Chapter 1 - Summary
1.1 Employee share schemes – arrangements providing shares and share options by companies to employees – are an important form of employee remuneration in New Zealand and internationally. Although the design and the accounting treatment of these plans have evolved considerably over recent decades, the tax rules applying to them in New Zealand have not been comprehensively reviewed during that period and are now out of date.
1.2 Employee share schemes can have beneficial economic effects and it is important that the tax rules do not raise unintended barriers to their use. In some circumstances, the current rules can result in over-taxation; in others they result in under-taxation.
Current impediments and potential over-taxation
1.3 The current system impedes the use of employee share schemes in a number of ways. These problems can be particularly relevant for start-up companies.
- There is considerable uncertainty about how the current rules apply to taxation of employees and employers, which may deter firms from offering these schemes.
- The costs to employers of providing shares to employees are not explicitly deductible. Non-deductibility creates overtaxation, which is a disincentive to using employee share schemes.
- Start-up companies may have difficulties valuing employee share scheme benefits.
- Start-up companies may not have sufficient cashflow at the employee and employer level to fund upfront tax payments.
1.4 The current treatment of some sophisticated employee share schemes can result in taxable employment income being treated as tax-free capital gains and so escaping taxation. This undermines the fairness of the tax system. These sophisticated employee share schemes can provide a significant amount of untaxed employment income for some high income earners.
A framework for taxing employee share schemes
1.5 The paper sets out a number of proposals to address these problems in a manner consistent with New Zealand’s broad-base, low-rate (BBLR) taxation principles. The goal of the proposals is to ensure that the taxation of employee share schemes is simple, efficient and fair.
1.6 The framework adopted in this document for taxing employee share schemes may be simply expressed. The tax treatment of employment income paid in shares should be consistent with the taxation of employment income paid in cash.
Deductibility of employee share scheme benefits
1.7 The paper notes that, under current law, the cost to employers of providing shares to employees is not explicitly deductible. On the other hand, employment remuneration paid in cash would give rise to deductions. To achieve consistent treatment, the paper proposes giving the employer a deduction equal to the amount of income taxable to the employee.
Types of employee share schemes
1.8 For purposes of exposition, it is useful to distinguish three types of employee share scheme.
Unconditional employee share schemes
1.9 Unconditional employee share schemes are shares and options that are provided to employees free from further conditions. As such, they may be considered to be remuneration for past work.
Conditional employee share schemes
1.10 Conditional employee share schemes involve acquisition of shares by the employee where the retention of the shares is subject to future conditions based on continuing employment.
1.11 Conditional employee share schemes are economically similar to employment-conditional bonuses (i.e. payments in cash). As they have a requirement of continuing employment they can be considered, at least in part, to be a reward for future work. Currently some such schemes are taxed prior to the fulfilment of the employment conditions, which is inconsistent with the taxation of conditional bonuses. Conditional bonuses that depend on future employment services are appropriately taxed when the conditions are fulfilled and the employee receives the bonus. Conditional employee share schemes should be taxed in the same manner.
1.12 Option-like arrangements have terms and conditions based on the future price of the shares or similar criteria and other more sophisticated features. In practice, price conditions are often combined with employment conditions. Under current rules, they are taxed when the shares are first acquired, rather than when the conditions are satisfied and the employee is entitled to keep the shares. The arrangement allows employment income to be converted into tax-free capital gains, so that less tax is paid than for comparable bonuses or unconditional employee share schemes (in particular, employee share options). Those receiving benefits under these schemes in effect pay lower rates of tax on their income than salary and wage earners with similar amounts of income.
Proposed taxation of income of employee share schemes
1.13 No changes are proposed for taxing employment income arising from unconditional employee share schemes. They give rise to employment income when shares are acquired and are appropriately taxed in the hands of the employee under current law. In the case of employee share purchases, this is at the time that shares are provided. In the case of employee share options, this is when the options are exercised. This results in the same after-tax outcomes for the employee as levying tax when options are issued, but avoids many of the valuation and cashflow concerns of tax at issue.
1.14 The paper proposes that income arising from the receipt of shares from an employee share scheme should be calculated and subject to tax only once the employee holds the shares free from substantive conditions. In other words, when the shares are held on the same basis as any other shareholder. This timing would be consistent with the taxation of conditional bonuses and ensures that employment income is appropriately taxed.
1.15 The proposed new rules are intended to resolve current uncertainty in the taxation of share schemes by giving clearer guidance to taxpayers and administrators. They do this by more clearly delineating the timing and amount of employment income to be taxed, and giving an explicit deduction for employer costs related to employee share schemes
1.16 The paper recognises that some start-up companies may have particular difficulty valuing shares provided under employee shares schemes and paying tax at the time they are taxed currently. These problems could be avoided by delaying the taxing point until the shares are sold or listed. In some cases, deferred taxation would leave employees in the same after-tax position as if the shares had been taxed when they were provided. However in other circumstances, delay could result in some increase or decrease in taxation. The paper outlines some technical and administrative options for reducing barriers to the use of employee share schemes by start-up companies, and invites comments and suggestions.
Specific concessionary regime for widely offered share schemes
1.17 The paper discusses the existing specific concessionary regime for widely offered schemes. The regime was introduced in the mid-70s and has numerous technical deficiencies. The current proposals, especially the deductibility of issuance costs to the employer, and the proposed amendments to allow employers to pay PAYE on employee share scheme benefits, should facilitate broad-based employee share schemes. In these circumstances, the paper invites comments on whether the concessionary regime should be retained.
1.18 A transitional period is proposed to allow firms time to adjust to the new rules.
1.19 This issues paper has been released under the generic tax policy process (GTPP) to facilitate consultation on this complex area.
How to make a submission
1.20 Officials invite submissions on the suggested changes and points raised in this issues paper. Submissions should be sent to [email protected] with “Taxation of employee share schemes” in the subject line.
1.21 Alternatively, submissions can be addressed to:
Taxation of employee share schemes
C/- Deputy Commissioner, Policy and Strategy
Inland Revenue Department
PO Box 2198
The closing date for submissions is 22 June 2016.
1.22 Submissions should include a brief summary of major points and recommendations. They should also indicate whether it would be acceptable for Inland Revenue and Treasury officials to contact those making the submission to discuss the points raised, if required.
1.23 Submissions may be the subject of a request under the Official Information Act 1982, which may result in their release. The withholding of particular submissions, or parts thereof, on the grounds of privacy, or commercial sensitivity, or for any other reason, will be determined in accordance with that Act. Those making a submission who consider that there is any part of it that should properly be withheld under the Act should clearly indicate this.