Rangers’ tax case: outcomes and scenarios

My thanks again to the many great contributors to this board. It is said that politics makes for strange bedfellows and it appears that this blog has brought an unusual array of interests together. Information sharing, fact checking, and the inevitable rumour mongering is going into high-gear while as diverse a cast of characters as could be imagined collaborate on piecing together the mysteries surrounding Craig Whyte’s ownership of Rangers FC. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, someone has managed to make a lot of enemies in a very short time.

In today’s post, I will try to stimulate some discussion on likely end-games to the tax case and what that would mean for Rangers. By definition, this cannot be anything more than informed speculation, so I welcome alternative views and scenarios from all readers.

There are three broad types of outcome from Rangers’ appeal of the assessments from HMRC:

  1. Complete win for Rangers: no payments on the assessments
  2. Complete win for HMRC: Rangers face bills of £36m immediately with £18-24m in penalties to follow
  3. Some midway point where tax is due but Rangers have managed to get the amounts reduced- let us suggest to £18m

For simplicity of analysis we will ignore possibility 3. that there would be some intermediate level bill. It would take a book to go through all of the permutations for this, but until we know more about how the tribunal has gone, we will not know how applicable this might be.

Option 1: Rangers get a complete win

Obviously, this would be great news for everyone attached to Rangers FC. Craig Whyte’s company could sell its shares which it acquired for £1 for a price anywhere between £5 and £10m. Even if the reported £700k in legal and PR costs during the takeover process are true, this would still be a tremendous return. With UK gilts yielding about 2.5% this year, any investment that could provide an APR return of over 1000% would be worth having a small stake flutter. Whyte would have the option of retaining the £18m bank debt on his own books and charging a commercial interest rate. Or it could be sold to another banker for par value (£18m). Rangers would still have to deal with the fundamental problems that lead them to the nadir in the first place: the ‘benefactor’ model for football club ownership is not sustainable. Everyone will eventually tire of pumping cash in without any prospect of a payoff. However, if Rangers were to end up with an owner who at least balances revenue and outgoings, the club would be stable and in a relatively healthy position compared with many others in Scotland and around Europe.

Option 2: HMRC have their bills for underpayment and interest of £36m confirmed, with £12-18m in penalties to follow.
I am going to discount the possibility that Craig Whyte and his partners are really so naive or so stupid that they really believe that there is no risk of this happening. (It is the perception that the new owners are trying to mislead Rangers fans that is at the heart of the growing disquiet among the club’s more sentient supporters.) Whyte’s team will have gone into this venture with their eyes open and will have a strategy for dealing with this outcome. Whether it is a smart strategy will remain to be seen, but I believe that they will have one. We can look at a few of these possible approaches to dealing with such a monumental problem:

a) Fathomless Wealth:

If Whyte and his backers are men of fathomless wealth who are willing to pay any price for the personal honour of being custodians of their beloved club, then simply paying the bills would be an option. Nothing in the available public records indicates that Whyte would have even a fraction of the wealth required to do this. If the rumours of James Mortimer’s involvement are true, does he have that kind of wealth? He will have accumulated a considerable fortune over a career at the top of the nightlife business in the West of Scotland that has spanned about 25 years. However, does he have the kind of wealth that would allow you to spend about £80m before you have even bought a single player? Are there other mystery backers? We do not know, but it seems unlikely that any group would be willing to have this amount of cash tied up to just retain control of their beloved football club. Certainly, it would not be a business decision to bail Rangers out of trouble as such an amount could never be recovered.

b) Liquidation:

As we have presented on here several times, by being assigned Rangers’ debt to the Bank of Scotland/Lloyds, Whyte’s group will have retained Lloyds’ security interest (floating charge) in Rangers’ assets. If HMRC decide to be difficult, Whyte’s only way to enforce these rights would be via liquidation of Rangers FC. Could a group of lifelong Rangers fans really do this to their club? If forced to liquidate, a receiver would sell Rangers assets to the highest bidder and pay Whyte & partners off with the proceeds. Whyte & partners would likely recover all of their £18m debt from Rangers.

c) Make A Deal:

It is known that the previous Rangers’ board made two offers to HMRC to settle the tax case. These were rejected. If Rangers are hit with bills totalling £54-60m, and no one is fronting the cash to pay them, insolvency becomes inevitable. Yet, given its unsecured creditor status, HMRC is unlikely to receive much, if anything, from the liquidation of Rangers FC. From a narrow financial perspective, HMRC should accept a settlement offer of almost anything. Whyte & partners cannot (rationally) offer much as they would find their investment marooned by having over-invested in a business that would never be able to produce a sensible return on invested capital. Balancing this impetus to settle is HMRC’s need to ‘save face’.

HMRC has in recent years faced considerable public criticism for perceived weakness in the face of large corporations disputing massive tax bills. In particular, Dave Hartnett, the Permanent Secretary for Tax, has faced public ridicule and media innuendo over claims that he “caved in” on the £6 billion tax dispute with Vodaphone and agreed a sweetheart deal for investment banking giant, Goldman Sachs. Famously labelled “Whitehall’s most wined and dined mandarin” by The Daily Telegraph last year, Hartnett was also in the firing line over the PAYE fiasco that saw many millions of tax payers face claw-backs from HMRC. These public disasters have captured a greater public mindshare than the larger number of enforcement successes.

In the face of early hints of tax troubles ahead for Rangers, the conventional wisdom amongst radio talking-heads and the man in the street was that “they will just do a deal for pennies on the pound. They always do in the end.” The widespread perception that “taxes are for little people” and previous public disasters may limit HMRC’s room for manoeuvre. In a time of fiscal difficulty for the country, anything that provides an encouragement to businessmen to engage in (yet to be declared illegal) tax avoidance schemes or conscious tax fraud in the belief that they can agree to pay a smaller amount in a decade’s time will not be good for revenue collection. Certainly within Scotland, HMRC’s credibility could be said to depend upon how the Rangers case is handled.

Assuming that Rangers’ lose their appeal of the tax assessments in their possession, Rangers’ future appears to be in the hands of Whitehall mandarins. The continuity of the football club incorporated in 1873 would depend on whether HMRC looks at the low probability of receiving much from Rangers or agrees to accept whatever crumbs Whyte and his friends decide to throw its way. If HMRC feel that a deal could damage the public sense that it is best to pay to taxes, in-full and on-time, the public display of the metaphorical corpse of The Rangers Football Club plc could follow swiftly thereafter.

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