A few days ago, SEBI made public its informal guidance issued to Weizmann Forex Ltd. on October 25, 2012. In this case, the target company became listed only in 2011 due to a corporate restructuring process. The question was whether certain shareholders can avail of the exemption for inter se promoter transfer by taking into account the promoter holdings in the previous company from which the business was restructured into the target. Qualifying for the exemption requires that both the transferor and transferee should have been disclosed as promoters of the target company for at least 3 years. SEBI adopted a purposive interpretation to answer in the affirmative thereby making the exemption available in that case even though the parties did not technically satisfy the condition.
The relevant facts can be gathered from the company’s requestto SEBI. Weizmann Forex Ltd., the target company was previously an unlisted company with the name Chanakya Holdings Ltd. As part of an overall restructuring of the Weizmann group, which involved many other legs that are not directly relevant for our present purposes, the forex business of Weizmann Ltd. (the demerged company), being a listed company, was demerged into Weizmann Forex Ltd. (the resulting company). As part of this restructuring process, Weizmann Forex’s shares were listed on the stock exchanges. The promoters of Weizmann Forex intend to transfer certain shares of Weizmann Forex among themselves and hence approached SEBI for informal guidance.
Under Reg. 10(1)(a)(ii) of the SEBI Takeover Regulations, there is an exemption from a mandatory open offer for transfer of shares inter se among qualifying persons being “persons named as promoters in the shareholding pattern filed by the target company in terms of the listing agreement or [the takeover] regulations for not less than three years prior to the proposed acquisition.”
In the present case, none of the proposed transferors of shares were able to satisfy the requirement of being named as promoters in Weizmann Forex as they acquired shares in that company only under the restructuring process. However, if their shareholding in the demerged company (Weizmann Limited) were taken into account for the purpose of computation of the 3-year period, they would satisfy the requirement. Similarly, the transferees too were unable to satisfy the 3-year period of being named as promoters in Weizmann Forex. While one of the transferees held shares for a 3-year period across the two companies (similar to the transferors), the other transferee did not satisfy the 3-year period across two companies (on a combined basis) either.
The issue for SEBI’s consideration was whether, given these facts, the proposed transfer of shares among promoter was exempt from the mandatory open offer requirements under Reg. 10(1)(a)(ii).
SEBI’s Informal Guidance
In interpreting the Takeover Regulations, SEBI considered the 3-year holding period of the transferors and transferees by looking at their holdings on a combined basis in Weizmann Ltd. and Weizmann Forex Ltd. even though they may not have satisfied the requirement strictly with reference to Weizmann Forex Ltd., which is the target company.
Moreover, as far as the transferees are concerned, SEBI’s guidance goes one step further. Even though one of the transferees has not satisfied the 3-year holding period requirement, the exemption has been made available to it. SEBI reasons as follows: “The condition of 3 years shareholding by the transferees prior to the proposed acquisition would be deemed to be fulfilled in case all the transferees collectively hold shares for a period of 3 years prior to the proposed acquisition provided the other conditions for availing the exemption are fulfilled.”
In interpreting the Takeover Regulations, SEBI had adopted a purposive approach in making the exemption available to the parties, as opposed to a literal or technical approach that may have denied this facility to the parties. By taking into accounting the shareholding of the parties in the demerged company, necessary consideration has been placed on the demerger transaction, which is essentially a restructuring of businesses and shareholdings as opposed to a complete transfer or sell-out of the business. In other words, it is considered a purely internal group restructuring.
Such an approach is not unusual. For instance, the Income Tax Act, 1961 considers such demerger transactions (provided certain other conditions are satisfied) as a restructuring (rather than a pure sale) and confers certain benefits in terms of exemptions from capital gains tax. More specifically, for the purpose of computing the holding period, the period of shareholding by a shareholder in the demerged company will be considered at the time of sale of shares in the resulting company. The present interpretation of SEBI brings the holding period under the Takeover Regulations on par with such a regime, which is understandable in the context of restructuring transactions and the purpose of the holding period for purpose of exemption under the Takeover Regulations. The only difference is that the Income Tax Act expressly provides for such treatment, while under Takeover Regulations it is only by virtue of the interpretation adopted by SEBI in this case.
However, in the case of the transferee, to the extent that SEBI finds that all the transferees may collectively satisfy the holding period requirement, it is perhaps providing a fairly liberal reading. This seems to suggest that where there is a group of transferees, it might be sufficient if one or more of the transferees satisfy the holding period requirement, and it is not necessary for each one of them to satisfy it. This might provide greater options to structure transfers that may avail of the inter se promoter exemption. At the same time, it may be argued that this is too much of a stretch of the Regulations, and could be subject to potential misuse.