The following was written by our own Adam Bergman and appeared on Forbes.com –
For many retirement account investors, understanding how the Unrelated Business Taxable Income Rules work, also known as UBTI, UBIT, or debt-financed income rules, and how they may potentially apply to one’s retirement account investment has been a challenge. The main reason is that the majority of IRA or 401(k) plan investors invest in traditional types of investments, such as equities, mutual funds, and ETFs, which do not trigger the application of the UBTI tax rules since most passive investments that a retirement account might invest in are exempt from the UBTI rules, such as interest, dividends, and capital gains.
Understanding the potential impact of the UBTI rules is crucial for retirement account investors seeking to make non-real estate alternative investments in their retirement accounts, including options, stock short sales, and commodity futures contracts. In general, the UBTI tax rules are triggered in three instances: (i) use of margin to buy stock, (ii) use of a nonrecourse loan to buy real estate, and (iii) investment in a business operated through a flow-through entity, such as an LLC or partnership. The tax imposed by triggering the UBTI rules is quite steep and can go as high as 40 percent.
When it comes to non-real estate transactions, such as securities and other financial products involving retirement funds, understanding the application of the UBTI or debt-financed income rules have been somewhat difficult. Neither the Code nor the Treasury regulations define “indebtedness” for purposes of the debt-financed income rules. Generally, when a retirement account borrows funds and has a clear obligation to repay the funds, the debt-financed income rules are applicable. However, many financial product type investments that involve “leverage” but not a direct borrowing are not considered debt-financed property and are not subject to UBIT.
Below is a summary of how the UBTI/debt-financed income rules apply to some of the more common type of financial product investments involving retirement funds:
Purchase of Stock or Securities on Margin: It is well established that the purchase of securities on margin gives rise to unrelated debt-financed income (Elliott Knitwear Profit Sharing Plan v. Commissioner, 614 F.2d 347 (3d Cir. 1980).
Repurchase Agreements: In a repurchase agreement, one party (usually a bank) purchases securities from another party (the bank’s customer) and agrees to sell the securities back to the customer at an agreed price. Such transactions are treated as a loan of money secured by the securities and give rise to unrelated debt financed income (Rev. Rul. 74-27, 1974-1)
Securities Lending Transactions: IRC Section 514(c)(8) provides that payments with respect to securities loans are deemed to be derived from the securities loaned, not from collateral security or the investment of collateral security from such loans.
Short Sales of Stock: The IRS has ruled that neither the gain attributable to the decline in the price of the stock sold short nor the income earned on the proceeds of the short sale held as collateral by the broker constituted debt-financed income (Rev. Rul. 95-8, 1995-1)
Options: IRC Section 512(b)(5) excludes from UBTI all gains or losses recognized, in connection with an organization’s investment activities, from the lapse or termination of options to buy or sell securities.
Commodities Futures Transactions: The IRS has concluded that gains and losses from commodity futures contracts are excluded from UBTI under Code section 512(b)(5). The IRS has rules that the purchase of a long futures contract entailed no borrowing of money in the traditional sense. Likewise, the IRS found a short contract was merely an executory contract because there was no property held by the short seller that produced income and thus there could be no acquisition indebtedness.
Notional Principal Contracts: The IRS has issued regulations providing that all income and gain from notional principal contracts is excluded from UBTI. (Treas. Reg. § 1.512(b)-1(a)(1).)
The Internal Revenue Code permits retirement account investors to make a wide range of financial product investments using retirement funds. While the majority of financial product type investments would not trigger the UBTI or debt-financed income rules, (including mutual funds and options) transactions involving margin, however, would likely trigger the tax. The burden falls on the retirement account holder to make the determination of whether the financial product type transaction triggered the UBTI rules and, if so, file the IRS Form 990-T. Therefore, it is important to work with a tax professional who can help one evaluate the financial product transaction to determine whether the transaction will trigger the UBTI or debt-financed income rules tax.
For more information about the UBTI rules, please contact us @ 800.472.0646.