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Case Study: SEBI Settlement Order in the Matter of SREI Multiple Asset Investment Trust (a Category II AIF)

In this post, we look into the Adjudicating Officer’s (“AO”) Order dated November 29, 2017, in the matter of SREI Multiple Asset Investment Trust (“Fund”) and SREI Alternative Investment Managers Limited (“Investment Manager”) and the way the matter proceeded further, leading finally to a settlement on July 25, 2018 under the SEBI (Settlement of Administrative and Civil Proceedings) Regulations, 2014. The AO’s order cannot be considered to be conclusive because of the subsequent settlement order. However, a review of the entire saga provides some insight into how the Securities and Exchange Board of India (“SEBI”) interprets relevant provisions of the SEBI (Alternative Investment Funds) Regulations, 2012 (“AIF Regulations”).

Factual Matrix and Issues Raised before the AO:

The Fund had launched a scheme which was to primarily focus on financing brownfield assets which carries a lower execution risk as compared to greenfield assets. The following issues were dealt with in the proceedings before the AO;

  1. The Fund, instead of making investments of the amount raised from the investors, had gone on to grant loans to several entities, allegedly in breach of the AIF Regulations.
  2. Out of the investible corpus of the Fund, amounts in excess of 25% of the investible corpus were given to investee companies on two occasions, allegedly another breach of the investment conditions prescribed in the AIF Regulations.
  3. The Fund had acted in contravention of the decision of the investment committee of the Fund, and also had failed to follow the investment strategy as specified in their private placement memorandum.
  4. The Investment Manager failed in maintaining the minimum continuing interest of INR 5 crore in the Fund mandated in the AIF Regulations.

Summary of the AO’s order:

In the foregoing paragraphs the arguments on behalf of the Fund/Investment Manager and the reasoning adopted by the AO are summarized:

Issue 1: The defence taken by the Fund/Investment Manager was that the private placement memorandum of the Fund clearly stated that it was the Fund’s investment strategy to invest in forms of finance/loans to various companies. Further, the AO pointed out that the fund was registered as Category II AIF which included a “debt fund” that invests primarily in debt and debt securities. Thus, the Fund was not in contravention of Reg. 2(1)(b) of the AIF Regulations in giving loans as per its investment strategy.

Issue 2:  Reg. 15(1)(c) of the AIF Regulations require the investment commitment to not be more than 25% of the investible corpus of the Fund. According to the Fund, on the alleged date of investment (i.e. June 29, 2015), the investment commitment was indeed only 25%. However, post the investment (i.e. July 9, 2015), due to redemption of units of the Fund and distribution to investors, the total corpus of the Fund fell, and resultantly the investment commitment rose to about 28%. It was argued that since this was just an after-effect of the redemption of units, this was not an infringement of the said regulation. However, the AO ruled that the defence was inadmissible as they themselves had admitted to the investment being in excess of the 25% threshold post July 9, 2015.

Issue 3: According to the minutes of the investment committee of the Fund, and also as mentioned in the Fund’s private placement memorandum, the Fund had decided on the range of interest rates it would charge on their loans (14-16%), and also decided what the corpus of investment for each investee under the scheme would be (INR 50 crore–INR 200 crore). The Fund/Investment Manager took the defence that these ranges were only indicative in nature, and it was not intended that they would be strictly bound by them. However, the AO cited Paragraph 2(c) of SEBI’s Circular No. CIR/IMD/DF/7/2/2015 dated October 1, 2015 which prescribed that all managers shall carry out all the activities of the AIF in accordance with the placement memorandum circulated to all unit holders and amended from time to time in accordance with AIF Regulations and circulars issued by SEBI. It was decided that terms of the private placement memorandum must be complied with without any deviation, unless amended following the due process of law.

The AO here tried to propagate strict compliance of SEBI’s 2015 Circular to safeguard the interests of the investors. However, reference may be made to SEBI’s Circular No. CIR/IMD/DF/14/2014, dated June 19, 2014 which at Paragraph 2(b) states that only in cases of material deviations from the placement memorandum, the manager is bound to provide an exit to the investors. The investors are to be informed of any changes post-facto and are not bound to take prior approval. The strict compliance with placement memorandum that the AO’s order demands needs careful consideration, therefore.

Issue 4: Under Reg. 10(d) of the AIF Regulations, an Investment Manager is required to have a continuing interest in the Fund of not less than 2.5% or INR 5 crores (whichever is lower) in the form of investment. The defence taken was that the contribution of the Investment Manager reduced to INR 3.13 crore after some of its contribution was repaid to it as an investor of the Fund. The AO however decided that the continuing interest requirement had no exception and must be complied with at all times.

Developments after the AO’s order:

Interestingly, regarding the AO’s decision on whether the Fund could give out loans, the final settlement order dated July 25, 2018 published by SEBI indicates a different conclusion. The settlement order was prepared in consultation with the High-Powered Advisory Committee (HPAC) of SEBI. According to the said settlement order, a new show-cause notice dated February 2, 2018 was issued to the Fund for using the investible corpus for the purpose of giving loans.

Further, the Fund and Investment Manager were required to provide an undertaking by way of an affidavit, confirming that they would stop granting loans, the amounts given as loans shall be taken back and, in the future, there will be no loan activity. The reasoning for such conclusion is not captured in the settlement order.

Our Suggestions based out of the matter:

The AO’s order exhibits the strict nature of compliance demanded by SEBI with respect to AIFs in general. The following key suggestions are provided for all Funds and Investment Managers:

  1. It is highly advisable that appropriate protections through indemnities and limiting liabilities are provided in the fund documents for trustees, managers, or settlors. Furthermore, adequate insurance policies to protect the downside from such statutory penalties is also highly recommended.
  2. In light of the strict compliance demanded from the provisions of the private placement memorandum, it becomes increasingly important to draft them with extra attention to the investment strategies that will be adopted and to leave ample flexibility for the manager to execute the same.
  3. The order also reinforces focus and importance of regular monitoring of all regulatory compliances.

Sources:

  1. Order of the Adjudicating Officer, dated November 29, 2017: https://www.sebi.gov.in/sebi_data/attachdocs/nov-2017/1511951662889.pdf
  2. Order of the Securities Appellate Tribunal, dated May 4, 2018: http://sat.gov.in/english/pdf/E2018_JO2017373.PDF
  3. SEBI’s Settlement Order, dated July 25, 2018: https://www.sebi.gov.in/enforcement/orders/jul-2018/settlement-order-in-respect-of-srei-multiple-asset-investment-trust-and-srei-alternative-managers-limited-_39703.html
  4. SEBI’s Circular No. CIR/IMD/DF/14/2014, dated June 19, 2014: https://www.sebi.gov.in/legal/circulars/jun-2014/guidelines-on-disclosures-reporting-and-clarifications-under-aif-regulations_27118.html
  5. SEBI’s Circular No. CIR/IMD/DF/7/2/2015 dated October 1, 2015: https://www.sebi.gov.in/legal/circulars/oct-2015/guidelines-on-overseas-investments-and-other-issues-clarifications-for-aifs-vcfs_30772.html

Authors: Mr. Avaneesh Satyang and Ms. Sohini Mandal

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