NatWest is a United Kingdom corporation engaged in international banking activities. For the tax years 1981-1987, NatWest conducted wholesale banking operations in the United States through six permanently established branch locations (collectively “the U.S. Branch”). On its United States federal income tax returns for the years at issue, NatWest claimed deductions for accrued interest expenses as recorded on the books of the U.S. Branch. On audit, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) recomputed the interest expense deduction according to the formula set forth in Treasury Regulation § 1.882-5. The formula excludes consideration of interbranch transactions for the determination of assets, liabilities, and interest expenses. Treas. Reg. § 1.882-5(a)(5) (1981).2 The formula also imputes or estimates the amount of capital held by the U.S. Branch based on either a fixed ratio or the ratio of NatWest’s average total worldwide liabilities to average total worldwide assets. Id. § 1.882-5(b)(2). Pursuant to the IRS’s recalculation of the interest expense deduction, NatWest’s taxable income was increased by approximately $155 million for the years at issue. NatWest concluded that the increased income would result in an additional tax liability of at least $37 million in the United States for which a foreign tax credit would not be available in the United Kingdom. NatWest thus requested, under Article 24 of the 1975 Treaty, that the United Kingdom enter competent authority proceedings with the United States to resolve the double taxation issue. Pursuant to the competent authority proceedings, the United Kingdom presented NatWest with a settlement offer, which NatWest concluded did not sufficiently address its double taxation concerns. NatWest rejected the settlement offer, paid the additional taxes, and filed suit in 1995, claiming that the IRS’s application of § 1.882-5 to an international bank such as NatWest violated the terms of the 1975 Treaty.
The 1975 US/UK Double Taxation Treaty contained an Article 7 in similar terms to Article 8 of the 1976 Convention. In the first of three cases, NatWest claimed that the formula used in the Treasury Regulation to calculate deductible interest was inconsistent with Article 7 of the Treaty. The United States Court of Federal Claims upheld the claim. In relation to Article 7 of the US/UK Treaty it said:
“The foregoing examination of Article 7 of the Treaty, pre-ratification reports of the Treasury Department and the Senate, and Commentaries intended to assist in interpretation leads to the conclusion that the Treaty contemplates that a foreign banking corporation in the position of plaintiff will be subjected to U.S. taxation only on the profits of its U.S. branch and that such profits should be based on the books of account of such branch maintained as if the branch were a distinct and separate enterprise dealing wholly independently with the remainder of the foreign corporation, provided that the financial records of the branch, especially those reflecting intra-corporate lending transactions, are subject to adjustment as may be necessary for imputation of adequate capital to the branch and to insure use of market rates in computing interest expenses. In addition to normal deductible expenses reflected on the books of the branch, as adjusted, there shall be allowed in the determination of the profits of the U.S. Branch a reasonable allocation of general and administrative expenses incurred for the purposes of the foreign enterprise as a whole.”
The Treasury Regulation was held to operate contrary to Article 7 for a number of reasons. It treated the branch as a unit of the bank rather than as a separate entity and applied the formula without regard to the actual assets and liabilities shown on the books of the branch.
Judgement of the Court
The court allowed the appeal of National Westminster.
According to the court there is nothing in the language of Article 7 to suggest that the government is allowed to impose capital requirements on a branch that are the same as those imposed on separately-incorporated banks in order to give meaning to the phrase “separate and distinct.” The phrase “separate and distinct” does not mean the branch should be treated as if it were “separately-incorporated,” but instead “separate and distinct,” means separate and distinct from the rest of the bank of which it is a part. Thus, Article 7 of the Treaty simply allows the taxing authorities to adjust the books and records of the branch to ensure that transactions between the branch and other portions of the foreign bank are properly identified and characterized for tax purposes.
There is nothing in the plain words of the Treaty that allows the government to adjust the books and records of the branch to reflect “hypothetical” infusions of capital based upon banking and market requirements that do not apply to the branch. In short, the government’s reading of Article 7 goes too far.