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Taxed At Source: Renminbi Private Equity Firms Confront the Taxman

 The formula for success in private equity is simple the world over: make lots of money investing other people’s money, keep 20% of the profits and pay little or no taxes on your share of the take. This tax avoidance is perfectly legal. PE firms are usually incorporated as offshore holding companies in tax-free domains like the Cayman Islands.

Depending on their nationality, partners at PE firms may need to pay some tax on the profits distributed to them individually. But, some quick footwork can also keep the taxman at bay. For example, I know PE partners who are Chinese nationals, living in Hong Kong. They plan their lives to be sure not to be in either Hong Kong or China for more than 182 days a year, and so escape most individual taxes as well. Even when they pay, it’s usually at the capital gains rate, which is generally far lower than income tax.

The tax efficiency is fundamental to private equity, and most other forms of fiduciary investing. If the PE firm’s profits were assessed with income tax ahead of distributions to Limited Partners (“LPs”), it would significantly reduce the overall rate of return, to say nothing about potentially incurring double taxation when those LPs share of profits got dinged again by the tax man.

China, as everyone in the PE world knows, is very keen to foster growth of its own homegrown private equity firms. It has introduced a raft of new rules to allow PE firms to incorporate, invest Renminbi and exit via IPO in China. So far so good. The Chinese government is also pouring huge sums of its own cash into private equity, either directly through state-owned companies and agencies, or indirectly through the country’s pay-as-you-go social security fund. (See my recent blog post here.)

Exact figures are hard to come by. But, it’s a safe bet that at least Rmb100 billion (USD$15 billion) in capital was committed to domestic private equity firms last year. This year should see even larger number of new domestic PE firms established, and even larger quadrants of capital poured in.

It’s going to be a few years yet before the successful Chinese domestic PE firms start returning significant investment profits to their investors. When they do, their investors will likely be in for something of an unpleasant surprise: the PE firms’ profits, almost certainly, will be reduced by as much as 25% because of income tax.

In other words, along with building a large homegrown PE industry that can rival those of the US and Europe, China is also determined to assess those domestic PE firms with sizable income taxes. These two policy priorities may turn out to be wholly incompatible. PE firms, more than most, have a deep, structural aversion to paying income tax on their profits. For one thing, doing so will cut dramatically into the personal profits earned by PE partners, lowering significantly the after-tax returns for these professionals. If so, the good ones will be tempted to move to Hong Kong to keep more of their share of the profits they earn investing others’ money. If so, then China could get deprived of some experienced and talented PE partners its young industry can ill afford to lose.

It’s still early days for the PE industry in China. Renminbi PE firms really only got started two years ago. I’ve yet to hear any partners of domestic PE firms complain. But, my guess is that the complaining will begin just as soon as these PE firms begin to have successful exits and begin to write very large checks to the Chinese tax bureau. What then?

China’s tax code is nothing if not fluid. New tax rules are announced and implemented on a weekly basis. Sometimes taxes go down. Most often lately, they go up.  Compared to developed countries, changing the tax code in China is simpler, speedier. So, if the Chinese government discovers that taxing PE firms is causing problems, it can reverse the policy rather quickly.

The PE firms will likely argue that taxing their profits will end up hurting hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese whose pensions will be smaller because the PE firms’ gains are subject to tax. In industry, this is known as the “widows and orphans defense”. Chinese contribute a share of their paycheck to the state pension system, which then invests this amount on their behalf, including about 10% going to PE investment.

PE firms outside China are structured as offshore companies, with offices in places like London, New York and Hong Kong, but a tax presence in low- and no-tax domains. But, there’s currently no real way to do this in China, to raise, invest and earn Renminbi in an offshore entity. Changing that opens up an even larger can of worms, the current restrictions preventing most companies or individuals outside China from holding or investing Renminbi. This restriction plays a key part in China’s all-important Renminbi exchange rate policy, and management of the country’s nearly $2.8 trillion of foreign reserves.

The world’s major PE firms are excitedly now raising Renminbi funds. Several have already succeeded, including Carlyle and TPG. They want access to domestic investment opportunities as well as the high exit multiples on China’s stock market. When and if the income tax rules start to bite and the firm’s partners get a look at their diminished take, they may find the appeal of working and investing in China far less alluring.