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Differential Voting Rights: Helping Tech Companies to an easy climb up the mountain of entrepreneurship

There is a common and a convenient rule of one vote – one share practised by most of the companies. This rule is generally referred to as voting rights on ordinary shares. However, when there is a requirement to deviate from this rule, the concept of differential voting rights comes into play. This differential voting rights are known as DVRs in India and dual-class shares or DCS in the international perspective. These DVRs are rights which are disproportionate to their economic ownership. When a promoter or shareholder wants to retain decision making powers and rights, they can do so by retaining shares with superior voting rights or by issuing of shares with lower or fractional voting rights to other investors.

The concept of DVR has been captured in the Companies Act, 2013 under Section 43 (a)(ii) which says, that a company limited by shares may have equity share capital with differential rights on voting, or dividends, or otherwise. Rule 4 of the Companies (Share Capital and Debentures) Rules, 2014, provides certain conditions which are required to be complied with, for issuance of shares with differential rights. SEBI (Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirement) Regulations, 2015, (“SEBI (LODR) Regulations, 2015”) also dealt with DVRs, but, it prohibited the listed companies from issuing shares with superior voting rights.

The need for DVR

In the current era, India is going through vast developments and advancement in many sectors especially the technology and information technology sector. These developments and advancements require huge capital. For raising capital, the companies seek investments, but these frequent and vast investments may lead to dilution of founder/ promoter stake. In order to cope with this, issuance of DVRs are helpful.

The journey of the framework

Earlier in 2000, the concept of DVR came to India through the Companies Act, 1956, whereby Indian companies were allowed to issue DVRs. However, in 2009, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) had disallowed the issue of shares with superior rights to voting or dividend by listed companies, but they were permitted to issue shares with fractional voting rights. In order to bring the new framework, SEBI had invited comments from public on a Consultation Paper named ‘Issuance of shares with Differential Voting Rights (DVRs)’ (Consultation Paper[1]). It dealt with both the shares with superior rights (Superior Rights Shares or SR Shares) and inferior rights (Fractional Rights Shares or FR Shares). The framework got approved by SEBI in its board meeting on June 27, 2019 , permitting issuance of SR share by listed company and disallowing issuance of FR shares.

A walk through in to the new framework

Eligibility conditions: 

A company to be eligible to issue DVRs in form of SR shares, shall adhere to the following conditions:

  1. The company issuing SR share shall be technology company. SEBI defines a technology company as one that is “intensive in the use of technology, information technology, intellectual property, data analytics, bio-technology or nano-technology to provide products, services or business platforms with substantial value addition”.
  2. The SR shareholder should be a part of a promoter group and whose collective net worth does not exceed INR 500 crore. The investment made by SR shareholders in the shares of the issuer company will not be considered while determining the collective net worth.
  3. The SR shall be issued only to promoters/founders who hold an executive position in the company.
  4. The issuance of the SR shares should be authorized by passing a special resolution in the general meeting.
  5. SR shares have been held for at least 6 months prior to filing the Red Herring Prospectus (RHP).
  6. SR shares should have voting rights in the ratio of minimum 2:1 and maximum 10:1 compared to ordinary shares.

Listing and lock-in period: Post the IPO, the issuer company can list the SR shares on Stock Exchanges. However, SR shares are subject to lock-in after the IPO, until they are converted into ordinary shares. Transferring, pledging or lien of SR shares among promoters is prohibited under the framework.

Rights of SR shares: Except for voting on resolutions, the SR shares will be treated at par with ordinary shares in all other aspects. The total voting rights of SR shareholders (including ordinary shares), post listing should not exceed 74%.

Additional rules for companies with SR shareholders pertaining to enhanced corporate governance: The listed  companies issuing SR shares shall comply with the following rules for “enhanced corporate governance” such as:

  1. i) As prescribed under the SEBI (LODR) Regulations, 2015, Independent directors should comprise at least 1/2 of the board and 2/3 of committees (excluding the audit committee) and
  2. ii) The audit committee should only have Independent Directors.

