Thursday, February 27, 2020

Cabbies worry as hedge fund snaps up taxi medallions New York Post February 20, 2020

New York taxi drivers and politicians are raising alarms after a secretive hedge fund this week quietly became the city’s largest owner of taxi-medallion loans.

Marblegate Asset Management — a tight-lipped investment firm that has already scooped up some 300 medallions and 1,000 loans, many of them previously owned by disgraced “Taxi King” Gene Freidman — has taken over loans tied to an additional 3,000 New York medallions, sources told The Post.

The deal — valued at about $350 million with the inclusion of an additional 1,500 loans from Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities, according to sources — makes Marblegate New York City’s biggest-ever owner of medallion loans, with nearly a third of the total of 13,500 issued.

The Greenwich, Conn.-based hedge fund didn’t respond to requests for comment, even as critics raised fears that the deal could spell more bad news for cab drivers.

The market value of a New York City taxi medallion — which had topped $1 million in late 2013 — has since tanked below $200,000 with the rise of ride-sharing startups like Uber and Lyft. With passengers defecting in droves, New York’s yellow-cab drivers are facing mounting debts, with nine suicides reported in the last two years.

Some industry sources said they were skeptical whether Marblegate would be interested in taking a haircut on the loans to help out taxi drivers.

“[Marblegate] is happy owning these assets because they want to own a superfleet and build economies of scale,” according to one industry insider. “The idea is to keep buying the loans, keep foreclosing on them and keep gobbling up medallions until you control the market.”

About 60 members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance had driven down to Virginia on Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to stop Marblegate’s purchase of the loans from the National Credit Union Administration, a federal agency that had taken on the New York loans after the collapse of two local credit unions in 2018.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Bhairavi Desai, the taxi driver group’s executive director. “We’re pretty pissed off.”

Letitia James preps suit against city over medallion debt crisis
Desai says the group met with NCUA reps two weeks ago to discuss letting the Taxi Workers Alliance find a private partner that would help the nonprofit buy the loans. The alliance has said it wants to restructure the loans at uniform values of $150,000 and freeze monthly payments on those debts at $900.

Instead, Desai said that the NCUA — which said in a Wednesday announcement it has lost $760 million holding onto the debt — simply turned around and sold the medallions to the highest bidder.

“We are fiduciaries for the share insurance fund. We are not some hedge fund selling assets,” NCUA board member J. Mark McWatters told the 60 visiting New Yorkers at the regulator’s monthly board meeting in Virginia. “We needed to take this offer.”

The NCUA has assured the Taxi Workers Alliance that Marblegate is open to talking debt relief with medallion owners and that a meeting between the parties to start those talks has been set for “sometime next week,” Desai said.

City officials are equally concerned about what putting an outsize share of taxi medallions in the hands of a hedge fund means for taxi operators on the brink.

“People will read this story and think about committing suicide,” said City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Transportation Committee. “We cannot wait for the city to create a public-private partnership to buy medallions in foreclosure and hold the medallions so that the debt on them can be reduced. We need to act yesterday on fixing this.”

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

New York Attorney General Accuses N.Y.C. of Fraud Over Taxi Crisis from New York Times

