Infrastructure & Project Finance
Regulatory Framework on FDI in E-Commerce
Regulatory Framework on FDI in E-Commerce
With the stated aim of clarifying the foreign direct investment (‘FDI’) regime for e-commerce activities, the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (‘DIPP’) has issued Press Note No. 3 (2016 Series) on March 29, 2016 (‘Press Note’). Prior to the Press Note, the Consolidated Foreign Direct Investment Policy issued by DIPP (‘FDI Policy’) allowed 100% FDI under the automatic route (i.e. without requiring prior approval of the Government of India) in business to business (B2B) e-commerce activities, but did not permit FDI in multi-brand retail trade activity through online e-commerce. In such a regulatory landscape, the ‘marketplace’ model became popular; under the marketplace model, the marketplace entity provided a technology platform to connect buyers and sellers and did not itself undertake any trading activity. Such entities received FDI without any prior approvals from the Government of India. The regulatory framework for e-commerce has now been altered by the Press Note in the manner discussed below.
- Salient Features
i. FDI up to 100% under the automatic route is now permitted in the ‘marketplace’ model (definition discussed below in paragraph (iv) of the section on New Definitions), subject to certain conditions, including those described below.
ii. FDI is not permitted in the ‘inventory-based’ model (definition discussed below in paragraph (iii) of the section on New Definitions).
iii. Subject to the conditions in the FDI Policy applicable to the services sector and applicable laws / regulations, security and other conditionalities, FDI up to 100% is also permitted, under the automatic route, in entities engaged in the sale of services through e-commerce.
iv. Other noteworthy aspects of the new framework for e-commerce include:
a. the inclusion of goods coupled with services within the purview of e-commerce;
b. the clarification that marketplace entities are permitted to provide ancillary services such as delivery, logistics etc.;
c. marketplace entities not being permitted to have sales of more than 25% from one seller / vendor; and
d. marketplace entities being restricted from directly or indirectly influencing the sale price of goods/ services and being required to maintain a level playing field.
- New Definitions
The Press Note has introduced the following new definitions:
i. E-commerce: E-commerce means “buying and selling of goods and services including digital products over digital & electronic network”.1 The definition of e-commerce includes buying and selling of goods and services (including digital products) within its purview. At the same time, paragraph 3.0 of the Press Note suggests that the services sector is outside the purview of the Press Note and continues to remain eligible for 100% FDI under the automatic route. The interplay of the definition of e-commerce read with paragraph 3.0 of the Press Note suggests that the Press Note may not apply to entities merely providing services including digital products, except where they are buying and selling both, goods and services.
ii. E-commerce Entity: An e-commerce entity has been defined to mean “a company incorporated under the Companies Act, 1956 or the Companies Act, 2013 or a foreign company covered under section 2(42) of the Companies Act, 2013 or an office, branch or agency in India as provided in section 2(v)(iii) of the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999, owned or controlled by a person resident outside India and conducting the e-commerce business.”
It is not clear why the Government felt the need to include, within the definition of e-commerce entity, a foreign company or a branch or agency in India, when the conditions in the Press Note are applicable only to FDI investment, which is a very specific route of investment in an Indian incorporated entity under the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999 and the rules and regulations notified thereunder ( ‘FEMA Regulations’).
An office or branch of a foreign company is merely a form of presence of the foreign company itself, the establishment and operation of which is separately regulated under FEMA Regulations. This kind of presence i.e. a foreign company or an office, branch or agency of a foreign company in India does not actually receive FDI, and therefore inclusion of these kinds of entities in the Press Note (which is intended to govern conditions for FDI in the e-commerce sector) is unclear. Also, given that the definition is restricted to companies and does not specifically include limited liability partnerships (‘LLP’), it is not clear if it is intended to exclude LLPs from the purview of the Press Note, implying that an LLP cannot conduct permissible e-commerce activities.
iii. Inventory Based Model of E-commerce: This model has been defined under the Press Note to mean “an e-commerce activity where inventory of goods and services is owned by e-commerce entity and is sold to the consumers directly”. The Press Note does not permit FDI in entities that operate under an inventory based model of e-commerce.
iv. Marketplace Based Model of E-commerce: The Press Note defines this model as “providing of an information technology platform by an e-commerce entity on a digital & electronic network to act as a facilitator between buyer and seller.” This is the model that is popular in the market and which has been adopted by various aggregation platforms, more prominently for online hotel / room reservations, taxi booking services and online shopping.
