Capital maintenance in German Company Law

  • Capital maintenance rules are part of a legal capital regime that consists of rules on raising capital and rules on maintaining it. The function of these rules is the protection of the corporation’s creditors. This is evidenced by the fact that in public as well as private companies the provisions on legal capital are not open to disapplication or variation even with unanimous shareholder consent. Thus, providing the company with a minimum of funding and ensuring equal treatment of shareholders are mere reflexes of creditor protection or, at best, ancillary purposes of legal capital. Legal capital is part of a corporation’s equity. The key feature of equity is that it ranks behind the claims of other stakeholders in the distribution of a corporation’s assets. Consequently, equity will also be the first part of a corporation’s funds to be depleted by losses. Capital maintenance rules seek to enforce this order of priority of different groups of stakeholders by restricting distributions to shareholders. Such restrictions are not unique to legal systems that have adopted a legal capital regime. A prominent example of a statute that has eliminated mandatory legal capital is the Delaware General Corporation Law. § 154 DCGL leaves it up to the directors to decide whether any part of the consideration received by the corporation for its shares shall be attributed to capital. Thus, a Delaware corporation need not have any stated capital. This has significant impact on the funds available for distribution to shareholders. Pursuant to § 170 (a) DGCL dividends may only be paid out of surplus or, in the absence of surplus, out of net profits of the current or the preceding fiscal year. § 154 DGCL defines surplus as the excess of a corporation’s net assets over the amount of its capital, and net assets as the amount by which total assets exceed total liabilities. A corporation without stated capital may, therefore, distribute all of its net assets to its shareholders and continue business without any equity on its balance sheet. This highlights the difference between the different approaches to creditor protection in Germany and the U.S. Both legal systems acknowledge the priority of creditors over shareholders in corporate distributions. However, German law seeks to give creditors additional comfort by requiring companies to raise and maintain additional layers of assets above and beyond those corresponding to the company’s liabilities that may not be depleted by way of distributions to shareholders. While private companies must merely raise and maintain their stated capital, public companies are required to raise and maintain additional equity accounts unavailable for distributions to shareholders such as the share premium account1 and the legal reserve.2 In recent years a number of objections have been raised against this concept of creditor protection. Critics argue that contractual arrangements are a more efficient means for protecting the interests of creditors.3 Capital maintenance does not prevent creditors from negotiating for more stringent protection of their claims such as collateral or financial covenants. It does, however, provide a minimum standard of protection for the benefit of creditors who lack the commercial experience or the bargaining power or who, like tort victims, are simply unable to negotiate for contractual safeguards. Capital maintenance ensures that their protection against excessive distributions does not depend on large creditors who are free to waive covenants that, in effect, benefit all creditors in exchange for individual arrangements that work exclusively in their favour.

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Author:Andreas CahnGND
Parent Title (German):Working paper series / Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität, Institute for Law and Finance ; 146
Series (Serial Number):Working paper / Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität, Institut for Law and Finance (146)
Publisher:Institute for Law and Finance
Place of publication:Frankfurt am Main
Document Type:Working Paper
Date of Publication (online):2016/12/02
Year of first Publication:2015
Publishing Institution:Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg
Release Date:2016/12/02
Page Number:32
Institutes:Wirtschaftswissenschaften / Wirtschaftswissenschaften
Wissenschaftliche Zentren und koordinierte Programme / Institute for Law and Finance (ILF)
Dewey Decimal Classification:3 Sozialwissenschaften / 33 Wirtschaft / 330 Wirtschaft
3 Sozialwissenschaften / 34 Recht / 340 Recht
Licence (German):License LogoDeutsches Urheberrecht