Who owns India’s firms? Regulator seeks to clean up market

While the Adani Group is the most high-profile case of a large stock-market fortune propped up by a less-than-transparent source of foreign funding, it isn’t the only one. — Bloomberg

INDIA’S stock-market watchdog seems to be on an urgent mission to rescue its credibility.

A controversial, new proposal to track foreign money to its source is bound to run into resistance from vested interests. But without such powers, the regulator can never claim to run a clean market.

A panel appointed by the Supreme Court in New Delhi recently stopped short of returning a finding of regulatory failure against the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI).

But the committee’s characterisation of the SEBI’s ongoing probe into the country’s largest infrastructure behemoth as “a journey without a destination” wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence, either.

The regulator told the expert panel that it is investigating as many as 13 opaque entities based in Mauritius and Cyprus that, as of March 2020, held between 14% and 20% across five publicly traded stocks of the Ahmedabad-based Adani Group.

Those are large numbers. Specifically, the SEBI wants to verify whether the 42 investors who put capital into these 13 vehicles – 12 funds and one overseas financial firm – are mere fronts for the tycoon Gautam Adani and his family.

The conglomerate had strenuously denied those allegations in New York-based short-seller Hindenburg Research’s Jan 24 report and said that “innuendoes” that any of the public shareholders “are in any manner related parties of the promoters are incorrect.”

While the Adani Group is the most high-profile case of a large stock-market fortune propped up by a less-than-transparent source of foreign funding, it isn’t the only one.

How will India ever be able to chase shape-shifting capital to its ultimate owners? The SEBI’s plan, which it has released for public consultation, is ostensibly simple and rules-based. It will leave undisturbed all pension pools, as well as public funds with a diverse retail base.

Foreign investors linked to a government or a central bank, such as sovereign wealth funds, will also be spared. Everyone else will be judged high-risk.

If their local portfolios happen to be bigger than 250 billion rupees (US$3bil or RM13.81bil), or if they have a concentration of more than 50% in any one Indian business group, they will have to “provide granular data of all entities with any ownership, economic interest, or control rights on a full look–through basis” until the disclosures reveal names of individuals, retail funds or large, publicly traded firms.

Naysayers will argue that such a mechanical approach will throw up many false positives.

The Indian market will get a bad rep for not being welcoming of foreigners. The other issue is of practicality. Suppose a legitimate, diversified fund is unlucky enough to get classified as high risk.

It may be required to furnish information about the source of every dollar invested in it. But if the SEBI has been unable to get to the bottom of the 42 Adani investors, what authority will a private fund manager have to peel away multiple layers of corporate veil and get everyone up to the ultimate owners to waive off their privacy rights?

The risk of excessive compliance can never be dismissed by anyone familiar with India’s bureaucratic overzealousness. For now though, the SEBI deserves a chance. The idea that it is about to open a Pandora’s Box is without merit.

The regulator’s consultation paper said that it estimates 6% of foreign investment – or less than 1% of the total market capitalisation – to be potentially high risk.

Besides, it’s willing to grant a six-month grace period to funds that are scaling up or winding down. They can temporarily breach the 50% rule without additional disclosures.

Similarly, a capital pool that invests in clean technologies worldwide may have a small SEBI-registered portfolio. It will be viewed as low or medium risk as long as a single Indian group accounts for less than 25% of the global fund.

To me, false negatives are a bigger worry. Instead of a US$1bil (RM4.6bil) opaque fund with 51% allocated to one Indian business, the SEBI will be confronted by two such entities, each earmarking 49% of its US$500mil (RM2.3bil) corpus to the same group.

The drive to root out “briefcase investors,” or dodgy money masquerading as Mauritius-domiciled funds, could thus produce the opposite of the intended effect.

Some discretion in classifying an investment vehicle as high risk may be warranted to prevent gaming of the proposed rules. The only draconian part of the SEBI’s proposal is the disclosure requirement for high-risk funds with more than US$3bil (RM13.81bil) invested locally, regardless of concentration.

The goal here is not to catch violations of minimum public-shareholding norms but to identify beneficial owners from a country that “shares a land border with India”.

That’s a euphemism for China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government doesn’t want firms from the People’s Republic to acquire interests in India Inc without its permission.

It’s possible that hard-to-penetrate entities in a third country are being used to get around those regulations, which have so far been spelled out only for foreign direct investments. — Bloomberg

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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