The state’s attorney general is seeking $810 million from the city to compensate financially struggling taxi medallion owners. New York State’s attorney general on Thursday accused New York City of committing fraud by artificially inflating the value of yellow taxi medallions, and she demanded $810 million from the city to compensate the thousands of cabdrivers who are now saddled with enormous debt.
The city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission marketed the medallions — city-issued permits required to own a yellow cab — as “a solid investment with steady growth” and reaped a profit from the sale of thousands of them at auction at exorbitant prices from 2004 to 2017, according to an investigation by the attorney general’s office. The attorney general, Letitia A. James, said the city must provide financial relief to the debt-ridden taxi medallion owners within 30 days or she would sue for fraud, unlawful profit and other violations of state law. “These taxi medallions were marketed as a pathway to the American dream, but instead became a trapdoor of despair for medallion owners harmed by the T.L.C.’s unlawful practices,” Ms. James said. “The very government that was supposed to ensure fair practices in the marketplace engaged in a scheme that defrauded hundreds of medallion owners, leaving many with no choice but to work day and night to pay off their overpriced medallions.’’Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents cabdrivers, said she welcomed Ms. James’s action and saw it as a validation of the city’s culpability in the taxi crisis. “The devastation that has happened across the taxi industry has been a deep betrayal by the city,” she said. “Not only did they close their eyes to predatory practices and directly engage in inflating the prices but they then allowed in Uber and Lyft completely unregulated.” Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that although the taxi crisis began under Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, city officials since then have taken steps to provide financial help to taxi drivers and tighten oversight of Uber and other ride-hailing companies. The attorney general began her inquiry in response to an investigation by The New York Times, which found that a handful of taxi industry leaders earned hundreds of millions of dollars by deliberately inflating the price of a medallion to more than $1 million from about $200,000. The Times found that thousands of drivers, many of them immigrants, thought they were safe taking out loans to buy medallions because of the taxi commission’s assurances of their high value. City, state and federal officials exacerbated the problems by exempting the industry from regulations, The Times revealed. The city also filled in budget gaps by selling medallions and running ads promoting the permits as “better than the stock market.” Ms. James said that the city continued to market the medallions at inflated prices even after internal warnings were raised. During the last auction for medallions in 2014, the city sold 350 new medallions at the height of the market, generating $359 million in revenue. Since then, medallion prices have cratered, selling for a fraction of the record $1.3 million price in 2014. In many cases, they are worth far less than what their owners borrowed to buy them. In 2018, New York became the first major American city to adopt a one-year moratorium on issuing new vehicle licenses for Uber, Lyft and other ride-hail services. It came three years after Mr. de Blasio attempted to adopt a similar cap but abandoned the effort after Uber waged a fierce campaign against him. Since then, the city has extended the moratorium. “This crisis has been ours to solve — working tirelessly to clean up the carelessness and greed of others,” Ms. Goldstein said. “If the attorney general wants to launch a frivolous investigation into the very administration that has done nothing but work to improve the situation, this is what she’ll find.” But Ms. Desai said the city’s response has been slow and its efforts so far have generally been underwhelming. She noted that the city waived some small fees for taxi owners even as they drowned under huge debts. “There has been no substantial financial relief — this restitution would be the first,” she said.
The city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, said Ms. James had made “significant allegations” and that his office “takes these issues very seriously.” The city controls the number of medallions — currently capped at just under 13,600 — to prevent an oversupply of cabs like what happened in the 1930s when concerns over congestion, reckless driving and cut-rate fares led the city to step in. As medallion prices soared, drivers were steered into taking out loans totaling billions of dollars that they could never repay, plunging many into bankruptcy. A spate of suicides by taxi owners and professional drivers in recent years underscored the severity of their plight and has spurred city legislation to try to improve their working conditions. A spokesman for Ms. James said that while Thursday’s action was focused on the city’s role in the taxi crisis, their ongoing investigation continued to examine “all aspects of the taxi industry.” The United States Attorney’s office in Manhattan has also launched a criminal investigation. Taxi industry leaders have denied doing anything wrong, characterizing their actions as normal business practices. They have sought to blame the taxi meltdown entirely on the rise of competing ride-app services such as Uber and Lyft. Last month, a city panel appointed by the New York City Council and Mr. de Blasio proposed a bailout of up to $600 million for taxi drivers, but most of that money would come from private investors. Ms. James is seeking $810 million directly from the city. It is unclear how her demand would affect the bailout plans. City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who was the co-chairman of the panel, said he believed the city did bear some responsibility for creating the taxi crisis, and as a result, it had an obligation to provide financial relief to taxi owners. He added that the city should consider all proposals, including Ms. James’s demand for compensation as well as the private-public bailout proposed by the panel. “What I know is this crisis is so huge and the medallion owners are so desperate that they cannot wait any longer,” Mr. Rodriguez said. Ms. James said the payment from the city would be used to pay restitution to taxi medallion owners, which could include paying off loans, and compensating them for damages resulting from the city’s actions. She also plans to take additional measures to prevent the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the city from inflating taxi prices in the future.Nino Hervias, a taxi owner and spokesman for the Taxi Medallion Owner Driver Association, which represents many immigrant taxi owners, said that it was time that the city was held directly liable for destroying the yellow taxi industry and pushing so many drivers into bankruptcy.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Best Way to Use a Credit Card? Treat It Like Cash from New York Times

The Best Way to Use a Credit Card? Treat It Like Cash from New York Times February 12, 2020

Fewer people than ever carry cash these days, it seems. Life can seem ultraconvenient when you don’t have to worry about a wad of bills in your pocket (or even a wallet in your pocket, for that matter).

But it can hurt people with low incomes when businesses go cashless, it can hurt workers who rely on cash tips and — even if you’re not in either of these groups — it can hurt you because it’s easy to get into financial trouble with credit cards.

Studies prove that people spend more when using credit vs. cash, and late payments are on the rise.

“You have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon with credit cards,” said Amy Bucher, the director of behavior change design at Mad*Pow, a design consultancy group. “Unless they’re checking their credit card balance on a daily basis, most people don’t have an awareness of how much debt they’re in.”

But if used responsibly, credit cards are a fast way to build credit without paying a dime of interest. Good credit scores can save you money down the road, typically qualifying you for lower mortgage or auto loan interest rates. Credit card rewards can make things you buy a little cheaper.

The good news: Mental tricks, apps and tools can make spending with credit cards similar to cash, giving you the best of both worlds.

Editorial note: The assessments of financial products in this article are independently determined by Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.

Make credit card purchases feel tactile
Cash requires you to shop at a physical store, grab your physical wallet and hand over physical money. Giving a cashier a $20 bill in exchange for an $18 item is a tangible transaction. In exchange for a $20, you now have $2 left and a physical bauble.

