Wednesday, April 26, 2017



TAX EVASION VIA SHELL COMPANIESEnron showed the world the trick of hiding accounting losses in special purpose vehicles (SPV). Subsequent accounting standards have ensured that interests in SPVs are at least disclosed if not morphed into the accounts of the company that controls the SPV. It was not long before the ingenious conjured up ways of using SPVs as a tax planning vehicle. SPVs had an unlikely ally in double tax avoidance agreements (DTAA) which did their best to ensure that income from cross-border transactions are taxed only in one country. Difficulties arose in deciding which. The Authority for Advance Rulings (AAR) recently ruled on the tax impact on what they perceived to be a shell company created with the lone purpose of enabling an acquisition. Muriex Alliance (MA) and Groupe Industrial Marcel Dassault (GIMD) were two French companies that joined hands to create a subsidiary named "ShanH". MA got into a Share Purchase Agreement (SPA) to acquire the shares of Shantha Biotechnics Ltd, based out of India with ShanH being the permitted assignee. Share transactions were continued with GIMD acquiring 20 per cent of the shares from MA in ShanH. Soon, they found a partner to offload their stake in ShanH to a French multinational Sanofi. After the kerfuffle created by the Vodafone case, GIMD decided to play it safe and approached the AAR for a ruling on whether the sale of shares would be taxable in India or France. Normal logic coupled with the provisions of the DTAA would give an impression that the transaction would be taxable in France since all the companies involved were in France. They did not consider the fact that the underlying asset is an Indian company.


The AAR summed up the issue at hand. A company in France, invests in acquiring shares in an Indian company. Ultimately it acquires a controlling interest. For this purpose, it creates a fully-owned subsidiary. The shares are taken in the name of the subsidiary. Subsequently, another company also comes in and acquires a part of the shares in the subsidiary. The only asset of the subsidiary is the shares in the Indian company. It has no other business. The two shareholders of the subsidiary then decide to sell the shares of the subsidiary to another company. By that process, what really passes is the underlying assets and the control of the Indian company. This transaction generates a profit. By repeating the process, the control over the Indian assets and business can pass from hand to hand without incurring any liability to tax in India, if the transaction is accepted at face value. It ruled that a DTAA has to be construed on its terms.


A literal construction of paragraph 5 of the DTAA would lead to the position that the transfer of shares of ShanH, in this case, can be taxed only in France. The contention of the Revenue was that the situs of the underlying assets cannot be ignored and the underlying assets and controlling interest are that of a company incorporated in India and a resident of India. The AAR found that what is involved in this transaction, is an alienation of the assets and controlling interest of an Indian company. It will logically follow that the transactions gone through are part of a scheme for avoidance of tax and the scheme has to be ignored, that the gain from the transaction is taxable in India. A literal interpretation of the DTAA would show that it is not the alienation of the shares of an Indian company but a purposive construction of the said paragraph of the treaty that led the AAR to the conclusion that the capital gains arising out of the transaction is taxable in India. The essence of the transaction takes within its sweep, various rights including a change in the controlling interest of an Indian company having assets, business and income in India. The AAR concluded that the capital gains would be taxed in India, though the privileges of the DTAA would not be denied. The decision of the AAR will be a wake-up call to entities that use shell companies as investment vehicles. The age-old accounting rule of substance over form will come into play and one can no longer quote liberally from the ratio of the decisions of the Supreme Court in McDowell and Co Ltd and Azadi Bachao Andolan which blessed tax planning measures as long as they are within the four corners of the law. Entities interpreted both the tax planning measures and the four corners of the law very liberally. While it would be appropriate to interpret the former liberally, the latter has to be interpreted extremely rigidly. -

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