In the global economy the growth of royalties and services associated to intellectual property and information technology has become critical for international taxation. On one-side governments of importing countries regularly source payments as territorial, based on the jurisdiction or location of payor. On the other, exporting countries push to resolve the issue through tax treaties. Unfortunately for US companies, one of their natural expansion markets is a “no-tax-treaty battleground”: Latin America (only Mexico and Venezuela have treaties with the US. A treaty with Chile is expected to be ratified by both countries soon).
Achieving Tax Efficiency with cross-border services and royalties in Latin America presents an important tax planning challenge in outbound taxation for US companies; as the corresponding inbound activity in Latin American countries is subject to high rates of income tax withholdings, and eventually, reverse VAT issues. In countries like Brazil, on top the income withholding tax issues, the scenario becomes even more complicated when the CIDE tax becomes applicable. The CIDE tax is a 10% surcharge withheld on certain services or royalties considered to be importation of technology. As such, the CIDE tax will not be creditable against US income taxes under the Internal Revenue Code, as it is not an income tax nor in lieu of income taxes.
The subject has become increasingly important, particularly in absence of tax treaties. In the US, under the Internal Revenue Code, the tax credit system might be insufficient to resolve the issue from a cash flow perspective; and, secondly, it might present some tax optimization issues as well. Thirdly, another problem could arise when the royalty or service activity is parallel to certain support services, programming or commercialization activities in the importing country. Generally the use of independent contractors could be problematic and eventually not escape potential tax liability issues, including those emerging from the notion of “engagement in a local trade or business”, in absence of a protective permanent establishment provision per a tax treaty.
Three options to consider, from a tax planning perspective are:
1. Playing as a local with a Tax Hybrid. Reducing withholding taxation on the overseas service payments by creating a Sociedad de Responsabilidad Limitada (hereinafter referred as “SRL”), which is the equivalent of an LLC (or other eligible entity under the check-the-box regulations). This option is optimal when treaty networking becomes complex, expensive or unviable, as well when the growth is focused or concentrates in a particular country.
The SRL (or eligible entity) will become a tax hybrid, thus a disregarded entity in the US but a legal independent entity in the Latin American country. Accordingly the entity is a blocker and a conduit at the same time. As such, the parent company is protected from tax exposure or any other liability issues locally (particularly relevant when there is related marketing or support activity in the importing country), but from a tax perspective all taxes paid flow-through as direct tax credits, and all expenses as deductions, including as the latter all indirect taxes paid.
The key in this planning technique is that income tax withholdings on local payments for services or royalties are very low (or none), compared to the high rates applicable to cross border payments for the same. Additionally, the withholding tax is applicable over the gross amount paid, whereas the entity is taxed on a net basis. Most jurisdictions in Latin America do not tax dividends when declared after previously taxed profits or earnings, but this is an important issue to look country by country as a pre-condition, because it is necessary to ensure that surpluses flow back without tax implications. Thus, with proper planning, the efficiency and savings are significant.
In countries like Brazil, where strategizing becomes highly relevant not only from an income tax perspective but from a CIDE tax and indirect taxation perspective as well, there are additional options to bring efficiency. Brazilian tax law allows that any legal entity provided that its income is below the BzR$ 2.4 million threshold, to elect taxation under the simplified “presumed profits method”. One alternative to consider is to create one SRL for each contract or revenue stream from royalties or services, to meet the income threshold necessary to meet the presumed profits method election. Accordingly, in a service scenario, the presumed profits are considered to be 32% of gross revenue. With nominal tax rates in the 35%, the effective rate of taxation upon this election becomes 11,2 (compared to a 25% flat withholding rate applicable, including the 10% CIDE tax, when the payments are made directly to a foreign provider or licensor). Finally, any net profits accumulated at the local entity in Brazil can be repatriated as dividends at 0% income tax withholdings. Another advantage of the presumed profits method is that it will significantly simplify local compliance and reporting packages.
2. Treaty Networking. Avoiding withholding taxation on Service Payments adopting a Tax Treaty Country. Another approach if significant expansion is expected in several Latin American countries is to create an IP holding incorporated or filed on a jurisdiction with a good tax treaty network.
The critical factor is to overcome the limitation of benefit provisions provided under the treaties, as well as giving substance to the IP toolbox or holding. Jurisdictions of choice for Latin America are Spain and the Netherlands.
3. Transactional Structuring. Another alternative to avoid withholding taxation on royalties and technical assistance is by creating and selling a legal entity. This approach is relevant in a transactional planning scenario. An entity is formed in an offshore low tax and non-blacklisted jurisdiction (preferably with a tax treaty) and capitalized with a contribution in pre-paid royalties and services. Thereafter, the local client, affiliate or partner purchases the stock in the capitalized offshore entity.
A jurisdiction to consider in this planning technique is Barbados, as it is not blacklisted by the OECD and has tax treaties with a number of countries, including the United States.
* Leopoldo J Martinez is the Principal of LMN Consulting LLC. A consulting firm specialized in tax, regulatory and compliance in Latin America, with operations in Washington DC, Dallas, Miami, Caracas, Mexico and Panama.