But a credit card looks the same before and after the transaction, obfuscating what was actually given up for that bauble. Add online shopping to the mix, and you might not even think about your credit card or where the money is coming from.

Grab a receipt. Beverly Harzog, a credit card expert and consumer finance analyst for U.S. News & World Report, always takes a receipt. “It’s just one more thing to help you keep a grip on reality,” she said. “When they ask if you want a receipt, just say yes so you have that feeling of payment in your hand.”

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Remove payment information from your computer. Consumer psychologists refer to creating friction — meaning barriers to doing something — as an effective way to stop an impulse buy. “If you’re sitting on your couch, you’ve had two glasses of wine, you see rain boots on sale, and your credit card information auto-populates, you’re probably going to buy it, because you really only needed to hit two buttons to make that purchase,” Ms. Bucher said. “If you had to get off your couch, pull out your credit card and type in the numbers, that’s friction. You have to commit a little more to make the purchase.” In contrast, digital payments like Apple Pay offer convenience when you’re at the cash register, but they take cash and physical cards out of the equation. If you’re nervous that holding your phone next to the scanner to complete a transaction could turn you into a spendthrift, don’t partake.

[Like what you’re reading? Sign up here for the Smarter Living newsletter to get stories like this (and much more!) delivered straight to your inbox every Monday morning.]

Set spending limits
You can’t buy $300 headphones if your wallet contains only $100. But you can if you’ve got a card with a credit limit over $300 (even if $300 exceeds your budget).

Let robots count your money. Budgeting apps like You Need a Budget ($84 a year) or Mint (no fee) track balances across all your accounts, giving you a clearer picture of your actual balance even if you have multiple cards and accounts from different banks. Some banks, such as Bank of America, also let you sync other accounts, even if those accounts are with competing banks. Check your balance in the app to ensure your next purchase fits your budget.

Try “action planning.” Determine your budget, then implement measures that prevent you from exceeding it. The Uber Credit Card has a feature that lets you create a self-imposed spending limit for certain categories or merchants, which could remove the temptation to stop at Starbucks on the way to work. Other companies, like Discover, allow you to set up alerts if your credit card balance exceeds a certain amount or you near your credit limit.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Section 108 of the Internal Revenue Code Relief of Indebtedness Income and Workouts

Section 108 of the Internal Revenue Code Relief of Indebtedness Income and Workouts

One of the most overlooked areas of the law when doing a workout is Section 108 of the Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”). Section 108 is a trap for the unwary and unless the attorney or lawyer is aware of this tax code section, it can upend a workout or result in a taxpayer having to recognize, report, or pickup unknowingly a significant amount of taxable income. This could ruin the attorney-client relationship or worse yet a malpractice lawsuit by the client against the attorney.

Let's begin this post with an explanation of Section 108 of the IRC.

IRC § 108 provides that if an individual or an entity that owes money (the “Debtor”) is relieved of indebtedness, then that indebtedness is deemed to be ordinary income to the Debtor. The Debtor  must report that income on their tax return and the Creditor is required to file a 1099 with the IRS. There are two exceptions to this rule: first, if the Debtor files for bankruptcy protection, then the relief of indebtedness income is not picked up; and second, on a balance sheet basis, if the individual’s liabilities exceed their assets and they are insolvent, then they do not have to pick up the income.

The goal of a workout from the perspective of the Debtor (the person who owes money) is to pay less than the balance due to the Creditor (person or company owed money).

An example of the application of IRC § 108 will help to explain the above. Let’s assume that an individual owes a financial institution $1,000,000.  The individual is unable to pay the $1,000,000, so the parties enter into a workout (an out of court settlement) in which the individual repays the financial institution $600,000. According to IRC § 108, the taxpayer must pick up the $400,000 differential between what he or she owed and paid as ordinary income.
Unless the client is made aware of this fact in advance of or during a workout, the client may walk away from the workout. If not told at all, when the client receives the 1099 from the Creditor or worse gets audited by the IRS, they will point a finger at the attorney or sue the attorney for malpractice.

Many clients and some lawyers assume that the $400,000 of income is capital gains, but it is ordinary income.

Another question raised by clients is how does the IRS find out about this relief of indebtedness income? The answer is that the Creditor  is required to file a Form 1099-C with the IRS reporting the relief of indebtedness income for more than $600 of forgiven debt.
Yet another question asked by clients is whether the Creditor will file the 1099 with the IRS? The answer is that the Creditor is legally required to do so and most institutional investors will do the 1099 filing.

Section 108 of the IRC comes up in almost every workout, but is currently most prevalent in taxi medallion and restaurant workouts. Both of these industries are struggling and are areas we are doing a lot of workouts.

Clients should review all workouts with their CPA’s or accountants.

At Shenwick & Associates, we are not tax lawyers, but we are familiar with the IRC and James Shenwick has an LLM in Taxation from the NYU School of Law.

Clients who are doing or contemplate doing a workout, are encouraged to consult with James Shenwick to discuss their strategy. Jim Shenwick 212 541 6224