Practitioners’ Corner: Wolters Kluwer Interview Provides Outlook on Ever-Evolving Paycheck Protection Program

“If you can look into the seeds of time, and say, which grain will grow and which will not; speak then to me.” – William Shakespeare

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was enacted under the bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (P.L. 116-136) on March 27, 2020. The PPP, a seemingly ever-evolving, forgivable small business loan program, was derived from an unprecedented public-private partnership between certain lenders and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). After its enactment in late March, the program quickly went from concept to implementation when it launched on April 3, 2020.

Fast-forward a somewhat rocky roll out with several speed bumps and shake-ups, akin to a Shakespearean plotline, President Donald Trump on June 5, 2020, signed into law the bipartisan Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act (PPPFA) of 2020 (P.L. 116-142). The PPPFA makes several enhancements to the swiftly implemented loan program, including providing for an extension of the expense forgiveness period from eight-to-24 weeks.  

Notably, the legislation includes some of the following additional changes to the PPP:

  • Reduces the 75 percent payroll ratio requirement to 60 percent;
  • Extends the two-year loan repayment requirement to five years for future borrowers (existing PPP loans can be extended up to five years if lender/borrower agree);
  • Allows payroll tax deferment for PPP recipients; and
  • Extends the June 30, 2020, rehiring deadline to December 31, 2020.

Accordingly, the SBA, in consultation with Treasury, officially published to the Federal Register updated interim final rules (effective immediately upon publication as opposed to the “regular order” of first issuing a proposed rule with a preliminary comment period) on June 16 and June 18, and issued new and revised forgiveness applications forms on June 17. Additional guidance is expected in the coming days. The SBA is accepting comments through the Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov

Wolters Kluwer recently spoke with Daniel G. Strickland, an associate at Eversheds Sutherland, about some of the underlying tax policy issues and lingering complexities with the PPP and subsequent legislation and guidance. Strickland, who regularly works with both the IRS on behalf of taxpayers to obtain benefits offered by the IRS, and with taxpayers to resolve tax controversy disputes with the IRS, currently serves as co-chair of the Federal Bar Association’s Tax Practice and Procedure Committee as well as chair of the D.C. Bar Association’s New Tax Practitioner Subcommittee. Prior to Strickland’s tax practice, he clerked for several years at the U.S. Tax Court. 

To Double-Dip, or not to Double-Dip: That is the Question…(Well, One of Them)

Wolters Kluwer: Can you expand upon the preventive double-benefit tax policy position behind the controversial IRS Notice 2020-32, which states that business expenses paid with tax-exempt income, i.e. a forgivable PPP loan, are not deductible under I.R.C. Section 265? Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said recently, “if the money that is coming is not taxable, you can’t double dip.”

Daniel Strickland:  Good question.  As you correctly state, the IRS published Notice 2020-32 to address the tax treatment of expenses that would otherwise be deductible but that were paid using PPP loan proceeds that are forgiven.

From the IRS’s perspective, Congress only exempted the amount of forgiveness from taxation; it did not allow deductions for the expenses paid with forgiven proceeds.  Notice 2020-32 points to section 265 as providing legal support for the proposition that otherwise-deductible expenses are not allowable for deduction to the extent that the income is wholly exempt from taxation. 

My take is that the IRS is drawing a line at government-sponsored business expenses.  In other words, for the taxpayers to receive forgiveness, the loan proceeds must be spent in a certain way.  If they are, then it is as if the government paid those expenses directly in a valiant effort to prop up the COVID-affected small businesses.  But there is an issue with the IRS’s position:  a borrower cannot know the extent to which it will even be eligible for forgiveness—let alone whether its substantiation will be sufficient.  And given the deadline for application for forgiveness, borrowers might not even know in the same tax year.

Wolters Kluwer: Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., recently introduced the bipartisan Small Business Expense Protection Act (S. 3612), which moves to essentially nullify Notice 2020-32, clarifying congressional intent that the receipt and forgiveness of a PPP loan would not affect the deductibility of ordinary business expenses.  What is your take on the underlying policy of this bill, and do you see the IRS reversing Notice 2020-32 before the measure moves through Congress?

Daniel Strickland:  Senator Cornyn has the right idea.  In my mind, a few simple examples show the logic:  if I borrowed money from a bank and spent the proceeds on deductible expenses, I could deduct those expenses from my income when I file my taxes.  If the bank forgave my debt, I would need to recognize the forgiven amount as income.  If, on the other hand, I received a gift, I could also use that gift to pay for deductible expenses and then deduct those expenses from my income.  I would not generally include the gift in my income – setting aside the differences between corporate taxes and individual taxes—since many small businesses are sole proprietorships or disregarded entities.  When the CARES Act provided that the forgiven PPP loan amounts were not subject to tax, conceptually, the loans are turned into gifts.  The deductibility should be no different.  And the tax treatment should be the same irrespective of the type of corporate entity involved.

