete or partial shutdown in operations; or (ii) at least a 50% decline in gross receipts, based on quarterly comparison from 2020 to 2019. The ERC allows for a tax credit of 50% of qualified wages (max wages of $10,000 per employee and max credit of $5,000 per employee). For more information on the ERC provisions, see Bill Enck’s blog post.

As developments continue to unfold and changes in guidance continue to emerge, the BerryDunn Recovery Advisory Team can help you stay informed through the BerryDunn COVID-19 Resource Center.

Blog
Paycheck Protection Program: FAQs

Read this if you are a business with employees working in states other than their primary work location.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to leave our offices to work remotely. For many businesses, that means having employees working from home in another state. As telecommuting become much more prevalent, due to both the pandemic and technological advances, state income tax implications have come to the forefront for businesses that now have a remote workforce and employees that may be working in a state other than their primary work location. 

Bipartisan legislation known as the Remote and Mobile Worker Relief Act of 2020 (S.3995) was introduced in the US Senate on June 18, 2020 to address the state and local tax implications of a temporary or permanent remote workforce. The legislation addresses both income tax nexus for business owners and employer-employee payroll tax responsibilities for a remote workforce. Here are some highlights:

Business income tax responsibility

The legislation would provide a temporary income tax nexus exception for businesses with remote employees in other states due to COVID-19. The exception would relieve companies from having nexus for a covered period, provided they have no other economic connection to the state in question. The covered period begins the date employees began working remotely and ends on either December 31, 2020 or the date on which the employer allows 90% of its permanent workforce to return to their primary work location, whichever date comes first.

The temporary tax nexus exception is welcome news for many business owners and employers, as a recent survey by Bloomberg indicated that three dozen states would normally consider a remote employee as a nexus trigger. Additional nexus would certainly add further income tax compliance requirements and potentially additional tax liabilities, complications that no businesses need in this already challenging environment.

Employee and employer tax responsibility

The tax implications for telecommuting vary wildly from state to state and most have not addressed how current laws would be adjusted or enforced due to the current environment. For example, New York implements a “convenience of the employer” rule. So if an out-of-state business has an employee working from home in New York, whether or not those wages are subject to New York state income tax depends on the purpose for the telecommuting arrangement. 

New York’s policy is problematic in the current environment. Arguments could be made that the employee is working for home at their convenience, at the employer’s convenience, or due to a government mandate. It is unclear which circumstance would prevail and as of this writing, New York has not addressed how this rule would apply.

If enacted, the Remote and Mobile Worker Relief Act would restrict a state’s authority to tax wage income earned by employees for performing duties in other states. The legislation would create a 90-day threshold for determining nonresident income tax liability for calendar year 2020, enhancing a bill in the House which proposes a 30-day threshold.

The 90-day threshold applies specifically to instances where the employee work arrangement is different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For future years, the bill would put in place a standardized 30-day bright-line test, making it easier for employees to know when they are liable for non-resident state income taxes and for employers to know which states they need to withhold payroll taxes. 

What do you need to do?

With or without legislation, the year-end income tax filings and information gathering will be very different for tax year 2020. It’s more important than ever for business owners to have proper record keeping on where their employees are working on a day-to-day basis. This information is crucial in determining potential tax exposure and identifying a strategy to mitigate it. The Remote and Mobile Worker Relief Act would provide needed guidance and restore some sense of tax compliance normalcy.

If you would like more information, or have a question about your specific situation, please contact your BerryDunn tax consultant. We’re here to help.
 

Blog
The remote worker during COVID-19: Tax nexus and the new normal

Read this if your company is seeking assistance under the PPP.

The rules surrounding PPP continue to rapidly evolve. As of June 22, 2020, we are anticipating some additional clarifications in the form of an interim final rule (or IFR) and additional answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ). The FAQs were last updated on May 27, 2020. For the latest information, please be sure to check our website or the Treasury website.

A few important changes:

  1. The loan forgiveness application, and instructions, have been updated.
  2. There is a new EZ form, designed to streamline the forgiveness process, if borrowers meet certain criteria.
  3. Changes now allow for businesses to use 60% of the PPP loan proceeds on payroll costs, down from 75%.
  4. Businesses now have 24 weeks to use the loan proceeds, rather than the original eight-week period (or by December 31, 2020, whichever comes earlier).
  5. The rules around what is a full-time equivalent (FTE) employee and the safe harbors with respect to employment levels and forgiveness have been clarified.
  6. Entities can defer payroll taxes through the ERC program, even if forgiveness is granted.

These changes are designed to make it easier to qualify for loan forgiveness. In the event you do not qualify for loan forgiveness, you may be able to extend the loan to five years, as opposed to the original two years.

The relaxation on FTE reductions is significant. The reductions will NOT count against you when calculating forgiveness, even if you haven’t restored the same employment level, if you can document that:

  • you offered employment to people and they refused to come back, or
  • HHS, CDC, OSHA or other government intervention causes an inability to “return to the same level of business activity” as of 2/15/2020.

As of June 20, 2020, there was still an additional $128 billion in available funds. The program is intended to fund new loans through June 30, 2020. 

We’re here to help.
If you have questions about the PPP, contact a BerryDunn professional.

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PPP loan forgiveness: Updates

Read this if you are a solar energy investor, installer, or involved in the renewable energy sector.

One of the benefits to a tax equity investor investing in a renewable energy project is the losses generated by the depreciation of the energy equipment being placed in service. Projects qualifying for the federal Investment Tax Credit are given a five-year MACRS life, providing a cost recovery deduction over five years from the in-service date (typically six tax return filings).  

Investors with eligible income from other sources can offset that income using the losses generated by the depreciation. In some cases the investors have more losses than they can use, which results in a Net Operating Loss (NOL). The rules around NOLs have changed several times recently, and it’s important to know what steps investors should take in order to maximize the benefit from their investment in a renewable energy project.

Historically, individuals could use losses to fully offset their taxable income in the current year. Any excess loss was to be carried back two years to offset taxable income on a previously filed tax return, if available. Any excess NOL carried back and not absorbed would then be carried forward and available for 20 years. This provided a source of immediate funds for investors, as an NOL carryback typically resulted in a recovery of taxes paid in a prior year.

An election could also be made with the original loss return to forgo the carryback and elect to carry forward only. In some cases investors determined that it was more beneficial to have the loss available to offset future income―for example, in cases where the tax rates were set to increase, if the depreciation benefits from a prior project were set to expire, or an anticipated large income event was on the horizon. These losses could also be carried forward for 20 years.

Impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on NOLs

With the passing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) in December of 2017, tax returns filed beginning with tax year 2018 were subject to some changes around NOLs. Some impacts:

  • Losses were no longer allowed to offset 100% of taxable income in the current year, now only being able to offset 80% of taxable income. The remainder was reserved as an NOL available on future returns 
  • The removal of the two-year carryback period 
  • The 20-year cap for NOL’s carried forward was removed, letting them carry forward indefinitely

While most investors were able to use their losses in the first several years surrounding the original loss year, removing the expiration cap on the NOL carryforwards was at least a compromise to losing the other benefits of generating a loss from the investment. The changes from the TCJA shifted the tax strategy focus, as investors who had previously been able to invest in projects and avoid paying federal income tax completely now had to budget for paying tax on at least 20% of their income. The influx of cash from carrying an NOL back to a prior year was no longer an option, as many investors factored that into their ability to repay debt or final construction invoices. While these weren’t completely devastating changes, they were ones that needed to be considered, modeled, and budgeted before any investments were made to ensure proper cash flow.

COVID-19 and its impacts

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and impacted businesses in all corners of the economy. Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) in March of 2020 with wide-sweeping incentives intended to keep cash flowing to those that needed to continue paying bills while businesses were closed. One of the major tax code changes was to the rules surrounding NOLs. The CARES Act temporarily repealed the 80% limit of the TCJA, once again allowing individuals to offset all of their taxable income with an NOL generated in 2018 through 2020.  

Actions to take

In addition, the carryback was also temporarily re-instated, and expanded to five years for losses generated in 2018-2020. Some considerations:

  • An investor who has already filed their 2018 tax return should look to see if their losses were limited on that filing. If so, an amended return should be filed to retroactively claim the full amount of the losses available in 2018 on that return.  
  • Additionally, an analysis should be done to verify the benefit of carrying back the losses to 2013-2017 returns and potentially claiming additional refunds for those years, depending on the volume of available losses and taxable income.

As the pandemic continues, and project completion is potentially delayed, it will be important for investors to monitor income and losses over the next six months to determine if they will be able to fully utilize NOLs for 2020, or if they will need to plan for a return to the TCJA 80% limitation rule in 2021.

If you have any questions or would like to know more, please contact the team. We’re here to help. 
 

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Net Operating Loss rules in renewable energy: COVID-19 changes

Read this if your organization, business, or institution has leases and you’ve been eagerly awaiting and planning for the implementation of the new lease standards.

Ready? Set? Not yet. As we have prepared for and experienced delays related to Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) Accounting Standards Codification Topic 842, Leases, and Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) Statement No. 87, Leases, we thought the time had finally come for implementation. With the challenges that COVID-19 has brought to everyone, the FASB and GASB recognize the significant impact COVID-19 has had on commercial businesses, state and local governments, and not-for-profits and both have proposed delays in effective dates for various accounting standards, including both lease standards.

But wait, there’s more! In response to feedback FASB received during the comment period for the lease standard, the revenue recognition standard has also been extended. We didn’t see that coming, and expect that many organizations that didn’t opt for early adoption will breathe a collective sigh of relief.

FASB details and a deeper dive

On May 20, 2020, FASB voted to delay the effective date of the lease standard and the revenue recognition standard. A formal Accounting Standards Update (ASU) summarizing these changes will be released early June. Here’s what we know now:

  • Revenue recognition―for entities that have not yet issued financial statements, the effective date of the application of FASB Accounting Standards Codification (ASC) Topic 606, Revenue Recognition, has been delayed by 12 months (effective for reporting periods beginning after December 15, 2019). This does not apply to public entities or nonpublic entities that are conduit debt obligors who previously adopted this guidance.
  • Leases―for entities that have not yet adopted the guidance from ASC 842, Leases, the effective date has been extended by 12 months (effective for reporting periods beginning after December 15, 2021).
  • Early adoption of either standard is still allowed.

FASB has also provided clarity on lease concessions that are highlighted in Topic 842. 

We recognize many lessors are making concessions due to the pandemic. Under current guidance in Topics 840 and 842, changes to lease contracts that were not included in the original lease are generally accounted for as lease modifications and, therefore, a separate contract. This would require remeasurement of the new lease contract and related right-of-use asset. 

FASB recognized this issue and has published a FASB Staff Questions and Answers (Q&A) Document, Topic 842 and Topic 840: Accounting for Lease Concessions Related to the Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Under this new guidance, if lease concessions are made relating to COVID-19, entities do not need to analyze each contract to determine if a new contract has been entered into, and will have the option to apply, or not to apply, the lease modification provisions of Topics 840 and 842.

GASB details

On May 8, 2020, GASB issued Statement No. 95, Postponement of the Effective Dates of Certain Authoritative Guidance. GASB 95 extends the implementation dates of several pronouncements including:
•    Statement No. 84, Fiduciary Activities―extended by 12 months (effective for reporting periods beginning after December 15, 2019)
•    Statement No. 87, Leases―extended by 18 months (effective for reporting periods beginning after June 15, 2021)

More information

If you have questions, please contact a member of our financial statement audit team. For other COVID-19 related resources, please refer to BerryDunn’s COVID-19 Resources Page.
 

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May 2020 accounting standard delay status: GASB and FASB

Read this if you are an employer looking for more information on the Employee Retention Credit (ERC).

If you are an employer who did not qualify for or request a Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loan, the ERC provisions of the CARES Act may be available to you.

The ERC is a fully refundable tax credit for eligible employers equal to 50 percent of qualified wages (including allocable qualified health plan expenses) an eligible employer pays their employees. This ERC applies to qualified wages paid after March 12, 2020, and before January 1, 2021. The maximum amount of qualified wages (including allocable qualified health plan expenses) taken into account with respect to each employee for all calendar quarters is $10,000, so that the maximum credit for an eligible employer can receive on qualified wages paid to any employee is $5,000.

Eligibility

Eligible employers for the ERC carry on a trade or business during calendar year 2020, including tax-exempt organizations, that either:

  • Fully or partially suspend operation during any calendar quarter in 2020 due to orders from an appropriate governmental authority limiting commerce, travel, or group meetings due to COVID-19; or
  • Experience a significant decline in gross receipts during the calendar quarter.

Self-employed individuals are not eligible for this credit for their own self-employment earnings, though they may be able to claim the credit for wages paid to their employees.

If an eligible employer averaged more than 100 full-time employees in 2019, qualified wages are limited to wages paid to an employee for time that the employee is not providing services due to an economic hardship, specifically, either (1) a full or partial suspension of operations by order of a governmental authority due to COVID-19, or (2) a significant decline in gross receipts. If the eligible employer averaged 100 or fewer full-time employees in 2019, qualified wages are the wages paid to any employee during any period of economic hardship described in (1) or (2) above.

As with most provisions of the CARES Act, very limited formal guidance has been issued by the IRS. Instead, the IRS issues and updates FAQs on the IRS website. 

One area where eligible employers have been seeking advice is what qualifies as wages and allocable health insurance costs. Qualified wages include an allocable portion of the qualified health plan expenses paid or incurred by an eligible employer to provide and maintain a group health plan. For purposes of the ERC, this also includes employee pre-tax contributions. 

IRS FAQs

The IRS recently updated the Employee Retention Credit FAQs to indicate an eligible employer can claim the ERC for qualified health plan expenses, regardless of whether the employee is paid qualified wages. Updated FAQs 64-65 clarify that health plan expenses paid to laid off or furloughed employees are considered qualified wages for purposes of the ERC. This is welcome news since most employers continue to a pay their share (if not the full amount) of the health insurance premiums for employees who have been laid off or furloughed. 

Read specific examples in the updated FAQs here.

How are qualified health plan expenses determined and allocated?

Qualified health plan expenses are determined separately for each plan sponsored by an employer. For employers sponsoring more than one health plan, for example a group health plan and a health flexible spending arrangement, expenses for each plan are allocated to the employees who participate in that plan. Allocated expenses will be aggregated for those employees who participate in more than one plan. 

Qualified health plan expenses may be allocated using any reasonable method by those employers sponsoring a fully-insured group health plan, including (1) the COBRA applicable premium for the employee, (2) one average premium rate for all employees, or (3) a substantially similar method that takes into account the average premium rate determined separately for employees with self-only and other than self-only coverage. An eligible employer allocating expenses using the average premium rate for all employees may determine a daily rate as detailed in FAQ 67.

Example

An employer sponsors an insured group health plan that covers 400 employees, some with self-only coverage and some with family coverage. Each employee is expected to have 260 work days a year (5 days/week for 52 weeks). The employees contribute a portion of their premium by pre-tax salary reduction, with different amounts for self-only and family. The total annual premium for the 400 employees is $5.2 million. Using the one average premium rate method, the annual premium rate is $13,000 ($5.2 million divided by 400 employees). For each employee expected to have 260 work days a year, the resulting daily average premium is $50 ($13,000 divided by 260 days). The $50 daily rate represents qualified health plan expenses allocated to each day of the qualified wages per employee.

For those employers sponsoring self-insured group health plans, qualified health plan expenses may be allocated using any reasonable method, including (1) the COBRA applicable premium for the employee, or (2) any reasonable actuarial method to determine the estimated annual expenses of the plan. 

An eligible employer sponsoring a self-insured group health plan and allocating expenses using a reasonable actuarial method to determine estimated annual expenses may determine a daily rate similar to the rules for fully-insured plans—that is, taking the estimated annual expenses, dividing by the number of employees covered, and then dividing by the average number of work days during the year by the employees. 

For both fully-insured and self-insured plans, paid-time off days are considered work days when determining the average daily rate.

FAQs 69 and 70 provide that qualified health plan expenses do not include eligible employer contributions to health savings accounts (HSA), Archer medical saving accounts (Archer MSA), or a qualified small employer health reimbursement arrangement (QSEHRA). 

However, qualified health plan expenses may include contributions to a health reimbursement arrangement (HRA), including an individual coverage HRA, or a health flexible spending account (FSA). To allocate contributions to an HRA or a health FSA, eligible employers should use the amount of contributions made on behalf of the particular employee.

Additionally, qualified health plans expenses do not include health plan expenses allocated to any sick leave and family medical wages under the FFCRA (FAQ 71). 

Summary

For those eligible employers with 100 or more employees, the guidance that can be inferred from the available FAQs appears to be the following:

  • If an employer is paying an employee for more than the hours the employee is actually working then a credit would be available for the difference between wages paid and the wages for the hours worked.
  • If an employer has decreased the hours worked by an employee but continues to pay the same (or greater) cost for health insurance, a credit would be available for the allocable health insurance costs while the employee is not working. For example, if an employee is only working 60% of the his/her normal hours, an employer would be able to receive a credit equal to 40% of the health insurance costs paid for that employee.

