A small local company is claiming the record for arranging sales of tax breaks that large firms like IBM and Occidental Petroleum have made so notorious.
According to Milton M. Harris, president of Maryland National Leasing Corp., his firm has brokered almost 45 of the deals since the new tax law was signed Aug. 13. The most any other companies have brokered is 25, he said.
The dollar totals are small, however, compared with the $100 million transactions corporate giants complete. In the first three months after the law was signed, the "tax swap" leases covered assets ranging from $165,000 to a little over $3 million.
"We're a very small fish in a very large pond," Harris declared. All the tax-related leases drawn by Maryland National add up to about half of the $135 million in new business won by the company last year.
Firms came from all over the country to the Towson offices of the sister firm of the Maryland National Bank. The leasing company brokered a deal for a small Alaskan airline, and for several California concerns. Only about l0 percent of the deals involved local firms.
"We were getting a tremendous amount of interest from the smaller companies that weren't being solicited by the investment bankers, and who found that their normal leasing/banking sources were just completely out of this business," Harris said.
The "tax swap" is the main instrument for selling tax breaks. By arranging a paper sale of equipment that is then leased back, a firm transfers tax benefits in exchange for a cash advance of from 10 percent to about 30 percent of the asset's value.
Despite negotiating swaps for many small companies, Harris said the new leasing provisions didn't really help those firms it was supposed to aid. The aim of liberalized leasing was to give money-losing companies a share of otherwise unattainable incentive tax benefits.
But "the Treasury torpedoed that concept," he said. The rules are "completely contrary to what Congress intended."
In writing the rules to govern the new transactions, Treasury made it impossible to safely buy tax benefits from a company that might go bankrupt, Milton said. As a result, his firm had to turn away at least 20 customers because of poor credit ratings.
Even after the regulations were changed in response to pleas from Chrysler Corp., it wasn't possible for a troubled company to easily sell benefits unless the buyers got extra assurances that they would keep the benefits in event of bankruptcy.
Harris is also critical of how late the regulations governing the transactions were issued. Treasury put out the rules only three weeks before a deadline for completing deals on equipment bought in the first half of 1981. Buyers and sellers held off for the regulations.
After Treasury published the rules, "the world opened up, just incredible," Harris said. "We were starting to crank out proposals literally by the score."
"Evidently, most of the bank lessors and most other regular equipment lessors, with the exception of GECC General Electric Credit Corp. just about abdicated from doing business" by the deadline.
In fact, his colleagues in the conventional leasing industry have come out for repeal of sections of the new law that allow tax swaps. The board of directors of the 700-member American Association of Equipment Lessors voted Jan. 28 to work for repeal or modification. Harris, who was on the AAEL's legislation committee when the tax law passed, calls the position "sour grapes."
"I think the leasing business got caught with its shorts around its ankles," Harris said. "There were big dollars in the early transactions. The investment bankers started a campaign for those deals shortly after the law was signed.
"The true story is that the investment bankers completely outguessed, outmaneuvered and outsold the equipment leasing industry in this particular area," he wrote in response to reports that conventional lessors opposed the tax breaks. The leasing executives were in Hawaii for their yearly convention when the Treasury published the regulations, so they missed the flood of demand, he added.
According to AAEL, the leasing provisions don't make economic sense because buying and selling of tax benefits doesn't generate investments.
Harris agrees tax incentives by themselves don't generate investment. Tax transfers just make it cheaper to invest, he said. And at a time when interest rates and economic conditions work against investment, the leasing provisions are a "plus."
Congress is having second thoughts, however. Repeal or modification is in the political winds. Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has warned the business community, in effect, to use it while it is still available.
But Harris said "I don't give a snap whether the Congress changes it back or not." However, the extra business it generated last year transformed 1981 from a year of retrenchment to a year of normal growth for the company.
Maryland National Leasing is also holding seminars on the leasing provisions of the tax law. A seminar in late January attracted around 100 companies, according to Harris. More will be held, but they will be "informal," he added.