That is where the Senator is coming from.  Unfortunately, the existence of a bill in Congress isn’t going to be enough to convince the IRS to about-face.  The fact that there are still holds on Senator Cornyn’s bill is concerning to me. 

“Know You of This Taxation?”

Wolters Kluwer: Are there other tax-related implications taxpayers and practitioners should keep in mind specific to PPP loan forgiveness?

Daniel Strickland:  There are always tax implications.  In the absence of congressional action on the deductibility question, another arises regarding timing.  As detailed in the SBA’s interim final rule, SBA-2020-0035:

If you do not submit to your lender a loan forgiveness application within 10 months after the end of your loan forgiveness covered period, you must begin paying principal and interest after that period.  For example, if a borrower’s PPP loan is disbursed on June 25, 2020, the 24-week period ends on December 10, 2020.  If the borrower does not submit a loan forgiveness application to its lender by October 10, 2021, the borrower must begin making payments on or after October 10, 2021.

Taxpayers may not know whether—or to what extent—their PPP loans are forgiven until 2021, and some may not know until after they file their 2020 income tax returns.  How should the deductions be reported? 

In addition, we don’t know how the state and local taxing authorities will react. 

Wolters Kluwer:  Although the SBA, in consultation with Treasury, has addressed the PPPFA’s 60 percent “cliff” to allow for partial forgiveness if the 60 percent threshold is not reached, an added variable to the equation now exists. First according to a June 8 joint Treasury/SBA statement and now updated guidance, partial forgiveness will be subject to at least 60 percent of the loan forgiveness amount having been used for payroll costs.  What is your interpretation of this new variable, and does the solution to the 60 percent “cliff,” as termed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me., who was recently drafting a bill to address the issue, correctly dwell within the realm of regulatory guidance? Do you foresee any pushback?

Daniel Strickland:  If I am honest, this one took me a couple times to read to understand that it isn’t internally inconsistent:

If a borrower uses less than 60 percent of the loan amount for payroll costs during the forgiveness covered period, the borrower will continue to be eligible for partial loan forgiveness, subject to at least 60 percent of the loan forgiveness amount having been used for payroll costs.

I certainly understand what the SBA is trying to do here, but I think the better explanation is in the SBA’s updated interim final rule, Docket No. SBA-2020-0035.  The SBA does a great job explaining the math behind the partial forgiveness. 

But to your question, I am not sure that this falls within the realm of regulatory guidance.  The hurdle is going to be with the language of the PPPFA:

LIMITATION ON FORGIVENESS.—To receive loan forgiveness under this section, an eligible recipient shall use at least 60 percent of the covered loan amount for payroll costs, and may use up to 40 percent of such amount for any payment of interest on any covered mortgage obligation (which shall not include any prepayment of or payment of principal on a covered mortgage obligation), any payment on any covered rent obligation, or any covered utility payment.’’

That being said, the SBA is creating a taxpayer-favorable solution to the PPFA’s 60% “cliff.”  I am not sure who in their right mind will object, but given the pressure put onto the SBA’s rules in courts across the country, it will be interesting to see what happens next and how the agencies show reasoned decision-making in their rules that diverge from the statutory text. 

“All’s Well That Ends Well?”

Wolters Kluwer: The PPP application process is scheduled to expire on June 30, 2020.  Notably, prior to Senate approval of the PPPFA, the congressional record was updated with a letter from the bipartisan, bicameral PPPFA authors and policy architects to state that the PPPFA’s “extension of the covered period does not authorize the [SBA] to issue any new PPP loans after June 30, 2020, as this date remains fixed by section 1102(b) of the CARES Act.”  Furthermore, Treasury and the SBA, too, recently reaffirmed the June 30 cutoff date.

However, Mnuchin told lawmakers recently that another round of loans is on the discussion table, following Sen. Tim Scott’s, R-S.C., inquiry as to whether there is an appetite for further enhancing and extending the PPP. Moreover, fellow Senate Small Business Committee members Chris Coons, D-Del., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., have introduced the Prioritized Paycheck Protection Program (P4) Bill, which would authorize new lending under the PPP to borrowers with 100 employees or less who have or will soon exhaust the original PPP loan. A Democratic companion bill was introduced in the House on June 18.

Are you aware of any calls among taxpayers or practitioners to extend PPP loan applications beyond June?

Daniel Strickland:  The SBA has been processing loans fast, processing more than 14 years’ worth of loans in 14 days in the initial round of funding.  Since then, however, things have slowed down.  I haven’t heard any calls for extension recently.  But at the same time, the most recent numbers I saw suggested that there is still more than $125 billion available.  The next round of published data will give us some indication of what happens.  If there is still a significant amount of money left over, and if there is a need, I can certainly see Congress extending the loan application deadline without expanding the available funds.  It would be additional taxpayer relief at no additional cost to the government.  But with the PPPFA’s changes, we might see the remaining funds mostly or completely extended.  In that case, I think we wouldn’t see an extension without another tranche of available funding.

