Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tax breaks for angel investors

Business angels in South Africa received a much welcomed boost in the form of a great article published in the business report this month. Carien Engelbrecht argues that business angel groups in South Africa should be given tax breaks on money invested into new and growing business.

The report and recommendations make an enormous amount of sense. The small business sector created both jobs and income for the country, in many cases also ensuring an inflow of foreign currency. As the government has always been clear on their support of the small business sector through making available numerous grants and funding initiatives as well as creating bodies like SEDA and the IDC amongst others to support entrepreneurs, this will be a step in the right direction. If cash rich individuals or groups are prepared to risk their money to create jobs, income opportunities and revenue for the country as a whole then surely they are in part supporting what the government is setting out to do. Its a real win-win!!

Carien Engelbrecht's article follows below:

Give angel investors tax relief to plug fund gap of start-ups   Comments
November 26, 2009

By Carien Engelbrecht writes for Business Report
With the unemployment rate running at 24.5 percent, there is much concern regarding the growing social, economic and financial effect of joblessness.

When quizzed on solutions, almost everyone mouths platitudes regarding the value and importance of building and boosting entrepreneurship as a way of either creating jobs or developing viable alternative lifestyles.
The importance of entrepreneurship as a way of creating employment is supported by research, which has found that small and medium-sized firms account for 41.7 percent of all employment in the private sector, according to Competition in South African Banking, a task group report for the National Treasury and the SA Reserve Bank by Hans Falenka et al, published in April 2004. Every second week, we are told of new interventions to rescue key industries and unlock access to business finance.

Regrettably, many of these interventions are short on detail and even slower to implement. But perhaps the most serious problem with these proposals is the extent to which they demonstrate a limited understanding of the real-life funding and support requirements of start-ups and early-stage businesses.

Blooming flowers

If we are to grow entrepreneurship, we need, in the words of Mao Zedong, to "let a hundred flowers bloom". It is obvious that as a business evolves, its financing needs develop and change in parallel.
We accordingly have to create an environment in which the right type of funding is made available in the right amounts at the right time in the life of a business.

The typical growth cycle of businesses and the matching funding requirements are well understood.
As a general rule, commercial debt funding is only relevant once a business has moved out of the highest risk phases and has developed a sustainable and somewhat predictable cash flow.
Prior to this point, commercial bank debt funding for a start-up or early-stage business is difficult at best and irresponsible at worst.

The discussions between the government and the banking sector to promote commercial lending, while important to many established enterprises, is accordingly of little relevance to start-up or early-stage businesses.

But if debt funding is inappropriate, then what are the alternatives? The answer to this conundrum lies in the availability and provision of more risky equity finance.

This may either take the form of venture capital or may be provided by so-called "angel" investors.
In the US, venture capital funding accounts for about 4 percent of all seed financing for start-up companies. The venture capital industry in South Africa may best be described as "nascent" as professionally managed funds specialising in venture capital-type investments are few and far between.

It is interesting to note that despite its glamorous image, venture capital is in fact not the most important source of start-up capital in the US. Instead, this accolade goes to angel investors, who are estimated to provide 27 times more seed funding to early-stage businesses than venture capital funds each year.

So what is angel funding and who are these angel investors? An angel investor is typically an individual or network of individuals who provide capital to start-up businesses, usually in exchange for convertible debt or equity ownership. Angel investors are critical if we are to fill the gap between the financing typically provided by family and friends and venture capital funds.

Angel investors exist everywhere and are not an American phenomenon. In practice, it is estimated that up to 80 percent of Chinese businesses are funded by angel investors and many countries are taking steps to actively encourage angel investors as part of a broader package of economic stimulus. Unfortunately, in South Africa, there is no angel industry to speak of. And yet, without this funding source, many new businesses will inevitably be starved of capital at a crucial stage in their growth cycle and will be doomed to failure.

The lack of effective venture capital and angel funding vehicles in South Africa may be at least partially attributed to the South African tax policy, which does not incentivise these forms of investment.
In many countries, extensive tax support is provided to both the venture capital and angel funding industry.
In the UK, the Enterprise Investment Scheme incentivises corporate venturing by providing small investors who invest up to £150 000 (R1.8m) a year, with up-front income tax relief, a capital gains tax exemption on the disposal of shares, deferred taxes on profits (if these are reinvested) and tax relief for capital losses.

Tax barriers

Similar provisions apply in many EU countries and in the US, where tax credits for venture capital and angel funds are common and in Brazil and Singapore, where venture capital funds are exempt from capital gains tax.

The South African fiscus has made a limited foray into supporting the establishment of formal venture capital funds through the enactment of section 12J of the Income Tax Act. Tax relief is accordingly directed at investors who purchase new shares in registered venture capital companies.

Cursory discussions with venture capital players, however, suggest that the effect of the tax relief has been modest at best and that it has certainly not had the desired effect of promoting widespread venture capital investment in early-stage businesses.

Of perhaps greater concern is the problem that there is currently no tax relief whatsoever for angel investors or angel investor networks who fund early stage businesses.

This means that this form of funding will probably remain unavailable within the South African environment, with ongoing negative implications for entrepreneurial development in the country.
While we support current government initiatives and the renewed focus on start-up and early-stage businesses, we believe that the government's current approach falls short.

A crucial step forward would accordingly be for the government to evaluate and restructure the existing tax treatment for venture capital funds and to establish tax-based incentives for angel investors. This would go a long way towards plugging the real funding gaps that plague start-up and early-stage businesses.
Carien Engelbrecht is a director of Aurik, a business accelerator based in Johannesburg

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