- Relaxations Provided for the Marketplace Model
i. Marketplace entity allowed to provide support services to sellers in respect of warehousing, logistics, order fulfillment, call centre, payment collection and other services: This clarification is very welcome. Even before the Press Note was issued, a marketplace entity could have engaged in all these activities. However, the specific clarification included in the Press Note brings in more transparency in implementing the policy. The ability for e-commerce entities to provide these kinds of services could result in greater efficiencies as services ancillary to marketplace operations are commonly housed in different legal entities. We expect marketplace entities to be more optimistic about consolidating these functions within a single entity in light of this clarification.
ii. Express Recognition of Marketplace Model: There has been an increasing trend amongst investors to be a little more cautious about investing or increasing their investments in the Indian e-commerce space. While profitability has been a commercial issue and may continue to be an issue in the foreseeable future, there has also been some circumspection that has resulted from the absence of an express policy statement regarding FDI in the e-commerce sector, negative publicity around FDI in e-commerce and queries that have previously been raised by the regulators.
As the Government’s policy is now expressly stated, it will address concerns raised by various trade associations in their petitions before multiple judicial forums, where it is being argued that the marketplace model is not recognized under the FDI Policy and therefore not eligible for FDI. In our view, this argument was flawed since the FDI Policy cannot be expected to positively list every business model or opportunity that emerges in this fast moving technology rich environment. On the contrary, paragraph 6.2 of the FDI Policy specifically clarifies that FDI is allowed up to 100% under the automatic route in sectors and activities not listed in the FDI Policy. Hence, merely because the marketplace model was not expressly mentioned in the FDI Policy, did not imply that such activity was not eligible to receive FDI prior to the Press Note. If each of its ingredients were eligible for FDI investment, such sector/activity was always eligible to receive FDI.
- Restrictions on the Marketplace Model
i. Marketplace entity cannot exercise ownership over the inventory (goods purported to be sold), as ownership of the goods would result in an inventory based model: While it is clear that ownership of goods by a marketplace entity is not permitted under the Press Note, the scope of the term ‘exercise ownership’ used in paragraph 2.3(iv) of the Press Note is unclear.
ii. Not more than 25% of the sales from one vendor/ its group companies: This condition may affect the business model of certain e-commerce entities, where a significant percentage of sales are often made by one large reseller. Marketplace operators may now have to limit sales made by these resellers to ensure compliance with the Press Note. Such large resellers are therefore impacted despite the Press Note not being applicable to them. While the Press Note does not expressly clarify as to how and when the 25% limit on sales is to be computed, we expect that such compliance will be reviewed on an annual basis. Similar annual checks at the end of the financial year are prescribed in the FDI Policy on wholesale trading where the wholesale entity cannot sell more than 25% of its wholesale turnover to a group company.
iii. Post sales, delivery of goods and customer satisfaction to be seller’s responsibility: There seems to be an inconsistency between this obligation of the seller and the ability of the marketplace entity to provide ancillary support services. On the one hand, the Press Note permits a marketplace entity to provide logistics and ancillary services, while on the other it requires that following the sale, delivery of goods will be the seller’s responsibility. It is likely that the Press Note intended to clarify that the responsibility for all post-sale obligations is that of the seller, and not the marketplace entity. However, contractually, the seller should be free to provide such services in the manner it deems fit (including through an agreement with the marketplace entity, in which case the marketplace entity would be contractually liable to the seller for such services).
iv. Warranty/ guarantee of goods and services sold to be seller’s responsibility: This condition appears to stem from the requirement that goods/ services not be owned by the marketplace entity. This condition seems more in the nature of a clarification rather than a change in the legal position given that a marketplace entity would not usually provide any warranty / guarantee in respect of goods/ services; which warranties / guarantees are usually extended by the manufacturer / service provider.
v. Marketplace entity will not directly or indirectly influence the sale price of goods/ services and will maintain a level playing field: This condition is one of the key changes introduced by the Press Note and is likely to have a significant impact on marketplace entities and their business models. Popular marketplaces invest meaningfully to promote their platform to make it attractive for customers and sellers. Unlike brick and mortar stores which are able to promote their marketplace / shops in numerous ways that can be seen and felt by a customer, there are only a limited number of ways in which an online marketplace entity can promote its virtual presence. The broad language of the Press Note makes it even more difficult for a marketplace entity to promote its platform.