For more information

If you have more questions, or have a specific question about your particular situation, please call us. We’re here to help. 

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Employee Retention Credit―Updated IRS FAQs provide clarification

Read this if you are planning for, or are in the process of implementing a new software solution.

User Acceptance Testing (UAT) is more than just another step in the implementation of a software solution. It can verify system functionality, increase the opportunity for a successful project, and create additional training opportunities for your team to adapt to the new software quickly. Independent verification through a structured user acceptance plan is essential for a smooth transition from a development environment to a production environment. 

Verification of functionality

The primary purpose of UAT is to verify that a system is ready to go live. Much of UAT is like performing a pre-flight checklist on an aircraft. Wings... check, engines... check, tires... check. A structured approach to UAT can verify that everything is working prior to rolling out a new software system for everyone to use. 

To hold vendors accountable for their contractual obligations, we recommend an agency test each functional and technical requirement identified in the statement of work portion of their contract. 

It is also recommended that the agency verify the functional and technical requirements that the vendor replied positivity to in the RFP for the system you are implementing. 

Easing the transition to a new software

Operational change management (OCM) is a term that describes a methodology for making the switch to a new software solution. Think of implementing a new software solution like learning a new language. For some employees, the legacy software solution is the only way they know how to do their job. Like learning a new language, changing the way business and learning a new software can be a challenging and scary task. The benefits outweigh the anxiety associated with learning a new language. You can communicate with a broader group of people, and maybe even travel the world! This is also true for learning a new software solution; there are new and exciting ways to perform your job.

Throughout all organizations there will be some employees resistant to change. Getting those employees involved in UAT can help. By involving them in testing the new system and providing feedback prior to implementation, they will feel ownership and be less likely to resist the change. In our experience, some of the most resistant employees, once involved in the process, become the biggest champions of the new system.  

Training and testing for better results

On top of the OCM and verification benefits a structured UAT can accomplish, UAT can be a great training opportunity. An agency needs to be able to perform actions of the tested functionality. For example, if an agency is testing a software’s ability to import a document, then a tester needs to be trained on how to do that task. By performing this task, the tester learns how to login to the software, navigate the software, and perform tasks that the end user will be accomplishing in their daily use of the new software. 

Effective UAT and change management

We have observed agencies that have installed software that was either not fully configured or the final product was not what was expected when the project started. The only way to know that software works how you want is to test it using business-driven scenarios. BerryDunn has developed a UAT process, customizable to each client, which includes a UAT tracking tool. This process and related tool helps to ensure that we inspect each item and develop steps to resolve issues when the software doesn’t function as expected. 

We also incorporate change management into all aspects of a project and find that the UAT process is the optimal time to do so. Following established and proven approaches for change management during UAT is another opportunity to optimize implementation of a new software solution. 

By building a structured approach to UAT, you can enjoy additional benefits, as additional training and OCM benefits can make the difference between forming a positive or a negative reaction to the new software. By conducting a structured and thorough UAT, you can help your users gain confidence in the process, and increase adoption of the new software. 

Please contact the team if you have specific questions relating to your specific needs, or to see how we can help your agency validate the new system’s functionality and reduce resistance to the software. We’re here to help.   
 

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User Acceptance Testing: A plan for successful software implementation

Read this if you are a solar or wind developer, investor, or have interests in the renewable energy industry.

Given the recent exchange between a bipartisan group of senators and the Treasury Department, it appears that the continuity safe harbor for the Production Tax Credit (PTC) and Energy Investment Tax Credit (ITC) will be extended. 

Under current regulations, taxpayers “lock in” a tax credit based on the beginning of construction date for their facility or property. Taxpayers must then demonstrate continuous efforts to complete construction in order to ultimately be eligible for the tax credit on completion. If the taxpayers place their energy facility or property into service within four years after the beginning of construction they are deemed to satisfy this test. This is known as the continuity safe harbor. The senators wish to extend the continuity safe harbor from four to five years and it appears that the Treasury may agree. Here is a copy of the letter senators sent to the Treasury. Here is a copy of the letter the Treasury sent back. 

The good news

The Treasury plans to “modify the relevant rules in the near future”. It is encouraging that both groups are aware of the unique challenges businesses in the renewables energy industry face in meeting regulatory deadlines to qualify for tax credits, which help make many projects economically viable. 

The so-so news

We don’t know what the rule modification will entail and this is only an extension of the continuity safe harbor. While this is a welcome change, there are many projects in the pipeline still in the planning phase that have not yet started construction. For these projects, the beginning of construction safe harbor date is more important as it determines the ITC credit rate. For example, projects beginning in 2020 get a 26% credit, and projects beginning in 2021 get a 22% credit. 

Looking ahead

Given the uncertainty in all business planning, now would be a good time to extend the ITC credit rates and/or beginning of construction safe harbor date to give businesses more time to lock in the 26% credit rate for 2020. As the Treasury is limited to what they can do without legislative action, we may need to wait for Congress on this change. 

We are watching for new developments on this issue and will provide updates as we can. If you have questions about your specific situation, please contact the team. We’re here to help.  
 

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Treasury Department signals modification of ITC and PTC continuity safe harbor

Read this if your organization, business, or institution has leases and you’ve been eagerly awaiting and planning for the implementation of the new lease standards.

Ready? Set? Not yet. As we have prepared for and experienced delays related to Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) Accounting Standards Codification Topic 842, Leases, we thought the time had finally come for implementation. With the challenges that COVID-19 has brought to everyone, the FASB recognizes the significant impact COVID-19 has brought to commercial businesses and not-for-profits and is proposing a one-year delay in implementation, as described in this article posted to the Journal of Accountancy: FASB effective date delay proposals to include private company lease accounting.

But what about lease concessions? We all recognize many lessors are making concessions due to the pandemic. Under current guidance in Topics 840 and 842, changes to lease contracts that were not included in the original lease are generally accounted for as lease modifications and, therefore, a separate contract. This would require remeasurement of the new lease contract and related right-of-use asset. FASB recognized this issue and has published a FASB Staff Questions and Answers (Q&A) Document,  Topic 842 and Topic 840: Accounting for Lease Concessions Related to the Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Under this new guidance, if lease concessions are made relating to COVID-19, entities do not need to analyze each contract to determine if a new contract has been entered into, and will have the option to apply, or not to apply, the lease modification provisions of Topics 840 and 842.

Implementation of the lease accounting standard will most likely be delayed for Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) entities as well. On April 15, 2020, the GASB issued an exposure draft that would delay most GASB statements and implementation guides due to be implemented for fiscal years 2019 and later. Most notably, this includes Statement 84, Fiduciary Activities, and Statement 87, Leases. Comments on the proposal will be accepted through April 30, and the board plans to consider a final statement for issuance on May 8. More information may be found in this article from the Journal of Accountancy: GASB proposes postponing effective dates due to pandemic.

More information

Whether you are a FASB or GASB entity, you can expect a delay in the implementation of the lease standard. If you have questions, please contact a member of our financial statement audit team. For other COVID-19 related resources, please refer to BerryDunn’s COVID-19 Resources Page.

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FASB and GASB news: Postponement of the lease accounting standards

Read this if your company is seeking assistance under the PPP.

With additional funding for the PPP pending, we’re updating this blog post with more recent information.


This information is current as of April 21, 2020.

The Treasury Department has issued guidance and answers to Frequently Asked Questions that alters some of the original assumptions around PPP:

  1. At least 75% of the forgiven amount should be used for payroll (changed due to anticipated high demand for program)
  2. Repayment of non-forgiven amounts are now repaid over 2 years at 1.0% interest (not 2 years and 0.5% as previously stated or 10 years and 4% as in the CARES Act)

Although the “covered period” is February 15, 2020 to June 30, 2020, forgiveness of the loan is based on expenses (primarily payroll) during the eight-week period after the loan is received. Loan amounts should be disbursed within 10 calendar days of being approved.

Important to note:

  1. Questions around size:
    1. 500 employees. The SBA has clarified that it measures employees consistent with the existing 7(a) loan program guidance. See CFR Section 121.106 for details.
    2. The SBA has also clarified that if a business meets both tests in the “alternative size standard”, it qualifies to participate in the program
      1. Maximum tangible net worth of the business is not more than $15 million.
      2. Average net income after Federal income taxes for the two full fiscal years before the date of application is not more than $5 million. 
    3. If the existing SBA definition of a small business for your industry (found on SBA websites) has over 500 employees, your business may qualify if you meet that expanded definition. 
  2. The CARES Act states that loans taken from January 31, 2020, until “covered loans are made available may be refinanced as part of a covered loan.”
  3. People may want to tap into available credit now. If they are granted a covered loan (PPP loan), they can refinance. Given anticipated demand, it may take time to get the PPP loan processed.
  4. Participation in PPP (Section 1102 and 1106 of the CARES Act) precludes participation in the Employee Retention Credit (Section 2301).
  5. The IRS clarified that companies may still defer Payment of Employer Payroll Taxes (Section 2302) even if participating in PPP until a decision on forgiveness is reached by your lender. This is a change from our prior understanding.

Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL)

EIDLs are available through the SBA and were expanded under section 1110 of the CARES Act. Eligible are businesses with 500 or fewer employees, including ESOPs, cooperatives, and others. Up to $2 million per loan. Up to 30 years to repay. Comes with an emergency advance (available within 3 days) of $10,000 that does not have to be repaid – even if your loan application is turned down. This $10,000 does not impact participation in other programs/sections of the CARES Act. Some portion of the EIDL may reduce your loan forgiveness under PPP, but receiving an EIDL does not preclude you from participating in the PPP.

From the Treasury: Small business PPP

The Paycheck Protection Program provides small businesses with funds to pay up to 8 weeks of payroll costs including benefits. Funds can also be used to pay interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities. More details at treasury.gov.

Fully forgiven

Funds are provided in the form of loans that will be fully forgiven when used for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities (due to likely high subscription, at least 75% of the forgiven amount must have been used for payroll). Loan payments will also be deferred for six months. No collateral or personal guarantees are required. Neither the government nor lenders will charge small businesses any fees.

Must keep employees on the payroll—or rehire quickly

Forgiveness is based on the employer maintaining or quickly rehiring employees and maintaining salary levels. Forgiveness will be reduced if full-time headcount declines, or if salaries and wages decrease.

All small businesses eligible

Small businesses with 500 or fewer employees—including nonprofits, veterans organizations, tribal concerns, self-employed individuals, sole proprietorships, and independent contractors— are eligible. Businesses with more than 500 employees are eligible in certain industries.

When to apply

Starting April 3, 2020, small businesses and sole proprietorships can apply. Starting April 10, 2020, independent contractors and self-employed individuals can apply.

How to apply

You can apply through any existing SBA 7(a) lender or any federally insured depository institution, federally insured credit union, or Farm Credit System institution that is participating. Other regulated lenders will be available to make these loans once they are approved and enrolled in the program. You should consult with your local lender as to whether it is participating. All loans will have the same terms regardless of lender or borrower. Find a list of participating lenders and additional information and full terms at sba.gov.

The Paycheck Protection Program is implemented by the Small Business Administration with support from the Department of the Treasury. Lenders should also visit sba.gov or coronavirus.gov for more information.

BerryDunn COVID-19 resources

We’re here to help. If you have questions about the PPP, contact a BerryDunn professional.

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Updated: Funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)

Read this if you are a Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Risk Officer, Chief Information Officer, or Controller.

While COVID-19 has forced many of us into a remote work environment, we also have to deal with the challenges that come along with it. The stark contrast between an office environment and one that potentially involves working in isolation can be a difficult adjustment. Office kitchen conversations have evolved into conversations with pets, our newest co-workers. A quick, in-person question has now turned into an email, phone, or video call. And job responsibilities expand as we try to not only juggle work but also ensure our children focus on school work―and don’t destroy the house. 

Not only has this forced environment caused social challenges, it has also opened the door for internal control challenges, as  internal controls designed to operate effectively in an office environment may not be ideal for a remote workplace. Even ones that are appropriately designed, may prove to be operating ineffectively in this new environment. Let’s take a look at some internal control challenges, and potential solutions, faced by working in a remote environment.

Establishing a remote control environment

Exercising appropriate tone at the top and establishing appropriate oversight can be challenging with a remote workforce. Ethics and governance policies play an important role in setting clear expectations about workplace behaviors. But, a workforce is much more apt to follow a leadership team’s example rather than a policy. All of those office conversations, even the conversations that are not work related, help set an expectation of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. These conversations often happen naturally in the office via a quick conversation in passing in the hallway or a late-Friday happy hour with your department. However, these interactions do not naturally occur in a remote workplace. Leadership and department heads should make an active effort to maintain communication with their workforce. Some things to consider:

  • Send out weekly emails to the entire department and possibly more personal, one-on-one videoconferences or phone calls between your department heads or managers and individual members of their teams.
  • These department-wide emails should stress the importance of communication as well as continuing to produce high quality work and maintaining accountability. 
  • One-on-one meetings should be used to check in with employees to ensure their work needs are being met. 

Employees will most likely have many suggestions to improve their new work environment, including suggestions on how to improve communication amongst team members. 

The power of video

Videoconferencing also provides a great opportunity to stay connected. Virtual happy hours simulate an in-person happy hour. This is a great way to check-in with team members and show that, although people are out of sight, they are not out of mind. Town hall-type meetings can also be explored. Your leadership team can solicit open discussion. Agenda items may include office status updates, technological considerations, and an opportunity for employees to openly discuss current challenges due to working in a remote environment. Employees are going to have anxiety about the current environment. These meetings can help put employees at ease.

Risk assessment

Internal control environments are constantly evolving. Employees leave. Software is updated.  Offered services and products change. The list goes on. However, it is unprecedented that an internal control environment has changed so rapidly. Given these unprecedented times, there is potential for higher risk of fraud, internally and externally. Those responsible for designing internal controls (control owners) should reassess your company’s environment. Although internal controls can be designed in a manner in which they operate effectively regardless of the circumstances, it is possible there are unintended changes to processes that have occurred. 

For instance, let’s say the employee responsible for reviewing loan file maintenance changes is now working an alternative work schedule due to personal obligations. This employee does not have the ability to make loan file changes; therefore, segregation of duties has never been an issue. An employee within loan servicing has agreed to take some of the employee’s responsibilities and is now reviewing some of the loan file maintenance changes, which has put this employee in a position to review some of their own changes. 

Furthermore, some internal controls that require employees be at a physical location to operate may also be compromised, such as inventory cycle counts. If these controls are unable to operate, control owners will need to consider the impacts on the affected transaction areas, and if there are compensating controls that can be designed to alleviate some of the control risk.

Control activities

Accounts payable and check signing

The accounts payable and cash disbursement process will most likely be upended as a result of your new remote environment. Bills received through the mail will need to be scanned to the accounts payable clerk for entry into the accounting system. Some offices have designated certain personnel responsible for checking mail on an infrequent basis, for instance, weekly. Check signing may also prove to be a challenge as blank check stock may be inaccessible. Electronic receipt of invoices and signing of checks, as well as the use of wire and ACH transfers, lend themselves as feasible solutions. Email approvals may suffice when multiple signers are needed to approve high dollar disbursements.

Segregation of duties

As mentioned above, it is possible processes have inadvertently changed, exposing certain internal controls to ineffectiveness. Segregation of duties may become difficult as employees shift to alternative work schedules or have other issues. Maintaining segregation of duties should be a top priority for control owners and is something that should be constantly assessed as circumstances change. Challenging times may make segregation of duties difficult and may force you to get creative by requesting employees perform duties they are not otherwise accustomed to performing.

Digital sign-offs

You should also consider the manner in which you document the completion of controls. Control owners should be cautious about the integrity of an employee’s initials simply typed onto a digital document, as any employee can perform this task. Digital signatures, which require an employee to enter credentials prior to signing, enhance the integrity of a sign-off and are often time stamped. Digital signatures may also “lock down” the document, prohibiting any changes to the signed document.

Timely review

Given the circumstances, it is not unreasonable that preparation and review may take longer than under normal circumstances. Even if additional time is granted for the preparation and review of documents, you should consider the implications this has on the transaction class as a whole. The longer it takes to complete a control, the greater the consequences may be if you identify an error. For instance, the impact of an incorrect change to a loan rate index can be substantial if not identified timely. If identified quickly, you can avoid consequences later.

Information and communication

For many companies that have moved from a paper to a digital environment, sharing of information should not be an issue. However, for those that still operate in a mostly paper environment, performing tasks and sharing information with team members may prove to be difficult. And, those without the capability of scanning and sending documents from home could compromise a specific internal control altogether. Being forced to work remotely may be the perfect excuse to move paper processes into a digital format.

Monitoring

Monitoring your internal control environment is of the utmost importance given these significant changes. Frequent conversations should be had with control owners to ensure changes to processes do not render controls ineffective. Identified gaps in internal controls should be addressed proactively. Provide control owners with the opportunity to discuss changes to control processes with Internal Audit or Risk Management so such departments can consider the impact of changes on internal control. This also gives these departments the opportunity to cover any resulting gaps.

