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Companies to pay less tax

KEABETSWE NEWEL

The Minister of Finance and Economic Development has published the much-anticipated relaxation of the Income Tax Act provisions which restricted 100 percent deductions of interest expenses for companies, much to the delight of the corporate world.

Minister Kenneth Matambo published the amended law on 26 July 2019. The proposed amendment, published through the Income Tax Amendment Bill 2019, comes after rigorous lobbying by businesses for the amendment of the recently introduced thin capitalisation law which was enacted on 31 December 2018. The effect of the December 2018 law was to effectively limit interest expenses incurred by corporates as from 1 July 2019 as tax deductions.

Previously every company could claim 100 percent of its interest expense but the law limited it to 30 percent of what is known as tax earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), effectively increasing corporate tax. This was one of the fiercely opposed tax laws in the past decade which businesses argued would dampen the investment mood, constrain economic growth, hamper infrastructural development, restrict employment creation and lead to a spike in taxes.

The recent proposed amendment is a clear sign that tax authorities treated the concerns and fears of business regarding the negative effects of the law seriously.

Jonathan Hore, Managing Consultant at tax advisory firm Aupracon Tax, says the recent proposed amendment seeks to exempt variable rate loan stock companies (huge corporates which usually build malls) and micro, small or medium enterprises (SMEs) from the provisions of the interest deduction limiting law. According to Hore, banks and insurance companies were the only entities exempt from this law.

He explains: “SMEs are defined in the new bill as any company which does not belong to a group. A company is regarded as belonging to a group if it owns more than 20 percent shareholding in another company or when another company owns at least 20 percent of its shareholding. Technically, any company which belongs to a group will still have its interest deduction for tax limited and will most likely suffer heavier tax bills. “

Presenting the 2019/2020 budget on 4 February 2019, Matambo stated: “The amendment to the Income Tax Act also introduced … thin capitalisation provisions. Thin capitalisation is when a company is financed through a high level of debt compared to equity. The thin capitalisation provisions seek to restrict the amount of interest on debt which would reduce a company’s profits and thereby reduce its tax payable.”

According to Hore, whilst thin capitalisation laws are acceptable practices internationally, business felt that the December 2018 law was rather too stringent and would have negative effects on the economy in general.

HE RESTRICTION

He says the Income Tax Act was amended in December 2018 to limit interest expense for all companies (including associations, societies and public trusts) to 30 percent of what is referred to as tax EBITDA. What this effectively meant is that before the stated December 2018 amendment, companies could deduct 100 percent of their interest expenses without having to worry about any limitations. According to Hore, the limitation meant that interest expenses, including that payable to banks, shareholders and other financiers, would no longer automatically qualify as a tax deduction.
“The effect of that is to increase the amount that would be subjected to company tax, thereby leading to a spike in taxes. As an example, if a company was supposed to have taxable income of, say, P8 million (on which corporate tax of P1.76 million would be payable), the interest deduction limit could result in an additional adjustment raising taxable income to, say, P10million, therefore increasing its tax bill to P2.2million,” he says.

MOST AFFECTED BUSINESSES

Businesses argued that the problem with the December 2018 law is that it technically frowned upon businesses which carried interest genuinely borne in running their businesses such as financing expansion into a new area or expanding operations. This is the reason why businesses felt that the law would reduce employment creation and constrain wealth creation through indirectly discouraging obtaining business finance.

Hore says the entities which were severely affected by this law were property development companies, particularly Variable Rate Loan Stock companies which develop massive malls such as Game City, Riverwalk and Airport Junction. The tax expert further says the capital structure of these entities is divided into linked units, which comprise equity and debt, and the debt generates massive interest expenses.

“Following the removal of the publication of the proposed interest limitation on these entities, there is likely to be more appetite in investment into the property sector, as was previously the case,” he notes. “Infact, the tax treatment of these entities has just been restored to what it was before 31 December 2018, that is to say they could deduct 100 percent of their interest expenses. Other property developers who are not variable rate loan stock companies have, however, not been exempted from the law, which means that their tax costs will spike.”

Moreover, mines have also been left out in the cold as they were not catered for by the recent bill. It is common knowledge that mines need hundreds of millions in loans in order to finance their operations. The limitation of their interest expense would certainly lead to less expansion of this critical economic sector and reduce employment creation, according to the tax expert.

POSSIBLE REACTIONS

Since SMEs are no longer affected by the law, and any company which holds at least 20 percent shares in another or which has another company holding more than 20 percent of its shares, will still be required to limit interest deductions, Hore says the law is likely to see corporates reconsidering their group arrangements if the tax bills bite. He notes that some may have to sell off their shareholding to qualify as SMEs so that their tax bills remain in check.

“The new amendment, whilst welcome, may mean that within the same group, some group entities will have their interest expenses limited whilst some will not, depending on the shareholding structure. This calls for careful consideration of the laws by business. It is also possible that those industries which feel that they have a strong case for not having their interest expenses limited will continue to lobby the tax authorities for exemption from the interest deduction for tax purposes.”

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