Its decision to desist from amending the Takeover Regulations is acknowledgement of the fact that one size doesn’t fit all
The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) has announced that it would refrain from amending the Takeover Regulations to specify situations in which it would rule that there is no change of control over a listed company. This is a right step for a variety of reasons.
When one acquires control over the management and policy decisions of a listed company, an offer to buy shares from other shareholders is mandatory. Likewise, acquisition of shares with voting rights of 25 per cent or more mandatorily triggers an open offer. Typically, acquisition of control occurs along with acquisition of shares. However, the regulations contain a provision that makes it an obligation to make an open offer when acquiring control regardless of the quantum of shares acquired.
This is an important regime. One can acquire control without crossing the 25 per cent voting rights that would trigger an open offer. This could take shapes and forms that cannot be predicted in advance — through contractual rights and arrangements embedded in documents to which the listed company is bound. Now, when investors execute investment agreements with listed companies and desire a degree of say in decisions that could alter the very foundation of the company they invested in, the question often arises whether they have taken over control.
For example, if a company that manufactures paper seeks to change its activity to manufacturing steel, and an investor secures a contractual right to stop it, that would not represent the capacity to control the day-to-day management of the company. It would only be a right to insist that a company stays its course truthfully. On the other hand, if an investor were to have a right to approve every contract above a threshold value, it would point to control over how to manage the company.
Life is never led in either extreme, but there is a lot of truth in between the two extremes. For example, an investor may secure a right to object to a transaction that is a substantial component of the value of the net worth of the company — in other words, the right to scuttle a risky proposition. What the size of the net worth is and how much percentage of it is the threshold, what nature of transaction is sought to be covered — these are all factors that would answer the question of whether such a right constitutes control over management and policy decisions. For example, the right to approve the room tariff policy of a hotel owned by a listed company could be control over the company if the only business of the company was to run that one hotel. Such a right over one hotel, which does not constitute a major source of revenue for a company that owns multiple hotels, would not constitute control.
Now it would be impossible to stipulate by legislation what constitutes control in a manner that wold cover all possible factual situations. Therefore, beyond stating that rights, which merely constitute some influence over material and fundamental changes to the ordinary course of conduct would not necessarily constitute control, it would not be possible to stipulate more. Such guidance could emerge from rulings and case law rather than by legislation that would lay down hard rules, which may not fit every situation. That Sebi even undertook a public exercise of considering these issues points to its acknowledgement that a one-size-fits-all approach of alleging control would be wrong — just as it would be impossible to provide immunity that certain types of rights would never constitute control.
In recent orders, Sebi has adopted a mature stance of acknowledging this position. Other legislation, too, have references to “control” and pretty much sail in the same boat. To legislate that unless 25 per cent is owned there would be no control would be a lazy option and can have a deleterious effect, with an incentive to fly just under the radar and actually wield control. To legislate that certain types of rights can never ever constitute control or that they would always and necessarily constitute control would also be fundamentally flawed. This is why the Achuthan Committee, whose draft is the basis of the current version of the Takeover Regulations (Disclosure: The author was a member), consciously left this to case law to evolve on the facts of each case.
Indeed, Sebi can issue guidance notes explaining the principles that it would apply in its approach to enforcement in this regard. Beyond that, whether or not any person has acquired control will necessarily be left to a “question of fact” to be answered from the facts and circumstances of each case. It may well sound like a fallback on the US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous ruling in a case involving a charge of “hard-core pornography” against a movie. He ruled: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
This column was published as Without Contempt in editions of Business Standard dated September 21, 2017