Permanent changes

Once the remote workplace requirements end, the effects of working in such an environment will not. There are many benefits and efficiencies to be found in working remotely. As people have now been forced to work in such an environment, they will be more apt to continue to do so. Therefore, let’s take this opportunity to revise processes and internal controls to be “remote workplace” compatible. This will provide a long-lasting impact to your organization far beyond the pandemic. 
 

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How does your control environment look in a remote world?

Read this if your company would like to request an advance payment of the tax credits.

In response to the paid sick and family medical leave credit provisions enacted by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the employee retention credit enacted by the CARES Act, the IRS has issued Form 7200 to request an advance payment of the tax credits.

Who may file Form 7200?

Employers that file Form(s) 941, 943, 944, or CT-1 may file Form 7200 to request an advance payment of the tax credit for qualified sick and family leave wages and the employee retention credit.

Eligible employers who pay qualified sick and family leave wages or qualified wages eligible for the employee retention credit should retain the amounts qualified for either credit rather than depositing these amounts with the IRS.

With respect to the sick and family leave payments, the credit includes amounts paid for qualified sick and family leave wages, related health plan expenses, and the employer’s share of the Medicare taxes on the qualified wages.

With respect to the employee retention credit, the credit equals 50% of the qualified wages, including certain health plan expense allocable to the wages, and may not exceed $5,000 per qualifying employee. Of note:

  • Employment taxes available for the credits include withheld federal income tax, the employee's share of Social Security and Medicare taxes, and the employer's share of Social Security and Medicare taxes with respect to all employees.
  • If there aren’t sufficient employment taxes to cover the cost of qualified sick and family leave wages (plus the qualified health expenses and the employer share of Medicare tax on the qualified leave wages) and the employee retention credit, employers can file Form 7200 to request an advance payment from the IRS.
  • The IRS instructs employers not to reduce their deposits and request advance credit payments for the same expected credit. Rather, an employer will need to reconcile any advance credit payments and reduced deposits on its applicable employment tax return.

Examples

If an employer is entitled to a credit of $5,000 for qualified sick leave, certain related health plan expenses, and the employer’s share of Medicare tax on the leave wages and is otherwise required to deposit $8,000 in employment taxes, the employer could reduce its federal employment tax deposits by $5,000. The employer would only be required to deposit the remaining $3,000 on its next regular deposit date.

If an employer is entitled to an employee retention credit of $10,000 and was required to deposit $8,000 in employment taxes, the employer could retain the entire $8,000 of taxes as a portion of the refundable tax credit it is entitled to and file a request for an advance payment for the remaining $2,000 using Form 7200.

When to file

Form 7200 can be filed at any time before the end of the month following the quarter in which qualified wages were paid, and may be filed several times during each quarter, if needed. The form cannot be filed after an employer has filed its last employment tax return for 2020.

Please note that Form 7200 cannot be corrected. Any error made on Form 7200 will be corrected when the employer files its employment tax form.

How to file

Fax Form 7200, which you can access here, to 855-248-0552. Form 7200 instructions.

If you need more information, or have any questions, please contact a BerryDunn tax professional. We’re here to help.

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IRS releases Form 7200: Advance payment of employer credits due to COVID-19

Focus: Disaster Loan Program and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)

Background

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act will provide $562 million to cover administrative expenses and program subsidy for the US Small Business Administration (SBA) Economic Injury Disaster Loans and small business programs. 

Additionally, the CARES Act specifically provides the authorization for $349 billion for the SBA 7(a) program through December 31, 2020. 

SBA disaster loan program (updated for CARES Act) highlights


General
The US Small Business Administration is offering designated states and territories low-interest federal disaster loans for working capital to small businesses suffering substantial economic injury as a result of the coronavirus and COVID-19.

Eligibility 
Industry may be subject to different standards, but the general rule of thumb is that the SBA defines most small businesses as having less than 500 people, both calculated on a standalone basis and together with its affiliates (see PPP below for more information). A company’s average annual sales may also be used for the small business designation. 

Historically, businesses that are not eligible for this program included casinos, charitable organizations, religious organizations, agricultural enterprises and real estate developers that are primarily involved in subdividing real property into lots and developing it for resale for themselves (other real estate entities may apply, such as landlords). 

However, the CARES Act expanded eligibility to include (i) any individual operating as a sole proprietor or independent contractor; (ii) private non-profits and (iii) Tribal businesses, cooperatives and ESOPs with fewer than 500 employees during January 31, 2020 to December 31, 2020.

If the entity has bad credit or has defaulted on a prior SBA loan, the entity is not eligible. The CARES Act removed the credit elsewhere requirement (i.e., previously if the business had credit available through another source, such as a line of credit, it was ineligible). 

Basic terms

  • Loan amount
    The lesser of $2 million or an amount determined that that borrower can repay (i.e., underwriting requirement).
  • Maximum term
    Up to 30 years and all payments on these loans will be deferred for 12 months from disbursement date. Interest will accrue.
  • Interest rate
    3.75% for for-profit business and 2.75% for a non-profit entity.
  • Collateral
    Loans for under $25,000 do not require collateral.  Any person with an interest in the company worth 20% or more must be a guarantor; however the CARES Act eliminates the guaranty requirement on advances and loans under $200,000. 
  • Use of proceeds
    Loan proceeds may be used to pay fixed debts (including short-term notes and balloon payments that are due within the next 12 months), payroll, accounts payable, and other bills the borrower would have to pay that but for the disaster would have been paid, such as mortgage payments. Landlords and other passive entities are eligible. Agriculture-related entities are eligible, but farmers are not. Borrowers must maintain proof of how the loan proceeds were used for three years from the date of disbursement. Borrowers cannot use the proceeds to expand their business, buy assets, make repairs to real estate or refinance long-term debt. 
  • Forgiveness
    No forgiveness provision.

Applying
Loan applications are available here

Length of time for funding
Upon submittal of a completed application, it can take 18-21 days to be approved and another four to five business days for funding. However, the SBA has never dealt with this much volume so expect delays.  

If funding is needed immediately, contact any SBA partnering non-profit lender and request an SBA microloan up to $50,000 or contact a commercial lending partner to see if they offer SBA express loans up to $1,000,000 (CARES Act increases this from $350,000 to $1,000,000) and/or SBA 7(a) loans up to $5 million. The 7(a) loans are typically processed within 30 days, while microloans and express loans are processed even more quickly. 

The CARES Act has also established an emergency grant to allow eligible entities who have applied for a disaster loan because of COVID-19 to request an advance of up to $10,000 on that loan. The SBA is to distribute the advance within three days. 

This advance does not need to be repaid, even if the applicant is denied a Disaster Loan. ($10,000,000,000 is appropriated for this program and funds will be distributed on a first come, first served basis). An applicant must self-certify that it is an eligible entity prior to receiving such an advance. Advances may be used for providing sick leave to employees, maintaining payroll, meeting increased costs to obtain materials, rent or mortgage payments, and payment of business obligations that cannot be paid due to loss of revenues. Applicants must apply directly with the SBA for this program.

Other considerations
Each company should review any current loan obligations and confirm that it does not include a provision forbidding that applicant from acquiring additional debt. If the document does, the applicant will want to discuss a waiver of that provision with its current lender. The lender should be amenable to this waiver and the applicant will want the waiver verified in writing. The lender should be amenable because the SBA disaster loan can be used to satisfy monthly debt obligations and any collateral taken by the SBA would be subordinate, if the same collateral secures the lender’s loan.

Under the CARES Act, Congress has also directed the SBA to use funds to make principal and interest payments, along with associated fees that may be owed on an existing SBA 7(a), 504 or micro-loan program covered loan, for a period of six months from the next payment due date. Any loan that may currently be on deferment will receive the six months of covered payments once the deferral period has ended. This provision will also cover loans that are made up to six months after the enactment of the CARES Act. If the loan maturity date conflicts with benefiting from this amendment, the lender can extend the maturity date of the loan. 

Newly enacted Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)


General
This new program will be offered with a 100% SBA guaranty through December 31, 2020, to lenders, after which the guaranty percentage will return to 75% for loans above $150,000 and 85% for loans below that amount. 

Eligibility 
A business, including a qualifying nonprofit organization, that was in operation on February 15, 2020, and either had employees for whom it paid salaries and payroll taxes or paid independent contractors, is eligible for PPP loans if it (a) meets the applicable North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) Code-based size standard or other applicable 7(a) loan size standard, both alone and together with its affiliates; or (b) has an employee headcount that is lower than the greater of (i) 500 employees or (ii) the employee size standard, if any, under the applicable NAICS Code. 

Businesses that fall within NAICS Code 72, which applies to accommodations and food services, are also eligible if they employ no more than 500 people per physical location. Sole proprietorships, independent contractors, and self-employed individuals are also eligible. It is unclear as of what date the size test will be applied, but historically, SBA size tests have been applied on the date of application for financing. More information on the NAICS-Code-based size standards can be found here

Borrowers are required to provide a good faith certification that the loan is necessary due to economic conditions brought about because of COVID-19 and that the borrower will use the funds to retain workers, maintain payroll and pay utilities, lease and/or mortgage payments.

The credit elsewhere test is waived under this program. 

Lenders shall base their underwriting on whether a business was operational on February 15, 2020, and had employees for whom it was responsible for or paid for services from an independent contractor. The legislation has directed lenders not to base their determinations on repayment ability at the present time because of the effects of COVID-19.

Applicants for SBA loan programs, including PPP loans, typically must include their affiliates when applying size tests to determine eligibility. That means that employees of other businesses under common control would count toward the maximum number of permitted employees. A business that is controlled by a private equity sponsor would likely be deemed an affiliate of the other businesses controlled by that sponsor and could thus be ineligible for PPP loans. However, the CARES Act waives the affiliation requirement for the following applicants:  

  1. Businesses within NAICS Code 72 with no more than 500 employees
  2. Franchises with codes assigned by the SBA, as reflected on the SBA franchise registry
  3. Businesses that receive financial assistance from one or more small business investment companies (SBIC) 

Basic terms

  • Loan amount
    Lesser of $10 million or 2.5 times the applicant’s average monthly payroll costs of the business over the year prior to the making of the loan (practically, this may become the year prior to the loan application), excluding the prorated portion of any annual compensation above $100,000 for any person. Note that under the CARES Act, “payroll costs” include vacation, parental, family, medical, and sick leave; allowances for dismissal or separation; payments for group health care benefits, including insurance premiums; and retirement benefits. Calculations vary slightly for seasonal businesses and businesses that were not in operation between February 15 and June 30, 2019. To the extent that a SBA Disaster Loan was used for a purpose other than those permitted for PPP Loans, the Disaster Loans may be refinanced with proceeds of PPP loans, in which case the maximum available PPP loan amount is increased by the amount of the Disaster Loans being refinanced. 
  • Maximum term
    Payments will be deferred for a minimum of 6 months and a maximum of 12. SBA is directed to issue guidance on the terms of this deferral. Any portion of the PPP loan that is not forgiven (see below) on or before December 31, 2020, shall automatically be a term loan for a maximum of 10 years. For PPP loans, the SBA has waived prepayment penalties.
  • Fees
    SBA will waive the guaranty fee and annual fee applicable to other 7(a) loans. 
  • Interest rate
    Maximum rate of 4%.
  • Collateral
    The standard requirements of collateral and a personal guaranty are waived under this program. Accordingly, there will be no recourse to owners or borrowers for nonpayment, except to the extent proceeds are used for an unauthorized purpose.
  • Use of proceeds
    This loan can be used for: (i) payroll support, excluding the prorated portion of any compensation above $100,000 per year for any person; (ii) group healthcare benefits costs and insurance premiums; (iii) mortgage interest (but not prepayments or principal payments) and rent payments incurred in the ordinary course of business, and (iv) utility payments. 
  • Forgiveness
    A borrower will be eligible for loan forgiveness related to a PPP loan in an amount equal to 8 weeks of payroll costs, and the interest on mortgage payments (not principal) made in the ordinary course of business, rent payments, or utility payments so long as all payments were obligations of the borrower prior to February 15, 2020. Payroll costs are limited to compensation for a single employee to be no more than $100,000 in wages and the amount of forgiveness cannot exceed the principal loan amount. 

    The amount of loan forgiveness will be reduced proportionally by any reduction in the borrower’s workforce, based on the full-time equivalent employees versus the period from either February 15, 2019, through June 30, 2019, or January 1, 2020, through February 29, 2020, as selected by the borrower, or a reduction of more than 25% of any employee’s compensation, measured against the most recent full quarter. If a borrower has already had to lay off employees due to COVID-19, employers are encouraged to rehire them by not being penalized for having a reduced payroll at the beginning of the covered period, which means the initial 8 week period after the loan’s origination date. 

    Accordingly, reductions in the number of employees or compensation occurring between February 15, 2020, and 30 days after enactment of the CARES Act will generally be ignored to the extent reversed by June 30, 2020. Any additional wages that may be paid to tipped workers are also covered in the calculation of payroll forgiveness. Borrowers must keep accurate records and document their payments because lenders will need to verify the payments to allow for loan forgiveness. Borrowers will not have to include any forgiven indebtedness as taxable income. 

Applying
A company needs to apply on or before June 30, 2020, with a lender who is currently approved as a 7(a) lender or who is approved by the SBA and the Treasury Department to become a PPP lender. PPP lenders have delegated authority to make and approve PPP loan, with no additional SBA approval required. 

There are certain portions of the CARES Act that require SBA to provide further guidance so there may be some slight changes to the rules and procedures as best practices present themselves. 

We recommend contacting existing 7(a) lenders as soon as possible to learn what you will need to provide for underwriting and approving a PPP loan. 

We are here to help
Please contact a BerryDunn professional if you have any questions, or would like to discuss your specific situation.

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Impact of CARES Act on SBA loans

Read this if you are an employer that may have to close, or has closed, due to COVID-19.

Here is a brief recap of definitions and explanations of employee retention credits found in the CARES Act. If you have questions about your specific situation, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re here to help.

Eligible employer

The term ‘‘eligible employer’’ means any employer: 

(i) that was carrying on a trade or business during calendar year 2020, and 
(ii) with respect to any calendar quarter, for which...
a.     the operation of the trade or business is fully or partially suspended during the calendar quarter due to orders from an appropriate governmental authority limiting commerce, travel, or group meetings (for commercial, social, religious, or other purposes) due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID–19), or 
b. such calendar quarter where there is a significant decline in gross receipts...
i. beginning with the first calendar quarter in 2020, for which gross receipts for the calendar quarter are less than 50 percent of gross receipts for the same calendar quarter in the prior year, and 
ii. ending with the calendar quarter for which gross receipts of such employer are greater than 80 percent of gross receipts for the same calendar quarter in the prior year.


For tax-exempt organizations described in section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code and exempt from tax under section 501(a) of such Code, clauses (i) and (ii)(a) shall apply to all operations of such organization.

Generally, all organizations treated as a single employer under the controlled group or affiliated service group rules will be treated as one employer for purposes of this section.

If an eligible employer participates in the Paycheck Protection Program, such an employer is not eligible for the employee retention credits.

Amount of credit

There shall be allowed, as a credit against applicable employment taxes for each calendar quarter, an amount equal to 50 percent of the qualified wages with respect to each employee of such employer for such calendar quarter.

The amount of qualified wages with respect to any employee which may be taken into account by the eligible employer for all calendar quarters shall not exceed $10,000 (i.e., the maximum credit is $5,000 per employee).

If the credit exceeds the applicable employment taxes on the wages paid for such calendar quarter, such excess shall be treated as an overpayment that shall be refunded.

Qualified wages

The term ‘‘qualified wages’’ means:

(i) in the case of an eligible employer for which the average number of full-time employees (as defined by the Affordable Care Act Employer Mandate Provisions) employed by such eligible employer during 2019 was greater than 100:
a. wages paid by such eligible employer with respect to which an employee is not providing services due to the suspension of the business or a drop in gross receipts circumstances, or 
(ii) in the case of an eligible employer for which the average number of full-time employees (as defined by the Affordable Care Act Employer Mandate Provisions) employed by such eligible employer during 2019 was not greater than 100:
a. all wages paid by an eligible employer when shut down and each quarter where there was a sharp decline in year-over-year receipts.


Wages do not include amounts paid under the expanded sick/family leave provisions of the FFCRA.

Qualified wages paid or incurred by an eligible employer with respect to an employee who is not providing services may not exceed the amount such employee would have been paid for working an equivalent duration during the 30 days immediately preceding leave.

The term ‘‘qualified wages’’ shall include so much of the eligible employer’s qualified health plan expenses as are properly allocable to such wages.


CARES Act: Payroll tax payment delay

An extension of time to remit payroll taxes for the period beginning March 27, 2020 and ending before January 1, 2021 over a two-year period is allowed, with half due by December 31, 2021, and the remainder due by December 31, 2022.

