The U.S. Treasury will start counting the number of launched Opportunity Zone funds, and also quantify the impact those tax-sheltered investment vehicles have on targeted underserved communities nationwide, if legislation three U.S. Senators introduced this month becomes law.
Although no such reporting requirements exist now in the tax-advantaged program, investors may ultimately welcome the proposal to generate more Opportunity Zone data, even if it adds administrative burdens for fund managers and themselves, according to representatives from Wells Fargo’s high net worth unit Abbot Downing, UBS and others in the investment community.
“I think it enhances the program,” says Lisa Featherngill, head of legacy and wealth planning for Abbot Downing.
“Reporting data is going to be helpful to tell the story over time,” says Andrew Lee, UBS’ chief investment office’s head of sustainable and impact investing for the Americas.
But Lee cautions: “These are long-term investments and the impact on communities is long-term in nature, so you are not going to be able to truly evaluate the impact for years.”
The new proposal requiring Treasury to collect the information has garnered attention in part because two of the Senators who introduced the measure — Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — sponsored the 2017 legislation that injected Opportunity Zones as the newest buzzword in the investing world.
The OZ funds became possible after President Donald Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 — to which Booker and Scott tacked on their OZ-creating proposal. With that legislation, Congress identified capital gains tax relief as a carrot to prod investors to buy stakes in economically-neglected U.S. neighborhoods. Ultimately, the Treasury approved some 8,700 census tracts located in all 50 states as economically disadvantaged enough to become Opportunity Zones.
Under the program, investors can defer capital gains taxes — and even avoid some entirely — if they deploy their recently-realized capital gains to buy stakes for the long haul in the designated tracts. To achieve the maximum tax benefits, investors are required to make a 10-year commitment, and to receive maximum tax-sheltering benefits investors must purchase their stakes by a December 2019 deadline.
“It’s imperative that we create reporting requirements to allow us to accurately measure the success of the initiative,” Scott said in a press release issued about his new legislation.
Are OZ fund sponsors and investors going to respond favorably to additional reporting requirements? The likely answer: Up to a point.
His clients are “totally open about having certain reporting requirements imposed on them,” says Matthew Peurach, a law partner in Atlanta’s Morris Manning & Martin, who advises asset managers sponsoring middle-market Opportunity Zone funds.
They would be willing to share how many jobs their investments have created, he says. But they would draw lines and not want reporting requirements that are “overly onerous,” Peurach says. “My clients aren’t going to want to have to spend thousands of dollars in complying with reporting requirements,” he says. The “spirit” of the OZ legislation was “to motivate private capital into these neighborhoods” to improve them, Peurach says. “You have to try and marry the two concepts,” he says.
“A good market needs data,” says John Cochrane, manager of policy and programs at U.S. Impact Investing Alliance, a Washington, D.C. organization which advocates for government policies to help foster impact investing.
The reporting requirements “were not anyone’s first priority,” Cochrane says. But now that the OZ program has begun to gain traction, such reporting is “necessary to tell the positive stories.” It will also be useful to combat “the negative stories,” he anticipates.
“There is so much money sloshing around out there,” he says about OZ investments. Skeptical community advocates — and reporters — will undoubtedly uncover anecdotal evidence of investors seizing the tax advantages without adding real value to OZ-located assets and job markets, Cochrane predicts. “Absent anyone telling the good story with data, those negative stories are going to define the market,” Cochrane says.
U.S. Impact Investing Alliance has worked closely with Jim Sorenson, a prominent impact investor, Cochrane says. Earlier this month, Sorenson announced he will provide seed money for a $150 million fund that will use a U.S. Impact Investing-developed framework to “measure the good it does in distressed areas,” Bloomberg recently reported.
“[S]uch endeavors may end up being the exception,” the Bloomberg article states. The article notes that few other OZ funds “have formally committed to measure their impact.”
Some large, well-funded private foundations have long-established partnerships with impact investors, and they hope to segue those relationships into helping shape the OZ program’s results.
Also the Kresge Foundation unveiled plans and a $22 million budget in inducements to prompt OZ fund managers to report their impact on targeting communities. Kresge will establish partnerships with Boston-based Actaris Impact and Fort Lauderdale-based Community Capital Management, since the two fund managers have agreed to detailed reporting and transparency standards.
Both Actaris and Community Capital “have agreed to covenants that go beyond what’s required in the Opportunity Zone legislation, including measures that: prioritize the development of affordable housing units and prevent displacement; invest in the creation of living wage jobs; and prohibit non-productive investments such as those into self-storage facilities,” Kresge said in a press release.