Guide to Shell Companies

By Colin Dodds · September 07, 2023 · 7 minute read

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Guide to Shell Companies

A shell company, also called a shell corporation, refers to any legally structured corporation that has no meaningful assets or business operations. In popular culture, they’re often used to conceal illegal businesses, or to conceal the owners of a business from law enforcement, the public, or both. However, shell companies themselves are not illegal, and they do have some legitimate uses.

As business entities, shell companies exist to protect, and sometimes to conceal (or at least misrepresent) the assets of the shell company’s owner. But there’s nothing necessarily illegal about shell corporations themselves. It’s important to not only understand the definition of a shell company, but also to recognize how and why they’re used by businesses and people.

How Are Shell Companies Created?

There is more than one way to create a shell company. Most often, the people or corporations that launch new shell corporations use a registered agent in the country where the company will have its legal headquarters. So, in the United States, shell companies would need to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In most countries, the agent must register his or her name, and the name of an owner or a shareholder director. The cost of creating and legally registering a corporation will vary from country to country, from as little as a few thousand dollars to as much as several hundred thousand dollars.

Being “hollow,” by definition, shell companies can do many things. They can open bank and brokerage accounts. They can transfer funds in and out of their home country. They can buy and sell real estate or other companies. And own copyrights and earn royalties on those copyrights.

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3 Uses of Shell Companies

People and corporations use shell companies in a wide range of legitimate businesses for legitimate reasons. Those might be used as a vehicle to raise funds, as a legal entity to attempt to take over another business via a reverse merger, or as a legal entity to give form to a company that intends to go public.

1. Tax Benefits of Shell Companies

Many shell corporations operate in a legal gray area, and it’s possible that corporations and wealthy individuals may use them to avoid taxes.

Many companies have found ways to move their profits to offshore shell corporations to take advantage of less expensive, or more permissive tax regimes in other countries (similar to how some states may be more tax-friendly than others). American corporations might set up shell companies in countries with inexpensive labor, where they have already begun to outsource some of their operations.

Corporations aren’t the only ones that use shell companies to avoid paying taxes. Wealthy individuals around the world may also use shell corporations, domiciled all over the world, to hide their earnings and their wealth from the governments of the countries in which they prosper.

2. Less Risk, More Opportunity

Tax avoidance isn’t the only reason a corporation would set up a shell corporation. It might create a shell company to operate in a country, while protecting its other operations from the legal, political, and financial risks related to that country. That way, if something goes wrong in the country where it operates, the parent company can limit its exposure by existing — at least on paper — offshore.

A corporation may also set up a shell corporation in another country to gain a window into new regions. A business might set up a shell company in Panama or Switzerland to gain access to the local business community, in order to generate contacts and information that would lead it to business opportunities in Latin America or Western Europe.

3. SPACs

While shell companies come up in the news in relation to questionable tax-avoidance schemes, in recent years, they’ve also been mentioned alongside special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs.

At any given time, there may be hundreds of shell companies that qualify as SPACs — which may be a reason that SPACS were so popular for a couple of years in 2020 and 2021. These are companies formed exclusively to raise capital via an initial public offering (IPO), which will then purchase a company already in operation. SPACs are a type of “blank check company.”

These companies issue an IPO, then hold the money in a trust, until the SPAC management team chooses a company and buys it. And if the SPAC doesn’t find a company to buy, or can’t buy the company or companies it likes within a pre-set deadline — often two years — then the managers promise to liquidate the SPAC and give investors their money back.

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Example Shell Companies

An example of a shell company could be as follows.

Say there’s an entrepreneur that’s looking to raise money before they officially launch a startup — maybe the next big emerging growth company. They may create an LLC, which is a business entity, that doesn’t have any assets or employees. It only exists on paper. But the business entity — a shell company — can be used to store the money being raised for the startup prior to its launch.

In effect, the company itself is merely a shell used to hold cash until it’s ready for use. It’s not really a functional business in the traditional sense.

Shell Companies and Shady Dealings

While there are many legitimate uses for shell companies, as outlined, bad actors also might use them to shield their operations and their assets from authorities. And as different jurisdictions compete for business, new loopholes emerge on a regular basis. In Panama, the British Virgin Islands, Nevada and Delaware, to name only a few, there are strong laws that prevent the government from revealing the beneficial owner of a given shell corporation.

And for creative financiers, there are always new ways to add layers of anonymity, such as phony company directors, who agree to sign their names for a few dollars. Among professionals who specialize in such things, there are ways to find would-be board members, and for countries and states with convenient tax and privacy laws.

Are Shell Companies Legal?

Yes, shell companies are legal, and are most often used for perfectly legal purposes. While they can be used for illegal purposes, a shell company is generally used for a more or less boring or run of the mill business purpose — as discussed in the previous example above.

Shell Companies vs Holding Companies

Though there may be some superficial similarities, shell companies and holding companies are not the same thing. As discussed, shell companies may be formed to serve as empty entities that may be used to take advantage of different taxation regulations, for example. A holding company, on the other hand, is a parent company — holding companies holds or owns other companies within it, like an umbrella. It allows its owners to control numerous businesses without necessarily actively managing any of them.

The Takeaway

Shell companies are legal business entities that are often used for perfectly legal reasons, and often to reduce tax liabilities or store funds. Shell companies can be used for illegal purposes, too, which is what they’re often associated with.

Most investors wouldn’t use shell companies in their day-to-day trading, but they might consider allocating part of their portfolios to a SPAC. It’s important to remember that these are speculative, risky investments, so they don’t make sense for every portfolio.

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Is a shell company legal?

Yes, shell companies are legal, and are generally used for perfectly legal purposes. A shell company is simply a business entity that has no assets or employers, or engages in much or any meaningful business operations.

What is an example of a shell company?

An example of a shell company could be an LLC formed by an entrepreneur planning to launch a startup. The entrepreneur files the paperwork to create the LLC, and then uses it simply to store funds until the startup launches, rather than have the LLC engage in any business itself.

What is the difference between a holding company and a shell company?

Holding companies are parent companies, or umbrella organizations, that often have multiple businesses running underneath or within them. Shell companies do not have assets or employees, or any meaningful business operations.

Photo credit: iStock/akinbostanci

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