If an eligible employer participates in the payroll tax delay programs, such an employer is not eligible for the employee retention credits.
 

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CARES Act―Employee retention credits for employers subject to closure due to COVID-19

On March 27, 2020, President Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provides relief to taxpayers affected by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. The CARES Act is the third round of federal government aid related to COVID-19. We have summarized the top provisions in the new legislation below, with more detailed alerts on individual provisions to follow. Click here for a link to the full text of the bill.

Compensation, benefits, and payroll relief
The law temporarily increases the amount of and expands eligibility for unemployment benefits, and it provides relief for workers who are self-employed. Additionally, several provisions assist certain employers who keep employees on payroll even though the employees are not able or needed to work. 

The cornerstone of the payroll protection aid is a streamlined application process for SBA loans that can be forgiven if an eligible employer maintains its workforce at certain levels. 

Additionally, certain employers affected by the pandemic who retain their employees will receive a credit against payroll taxes for 50% of eligible employee wages paid or incurred from March 13 to December 31, 2020. This employee retention credit would be provided for as much as $10,000 of qualifying wages, including health benefits. Eligible employers may defer remitting employer payroll tax payments that remain due for 2020 (after the credits are deducted), with half being due by December 31, 2021, and the balance due by December 31, 2022. 

Employers with fewer than 500 employees are also allowed to give terminated employees access to the mandated paid federal sick and child care leave benefits for which the employer is 100% reimbursed by the government through payroll tax credits, if the employer rehires the qualifying employees.

Any benefit that is driven off the definition of “employee” raises the issue of partner versus employee. The profits interest member that is receiving a W-2 may not be eligible for inclusion in the various benefit computations.

Eligible individuals can withdraw vested amounts up to $100,000 during 2020 without a 10% early distribution penalty, and income inclusion can be spread over three years. Repayment of distributions during the next three years will be treated as tax-free rollovers of the distribution. The bill also makes it easier to borrow money from 401(k) accounts, raising the limit to $100,000 from $50,000 for the first 180 days after enactment, and the payment dates for any loans due the rest of 2020 would be extended for a year.

Individuals do not have to take their 2020 required minimum distributions from their retirement funds. This avoids lost earnings power on the taxes due on distributions and maximizes the potential gain as the market recovers.

Two long-awaited provisions allow employers to assist employees with college loan debt through tax free payments up to $5,250 and restores over-the-counter medical supplies as permissible expenses that can be reimbursed through health care flexible spending accounts and health care savings accounts.

Deferral of net business losses for three years
Section 461(l) limits non-corporate taxpayers in their use of net business losses to offset other sources of income. As enacted in 2017, this limitation was effective for taxable years beginning after 2017 and before 2026, and applied after the basis, at-risk, and passive activity loss limitations. The amount of deductible net business losses is limited to $500,000 for married taxpayers filing a joint return and $250,000 for all other taxpayers. These amounts are indexed for inflation after 2018 (to $518,000 and $259,000, respectively, in 2020). Excess business losses are carried forward to the next succeeding taxable year and treated as a net operating loss in that year.

The CARES Act defers the effective date of Section 461(l) for three years, but also makes important technical corrections that will become effective when the limitation on excess business losses once again becomes applicable. Accordingly, net business losses from 2018, 2019, or 2020 may offset other sources of income, provided they are not otherwise limited by other provisions that remain in the Code. Beginning in 2021, the application of this limitation is clarified with respect to the treatment of wages and related deductions from employment, coordination with deductions under Section 172 (for net operating losses) or Section 199A (relating to qualified business income), and the treatment of business capital gains and losses.

Section 163(j) amended for taxable years beginning in 2019 and 2020
The CARES Act amends Section 163(j) solely for taxable years beginning in 2019 and 2020. With the exception of partnerships, and solely for taxable years beginning in 2019 and 2020, taxpayers may deduct business interest expense up to 50% of their adjusted taxable income (ATI), an increase from 30% of ATI under the TCJA, unless an election is made to use the lower limitation for any taxable year. Additionally, for any taxable year beginning in 2020, the taxpayer may elect to use its 2019 ATI for purposes of computing its 2020 Section 163(j) limitation. 

This will benefit taxpayers who may be facing reduced 2020 earnings as a result of the business implications of COVID-19. As such, taxpayers should be mindful of elections on their 2019 return that could impact their 2019 and 2020 business interest expense deduction. With respect to partnerships, the increased Section 163(j) limit from 30% to 50% of ATI only applies to taxable years beginning in 2020. However, in the case of any excess business interest expense allocated from a partnership for any taxable year beginning in 2019, 50% of such excess business interest expense is treated as not subject to the Section 163(j) limitation and is fully deductible by the partner in 2020. The remaining 50% of such excess business interest expense shall be subject to the limitations in the same manner as any other excess business interest expense so allocated. Each partner has the ability, under regulations to be prescribed by Treasury, to elect to have this special rule not applied. No rules are provided for application of this rule in the context of tiered partnership structures.

Net operating losses carryback allowed for taxable years beginning in 2018 and before 2021
The CARES Act provides for an elective five-year carryback of net operating losses (NOLs) generated in taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, and before January 1, 2021. Taxpayers may elect to relinquish the entire five-year carryback period with respect to a particular year’s NOL, with the election being irrevocable once made. In addition, the 80% limitation on NOL deductions arising in taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, has temporarily been pushed to taxable years beginning after December 31, 2020. 

Several ambiguities in the application of Section 172 arising as a result of drafting errors in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act have also been corrected. As certain benefits (i.e., charitable contributions, Section 250 “GILTI” deductions, etc.) may be impacted by an adjustment to taxable income, and therefore reduce the effective value of any NOL deduction, taxpayers will have to determine whether to elect to forego the carryback. Moreover, the bill provides for two special rules for NOL carrybacks to years in which the taxpayer included income from its foreign subsidiaries under Section 965. Please consider the impact of this interaction with your international tax advisors. 

However, given the potential offset to income taxed under a 35% federal rate, and the uncertainty regarding the long-term impact of the COVID-19 crisis on future earnings, it seems likely that most companies will take advantage of the revisions. This is a technical point, but while the highest average federal rate was 35% before 2018, the highest marginal tax rate was 38.333% for taxable amounts between $15 million and $18.33 million. This was put in place as part of our progressive tax system to eliminate earlier benefits of the 34% tax rate. Companies may wish to revisit their tax accounting methodologies to defer income and accelerate deductions in order to maximize their current year losses to increase their NOL carrybacks to earlier years.

Alternative minimum tax credit refunds
The CARES Act allows the refundable alternative minimum tax credit to be completely refunded for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2018, or by election, taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the credit was refundable over a series of years with the remainder recoverable in 2021.

Technical correction to qualified improvement property
The CARES Act contains a technical correction to a drafting error in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that required qualified improvement property (QIP) to be depreciated over 39 years, rendering such property ineligible for bonus depreciation. With the technical correction applying retroactively to 2018, QIP is now 15-year property and eligible for 100% bonus depreciation. This will provide immediate current cash flow benefits and relief to taxpayers, especially those in the retail, restaurant, and hospitality industries. Taxpayers that placed QIP into service in 2019 can claim 100% bonus depreciation prospectively on their 2019 return and should consider whether they can file Form 4464 to quickly recover overpayments of 2019 estimated taxes. Taxpayers that placed QIP in service in 2018 and that filed their 2018 federal income tax return treating the assets as bonus-ineligible 39-year property should consider amending that return to treat such assets as bonus-eligible. For C corporations, in particular, claiming the bonus depreciation on an amended return can potentially generate NOLs that can be carried back five years under the new NOL provisions of the CARES Act to taxable years before 2018 when the tax rates were 35%, even though the carryback losses were generated in years when the tax rate was 21%. With the taxable income limit under Section 172(a) being removed, an NOL can fully offset income to generate the maximum cash refund for taxpayers that need immediate cash. Alternatively, in lieu of amending the 2018 return, taxpayers may file an automatic Form 3115, Application for Change in Accounting Method, with the 2019 return to take advantage of the new favorable treatment and claim the missed depreciation as a favorable Section 481(a) adjustment.

Effects of the CARES Act at the state and local levels
As with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the tax implications of the CARES Act at the state level first depends on whether a state is a “rolling” Internal Revenue Code (IRC) conformity state or follows “fixed-date” conformity. For example, with respect to the modifications to Section 163(j), rolling states will automatically conform, unless they specifically decouple (but separate state ATI calculations will still be necessary). However, fixed-date conformity states will have to update their conformity dates to conform to the Section 163(j) modifications. 

A number of states have already updated during their current legislative sessions (e.g., Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Virginia, and West Virginia). Nonetheless, even if a state has updated, the effective date of the update may not apply to changes to the IRC enacted after January 1, 2020 (e.g., Arizona). 

A number of other states have either expressly decoupled from Section 163(j) or conform to an earlier version and will not follow the CARES Act changes (e.g., California, Connecticut, Georgia, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee (starting in 2020), Wisconsin). Similar considerations will apply to the NOL modifications for states that adopted the 80% limitation, and most states do not allow carrybacks. Likewise, in fixed-dated conformity states that do not update, the Section 461(l) limitation will still apply resulting in a separate state NOL for those states. 

These conformity questions add another layer of complexity to applying the tax provisions of the CARES Act at the state level. Further, once the COVID-19 crisis is past, rolling IRC conformity states must be monitored, as these states could decouple from these CARES Act provisions for purposes of state revenue.

2020 recovery refund checks for individuals
The CARES Act provides eligible individuals with a refund check equal to $1,200 ($2,400 for joint filers) plus $500 per qualifying child. The refund begins to phase out if the individual’s adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeds $75,000 ($150,000 for joint filers and $112,500 for head of household filers). The credit is completely phased out for individuals with no qualifying children if their AGI exceeds $99,000 ($198,000 for joint filers and $136,500 for head of household filers).

Eligible individuals do not include nonresident aliens, individuals who may be claimed as a dependent on another person’s return, estates, or trusts. Eligible individuals and qualifying children must all have a valid social security number. For married taxpayers who filed jointly with their most recent tax filings (2018 or 2019) but will file separately in 2020, each spouse will be deemed to have received one half of the credit.

A qualifying child (i) is a child, stepchild, eligible foster child, brother, sister, stepbrother, or stepsister, or a descendent of any of them, (ii) under age 17, (iii) who has not provided more than half of their own support, (iv) who has lived with the taxpayer for more than half of the year, and (v) who has not filed a joint return (other than only for a claim for refund) with the individual’s spouse for the taxable year beginning in the calendar year in which the taxable year of the taxpayer begins.

The refund is determined based on the taxpayer’s 2020 income tax return but is advanced to taxpayers based on their 2018 or 2019 tax return, as appropriate. If an eligible individual’s 2020 income is higher than the 2018 or 2019 income used to determine the rebate payment, the eligible individual will not be required to pay back any excess rebate. However, if the eligible individual’s 2020 income is lower than the 2018 or 2019 income used to determine the rebate payment such that the individual should have received a larger rebate, the eligible individual will be able to claim an additional credit generally equal to the difference of what was refunded and any additional eligible amount when they file their 2020 income tax return.

Individuals who have not filed a tax return in 2018 or 2019 may still receive an automatic advance based on their social security benefit statements (Form SSA-1099) or social security equivalent benefit statement (Form RRB-1099). Other individuals may be required to file a return to receive any benefits.

The CARES Act provides that the IRS will make automatic payments to individuals who have previously filed their income tax returns electronically, using direct deposit banking information provided on a return any time after January 1, 2018.

Charitable contributions

  • Above-the-line deductions: Under the CARES Act, an eligible individual may take a qualified charitable contribution deduction of up to $300 against their AGI in 2020. An eligible individual is any individual taxpayer who does not elect to itemize his or her deductions. A qualified charitable contribution is a charitable contribution (i) made in cash, (ii) for which a charitable contribution deduction is otherwise allowed, and (iii) that is made to certain publicly supported charities.

    This above-the-line charitable deduction may not be used to make contributions to a non-operating private foundation or to a donor advised fund.
  • Modification of limitations on cash contributions: Currently, individuals who make cash contributions to publicly supported charities are permitted a charitable contribution deduction of up to 60% of their AGI. Any such contributions in excess of the 60% AGI limitation may be carried forward as a charitable contribution in each of the five succeeding years.

    The CARES Act temporarily suspends the AGI limitation for qualifying cash contributions, instead permitting individual taxpayers to take a charitable contribution deduction for qualifying cash contributions made in 2020 to the extent such contributions do not exceed the excess of the individual’s contribution base over the amount of all other charitable contributions allowed as a deduction for the contribution year. Any excess is carried forward as a charitable contribution in each of the succeeding five years. Taxpayers wishing to take advantage of this provision must make an affirmative election on their 2020 income tax return.

    This provision is useful to taxpayers who elect to itemize their deductions in 2020 and make cash contributions to certain public charities. As with the aforementioned above-the-line deduction, contributions to non-operating private foundations or donor advised funds are not eligible.

    For corporations, the CARES Act temporarily increases the limitation on the deductibility of cash charitable contributions during 2020 from 10% to 25% of the taxpayer’s taxable income. The CARES Act also increases the limitation on deductions for contributions of food inventory from 15% to 25%.

We are here to help
Please contact a BerryDunn professional if you have any questions, or would like to discuss your specific situation.

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The CARES Act: Implications for businesses

Read this if you are a business owner, in management, or in HR at a company with less than 500 employees.

We have received many questions regarding the FFCRA and its provisions and how it affects different employers and their employees. Here are some of the questions our clients have asked the most. Please contact us if you have questions regarding your specific situation. We’re here to help.  

Besides compensation, what other costs paid by an employer are eligible for the credit (i.e., employer paid health insurance, employer payroll taxes)?
Employers can deduct the cost of providing continuing health care coverage, and the employer’s share of Medicare taxes related to the leave wages. Any compensation paid under the FFCRA is not subject to the employer’s portion of the Social Security tax.

How do you determine the total number of employees? 
In calculating the total number of employees, all full-time or part-time employees working within the US, including all US territories or possessions, are counted, including all employees on leave and temp employees who are jointly employed with another company as determined under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). 

How does a business know if it employs less than 500 employees and is subject to the FFCRA?
Generally, a private sector employer is subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) if it employs 50 or more employees for each working day during each of 20 or more calendar workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year. The FAQs issued by the Department of Labor (DOL) indicate an employer has fewer than 500 employees if, at the time an employee’s leave is to be taken, there are fewer than 500 full-time and part-time employees within the United States, which includes any state of the United States, the District of Columbia, or any territory or possession of the United States. 

In making this determination, an employer should include employees on leave; temporary employees who are jointly employed by you and another employer (regardless of whether the jointly-employed employees are maintained on only your or another employer’s payroll); and day laborers supplied by a temporary agency (regardless of whether you are the temporary agency or the client firm if there is a continuing employment relationship). Workers who are independent contractors under the FLSA, rather than employees, are not considered employees for purposes of the 500-employee threshold.

Where a corporation has an ownership interest in another corporation, the two corporations are separate employers unless they are joint employers under the FLSA with respect to certain employees. In general, two or more entities are separate employers unless they meet the integrated employer test under the FMLA.

Please check with your advisors if you believe the integrated employer test may apply to your businesses.

Which employees are entitled to the $511 payment under sick leave?
For an employee who is unable to work because of the coronavirus quarantine or self-quarantine or has COVID-19 symptoms and is seeking a medical diagnosis, the employee may receive sick leave wages equal to the employee’s regular rate of pay, up to $511 per day and $5,111 in the aggregate, for a total of 10 days. Note that only employers who employ less than 500 employer are required to provide sick leave payments. Such employees may also receive a refundable tax credit for sick leave paid to employees.

Which employees are entitled to the $200 payment under sick leave?
For an employee who is caring for someone with COVID-19, or is caring for a child because the child’s school or child care facility is closed, or the child care provider is unavailable due to the coronavirus, the employee may receive sick leave wages equal to two-thirds of the employee’s regular rate of pay, up to $200 per day and $2,000 in the aggregate, for up to 10 days. Note that only employers who employ less than 500 employer are required to provide sick leave payments. Such employees may also receive a refundable tax credit for sick leave paid to employees.

Which employees are entitled to the $200 payment under the family leave portion of FFCRA?
For an employee who is unable to work because of a need to care for a child whose school or child care facility is closed or whose child care provider is unavailable due to the coronavirus, the employee may receive family leave wages equal to two-thirds of the employee’s regular rate of pay, capped at $200 per day or $10,000 in the aggregate. Up to 10 weeks of qualifying leave can be counted towards the child care leave credit. Note that only employers who employ less than 500 employer are required to provide sick leave payments. Such employees may also receive a refundable tax credit for sick leave paid to employees.

What is “regular rate of pay” for purposes of the FFCRA?
For purposes of the FFCRA, the regular rate of pay used to calculate paid leave is the average of the employee’s regular rate over a period of up to six months prior to the date on which leave is taken. If an employee has not worked for the current employer for six months, the regular rate used to calculate paid leave is the average regular rate of pay for each week the employee has worked for the current employer.