Coat-tail provisions: After the IPO, the SR shares will be given same treatments as ordinary equity shares in terms of voting rights with respect to the following matters:

  1. Appointment or removal of Independent Directors and/or Auditors
  2. Cases where promoter is willingly transferring control to another entity
  3. Related Party Transactions involving SR Shareholder as per SEBI (LODR) Regulations, 2015
  4. Voluntary winding up of the Company
  5. Alteration of the Articles of Association or Memorandum of Association, except any such changes affecting the SR shares
  6. Voluntary Resolution Plan initiated under Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code, 2016
  7. Funds utilized for purposes other than business
  8. Substantial value transaction based on materiality threshold as prescribed under SEBI (LODR) Regulations, 2015
  9. Passing of special resolution for buy-back or delisting of shares
  10. Any other provisions as notified by SEBI from time to time

Sunset clauses: SR shares can be converted under two circumstances:

  1. Time based: After 5 years of listing, the SR Shares shall be converted to Ordinary Shares. By passing a resolution, the validity can be extended only once by 5 years. However, the SR shareholders shall not be allowed to vote on such resolution.
  2. Event based: In the event of demise, resignation of SR shareholders, merger or acquisition where the control would be no longer with SR shareholder, etc., the SR shares shall be compulsorily get converted into Ordinary Shares.

Changes to be incorporated in various laws pursuant to DVR framework:

The Companies Act, 2013: As stated earlier, under Section 43(a)(ii) of the Companies Act, 2013, and Rule 4 of the Companies (Share Capital & Debentures) Rules, 2014 framed under the Companies Act, 2013 prescribes that shares with DVRs in a company, shall not exceed 26% of the total post-issue capital. However, the new framework extends the limit to 74%. Therefore, corresponding changes are required to be brought in the Companies Act, 2013.  Another limiting factor in the Companies Act, 2013 is that “the company must have a consistent track record of distributable profits for the last 3 years”, but criteria for 3 years is silent on IPOs.  Such a criteria may not be helpful and rather impossible for all start-ups. Therefore, this matter should also be taken into consideration.

Securities Contracts (Regulation) Rules, 1957 (‘SCRR’): A company with multiple classes of equity shares at the time of undertaking an IPO, is required to make an offer of each such class of equity shares to the public in an IPO. Further, Rule 19(2)(b) of SCRR provides that minimum dilution and minimum subscription requirements as prescribed have to be complied with, separately for each class of the equity shares. It is a mandatory requirement under the rule that all kinds of shares shall be listed. There is no provision for listing one kind of share and not listing another. As the new framework demands for listing of SR shares without offering to public, it leads to a doubt for a company with different classes of shares whether it should proceed with listing all kinds of share or keep few of such equity shares unlisted. Therefore, a clarification is required in this regard.

SEBI (LODR) Regulations, 2015: Under regulation 41(3) of SEBI (LODR) Regulations, 2015, it has been stated that listed entity shall not issue shares which may confer to a person SR right on equity shares which are already listed. Therefore, an amendment is required which permits the grant of SR shares to equity shareholders.

SEBI (Substantial Acquisition of Shares and Takeovers) Regulations, 2011 (“SEBI Takeover Code”): Regulation 3 and 4 of SEBI Takeover Code provides that when an acquirer is holding 25% or more of the shares or voting rights in a target company, it has an obligation to make a public announcement of an open offer. Based on the stated Regulation of SEBI Takeover Code and the new DVRs framework, Regulation 10 is required to be amended in such a manner that Regulation 3 would not get triggered for making an open offer if the stated threshold is crossed by reason of SR shares getting lapse or converted into ordinary equity shares, provided that there is no attendant change in control in favor of the person crossing such threshold.

Further, Regulation 29 of SEBI Takeover Code requires disclosure for acquisition of additional voting right by holder of ordinary equity share. Since the change in voting rights brought after the conversation of SR shares to ordinary shares, which is an involuntary act on behalf of holder of ordinary equity share, there is a requirement of bringing change in format of disclosure under Regulation 30 of SEBI Takeover Code.

The pros and cons of DVRs:

Advantages from the perspective of issuer:

  • It solves the biggest issue of raising fund without diluting the voting right or the control of the founders/promoters over the company.
  • when there is ordinary equity shares issued to outside investors, there is a possibility that such shareholders acquire majority of the shares of the company and gain control over the management of the company, where as in the case of SR shares, this possibility is minimised.

