Opportunities and Challenges for AIFs in India’s first IFSC, GIFT City, Gujarat.

We are pleased to share with you an article that our Founder Sharda Balaji along with our Associate Avaneesh Satyang contributed to the 2nd volume, Issue 2 of the KNOWLEDGEex Magazine released by Indian Association of Alternative Investment Funds (IAAIF). 

Introduction to IFSC and GIFT City

India has been witnessing a high growth in the investment funds domain, ranging from fund-raising activity to active investments by funds, and also an adaptive and dynamic regulatory environment conducive to the witnessed growth. The formation of most of these funds however have been concentrated to the well-known financial hubs such as Hong Kong, Mauritius, Singapore, etc. The success of theses financial hubs is generally attributed to the regulatory, tax and other business-conducive financial service centres. The International Financial Service Centre (IFSC), is India’s attempt to create an avenue into financial globalisation.

An IFSC allows overseas financial institutions and overseas branches/subsidiaries of Indian financial institutions to operate within India and cater to customers outside the jurisdictions of India. This is achieved only when the IFSC provide favourable regulatory regimes and business environment to investors and financial institutions.

Provisions for the setting up and regulations of an IFSC were thus introduced in the Special Economic Zone Act, 2005, and in 2015, Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT City) came into being to facilitate such financial services within the geographical territory of India, which would otherwise have been carried on abroad or through offshore branches/subsidiaries of Indian financial institutions.

As an IFSC, GIFT City is regulated under specific regulations and guidelines by India’s major financial sector regulators, i.e. the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI), and the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDA). This is because of the major identified thrust areas for IFSCs in India, which would need regulation as follows:

  • Banking and Forex: to be regulated by the RBI
  • Capital Markets: to be regulated by SEBI
  • Insurance: to be regulated by IRDA

Why consider AIFs in GIFT City?

GIFT City as a facilitator of international business has already set a firm initial footing in the above identified thrusts areas with more than 150 units licensed by the financial regulators already operating in GIFT City. The banking units at GIFT City are working well with transactions of more than USD 16 Billion having taken place. In the insurance sectors, the IRDA has licensed entities engaged in insurance business. And for the Capital markets, both National Stock Exchange (NSE) and Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) are operating out of GIFT City, and several SEBI licensed companies are offering IFSC products from GIFT City.

Setting up of Alternative Investment Funds (AIFs) in GIFT City, being the species of private pooled funds recognized in India, becomes another important step in commencing the third stage of proliferation of financial and capital market activities.

It is to be noted that the authorities at GIFT City and the SEBI are fully aware that India has a big market for India-focused offshore feeder funds which are set-up outside India. Keeping in mind the premise offered by IFSC as fully capital account convertible, i.e. providing full exemption from FEMA norms for transactions from and to the IFSC, emerges as an important alternative to offshore feeder funds. For all transactional and regulatory aspects, an AIF operating from GIFT City, is an offshore AIF.

Thus, to assess the viability of setting up AIFs in GIFT City as opposed to an offshore fund will require an analysis on Regulatory (fund formation, registration, tax considerations, etc.) as well as Operational (ease of conducting business, etc.).

Regulatory Regime for AIFs in GIFT City

Soon after the introduction of GIFT City, SEBI promulgated its SEBI (International Financial Services Centres) Guidelines, 2015 (SEBI Guidelines) on March 27, 2015. The SEBI Guidelines permits only ‘recognized entities’ registered with SEBI or registered/recognized with foreign regulators, to set-up units in IFSC, in this regards AIFs operating in IFSCs are treated as recognized financial institutions.

Further operational and regulatory clarifications for stakeholders waiting to set up AIFs in GIFT City, the circular titled ‘Operating Guidelines for Alternative Investment Funds in International Financial Services Centres’ dated 26 November, 2018 (AIFs in IFSC Guidelines) by SEBI, provided much needed clarity on several aspects with respects to setting up and operation of AIFs in GIFT City.

  1. Continued applicability of the SEBI (AIF) Regulations, 2012 – the AIFs in IFSC Guidelines work under the broad ambit of the SEBI (AIF) Regulations, 2012 (the AIF Regulations). Thus, all provisions of the AIF Regulations and the circulars issued thereunder, will also apply to AIFs set-up in GIFT City, and also to the investment managers, sponsors, and investors. This would include periodic reporting, event-based reporting, adherence to disclosure norms to SEBI.
  2. AIFs in IFSC are considered offshore entities – RBI, in its Foreign Exchange Management (International Financial Services Centres) Regulations, 2015 dated 02 March, 2015 has stated that any financial institution or branch of a financial institution set up in the IFSC and permitted/recognised as such by a regulatory authority shall be treated as a person resident outside India. Therefore, under FEMA, the transactions with Indian residents or making investments in Indian securities would require compliance with FEMA norms.
  3. No separate registration process – The conditions as applicable to domestic AIFs for registration with SEBI, will continue to apply to AIFs in GIFT City as well.
  4. Operating Currency – AIFs operating in IFSCs can accept money only in foreign currency.
  5. Eligible Investors – A person resident outside India, NRIs, Indian institutional investor permitted under FEMA invest funds offshore, Indian resident having net worth of at-least USD 1 Million during the preceding financial year (subject to limits under Limited Remittance Scheme of RBI). It would be beneficial if the guidelines clarify, whether investment by Indian residents into the AIF set up in GIFT City, which further invests into Indian companies, is considered as round-tripping.
  6. Investible Securities – AIFs in GIFT City can only invest in securities that are; listed in IFSC; issued by companies incorporated in IFSCs; or issued by companies incorporated in India or companies belonging to a foreign jurisdiction.
  7. Investment Route – Earlier, such AIFs in IFSCs could only invest in India through the FPI route. Now, such AIFs may invest in India through the FDI or Foreign Venture Capital Investor (FVCI) route as well.

