Swiss Administrative Court disallows capital contribution reserves that were previously offset with losses

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In its decision of 4 June 2015, the Swiss Administrative Court came to the conclusion that capital contribution reserves, which were in the past offset with losses, are definitely lost.

Background

Until 31 December 2010, any repayment of share premium and any other shareholder contributions that have not resulted in an increase of nominal capital were generally treated as a distribution of profit for both income tax and withholding tax purposes. As part of “Corporate Tax Reform II”, this so-called nominal principle was replaced by the capital contribution principle, which entered into force as of 1 January 2011.

The capital contribution principle allows repayment of shareholder contributions without triggering a liability for Swiss withholding tax at the level of the distributing company (article 5 para. 1bis Federal Withholding Tax Act), and without income tax consequences at the level of the Swiss individual shareholder.

Under the transition period specified by the Act, capital contributions are in principle qualified for the aforementioned tax treatment if accumulated after 31 December 1996, provided some further requirements are met, e.g. proper declaration vis-à-vis the Swiss Federal Tax Administration and recording in a special sub-account of the statutory reserves.

On 9 December 2010, the Swiss Federal Tax Administration (SFTA) published the Circular Letter “Capital Contribution Principle” No. 29 that covers questions regarding this change in law. The Circular Letter states that the offsetting of capital contributions with losses – even during the transition period between 31 December 1996 and 31 December 2010 – leads to a definitive elimination of such capital contributions. This part of Circular Letter No. 29 was extensively discussed within the tax community.

Decision of 4 June 2015 of Swiss Administrative Court

Relevant Tax
The company at question received during the transition period two potentially qualifying contributions, namely a direct contribution of CHF 840,000 in 2002 and a waiver of shareholder loans in the amount of CHF 425,479 in 2004, in total CHF 1,265,479. The waiver of CHF 425,479 was reported as income in the company’s 2004 profit and loss statement. The surplus of CHF 840,000 was offset with losses in the balance sheet of the company as per 31 December 2006. Consequently, both items no longer appeared as such on the balance sheets dated 31 December 2004 and 31 December 2006, respectively.

In its balance sheet dated 31 December 2009, the taxpayer reported capital contribution reserves of CHF 1,265,479 and declared that amount to the SFTA. The SFTA subsequently rejected those capital contribution reserves.

Considerations of the Swiss Administrative Court
In its decision of 4 June 2015, the Swiss Administrative Court came to the conclusion that capital contribution reserves which have been offset with losses are finally eliminated at the time they were offset. The Court justified its ruling with the following main arguments:

  • Firstly, the Swiss Administrative Court recognises that the amount of CHF 1,265,479 is eligible for qualification as a capital contribution reserve.
  • As to the question at hand, the principle that Swiss tax accounting follows Swiss book accounting (“Massgeblichkeitsprinzip”) is also relevant for Swiss withholding tax matters.
  • Consequently, the (potential) capital contribution reserve of CHF 1,265,479 was – due to the previous offset with losses – definitively consumed “at the latest by 31 December 2006”.
  • The decision of the Swiss Administrative Court further states that the interpretation of article 5 para. 1bis Federal Withholding Tax Act already leads to the conclusion that (potential) capital contribution reserves are definitively consumed when offset with losses. Accordingly, the court takes the view that Circular Letter No. 29 is consistent with the existing law.
  • In the opinion of the Swiss Administrative Court, it was not possible to re-establish the capital contribution reserves of CHF 1,265,479 in the company’s 2009 balance sheet as the full amount had already been offset with losses in the past.
  • The Swiss Administrative Court does not see a discrimination against those who did not offset but instead “kept” their losses.

Current conclusion

In our view, the relevant legal provisions of the various tax laws – in particular article 5 para. 1bis Federal Withholding Tax Act – do not mention any limitations for qualifying capital contributions. Therefore, a limiting interpretation of this principle would be contrary to its purpose and it should therefore be possible to re-establish capital contributions which were – in particular during the transition period – offset with losses.

This decision of the Swiss Administrative Court could still be appealed to the Swiss Supreme Court. If no appeal is lodged, this decision will become final and legally binding within a few weeks. In any case, an envisaged shareholders’ waiver and/or an offsetting of contributions with losses should be carefully analysed to prevent unintended tax consequences.

Should you have any questions in this regard, please get in touch with your usual PwC contact or the following PwC Corporate Tax specialists:

Stefan Schmid
Partner, Tax and Legal
stefan.schmid@ch.pwc.com
+41 58 792 44 82

Dr Sarah Dahinden
Senior Manager, Tax & Legal, Attorney at Law
sarah.dahinden@ch.pwc.com
+41 58 792 44 25

Published by

Stefan Schmid

Stefan Schmid
Partner, Tax & Legal Services
PwC
Birchstrasse 160
Postfach, 8050 Zürich
Tel. +41 58 792 44 82

Stefan Schmid is a corporate tax partner assisting companies in international tax matters, with a special focus on US, Asian and Swiss quoted groups. He graduated at the University of St. Gallen in Business Administration (lic.oec. HSG).

He has over 20 years of experience in assisting multinational groups in their international tax affairs. He further gained extensive experience in assisting groups that operate centralised business models.