Tag Archives: alternate investment fund

The Head and Tail of Side Letters in Alternative Investment Funds

This article was first published by IAAFI – Indian Association of Alternative Investment Funds

A side letter is a document or a letter that is ancillary to another existing contract. In investment world, Side letter would mean something over and above your general terms and conditions that are binding under the investment product agreement i.e. PMS or AIF or any other investment vehicle.

Executing side letters with contributors has become an increasing phenomenon in the Alternative Investment Fund (AIF) documentation space. While the genesis of the practice seems to have stemmed from the need to have supplementary, clarificatory terms and sometimes preferential rights to large or strategic investors in a fund, the modality is now being used at a much higher frequency. The general dicta of avoiding side letters, however, prevail for various reasons of maintaining fairness, integrity and transparency, concerns around legality and enforceability. In this article we have explored the enforceability and regulatory nuances around the usage of side letters.

Enforceability of Side Letters in General.

  • From a contractual perspective, side letters could be said to be enforceable if they fulfil the basic tenets of a valid and binding contract under the Indian Contract Act, 1872, i.e. offer and acceptance, made by the free consent of the parties, for a lawful consideration with a lawful object, and not expressly declared to be void[1].
  • Enforceability could also flow from equity and relief under Chapter II of the Specific Relief Act, 1963. However, in a fund context that is structured as a trust, Section 11 of the Specific Relief Act, 1963 also comes into play that specifies that a contract made by a trustee in excess of his powers or in breach of trust cannot be specifically enforced. [Note: Enabling provisions in the indenture of trust need to be drafted carefully, as such.]
  • The principle of law as stated in Von Hatzfeldt – Wildenburg v. Alexander[2] is that:

“…… if the documents or letters relied on as constituting a contract contemplate the execution of a further contract between the parties, it is a question of construction whether the execution of the further contact is a condition or term of the bargain or whether it is a mere expression of the desire of the parties as to the manner in which the transaction already agreed to will in fact go through…… In the latter case there is a binding contract ……”

In the private equity/venture capital investment space, we often see side letters being sought for by seed stage or early stage institutional investors for grant of preferential or superior rights that provide better protection against future dilution of their existing voting or other rights in investee companies.

However, from an AIF documentation perspective, let us now look into the regulatory regime under the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Alternative Investment Fund) Regulations, 2012 (“AIF Regulations”).

Side Letters in AIFs – SEBI Perspective.

Chapter III and Chapter IV of the AIF Regulations talk about investment conditions and restrictions and general obligations and responsibilities of a sponsor or an investment manager, respectively. The relevant provisions put a lot of focus on adherence to placement memorandum terms, material changes only through consent of two-thirds of unitholders by value, the sponsor and manager acting in fiduciary capacity towards all investors. Through its Circular No. CIR/IMD/DF/7/2015 dated 1 October 2015 (“Circular”), the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), has further stressed upon the duty of all managers to carry out all the activities of the AIF in accordance with the placement memorandum circulated to all unit holders; and also, to act in the interest of unitholders and not take any action which is prejudicial to the interest of the unitholders. However, in the same Circular, AIF, manager, trustee and sponsor have also been mandated to exercise due diligence and independent professional judgment for the conduct of the business.

Therefore, the question that arises here is whether offering a preferential or special right to an investor through a side letter, affects the fiduciary responsibility of the sponsor or the manager towards the other investors. There seems to be 2 schools of thought here. One stressing upon the highest level of transparency and adherence to principles of avoidance of conflict of interest. The other thought, however, comes from the practical perspective of having to raise funds by the investment managers. Providing certain special rights which of course do not materially change the commercials terms of the applicable class of units, investment strategy, investment purpose and investment methodology of a fund, could sometimes be crucial for sealing the deal with a large or strategic investor. Side letters are also useful for providing contractual clarifications to even investors who want to join in late. The most frequent requests from the investors in this regard vary from limitations on time horizon and capping of indemnity and contributor giveback amounts to waiver of certain charges or fees, etc.

A constructive (or aggressive) interpretation of the AIF Regulations and the Circular could lead to the understanding that fund managers may exercise prudence and independent professional judgment for entering (if willing to take risk) into side letters, however, acting throughout in the interest of all unitholders and maintain highest standards of integrity and fairness and under an enabling provision captured in this respect in the placement memorandum.

One should remember that investment manager, holding a fiduciary role, merely has delegated powers from the trustee on the back of investment management agreement and typically can’t enter into contracts on the side-lines with investors without consent of the trustee or overriding/relaxing the main contract which the trustee has with investors. This could be construed as breach of trust and fiduciary duty depending on case circumstances and investment manager would need to indemnify the investors for any potential loss. Large number of side letters would also add to the administrative and legal burden on the fund/investment manager.