Disadvantages from the perspective of issuer:

  • It is a challenge for the issuer to find such investors who are not interested in control and management of the company even after investing huge amount of money.
  • Issuing of SR shares is not considered a good corporate governance.

Advantages from the perspective of investor:

  • It is beneficial for those investors who are getting a higher rate of dividend over the ordinary shareholders.
  • The DVRs with FR shares are generally offered at a discount for equal number of shares.

Disadvantages from the perspective of investor:

  • DVRs with SR shares with the founders or large proportion of DVRs with FR shares with public investors, make management excessively powerful and can raise issues of corporate governance.
  • As a result of separating voting right from economic interests, there might be possibilities externalities like management entrenchment, excessive compensation of management, reduced dividend pay-out etc.

Conclusion

When we know that India is still considered to be a developing country and it has a lot of              competition with various other developed and developing states. India should have such corporate and commercial laws which are at par with the corporate and commercial laws of other countries. While India is giving majority of its space for incorporation and functioning of technology companies, it should have DVRs related laws like in US, Canada, Hong Kong etc. Such laws will help in raising the capital of tech companies. The applicability of DVRs law in India will not just help in growth and development of the tech companies in India, but it will also lead Indian tech companies to be good competitors for the tech companies incorporated in other nations.  It would help the promoters/founders of the company to grow their business fast. The only thing to be kept in mind by the companies while adopting such laws  is that, they shall also maintain a good corporate governance in their company.

Authors: Srisha Choudhary and Alivia Das

References:

[1] https://www.sebi.gov.in/web/?file=https://www.sebi.gov.in/sebi_data/attachdocs/apr-2019/1554115093453.pdf#page=1&zoom=auto,-16,800

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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.

Advisors in Start-ups and Early Stage Companies

India is witnessing a high growth in the number of start-ups in the country and is also amongst the top start-up ecosystems in the world. The government has provided a few benefits to startups as well, through the Startup India Action Plan.

However, only a few of these start-ups actually succeed. It is a treacherous path with a lot of unknowns. An advisor or an advisory board in a start-up might help the early stage companies to atleast know some of those unknowns. Financial investors certainly add value, sometimes domain expertise even. The comfort of speaking with an advisor where they bring in the expert views, advice and sheer experience onto the table is very valuable. As the saying goes, ‘Experience is the best teacher’.

Who are these Advisors and what role do they play?

An advisor is a person who brings in his unique skill sets and expert opinion on the business of the company, operational or otherwise. They are the people ‘who have been there and done that’. They can play a major role, especially if the founders and the team are new to the industry and do not have much experience. There are celebrity advisors even, who by being called as an advisor adds value to the startup.

Advisors can play different roles, for example, advisors who bring in their expertise in a particular domain or area; help with their networks and can introduce potential clients, employees or investors; or scaling up teams; expansion to new geo. It is not just having the advisors but also heeding to their advice. Therefore, advisors need to be chosen very wisely, so that their advice can be relied and executed upon.

How to choose the right Advisor?

Hiring an advisor who does not add much value or provides incorrect advice to the company may turn out to be counter-productive or disastrous. The advisors bringing in complementary skills or “deeper” skills which the founding team has a gap would be great. Identify the areas where the founders lack expertise or sufficient industry knowledge, where they face difficulties or have faced difficulties in the past or any area where they would require expert advice. Once there is clarity on where and why advisors are required, do some research and talk to people who can introduce you to some advisors. Discussing the same with the existing investors (if any) might also be a good idea as they might be able to connect the founders with the relevant people. And since the investors have invested in the company, they would ensure that the advisor will be someone who can add value to the company.

Ensure that they are people with the relevant expertise and knowledge, proven track record, good communication skills, networking skills, etc. Advisors should be individuals who would invest their time for the growth of the company and who can provide support to the founders where there is lack of expertise or knowledge.

Engaging with the advisor

An advisor may be compensated in cash, equity etc. Many a time, the advisor is interested in just giving back to the eco-system. One should evaluate if the advisor has time to provide support to the startup, whether the advisor is associated with other companies which the startup may have conflict / competition.  Maintaining a good rapport, having regular discussions and candid conversations, updating the advisor on a regular basis about the business and other relevant aspects of the business can go a long way. The most important factor is to ensure that there is trust between the parties.