If an employee is paid with commissions, tips, or piece rates, these amounts will be incorporated into the above calculation to the same extent they are included in the calculation of the regular rate under the FLSA.

You can also compute this amount for each employee by adding all compensation that is part of the regular rate over the above period and divide that sum by all hours actually worked in the same period.

What is the effective date of the sick leave/family leave provisions?
Employers must comply with the FFCRA from April 1, 2020, until it expires on December 31, 2020. Paid leave prior to April1, 2020 will not count. The IRS recently issued guidance indicating the tax credits for qualified sick leave wages and qualified family leave wages required to be paid by the FFRCA will apply to wages paid for the period beginning on April 1, 2020, and ending on December 31, 2020.

Who is considered a “health care provider”?
For the purposes of employees who may be exempted from paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave by their employer under the FFCRA, a health care provider is anyone employed at any doctor’s office, hospital, health care center, clinic, post-secondary educational institution offering health care instruction, medical school, local health department or agency, nursing facility, retirement facility, nursing home, home health care provider, any facility that performs laboratory or medical testing, pharmacy, or any similar institution, employer, or entity. This includes any permanent or temporary institution, facility, location, or site where medical services are provided that are similar to such institutions. 

This definition includes any individual employed by an entity that contracts with any of the above institutions, employers, or entities institutions to provide services or to maintain the operation of the facility. This also includes anyone employed by any entity that provides medical services, produces medical products, or is otherwise involved in the making of COVID-19 related medical equipment, tests, drugs, vaccines, diagnostic vehicles, or treatments. This also includes any individual that the highest official of a state or territory, including the District of Columbia, determines is a health care provider necessary for that state’s or territory’s or the District of Columbia’s response to COVID-19.

To minimize the spread of the virus associated with COVID-19, the DOL encourages employers to be judicious when using this definition to exempt health care providers from the provisions of the FFCRA.

For more information
If you have more questions, or have a specific question about your particular situation, please call us. We’re here to help. 

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Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA): FAQs for businesses

On March 18, 2020, the SBA issued relaxed criteria for Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs).

The two immediate impacts:

  • States are now only required to certify that a minimum of five small businesses within the state/territory have suffered significant economic injury, as opposed to proof of five small businesses within each reporting county/parish.
  • Prior regulation only made disaster assistance loans available to small businesses within counties declared disaster areas by a governor. Relaxed standards state the EIDLs will be available statewide following an economic injury declaration. This applies to current and future disaster declarations related to COVID-19.

Some SBA loan specifics:

  • EIDL amounts range from $25,000 to $2,000,000, at interest rates of 3.75% for small businesses and 2.75% for not-for-profits.
  • Companies can use the loans to pay bills that can’t be paid due to the disaster’s impact, including but not limited to fixed debts, payroll, and accounts payable.
  • Loan terms are determined on a case-by-case basis, based on the borrower’s ability to repay. SBA is offering repayment terms up to a maximum of 30 years.
  • EIDLs are one facet of an expanded and coordinated federal government response.

Small businesses in need of economic assistance may apply for an EIDL here. We will update as more information becomes available.

If you have questions about SBA loans, please contact your BerryDunn tax consultant
 

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Small Business Administration (SBA) eases criteria for disaster loans

Read this if you are a solar investor, developer, or installer.

The Investment Tax Credit and Residential Energy Credit were originally established to promote investment in renewable energies. These credits are available to taxpayers who install solar equipment to generate electricity for either a commercial or residential property. The credits have different origins within the Internal Revenue Code but are very similar with respect to how they are calculated. 

The starting point is to determine what property is eligible, typically by reviewing the equipment, materials, and labor costs. Qualified property is defined within the Code and while there are several years of judicial history further clarifying what is eligible, there is one unsettled question routinely asked: Can we include the entire cost of a roof replacement?

To answer that question, we look to each of the separate Code sections establishing the credits, Section 48–Commercial Energy Credit and Section 25D–Residential Energy Credit. The credits afforded by these sections are available for a variety of renewable energy properties, but for this discussion we will focus specifically on the solar property provisions.

Solar property provisions

The Section 48 definition of qualified property includes “equipment which uses solar energy to generate electricity, to heat or cool (or provide hot water for use in) a structure, or to provide solar process heat….” The regulations further define solar energy property as “equipment that uses solar energy to generate electricity, and includes storage devices, power conditioning equipment, transfer equipment, and parts relating to the functioning of those items.” 

Essentially, all costs to acquire and install the equipment used to generate electricity to the point of either transmitting it or consuming it would be eligible for the credit.

Section 48 Regulations state that building and structural components generally are not qualified property for the credit. An exception was provided by Revenue Ruling 79-183, allowing structural components to the extent that they are specifically engineered to be part of the machinery and equipment. Two significant private letter rulings have also been issued to address whether a roof would be treated as qualified solar property based on these limitations, and to what extent.

In PLR 201121005, issued in May 2011, the IRS ruled that the roof was qualified property but the qualified cost did not include the portion that performs the normal functions of a roof. This follows Regulation Section 1.48-9(k) that only permits the “incremental cost” over what would have been spent if the roof were replaced with no qualified property. The facts in this ruling did not include the type of solar power system and how it was integrated with the roof which left many questions unanswered until PLR 201523014 was issued in June 2015.

The 2015 ruling addressed solar property that included a reflective roof membrane to generate electricity from the underside of the roof mounted solar panels. The reflective roof was clearly integrated to the solar power system and the process of generating electricity. The IRS again ruled that qualified property included only the portion of the reflective roof that exceeded the cost of reroofing the building with a non-reflective roof.

The IRS has consistently held that only the “incremental cost” of the roof installation may qualify as solar energy property if it is integrated with the machinery and equipment. 

The Section 25D definition of qualified expenses includes “property which uses solar energy to generate electricity for use in a dwelling unit located in the United States and used as a residence by the taxpayer.” The Section identifies qualified costs for labor and solar panels and specifically states, “no expenditure relating to a solar panel or other property installed as a roof (or portion thereof) shall fail to be treated as qualified property solely because it constitutes a structural component…”

Unlike the Section 48 Commercial Energy Credit, the Section 25D Residential Energy Credit has little guidance on whether the entire cost of a roof would be allowed as qualified solar property. If the IRS were consistent in application, they would follow the “incremental cost” regulations that apply to non-residential projects.

Determining qualifying machinery and equipment costs is critical to maximizing the commercial or residential energy credit. 

BerryDunn has the expertise to review the project costs and provide a cost certification for what qualifies. We can identify any portion of the roof that may be eligible. If you have questions or would like to discuss whether there may be an opportunity for your project, please don’t hesitate to call us.
 

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The Investment Tax Credit and roof replacement

The President signed The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (hereinafter the “Act”) into law on March 18th and the provisions are effective April 2nd. You can read the congressional summary here. There are two provisions of the Act that deal with paid leave provisions for employees. Here are some highlights for employers.

The provisions of the Act are only required for employers with fewer than 500 employees. Employers with over 499 employees are not required to provide the sick/family leave contained in the Act, but could voluntarily elect to follow the new rules. The expectation is that employers with over 499 employees are providing some level of sick/family leave benefits already. In any case, employers with over 499 employees are not eligible for the tax credits. 

Employers with fewer than 500 employees are required to provide employees with up to 80 hours of paid sick leave over a two-week period if the employee:

  • Self-isolates because of a diagnosis with COVID-19, or to comply with a recommendation or order to quarantine;
  • Obtains a medical diagnosis or care if the employee is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms;
  • Needs to care for a family member who is self-isolating due to a COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantining due to COVID-19 symptoms; or
  • Is caring for a child whose school has closed, or childcare provider is unavailable, due to COVID-19.

These rules apply to all employees regardless of the length of time they have worked for the employer. The 80-hours would be pro-rated for those employees who do not normally work a 40-hour week. 

Employees who take leave because they themselves are sick (i.e., the first two bullets above) can receive up to $511 per day, with an aggregate limit of $5,110. If, on the other hand, an employee takes leave to care for a child or other family member (i.e., the last two bullets above), the employee will be paid two-thirds (2/3) of their regular weekly wages up to a maximum of $200 per day, with an aggregate limit of $2,000.

Days when an individual receives pay from their employer (regular wages, sick pay, or other paid time off) or unemployment compensation do not count as leave days for the purposes of this benefit.

Family and Medical Leave Act

Employees who have been employed for at least 30-days also have the right to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The Act requires that 10 of these 12 weeks (i.e., after the sick leave discussed above is taken) be paid at a rate of no less than two-thirds of the employee’s usual rate of pay. Any leave taken under this portion of the ACT will be limited to $200 per day with an aggregate limit of $10,000.

Exemptions

The Secretary of Labor has the authority to issue regulations exempting: (1) certain healthcare providers and emergency responders from taking leave under the Act; and (2) small businesses with fewer than 50 employees from the requirements of the Act if it would jeopardize the viability of the business.

Expiration

The provisions of the Act are set to expire on December 31, 2020, and unused time will not carry over from one year to the next.

Tax credits 

The Act provides for refundable tax credits to help an employer cover the costs associated with providing paid emergency sick leave or paid FMLA. The tax credits work as follows:

  • A refundable tax credit for employers equal to 100 percent of qualified family leave wages paid under the Act.
  • A refundable tax credit for employers equal to 100 percent of qualified paid sick leave wages paid under the Act. 
  • The tax credits are taken on Form 941 – Employer’s Quarterly Federal Income Tax Return filed for the calendar quarter when the leave is taken and reduce the employer’s portion of the Social Security taxes due. If the credit exceeds the employer’s total liability for Social Security taxes for all employees for any calendar quarter, the excess credit is refundable to the employer.

For more information

We are here to help. Please contact our benefit plan consultants if you have any questions or would like to discuss your specific situation. 

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Highlights of the recently passed paid sick and family leave act: What you need to know

Editor's note: Read this if you are a current or future owner of solar or other renewable energy equipment, or a solar investor, developer, or installer.

Maine LD 1430: An opportunity for businesses with solar energy systems

In 2019, Maine passed bill LD 1430, which introduces a solar tax exemption for both business and residential owners enabling renewable energy adopters to save money―while adding real value to their property and assets. As our experience in Massachusetts has shown, eligible businesses should take advantage of these types of laws, as you can reduce your property tax assessment by the value of your solar or wind energy equipment.  

Let’s look at a simple example assuming a $20 mill rate and a business owner who owns land and installs a large commercial solar energy system on it to meet the electrical demand of his business:   

Land 50,000 
Solar Equipment 200,000
LD 1430 Property Tax Exemption for solar equipment (200,000)
Net Property valuation 50,000
Property Tax 1,000
Property Tax without LD 1430 5,000
Annual Savings 4,000

Standardized valuation methodology provides clear guidance for taxpayers

In December, the Maine Revenue Service expanded on the bill by providing standardized solar valuation methodology. It provides much-needed guidance to municipalities on how to assess property tax on solar equipment, helps prevent over taxation of businesses, and streamlines the process for applying for the solar property tax exemption. 

Solar tax exempt laws in other states

Maine was not the first state to enact this type of legislation to help improve renewable energy adoption in the commercial space, nor will it be the last. Massachusetts, among others, has a similar law on the books, which allows for an exemption on solar or wind equipment used to supply the energy needs of a taxable property. Over the past few years, many of our clients in Massachusetts have taken advantage of the exemption, and have saved thousands of dollars doing so. 

Not surprisingly, Massachusetts has seen strong growth in renewable energy in the commercial sector. According to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, Massachusetts went from a few hundred solar energy systems in 2006 to nearly 100,000 in 2018. Other states have also enacted this type of legislation. In fact, all but 12 states have enacted some form of solar tax exemption laws.  

Looking ahead

This law and others like it will continue to help renewable energy projects get off the ground. As the number of solar projects increases, so too does the ability to create more opportunity. 

We’ve been working with Massachusetts providers for many years, helping our clients grow as the market has been maturing. For more information on how we can help you in Maine (or other states) take advantage of these exemptions, please contact the renewable energy team.  

The Maine Revenue Service is planning to release a standard application for the property tax exemption in the coming weeks. Please stay tuned for updates.  

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Maine adopts solar property tax exemptions

Read this if you are a solar investor, developer, or installer.

After a recent article where we highlighted some of the major points of the ITC safe harbor, we received many calls and e-mails looking for clarification on some of the related issues. In working to answer these questions we teamed up with Klavens Law Group, P.C., a Boston law firm that specializes in clean energy. Together with Brendan Beasley and Jon Klavens we have compiled a list of frequently asked questions that may be helpful as you navigate the last few weeks of the year. 

Q: My project is not ready for construction due to a pending decision on a land use permit. How can I minimize capital expenditure while still qualifying the project for the 5% safe harbor?
A: There are a couple approaches you as a taxpayer can take. First, if this project is among several in your portfolio, you can pay or incur expenses prior to December 31, 2019 for enough safe harbor equipment under a single binding contract to qualify each project in your portfolio and retain flexibility to allocate that equipment. Applying the master contract approach (per Section 7.03(2) of IRS Notice 2018-59), you would then transfer equipment, even after December 31, 2019, to affiliate special purpose entities under a second binding contract. Second, you can enter into a binding contract that is subject to a condition, applying section (ii)(B) of the “binding contract” definition at 26 CFR Section 1.168(k)-1(b)(4). In this case, the condition would be the project receiving the land use permits and clearing any related appeals period. Under this approach you would still need to pay or incur―or have your EPC contractor pay or incur under the look-through rule―at least 5% of the project’s depreciable cost basis by December 31, 2019. A limitation on this approach is that, if the condition is not likely to be satisfied within three-and-a-half months of the date of your binding contract, either you or your EPC contractor (applying the look-through rule) must take delivery of the equipment while the condition―and presumably the viability of the project―is still open and uncertain. 

Q: Can I finance a purchase of safe harbor equipment for my project?
A: Yes; however, you can’t use vendor financing. 

Q: I have a project that will be ready to construct in Q2 2020. The project company will execute a binding EPC agreement by December 31, 2019 that includes a procurement component. It will make an initial milestone payment of 7% upon execution. Does my project qualify for the 5% safe harbor?
A: Maybe. There is not enough information here to confirm. As taxpayer you must pay or incur expenses amounting to at least 5% of the total cost of the energy property prior to December 31, 2019, and must take delivery within three-and-a-half months from the date of payment under your binding contract. So the critical question here is what your EPC contractor is doing with that 7% payment. Here are some possible outcomes:

  • The EPC contractor purchases inverters on December 31, 2019 pursuant to a binding contract with a vendor. Applying the look-through rule, the safe harbor is satisfied.
  • The EPC contractor self-constructs a specialized racking system in January 2020, per your EPC agreement, and delivers it to you within three-and-a-half months of the binding contract. The safe harbor is satisfied.
  • The EPC contractor prepares 10% construction drawings and applies for a building permit, each at nominal cost, and holds your 7% payment while waiting for module prices to come down. The safe harbor is not satisfied.
  • The EPC contractor allocates its previously purchased inverters to your project, per your EPC agreement, holding them in its warehouse until May 2020 before delivering them to your site. The safe harbor is likely satisfied. Applying the look-through rule, the EPC contractor’s purchase of the inverters pursuant to a binding contract in 2019 (even if prior to the EPC agreement) will qualify the inverters for safe harbor purposes. The EPC contractor must take steps to identify and segregate the particular inverters within its warehouse.

Q: Can I sell safe-harbored equipment?
A: The buyer of your equipment (unless it is an affiliate) may not utilize the safe harbor unless you are selling the equipment together with the solar project. If, for example, your sale also includes a site lease and a PPA, the purchaser would receive the benefit of the safe harbor. In certain circumstances, you may also be able to become an affiliate of a project LLC by acquiring a membership interest of at least 20% and make an in-kind contribution of the safe-harbored equipment to the project LLC.           

Q: Can I satisfy the physical work test by building roads within my site?
A: Yes; however, the roads must be integral to the energy property. An access road would likely not be interpreted as integral to the property. However, roads used for purposes of operations and maintenance activity―within the area of the facility itself―are considered integral to the energy property.

Q: What constitutes work of a physical nature?
A: This is really open to the facts and circumstances interpretation. The IRS notice instructions referenced previously indicate some specific activities that do not qualify, but there is no quantification of how much of a qualifying activity must be done in order to satisfy the safe harbor requirement. Preliminary planning and site work do not count. But starting construction would, so you could satisfy the requirement with excavation for a foundation, drilling for moorings, pouring concrete, etc. The best bet would be to actually put up a section of panels.

Q: What is the continuing work requirement?
A: There is an additional safe harbor that says if your project is placed in service within four years of the end of the calendar year in which you started it you will have automatically met the continuous work requirement. If your project goes beyond that you will need to show facts and circumstances showing you were taking steps to continue working towards completing the project. For example, if the delay was due to a delay in getting interconnected, be prepared to show documentation that you were continuously working towards resolving that issue.