Confusion Now Hath Made His Masterpiece”

Wolters Kluwer: As for when pension expenses are paid and incurred, current guidance does not indicate whether the amount that is “paid by Borrower” can include retirement contributions attributable to all of 2019, 2020, or even the two years combined.  Absent any further guidance, how would you advise taxpayers and practitioners on the matter?

Daniel Strickland:  That is a tough question.  The short answer is that there are a lot of unanswered questions like this one.  The SBA and IRS are publishing guidance as quickly as they can, but it isn’t possible to give the requisite considered decision-making and answer all of the outstanding questions at the same time.  What that means for taxpayers and practitioners is that each situation needs to be carefully considered.  Without specific guidance, there is a risk that certain expenses don’t qualify for forgiveness or that a portion of the loan could be called for repayment. 

The first thing that I advise is to work with an attorney to evaluate the specific facts of each situation and to look at the tax and business consequences of each option.  In general, where there is no clear answer, having advice in writing from your attorney that the answer you choose is the right answer can help protect businesses from some of the negative consequences of being wrong. 

Wolters Kluwer: Outside of the most recently published interim final rules, are there other unanswered questions for which you think Treasury and the SBA could issue additional PPP guidance?

Daniel Strickland: There are a number of unanswered questions with respect to definitions.  As you reference above, the one that makes most practitioners’ lists is this issue of paid versus incurred.  The loan amount is determined using “monthly payments by the applicant for payroll costs incurred.”  And forgiveness is determined based on “the sum of the following costs incurred and payments made during the covered period.”  Another outstanding question is how the forgiveness reduction exemptions will work with the cure date being shifted to December 31 and how the “option to use an eight-week covered period” for those taxpayers who have already received their loan proceeds will work if the June 30 cure date falls within the 8-week covered period.

These are just the tip of the iceberg of unanswered questions.

Wolters Kluwer: Executive agencies, including the IRS and SBA, have been increasingly reliant on sub-regulatory FAQs as a means for issuing guidance lately.  What are some potential consequences or drawbacks to this method?

Daniel Strickland:  Receiving guidance by FAQ is certainly an efficient way to push information out to taxpayers and practitioners.  But as you allude, there are some potential issues—both legal and practical.  The first for me is in the second introductory paragraph:

Borrowers and lenders may rely on the guidance provided in this document as SBA’s interpretation of the Paycheck Protection Program Interim Final Rules . . . .  The U.S. government will not challenge lender PPP actions that conform to this guidance1[.]

Footnote 1 provides:

This document does not carry the force and effect of law independent of the statute and regulations on which it is based.

Although “borrowers . . . may rely on the guidance,” it is only the SBA’s interpretation of its own interim final rules.  There is certainly an open question as to the level of deference to which the FAQs are entitled. 

Second to that is the issue of whether the government will challenge taxpayer actions that conform to the guidance.  Although the guidance provides some comfort to lenders, and the lenders will be the ones approving loan forgiveness applications, there are still a slew of potential consequences in the fine print that could be asserted against borrowers. 

Third is the complexity in advising clients.  If you are paying daily attention to the guidance, the tempo of guidance isn’t a big deal, but what I am noticing is that the guidance is changing—think about the initial PPP interest rate of 0.50% fixed rate announced by Treasury that was later changed to 1.00% fixed rate—and few of the published thought guidance pieces are being updated.  For practitioners who are trying to play catchup after receiving a client question, this can be complicated and a great deal of time can be lost spinning their wheels trying to figure out why two seemingly well-reasoned articles have divergent facts or conclusions.

Last, but not least, for taxpayers who are looking for answers online, this could be devastating when it comes to applications for forgiveness.  If practitioners are having to sift through the outdated legal analysis by comparison to the newest FAQ iteration, how can taxpayers be confident that they are only relying on the correct version.  And when the next round of guidance comes out, those taxpayers must rinse and repeat.

“Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow…”

Wolters Kluwer: Looking ahead, any closing thoughts or advice for practitioners related to the PPP moving forward?

Daniel Strickland:  We all want to get to the right answer.  For taxpayers and practitioners alike, it is important to ask questions.  The SBA, for example, is receptive to discussing concerns and comments.  And given the frequency of guidance, it is more important than ever to be involved in the process.  For taxpayers specifically, asking questions of their advisers can protect small businesses against the “penny-wise, pound-foolish” adage.  I know I want to protect my clients from missteps and help them take fullest advantage of these benefits.

By Jessica Jeane, J.D. – Senior News Editor and Content Management Analyst

Wolters Kluwer is by your side to help you stay up-to-date with tax and compliance changes and support your ability to work remotely. Please visit our Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Page for Tax & Accounting Professionals.

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