It is not surprising that within an economic outlook which seems permanently set to "gloomy" many companies are having to think about reorganising their operations or restructuring their holding structures This article highlights some of the tax and other considerations which must be borne in mind when considering such reorganisations or restructurings with reference to some recent (and less recent) cases and changes in the law and points which have come to the fore in the current climate.
Companies will no doubt be looking at whether they or their subsidiaries need to be recapitalised. In general terms, a fresh injection of equity by a parent into a subsidiary is relatively straightforward from a tax point of view. However, in the current climate some groups may be considering capitalising loan balances with a view to strengthening the balance sheet of the debtor. There are a couple of points worth considering in these cases:-
- in group situations, it is unlikely that the debtor would have to recognise any income simply because the loan is converted into share capital of the debtor. On general principles, provided the nominal value of the share capital issued to the creditor is equal to the amount of the debt capitalised, there should be no profit realised by the debtor. Even if that is not the case, however, the corporate debt regime set out in Finance Act 1996 will prevent the debtor from having to recognise taxable income on a transaction of this nature provided the debtor and creditor are connected for tax purposes (and, correspondingly, the creditor will be prevented from realising a loss). Different considerations are relevant where the debtor and creditor are unconnected, for tax purposes. There is a real possibility, in those cases, that the debtor could recognise income (although in those cases the creditor would also recognise a loss). In some cases it may be important that the transaction is structured so as to ensure that the creditor realises and is able to use a tax loss on the recapitalisation. In those cases, some measure of protection may be afforded  where prior to the debt for equity swap the debtor and creditor were unconnected and the connection arises only by virtue of the debt for equity swap. However, this relief only applies to the first debt for equity swap and any further debt for equity swaps will not be protected;
- for the creditor, the tax effect of the capitalisation will largely depend on whether the transaction is treated as a reorganisation of share capital. If it is, the amount of the debt is added to the total tax base cost of the shares held by the creditor. However, some care needs to be exercised because the increase in the base cost will normally be restricted to the amount by which the value of the shareholding held by the creditor is increased by the capitalisation. This may not be equal to the amount of the debt, in particular where the company has no net assets. In the recent Fletcher case  the Special Commissioner had to consider the meaning of the term "reorganisation". While not all commentators agree that the case was rightly decided, it is nonetheless useful for taxpayers and would support the view that most capitalisations would constitute reorganisations for these purposes. In some cases it may be necessary to reduce the company's share capital first (using the new Companies Act 2006 procedures which are referred to below) to ensure that the new shares have sufficient value. The reorganisation itself should be treated as a reorganisation for tax purposes and therefore have no impact on the tax base cost of the shares held. Where the creditor did not previously hold shares, it is likely that the base cost of the shares will be the market value of the debt;
- after a long period of uncertainty, the position on recovery of VAT on share issues seemed to have settled down after the ECJ ruling in the Kreztechnik  case. Following this ruling, VAT on costs incurred by businesses in issuing shares will be recoverable to the extent that the business of the debtor is a taxable (i.e. VATable business). Businesses will be well advised to ensure that advisers' bills are correctly itemised to maximise VAT recovery.
Group reorganisations – domestic groups
Nothing dramatic has happened in this area for some time. However, the provisions will no doubt be "stress tested" in the coming months and groups considering reorganisations will have to be careful not to fall foul of some of the more unexpected features of the UK regime.
- transfer of tax losses
Where the reorganisation consists in the transfer of a business, the business transferred may be loss making or have historic losses. It will be important, so far as possible, to ensure that the losses are transferred at the same time as the business. In general, the UK tax rules  provide that where a business (as opposed to a collection of assets) is transferred and there is continuity of ownership between vendor and purchaser, the losses of vendor will be transferred to the purchaser. The test to be satisfied in relation to continuity of ownership is not onerous, it is only necessary to show that at some time between the transfer and the second anniversary of the transfer, the seller owned 75% or more of the purchaser (or vice versa) or both companies were 75% subsidiaries of another.  Where the continuity of ownership test is satisfied the losses will be transferred with the business but there are some further points to consider:-
- following the transfer, the losses are available for set off against profits of the same trade realised by the transferor. The "same trade" requirement causes two types of issues. First, there is a possibility that the transferee will not be carrying on the same trade as the transferor. This will not be an issue if the transferee is special purpose entity created to carry on the business, but where the transferee has an existing trade some care is needed to ensure that the result of the transfer is not to create on single large trade distinct from both the trades carried on by the transferee and the transferor before the transfer. In practice, this is likely to be an issue only where the activities of the transferor are roughly of the same size as the trade of the transferee. Second, even if the transferee carries on the same trade as the transferor, it will be necessary to agree against which profits the losses can be used. In certain circumstances HMRC may require that separate computations are prepared in order to ensure that the losses are used only against profits of the same trade;
- where the transferor retains some of the liabilities associated with the trade, the amount of the losses inherited by the transferor will be restricted. Broadly this will occur where the liabilities of the transferor exceed its assets after the transfer. In these circumstances the losses will be reduced by the amount of the excess. Some care needs to be taken in identifying what the liabilities of the transferee are: in some cases debt which has been capitalised will be counted in the liabilities of the transferor. As a result, it is not always safe to rely on the balance sheet of the transferor as this may not reveal all the liabilities of the transferor for these purposes.