Some startups look for a small investment by the advisors into the company, as a test to ensure that the advisor believes in the idea, startup, founders etc.

Compensation for Advisors

Let us now evaluate some of the ways to compensate advisors for the value-add they bring to the company.

Start-ups, more often than not, compensate advisors by giving a percentage of equity in the company since they may not have the finances to give cash compensation (unless well-funded). New shares can be issued to the advisors or shares can be transferred from the founders. Such issuance or transfer should ideally happen at the face value of the shares since it is a compensation for the services rendered by the advisors and the advisors would not want to pay the full price of the shares. As the same is being issued/transferred at face value instead of the fair market value, tax implications need to be evaluated since any issuance/transfer of shares below the fair market value will fall under the ambit of the Income Tax Act, 1961. Also, the percentage holding of the founders needs to be taken into account so that their shareholding percentage does not get diluted to a large extent considering that there will be future investments, where the shareholding will get diluted further. Another aspect to be considered is that, an issuance of shares will dilute the shareholding of all shareholders (including investors if any) whereas the transfer of shares from founders will dilute only the founders’ shareholding.

Another way of compensating the advisors is by issuing shares to them by way of consideration other than cash under section 62 (1) (c) of the Companies Act, 2013 (“Act”) read with rule 13 of Companies (Shares Capital and Debenture) Rules, 2014. The private placement process under section 42 of the Act will have to be followed for this purpose. The advisors have to raise invoice for the services rendered which will be commensurate with the fair market value of the advisory shares. Company will be responsible for TDS which will be a cash out on the Company. Further, the entire amount shall be taxed in the hands of the Investor as income from other sources, at the applicable tax slab.

Yet another option could be granting phantom stock options (“PSOs”) to the advisors. These are options which are settled by way of cash settlement. It a performance-based incentive plan through which the advisors will be entitled to receive cash payments after a specific period of time or upon reaching a specific target. A separate agreement can be entered into for capturing the details. This is directly linked to the value of the company’s share price. For example, the advisors could have promise of ‘x’ number of shares at ‘y’ price at grant. At exercise, the appreciation in the value of the share price, is handed out as cash incentive. Tax will be applicable at the time of payout. However, unlike employee stock options, which is recognized under the Act, PSOs by private limited companies does not fall under the ambit of the Act and therefore, will be in the nature of contractual right. Please see our previous post on  Phantom Stock Options to know more about this.

It has to be noted that advisors are not eligible for employee stock options (ESOPs) as ESOPs can be given only to employees and directors subject to the restrictions under the Act and relevant Rules.

Advisory shares to Non-Residents:

It becomes a little more complex when the advisor is a non-resident since the shares issued/transferred to a non-resident needs to be in compliance with the pricing guidelines as provided in Foreign Exchange Management (Transfer or Issue of Security by a Person Resident Outside India) Regulations, 2017 (“FDI Regulations“). As per the pricing guidelines, capital instruments which are issued or transferred to a non-resident has to be priced as per any internationally accepted pricing methodology for valuation on an arm’s length basis duly certified by a chartered accountant or a SEBI registered merchant banker, in case of an unlisted company. Considering these rules, granting of advisory shares to a non-resident can be a very tricky situation. PSOs may be a better option in this case.

Formal Agreement with Advisors

The engagement with the advisors should be fruitful for the company and help in its growth. It is advisable to enter into a formal agreement with the advisors which captures all important terms regarding the engagement which will be beneficial for both the company and the advisors. This will help in keeping track of the contribution of the advisors and also if in future, any differences arise between the company/founders and the advisors, it will always help to have a formal agreement. The exact role of the advisor and deliverables, vesting schedule, time commitments, compensation, non-compete, confidentiality, exit related provisions, etc. should be captured in such agreements. Specific milestones may also be included in these agreements. Once the milestones are satisfactorily completed, compensation as agreed can be given.

Once the advisors become shareholders in the company, depending on the shareholders’ agreement (if any), the advisor might need to enter into a deed of adherence, so that the rights of the shares are captured.

