Takeover of Publicly Traded Companies - Flashback 2020

 India’s twin achievement of receiving the highest-ever FDI[1] and touching record highs at the bourses[2] occurred in the Financial Year 2020-2021. While the former came about in the first five months of the fiscal year (i.e. during the COVID-19 lockdown), the latter took place near the end of the calendar year 2020.

The year 2020 saw unprecedented business disruption due to the pandemic. Many Indian businesses were forced to reorganise and innovate to tackle the pandemic, which also resulted in revaluation of many firms by their acquirers. Cash rich and savvy investors took advantage of this unrivalled opportunity to make acquisitions and investments which is evident from the overall high deal activity in the calendar year 2020, especially in Q4.
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SEBI Changes to Scheme Circular - Is it a case of over-prescription

SEBI has been continuously streamlining the regulatory architecture governing schemes of arrangements under Sections 230-232 of the Companies Act, 2013 (“Companies Act”) and Regulations 11, 37 and 94 of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2015 (“LODR”) involving listed companies with the introduction of the SEBI Circular dated March 17, 2017 (“SEBI Scheme Circular”). SEBI vide its Circular dated November 3, 2020 (“Amendment Circular”), has introduced further changes to the SEBI Scheme Circular. The Amendment Circular is brought into effect for all schemes of arrangement submitted to the Stock Exchanges on or after November 17, 2020. Changes introduced under the Amendment Circular are as follows:
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Arm’s Length Pricing -Navigational Tools for the Audit Committee

India has one of the most detailed set of laws and regulations governing disclosures and approvals of related party transactions (RPT) regulating both listed and unlisted companies. The provisions of Section 188 of the Companies Act, 2013 (the Act) are applicable if:

  1. a company enters into a transaction with a ‘related party’ as defined under Section 2(76) of the Act;
  2. such transaction falls under any of the categories specified under sub-clause (a) to (g) of Section 188(1) of the Act, an approval of the board of directors will be required prior to entering into such transaction; and
  3. such transaction exceeds the monetary thresholds prescribed under Rule 15(3) of the Companies (Meeting of Board and its Powers) Rules, 2014, prior approval of the shareholders will also be required by way of an ordinary resolution.

Regulation 23 of the SEBI (Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2015 (LODR) provides that all material RPTs require shareholder approval through an ordinary resolution and no related party entity shall vote to approve such resolutions whether the entity is a related party to the particular transaction or not. However, all RPTs, whether material or not, require approval of the audit committee.
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WHAT IS FRONT RUNNING – A Q&A PIECE IN LIGHT OF THE SEBI ORDER AGAINST DEALERS OF RELIANCE SECURITIES LTD

Introduction

In an interim ex-parte order last month against the dealers of Reliance Securities Limited (“RSL”) and other related entities (“RSL Order”)[1], SEBI prima facie held over two dozen entities to have engaged in front running the trades of Tata Absolute Return Fund, a scheme of Tata AIF (“Big Client”).

During its preliminary examination, SEBI meticulously pieced together several bits of available circumstantial evidence and alleged an archetypal scheme of front running purportedly employed by three senior dealers (“Dealers”) at RSL, in nexus with various related entities. The RSL Order alleges that once the Dealers at RSL were privy to the non-public information of the impending orders of Big Client, they along with their connected broker or dealer entity would, through multiple trading accounts directly or indirectly controlled by them, place trades either in the Buy-Buy-Sell pattern or Sell-Sell-Buy pattern, around the time of the orders of the Big Client to generate substantial proceeds.
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ESOPS as Managerial Remuneration - Do Regulators Need to Revisit Regulatory Architecture

Employee Stock Option Plans (ESOPs) are a well-recognised method of compensating employees and attracting and retaining the best talent. Compensation in the form of equity shares helps in creating a sense of ownership in the mind of employees. Benefit schemes for employees, including ESOPs, have gained popularity, especially in technology start-ups that have limited financial resources in the initial years, but want to attract the best talent. ESOPs are the option or a right, but not an obligation, which is offered by a company to its employees to purchase its shares at a pre-determined price in the future. ESOPs align the interest of the employees with long term interest of the companies and play a vital role in retaining employees at the growing stage of the company.

