A while ago, I posted to this blog a short (mildly humorous???) story illustrating how certain federal income tax rules generally prohibit “risky” investments by private foundations, even when those investments have potential for tremendous social or environmental benefit. The so-called “jeopardizing investment” rules of IRC § 4944 impose a minimum 10% (with a possible 25% additional) tax on investments by private foundations that “jeopardize the carrying out of [the foundation's] exempt purpose.”
In my prior post, I hypothesized a private foundation considering an early-stage investment in a company developing an inexpensive, solar-powered car. I further hypothesized that the private foundation’s manager reasonably and rationally believed that an investment in the car company could have substantial environmental benefits. Further, the investment was on fair terms and involved no self-dealing or other economic benefit to the private foundation’s insiders. Unless the purchase of stock in the car company qualified under the narrow program-related investment exception, however, the investing private foundation could be subject to a 10% (and possible additional 25%) penalty tax under IRC § 4944. Moreover, the investment in the solar-powered car company could be penalized even though an outright grant by the private foundation to benefit environmental causes clearly would be permissible (and even encouraged).
Thus, from a tax standpoint, a private foundation manager seeking to support environmental causes is better off investing in BP and then giving away returns to Green Peace than making a “risky” investment in a solar-powered car company—even when that investment might have a much larger and more lasting positive impact on the environment. This makes no sense.
Actually, the most compelling illustration I can provide as to why the “jeopardizing investment” rules of IRC § 4944 ultimately make no sense comes directly from the implementing Regulations. Specifically, Reg. § 53.4944-1(c) provides:
A is a foundation manager of B, a private foundation with assets of $100,000. A approves the following three investments by B after taking into account with respect to each of them B’s portfolio as a whole: (1) An investment of $5,000 in the common stock of corporation X; (2) an investment of $10,000 in the common stock of corporation Y; and (3) an investment of $8,000 in the common stock of corporation Z. Corporation X has been in business a considerable time, its record of earnings is good, and there is no reason to anticipate a diminution of its earnings. [Imagine BP.] Corporation Y has a promising product, has had earnings in some years and substantial losses in others, has never paid a dividend, and is widely reported in investment advisory services as seriously undercapitalized. Corporation Z has been in business a short period of time and manufactures a product that is new, is not sold by others, and must compete with a well-established alternative product that serves the same purpose. Z’s stock is classified as a high-risk investment by most investment advisory services with the possibility of substantial long-term appreciation but with little prospect of a current return. [Imagine Y or Z as our solar-powered car company.] A has studied the records of the three corporations and knows the foregoing facts. In each case the price per share of common stock purchased by B is favorable to B. Under the standards of [IRC § 4944], the investment of $10,000 in the common stock of Y and the investment of $8,000 in the common stock of Z may be classified as jeopardizing investments (emphasis added), while the investment of $5,000 in the common stock of X will not be so classified. B would then be liable for an initial tax of [$1,000 (i.e., 10 percent of $10,000)] for each year (or part thereof) in the taxable period for the investment in Y, and an initial tax of [$800 (i.e., 10 percent of $8,000)] for each year (or part thereof) in the taxable period for the investment in Z. Further, since A had actual knowledge that the investments in the common stock of Y and Z were jeopardizing investments, A [the foundation manager] would then be liable [personally] for the same amount of initial taxes as B.
WHAT??? So the investment in Y is “promising” and at a “favorable” price, but still subject to a penalty tax? The investment in Z has “the possibility of substantial long-term appreciation” and is at a “favorable” price, but likewise is prohibited? Er, okay, let me get out my crystal ball and discern between a “promising” or “substantial long-term” investment and a “jeopardizing” one. Suppose that in the above example X corporation represented Enron instead of BP? In hindsight, an investment in Enron would have been the ultimate jeopardizing investment, but it would have been perfectly fine under IRC § 4944. Oh, and that’s not all! Incredibly, if Y’s “promising” product (e.g., an inexpensive, solar-powered car) would benefit the environment, then even if the investing private foundation’s mission was protecting the environment it could be penalized under IRC § 4944 for buying stock in the company.
The federal income tax rules thus support a bizarre paradox for private foundations: a foundation can give its money away to an organization supporting the foundation’s mission, but if it makes a risky but “promising” investment in support of its mission, the foundation faces the threat of penalty taxes.
If a private foundation is not engaged in self-dealing or otherwise benefitting its managers and other insiders, why do we care how its money is invested? The rules presume that a “risky” investment is a waste. But for whom is a “risky” investment a waste? Where does the “risky” money go? Does it just vaporize into thin air? No, it goes to pay third-parties for services, or products, or ideas, or research, or whatever. From my perspective, nothing would be better than the Gates Foundation spending its billions on risky, unproven, but promising investments potentially benefitting the environment, education, and healthcare. Can you imagine the jobs that would be created? Can you imagine the innovations that might result? At worst, the money spent goes to work in the broader economy rather than being stockpiled. Who says such risky expenditures are “jeopardizing investments”? The only real jeopardy is to social enterprise companies that could use the money to take reasonable and rationale risks for the benefit of us all.
We need to fix this. Let’s repeal IRC § 4944.