SEBI proposes liberal provisions for promoter reclassification

Shaivi Bhamaria | Vinod Kothari and Company

corplaw@vinodkothari.com

Introduction

Reg. 31A of the SEBI (Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2015 (‘LODR Regulations’) lays down conditions pursuant to which promoters/ person belonging to promoter group of a listed entity can be reclassified as public shareholders. Reg. 31A (5) provides that if a public shareholder seeks to re-classify itself as promoter, it will have to make an open offer as per the provisions of SEBI (Substantial Acquisition of Shares and Takeovers) Regulations, 2011.

SEBI on November 23, 2020 has issued a Consultation Paper on Re-Classification of Promoter/ Promoter Group Entities and Disclosure of the Promoter Group Entities in the Shareholding Pattern[1] (‘Consultation Paper’) for public comments. At present SEBI has been granting relaxations from the requirements under reg. 31A of the LODR regulations on a case to case basis to promoters who have found reclassification difficult under current regulatory regime.  The said Paper has been issued on the basis of the recommendations of the Primary Market Advisory Committee (‘PMAC’) of SEBI in order to regularise the provisions relating to reclassification and minimise the need for providing relaxation on case-to-case basis.

Current Framework:

A summary of the present reclassification process is laid down below:

  1. The promoters/person belonging to promoter group seeking reclassification as public shareholders must satisfy the conditions laid down in reg. 31A (3) (b) of the LODR regulations;
  2. The listed entity must be in compliance with the conditions laid down in reg. 31A (3) (c) of LODR regulations;
  3. Promoters/person belonging to promoter group must make a request for re-classification to the board of directors of the listed entity. The request must contain the rationale for seeking re-classification and also a statement on how the conditions specified in reg. 31A (3) (b) are satisfied;
  4. The board after analysing the request must place the same along with its views, for approval of the shareholders in a general meeting. There should be a time gap of at least three months but not exceeding six months between the date of board meeting and the shareholder’s meeting;
  5. The request for re-classification should be approved in the general meeting by an ordinary resolution in which the promoter/ persons belonging to promoter group seeking re-classification cannot not vote to approve such re-classification request;
  6. Not later than 30 days from the date of approval by shareholders in general meeting, an application along with all relevant documents for re-classification must be made to the stock exchanges where the entity is listed. In case the entity is listed on more than one stock exchange, the concerned stock exchanges will jointly decide on the application.

Examples of case-to-case relaxation provided by SEBI

  1. Exemption from obtaining shareholders’ approval

In the informal guidance given to Alembic Pharmaceuticals Limited[2] SEBI had exempted the company from obtaining approval of shareholder for reclassification of 5 promoters as public shareholders inter-alia on the grounds that:

  1. The promoters cumulatively held 1.45% of the equity share capital of the company.
  2. They were senior citizens, leading independent lives and were not directly or indirectly connected with any activity of the company.
  3. They did not exercise any direct or indirect control over the affairs of the company, had never at any time held any position of key managerial personnel in the company.
  4. They did not had any special rights through formal or informal arrangements with the company or any promoter/person of the promoter group.
  5. They undertook that they would never be privy to any price sensitive information of the company

Further, in the informal guidance given to Gujarat Ambuja Exports Limited[3], SEBI had exempted the company from obtaining approval of shareholder for reclassification of one its promoters on the grounds that:

  1. the shareholding of the promoter was insignificant, constituting only 0.23% of the total paid up equity;
  2. Though being the son of a promoter, the said person was neither involved in the operations of the company nor was connected with the company.
  3. He did not exercise any direct or indirect control over the affairs of the company, did not have veto rights or special rights as to voting or control nor has any special information rights.
  4. Further the company had not entered into any shareholder agreement with him and he would never be privy to any price sensitive information of the company.

It is pertinent to note that SEBI in its interpretative letter had stated that the company would not be required to take shareholders’ approval, subject to compliance with the provisions of reg. 31A of LODR regulations. Reg, 31A of LODR regulations provide for shareholders’ approval, hence it was not very clear whether exemption from obtaining shareholders’ approval was granted or not.

Proposed amendments

1.      Relaxing the threshold of maximum voting rights allowed to be exercised by an outgoing promoter

At present reg. 31A (3) (b) (i) of LODR regulations provide that promoter/ persons belonging to promoter group seeking re-classification should not together hold more than 10% of the total voting rights in the listed entity.

The Consultation Paper proposes to increase the threshold of 10% to 15%, to enable those promoters who have shareholding of less than 15% but are no longer involved in the day-to-day control of the listed entity to opt-out from being classified as promoters, without having to reduce their share-holding.

2.      Suggestions for speeding up the process:

a.      Time limit within to place the reclassification request to be placed before the board

At present reg. 31A of LODR Regulations is silent on the time period within which the listed entity must place the reclassification request received from the promoter/ persons belonging to promoter group before the board, consequently as per SEBI’s data, in certain cases reclassification requests from promoter/ persons belonging to promoter group have not been placed before the Board, thereby ceasing the process in its initial phase.

To prevent this and streamline the process of reclassification, SEBI has proposed insertion of a time limit of one month receiving the reclassification request, within which the listed entity must place the same before its board of directors.

b.      Reduction in time period between board and shareholders meeting

As mentioned above, reg. 31A (3) (a) (ii) provides that the time gap between the meeting of the board at which the proposal for reclassification was accepted and the meeting of the shareholders, seeking approval for the same should be at least 3 months. The rationale behind the same was to give adequate time to the shareholders for considering the request of the promoter.

However, time gap 3 months resulted in an increase in the total time taken in the process. In order to increase both cost and time efficiency, the Consultation Paper proposes to reduce the minimum time gap from 3 months to 1 month.

