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If The Prime's Killing You, Try A Tax-free Bond

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Your friendly banker will finance your new building at the prime rate plus 2%, but he could probably make you the same loan at 65% of prime. If he hasn't offered to do so, look for another banker. But look quickly, because the deal may not be available much longer.

The deal is an industrial revenue bond (IRB), and it's about the simplest, most efficient small business credit program the federal government has ever devised. You never have to talk to a Washington bureaucrat. There are no federal forms to fill out or reports to file. All you get is cheap money, with no hassles, which may be why more than $8 billion worth of IRBs were issued last year, more than six times the dollar volume issued in 1975.

An IRB is a bond issued on a company's behalf by the local or state development authority. The authority sells the bond to the bank, which collects the principal and interest from you, the borrower. But because the bond was issued by a government agency, the bank pays no federal or state tax on the interest income. It can pass all or some of that tax saving on to you.

But now Congress is taking a hard look at the program, because some congressmen are concerned about "abuses" of it. Congress authorized "small issue" IRBs in 1968, setting the maximum size of an IRB at $5 million and limiting use of IRBs to facilities in which the total capital expended during the three years both before and after issue of the IRB did not exceed $5 million. (If the bond value did not exceed $1 million, the capital expenditure limits did not apply.) The intent was to prevent large firms from using the tax-free bonds to finance only part of an expensive project. In 1978, Congress raised the $5-million limit to $10 million.

Congress thought it was creating an efficient incentive program local communities could use to attract and retain small companies, especially manufacturers. But it didn't limit IRB financing to manufacturing firms, and more than half the states have relaxed their rules on IRB use. The relaxing of rules and reports that borrowers were using IRBs for projects other than those Congress had in mind prompted a Congressional Budget Office study of how states and local communities were using the cutrate business credit.

The study, released in April, provoked a lot of comment in the press, which had been reporting leaks from the CBO study for months. The public learned that IRBs had financed a topless go-go bar and an "adult" bookstore in Philadelphia. They also discovered that Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail fund-raiser for conservative causes and politicians, plans to use the bonds to construct new headquarters for his computer center and mailing operations in northern Virginia. K mart, the country's second largest retailer, used IRBs to finance 96 new stores between 1975 and 1980. In 1979, McDonald's financed 32 new hamburger outlets in Pennsylvania and Ohio with the bonds. And even banks had used IRBs, to raise money for new bank buildings.

Although the CBO report doesn't refer to the topless baqrs and hamburger stands as "abuses," the tone of the report clearly suggests tht Congress ought to take a dim view of them. Some congressmen do. "It's time to start removing the kinds of abuses that we've created," said Rep. Cec Heftel (D-Hawaii), a member of the Oversight Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.

The CBO report estimates that the $8.4 billion in IRBs issued in 1980 cost the federal government $721 million in uncollected tax revenue. Other analysts disagree. Norman Ture, an independent tax and economic consultant until he was named undersecretary of the Treasury this year, argued in a report issued last year that the government actually collects more tax revenue with IRBs than it would without them. IRBs permit additional capital formation and business activity, Ture said, resulting in additional tax revenue from corporate, individual, and payroll taxes. But Ture's new boss, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, has suggested that the IRB program be cut back or eliminated.

Congress is not likely to do away with the program, but it will try to eliminate abuses, congressional aides say. But defining "abuses" is not easy. While topless bars may be inappropriate uses of IRBs, and neither K mart nor McDonald's probably needed the cut-rate financing for expansion, northern cities have found IRBs invaluable in attracting businesses to revitalized inner city commercial and retail zones, and southern states have used the bonds to subsidize the growth of their industrial bases.

And the CBO study itself shows the importance of IRBs to small companies. Of some 8,000 small issues in 1978 and 1979, only 7% went to firms in the Fortune 1,000. "Smaller enterprises are in a better position to use IRBs, and since such firms tend to operate with high debt-to-equity ratios, interest subsidies might be relatively more important in their investment decisions," the study said.

By the time you read this, the House may already have enacted an IRB reform measure as part of its tax bill, which must go on to the Senate. But before Congress takes any final steps on a program it created and handed over to the states to administer, it ought to remind itself with some modesty of the federal government's reputation for running well-administered, effective business incentive programs.

Last updated: Jul 1, 1981




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