Lucas v. Kansas City Structural Steel Co, s. 323

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation281 U.S. 264,50 S.Ct. 263,74 L.Ed. 848
Docket NumberNos. 323,324,s. 323
PartiesLUCAS, Commissioner of Internal Revenue, v. KANSAS CITY STRUCTURAL STEEL CO
Decision Date14 April 1930

The Attorney General and Mr. Charles E. Hughes, Jr., Sol. Gen., of Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

Mr. Armwell L. Cooper, of Kansas City, Mo., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Kansas City Structural Steel Company, a Missouri concern, appealed to the United States Board of Tax Appeals from determinations by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue which made an increase of $7,656.74 in the company's 1918 income tax and of $15,953.36 in its 1920 income tax.1 These additions were due wholly to changes made by the Commissioner in the inventory valuation of material carried in stock. The company valued at a constant price all the material which did not exceed in quantity what was said to be the normal stock on hand.2 The Commissioner revalued this at current market prices. The changes resulted in increasing the December, 1918, inventory by $165,849.46 and the December 31, 1920, inventory by $117,113.61. The Board of Tax Appeals sustained the Commissioner's action. 11 B. T. A. 877. Its decision was reversed by the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. 33 F.(2d) 53. This Court granted writs of certiorari, Lucas v. Kansas City Structural Steel Co., 280 U. S. 543, 50 S. Ct. 36, 74 L. Ed. —.

Section 203 of the Revenue Act of 1918, Feb. 24, 1919, c. 18, 40 Stat. 1057, 1060, provides: 'That whenever in the opinion of the Commissioner the use of inventories is necessary in order clearly to determine the income of any taxpayer, inventories shall be taken by such taxpayer upon such basis as the Commissioner, with the approval of the Secretary, may prescribe as conforming as nearly as may be to the best accounting practice in the trade or business and as most clearly reflecting the income.'3 Regulations 45 (1920 edition, as amended by Treasury Decision 3296) provides, in Article 1581, that 'inventories at the beginning and end of each year are necessary in every case in which the production, purchase, or sale of merchandise is an income-producing factor.' Article 1582 declares that the basis of valuation 'most commonly used by business concerns and which meets the requirements of the revenue act is (a) cost or (b) cost or market, whichever is lower'; that 'goods taken in the inventory which have been so intermingled that they cannot be identified with specific invoices will be deemed to be * * * the goods most recently purchased'; that the 'taxpayer must satisfy the commissioner of the correctness of the prices adopted'; and that '(d) using a constant price or nominal value for a so-called normal quantity of materials or goods in stock' is not in accord with the regulations.4

The company is engaged in the fabrication and erection of steel plates for buildings, bridges, tanks, etc. It does not carry finished products in stock, but fabricates the plates for specific structures or contracts. It orders material from the mills for each structure or contract; but it also keeps a supply on hand in order 'to insure the prompt and orderly execution of contracts in view of delay, etc., incident to shipments from the mills and other exigencies affecting the availability for use when needed of material ordered for a particular job.' Material is taken from this supply as and when needed; and the stock is subsequently replenished.5 On December 31 1916, the quantity in stock was 5,554 tons. The company then inventoried it at cost-$1.70 per hundredweight f. o. b. Pittsburgh. At the close of each year thereafter, until 1921, the company inventoried its stock on hand up to 5,554 tons at that price regardless of its actual cost or the market, and the excess, if any, at cost or market price, whichever was lower. In the tax years in question, the market was much higher. It is not shown what the actual cost of the stock then on hand was, or that any of it had cost, as little as $1.70. 6 The Commissioner therefore revalued the entire stock at market price, with the consequent increase in the taxes complained of.

First. Whether in a particular business inventories are necessary for the determination of income is a practical question left by the statute to the judgment of the Commissioner. On that question, he and the company did not differ. In every year, it, without any question or protest, used inventories in making its return. The dispute was merely on the method of valuation to be adopted for that part of the stock which it calls its normal stock. Throughout, the company valued at cost or market prices all stock in excess of 5,554 tons; and since 1921 has so valued all the stock on hand.

It is not contested that, if inventories are necessary in order to determine the company's income, the 'base stock' method does not fulfill the desiderata. The federal income tax system is based upon an annual accounting period. This requires that gains or losses be accounted for in the year in which they are realized. The purpose of the inventories is to assign to each period its profits and losses. In years of rising prices, the 'base stock' method causes an understatement of income; for it disregards the gains actually realized through liquidation of low price stock on a high price market. In times of falling prices, it causes an overstatement of income; for it ignores the losses which result from the consumption of high price stock. This method may, like many reserves which business men set up on their books for their own purposes, serve to equalize the results of operations during a series of years. But it is inconsistent with the annual accounting required by Congress for income tax purposes. It results in offsetting an inventory gain of one year against an inventory loss of another, obscures the true gain or loss of the tax year, and thus misrepresents the facts. It does not conform with the general or best accounting methods and is apparently obsolete.7 The company disclaims any defense of the base stock method; and the lower court disapproved it.

Second. It is urged, however, that the inventory requirement is not applicable to the company's stock to the extent of 5,554 tons; that the company is not a dealer, manufacturer, or producer, but rather a contractor or builder; that its income results from the performance of its construction contracts; that the material in its standby stock has no relation to these contracts, the contract prices, or the company's profits; that the material from this stock is only borrowed for specific jobs and is promptly replaced in kind; that it is not an income pro- ducing factor, but is like the company's machinery and equipment; and that any accretion to the value of this material is of no consequence until a final liquidation. The contentions are inconsistent with the company's practice and are...

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