Author: Paul Albert

 

Process for Accreditation of Investors for the purpose of Innovators Growth Platform

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (“SEBI”) vide circular dated 22 May 2019 has announced the framework for the process of accreditation of investors for the purpose of the Innovators Growth Platform (“Framework”).

The circular defines Accredited Investors (“AIs”), for the specific purpose of Innovators Growth Platform (“IGP”), as investors whose holding in the issuer company is eligible for the computation of at least 25% of the pre-issue capital in accordance with the SEBI (Issue of Capital & Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2018 (“ICDR Regulations”).

As per the Framework, the following shall be eligible to be considered as AIs:

  1. any individual with a total gross income of Rs. 50 lakhs annually and who has a minimum liquid net worth of Rs. 5 crores;
  2. or any body corporate with a net worth of Rs. 25 crores.

According to the Framework, an investor having a Demat account with a Depository has to make an application to the Stock Exchanges/Depositories in the manner prescribed by the latter for recognition as an AI. The Stock Exchanges and Depositories are allowed to use the service of Brokers and Depository participants respectively and the former shall be responsible for verification and maintenance of AI data. The documentation required for accreditation is provided in the form of an Annexure to the Circular.

Once an AI is accredited, the accreditation shall be valid for a period of three (3) years from the date of issue of accreditation. However, if the AI becomes ineligible before the expiry of three years due to change in the financial status of the AI, s/he/it would be under an obligation to inform the Stock Exchange/Depository of such ineligibility.

When a Company applies for listing on IGP, the merchant bankers have to ensure due diligence with regard to the eligibility of AIs and that their holding in the Company desirous of listing on the IGP, is in accordance with Regulation 283(1) of ICDR Regulations.

Through the Circular, SEBI has directed Exchanges/Depositories to implement the procedure within forty-five (45) days from date of circular; to disseminate the provisions of the circular on their website and to communicate the status of the implementation of the circular to SEBI. In view of the framework, the Exchanges/Depositories will have to amend their bye-laws, rules and regulations.

Source: https://www.sebi.gov.in/legal/circulars/may-2019/framework-for-the-process-of-accreditation-of-investors-for-the-purpose-of-innovators-growth-platform_43056.html

SEBI Guidelines to determine allotment and trading lot size for Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and Infrastructure Investment Trusts (InvITs)

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) recently amended the SEBI (Infrastructure Investment Trusts) Regulations, 2014 (“InvIT Regulations”) and SEBI (Real Estate Investment Trusts) Regulations, 2014 (“REIT Regulations”) vide notification dated 22 April, 2019.

With the amended regulations notified, the minimum subscription requirement has been reduced and the trading lot in terms of number of units have been defined for publicly offered InvITs and REITs. Also, limits for aggregate consolidated borrowings and deferred payments, net of cash and cash equivalents, have been increased to seventy percent of the value of the InvIT assets.

Further, the said amendments have also laid down the manner of determining the minimum allotment requirement for publicly offered InvITs and REITs. Following are the guidelines:

  1. For Initial Offer:
    1. Each allotment value shall not be less than Rs. 1,00,000/- for InvITs and Rs. 50,000/- for REITs, where such lot consists of 100 units.
    2. Allotment to any investor shall be made in the multiples of a lot.
  2. For Follow-on offer:
    1. The minimum allotment shall be of such number of lots as it had at the time of the initial offer and the value shall not be less than Rs. 1,00,000/- for InvITs and Rs. 50,000/- for REITs. Also, each lot shall consist of such number of units in its trading lot as it had at the time of the initial offer.
    2. Allotment to any investor shall be made in the multiples of a lot.

With respect to the publicly offered InvITs and REITs whose units are listed on the date of this notification i.e., 22 April, 2019, the recognized Stock Exchanges in conference with such InvITs and REITs, determine the number of units in the trading lot within 22 October, 2019.

Additional Financial Disclosure for InvITs:

As per regulation 20(3)(b) of the InvIT Regulations, the InvITs who have their aggregate consolidated borrowings and deferred payments above 49 percent shall disclose the following items additionally to financial disclosures (As stipulated by circular CIR/IMD/DF/127/2016 dated November 29, 2016):

  1. Asset cover available;
  2. debt-equity ratio;
  3. debt service coverage ratio;
  4. interest service coverage ratio;
  5. net worth;

The aforesaid amendments are aimed at providing flexibility to the issuers in terms of fundraising and increasing the access of these investment vehicles to investors.

