BUYING OUT SHAREHOLDERS

B1We are often approached by clients to advise on the most tax efficient manner in which a shareholder can sell an investment in a private company. Typically, the parties involve a majority shareholder of a company that is interested in buying out the minority shareholders in the company and which will ensure that that majority shareholder becomes the single remaining shareholder of that company.

In essence, two options are available through which a shareholder may dispose of a share in a company to achieve the above goal: it could either sell its shares to the purchasing shareholder, or it could sell the shares owned back to the company (i.e. a so-called “share buyback”). These two different options have varying tax consequences, and taxpayers should take care that these (often material) transactions are structured in the most tax appropriate manner possible.

Where a share is sold to another shareholder, the selling shareholder will simply pay a capital gains tax related cost. For companies, such capital gains tax related cost will effectively be 22.4% of the gains realised, whereas the rate for trusts is 36% (if gains are not distributed to beneficiaries), or up to 18% if the seller is an individual.

Where shares are however sold back to the company whose shares are being traded, that share buyback constitutes a dividend for tax purposes (to the extent that contributed tax capital is not used to fund that repurchase). Capital gains tax is therefore no longer relevant, but rather the dividends tax. Dividends would typically attract dividends tax (levied at 20%), rather than capital gains taxes.

It may therefore be beneficial for an existing shareholder (that is itself a company) to opt for its shares to be sold back to the company whose shares are held (and which shares are therefore effectively cancelled), rather than to sell these to the remaining shareholders and pay capital gains tax. This is because if the shares are sold to the remaining shareholders, a 22.4% capital gains tax related cost arises. However, where the shares are bought back, the “dividend” received by the company will be exempt from dividends tax and therefore no dividends tax should arise, since SA resident companies are exempt from the dividends tax altogether. A company selling its shares back to the entity in which it held the shares may therefore dispose of its investment without paying any tax whatsoever: no capital gains are realised since the shareholder receives a “dividend” for tax purposes, and the dividend itself is also exempt from dividends tax.

Share buybacks have become a hot topic recently and National Treasury has now moved to introduce certain specific anti-avoidance measures and reporting requirements that apply in certain circumstances. Still, there are perfectly legitimate ways in which to structure many corporate restructures where a buyout of shareholders takes place, and taxpayers will be well-advised to seek professional advice to ensure that such transactions are structured in as tax effective manner as possible.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied upon as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your financial adviser for specific and detailed advice.  Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)