Financial investors in India are scared of regulatory uncertainties. Not that uncertainties are exclusive to our country but it’s a critical risk factor that is assessed by those making substantial investments. Historically, one of the most important regulatory concerns for such investors is related to being categorised as ‘promoter’ of a listed company, both when the company is going public and also in cases where a private equity (PE) player intends to take a control position in an already listed company, by replacing its present promoters or by becoming co-promoters. Promoter liability theories have kept such investors away from taking control positions in listed companies. On the contrary, in the unlisted space where the promoter position is perceived differently, control deals are a way of life for certain PE funds in India.
The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) recently issued an informal guidance in response to a request for an interpretive letter from Kotak Mahindra Bank Limited (KMBL) on the continual disclosure requirements under the SEBI (Prohibition of Insider Trading) Regulations, 2015 (PIT Regulations).
Regulation 7(2) of the PIT Regulations prescribes a two-step disclosure mechanism wherein:
- Promoters/ employees/ directors of listed companies are required to disclose to the company, within two days of the occurrence of a transaction, the number of securities acquired or disposed, where the value of such securities in the transaction (or a series of transactions in any calendar quarter) amounts to a traded value in excess of Rs. 10 lakh.
- The company in turn is required to disclose such trades to the stock exchanges, on which the traded securities are listed, within two days of receipt of the disclosure or upon becoming aware of such information.
Over the years, companies have used employee stock option schemes (ESOP Schemes) as an effective method to align employee interests with shareholders, reward their efforts, increase their loyalty towards the company and motivate employees to perform better.
An initial public offering (IPO) and consequent listing of equity shares is one of the critical ways in which employees seek value appreciation in stock options and equity shares held by them. Accordingly, unlisted companies typically align timing of exercise of options under ESOP Schemes with their plans to undertake an IPO.
The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Issue of Capital and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2009, as amended (SEBI ICDR Regulations), which regulates IPOs, provides exceptions for ESOPs from certain eligibility conditions to be fulfilled by the issuer undertaking the IPO as well as transfer restrictions on equity shares applicable after the completion of the IPO.
However, issuers have faced challenges in the past with respect to eligibility conditions if the options have remained outstanding with individuals who have ceased to be an employee of the issuer.
Further, issuers are being increasingly questioned by such former employees, who continue to hold shares in the issuer but are not offered lock-in exemptions available to existing employees. Additional basis to these concerns is that former employees are treated beneficially under the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Share Based Employee Benefits) Regulations, 2014 (ESOP Regulations) and the Companies Act, 2013 and similar benefits have not been recognised under the SEBI ICDR Regulations.
Do We Really Need the “Approval” Route?
The announcement in the Budget Speech that the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) is going to be wound down in 2017-18, has led to speculation amongst consultants, lawyers, foreign investors and the media as to what will take its place. After all, the FIPB, an institution that has been around for more than two decades, epitomises, inter alia, the “government approval” route for foreign investment in sensitive sectors and has been the bedrock of the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) Policy. It has been the “go-to” body for approvals, clarifications, waivers of conditions and post facto approvals of transgressions, etc.
After successive liberalisations, the “approval route “ now accounts for only 10% or so of the FDI inflows and, therefore, the real question to ask should not be as to how or which agency(ies) will give the required approval for FDI in the sensitive sectors, but whether approval is required at all. Following from my earlier blog piece on “FIPB – The Sunset Year”, I would like to make the case that in the sectors, currently still under the FIPB route as per the contours of the FDI policy, an FDI approval per se is not required at all.
FDI Approval an Additional Layer
First, it may be observed that in the approval route sectors, the FIPB approval forms only one layer of approval, even though the FIPB process is indeed “single window” (in the sense that it brings all the stakeholders to the table). There is another very vital approval required from the administrative ministry, the regulator or the licensor concerned, which gives the operating license/approval. This includes the allocation of the resource (spectrum/ airwaves/mine etc.) as per the laid down procedures. This is true for all the extant FIPB mandated sectors viz. mining, telecom, defence, media, etc, except single brand and multi-brand trading (this has been discussed later). The policy also prescribes follow-on FIPB approvals for changes in ownership, additional capital etc in these “licensed sectors”. The need for engagement by two separate government layers is clearly debatable.
Foreign Ownership is Not a Concern
Second, also as a result of the periodic liberalisation of the FDI Policy, the sectoral cap in nearly all the approval route sectors has gone up progressively along the usual pattern of 26% to 49% to 51% over the years and now stands at 74% or even 100% in some cases. This clearly implies that in respect of these sectors, where the FDI sectoral cap is at 51% or above, there are no real concerns as regards to foreign ownership and control of entities from a sectoral perspective. In such a situation, therefore, the exact percentage of foreign investment in an entity becomes merely a matter of record, rather than one requiring a formal approval from a high powered government inter-ministerial body.
The Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has, over the years, undertaken initiatives to align reporting and disclosure requirements for listed companies in India with global standards, including alignment with the principles prescribed by the International Organization of Securities Commissions. On February 6, 2017, SEBI issued a circular on Integrated Reporting by Listed Entities (SEBI Circular) to strengthen disclosure standards of listed Indian companies.
What is Integrated Reporting?
Integrated reporting is a principle-based reporting framework that was developed by the IIRC. Companies in various countries globally including Japan, the United Kingdom and Australia have adopted integrated reporting.
The primary purpose of an Integrated Report is to provide stakeholders with details in relation to the following: (i) functioning of an organisation; (ii) the value created by an organisation over time; and (iii) various external factors that affect the organisation. The Framework sets out certain fundamental concepts and guiding principles that should be considered while preparing an Integrated Report.
The question of the enforceability of contractual restrictions on transfer of shares of Indian public limited companies (Companies) has been the subject matter of various decisions by Indian courts. The Indian legislature has also examined this aspect, which has resulted in a change in the relevant legislation. Through this post, we examine the position as it stands today.
The debate on the enforceability of shareholder agreements and joint venture agreements governing Companies garnered significant attention in early 2010 when a single judge of the Bombay High Court (Bombay HC) set aside an arbitral award in a 2010 decision in Western Maharashtra Development Corporation Ltd. v. Bajaj Auto Ltd. The judgment indicated that the shares of a Company could not be fettered, were freely transferable and as such, any restriction on free transferability would be a violation of section 111A of the erstwhile Companies Act, 1956 (1956 Act).
Over the last few years, there has been considerable debate in Indian corporate legal circles around the interpretation of the term ‘control’ as defined under the SEBI (SAST) Regulations, 2011 ( “Regulations”). To those unaware of this issue, the question, simply put, is this: if an investor seeks to invest in an Indian listed entity (“Target”) and as a part of its investment terms requests for and obtains, certain contractual rights that are not available to other shareholders of the Targets (“Special Rights”), would such Special Rights amount to acquisition of ‘control’ of the Target by the investor for the purposes of the Regulations? The genesis of such debate may owe its origins to conflicting definitions of ‘control’ by Indian courts and legislators or interpretations of ‘control’ by Indian regulators but that would not be the focus of the current post. Nonetheless, there is no exhaustive definition of ‘control’ and recognising its impact on deal making and M&A in the public space in India, India’s securities markets regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (“SEBI”) in March of 2016 initiated the process to define ‘control’ by proposing certain bright line tests (“BLTs”).