With regard to the obligation to maintain a ‘level playing field’, more than one interpretation may be possible. One school of thought is that this requirement is intended to apply to the sellers on the e-commerce platforms inter-se, such that the marketplace is not built around a single large / dominant seller, which seller is then accorded preferential treatment over other sellers by the marketplace entity. Another reading of this provision could be that the requirement is intended to apply to sellers on the e-commerce platforms vis-à-vis brick and mortar stores, such that brick and mortar stores are not unduly disadvantaged by e-commerce platforms through the actions of such e-commerce platforms, such as through offering discounts / incentives / promotional pricing on goods sold through such platforms. It is however difficult for a marketplace entity to ensure a level playing field with respect to brick and mortar stores, particularly given the inherent differences between the two mediums.
The Press Note is a step in the right direction by the Government and has introduced much needed and anticipated clarity on FDI in the e-commerce sector.
The conditionalities and restrictions imposed by the Press Note (which states that it shall take immediate effect) are prospective in nature and are not stated to apply to FDI already received by entities engaged in e-commerce activities. Any marketplace e-commerce entities which now intend to receive FDI would need to ensure that such FDI is received in compliance with all conditions of the Press Note. Likewise, any entities with existing FDI (received prior to the issuance of the Press Note) but which intend to receive additional FDI, would need to ensure that the conditions prescribed by the Press Note are complied with going forward. To this end, it may serve well for all existing e-commerce companies to revisit their business models and ensure that their business models are aligned to the Press Note as soon as possible.
The Dirty Dozen – first off the block
The Dirty Dozen – first off the block
Electrosteel Steels Limited was one of the twelve large stressed accounts directed by the Reserve Bank of India (‘RBI’) to be placed into the corporate insolvency resolution process of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code and has now become the first to be resolved under that process. The National Company Law Tribunal yesterday (i.e. April 17, 2018) approved the resolution plan submitted by Vedanta Limited. News reports suggest that the haircut taken by lenders is in the region of 55%. Vedanta awaits clearance from the Competition Commission of India before it can complete the acquisition. Many of the other ‘dirty-dozen’ are in the closing stages of their corporate insolvency resolution process and the next few weeks will see more resolutions and in some cases objections and litigation. The litigation in this space may settle some of the issues that lenders and acquirers fret about.
Amendments to FEMA 20
RBI has, by way of a series of notifications, amended the Foreign Exchange Management (Transfer or Issue of Security by a Person Resident outside India) Regulations, 2000 (‘FEMA 20’). The key amendments pursuant to these notifications have been summarized below.
i. Issuance of Convertible Notes by Startups: RBI notification dated January 10, 2017 (‘January Notification’) provides for the issuance of convertible notes by Indian startup companies (‘startups’). A ‘convertible note’ has been defined to mean “an instrument issued by a startup company evidencing receipt of money initially as debt, which is repayable at the option of the holder, or which is convertible into such number of equity shares of such startup company, within a period not exceeding five years from the date of issue of the convertible note, upon occurrence of specified events as per the other terms and conditions agreed to and indicated in the instrument”.
The newly introduced Regulation 6D of FEMA 20 sets out the relevant provisions, which provide that:
a. A person resident outside India (other than an individual who is a citizen of, or an entity registered / incorporated in, Pakistan or Bangladesh), may purchase convertible notes issued by startups for an amount of Rs. 2,500,000 (approximately US$ 39,000) or more in a single tranche;
b. Startups engaged in a sector where foreign investment requires Government approval may issue convertible notes to a non-resident only with Government approval;
c. Issue of shares against convertible notes will be as per Schedule 1 of FEMA 20;
d. Startups issuing convertible notes to a non-resident must receive the consideration by inward remittance through banking channels or by debit to the NRE / FCNR (B) / escrow account maintained as per the Foreign Exchange Management (Deposit) Regulations, 2016 and closed upon the earlier of the requirements having been completed or within a period of six months;
e. Non-resident Indians may acquire convertible notes on non-repatriation basis as per Schedule 4 of FEMA 20;
f. A person resident outside India may acquire or transfer, by way of sale, convertible notes, from or to, a person resident in or outside India, provided the transfer takes place in accordance with the pricing guidelines as prescribed by RBI; and
g. Startup issuing convertible notes are required to furnish reports as prescribed by RBI.