Following is an encapsulation of other conditions applicable to AIFs operating in IFSCs:

Minimum Corpus of AIF at least USD 3 Million.
Minimum investment value by any one investor at least USD 150,000 [for employees/directors of AIFs, minimum value of investment is USD 40,000].
Continuing interest of the Manager/Sponsor at least 2.5% of the corpus or USD 750,000, whichever is lower (such interest cannot be through waiver of management fees). For Cat-III AIFs, the continuing interest shall be at-least 5% of the corpus or USD 1.5 Million, whichever is lower.
Sponsor/Manager of an existing AIF in India may act as Sponsor/Manager of AIF operating in IFSC only by setting up a branch in the IFSC or incorporating a company or LLP in the IFSC.
Appointment of Custodian for Securities Sponsor/Manager of Cat-I and II AIFs are required to appoint a custodian registered with SEBI for safekeeping of securities, if the corpus of the AIF is more than USD 70 Million.

Appointment of custodian is mandatory for all Cat-III AIFs operating in IFSCs.

Application and Registration fees
Application Fee : USD 1,500
Registration fee for Cat-I AIF (other than Angel Funds) : USD 7,500
Registration fee for Cat-II AIF : USD 15,000
Registration fee for Cat-III AIF : USD 22,500
Registration fee for Angel Funds : USD 3,000
Scheme Fee for AIFs : USD 1,500

Following are the special conditions as applicable to Angel Funds operating in IFSCs:

Minimum Corpus USD 750,000
Criteria for becoming an ‘angel investor’ (a) Individual investor to have net tangible assets of at least USD 300,000 (excluding value of principle residence).

(b) body corporate to have net worth of at least USD 1.5 Million.

Minimum investment value for ‘angel investor’ Investment from an angel investor should not be less than USD 40,000 (up to a maximum period of 5 years)
Investible entities Angel funds to invest in Venture Capital Undertakings (VCUs) as defined in Reg. 19(F)(1)(a) of the SEBI (AIF) Regulations, 2012. Also;

– Turnover of venture capital undertaking (VCU, is the company which receives the investment by the AIF) must be less than USD 3.75 Million

– VCU must not be promoted/sponsored/related to industrial group with group turnover more than USD 45 Million

Investment caps on Angel Funds Minimum investment by Angel fund in VCU – USD 40,000. Maximum investment – USD 1.5 Million

 

Continuing interest of Manager/Sponsor 2.5% of the corpus of fund or USD 80,000 whichever is lower (such interest cannot be through waiver of management fees)

Key Takeaways from the Regulatory Perspective

Key Opportunities:

  • The regulatory provisions applicable to AIFs in IFSCs do offer a viable alternative to offshore feeder funds, and can act as a feeder fund for an Indian AIF.
  • Other offshore funds investing in India which traditionally operate out of other countries like Mauritius, Singapore, etc. may deliberate on the option.
  • Indian overseas fund managers looking to set up funds for investing outside India, may find it easier to raise capital from overseas investors and Indian investors simultaneously. Indian offshore fund managers can also use AIFs in GIFT City as feeder fund to invest funds offshore.
  • Costs for setting up the fund appear to be much lower in comparison to setting up an offshore fund.
  • As a deemed overseas fund, conditions on overseas investments by AIF prescribed by SEBI in October 2015 such as overall investment limit (USD 750 million), specific SEBI approvals, and other conditions shall not apply.

Key Challenges:

  • There is lack of clarity with respect to AIFs in IFSCs being able to invest in securities listed on overseas stock exchange.
  • Although, investment under FDI, FVCI or FPI route is allowed for AIFs in IFSCs, it has not been specified whether such AIFs would require separate licenses to invest as FPIs or FVCIs. Ideally, as a recognised AIF, they must be granted FPI/FVCI status as well.
  • New Investment managers of AIF in IFSCs must necessarily be incorporated in the IFSC, this might add to the cost of setting up the fund. Ideally, if the IFSC truly aims to attract global funds, management by offshore managers should also be allowed.
  • With respect to Angel Funds, it appears that angel funds in IFSCs can only invest in Indian entities.