- Capital gains
In general, the transfer of assets between members of the same group is on a tax free basis. A full review of the grouping tests to be satisfied in this area is beyond the remit of this article but it is worth remembering that the tests operate not only by reference to the percentage of the share capital owned by group members but also by reference to entitlement to assets on a winding up and income distributions. While loans from unconnected parties should not generally cause problems in this area, loans from related parties that are not members of the group may cause a company to cease to be a member of the group.
The recent Johnston  case will have to be considered if the reorganisation is part of a transaction under which the transferee will leave the group. Most readers will be aware that while transfers between group members are tax free, if the transferee leaves the group within six years of the transfer the original transfer will become taxable. There is a limited exception from this general degrouping charge where transferor and transferee leave the group as associated companies. For some time, HMRC and advisers had been arguing over whether (i) it was necessary for the transferor and transferee to be associated both at the time of the initial transfer and when they left the group (HMRC's view) or (ii) whether it was sufficient that the transferor and transferee were associated at the time they left the group. For these purposes, companies are associated if, by themselves, they would form a group. For example, if company A owns 100% of company B, company A and B are associated. However, if company A and company B are 100% subsidiaries of company C, they are not. At the end of 2008, the Court of Appeal held that HMRC's view of the associated companies exemption was the correct one. Thus, where the reorganisation is made in contemplation of the sale of the transferee, it will be necessary consider whether the shareholdings in the group first need to be reorganised to ensure that the transferor and the transferee are associated with a view to ensuring that the benefit of the associated companies exemption is not lost. This case will also have to be considered for previous business transfers where the six year clawback window is still open. Although there is nothing that can be done to "cure" the position if the companies are not associated at the time of the transfer, tax-payers will need to be aware of any changes which may arise.
- Indirect taxes
In general, indirect taxes will not have a great impact on domestic reorganisations. Where the assets transferred amount to a "business" for VAT purposes it will generally be possible to ensure that the transaction is treated as a transfer of a going concern for VAT purposes, and therefore no VAT will need be charged. Where the assets do not constitute a business, VAT can be chargeable but may be recoverable by the transferee. Some care needs to be taken where the consideration is not paid in cash as the transferee may not be expecting a VAT charge in those circumstances.
Stamp Duty Land Tax ("SDLT"), which applies to the transfer or land, and Stamp Duty, which now only applies on transfers of shares and securities, may cause more difficulties. While transfers between group members are generally exempt from SDLT and Stamp Duty, the relief may be difficult to obtain where the reorganisation is effected in contemplation of a sale of the transferee. SDLT and Stamp Duty group relief will not be available where there are "arrangements", at the time of the transfer, for the transferor and transferee to cease to be members of the same group.  The definition of "arrangements" is extremely wide and is not limited to cases where a binding agreement for the sale of the transferee has been entered into. Although each case will have to be looked at on its own facts, it is likely that arrangements will exist where (i) there exists a plan or scheme which would result in the group relationship being broken and (ii) the parties to the plan or scheme have agreed it in principle. For example, if a group decides to transfer assets having decided that it will market the transferee for sale, but no purchaser has been identified, it is unlikely disqualifying arrangements exist. However, if a purchaser has been identified and has entered into heads of terms or a letter of intent, even if non legally binding, disqualifying arrangements will exist.
SDLT (but not Stamp Duty) also contains provisions which operate to withdraw any group relief previously granted where, within a period of three years from the initial transfer, the vendor and purchaser cease to be members of the same group. Until recently, the rules relating to the withdrawal would cease to be effective following the vendor leaving the group. However, Finance Act 2008 now contains provisions which ensure that where the vendor leaves the group first, relief is not withdrawn but is withdrawn if there is a subsequent change in control of the purchaser within the original three year period. Some care will have to be taken to ensure that prior reorganisations do not inadvertently fall foul of this rule although the legislation contains a "grandfathering" provision which prevent the withdrawal of relief, in these circumstances, on transfers effected before 13 March 2008. In addition, the definition of "control" for these purposes is the definition used for anti-avoidance purposes in the close companies legislation. This means that control may change, for example, even if shares in the transferee are not transferred because, for example, shares have a priority return and the profits of the transferee are such that the preferred return entitles the shareholder to most of the profits available for distribution.
