In June 2016, the Indian government announced new rules allowing for foreign direct investments into Indian owned and domiciled companies. The new rules continue a trend in laws supporting India as an open world economy. A large portion of the U.S. public marketplace is actually the trading of securities of foreign owned or held businesses. Foreign businesses may register and trade directly on U.S. public markets as foreign private issuers, or they may operate as partial or wholly owned subsidiaries of U.S. parent companies that in turn quote and trade on either the OTC Markets or a U.S. exchange.
Brief Overview for Foreign Private Issuers
Definition of Foreign Private Issuer
Both the Securities Act of 1933, as amended (“Securities Act”) and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended (“Exchange Act”) contain definitions of a “foreign private issuer.” Generally, if a company does not meet the definition of a foreign private issuer, it is subject to the same registration and reporting requirements as any U.S. company.
The determination of foreign private issuer status is not just dependent on the country of domicile, though a U.S. company can never qualify regardless of the location of its operations, assets, management and subsidiaries. There are generally two tests of qualification as a foreign private issuer, as follows: (i) relative degree of U.S. share ownership; and (ii) level of U.S. business contacts.
As with many securities law definitions, the overall definition of foreign private issuer starts with an all-encompassing “any foreign issuer” and then carves out exceptions from there. In particular, a foreign private issuer is any foreign issuer, except one that meets the following as of the last day of its second fiscal quarter:
(i) a foreign government;
(ii) more than 50% of its voting securities are directly or indirectly held by U.S. residents; and any of the following: (a) the majority of the executive officers or directors are U.S. citizens or residents; (b) more than 50% of the assets are in the U.S.; or (c) the principal business is in the U.S. Principal business location is determined by considering the company’s principal business segments or operations, its board and shareholder meetings, its headquarters, and its most influential key executives.
That is, if fewer than a foreign company’s shareholders are located in the U.S., it qualifies as a foreign private issuer. If more than 50% of the record shareholders are in the U.S., the company must further consider the location of its officers and directors, assets and business operations.
Registration and Ongoing Reporting Obligations
Like U.S. companies, when a foreign company desires to sell securities to U.S. investors, such offers and sales must either be registered or there must be an available Securities Act exemption from registration. The registration and exemption rules available to foreign private issuers are the same as those for U.S. domestic companies, including, for example, Regulation D (with the primarily used Rules 506(b) and 506(c)) and Regulation S) and resale restrictions and exemptions such as under Section 4(a)(1) and Rule 144.
When offers and sales are registered, the foreign company becomes subject to ongoing reporting requirements. Subject to the exemption under Exchange Act Rule 12g3-2(b) discussed at the end of this blog, when a foreign company desires to trade on a U.S. exchange or the OTC Markets, it must register a class of securities under either Section 12(b) or 12(g) of the Exchange Act. Likewise, when a foreign company’s worldwide assets and worldwide/U.S. shareholder base reaches a certain level ($10 million in assets; total shareholders of 2,000 or greater or 500 unaccredited with U.S. shareholders being 300 or more), it is required to register with the SEC under Section 12(g) of the Exchange Act.
The SEC has adopted several rules applicable only to foreign private issuers and maintains an Office of International Corporate Finance to review filings and assist in registration and reporting questions. Of particular significance:
(i) Foreign private issuers may prepare financial statements using either US GAAP; International Financial Reporting Standards (“IFRS”); or home country accounting standards with a reconciliation to US GAAP;
(ii) Foreign private issuers are exempt from the Section 14 proxy rules;
(iii) Insiders of foreign private issuers are exempt from the Section 16 reporting requirements and short swing trading prohibitions; however, they must comply with Section 13 (for a review of Sections 13 and 16, see my blog HERE);
(iv) Foreign private issuers are exempt from Regulation FD;
(v) Foreign private issuers may use separate registration and reporting forms and are not required to file quarterly reports (for example, Form F-1 registration statement and Forms 20-F and 6-K for annual and periodic reports); and
(vi) Foreign private issuers have a separate exemption from the Section 12(g) registration requirements (Rule 12g3-2(b)) allowing the trading of securities on the OTC Markets without being subject to the SEC reporting requirement.
Although a foreign private issuer may voluntarily register and report using the same forms and rules applicable to U.S. issuers, they may also opt to use special forms and rules specifically designed for and only available to foreign companies. Form 20-F is the primary disclosure document and Exchange Act registration form for foreign private issuers and is analogous to both an annual report on Form 10-K and an Exchange Act registration statement on Form 10. A Form F-1 is the general registration form for the offer and sale of securities under the Securities Act and, like Form S-1, is the form to be used when the company does not qualify for the use of any other registration form.
