As the COVID-19 pandemic creates significant uncertainty and unique challenges in the global investment environment, its impact on Latin America presents several opportunities for private equity funds. In navigating the new investment landscape with respect to their Latin American investment programs, there are number of corporate, finance and tax issues PE funds should consider before proceeding with Latin American acquisitions or increasing investment in existing portfolio assets. This article discusses certain tax structuring, transfer pricing, and tax compliance considerations relevant for PE funds holding Latin American portfolio assets or expanding their investment in Latin America.
Tax Structuring Considerations
Acquisition of Distressed Latin American Companies
PE funds are seeking acquisitions of distressed Latin American companies or those requiring capital infusions to survive the economic downturn. For example, targets include, among others, family-held companies with shareholders seeking liquidity or diversification, companies unable to restructure their debt or continue with an existing IPO plan, and real estate holding companies with immediate cash needs but steady revenue flows.
In structuring acquisitions of Latin American targets, PE funds must identify the appropriate vehicles through which to invest. For example, a PE fund might analyze whether it should establish a tax treaty structure to effect an acquisition. In a private equity context, the primary tax consideration for most fund managers is taxation on exit (ie capital gains tax). For example, among others, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico generally impose, with some exceptions, tax upon the sale of shares by nonresident investors. Accordingly, funds might establish a Spanish or Dutch investment structure because of Spain and the Netherlands’ significant tax treaty network in Latin America, or structures with transparent investment vehicles such as Canadian limited partnerships (eg Alberta or Ontario) and certain Luxembourg entities. Funds might also consider establishing local investment vehicles to mitigate taxation on exit, such as Brazilian Fundos de Investimento em Participações (FIPs), which can eliminate Brazilian capital gains tax on exit (although such structure has been scrutinized by the Brazilian tax authorities in recent years). Fund sponsors are rightly concerned that exit taxes in Latin America can reduce a fund’s IRR, especially if some taxes are not creditable against taxes of fund investors.
Tax due diligence is as important as ever. Among other things, deal teams should carefully examine items such as operating loss carryovers, permanent establishment risk for multinational targets, tax compliance, accrued and outstanding income, payroll, and VAT tax liabilities etc. Also, a target’s receipt of government subsidies, credits, or other assistance in response to the global pandemic could restrict its ability to pay dividends or even alter the timing of a future exit. If indeed a target has received such assistance, funds must consider whether the proposed acquisition will jeopardize continued assistance or if a sale or change of control will require immediate repayment of such assistance.
Debt Restructuring and Acquisition of Portfolio Company Debt
Dealing with portfolio company debt is another area that has recently received significant attention. In order to preserve cash to meet operational needs, leveraged portfolio companies have developed strategies for managing their debt service, including working with lenders to obtain a combination of additional borrowings, forbearance and standstill agreements, and debt covenant waivers.
In order to ease the process with lenders, some PE funds have chosen to request capital calls to fund their struggling portfolio companies, while others have lent to their Latin American portfolio companies. Other PE fund groups have instead opted to acquire their portfolio companies’ third party debt. In certain cases, funds seek to acquire the debt at a discounted price and sell it at a premium when market conditions improve, while in other cases, the motivation is simply to maintain some modicum of control over a portfolio company’s debt service. Some funds have considered raising credit funds and/or establishing a special structure for that purpose, such as an Irish intermediation structure.
PE funds must address the Latin American tax consequences arising from each alternative for both the fund and the portfolio company. Some key considerations include:
- Cancellation of debt considerations. As part of a debt restructuring, portfolio companies must consider whether income or other taxes are imposed on any amount of cancelled debt.
- Deductibility of interest payments. To the extent a PE fund lends to a portfolio company or acquires its third party debt, the fund should consider whether the interest paid by the portfolio company is a tax deductible expense, particularly if the fund and the portfolio company are considered to be related or if the fund is organized in a low-tax jurisdiction as determined by local law.
- Withholding taxes. Withholding taxes imposed on interest payments must also be analyzed. Most Latin American jurisdictions, including Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico, impose withholding tax on interest paid to nonresident lenders. An income tax treaty may reduce the withholding tax rate for PE funds using a treaty platform for their Latin American investments. Spain and the Netherlands, for example, are jurisdictions commonly used by PE funds (and other investors) for investing in Latin America.
In addition to the considerations listed above, PE funds must also address transfer pricing concerns, particularly as it relates to whether the terms and conditions of related party debt is arm’s-length and otherwise compliant with local transfer pricing rules.
Reviewing, updating and, if needed, revising transfer pricing arrangements is a method by which portfolio companies may preserve cash and otherwise manage tax positions. For instance, adherence to the arm’s-length principal, in conjunction with contractual provisions in intercompany agreements (e.g., force majeure), permits related parties to adjust their intercompany arrangements to reflect economic reality. For example, in the absence of an advantageous income tax treaty, many Latin American jurisdictions impose significant withholding taxes on service payments, royalties, and management/monitoring fees paid abroad. Analyzing existing arrangements may yield opportunities to mitigate or otherwise restructure the payments, resulting in potential tax savings.
In any case, as Latin American governments seek to raise revenue through taxes and increased tax audits, portfolio companies should ensure their transfer pricing documentation and cost-sharing policies are compliant with local country transfer pricing requirements and of course, reality. They should examine whether their transfer pricing has reacted to supply chain and operational changes brought on by the pandemic, and whether such changes require remedial changes to internal pricing of goods and services. While Chile, Colombia, and Mexico are the only Latin American members of the OECD, the domestic legislation of a number of Latin American jurisdictions contain many of the same or similar principles set forth in OECD transfer pricing guidance. For those Latin American jurisdictions that do not explicitly adopt OECD transfer pricing principles, such principles may serve as secondary or supplemental guidance in interpreting domestic transfer pricing legislation (eg Brazil).
In assessing transfer pricing risk, portfolio companies should examine their current intercompany transaction flow and supply chain and corresponding intercompany agreements. Mature portfolio companies with older transfer pricing policies may discover their intercompany transaction flow and supply chain has evolved over time, such that their intercompany agreements do not accurately reflect current reality. For example, the method of compensation (eg profit split, cost-plus etc) originally provided for in an agreement may no longer be appropriate. Similarly, an intercompany agreement may not describe services actually provided between related parties. Because it is common for government auditors to request intercompany agreements in connection with a transfer pricing audit, such auditors can seize on the fact that intercompany agreements are not being followed, are otherwise inconsistent with reality, or do not even exist.
As Latin American governments continue developing strategies for battling the pandemic, they are also developing strategies for an economic recovery. While the pandemic’s true cumulative economic impact is still very much unknown, past economic downturns show us that PE funds can expect to see increased audit activity within their portfolio of Latin American companies.
Accordingly, PE funds should work closely with the management of their Latin American portfolio companies to ensure they have a robust tax compliance program in place such that they are well positioned to defend against potential tax audits or avoid potential penalties of lax internal pricing and arm’s-length documentation. They should consider and reassess material uncertain tax positions that, if successfully challenged, could result in significant tax liability and substantial penalties.
The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to generate significant challenges for many Latin American businesses, some of which sought additional funding and credit facilities from their shareholders and lenders, while others concluded filing for reorganization or bankruptcy is their only viable alternative. PE sponsors with Latin American investment programs face substantial challenges, but many others find investment opportunities notwithstanding the current economic environment. Addressing tax structuring, transfer pricing, and tax compliance considerations in Latin America is an important part of overcoming inevitable obstacles and seizing on new investment opportunities.