Unless there are changes to the current tax law, these same provisions will be in effect for each step of the phase-out through the end of 2023. If you have further questions, please contact a member of our renewable energy team

Please note that this Q&A, which may be considered advertising under the ethical rules of certain jurisdictions, is provided with the understanding that it does not constitute the rendering of legal advice or other professional advice by Klavens Law Group, P.C. or its attorneys. Please seek the services of a competent professional if you need legal or other professional assistance.

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ITC safe harbor frequently asked questions

Read this if you are a solar investor, developer, or installer.

With December well under way, thoughts turn to year-end and tax filing preparation. While we get many questions this time of year related to changes in the tax law and what taxpayers can do before the end of the year to minimize their tax burden, different this year is the impending phase-out of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and Residential Energy Credit (REC) from 30% to 26%. 

Last month, we gave some pointers on the safe harbor provision available for the Investment Tax Credit which would allow qualifying projects to still be eligible for the 30% credit after the end of the year. No such provision exists for the residential credit, however, and any project not complete by 12/31/19 (and completed in 2020) will receive the reduced 26% credit.

The phase-out was designed to coincide with the projected decline in solar costs, and would help smooth the transition to a market where solar competes directly with fossil fuels for energy production. Since then, we have seen component costs increase due to artificially inflated prices resulting from the tariffs imposed on imported goods. This results in a mismatch on the timing of the phase-out to the cost of the materials, a still immature market for solar, and a missed opportunity. Enter a new bill in the House of Representatives.

Growing Renewable Energy and Efficiency Now Act

On November 19, 2019 Chairman Thompson of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee released a discussion draft of a bill titled the Growing Renewable Energy and Efficiency Now (“GREEN”) Act. This draft bill is not ready for a vote yet, but does promote an extension and/or expansion of tax incentives for taxpayers investing in cleantech. With the GREEN Act, solar investors, installers, and other related businesses would benefit from:

  • Revival and extension of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) through 2024
  • Delay of the ITC and REC phaseout until 2024
  • Expansion of the ITC to include additional technologies, most notably energy storage
  • A provision allowing the taxpayer to receive the ITC or PTC as a refund in the year it is claimed for 15% reduction in the value of the credit

A delay in the phase-out would allow time for the costs of components to return to pre-tariff levels and help achieve the original intention of the phase-out. The expansion of the ITC to include energy storage would be a huge boon to that emerging market, and provide an additional incentive for consumers to install storage on an existing project―creating a more efficient energy grid. 

Currently, due to accelerated depreciation, many taxpayers are not able to take the ITC or PTC in the first year due to not having a tax to offset. Allowing for the option to treat the ITC or PTC as a tax payment (which can be refunded) instead of a credit (which can’t) would help investors realize their return much faster and free up capital to invest in other projects. 

Some of these provisions are fairly aggressive, and it is unlikely that they will all remain as they are now in any future passed legislation. However, it is promising to see the House of Representatives considering these types of extensions and expansions when it comes to clean energy incentives. As renewable energy is still a relatively new and rapidly changing marketplace, this is a prime time for renewable energy professionals to keep representatives informed of what they need to help the industry continue to grow. 

Stay tuned, and please contact Mark Vitello if you have any questions or need more information.
 

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The GREEN Act―a ray of hope for the solar carve out and the ITC?

Read this if you are a solar investor, developer, or installer.

The solar carve out of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) has been a great incentive for taxpayers to invest in solar assets over the last several years. It established an increased 30% tax credit for solar assets placed in service, up from the normal 10%. 

Starting January 1, 2020, the solar carve out will begin to phase out and will return to 10% by January 1, 2024. 

With the first phase-out of the ITC set to drop the credit from 30% to 26% after December 31, 2019, many taxpayers are evaluating ways to make sure their project still qualifies for the 30% credit. The IRS has issued two safe harbor provisions (IRS Notice 2018-59) to allow for projects placed in service after December 31, 2019 and before January 1, 2024 to still qualify for the 30% credit, but timing is key and certain actions must be taken before midnight on December 31, 2019.

Safe harbor methods

The two safe harbor methods are the Physical Work Test and the Five Percent of Cost Test. If a project satisfies either of these tests it can still qualify for the 30% tax credit as long as it is completed and in service before January 1, 2024.

The Physical Work Test requires that the taxpayer performs, or has performed on their behalf, “work of a significant nature” on the project prior to December 31, 2019. This is a little open to interpretation, but generally involves physical construction of the asset, such as the installation of mounting equipment, rails, racking, inverters, or even the panels themselves. Purchasing of equipment generally held in inventory by either the taxpayer or the vendor does not qualify. However, if the equipment is customized or specially designed for the specific project, it might. Preliminary activities do not qualify, which include planning, designing, surveying, and permitting. 

In general, the purpose of this test is to prove that construction has already begun, and is in place to help projects that have been started but won’t be in service before year end still maintain the 30% tax credit. Projects that are substantially complete and waiting for an interconnection or a permission to operate in order to be considered as in service will most easily qualify for this safe harbor test.

The Five Percent of Cost Test is a little more straightforward, and is likely to be more commonly used to qualify projects for the safe harbor provision as the end of the year deadline approaches. This test requires at least five percent of the total project cost be paid or incurred before December 31, 2019. It is important to note that the denominator in this test is the final total cost of the project when it goes in service. The taxpayer may wish to pay more than the five percent to account for project overruns or unanticipated changes to the project in order to make sure they maintain the qualification for safe harbor. 

Another consideration is if the taxpayer files on the cash or accrual method as to whether the project cost needs to be paid or incurred in order to satisfy the chosen filing method.

In either case, the taxpayer should also evaluate the cost of prepaying for equipment that may decrease in cost in the future, compared to the benefit they will receive in maintaining the additional four percent of the tax credit that can safe harbor from the phase out. 

Additionally, an analysis of total project costs and eligible vs. ineligible ITC costs early on in project development can help identify how best to spend the cash before the end of the year, and ensure that the taxpayer receives the return they require once the project goes into service.

Have questions?

If you have questions on these safe harbors or need more information, please contact the green tax experts on our renewable energy team

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Safe harbor options for taxpayers as the solar ITC begins to sunset

A version of this article was previously published on the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network

Editor’s note: while this blog is not technical in nature, you should read it if you are involved in IT security, auditing, and management of organizations that may participate in strategic planning and business activities where considerations of compliance and controls is required.

As we find ourselves in a fast-moving, strong business growth environment, there is no better time to consider the controls needed to enhance your IT security as you implement new, high-demand technology and software to allow your organization to thrive and grow. Here are five risks you need to take care of if you want to build or maintain strong IT security.

1. Third-party risk management―It’s still your fault

We rely daily on our business partners and vendors to make the work we do happen. With a focus on IT, third-party vendors are a potential weak link in the information security chain and may expose your organization to risk. However, though a data breach may be the fault of a third-party, you are still responsible for it. Potential data breaches and exposure of customer information may occur, leaving you to explain to customers and clients answers and explanations you may not have. 

Though software as a service (SaaS) providers, along with other IT third-party services, have been around for well over a decade now, we still neglect our businesses by not considering and addressing third-party risk. These third-party providers likely store, maintain, and access company data, which could potentially contain personally identifiable information (names, social security numbers, dates of birth, addresses), financial information (credit cards or banking information), and healthcare information of your customers. 

While many of the third-party providers have comprehensive security programs in place to protect that sensitive information, a study in 2017 found that 30% of data breaches were caused by employee error or while under the control of third-party vendors.1  This study reemphasizes that when data leaves your control, it is at risk of exposure. 

In many cases, procurement and contracting policies likely have language in contracts that already establish requirements for third-parties related to IT security; however the enforcement of such requirements and awareness of what is written in the contract is not enforced or is collected, put in a file, and not reviewed. What can you do about it?

Improved vendor management

It is paramount that all organizations (no matter their size) have a comprehensive vendor management program that goes beyond contracting requirements in place to defend themselves against third-party risk which includes:

  1. An inventory of all third-parties used and their criticality and risk ranking. Criticality should be assigned using a “critical, high, medium or low” scoring matrix. 
  2. At time of onboarding or RFP, develop a standardized approach for evaluating if potential vendors have sufficient IT security controls in place. This may be done through an IT questionnaire, review of a Systems and Organization Controls (SOC report) or other audit/certifications, and/or policy review. Additional research may be conducted that focuses on management and the company’s financial stability. 
  3. As a result of the steps in #2, develop a vendor risk assessment using a high, medium and low scoring approach. Higher risk vendors should have specific concerns addressed in contracts and are subject to more in depth annual due diligence procedures. 
  4. Reporting to senior management and/or the board annually on the vendors used by the organization, the services they perform, their risk, and ways the organization monitors the vendors. 

2. Regulation and privacy laws―They are coming 

2018 saw the implementation of the European Union’s General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR) which was the first major data privacy law pushed onto any organization that possesses, handles, or has access to any citizen of EU’s personal information. Enforcement has started and the Information Commissioner’s Office has begun fining some of the world’s most famous companies, including substantial fines to Marriott International and British Airways of $125 million and $183 million Euros, respectively.2  Gone are the days where regulations lacked the teeth to force companies into compliance. 

With thanks to other major data breaches where hundreds of millions’ consumers private information was lost or obtained (e.g., Experian), more regulation is coming. Although there is little expectation of an American federal requirement for data protection, individual states and other regulating organizations are introducing requirements. Each new regulation seeks to protect consumer privacy but the specifics and enforcement of each differ. 

Expected to be most impactful in 2019 is the California Consumer Privacy Act,  which applies to organizations that handle, collect, or process consumer information and do business in the state of California (you do not have to be located in CA to be under the umbrella of enforcement).

In 2018, Maine passed the toughest law on telecommunications providers for selling consumer information. Massachusetts’ long standing privacy and data breach laws were amended with stronger requirements in January of 2019. Additional privacy and breach laws are in discussion or on the table for many states including Colorado, Delaware, Ohio, Oregon, Ohio, Vermont, and Washington, amongst others.      

Preparation and awareness are key

All organizations, no matter your line of business must be aware of and understand current laws and proposed legislation. New laws are expected to not only address the protection of customer data, but also employee information. All organizations should monitor proposed legislation and be aware of the potential enforceable requirements. The good news is that there are a lot of resources out there and, in most cases, legislative requirements allow for grace periods to allow organizations to develop a complete understanding of proposed laws and implement needed controls. 

3. Data management―Time to cut through the clutter 

We all work with people who have thousands of emails in their inbox (in some cases, dating back several years). Those users’ biggest fears may start to come to fruition―that their “organizational” approach of not deleting anything may come to an end with a simple email and data retention policy put in place by their employer. 

The amount of data we generate in a day is massive. Forbes estimates that we generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day and that 90% of all the world’s data was generated in the last two years alone.3 While data is a gold mine for analytics and market research, it is also an increasing liability and security risk. 

Inc. Magazine says that 73% of the data we have available to us is not used.4 Within that data could be personally identifiable information (such as social security numbers, names, addresses, etc.); financial information (bank accounts, credit cards etc.); and/or confidential business data. That data is valuable to hackers and corporate spies and in many cases data’s existence and location is unknown by the organizations that have it. 

In addition to the security risk that all this data poses, it also may expose an organization to liability in the event of a lawsuit of investigation. Emails and other communications are a favorite target of subpoenas and investigations and should be deleted within 90 days (including deleted items folders). 

Take an inventory before you act

Organizations should first complete a full data inventory and understand what types of data they maintain and handle, and where and how they store that data. Next, organizations can develop a data retention policy that meets their needs. Utilizing backup storage media may be a solution that helps reduce the need to store and maintain a large amount of data on internal systems. 

4. Doing the basics right―The simple things work 

Across industries and regardless of organization size, the most common problem we see is the absence of basic controls for IT security. Every organization, no matter their size, should work to ensure they have controls in place. Some must-haves:

  • Established IT security policies
  • Routine, monitored patch management practices (for all servers and workstations)
  • Change management controls (for both software and hardware changes)
  • Anti-virus/malware on all servers and workstations
  • Specific IT security risk assessments 
  • User access reviews
  • System logging and monitoring 
  • Employee security training

Go back to the basics 

We often see organizations that focus on new and emerging technologies, but have not taken the time to put basic security controls in place. Simple deterrents will help thwarting hackers. I often tell my clients a locked car scares away most ill-willed people, but a thief can still smash the window.  

Smaller organizations can consider using third-party security providers, if they are not able to implement basic IT security measures. From our experience, small organizations are being held to the same data security and privacy expectations by their customers as larger competitors and need to be able to provide assurance that controls are in place.  

5. Employee retention and training 

Unemployment rates are at an all-time low, and the demand for IT security experts at an all-time high. In fact, Monster.com reported that in 2019 the unemployment rate for IT security professionals is 0%.5 

Organizations should be highly focused on employee retention and training to keep current employees up-to-speed on technology and security trends. One study found that only 15% of IT security professionals were not looking to switch jobs within one year.6  

Surprisingly, money is not the top factor for turnover―68% of respondents prioritized working for a company that takes their opinions seriously.6 

For years we have told our clients they need to create and foster a culture of security from the top down, and that IT security must be considered more than just an overhead cost. It needs to align with overall business strategy and goals. Organizations need to create designated roles and responsibilities for security that provide your security personnel with a sense of direction―and the ability to truly protect the organization, their people, and the data. 

Training and support goes a long way

Offering training to security personnel allows them to stay abreast of current topics, but it also shows those employees you value their knowledge and the work they do. You need to train technology workers to be aware of new threats, and on techniques to best defend and protect from such risks. 

Reducing turnover rate of IT personnel is critical to IT security success. Continuously having to retrain and onboard employees is both costly and time-consuming. High turnover impacts your culture and also hampers your ability to grow and expand a security program. 

Making the effort to empower and train all employees is a powerful way to demonstrate your appreciation and support of the employees within your organization—and keep your data more secure.  

Our IT security consultants can help

Ensuring that you have a stable and established IT security program in place by considering the above risks will help your organization adapt to technology changes and create more than just an IT security program, but a culture of security minded employees. 

Our team of IT security and control experts can help your organization create and implement controls needed to consider emerging IT risks. For more information, contact the team
 

Sources:
[1] https://iapp.org/news/a/surprising-stats-on-third-party-vendor-risk-and-breach-likelihood/  
[2] https://resources.infosecinstitute.com/first-big-gdpr-fines/
[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2018/05/21/how-much-data-do-we-create-every-day-the-mind-blowing-stats-everyone-should-read/#458b58860ba9
[4] https://www.inc.com/jeff-barrett/misusing-data-could-be-costing-your-business-heres-how.html
[5] https://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/tech-cybersecurity-zero-percent-unemployment-1016
[6] https://www.securitymagazine.com/articles/88833-what-will-improve-cyber-talent-retention

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Five IT risks everyone should be aware of

Editor’s note: read this if you are a Maine business owner or officer.

New state law aligns with federal rules for partnership audits

On June 18, 2019, the State of Maine enacted Legislative Document 1819, House Paper 1296, An Act to Harmonize State Income Tax Law and the Centralized Partnership Audit Rules of the Federal Internal Revenue Code of 1986

Just like it says, LD 1819 harmonizes Maine with updated federal rules for partnership audits by shifting state tax liability from individual partners to the partnership itself. It also establishes new rules for who can—and can’t—represent a partnership in audit proceedings, and what that representative’s powers are.

Classic tunes—The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982

Until recently, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA) set federal standards for IRS audits of partnerships and those entities treated as partnerships for income tax purposes (LLCs, etc.). Those rules changed, however, following passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (BBA) and the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 (PATH Act). Changes made by the BBA and PATH Act included:

  • Replacing the Tax Matters Partner (TMP) with a Partnership Representative (PR);
  • Generally establishing the partnership, and not individual partners, as liable for any imputed underpayment resulting from an audit, meaning current partners can be held responsible for the tax liabilities of past partners; and
  • Imputing tax on the net audit adjustments at the highest individual or corporate tax rates.

Unlike TEFRA, the BBA and PATH Act granted Partnership Representatives sole authority to act on behalf of a partnership for a given tax year. Individual partners, who previously held limited notification and participation rights, were now bound by their PR’s actions.

Fresh beats—new tax liability laws under LD 1819

LD 1819 echoes key provisions of the BBA and PATH Act by shifting state tax liability from individual partners to the partnership itself and replacing the Tax Matters Partner with a Partnership Representative.

Eligibility requirements for PRs are also less than those for TMPs. PRs need only demonstrate “substantial presence in the US” and don’t need to be a partner in the partnership, e.g., a CFO or other person involved in the business. Additionally, partnerships may have different PRs at the federal and state level, provided they establish reasonable qualifications and procedures for designating someone other than the partnership’s federal-level PR to be its state-level PR.

LD 1819 applies to Maine partnerships for tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2018. Any additional tax, penalties, and/or interest arising from audit are due no later than 180 days after the IRS’ final determination date, though some partnerships may be eligible for a 60-day extension. In addition, LD 1819 requires Maine partnerships to file a completed federal adjustments report.