A Form F-3 is analogous to A Form S-3. A Form F-3 allows incorporation by reference of an annual and other SEC reports. To qualify to use a Form F-3, the foreign company must, among other requirements that are substantially similar to S-3, have been subject to the Exchange Act reporting requirements for at least 12 months and filed all reports in a timely manner during that time. The company must have filed at least one annual report on Form 20-F. A Form F-4 is used for business combinations and exchange offers, and a Form F-6 is used for American Depository Receipts (ADR). Also, under certain circumstances, a foreign private issuer can submit a registration statement on a confidential basis.
Once registered, a foreign private issuer must file periodic reports. A Form 20-F is sued for an annual report and is due within four months of fiscal year-end. Quarterly reports are not required. A Form 6-K is used for periodic reports and captures: (i) the information that would be required to be filed in a Form 8-K; (ii) information the company makes or is required to make public under the laws of its country of domicile; and (iii) information it files or is required to file with a U.S. and foreign stock exchange.
As noted above, a foreign private issuer may elect to use either U.S. GAAP; International Financial Reporting Standards (“IFRS”); or home country accounting standards with a reconciliation to U.S. GAAP in the preparation and presentation of its financial statements. Regardless of the accounting standard used, the audit firm must be registered with the PCAOB.
All filings with the SEC must be made in English. Where a document or contract is being translated from a different language, the SEC has rules to ensure the translation is fair and accurate.
The SEC rules do not have scaled disclosure requirements for foreign private issuers. That is, all companies, regardless of size, must report the same information. A foreign private issuer that would qualify as a smaller reporting company or emerging growth company should consider whether it should use and be subject to the regular U.S. reporting requirements and registration and reporting forms. The company should also consider that no foreign private issuer is required to provide a Compensation Discussion & Analysis (CD&I). If the foreign company opts to be subject to the regular U.S. reporting requirements, it must also use U.S. GAAP for its financial statements. For further discussions on general reporting requirements and rules related to smaller reporting and emerging growth companies, see my blogs HERE, HERE, and HERE related to ongoing proposed changes and which includes multiple related links under the “further background” subsection.
The deregistration rules for a foreign private issuer are different from those for domestic companies. A foreign private issuer may deregister if: (i) the average daily volume of trading of its securities in the U.S. for a recent 12-month period is less than 5% of the worldwide average daily trading volume; or (ii) the company has fewer than 300 shareholders worldwide. In addition, the company must: (i) have been reporting for at least one year and have filed at least one annual report and be current in all reports; (ii) must not have registered securities for sale in the last 12 months; and (iii) must have maintained a listing of securities in its primary trading markets for at least 12 months prior to deregistration.
American Depository Receipts (ADRs)
An ADR is a certificate that evidences ownership of American Depository Shares (ADS) which, in turn, reflect a specified interest in a foreign company’s shares. Technically the ADR is a certificate reflecting ownership of an ADS, but in practice market participants just use the term ADR to reflect both. An ADR trades in U.S. dollars and clears through the U.S. DTC, thus avoiding foreign currency issuers. ADR’s are issued by a U.S. bank which, in turn, either directly or indirectly through a relationship with a foreign custodian bank, holds a deposit of the underlying foreign company’s shares. ADR securities must either be subject to the Exchange Act reporting requirements or be exempt under Rule 12g3-2(b). ADR’s are always registered on Form F-6.
OTC Markets allows for the listing and trading of foreign entities on the OTCQX and OTCQB that do not meet the definition of a foreign private issuer as long as such company has its securities listed on a Qualifying Foreign Stock Exchange for a minimum of the preceding 40 calendar days subject to OTC Markets’ ability to waive such requirement upon application. If the company does not meet the definition of foreign private issuer, it still must fully comply with Exchange Act Rule 12g3-2(b). For details on the OTCQX listing requirements for international companies, see my blog HERE and for listing requirements for OTCQB companies, including international issuers, see HERE.