Source: https://www.sebi.gov.in/web/?file=https://www.sebi.gov.in/sebi_data/attachdocs/apr-2019/1556017751762.pdf#page=1&zoom=auto,-16,800

Amendment to Regulations on Institutional Trading Platform- Innovation Growth Platform 1.0

Background

In the year 2016, Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI) had introduced Institutional Trading Platform vide amendment to the SEBI Regulations (Issue of Capital and Disclosure Requirements), 2009 (SEBI ICDR Regulation) to facilitate listing of start-ups in sectors like e-commerce, data analytics and bio-technology to raise funds and get their shares traded on stock exchanges. However, due to strict norms and inability to access the platform, this initiative was not effective. In the wake to kick start listing of securities by the start-ups, with effect from 5 April 2019, SEBI further amended the SEBI ICDR Regulation (Amendment Regulation). The Amendment Regulation is notified to bring change in the start-up ecosystem by making the platform more accessible and more attractive for the new age ventures.

Key Changes

SEBI has tweaked the existing listing norms of the Institutional Trading Platform and has made the following changes:

Particulars Old Provision Amended Provision
Change of name Earlier it was known as Institutional Trading Platform (ITP) The platform has been renamed as ‘Innovators Growth Platform‘(IGP).
Eligible Issuers In addition to start-ups, any company having Qualified Institutional Buyers (QIBs) as their shareholders to the extent of at least 50% of pre-issue capital was eligible to list on the ITP. IGP has been designed to facilitate listing of the companies that provide products and services or business platforms in the areas of technology, information technology, intellectual property, data analytics, bio-technology or nano-technology are eligible to list on the IGP.
Shareholding Requirement At least 25% of the pre-issue capital to be held by QIBs. Listing can be done by way of IPO or even without an IPO process.

(a)   IPO Process: At least 25% of the pre-issue capital (for at least 2 years) to be held by either: (a) QIBs; (b) a pooled investment fund with minimum assets under management of USD 150 million (subject to meeting other prescribed criteria for such pooled investment fund); (c) accredited investors (not more than 10%); (d) Cat III FPI; or (e) family trusts with net-worth of more than INR 500 Crores.

(b)   Without IPO process: no such minimum offer to the public is required.

Post-issue shareholding Earlier, there was a requirement that no person, individually or collectively with other persons acting in concert, to hold 25% or more of the post-issue capital. This requirement has been done away with.
Minimum application size INR 10 lakh INR 2 lakh (this brings relaxations)
Allocation 75% to institutional investors 25% to non-institutional investors There is no minimum reservation requirement. Also, the allocation will be on proportionate basis to institutional and non-institutional investors.
Minimum number of allottees 200 50
Minimum trading lot INR 10 lakh INR 2 lakh

 

Conclusion

Though very less, off lately we have seen few tech companies like Tejas Networks, Koovs, Matrimony.com, etc. who have taken the IPO route to raise funds. Despite the vagaries of market, going public not only provide recognition but also shows that the start-up is beyond mortality. The Amendment Regulations have tried to simplify the listing norms and with this, SEBI intends to attract a greater number of investors on the IGP and aims to provide a much-needed boost to start-ups looking to access the capital markets.

Source:https://www.sebi.gov.in/legal/regulations/apr-2019/securities-and-exchange-board-of-india-issue-of-capital-and-disclosure-requirements-second-amendment-regulations-2019-_42644.html

Post-Merger Corporate Governance

Corporate governance is an important aspect for the success and growth of any organisation. A well-structured corporate governance regime becomes even more important post a merger (strategic or otherwise). It might prove to be especially beneficial in the smooth transition and functioning of the business of the merged entity, especially during the early stages after the merger. At the same time, a weak corporate governance structure may be detrimental to the success of the merged entity.