Partnerships should review their partnership agreements in light of these changes to ensure the goals of the partnership and the individual partners are reflected in the case of an audit. 

Remix―Significant changes coming to the Maine Capital Investment Credit 

Passage of LD 1671 on July 2, 2019 will usher in a significant change to the Maine Capital Investment Credit, a popular credit which allows businesses to claim a tax credit for qualifying depreciable assets placed in service in Maine on which federal bonus depreciation is claimed on the taxpayer's federal income tax return. 

Effective for tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2020, the credit is reduced to a rate of 1.2%. This is a significant reduction in the current credit percentages, which are 9% and 7% for corporate and all other taxpayers, respectively. The change intends to provide fairness to companies conducting business in-state over out-of-state counterparts. Taxpayers continue to have the option to waive the credit and claim depreciation recapture in a future year for the portion of accelerated federal bonus depreciation disallowed by Maine in the year the asset is placed in service. 

As a result of this meaningful reduction in the credit, taxpayers who have historically claimed the credit will want to discuss with their tax advisors whether it makes sense to continue claiming the credit for 2020 and beyond.
 

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Maine tax law changes: Music to the ears, or not so much?

Proposed House bill brings state income tax standards to the digital age

On June 3, 2019, the US House of Representatives introduced H.R. 3063, also known as the Business Activity Tax Simplification Act of 2019, which seeks to modernize tax laws for the sale of personal property, and clarify physical presence standards for state income tax nexus as it applies to services and intangible goods. But before we can catch up on today, we need to go back in time—great Scott!

Fly your DeLorean back 60 years (you’ve got one, right?) and you’ll arrive at the signing of Public Law 86-272: the Interstate Income Act of 1959. Established in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Northwestern States Portland Cement Co. v. Minnesota, P.L. 86-272 allows a business to enter a state, or send representatives, for the purposes of soliciting orders for the sale of tangible personal property without being subject to a net income tax.

But now, in 2019, personal property is increasingly intangible—eBooks, computer software, electronic data and research, digital music, movies, and games, and the list goes on. To catch up, H.R. 3063 seeks to expand on 86-272’s protection and adds “all other forms of property, services, and other transactions” to that exemption. It also redefines business activities of independent contractors to include transactions for all forms of property, as well as events and gathering of information.

Under the proposed bill, taxpayers meet the standards for physical presence in a taxing jurisdiction, if they:

  1.  Are an individual physically located in or have employees located in a given state; 
  2. Use the services of an agent to establish or maintain a market in a given state, provided such agent does not perform the same services in the same state for any other person or taxpayer during the taxable year; or
  3. Lease or own tangible personal property or real property in a given state.

The proposed bill excludes a taxpayer from the above criteria who have presence in a state for less than 15 days, or whose presence is established in order to conduct “limited or transient business activity.”

In addition, H.R. 3063 also expands the definition of “net income tax” to include “other business activity taxes”. This would provide protection from tax in states such as Texas, Ohio and others that impose an alternate method of taxing the profits of businesses.

H.R. 3063, a measure that would only apply to state income and business activity tax, is in direct contrast to the recent overturn of Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, a sales and use tax standard. Quill required a physical presence but was overturned by the decision in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. Since the Wayfair decision, dozens of states have passed legislation to impose their sales tax regime on out of state taxpayers without a physical presence in the state.

If enacted, the changes made via H.R. 3063 would apply to taxable periods beginning on or after January 1, 2020. For more information: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/3063/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22hr3063%22%5D%7D&r=1&s=2
 

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Back to the future: Business activity taxes!

The IRS announced plans to conduct examinations of the universal availability requirements for 403(b) plans (Plans) this summer. Noncompliance with these requirements results in operational errors for Plans―ultimately requiring correction. Plan sponsors should review their Plans for proper inclusion and exclusion of employees. Such review can help you avoid costly penalties if the IRS does conduct an examination and uncovers an issue with the Plan’s implementation of universal availability.

Universal availability requires that, if you permit one employee to make elective deferrals into a 403(b) plan, then all other employees must receive the same opportunity. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Plan sponsors may exclude employees who meet one of the following exceptions:

  • Employees who will contribute $200 annually or less
  • Employees eligible to participate in a § 401(k), 457(b), or other 403(b) plan of the same employer
  • Employees who normally work less than 20 hours per week (the equivalent of less than 1,000 hours in a year)
  • Students performing services described in Internal Revenue Code § 3121(b)(10)

Of these exceptions, errors in applying the universal availability requirements are typically found with the less than 20 hours per week exception. Even if an employee works less than 20 hours per week (essentially a part-time employee), if this employee works 1,000 hours or more, you must allow this employee to make elective deferrals into the Plan. Further, you can’t revoke this permission in subsequent years―once the employee meets the 1,000 hour requirement, they are no longer included in the less than 20 hours per week employee class.

We recommend Plan sponsors review their Plan documents to ensure they are appropriately applying elected eligibility provisions. Further, we recommend Plan sponsors annually review an employee census to ensure those exceptions (listed above) remain appropriate for any employees excluded from the Plan. For instance, if you note that an employee worked 1,000 hours during the year, who was being excluded as part of the “less than 20 hours per week” category, you should ensure you notify this employee of their eligibility to participate in the Plan. In addition, you should retain documentation regarding the employee’s deferral election or election to opt out of the Plan. Such practices will help ensure, if your Plan is selected for IRS examination, it passes with no issues.

For more information: https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/403b-plan-fix-it-guide-you-didnt-give-all-employees-of-the-organization-the-opportunity-to-make-a-salary-deferral
 

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Not the summer of love: IRS universal availability examinations

Best practices for financial institution contracts with technology providers

As the financial services sector moves in an increasingly digital direction, you cannot overstate the need for robust and relevant information security programs. Financial institutions place more reliance than ever on third-party technology vendors to support core aspects of their business, and in turn place more reliance on those vendors to meet the industry’s high standards for information security. These include those in the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, Sarbanes Oxley 404, and regulations established by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC).

On April 2, 2019, the FDIC issued Financial Institution Letter (FIL) 19-2019, which outlines important requirements and considerations for financial institutions regarding their contracts with third-party technology service providers. In particular, FIL-19-2019 urges financial institutions to address how their business continuity and incident response processes integrate with those of their providers, and what that could mean for customers.

Common gaps in technology service provider contracts

As auditors of IT controls, we review lots of contracts between financial institutions and their technology service providers. When it comes to recommending areas for improvement, our top observations include:

  • No right-to-audit clause
    Including a right-to-audit clause encourages transparency and provides greater assurance that vendors are providing services, and charging for them, in accordance with their contract.
  • Unclear and/or inadequate rights and responsibilities around service disruptions
    In the event of a service incident, time and transparency are vital. Contracts that lack clear and comprehensive standards, both for the vendor and financial institution, regarding business continuity and incident response expose institutions to otherwise avoidable risk, including slow or substandard communications.
  • No defined recovery standards
    Explicitly defined recovery standards are essential to ensuring both parties know their role in responding and recovering from a disaster or other technology outage.

FIL-19-2019 also reminds financial institutions that they need to properly inform regulators when they undertake contracts or relationships with technology service providers. The Bank Service Company Act requires financial institutions to inform regulators in writing when receiving third-party services like sorting and posting of checks and deposits, computation and posting of interest, preparation and mailing of statements, and other functions involving data processing, Internet banking, and mobile banking services.

Writing clearer contracts that strengthen your institution

Financial institutions should review their contracts, especially those that are longstanding, and make necessary updates in accordance with FDIC guidelines. As operating environments continue to evolve, older contracts, often renewed automatically, are particularly easy to overlook. You also need to review business continuity and incident response procedures to ensure they address all services provided by third-parties.

Senior management and the Board of Directors hold ultimate responsibility for managing a financial institution’s relationship with its technology service providers. Management should inform board members of any and all services that the institution receives from third-parties to help them better understand your operating environment and information security needs.

Not sure what to look for when reviewing contracts? Some places to start include:

  • Establish your right-to-audit
    All contracts should include a right-to-audit clause, which preserves your ability to access and audit vendor records relating to their performance under contract. Most vendors will provide documentation of due diligence upon request, such as System and Organization Control (SOC) 1 or 2 reports detailing their financial and IT security controls.

    Many right-to-audit clauses also include a provision allowing your institution to conduct its own audit procedures. At a minimum, don’t hesitate to perform occasional walk-throughs of your vendor’s facilities to confirm that your contract’s provisions are being met.
  • Ensure connectivity with outsourced data centers
    If you outsource some or all of your core banking systems to a hosted data center, place added emphasis on your institution’s business continuity plan to ensure connectivity, such as through the use of multiple internet or dedicated telecommunications circuits. Data vendors should, by contract, be prepared to assist with alternative connectivity.
  • Set standards for incident response communications 
    Clear expectations for incident response are crucial  to helping you quickly and confidently manage the impact of a service incident on your customers and information systems. Vendor contracts should include explicit requirements for how and when vendors will communicate in the event of any issue or incident that affects your ability to serve your customers. You should also review and update contracts after each incident to address any areas of dissatisfaction with vendor communications.
  • Ensure regular testing of defined disaster recovery standards
    While vendor contracts don’t need to detail every aspect of a service provider’s recovery standards, they should ensure those standards will meet your institution’s needs. Contracts should guarantee that the vendor periodically tests, reviews, and updates their recovery standards, with input from your financial institution.

    Your data center may also offer regular disaster recovery and failover testing. If they do, your institution should participate in it. If they don’t, work with the vendor to conduct annual testing of your ability to access your hosted resources from an alternate site.

As financial institutions increasingly look to third-party vendors to meet their evolving technology needs, it is critical that management and the board understand which benefits—and related risks—those vendors present. By taking time today to align your vendor contracts with the latest FFIEC, FDIC, and NCUA standards, your institution will be better prepared to manage risk tomorrow.

For more help gaining control over risk and cybersecurity, see our blog on sustainable solutions for educating your Board of Directors and creating a culture of cybersecurity awareness.
 

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Are your vendor contracts putting you at risk?

In a closely held business, ownership always means far more than business value. Valuing your business will put a dollar figure on your business (and with any luck, it might even be accurate!). However, ownership of a business is about much more than the “number.” To many of our clients, ownership is about identity, personal fulfillment, developing a legacy, funding their lifestyle, and much more. 

We explored the topic of what business ownership means on Wednesday, May 8th, in the final presentation of our value acceleration series, exploring how to increase business value and liquidity. In this final installment, we discussed the decision of whether to grow your business or exit, and which liquidity options are available for each path. 

While it may seem counterintuitive, we find that it is best to delay the decision to grow or exit until the very end of the value acceleration process. After identifying and implementing business improvement and de-risking projects in the discover stage and the prepare stage (see below), people may find themselves more open to the idea of keeping their business and using that business to build liquidity while they explore other options. 

Once people have completed the discover and prepare stages and are ready to decide whether to exit or grow their business, we frame the conversation around personal and business readiness. Many personal readiness factors relate to what ownership means to each client. In this process, clients ask themselves the following questions:

  • Am I ready to not be in charge?
  • Am I ready to not be identified as the business?
  • Do I have a plan for what comes next?
  • Do I have the resources to fund what’s next? 
  • Have I communicated my plan?

On the business end, readiness topics include the following:

  • Is the team in place to carry on without me?
  • Do all employees know their role?
  • Does the team know the strategic plan?
  • Have we minimized risk? 
  • Have I communicated my plan?

Whether you choose to grow your business or exit it, you have various liquidity options to choose from. Liquidity options if you keep your business include 401(k) profit sharing, distributions, bonuses, and dividend recapitalization. Alternatively, liquidity options if you choose to exit your business include selling to strategic buyers, ESOPs, private equity firms, management, or family. 

In our discussion about liquidity, we addressed several other topics that audience members were curious about. One of these topics was the use of earn-outs in the sale of a business. In an earn-out, a portion of the price of the business is suspended, contingent on business performance. The “short and sweet” on this topic is that we typically find them to be most effective over a two- to three-year time period. When selecting a metric to base the earn-out on (such as revenue, profit, or customer retention), consider what is in your control. Will the new owner change the capital structure or cost structure in a way that reduces income? Further, if the planned liquidity event involves merging your company into another company, specify how costs will be allocated for earn-out purposes. 

We also discussed rollover equity (receiving equity in the acquiring company as part of the deal structure) and the use of warrants/synthetic equity (incentives tied to increases in stock price). Here are some of the key points from this discussion:

  • Make sure you know how you will turn your rollover equity into cash.
  • Understand potential dilution of your rollover equity if the acquiring company continues to acquire other targets. 
  • Make sure the percentage of equity relative to total deal consideration is reasonable.
  • Seller financing typically has lower interest rates and favorable terms, so warrants are often attached to compensate the seller. 
  • Warrants are subject to capital gains tax while synthetic equity is typically ordinary income. As a result, warrants often have lower tax consequences.
  • Synthetic equity may work well for long-term incentive plans and for management buyouts. 

We enjoyed talking with business owners, management, and their advisors during this five-session series. We have found that through the value acceleration process, clients are able to increase business value and liquidity, giving them control over how they spend their time and resources.

If you are interested in learning more about value acceleration, please contact me. I would be happy to meet with you, answer any questions you may have, and provide you with information on upcoming value acceleration presentations. 

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Decide: Value acceleration series part five (of five)

This blog is the first in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with ERISA requirements.

On Labor Day, 1974, President Gerald Ford signed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, commonly known as ERISA, into law. Prior to ERISA, employee pensions had scant protections under the law, a problem made clear when the Studebaker automobile company closed its South Bend, Indiana production plant in 1963. Upon the plant’s closing, some 4,000 employees—whose average age was 52 and average length of service with the company was 23 years—received approximately 15 cents for each dollar of benefit they were owed. Nearly 3,000 additional employees, all of whom had less than 10 years of service with the company, received nothing.

A decade later, ERISA established statutory requirements to preserve and protect the rights of employees to their pensions upon retirement. Among other things, ERISA defines what a plan fiduciary is and sets standards for their conduct.

Who is—and who isn’t—a plan fiduciary?
ERISA defines a fiduciary as a person who:

  1. Exercises discretionary authority or control over the management of an employee benefit plan or the disposition of its assets,
  2. Gives investment advice about plan funds or property for a fee or compensation or has the authority to do so,
  3. Has discretionary authority or responsibility in plan administration, or
  4. Is designated by a named fiduciary to carry out fiduciary responsibility. (ERISA requires the naming of one or more fiduciaries to be responsible for managing the plan's administration, usually a plan administrator or administrative committee, though the plan administrator may engage others to perform some administrative duties).

If you’re still unsure about exactly who is and isn’t a plan fiduciary, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Disagreements over whether or not a person acting in a certain capacity and in a specific situation is a fiduciary have sometimes required legal proceedings to resolve them. Here are some real-world examples.

Employers who maintain employee benefit plans are typically considered fiduciaries by virtue of being named fiduciaries or by acting as a functional fiduciary. Accordingly, employer decisions on how to execute the intent of the plan are subject to ERISA’s fiduciary standards.

Similarly, based on case law, lawyers and consultants who effectually manage an employee benefit plan are also generally considered fiduciaries.

A person or company that performs purely administrative duties within the framework, rules, and procedures established by others is not a fiduciary. Examples of such duties include collecting contributions, maintaining participants' service and employment records, calculating benefits, processing claims, and preparing government reports and employee communications.

What are a fiduciary’s responsibilities?
ERISA requires fiduciaries to discharge their duties solely in the interest of plan participants and beneficiaries, and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits for them and defraying reasonable plan administrative expenses. Specifically, fiduciaries must perform their duties as follows:

  1. With the care, skill, prudence, and diligence of a prudent person under the circumstances;
  2. In accordance with plan documents and instruments, insofar as they are consistent with the provisions of ERISA; and
  3. By diversifying plan investments so as to minimize risk of loss under the circumstances, unless it is clearly prudent not to do so.

A fiduciary is personally liable to the plan for losses resulting from a breach of their fiduciary responsibility, and must restore to the plan any profits realized on misuse of plan assets. Not only is a fiduciary liable for their own breaches, but also if they have knowledge of another fiduciary's breach and either conceals it or does not make reasonable efforts to remedy it.

ERISA provides for a mandatory civil penalty against a fiduciary who breaches a fiduciary responsibility under ERISA or commits a violation, or against any other person who knowingly participates in such breach or violation. That penalty is equal to 20 percent of the "applicable recovery amount" paid pursuant to any settlement agreement with ERISA or ordered by a court to be paid in a judicial proceeding instituted by ERISA.

ERISA also permits a civil action to be brought by a participant, beneficiary, or other fiduciary against a fiduciary for a breach of duty. ERISA allows participants to bring suit to recover losses from fiduciary breaches that impair the value of the plan assets held in their individual accounts, even if the financial solvency of the entire plan is not threatened by the alleged fiduciary breach. Courts may require other appropriate relief, including removal of the fiduciary.