- Non-tax considerations
While tax considerations play a vital role in the structure of internal reorganisations there are other considerations which will require careful analysis. To name only two:-
- the current market downturn has brought to the fore issues relating to defined benefit pensions plan. The fact that most of these schemes will be in deficit (sometimes to a very substantial extent) considerably reduces the room for manoeuvre in structuring the transaction. At the very least, it is likely that a reorganisation would require trustee approval which, even if one assumes is obtainable, may take time to obtain. In certain circumstances pensions regulator approval may be required;
- until October 2008, the relatively inflexible rules of UK company law regarding the maintenance of capital could be a major determinant of the structure of a transaction. However, the introduction of new and easier procedures for capital reductions, together with the fact that financial assistance rules have disappeared for UK private companies means that reorganisations will be much simpler. While the procedures for capital reductions are much simpler under Companies Act 2006  they are in their infancy and subject to constantly evolving "best practice" especially in the current market. To take only one example, the directors of a company wishing to reduce its capital under the new streamlined process will have to make solvency declarations stating that the company is able to meet its debts as they fall due and will be able to do so for a period of twelve months after the reduction. There is no requirement, in the 2006 Act, that such declaration of solvency be supported by the company's auditors. While this can be seen as a welcome removal of red tape, it will no doubt also put some directors in a very difficult position in the current climate. In particular, directors will have to consider what kind of due diligence they want to perform prior to signing off the solvency statements and whether they can get (or should get) any comfort from the auditors. No doubt these provisions, which were largely drafted before the current credit crunch will be severely tested in the next few months and best practice will continue to evolve;
Group reorganisations – the international dimension
Multinational groups, in addition to the UK centric issues identified above, face a number of specific issues which domestic groups will be happy to escape (or at least face to a lesser extent).
- current uncertainties
Tax legislation in both the UK and the US is currently in a state of flux.
In the UK the government is proposing to introduce two major pieces of legislation (the dividend exemption, and the so-called worldwide debt cap) which will have a major impact on multinationals. HMRC, to its credit, has consulted on these proposals and appreciates that some of the proposals are not currently workable or could be improved. However, it is clear that HMRC's thinking at the moment is that some form of the worldwide debt cap legislation will be introduced (though not till after 1 April of this year) and companies should plan accordingly. HMRC has also indicated that some form of grandfathering of existing structures is likely to be a part of the legislation, but the detailed provisions have not been seen.
A major reform of the UK's Controlled Foreign Company (CFC) regime was also part of the package containing the dividend exemption and the worldwide debt cap. The reform of the CFC regime has been pushed back and HMRC has indicated that the new rules will strengthen the current UK regime, which is based on an entity by entity approach, rather than the wholesale reform initially indicated, which would have sought to distinguish between active and passive income with passive income and tax passive income unfavourably. While the change in approach is welcome, there will no doubt be some tightening of the exiting rules and this should be borne in mind when restructuring a group. In both the UK and the US there has been a lot of comment devoted to tax avoidance and tax planning. Ten years ago or so, avoidance was the acceptable face of tax planning, in contrast to tax evasion. The debate has moved on, and the emphasis is now on taxpayers paying their fair share, and tax avoidance is seen as undesirable. Recent announcements suggest that the UK government, and perhaps to a lesser degree the US government, will come under pressure to put an end to some of the forms of planning (e.g. locating intellectual property in low tax jurisdictions such as the Netherlands or Switzerland).
- OECD guidelines
Although pricing is an issue in all forms of restructuring, the question of the correct transfer pricing is of much greater concern to companies who have offshore operations. Revenue authorities were concerned, in the boom years, that they were losing out when multinational companies restructured their business operations (such restructurings could involve actual transfers of assets but often did not). Although economic conditions may be different these concerns will not disappear in the current climate.
At the end of last year, the OECD published guidelines that address business restructurings specifically. They are in draft form, comments are invited from interested parties, and they are likely to remain in draft form for some time. While some of the guidance is welcome, for example the acknowledgement that it is possible to carry out a business restructuring for commercial reasons and not just for tax efficiency, the lack of specific guidance hints at disagreements as to how to tax these transactions. Tax authorities who participated in the process seem to have been greatly concerned that if they gave too much away in the guidance they would be forfeiting some of their tax revenues. This is worrying for taxpayers since it hints at the possibility of some serious arguments between tax authorities in the future, something that might well lead to double taxation for interested parties.
The guidelines are not all bad and there are some welcome aspects, for example the acknowledgement that in most cases it will the tax authorities should not seek to adjust tax outcomes by deeming a transaction that did not occur to have occurred but instead to do so by adjusting the prices paid to reflect an arm's length outcome for the transaction that actually occurred.
- reversing past transactions
Some multinationals may now be seeking to reverse the effect of past transactions. For example, a group may have set in place structures which are consistent with the retention of profit or income outside their home jurisdiction on the assumption that such profits and income would be re-deployed in the business without being remitted first to their home jurisdiction. The same groups may now be wondering whether their structures will work if they need to remit income or profits home to boost their earnings. In the past, this might have incurred a significant tax cost. It is possible now that the group has losses at home which would ensure the income is not taxable. It may be necessary for those groups to plan for cash extraction from foreign sub-groups in a way which was not contemplated until very recently.