29 February 2024

The Lifecycle of a Business – How can a company reduce its share capital?

Setting up and running your own business is an amazing achievement. It requires vision, creativity, motivation and stamina. On occasion, it can even bring you fame, riches and fortune. But it can also result in reams of paperwork and cause sleepless nights. And as someone once said to me about children “It doesn’t get easier, it just changes”, so the same can be said for your business throughout its lifecycle. From setting up to exit, it will force you to consider issues that you might not previously have known anything about and it will need you to make many decisions, sometimes very quickly. What it certainly is not is mundane.

With this in mind, the corporate team at Forsters, together with some of our specialist colleagues, has written a series of articles about the various issues and some of the key points that it may help you to know about at each stage of a business’s life. Not all of these will be relevant to you or your business endeavours, but we hope that you will find at least some of these guides interesting and useful, whether you just have the glimmer of an idea, are a start-up, a well-established enterprise or are considering your exit options. Do feel free to drop us a line or pick up the phone if you would like to discuss any of the issues raised further.

So far, we’ve covered initial considerations, directors and funding, so now let’s have a think about “Shareholders”.

How can a company reduce its share capital?

Every company limited by shares has a share capital. This is the amount of money paid to the company by its shareholders when they subscribe for their shares and consists of the nominal value of the share plus any share premium. It might total pennies or hundreds of millions of pounds.

In theory, because the shareholders of a company have the protection of limited liability and so cannot be liable for the company’s debts, a company’s share capital is the fund of last resort for its creditors. The company may make distributions of its realised profits to shareholders, but they cannot get their capital back. However, companies have many reasons for wanting to reduce their share capital. These might include:

  1. having too much share capital;
  2. having lost capital, so the share capital no longer represents the company’s assets;
  3. cancelling liabilities on partly paid shares;
  4. creating distributable reserves; or
  5. simplifying corporate structures.

For example, a company might have a substantial share premium account. It might also have significant cash, but also accumulated losses that prevent it from paying a dividend. If the share premium account is reduced, it could increase its reserves, so enabling a dividend to be paid, while not affecting the number of shares in issue.

Company law therefore allows reductions of capital subject to strict limitations. A company can reduce its share capital by a special resolution confirmed by the court (as has long been the case), but the Companies Act 2006 gave private companies access to a quicker and easier method, where the special resolution is supported by a solvency statement by the directors and the court is not involved.

A reduction of capital supported by a solvency statement is conducted as follows:

  1. The directors meet to approve the reduction and sign the solvency statement. All the directors must sign the solvency statement to confirm that:
    1. they have taken into account the company’s liabilities; and
    2. there is no grounds on which the company could be found to be unable to pay its debts and that it will continue to be able to do so for the next 12 months (or, if the company is to be wound up, that it will continue to be able to do so within 12 months of the commencement of the winding up).
  2. The shareholders approve any amendment required to the company’s articles of association (for example, because they prohibit a reduction of capital) and the reduction of capital, each by special resolution, either at a general meeting or by written resolution. The solvency statement must be signed by the directors not more than 15 days before the resolution is passed and be made available at the general meeting or circulated with the written resolution.
  3. The directors all sign a statement of compliance confirming that:
    1. the solvency statement was provided to all the shareholders; and
    2. the resolution was passed within 15 days of the solvency statement being made.
  4. Within 15 days of the special resolution being passed, the signed solvency statement, a copy of the special resolution(s), the compliance statement, Companies House form SH19 and a copy of any amended articles of association are delivered to Companies House with the necessary fee (currently £10 or £50 for same day processing, although Companies House fees are to increase from 1 May 2024 with the revised fee for registering a reduction of capital being £33 or £136 for same day processing). The reduction of capital takes effect only when the registrar has accepted and registered the filing.

Once registered, the company can then take the steps approved by the resolution, usually either by repaying the shareholders directly or crediting the amount reduced to a reserve, and making any necessary changes in its registers. The company is permitted to reduce its share capital “in any way” as long as there is at least one non-redeemable share remaining, so it has a great deal of scope to reorganise its capital under this section.

The above assumes that all shareholders are being treated in the same way. If it is intended to treat shareholders differently (perhaps to pay one shareholder out or to return capital relating to a certain class of shares) it may be necessary to consider obtaining class consents and take into account the risk of a shareholder bringing a claim for unfair prejudice.

Reductions of capital: a tax perspective

Repayment of share capital

When capital is returned to an individual shareholder without first passing through the company reserves, the repayment of capital (i.e. the amount paid for the shares, which will be the sum of the nominal value and the share premium (if any)), is treated by HMRC as a capital distribution and so within the capital gains tax (CGT) / corporation tax on chargeable gains rules. There is a part disposal of the underlying shares (some small part disposals may be ignored at the time of the repayment and, instead, the consideration in question is deducted from the allowable deductions on the subsequent disposal of the shares). Where the repayment is not “small” then it may be possible to claim Business Asset Disposal Relief (BADR) but HMRC are alive to possible abuse and may recharacterise as income under the transactions in securities (TIS) rules (and it is often prudent to seek a clearance from HMRC before undertaking the transaction where the reduction of capital is in respect of a “close” company).

If the payment goes beyond the amount paid for the shares there is an income distribution.

Distribution from reserves

If a company decides to transfer the funds from the capital reduction to its reserves, generally this is treated as a realised profit. The company can then decide to make a dividend payment to its shareholders from that profit or leave it in its reserves.

If it decides to pay a dividend to its shareholders then an individual recipient will be subject to income tax, but a corporate shareholder will generally be able to rely on an exemption from corporation tax.

Conclusion

Undertaking a capital reduction within your company can be a complex process and the best method of doing so will vary greatly depending on the circumstances of your company and your shareholders. Please contact the Forsters’ Corporate team if you would like tailored advice for your company.

Disclaimer

This note reflects the law as at 29 February 2024. The circumstances of each case vary and this note should not be relied upon in place of specific legal advice.

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