In a merger, the merging entities commonly come together to work and operate as a single merged entity. This would mean the integration of different cultures, mindsets, viewpoints, work ethics, principles, etc. Therefore, post-merger corporate governance becomes important so that all discussions between the key stakeholders of the merged entity are seamlessly documented leaving zero scope for potential conflict in the future. This would also help the key stakeholders to run the business of the merged entity without having to worry about internal conflicts, mismanagement, etc. Also, depending on the end goal or the objectives of the merging entities, there has to be a clear understanding on the type of merger to be undertaken. Refer to our previous post on M & A: Different structures and a comparative to know more about different structures of M&A.

What is Corporate Governance?

Before moving on to the different aspects of corporate governance to be considered post a merger, let us try to understand the meaning of the term ‘corporate governance’. With respect to early-stage unlisted entities, corporate governance generally refers to the internal rules and policies of the organisation, the relationship between the shareholders, the roles and responsibilities of the directors and the top management and the decision-making structure, including the financial and operational decision making. In a nutshell, it includes all aspects which govern the organisation and basis which business is conducted and an organisation is run, both with respect to internal stakeholders, as well as external stakeholders.

Significance of Post-Merger Corporate Governance

Merger of entities, more often than not, would mean the integration of different cultures, mindsets, viewpoints, work ethics, principles, etc. Even though the end goal would be the same, that is, the success and growth of the merged entity, perspectives on the means to achieve the end goal may differ from person to person. However, since the merging entities would no longer be separate entities, it is important that the means to achieve the end goal is also aligned. Thus, while corporate governance is very important for every organisation, it gains even more significance post a merger.

There has to be a clear understanding on the structure of the corporate governance post-merger, which could primarily be recorded discussions and step plans to achieve the objectives of the merger. For example, if the main objective of a merger is market expansion of the business, it would be good to have a clear step plan detailing out the potential markets, key people to target the same, timelines and other operational parameters which could eventually determine achievement of results as agreed amongst the key stakeholders. If a merger involves employee movement, a clear plan for the transitioning of employees, in terms of location, identification, compensation plan, positive interactions across teams and often (in new age companies) regular counselling on challenges faced may prove to be tremendously beneficial in the long run.

Also, post the merger, it is always better to have each and every discussion documented. Such discussions (including the informal discussions) should also be conducted at the board level, which would help in ensuring that the important stakeholders are part of these discussions. The objective is not to increase bureaucracy but to ensure that the operations are seamless. This might not seem to be important especially during the initial stages after a merger. However, the importance of documenting every discussion comes into play when, at some point, the difference of opinion arises. In order to avoid tense and awkward situations at that point of time, if every decision or discussion in relation to the business and operations is documented and is taken with the knowledge of all the key stakeholders, it would to a large extent help in solving the issue at hand in a much more efficient and faster manner.

A merger would, in most circumstances, result in a change in the board composition and management. The board of the merged entity will play an important role in effective management and quick transition. The composition of the board (and the committees of the board) is usually determined prior to the closing of the transaction and is documented in the transaction documents. The composition of the board (and the committees of the board) will have to be properly thought through and well planned. Every member of the board/committee needs to understand their respective roles. It is important to ensure that there is equal representation for all the key stakeholders. The members of the board/committees have to be diverse, experienced and should have a clear understanding of the goals of the merger. Also, it is important to conduct review meetings to ensure that the goals or targets are being met and if not, analyse on the reasons and improve on the same. The board/committee meetings may be conducted on a regular basis.

It may be a good option to appoint an independent director to the board. This will help in situations where there is a difference of opinion between the various members of the board since the independent director will be a neutral party and would be able to give unbiased opinions. The independent directors bring objectivity and an independent opinion to the decisions made by the directors. They can also help in bringing more transparency to the proceedings of the board and also ensure that the interests of the shareholders are given due regard. However, an independent director can play a major role in ensuring good corporate governance only as long as he/she functions independently. His/her decisions should not be influenced by the other board members. Refer to our previous post on Independent Directors to know more about independent directors and their independence.

Conclusion

Even though there is no specific statute or law governing corporate governance as a whole in case of unlisted companies, there are various provisions under the Companies Act, 2013, SEBI guidelines, etc. which indirectly strives to have a good corporate governance system like provisions for appointment of independent directors and their roles and duties, appointment of audit committees, role of directors, etc.

To achieve the goals and objectives of the merged organisation and for a smooth transition, a well-structured corporate governance is vital.

 

Author: Paul Albert, Associate at NovoJuris Legal