- Current group financing environment in Switzerland
Interest payments on bonds and client credit balances are generally subject to Swiss withholding tax at a rate of 35%. This may have far-reaching consequences on both the external and internal financing of Swiss-based groups and widely impedes both types of financing activity in Switzerland.
- With respect to external financing, the withholding tax levied on interest payments makes the issuance of bonds in Switzerland rather unattractive. For this reason, groups established in Switzerland often carry out financing activities abroad.
- With respect to intragroup financing, the crucial point is whether a particular intragroup obligation (note payable) qualifies as a bond/client credit balance or not. Generally, obligations qualify as bonds if they are issued by a Swiss obligor to more than 10 (if the terms are identical) or 20 (if the terms are similar) non-bank creditors and the total credit amount is at least CHF 500,000. Moreover, if a Swiss company has more than 100 non-bank creditors and a loan volume of at least CHF 5 million, such obligations are deemed to be a client credit balance with the corresponding withholding tax consequences for interest payments. These limitations are generally known as the 10/20/100 non-bank lender rules.
The legislator is aware of these disadvantages and introduced an exemption in the withholding tax ordinance in 2010. From that point on, intragroup obligations between fully consolidated group companies have not qualified either as bonds or client credit balances, provided that no Swiss group company guarantees a bond of a foreign group company by way of a downstream guarantee.
As a result of this constraint, the intragroup financing activities of Swiss groups with foreign-issued bonds outstanding and a Swiss downstream guarantee in place need to take account of the 10/20/100 non-bank rules, which substantially hinders the settlement of intragroup financing and treasury activities in Switzerland. If the 10/20/100 non-bank rule is not observed, there is a risk that interest payments to other group companies will be subject to Swiss WHT.
- Improved group financing opportunities due to changes to the withholding tax ordinance
In order to facilitate group financing in Switzerland, the federal council has decided to amend the Swiss withholding tax ordinance with effect 1 April 2017. Under this amendment, a downstream guarantee issued by a Swiss group company no longer automatically leads to a situation where the above-mentioned exemption for intragroup obligations is not applicable. The amended withholding tax ordinance states that the intercompany exemption introduced in 2010 shall also be applicable for groups with a foreign bond guaranteed through a downstream guarantee of a Swiss guarantor, provided that the funds that are forwarded by the foreign bond issuer to Swiss group companies do not exceed the equity of the foreign bond issuer.
In addition, the current provision under which the exemption is only applicable to fully consolidated group companies is to be extended to include partially consolidated group companies (for example a joint venture in which an interest of least 50% is held).
- Expected implications in practice
The amendment of the withholding tax ordinance is a step in the right direction, and will facilitate group financing activities in Switzerland. The main benefit of the change in the withholding tax ordinance is the fact that group of companies with bonds issued abroad with a Swiss downstream guarantee can also benefit from the intercompany exemption under the 10/20/100 non-bank rule. The fact that partially consolidated group companies also qualify for the exemption is helpful as well.
However, the general statement that the financing of Swiss entities from a foreign bond issued does not create a harmful flowback, provided that the financing does not exceed the foreign issuer’s equity, will hardly have a lasting positive impact on intragroup financing activities in Switzerland. This is mainly due to the fact that foreign bond issuing entities generally do not require substantial equity, so the permitted flowback to Switzerland will be minimal.
If the legislator is serious about fostering the settlement of intragroup financing activities in Switzerland, additional measures should be taken quickly.
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