Section 2(37) of the Companies Act, 2013 (“Act”), defines ‘employees’ stock option’ as the option given to directors, officers or employees of a company or of its holding company or subsidiary company or companies, if any, which gives such directors, officers or employees, the benefit or right to purchase, or to subscribe for, the shares of the company at a future date at a pre-determined price. The Act expressly prohibits ESOPs for Independent Directors[1] as the law makers believe that it compromises the ‘independence’ of such Independent Directors. Section 62(1)(b) of the Act provides for the approval of shareholders by a special resolution. Rule 12 of the Companies (Share Capital & Debentures) Rules, 2014, lays down the legal framework for issuance of ESOPs for unlisted companies. Listed companies having ESOP plans are required to comply with the SEBI (Share Based Employee Benefits) Regulations, 2014 (“ESOP Regulations”).
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SEBI report on RPTs – Deeper Reflections

SEBI had implemented the Kotak Committee recommendations on Related Party Transactions (RPTs) by making amendments to the Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirements Regulations, 2015 (“LODR”) on May 9, 2018. In less than two years, in November 2019, SEBI constituted a Working Group (WG) to re-examine the RPT provisions of the LODR, against the backdrop of new corporate scandals, which surfaced, where certain abusive RPTs were undertaken by the listed entity at a subsidiary level, which were not captured by the LODR provisions. The WG Report addressed this loophole and made several recommendations, which were examined by the author in his blog article titled “SEBI Working Group on Related Party Transactions: Will the net be cast too wide? published on February 5, 2020.

In this Blog, the author wants to share his deeper reflections on some of the recommendation made in the WG report. The author argues that this WG report requires a more detailed scrutiny by the SEBI, before it is enacted into a law, by amendments to the LODR. Both these blogs should be read together to get a complete picture of the changes proposed in the WG report.
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DISCLOSURE OF COVID-19 IMPACT BY LISTED ENTITIES - FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE

Across India, each subsequent phase of the lockdown has permitted a responsible increase in economic activity. As companies re-start their operations, they continue to assess the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on their businesses and operations, which is rapidly and continuously evolving. Listed entities are particularly conscious of their disclosure obligations, more so after the Securities and Exchange Board of India (“SEBI”) issued a circular on May 20, 2020 (the “Circular”), that outlined the relevant considerations for companies in relation to the disclosures on the impact of Covid-19 on their businesses, performance and financials. The Circular is not only a restatement of the current principle-based disclosure regime, but is also indicative of the regulatory expectation on disclosures going forward in relation to impact of Covid-19 pandemic as it evolves.
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SEBI CONSULTATION PAPER FOR LISTED COMPANIES WITH STRESSED ASSETS - CURE FOR THE SICK COULD BE VACCINE FOR ALL 

With the slowdown in the economy and unprecedented business disruption due to Covid 19, several Indian listed companies, which were already heavily leveraged, will soon be looking at avenues for further funding to meet working capital requirements and liquidity challenges. Given the current regulatory regime surrounding raising of equity capital, it is possible that some of the over-leveraged ones may become insolvent. With a view to facilitate fund raising by such listed companies that have stressed assets, the market regulator has come up with a consultation paper, that provides certain procedural relaxations to the SEBI (Issue of Capital and Disclosures Requirements) Regulations, 2018 (ICDR Regulations) and SEBI (Substantial Acquisition of Shares and Takeovers) Regulations, 2011 (SAST Regulations).
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SEBI General Order 2020

Markets regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) has recently issued a General Order on issuing observations on offer documents when there are pending regulatory actions, superseding a 2006 general order on the same subject. The General Order 1 of 2020, which was issued on February 5, 2020, sets out the circumstances under which SEBI can withhold observations on draft offer documents (companies cannot launch issues until SEBI provides observations).

We discuss the SEBI order, its implications, and whether this is a step in the right direction for a disclosure-oriented securities regime.
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Continuous disclosure obligations - Indian securities market

A regulatory environment that supports robust secondary market disclosures is critical for a well-functioning securities market. Ongoing disclosures by listed companies are being increasingly scrutinised by regulators, stock exchanges and market participants to see if timely and accurate disclosures of all material information are being made by the listed entity. Accordingly, it is important for companies to ensure that developments in their businesses translate to appropriate regulatory disclosures.

A recent example of the importance of secondary market disclosure is the Facebook case. In 2019, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced charges against Facebook Inc. (“Facebook”) for making misleading disclosures in its periodic filings against the risks pertaining to misuse of its user data by third parties. The SEC alleged that in public disclosures, Facebook presented the risk of misuse of user data as “merely hypothetical”, when they were aware that a third-party developer had actually misused Facebook user data. The SEC press release states that Facebook has agreed to pay $100 million to settle the charges.

We discuss this development and learnings for the Indian market below.
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