India as an emerging market
India is widely considered the world’s fastest growing major economy. The small and micro-cap industry has been eyeing India as an emerging market for the U.S. public marketplace for several years now. In my practice alone, I have been approached by several groups that see the U.S. public markets as offering incredible potential to the exploding Indian start-up and emerging growth sector. Taking advantage of this opportunity, however, was stifled by strict Indian laws prohibiting or limiting foreign investment into Indian companies. In June 2016, the Indian government announced new rules allowing for foreign direct investments into Indian owned and domiciled companies opening up the country to foreign investment, including by U.S. shareholders.
The new rules allow for up to 100% foreign investment in certain sectors. U.S. investors who already invest heavily in Indian-based defense, aviation, pharmaceutical and technology companies will see even greater opportunity in these sectors, which will now allow up to 100% foreign investment. Although certain sectors, including defense, will still require advance government approval for foreign investment, most sectors will receive automatic approval. U.S. public companies will now be free to invest in and acquire Indian-based subsidiaries. Likewise, more India-based companies will be able to trade on U.S. public markets, attracting U.S. shareholders and the benefits of market liquidity and public company valuations.
Indian companies are slowly starting to take advantage of reverse merger transactions with U.S. public companies. In July 2016, online travel agency Yatra Online, Inc., entered into a reverse merger agreement with Terrapin 3 Acquisition Corp, a U.S. SPAC. The transaction is expected to close in October 2016. Yatra is structured under a U.S. holding company with operations in India though an India domiciled subsidiary.
Last year Vidocon d2h became the first India-based company to go public via reverse merger when it completed a reverse merger with a U.S. NASDAQ SPAC. In January, 2016 Bangalore-based Strand Life Sciences Pvt Ltd became the second India based reverse merger when it went public in the U.S. in a transaction with a NASDAQ company.
In addition, U.S.-based public companies, venture capital and private equity firms, and hedge funds and family offices have been investing heavily in the Indian start-up and emerging growth boom. Yatra and Strand Life had both received several rounds of U.S. private funding before entering into their reverse merger agreements. NASDAQ-listed firm Ctrip.com International recently invested $180 million into another India-based online travel company, MakeMyTrip.
India’s Mumbai/Bombay Stock Exchange is already a Qualified Foreign Exchange for purposes of meeting the standards to trade on the U.S. OTCQX International. For details on all OTCQX listing requirements, including for international companies, see my blog HERE and related directly to international companies including Rule 12g3-2(b), see HERE. At least 5 companies currently trade on the OTCQX, with their principal market being in India.
Exchange Act Rule 12g3-2(b)
Exchange Act Rule 12g3-2(b) permits foreign private issuers to have their equity securities traded on the U.S. over-the-counter market without registration under Section 12 of the Exchange Act (and therefore without being subject to the Exchange Act reporting requirements). The Rule is automatic for foreign issuers that meet its requirements. A foreign issuer may not rely on the rule if it is otherwise subject to the Exchange Act reporting requirements.
The Rule provides that an issuer is not required to be subject to the Exchange Act reporting requirements if:
(i) the issuer currently maintains a listing of its securities on one or more exchanges in a foreign jurisdiction which is the primary trading market for such securities; and
(ii) the issuer has published, in English, on its website or through an electronic information delivery system generally available to the public in its primary trading market (such as the OTC Market Group website), information that, since the first day of its most recently completed fiscal year, it (a) has made public or been required to make public pursuant to the laws of its country of domicile; (b) has filed or been required to file with the principal stock exchange in its primary trading market and which has been made public by that exchange; and (c) has distributed or been required to distribute to its security holders.
Primary Trading Market means that at least 55 percent of the trading in the subject class of securities on a worldwide basis took place in, on or through the facilities of a securities market or markets in a single foreign jurisdiction or in no more than two foreign jurisdictions during the issuer’s most recently completed fiscal year.
In order to maintain the Rule 12g3-2(b) exemption, the issuer must continue to publish the required information on an ongoing basis and for each fiscal year. The information required to be published electronically is information that is material to an investment decision regarding the subject securities, such as information concerning:
(i) Results of operations or financial condition;
(ii) Changes in business;
(iii) Acquisitions or dispositions of assets;
(iv) The issuance, redemption or acquisition of securities;
(v) Changes in management or control;
(vi) The granting of options or the payment of other remuneration to directors or officers; and
(vii) Transactions with directors, officers or principal security holders.
At a minimum, a foreign private issuer shall electronically publish English translations of the following documents:
(i) Its annual report, including or accompanied by annual financial statements;
(ii) Interim reports that include financial statements;
(iii) Press releases; and
(iv) All other communications and documents distributed directly to security holders of each class of securities to which the exemption relates.