Got a tax credit you can't use? You can sell it

The Port of Portland is an economic hub that relies on a dredge to clear navigation channels along the Columbia River. The dredge was getting old.

States spend billions on tax incentives for all kinds of business activity. Here’s one example of the growth in state tax credits: In the year 2000, only four states gave film tax credits. Now, almost 40 do.

Still, lots of businesses never rack up enough of a tax liability to actually use the tax credits states give them. Perhaps they’re an out-of-state film company with a low tax bill, or a nonprofit or start-up with none at all. One way for states to entice those groups is with transferable, or sellable, tax credits. So the secondary market for those credits is growing too.

To show you how sophisticated the market for buying and selling state tax credits is getting, let’s follow the path of an incentive named Betsy.

Okay, it’s actually "BETC", which stands for Business Energy Tax Credit  but it’s pronounced Betsy.

BETC is from Oregon. The state said to businesses there: "Invest in renewable energy or energy conservation, and you can get this tax credit."

Our BETC’s story starts at the Port of Portland, an economic hub that relies on a dredge, called  the Dredge Oregon, to clear navigation channels along the Columbia River.

The dredge was getting old.

“It wasn’t particularly environmentally friendly,” says Tatiana Starostina, the Port’s senior finance manager.

So the Port undertook a $20 million project to overhaul the Dredge Oregon’s engine, pump and generators. The Port says the overhaul will reduce the dredge’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent.

To help pay for all this, the Port got a BETC from the state. But there was a wrinkle: “Well, because the Port is a government entity,” says Starostina, “obviously we cannot use the tax credit to its original purpose.”

The Port doesn’t pay taxes, so a tax credit doesn’t do much good unless it can monetize it.

“Monetize means we literally sell it,” says Starostina – at a discount, of course. Then the company that buys BETC gets to apply the full credit to its state tax bill.

“It would be like a Groupon,” says Rob O’Neill, the man the Port asked to sell BETC.

O’Neill is a partner with Moss Adams, an accounting firm that’s helped facilitate the transfer of over $500 million in state tax credits since 2007. He says the firms that buy larger tax credits, those worth more than $1 million, are typically Fortune 500 companies.

He also says the secondary market for tax credits is growing.

By some estimates, there are up to 200 state tax credits that are transferable or directly cashable (called refundable). Companies are selling their unused film credits, credits for historic preservation, job creation, renewable energy, even farmworker housing.

But O’Neill says, until now, the market’s been a bit of a black box.

“A lot of people were calling tax directors, and CFOs, and people they meet on the golf course, and try and sell them a tax credit,” he says. “And no one really had transparency with respect to the market.”

Now, O’Neill was preparing to list BETC on a new digital exchange, kind of like a Craigslist of tax credits. Buyers and sellers would be able to log in, click on Oregon, and then see BETC’s listing: a $647,190 credit available for 73.6 cents on the dollar.

Then, at the last minute, BETC sold the old fashioned way, off-exchange. O’Neill got a call from “a large, public, transportation equipment manufacturer.”

He described the buyer on the condition it not be named.

Still, O’Neill wants to nudge more tax credit business online. Moss Adams is one of at least half a dozen companies starting private exchanges through a platform called The Online Incentives Exchange, which also hosts a new public exchange.

“What’s critical is to bring the tax credit market into the modern era,” says OIX’s co-founder Danny Bigel.

Rob O’Neill agrees. “Everything’s moving to the web, and so I think it’s just a matter of time before the business community starts to accept that this is the way credits will transfer in the future,” he says.

Meanwhile a company with almost $2 billion in revenue gets a deal on a state tax credit. The Port of Portland gets to use BETC’s proceeds for its dredge project. Oregon achieves its energy efficiency goal, although it does lose more than half a million dollars in tax revenue from a business that might not need public help.

That’s all from the path of one little tax credit in a market of incentives worth billions.

Got an Oregon tax liability? This $2.6 million credit is available for 25 percent off.

About the author

Kate Davidson is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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