ii. Foreign Investment in Infrastructure Companies: The January Notification also amends conditions relating to foreign direct investment (‘FDI’) under Schedule 1 of FEMA 20 in commodity exchanges, which have been combined with those relating to infrastructure companies in the securities market (namely stock exchanges, commodity derivative exchanges, depositories and clearing corporations). The key revisions introduced by the January Notification are:
a. FDI, including by foreign portfolio investors (‘FPI’), in commodity exchanges will now be subject to guidelines prescribed by RBI in addition to those issued by the Central Government (‘GoI’) and SEBI;
b. FDI in other infrastructure companies in securities market will now be subject to guidelines by GoI and RBI, in addition to those issued by SEBI;
c. the earlier condition permitting FIIs / FPIs to invest in commodity exchanges or infrastructure companies only through the secondary market has been removed; and
d. the restriction on investment by a non-resident in commodity exchanges to a maximum of 5% of its equity shares has been removed.
The Consolidated Foreign Direct Investment Policy dated June 7, 2016 (‘FDI Policy’) has also been amended, by way Press Note 1 of 2017 dated February 20, 2017, to align it with the January Notification.
iii. FDI in LLPs: Pursuant to notification dated March 3, 2017, RBI has amended Regulation 5(9) and Schedule 9 of FEMA 20 to further liberalize FDI in Limited Liability Partnerships (‘LLPs’). Companies having FDI can now be converted into LLPs under the automatic route provided that the concerned company is engaged in a sector where: (a) 100% FDI is permitted under the automatic route; and (b) no FDI linked performance conditions exist. Previously, conversion of companies with foreign investment was only permitted under the approval route. The erstwhile ‘Other Conditions’ stipulated under Schedule 9 of FEMA 20 have been completely omitted resulting in the following key changes:
a. Previously, the designated partner of a LLP having FDI had to satisfy the condition of being “a person resident in India”. Also, a body corporate other than a company registered in India under CA 2013 was not permitted to be a designated partner of a LLP with FDI. These conditions have been removed. Consequently, a LLP having FDI will have to comply only with the provisions of the LLP Act, 2008 for appointment of designated partners;
b. Earlier, designated partners were responsible for compliance with FDI conditions for LLPs and liable for all penalties imposed on a LLP for any contraventions. This condition has now been deleted from Schedule 9 but no corresponding provision has been included in the revised Schedule 9; and
c. Express prohibition on LLPs availing External Commercial Borrowings (‘ECB’) has been removed. However, the extant ECB guidelines have not yet been amended to permit LLPs to avail ECBs. Therefore, LLPs will not be able to avail ECBs until the extant ECB guidelines are amended.
iv. FDI in E-commerce: The Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion had, by way of Press Note 3 of 2016 dated March 29, 2016 (‘Press Note 3’), prescribed that no FDI is permitted in an inventory based model of e-commerce and 100% FDI under the automatic route is permitted in the marketplace model of e-commerce subject to compliance with the guidelines prescribed thereunder. A summary of the key changes introduced through Press Note 3 have been captured in the April 2016 edition of Inter Alia. RBI has, by way of a notification dated March 9, 2017, amended FEMA 20 in line with the changes introduced through Press Note 3. However, RBI has introduced a minor change to Press Note 3 by clarifying that the threshold of 25% of sales emanating from one vendor or their group companies will be computed based on the sale value during the relevant financial year.
 Being a private company incorporated under CA 2013 and recognized as such as per Notification G.S.R. 180(E) dated February 17, 2016 issued by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion.