From an investor’s perspective, one should be careful on the enforceability, permissibility and workability of such letters and if they add any substantial value to the overall value proposition on manager selection vs. product selection.

From a Wealth Manager or Investment Advisor perspective, presence of side letters in their approved products might be construed as a red flag in due diligence process as limiting the transparency and fairness in treatment for their own investors.

Some much needed clarity from the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) on these lines could provide some color on the practice, one way or the other, and help in reduction of security and risk concerns amongst the investor base.

[1] Section 10 of the Indian Contract Act, 1872

[2] As quoted by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Kollipara Sriramulu v. T. Ashwathanarayana & Ors. – 1968 SCR (3) 387

Authors: Ms. Sohini Mandal, Associate Partner, NovoJuris Legal and Mr. Biharilal Deora, Director, Abakkus Asset Manager LLP

 

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Fund Formation: On-Shore and Off-Shore Structures

Global interest in the LP (Limited Partner) ecosystem, for investments in India focused businesses, is at an all-time high. According to recent surveys, about 108 India focused private equity firms are in the market looking to raise funds. The first half of the year 2018 has been characterized by large value deals as pension funds, sovereign funds and global buyout funds have increased their India exposure (Source: Economic Times).

The positive regulatory changes have influenced the investor preference for pooling of funds both on-shore and off-shore for investing in India focused businesses. Some of the significant statutory/legislative revisions/clarifications, brought in over the last couple of years, are as follows:-

  • Liberalization of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the home-grown alternative investment funds (AIFs) sector in 2015, which now allows 100% investment in AIFs through the automatic route, as opposed to the prior FIPB approval requirement.
  • Down-stream investments by AIFs with FDI is now deemed as foreign investment, only if neither the sponsor nor the manager nor the investment manager is Indian ‘owned and controlled’. This has led to an opening up of choices for many FDI taking AIFs and have also taken away the mandatory obligation of complying with the pricing guidelines for any downstream investment.
  • Clarification issued by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) that dividend distribution by off-shore companies with respect to underlying Indian assets would not result in a tax liability since it does not result in indirect transfer of shares.
  • Clarification brought in through the Finance Act, 2017, that indirect transfer tax provisions would not be applicable for capital assets held directly or indirectly by way of investment in Category I or Category II FPIs.
  • Opening up of FDI in limited liability partnerships LLPs and taking away minimum capitalization requirements for investment advisory businesses in March 2017.

[Source: RBI Notifications, CBDT Circular No. 4/2015 and the Paragraph 4 of the Finance Act, 2017]

These changes have led us to consider and advise on various unified as well as co-investment fund structures. Each such structure requires evaluation from compliance and taxation perspective. A very high level overview of some of these structures are given below:-

Direct Investment by an Off-Shore Fund. Also known as a pure off-shore structure, this where an off-shore investment pooling vehicle can pool and directly invest into India portfolio companies, as FDI, FPI or FVCI investment. Few things to be kept in mind for this structure would be:-

  • Spread of LP appetite for India/non-India focused investment;
  • Permanent establishment connotation if the off-shore investment manager is being advised by an Indian investment advisor;
  • Advantage of not having to mirror every investment decision of Indian investment manager.

Indirect Investment through a Unified or Master-Feeder Structure.  The on-shore fund pools investments from Indian investors and the off-shore fund pools investments from global investors and the off-shore fund becomes one of the investors of the on-shore fund, by executing a contribution agreement. Advantages could be as follows:-

  • Indian investors can overcome liberalized remittance scheme (LRS) or overseas direct investment (ODI) or round tripping related restrictions;
  • For global investors, it is easy to invest through an off-shore structure as that helps in operational ease of not having to obtain PAN registration for each investor, not having to report each individual investment with RBI;
  • Global investors still get to benefit from the various Direct Tax Avoidance Agreements (DTAA). For example, continued tax benefits for sale of debentures, lower withholding tax rate of 7.5% for interest income, as available to Mauritius investors under the India-Mauritius DTAA.
  • The investment manager gets to pay on the management fee and carry allocation on the entire fund at the on-shore level.

Co-Investment Structure. This is where, typically, the investment management of the on-shore and the off-shore funds are handled by different entities, in the respective jurisdictions. Advantages would be as follows:-

  • The off-shore fund need not necessarily participate in every investment made by the on-shore AIF.
  • The investment spread between the 2 entities could be decided on a case to case basis, depending on availability of funds.

Taxation from an ‘Association of Persons’ perspective, in India, needs to be carefully thought through while adopting this structure and it is suggested to have completely separated investment committees and managements from this aspect.

Disclaimer: Fund structuring is complex matter that requires a case to case evaluation of investor-base, investor jurisdiction spread, taxation at each investor level, demonstration of level of substance and permanent establishment. The purpose of this article is to disseminate information only and readers are requested to seek profession advice shall for any individual requirement.