Key Development: Proposed Unified Authority for regulating all financial services in IFSCs in India

Cognizant that the dynamic nature of the business conducted in IFSC requires immense inter-regulatory co-ordination, the Central Government has acted on the need for having a unified financial regulator for IFSCs in India to provide world class regulatory environment to financial market participants. Thus, the International Financial Services Centres Authority Bill, 2019 (the Bill) was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on 12 February 2019 by the Finance Minister providing for the establishment of an authority to develop and regulate the financial services market in the IFSCs. This is an important development, as the presence of a unified and dedicated International Financial Services Centres Authority (the Authority) is proposed to play a significant role towards the IFSCs ultimate goal of ease of doing business.

Under the Bill, all powers relating to regulation of financial products, services, and institutions in IFSCs, which were previously exercised by the respective regulators will be exercised by the Authority. As per the Government’s rationale, the Authority will be responsible for providing world-class regulatory environment to market participants from an ease of doing business perspective.

Tax and Operational Considerations for AIFs in GIFT City

Under Sections 10(23FBA) and 115UB of the Income Tax Act, 1961 (the IT Act), Category I and II AIFs are accorded tax pass-through status with respect to AIF’s income other than business income, thereby tax being chargeable in the hands of the investors. These provisions are extended to AIFs in IFSCs as well, as they continue to be tax residents in India despite being non-residents under FEMA.

There are several beneficial provisions available for IFSC units, however, since they are not AIF specific, which leads to ambiguities regarding the availability of such incentives to AIFs in IFSCs. Nevertheless, the beneficial provisions for IFSC units under the IT Act are as follows:

  1. Tax holiday under Section 80LA – Any unit set-up in an IFSC shall not be taxed in relation to income from business as follows in two blocks. First block of 5 years in which 100% of the income beginning with the year in which the permission or registration was obtained is exempt from income tax, and; Second block of 5 years in which 50% of income is exempt for the next 5 consecutive years.
  2. Lower rates of Minimum Alternate Tax (MAT) and Alternate Minimum Tax (AMT) – MAT and AMT in case of a unit located in an IFSC and deriving its income solely in convertible foreign exchange shall be charged at a lower rate of 9% as opposed to the general 18.5%.
  3. Exemption from Dividend Distribution Tax (DDT) – A unit located in an IFSC and deriving its income solely in convertible foreign exchange, being a company, is exempted from paying DDT at the time of distributing dividend.
  4. Gains from certain securities transferred by non-residents not considered as capital gains – Any transfer of derivatives, global depository receipts, or rupee denominated bonds of Indian companies by a non-resident on a stock-exchange in an IFSC is exempt from tax on capital gains.
  5. Exemption from Securities Transaction Tax (STT) – A transaction undertaken on recognised stock exchange in an IFSC shall be exempt from STT.
  6. Exemption from Goods and Services Tax (GST) – All supplies made to and made by units in SEZs are exempt from GST applicability.

Apart from the tax considerations, units in IFSCs also being subject to the Special Economic Zones Act, 2005 as SEZ Units might face other problems. This argument stems from the fact that the SEZs were originally conceived as special designated zones for manufacture and export-oriented industries, and thus SEZ Units are subject to certain conditions which might prove difficult for non-export-oriented business to satisfy. For example, in the recent Special Economic Zones (2nd Amendment) Rules, 2019 dated 07 March, 2019, Rule 53 of the Special Economic Zones Rules, 2006 was substituted to mandate a positive net foreign exchange earning by SEZ Units calculated cumulatively for a period of five years from the commencement of production. IFSC units specialize in financial services and products, might find it very difficult to meet the net foreign exchange earning criteria set by the government.

Key Opportunities

  • The tax holiday is a big benefit for investment managers established in the IFSC, management fee and other income will be exempt.
  • Other exemptions with respect to MAT and AMT for non-market players, and DDT and STT exemptions make GIFT City an attractive destination.

Key Challenges

  • There is dearth of clarity in taxation of income of AIFs in IFSCs on many fronts, such as will the tax holiday be available to AIFs in IFSCs with no business income, whether investors in AIFs will be required to obtain PAN and file tax returns in India in case of tax pass-through being available, etc.
  • There is a need to harmonize the provisions as applicable to SEZ Units with respect to IFSC Units requiring necessary carve outs and exemptions to be created.
  • Unless a unified regulator is in place, the problem of multiplicity and overlapping of authority will continue to diminish the growth of AIFs in IFSCs as viable alternatives to offshore funds.

Observations:

There certainly are numerous benefits for setting up an AIF in GIFT City. With the proposed unified regulator, ease of doing business, it holds many promises.

However, it is to be noted that many grey areas especially with respect to taxation of AIFs in IFSCs need to be clarified and resolved to understand the true effects of such provisions on AIFs as mentioned above. The determining criteria would be clarity to the tax incentives available for AIFs in IFSCs. How well does GIFT City perform, will determine the success of AIFs in IFSCs, too.