Amendment to SEBI (Real Estate Investment Trusts) Regulations, 2014 and SEBI (Infrastructure Investment Trusts) Regulations, 2014
Pursuant to the meeting of the SEBI board held on September 23, 2016, SEBI has amended the SEBI (Real Estate Investment Trusts) Regulations, 2014 and the SEBI (Infrastructure Investment Trusts) Regulations, 2014. Some of the key amendments include:
i. The minimum holding of the mandatory sponsor in the infrastructure investment trust (‘InvIT’) has been reduced from 25% to 15%;
ii. The existing limit of three sponsors has been removed from both regulations;
iii. The permissible investment limit for investment by real estate investment trusts (‘REIT’) in ‘under construction’ assets has been increased from 10% to 20%; and
iv. InvITs and REITs are allowed to invest in a two-level SPV holding structure, through a holding company.
Meeting of the SEBI Board
The SEBI Board met on September 23, 2016 and took the following decisions:
i. Currently, FPIs are required to transact in securities through stock brokers registered with SEBI, while domestic institutions such as banks, insurance companies, pension funds etc. are permitted to access the bond market directly (i.e. without brokers). SEBI has decided to extend this privilege to Category I and Category II FPIs.
ii. In order to facilitate the growth of Investment Trusts (“InvIT”) and Real Estate Investment Trusts (“REIT”), SEBI has decided to amend the SEBI (Infrastructure Investment Trusts) Regulations, 2014 and the SEBI (Real Estate Investment Trusts) Regulations, 2014 (“REIT Regulations”). The key amendments will include:
a. InvITs and REITs will be allowed to invest in the two level SPV structure through the holding company subject to sufficient shareholding in the holding company and other prescribed safeguards. The holding company would have to distribute 100% cash flows realised from the underlying SPVs and at least 90% of the remaining cash flows.
b. The minimum holding of the mandatory sponsor in the InvIT has been reduced to 15%.
c. REITs have been permitted to invest upto 20% in under construction assets.
d. The limit on the number of sponsors has been removed under the REIT Regulations.
iii. The SEBI Board has approved amendments to the SEBI (Portfolio Managers) Regulations, 1993, to provide a framework for the registration of fund managers for overseas funds, pursuant to the introduction of section 9A in the Income Tax, 1961.
iv. The SEBI Board has decided to grant permanent registration to the following categories of intermediaries: merchant bankers, bankers to an issue, registrar to an issue & share transfer, underwriters, credit rating agency, debenture trustee, depository participant, KYC registration agency, portfolio managers, investment advisers and research analysts.
v. The Securities Contracts (Regulation) (Stock Exchanges and Cleaning Corporations) Regulations, 2012 have been amended to increase the upper limit of shareholding of foreign institutional investors mentioned in the Indian stock exchanges from 5% to 15% and to allow an FPI to acquire shares of an unlisted stock exchange through transactions outside of recognised stock exchange including allotment.
Foreign Investment in Units Issued by REITs, InvITs and AIFs
Salient features of foreign investment permitted by RBI, pursuant to its circular dated April 21, 2016, in the units of investment vehicles for real estate and infrastructure registered with the SEBI or any other competent authority are as under:
i. A person resident outside India (including a Registered Foreign Portfolio Investor (‘RFPI’) and NRIs may invest in units of real estate investment trusts (‘REITs’);
ii. A person resident outside India who has acquired or purchased units in accordance with the regulations may sell or transfer in any manner or redeem the units as per regulations framed by SEBI or directions issued by RBI;
iii. An Alternative Investment Fund Category III with foreign investment can make portfolio investment in only those securities or instruments in which a RFPI is allowed to invest; and
iv. Foreign investment in units of REITs registered with SEBI will not be included in ‘real estate business’.
Guidelines for Public Issue of Units of Infrastructure Investment Trusts
SEBI has, on May 11, 2016, issued Guidelines for Public Issue of Units of Infrastructure Investment Trusts (‘Guidelines’), which amend the provisions of the SEBI (Infrastructure Investment Trusts) Regulation, 2014 (‘SEBI InvIT Regulations’).
