Look at the Securities (Contracts) Regulations Act. There is a provision in the Act that forbids two parties from entering into a private deal on futures and options. All such contracts have to be transacted on the designated stock exchanges. Therefore, if you have an agreement with your partner to buy back his shares three years hence at a price determined now, which is a kind of an options deal, the courts can rule that the agreement is null and void, ab initio. This absurd rule, otherwise known as Sec 18A, states: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force, contracts in derivative shall be legal and valid if such contracts are—(a) traded on a recognised stock exchange; (b) settled on the clearing house of the recognised stock exchange, in accordance with the rules and bye-laws of such stock exchange.” But for the provision to kick in, the courts have to intervene. And for that to happen, somebody (ideally one of the partners) has to go to court.
Ideally, a shareholders’ agreement is like a contract and once two parties sign on it, it becomes binding on both. But, hey, wait a second…here’s an escape route called Sec 18A, provided courtesy GOI and free of cost. And the crucial words are: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force…” So, if you signed a deal with your JV partner in a hurry, and want to extract more out of him now, you now know where to look.
Add to this another joker in the pack, Foreign Exchange Management Act, and the Indian corporate landscape resembles a veritable war zone, pocked with undetected landmines. FEMA states that in the case of unlisted shares, the “fair value” has to be worked out as per the erstwhile Controller of Capital Issues. This is strange on two counts: one, the Reserve Bank (which administers FEMA) insists on flogging CCI, which was abolished way back in 1991-92! Also, if it’s an unlisted company, why should anyone bother?
The recent Vodafone purchase of Hutch almost came unstuck because of these rules. Vodafone, after buying out Hutch’s 52% in its Indian operations, wanted to buy out the 12.26% held by Asim Ghosh and Analjit Singh for $430m, according to a pre-determined valuation. Immediately, there was pressure on the government to stop the deal. Reason: its pre-determined prices are essentially null and void. FEMA also kicked in. Fortunately, the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) cleared the deal on Friday.
Here’s another interesting case. A few months ago, Narotam Sekhsaria sold off his stake in Gujarat Ambuja to Swiss cement company Holcim. As part of the deal, Mr Sekhsaria also made Ambuja sell off its stake in Ambuja Cement India, an SPV that held Gujarat Ambuja’s stake in another cement major ACC. Under the agreement, Ambuja is to sell off its stake in ACIL in three tranches of 9,53,7500 shares each. The first transaction, completed in the first quarter this year, was struck at Rs 55 per share. Now comes the clincher: the pricing for the next two tranches (to be completed on April 30 this year and April 30 next year) too has been determined (at Rs 56 and Rs 61 per share, respectively). This is like an options contract and can be taken to court by Gujarat Ambuja minority shareholders.
The pact between Holcim and Ambuja for transfer of ACIL shares, at pre-determined prices at a future date, constitute an options contract and can be held to be null and void. The lawyers would have surely wrapped the contract with overseas arbitration clauses and guarantees from various multinational banks. But the minority shareholders might not take to this too kindly. Especially since Gujarat Ambuja had to bear huge interest costs on loans taken to fund the ACIL equity during the ACC acquisition. Now that cement stocks are doing well, they end up with peanuts.
But, guess, who is making the most of all this confusion? It’s a breed called lawyers.