From 2003 to 2007, Sovereign Bancorp, Inc. (Sovereign) – now known as Santander Holdings USA, Inc. (Santander) – engaged in a so-called STARS transaction with Barclays Bank. According to Santander, “[b]y engaging in the STARS transaction, Sovereign transferred some of its income tax liability from the United States to the United Kingdom,” it “secured a loan of $1.15 billion,” and it received a payment “which effectively reduced its lending costs.” On its Federal corporate income tax returns for those years, Sovereign claimed foreign tax credits (FTCs) for UK taxes it paid in connection with the STARS transaction. It also claimed deductions for the interest paid on the $1.15 billion loan.
In 2009, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued a Notice of Deficiency disallowing Sovereign’s FTCs and its deductions for interest paid on the $1.15 billion loan. The IRS did not challenge Sovereign’s compliance with the statutory and regulatory rules governing FTCs, instead arguing that Sovereign’s STARS transaction lacked “economic substance.” Sovereign paid the deficiency and sued for a refund in the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts. When the district court held for Sovereign on both issues, the IRS appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, but only with respect to the FTC issue. The crux of the issue was how to treat the UK taxes and the related FTCs for purposes of the “economic substance” analysis. Relying on Salem Financial, Inc. v. U.S., 786 F.3d 932 (Fed. Cir. 2015), and Bank of New York Mellon Corp. v. Comm’r, 801 F.3d 104 (2d Cir. 2015), the IRS argued that the UK taxes should be treated as an expense but that the related FTCs should be ignored in determining pre-tax profit. Citing IES Indus., Inc. v. U.S., 253 F.3d 350 (8th Cir. 2001), and Compaq Computer Corp. v. Comm’r, 277 F.3d 778 (5th Cir. 2001), Sovereign argued that either both should be included in the profit analysis or both should be ignored. The First Circuit held that Sovereign’s STARS transaction lacked “economic substance,” and upheld the disallowance of the FTCs at issue. In doing so, it treated the UK taxes as expenses that reduced pre-tax profit and ignored the related FTCs, following the Federal and Second Circuit’s approach. Santander Holdings USA, Inc. v. U.S., 844 F.3d 15 (1st Cir. 2016).