France vs Sté Paule Ka Holding, December 2020, Paris Administrative Court of Appeal, Case No 18PA02715

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Sté Paule Ka Holding, was set up as part of a leveraged buy-out (LBO) operation to finance the acquisition of the Paule Ka group, and in 2011 it acquired the entire capital of the group a price of 42 million euros. The acquisition was financed by issuing convertible bonds carrying an interest rate of 8%.

The French tax authorities issued an assessment where deductions for certain payments related to the acquisition and part of the interest payments on the bonds were disallowed.

Decision from the Administrative court of appeal

The Court found in favor of the company in regards to the payment related to the acquisition and in favor of the tax administration in regards to the partially disallowed deduction of interest payments.

It follows from the foregoing that the elements invoked by the administration do not provide proof that the expenditure of EUR 390,227 correctly entered in the accounts was not incurred in the interest of the company Paule Ka Holding. The latter is thus entitled to argue that the administration was wrong to refuse to deduct it in respect of the financial year ended in 2012 and, consequently, to request the reduction of the tax bases and the discharge of the corresponding taxes, including the penalties for deliberate failure to comply as provided for in a) of Article 1729 of the General Tax Code, applied by the administration to this head of rectification.”

“...These bonds have a term of ten years, bear interest at a rate of 8%, have a principal amount that is repayable in full at maturity, are not accompanied by any guarantee or security, bear capitalised interest and are convertible at maturity at the rate of one new share with a value of one euro for every 10 OCAs granted. Paule Ka Holding recognised interest on bonds of EUR 2 083 490 for the year ended 2012 and EUR 2 574 298 for the year ended 2013 as an expense. The department questioned the amount of these deductions for the interest paid on the bonds subscribed by Black Tie Luxco by applying the legal interest rate provided for in Article 39(1)(3) of the General Tax Code, i.e. 3.64% and 3.10% for the said financial years. Deductions for the difference in the calculated interest in the amount of EUR 1,092,601 for the financial year ending in 2012 and EUR 908,667 for the financial year ending in 2013 were disallowed.

To justify the rate applied to the above-mentioned compulsory loans, Paule Ka Holding produced a study drawn up by the firm Dauge et associés on 30 September 2015. This firm carried out a credit rating of the company, based on an analysis of its financial structure with regard to its balance sheet situation, based on two criteria, the Banque de France rating of the borrower, based on the criteria of earning capacity, financial autonomy The Banque de France rating of the borrower, based on the criteria of earning capacity, financial autonomy, solvency and liquidity, and the estimate of the credit risk of the OCAs issued using the Standard and Poor’s analysis grid, on the basis of the group’s consolidated business plan, to conclude that the rating is estimated at BB-, corresponding to a satisfactory business risk profile and an aggressive financial risk. Based on this rating, it then estimated the credit margin applicable to the OCAs based on the European Commission’s recommendations for estimating reference and discount rates, with margin levels based on credit rating categories.

The firm concluded from these elements that the interest rate of 8% seemed appropriate given the profile of the borrower and the characteristics of the bonds issued. However, the study produced consists of generalities and the data presented in it is not documented. Indeed, the mere reference to a credit rating does not imply that all the companies concerned by this rating have identical repayment capacities, taking into account all the quantitative and qualitative factors specific to each company. Furthermore, it does not appear from this study that the internal rating of Paule Ka Holding, as described, takes sufficient account of the company’s own characteristics, in particular the state of its accounts, its competitive positioning and the quality of its managers and employees. This internal rating does not take into account the possibility of the company receiving external assistance in the event of difficulties in honouring its commitments. Under these conditions, this study is insufficient to justify the rate applied to the bonds in dispute.

In addition, Paule Ka Holding has provided examples of companies that took out bonds in the context of LBO transactions for acquisitions dated from May 2011 to June 2012 at rates varying between 7 and 12%, which, according to the company, show that the rate of 8% was a market rate compared with those applied by other companies of comparable size and for loans of the same nature.

However, the investigation shows that the bonds presented for comparison have either a shorter duration than those in dispute or are not convertible into shares. Their amount is very different from that issued by Paule Ka Holding, some of which are also associated with “senior” debts. Moreover, the issuing companies, of very different sizes, carry out their activities in different fields from that of Paule Ka Holding, a takeover structure of a group in the high-end ready-to-wear sector. There is nothing to show the conditions under which the loans presented for comparison purposes were established. Under these conditions, since the comparability of the economic conditions has not been demonstrated, the terms of comparison proposed by Paule Ka Holding do not justify the rate applied to the bond loans in dispute.

It follows from the foregoing that Paule Ka Holding does not justify the rate it could have obtained from independent financial institutions or organisations for a loan granted under similar conditions with regard to the yield on bond loans from undertakings in comparable economic conditions, for loans constituting a realistic alternative to an intra-group loan, taking into account its own characteristics, in particular its risk profile.

It does not therefore justify the deductibility of a rate higher than the limit of those calculated at a rate equal to the annual average of the average effective rates charged by credit institutions for variable-rate loans to companies with an initial term of more than two years. Consequently, it is not entitled to maintain that the administration was wrong to call into question the interest on the bond loans in question, on the basis of 3° of 1 of Article 39 of the General Tax Code and I of Article 212 of the General Tax Code.

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CAA de PARIS, 5ème chambre, 10_12_2020, 18PA02715, Inédit au recueil Lebon - Légifrance

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