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U.S. gave up billions in tax money in deal for Citigroup's bailout repayment

Citigroup says it has built up $38 billion in losses. With the tax exemption, it will be able to shelter up to $38 billion in future profits.
Citigroup says it has built up $38 billion in losses. With the tax exemption, it will be able to shelter up to $38 billion in future profits. (Richard Drew/associated Press)

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By Binyamin Appelbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The federal government quietly agreed to forgo billions of dollars in potential tax payments from Citigroup as part of the deal announced this week to wean the company from the massive taxpayer bailout that helped it survive the financial crisis.

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The Internal Revenue Service on Friday issued an exception to long-standing tax rules for the benefit of Citigroup and a few other companies partially owned by the government. As a result, Citigroup will be allowed to retain billions of dollars worth of tax breaks that otherwise would decline in value when the government sells its stake to private investors.

While the Obama administration has said taxpayers are likely to profit from the sale of the Citigroup shares, accounting experts said the lost tax revenue could easily outstrip those profits.

The IRS, an arm of the Treasury Department, has changed a number of rules during the financial crisis to reduce the tax burden on financial firms. The rule changed Friday also was altered last fall by the Bush administration to encourage mergers, letting Wells Fargo cut billions of dollars from its tax bill by buying the ailing Wachovia.

"The government is consciously forfeiting future tax revenues. It's another form of assistance, maybe not as obvious as direct assistance but certainly another form," said Robert Willens, an expert on tax accounting who runs a firm of the same name. "I've been doing taxes for almost 40 years, and I've never seen anything like this, where the IRS and Treasury acted unilaterally on so many fronts."

Treasury officials said the most recent change was part of a broader decision initially made last year to shelter companies that accepted federal aid under the Troubled Assets Relief Program from the normal consequences of such an investment. Officials also said the ruling benefited taxpayers because it made shares in Citigroup more valuable and asserted that without the ruling, Citigroup could not have repaid the government at this time.

"This rule was designed to stop corporate raiders from using loss corporations to evade taxes, and was never intended to address the unprecedented situation where the government owned shares in banks," Treasury spokeswoman Nayyera Haq said. "And it was certainly not written to prevent the government from selling its shares for a profit."

Congress, concerned that Treasury was rewriting tax laws, passed legislation earlier this year that reversed the ruling that benefited Wells Fargo and restricted the ability of the IRS to make further changes. A Democratic aide to the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees federal tax policy, said the Obama administration had the legal authority to issue the new exception, but Republican aides to the committee said they were reviewing the issue.

A senior Republican staffer also questioned the government's rationale. "You're manipulating tax rules so that the market value of the stock is higher than it would be under current law," said the aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It inflates the returns that they're showing from TARP and that looks good for them."

The administration and some of the nation's largest banks have hastened to part company in recent weeks. Bank of America, followed by Citigroup and Wells Fargo, agreed to repay federal aid. While the healthiest banks escaped earlier this year, the new round of departures involves banks still facing serious financial problems.

The banks say the strings attached to the bailout, including limits on executive compensation, have restricted their ability to compete and return to health. Executives also have chafed under the stigma of living on the federal dole. President Obama chided bankers at the White House on Monday for not trying hard enough to make small-business loans.

The Obama administration also is eager to wind down a program that has become one of its largest political liabilities. Officials defend the program as necessary and effective, but the president has acknowledged that the bailout is "wildly unpopular" and officials have been at pains to say they do not enjoy helping banks.


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