The bill introduces different taxation regimes for mutual funds and special funds. For mutual funds the bill provides for a 180 degree change in the rules governing German and foreign mutual funds. In case the law also passes the German Lower House the new rules are to be taken into consideration generally starting from January 1, 2018 onwards.
Current fund taxation law in Germany is based on the transparency principle, which means that investors pay taxes on income from the assets held by the fund as if they held those assets directly. The fund itself is tax exempt, and there is only taxation at the investor level.
The fund taxation reform does away with this pass-through taxation. In its place, the bill introduces a 15% corporate income tax on mutual funds for domestic dividends, rental income, gains on the disposal of German real estate and other German source income. Tax-exempt investors such as charitable foundations can apply for a tax exemption for the fund. Unlike the situation in a direct investment, gains on the disposal of German real estate are to be taxed if the fund has held the real estate for more than 10 years. However, changes in the value of real property until December 31, 2017 that had been held for more than 10 years are to be grandfathered and thus exempt from this rule. Regarding future value changes the new rule can result in tax disadvantages for private investors in German real estate funds. If the objective business purpose of the fund is to invest in and manage its cash, and it does not actively engage in commercial business, it will remain exempt from trade tax.
At the investor level, distributions and gains on sale or return will be taxed at the flat-rate withholding tax, as investment income for a private investor or as operating income for investments in business assets. However, since funds frequently distribute very little income or none at all, a lump sum tax must be paid in order to avoid tax deferral effects. This replaces the current taxation of deemed distributions, which are determined and published by the funds. The lump sum tax is based on the risk-free market interest rate and is calculated using a simple formula. In order to avoid double taxation, any lump sum taxes already paid during the ownership of units in the fund are offset against the gain from the sale or return of the fund units.
The corporate income taxation at the fund level, the withholding tax on the fund’s foreign income, and the tax exemption of certain income when an investment is held directly are to be taken into account through a partial exemption of the taxable income. This exemption will depend on the investment focus of the fund. For private investors, it amounts to 30% for equities funds that continue to invest at least 51% of their value in shares, and 15% for blended funds (at least 25% of the value invested in shares). Real estate funds that continue to invest at least 51% of their value in real estate are entitled to a partial exemption in the amount of 60% or 80% when they invest solely in foreign real estate. If the fund units are held as a part of operating assets, the partial exemption rates for equities and blended funds apply to the personal or corporate income tax. Only half of the partial exemptions are applicable for trade tax purposes.
The new rules are to take effect on January 1, 2018. A fictitious sale-and-purchase is provided for at the investor level, pursuant to which existing units in investment funds will be deemed to be sold at the last repurchase price determined in calendar year 2017 as of December 31, 2017 and then repurchased on January 1, 2018. If this results in a taxable gain, investors will not pay tax on the gain until they actually sell their units. If the investor acquired the units before January 1, 2009 and could have sold them tax-free under the current laws, value changes generated as of January 1, 2018 will be granted a €100,000 exemption when the units are sold.
In many cases the reform will likely result in a higher tax burden. Critics on the proposed bill have partially resulted in amendments of the now enacted bill. But even if the tax regime becomes more burdensome, retail funds will likely remain a reasonable investment alternative because of the possible risk diversification, especially as interest rates remain low. The rules for special investment funds will continue under the same semi-transparent regime as before.