Over the coming months, we’ll share a series of blogs for employee benefit plan fiduciaries, covering everything from common terminology to best practices for plan documentation, suggestions for navigating fiduciary risks, and more.

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What's in a name? A lot, if you manage a benefit plan.

So far in our value acceleration series, we have talked about increasing the value of your business and building liquidity into your life starting with taking inventory of where you are at and aligning values, reducing risk, and increasing intangible value.

This month, we focused on planning and execution. How these action items are introduced and executed may be just as important as the action items themselves. We still need to protect value before we can help it grow. Let’s say you had a plan, a good plan, to sell your business and start a new one. Maybe a bed-and-breakfast on the coast? You’ve earmarked the 70% in cash proceeds to bolster your retirement accounts. The remaining 30% was designed to generate cash for the down payment on the bed-and-breakfast. And it is stuck in escrow or, worse yet, tied to an earn-out. Now, the waiting begins. When do you get to move on to the next phase? After all that hard work in the value acceleration process, you still didn’t get where you wanted to go. What went wrong?

Many business owners stumble at the end because they lack a master plan that incorporates their business action items and personal action items. Planning and execution in the value acceleration process was the focus of our conversation with a group of business owners and advisors on Thursday, April 11th.

Business valuation master plan steps to take

A master plan should include both business actions and personal actions. We uncovered a number of points that resonated with business owners in the room. Almost every business owner has some sort of action item related to employees, whether it’s hiring new employees, advancing employees into new roles, or helping employees succeed in their current roles. A review of financial practices may also benefit many businesses. For example, by revisiting variable vs. fixed costs, companies may improve their bidding process and enhance profitability. 

Master plan business improvement action items:

  • Customer diversification and contract implementation
  • Inventory management
  • Use of relevant metrics and dashboards
  • Financial history and projections
  • Systems and process refinement

A comprehensive master plan should also include personal action items. Personal goals and objectives play a huge role in the actions taken by a business. As with the hypothetical bed-and-breakfast example, personal goals may influence your exit options and the selected deal structure. 

Master plan personal action items:

  •  Family involvement in the business
  •  Needs vs. wants
  •  Development of an advisory team
  •  Life after planning

A master plan incorporates all of the previously identified action items into an implementation timeline. Each master plan is different and reflects the underlying realities of the specific business. However, a practical framework to use as guidance is presented below.


The value acceleration process requires critical thinking and hard work. Just as important as identifying action items is creating a process to execute them effectively. Through proper planning and execution, we help our clients not only become wealthier but to use their wealth to better their lives. 

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Planning and execution: Value acceleration series part four (of five)

What are the top three areas of improvement right now for your business? I asked this question of 20 business leaders and advisors on Wednesday morning (March 13th) during the third session of our value acceleration series. In this discussion, we focused on how to increase business value by aligning values, decreasing risk, and improving what we call the “four C’s.”

To back up for a minute, value acceleration is the process of helping clients increase the value of their business and build liquidity into their lives. Previously, we looked at the Discover stage, in which business owners take inventory of their personal, financial, and business goals and assemble information into a prioritized action plan. On Wednesday, we focused on the Prepare stage of the value acceleration process.

Aligning values may sound like an abstract concept, but it has a real world impact on business performance and profitability. For example, if a business has multiple owners with different future plans, the company can be pulled in two competing directions. Another example of poor alignment would be if a shareholder’s business plans (such as expanding the asset base to drive revenue) compete with personal plans (such as pulling money out of the business to fund retirement). Friction creates problems. The first step in the prepare stage is therefore to reduce friction by aligning values.

Reducing risk

Personal risk creates business risk, and business risk creates personal risk. For example, if a business owner suddenly needs cash to fund unexpected medical bills, planned business expansion may be delayed to provide liquidity to the owner. If a key employee unexpectedly quits, the business owner may have to carve time away from their personal life to juggle new responsibilities. 

Business owners should therefore seek to reduce risk in their personal lives, (e.g., life insurance, use of wills, time management planning) and in their business, (e.g., employee contracts, customer contracts, supplier and customer diversification, etc.).

Intangible value and the four C's

Now more than ever, the value of a business is driven by intangible value rather than tangible asset value. One study found that intangible asset value made up 87% of S&P 500 market value in 2015 (up from 17% in 1975). We Therefore, we focused on how to increase business value by increasing intangible asset value. Specifically, we talked about the “four C’s” of intangible asset value: human capital, structural capital, social capital, and consumer capital. 

We highlighted a couple of strategies to increase intangible asset value. First of all, do a cost-benefit analysis before implementing any strategies to boost intangible asset value. Second, to avoid employee burnout, break planned improvements into 90-day increments with specific targets.

At BerryDunn, we often diagram company performance on the underlying drivers of the 4 C’s (below). We use this tool to identify and assess the areas for greatest potential improvements:

By aligning values, decreasing risk, and improving the four C’s, business owners can achieve a spike in cash flow and business value, and obtain liquidity to fund their plans outside of their business.

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The four C's: Value acceleration series part three (of five)

We are two for two when choosing value acceleration presentation dates that align with winter storms. It turns out we may be a more reliable indicator of winter weather than Punxsutawney Phil, who has a track record of 36 percent accuracy over the last 50 years.

After a last-minute rescheduling due to the weather, we held our second discussion in the value acceleration series on Friday, February 15th. Value acceleration is our process of helping clients increase the value of their business and build liquidity into their lives. In the first session, we presented an overview of the three stages of the value acceleration process (Discover, Prepare, and Decide). In our conversation on Friday, we took a closer look at the first stage of the value acceleration process: the Discover stage, aka the “triggering event.”

In our first session, we walked through a high-level overview of the value acceleration process. This process has three stages, diagrammed here:

© Exit Planning Institute

In the Discover stage, business owners take inventory of their personal, financial, and business goals, noting ways to increase alignment and reduce risk. The objective of the Discover stage is to gather data and assemble information into a prioritized action plan, using the following general framework.

 

Every client we have talked to so far has plans and priorities outside of their business. Accordingly, the first topic in the Discover stage is to explore your personal plans and how they may affect business goals and operations. What do you want to do next in your personal life? How will you get it done?

Another area to explore is your personal financial plan, and how this interacts with your personal goals and business plans. What do you currently have? How much do you need to fund your other goals?

The third leg of the value acceleration “three-legged stool” is business goals. How much can the business contribute to your other goals? How much do you need from your business? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your business? How do these compare to other businesses? How can business value be enhanced? A business valuation can help you to answer these questions.

A business valuation can clarify the standing of your business regarding the qualities buyers find attractive. Relevant business attractiveness factors include the following:

  • Market factors, such as barriers to entry, competitive advantages, market leadership, economic prosperity, and market growth
  • Forecast factors, such as potential profit and revenue growth, revenue stream predictability, and whether or not revenue comes from recurring sources
  • Business factors, such as years of operation, management strength, customer loyalty, branding, customer database, intellectual property/technology, staff contracts, location, business owner reliance, marketing systems, and business systems

Your company’s performance in these areas may lead to a gap between what your business is worth and what it could be worth. Armed with the information from this assessment, you can prepare a plan to address this “value gap” and look towards your plans for the future.

Next up in our value acceleration blog series is all about what we call the four C's of the value acceleration process. 

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The discover stage: Value acceleration series part two (of five)

We held our first discussion on value acceleration on January 9th as the first of a six-part series. If you were unable to attend (because the weather was not in your favor, or if you are outside of the Portland, Maine area), or are a business owner or executive interested in increasing the value of your business, read on to see what you missed.

One of the statistics that really caught participants’ attention was this one: 12 months after selling, three out of four business owners surveyed “profoundly regretted” their decision. Situations like these highlight the importance of the value acceleration process, which focuses on increasing value and aligning business, personal, and financial goals. Through this process, business owners will be better prepared for business transition, and therefore be significantly more satisfied with their decisions.

In our first session, we walked through a high-level overview of the value acceleration process. This process has three stages, diagrammed here:

© Exit Planning Institute

The Discover stage is also called the “triggering event.” This is where business owners take inventory of their situation, focusing on risk reduction and alignment of their business, personal, and financial goals. The information gleaned in this stage is then compiled into a prioritized action plan utilized in future stages.

In the Prepare stage, business owners follow through on business improvement and personal/financial planning action items formed in the discover stage. Examples of action items include the following:

  • Addressing weakness identified in the Discover stage, in the business or in personal financial planning
  • Protecting value through planning documents and making sure appropriate insurance is in place
  • Analyzing and prioritizing projects to improve the value of the business, as identified in Discover stage
  • Developing strategies to increase liquidity and retirement savings

The last stage in the process is the Decide stage. At this point, business owners choose between continuing to drive additional value into the business or to sell it.

Through the value acceleration process, we help business owners build value into their businesses and liquidity into their lives.

Read more! In our next installment of the value acceleration blog series, we cover the discover stage.

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The process: Value acceleration series number one (of five)

Consider the implications of the following statistics:

While a massive number of people are retiring each year and counting on the value of their business as part of their retirement plan, many are unable to actually generate any liquidity beyond normal compensation. They may even have a very valuable business, but can’t convert any of that value into cash. What a terrible situation! They may feel like a sailor stranded on a desert island—surrounded by water, but dying of thirst.

Attaining liquidity from your business and increasing business value are two topics that go hand in hand. Factors that increase business value often also increase the ease of selling the business. Even if your plan is to never sell, increasing profitability and liquidity will make planning easier. In this blog post, we will identify five ways business owners can improve business value and increase the likelihood of selling the business at a desirable price.

Businesses are often valued by using an income metric (such as earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, or EBITDA) and a valuation pricing multiple.


To increase business value, business owners can increase the valuation pricing multiple, increase income, or both. Focusing on improving the multiple is often a more effective way to increase business value.

Business risk is the key driver of the multiple. Five effective ways to improve the multiple are:

  1. Reduce reliance on the owner of the business
  2. Incentivize key employees to sign long-term employment contracts
  3. Diversify the customer base
  4. Create sustainable recurring revenue 
  5. Maintain immaculate financial statements

By planning ahead and implementing the above steps, business owners may be in a much better position for retirement.

P.S. We host a regular value acceleration presentation series. Please contact me or visit our event calendar to learn more. We would love to have you attend. These presentations focus on the process to increase the value of your business and build liquidity into your life.

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Value acceleration—The gas pedal for the value of your business

Executive compensation is often a contentious issue in business valuations, as business valuations are often valued by reference to the income they produce. If the business being valued pays its employees an above-market rate, its income will be depressed. Accordingly, if no compensation adjustments are made, the value of the business will also be diminished.

When valuing controlling ownership interests, valuation analysts often restate above- or below-market executive compensation to a market level to reflect what a hypothetical buyer would pay the executives. In the valuation of companies with ESOPs, the issue of executive compensation gets more complicated. The following hypothetical example illustrates why.

Glamorous Grocery is a company that is 100% owned by an ESOP. A valuation analyst is retained to estimate the fair market value of each ESOP share. Glamorous Grocery generates very little income, in part because several executives are overcompensated. The valuation analyst normalizes executive compensation to a market level, thereby increasing Glamorous Grocery income, the fair market value of Glamorous Grocery, and the ESOP share value.

Glamorous Grocery’s trustee then uses this valuation to establish the market price of ESOP shares for the following year. When employees retire, Glamorous Grocery buys employees out at the established share price. The problem? As mentioned before, Glamorous Grocery generates very little income and as a result has difficulty obtaining the liquidity to buy out employees.

This simple example illustrates the concerns about normalizing executive compensation in ESOP valuations. If you reduce executive compensation for valuation purposes, the share price increases, putting a heavier burden on the company when you redeem shares. The company, which already has reduced income from paying above-market executive compensation, may struggle to redeem shares at the established price.

A second issue is whether control-level adjustments are appropriate in ESOP valuations. A company might be 100% ESOP-owned, but an owner of an ESOP share may not actually be able to reduce executive compensation.

Interested in learning more? Please leave a comment below, or contact me. For additional discussion of the shareholder/executive compensation federal tax statutes and historical judicial precedents and sources of executive compensation data, please click here.

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Executive compensation: Making or breaking an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)

I leaned out of my expansive corner office (think: cubicle) and asked my coworker Andrew about an interesting topic I had been thinking about. “Hey Andrew, do you know what BATNA stands for?” I asked. Andrew, who knows most things worth knowing, indicated that he didn’t know. This felt good, as there are very few things that I know that Andrew doesn’t. 

BATNA, which stands for “best alternative to no agreement”, is very relevant to business owners who may at some point want to sell their business. It’s a relatively simple concept with significant implications in the context of negotiations, as the strength of your negotiating position depends on what happens if the deal falls through (i.e., if there is no agreement). Put another way, your negotiating position is dependent on your "next best alternative", but I’m pretty sure the acronym NBA is already being used.

If you have 100 potential buyers lined up, you have a strong negotiating position. If the first buyer backs out of the deal, you have 99 alternatives. But if you have only one potential buyer lined up, you have a weak negotiating position. Simple, right?

BATNA is applicable to many areas of our life: buying or selling a car, negotiating the price of a house, or even choosing which Netflix show to watch. Since I specialize in valuations, let’s talk about BATNA and valuations, and more specifically, fair market value versus investment value.

Fair Market Value

The International Glossary of Business Valuation Terms defines fair market value as “the price, expressed in terms of cash equivalents, at which property would change hands between a hypothetical willing and able buyer and a hypothetical willing and able seller, acting at arm’s length in an open and unrestricted market, when neither is under compulsion to buy or sell and when both have reasonable knowledge of the relevant facts.”

Think about fair market value as the price that I would pay for, for example, a Mexican restaurant. I have never owned a Mexican restaurant, but if the restaurant generates favorable returns (and favorable burritos), I may want to buy it. Fair market value is the price that a hypothetical buyer such as myself would pay for the restaurant. 

Investment Value

The International Glossary of Business Valuation Terms defines investment value as “the value to a particular investor based on individual investment requirements and expectations.”

Think about investment value as the price that the owner of a chain of Mexican restaurants would pay for a restaurant to add to their portfolio. This strategic buyer knows that because they already own a chain of restaurants, when they acquire this restaurant, they can reduce overhead, implement several successful marketing strategies, and benefit from other synergies. Because of these cost savings, the restaurant chain owner may be willing to pay more for the restaurant than fair market value (what I would be willing to pay). As this example illustrates, investment value is often higher than fair market value.

As a business owner you may conclude “Well, if investment value is higher than fair market value, I would like to sell my business for investment value.” I agree. I absolutely agree. Unfortunately, obtaining investment value is not a guaranteed thing because of… you guessed it! BATNA. 

Business owners may identify a potential strategic buyer and hope to obtain investment value in the sale. However, in reality, unless the business owner has identified a ready pool of potential strategic buyers (notice the use of the plural here), they may not be in a negotiating position to command investment value. A potential strategic buyer may realize if they are the only potential strategic buyer of a company, they aren’t competing against anybody offering more than fair market value for the business. If there isn’t any agreement, the business owner’s best alternative is to sell at fair market value. Realizing this, a strategic buyer will likely make an offer for less than investment value. 

If you are looking to sell your business, you need to put yourself in a negotiating position to command a premium above fair market value. You need to identify as many potential buyers as possible. With multiple potential strategic buyers identified, your BATNA is investment value. You will have successfully shifted the focus from a competition for your business to a competition among strategic buyers. Now, the strategic buyers will be concerned with their own BATNA, rather than yours. And that’s a good thing.

We frequently encounter clients surprised by the difficulty of commanding investment value for the sale of their business. BATNA helps explain why business owners are unable to attain investment value. 

At BerryDunn, we perform business valuations under both the investment value standard and the fair market value standard.

If you have any questions about the value of your business, please contact a professional on our business valuation team

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BATNA: What you need to know

All business owners need to consider a business valuation, ideally updated annually. A current business valuation is important for your company’s financial health as it can:

  • Give you an accurate picture of what your company is really worth — and how transferable that value can be — this provides a realistic picture of your company’s value should you decide to sell. It also provides a window into your ability to grow the business and how much money a bank would be willing to lend to support that growth.
  • Help you to plan for a faster sale — proper planning delivers more lucrative and successful sales of small businesses, as it gives a business owner time to increase the company’s worth before the sale, and to sell quickly.
  • Protect your family if something happens to you. John Warrillow, founder of The Value Builder System, writes that illness is the number one event that forces business owners to sell. A business valuation analysis can identify ways to create a more transferrable business in the event of illness or death.

Overall, a business valuation professional can provide you with an exact value of your company and help you develop a long-term plan to increase its value. Valuation strategies can help you increase profitability by helping you:

  • Identify prospective opportunities for sales growth
  • Implement cost-cutting strategies that maximize profits
  • Increase employee retention and save money on hiring and training
  • Develop systems and processes to increase the odds of a successful transition to the new owners, whoever they may be

If you or your client is interested in increasing a company’s value, please contact Seth Webber 

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Why a business valuation analysis is important to your company's value