When considering distributions by a company, we most often think of cash dividends, being one form of return on investment for investors. This is something most start-up clients consider being a future event in their life cycle and don’t often give much thought to upfront. We’ve set out a few important points to take into account when considering whether or not a company should declare a distribution.
What is a distribution?
Firstly, it is important to bear in mind that the shareholders of a company only have an expectation (and not a right) to share in that company’s profits during its existence. There is therefore no obligation on a company to declare distributions to its shareholders.
The Companies Act, 71 of 2008, as amended, (“the Act”) provides a very wide definition of a “distribution”, which goes much further than just cash dividends. This definition can be broken up into three categories, namely, the direct or indirect: (i) transfer by the company of money or other property (other than its own shares) to or for the benefit of one or more of its shareholders; (ii) incurrence of a debt or other obligation by the company for the benefit of one or more of its shareholders; and (iii) forgiveness or waiver by the company of a debt or other obligation owed to the company by one or more of its shareholders.
The definition is further extended to include any of the above actions taken in relation to another company in the same group of companies, but specifically excludes any of the above actions taken upon the final liquidation of a company.
The first category in the definition of a “distribution” includes cash dividends, payments by a company to its shareholders instead of capitalisation shares, share buy-backs and any other transfer by a company of money or other property to or for the benefit of one or more of its shareholders, which is otherwise in respect of any of the company’s shares. This last sub-category is intended as a “catch all” provision, making the definition that much wider.
Who can make a distribution and in what circumstances?
Section 46 of the Act sets out the requirements that a company must meet before making a distribution. A company must not make any proposed distribution to its shareholders unless the distribution: (i) has been authorised by the board of directors by way of adopting a resolution (unless such distribution is pursuant to an existing obligation of the company or a court order); (ii) it reasonably appears that the company will satisfy the solvency and liquidity test immediately after completing the proposed distribution; and (iii) the board of the company acknowledges, by way of a resolution, that it has applied the solvency and liquidity test and reasonably concluded that the company will satisfy same immediately after completing the proposed distribution.
For purposes of the solvency and liquidity test, two considerations must be taken into account. Firstly, whether the assets of the company, fairly valued, are equal to or exceed the liabilities of the company, fairly valued (this is often referred to as commercial solvency). Secondly, whether the company will be able to pay its debts as they become due in the ordinary course of business for a period of twelve months after the test is considered, or in the case of a distribution contemplated in the first category of the definition, twelve months following that distribution (this is often termed factual solvency). While the Act attempts to specify what financial information must be taken into account when considering the solvency and liquidity test, the provisions are not that clear, apart from requiring the board to consider accounting records and financial statements satisfying the requirements of the Act and that the board must consider a fair valuation of the company’s assets and liabilities. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation as to what can and should be taken into account when considering the solvency and liquidity test.
An important point to note here is that it is the board of directors of the company that must declare a distribution, and not the shareholders. The company’s Memorandum of Incorporation and/or shareholders’ agreement can place further requirements on the company in relation to declaring distributions, for example, a distribution must also be approved by a special resolution of the shareholders. This does not, however, change the fact that the distribution must first be proposed by the board of directors and ultimately be declared by the board of directors.
What happens if a distribution is authorised by the board but not fully implemented?
When the board of the company has adopted a resolution, acknowledging that it has applied the solvency and liquidity test and reasonably concluded that the company will satisfy the solvency and liquidity test immediately after completing the proposed distribution, then that distribution must be fully carried out. If the distribution has not been completed within 120 business days after the board adopts such resolution, the board must reconsider the solvency and liquidity test with respect to the remaining distribution to be made. Furthermore, the Act states that the company may not proceed with such distribution unless the board adopts a further resolution to that effect.
Directors liability for unlawful distributions
If a director does not follow the requirements for making a distribution and resolves to make such distribution (either at a meeting or by round robin resolution) despite knowing that the requirements have not been met, then that director can be held personally liable for any loss, damages or costs sustained by the company as a direct or indirect consequence of the director failing to vote against the making of that distribution.
There are, however, limitations placed on a director’s potential liability, in that such liability only arises if: (i) immediately after making all of the distribution (no liability can arise for partial implementation), the company does not satisfy the solvency and liquidity test; and (ii) it was unreasonable at the time of the resolution to come to the conclusion that the company would satisfy the solvency and liquidity test after making the relevant distribution.
A director who has reason to think that a claim may be brought against him (other than for wilful misconduct or wilful breach of trust), may apply to court for relief. The court may grant relief to the director if he has acted honestly and reasonably or, having regard to the circumstances, it would be fair to excuse the director.
There is a limit on the amount that a director can be held liable for in relation to not meeting the requirements of a distribution – section 77(4)(b) provides that such amount will not exceed, in aggregate, the difference between the amount by which the value of the distribution exceeded the amount that could have been distributed without causing the company to fail to satisfy the solvency and liquidity test and the amount (if any) recovered by the company from persons to whom the distribution was made.
Distributions by a company of its assets to its shareholders, whether in the form of cash or otherwise, are carefully regulated by the Act. This is clearly to protect the interests of creditors and minority shareholders of the company. You will also have noticed that the Act does not deal separately with the different types of distributions and includes a wide variety of transactions which will be regarded as a distribution under the Act. We trust that the issues highlighted above will give you some insight and guidance on this topic. If you would like to discuss any of these topics in more detail, please feel free to contact our commercial department and we will gladly assist.
If you would like to discuss any of these topics in more detail, please feel free to contact our commercial department and we will gladly assist.