The Guidelines set out the procedure to be followed by an infrastructure investment trust (‘InvIT’) in relation to a public issue of its units, which includes the appointment of a lead merchant banker and other intermediaries, procedure for filing of offer documents with SEBI and the stock exchanges, the process of bidding and allotment. Further, the allocation in a public issue is required to be in the following proportion: (i) not more than 75% to institutional investors; and (ii) not less than 25% to other investors; provided that the investment manager has the option to allocate 60% of the portion available for allocation to institutional investors and anchor investors (which includes strategic investors), subject to certain conditions. Further, the investment manager, on behalf of the InvIT is required to deposit and keep deposited with the stock exchange(s), an amount equal to 0.5% of the amount of the units offered for subscription to the public or Rs 5 crores (approximately US$ 7,45,000), whichever is lower. The price of units can be determined either: (i) by the investment manager in consultation with the lead merchant banker; or (ii) through the book building process. However, differential prices are not permitted.
Government Notifies the MMDR (Amendment) Act, 2016
The Central Government has notified the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016 (‘2016 Amendment’) on May 9, 2016. By virtue of amendments to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 (‘MMDR Act’) in 2015, transfer of only those mineral concessions granted by auction was allowed. By virtue of the 2016 Amendment, where a mining lease: (i) has been granted otherwise than through auction; and (ii) the mineral from such mining lease is being used for captive purpose, such mining lease can be transferred subject to compliance with such terms and conditions and payment of transfer charges as may be prescribed. The term ‘used for captive purpose’ has been defined under the 2016 Amendment to mean use of the entire quantity of mineral extracted from the mining lease in a manufacturing unit owned by the lessee.
Government Notifies the Minerals (Transfer of Mining Lease Granted Otherwise than Through Auction for Captive Purpose) Rules, 2016
Pursuant to the 2016 Amendment, the Central Government has notified the Minerals (Transfer of Mining Lease Granted Otherwise than through Auction for Captive Purpose) Rules, 2016 (‘ML Transfer Rules’) on May 30, 2016, which set out the procedure for transfer of mining leases granted otherwise than through auction and for captive purpose (‘ML’). The salient features of ML Transfer Rules are as below:
i. Deemed approval for transfer of ML, if the State Government does not reject the application within 90 days from the application;
ii. Transferee to make an upfront lumpsum payment of 0.5% of the value of estimated resources of the ML upon receipt of approval and execute the mine development and production agreement with the State Government;
iii. Transferee to provide performance security to the State Government for an amount equivalent to 0.5% of the value of estimated resources, to be adjusted every five years to correspond to 0.5% of the reassessed value of estimated resources;
iv. Transferor and transferee to jointly submit a duly registered transfer deed for ML to the State Government within the specified period; and
v. State Government to execute a mining lease deed with the transferee upon registration of the deed of transfer of ML.
The ML Transfer Rules also stipulate that whenever royalty is payable in terms of the second schedule to the MMDR Act, the transferee is to pay to the State Government an amount equal to 80% of the royalty, in addition to the royalty payable, simultaneously with payments of royalty, which will be adjusted against the upfront payment mentioned under (ii) above.
Participation by Strategic Investor(s) in InvITs and REITs
Pursuant to SEBI’s circular dated January 18, 2018 (‘SEBI Circular’), a Real Estate Investment Trust (‘REIT’) / Infrastructure Investment Trust (‘InvIT’) may invite subscriptions from strategic investors subject to inter alia the following:
i. The strategic investors can, either jointly or severally, invest not less than 5% and not more than 25% of the total offer size.
ii. The investment manager or manager is required to enter into a binding unit subscription agreement with the strategic investors proposing to invest in the public issue, which agreement cannot be terminated except if the issue fails to collect minimum subscription.
iii. The entire subscription price has to be deposited in a special escrow account prior to opening of the public issue.
iv. The price at which the strategic investors have agreed to buy units of the InvIT/ REIT should not be less than the public issue price. In case of a lower price, the strategic investors should bring in the additional amounts within two working days of the determination of the public issue price, and in case of a higher price, the excess amount will not be refunded and the strategic investors will be bound by the price agreed in the unit subscription agreement.
v. The draft offer document or offer document, as applicable, will disclose details of the unit subscription agreement, including the name of each strategic investor, the number of units proposed to be subscribed etc.
vi. Units subscribed by strategic investors, pursuant to the unit subscription agreement, will be locked-in for a period of 180 days from the date of listing in the public issue.