3.      Extending the ambit of exemption from the procedure

a.      In case of reclassification is pursuant to an order/ direction of Government/ regulator

At present reg.  31A (9) provides exemption from the provisions of reg. 31A (3), (4) and (8)(a), (b) of LODR regulations in cases where re-classification of promoter/ persons belonging to promoter group is as per the resolution plan approved under s. 31 of the IBC, subject to the condition that the promoter seeking re-classification do not remain in control of the listed entity.

It is proposed to extend the said exemption to re-classification pursuant to an order/ direction of the Government/ regulator and/or as a consequence of operation of law since the re-classification is a natural consequence of the order/direction of the Government/ regulator.

b.      In case of reclassification of existing promoter pursuant to open offer

It is proposed to extend the exemption from procedure for re-classification to cases where the re-classification is pursuant to an open offer made in accordance with the provisions of SEBI (Substantial Acquisition of Shares and Takeover) Regulations, 2011 (‘SAST regulations’), subject to the satisfaction of following conditions:

  1. The intent of the existing promoters to re-classify has been disclosed in the letter of offer
  2. The promoter/ persons belonging to promoter group being reclassified fulfil the conditions mentioned in reg. 31A(3)(b) and the listed entity fulfils the conditions stipulated at reg. 31A(3)(c) of LODR regulations.

The rationale behind the exemption being that in cases where intent of reclassification has already been mentioned in the Letter of Offer, the requirement of promoter making an application is a mere procedural formality since the fact of re-classification is already present in the public domain.

c.       Cases where the outgoing promoter is absconding / non-cooperating

Exemption from the procedure for re-classification, is also proposed to be granted in cases where, pursuant to an open offer, a listed entity intends to re-classify erstwhile promoter/ persons belonging to promoter group but the promoter/ persons belonging to promoter group are not traceable or are not co-operative, but the same can be done after the fulfillment of the following conditions:

  1. The listed entity should demonstrate that efforts have been taken to contact the promoters through issuance of notices in newspapers, stock Exchange websites etc.
  2. Such promoters seeking re-classification should not remain in control of the listed entity

4.      Disclosure of names of promoter group entities in the shareholding pattern

Reg. 31 of LODR Regulations mandates that all entities falling under promoter/ promoter group are to be disclosed separately in the shareholding pattern.

As a matter of practice, several companies do not disclose names of persons in promoter/ promoter group who do not hold any shares.

It is to be noted that pursuant to the SEBI (Listing Obligations and Disclosures Requirements) (Sixth Amendment) Regulations, 2018[4] SEBI had, by virtue of by insertion of reg. 31(4) required that all entities falling under promoter and promoter group be disclosed separately in the shareholding pattern of listed entities appearing on the website of the stock exchanges in accordance with the formats specified by the SEBI . However, since the provisions of the Regulations still did not explicitly require entities to disclose the entire list of promoter/ promoter group irrespective of their shareholding, companies continued the practice of disclosing only those promoter/ promoter group entities that held shares in the company.  A detailed write-up on this insertion in Reg 31(4) can be read here.

To fill this gap, it has been proposed that all entities falling under promoter and promoter group be disclosed separately even if they do not hold shares in entity. Further it is proposed that listed entities obtain a declaration on a quarterly basis, from their promoters on the entities/ persons that form part of the ‘promoter group’.

Disclosures of all entities falling under promoter/ promoter group irrespective of the fact whether they hold shares in the listed entity hold all the more importance in light of the recent SEBI circular on Automation of Continual Disclosures under reg. 7(2) of SEBI (Prohibition of Insider Trading) Regulations, 2015 (‘PIT regulations’). In order to facilitate System Driven Disclosures (‘SDD’)[5]  pursuant to the said circular, the listed entities are  required to disclose to the designated depository the PAN number/ Demat account number (for PAN exempt entities) of all Promoters and promoter group so that the system can capture any trade in securities made by such entities.

Conclusion

Exemptions provided in the consultation paper in cases of open offer and order/ direction of Government/ regulator lead to reduction in compliance burden on the listed entity, further the proposed amendments w.r.t reduction in time gap between the board meeting and general meeting and the setting of time limit for placing the application before the board will lead to streamlining the entire process and bring efficiency in the same.

The clarification w.r.t to disclosure of names of promoter group entities holding ‘Nil’ shareholding and obtaining quarterly declarations from promoter may add to the compliance burden of listed entities at once, but in our view, should be effective in the long run.

Specific comments/suggestions on the Consultation Paper can be made to SEBI on or before December 24, 2020.

 

[1] For full text of the consultation paper see:

https://www.sebi.gov.in/web/?file=https://www.sebi.gov.in/sebi_data/attachdocs/nov-2020/1606126221923.pdf#page=4&zoom=page-width,-15,71

[2] For full text of the informal guidance see:

https://www.sebi.gov.in/sebi_data/commondocs/Alembic-sebiletter_p.pdf

[3] For full text of the informal guidance see:

https://www.sebi.gov.in/sebi_data/commondocs/oct-2017/gujaratsebi_p.pdf

[4] See: https://www.sebi.gov.in/legal/regulations/nov-2018/securities-and-exchange-board-of-india-listing-obligations-and-disclosure-requirements-sixth-amendment-regulations-2018_41051.html

[5] Circular no. SEBI/HO/ISD/ISD/CIR/P/2020/168 dated September 09, 2020 available at:

https://www.sebi.gov.in/web/?file=https://www.sebi.gov.in/sebi_data/attachdocs/sep-2020/1599654391917.pdf#page=1&zoom=page-width,-16,559

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