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Switzerland: The Swiss Federal Council begins Swiss withholding tax reform

André Kuhn and Robin King of Deloitte evaluate the Swiss Federal Council’s proposed reforms to the Swiss withholding tax system.

On June 26 2019, the Swiss Federal Council shared its intentions to reform the Swiss withholding tax system. The need for such a reform is twofold: firstly, the reform is aimed at strengthening the Swiss debt capital market. Secondly, it strives to increase tax honesty of Swiss-resident individual investors.

The key parameters established by the Swiss Federal Council in its 1.5 page communication partially piggyback on the ideas presented in an expert board's report early this year.

The Swiss Federal Council mandated the Federal Department of Finance to prepare a consultation draft, which should be available in the autumn, taking into consideration those key parameters:

  1. In line with the expert group report, the Swiss debt capital market should be strengthened by abolishing the withholding tax on interest paid to Swiss corporate and all foreign investors.
  2. Further, tax honesty of Swiss-resident individual investors should be increased by expanding the withholding tax regime to include foreign interest income received by Swiss resident individual investors. The Swiss Federal Council's communication indicates that this should be achieved through the introduction of a paying agent system. Differently to the expert group report, the Swiss Federal Council does not propose an expansion of the paying agent system to foreign dividend income received by Swiss resident individual investors.
  3. Indirect investments in debt instruments (e.g. through an investment fund) should be treated equivalently to direct debt investments.
  4. Transition rules should be established for "too big to fail" instruments.
  5. A legal basis should be created to apply the Swiss withholding tax to substitute interest/dividend payments, which could, for example, arise in relation to securities lending or repo transactions or as part of derivatives or structured products.

However, the Swiss Federal Council for fiscal reasons rejected a more comprehensive reform, which may have included a reduction of the withholding tax rate for Swiss dividends to 15%. Nevertheless, it asked the Federal Department of Finance to examine whether the Swiss equity capital market can be strengthened through amending relevant income tax rules, in particular in the area of the participation exemption.

Finally, the Swiss Federal Council also turned down the idea of abolishing the turnover tax for Swiss securities. However, it indicated that it may agree to excluding Swiss debt instruments from the turnover tax.

The withholding tax reform would significantly strengthen the position of Switzerland as an international finance and treasury centre as it would allow Swiss resident entities to directly enter the debt capital markets via bond issuances without adverse withholding tax consequences. The Swiss Federal Council's communication does not address many of the detailed technical aspects (e.g. in relation to indirect investments or substitute interest/dividend payments) and operational considerations (e.g. details of the paying agent system). Thus, affected parties should watch out for the consultation draft to be published in the autumn to determine how they may be affected in practice and whether any lobbying efforts are needed.

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