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Angel tax in India: The evolving impact on deal structuring

We delve into the historical evolution of the angel tax regime, its intricate nuances, the recent amendments relating to expansion of scope to shares issued to non-residents and updated valuation rules, and the consequential effects on transactional frameworks.

Ashutosh Sharma

Avin Jain

Angel tax in India: The evolving impact on deal structuring

Sunday November 12, 2023 , 8 min Read

The imposition of ‘angel tax’ (income tax levied on excess share premium i.e., fair market value (FMV) minus the issue price received by a closely held Indian company on issuance of its shares) (hereinafter referred to as ‘angel tax’) in India has spurred myriad debates and discussions, culminating in significant ramifications for deal structuring within the nation's vibrant startup ecosystem. 

In this article, we delve into the historical evolution of the angel tax regime, its intricate nuances, the recent amendments relating to expansion of scope to shares issued to non-residents and updated valuation rules, and the consequential effects on transactional frameworks.

Introduction

Introduced in 2013 as an anti-abuse measure, angel tax was initially conceptualised to deter the laundering of undisclosed income by resident Indians via investments in startups. However, its scope and ambit have since evolved, affecting not only startups’ fundraising endeavours but also the broader deal structuring landscape. 

Historical context

Angel tax finds its genesis in Section 56(2)(viib) of the Income Tax Act, 1961 (Tax Act). This provision targeted closely-held companies that issued shares to resident investors at a premium exceeding their FMV. 

Subsequent legislative and regulatory developments further expanded the scope of this provision, encompassing a broader range of transactions and extending its applicability to shares issued to non-resident investors as well, from April 1, 2023. Notably, angel tax does not apply to startups recognised by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) subject to fulfilment of specified conditions.

The valuation conundrum

The crux of the angel tax controversy hinges on the valuation of shares. Traditional tax rules i.e., Rule 11UA of the Income Tax Rules, 1962 (Rule 11UA), relied on two valuation methods for equity shares, namely the book-value based ‘net asset value’ method (NAV method) and the ‘discounted cash flow’ method (DCF method). For other shares (including compulsorily convertible preference shares (CCPS)), no specific method was prescribed, and their valuation was based on price which such shares would fetch in the open market. 

Subsequently, introduction of angel tax added an additional layer of complexity, as startups and investors grappled with the potential tax implications on their valuation decisions, specifically due to different valuation requirements under various laws applicable to the same transaction. The recent amendments have provided some clarity on the valuation of the CCPS; however, the valuation of a startup is incumbent upon intangible factors such as intellectual property and value addition, and valuation of startups may be subjected to scrutiny, making it difficult to justify. 

Recent amendments: a paradigm shift

The Central Board of Direct Taxes, in response to the burgeoning concerns and critiques, issued a seminal notification effective from September 25, 2023. This notification heralded substantial amendments to Rule 11UA which prescribes the manner of calculation of the FMV of shares. 

Salient features of the amendments include the following:

  1. introduction of additional valuation methodologies in addition to the DCF method and the NAV method,
  2. extension of the valuation methods applicable to equity shares, now to CCPS,
  3. relief from angel tax in cases where the FMV exceeds the subscription price by less than 10%, and 
  4. flexibility of opting for a valuation date prior to actual share allotment up to 90 days.
Angel tax

Implications on deal structuring

Angel tax, with its nuances and recent amendments, has substantially influenced the landscape of deal structuring within India’s startup ecosystem and will keep foreign investors on the edge. 

Here are some of the multi-faceted implications:

1. Pricing negotiations

  • Valuation discrepancies: The introduction of angel tax has made pricing negotiations increasingly complex. Startups, in their nascent stages, often find it challenging to justify their valuations based on traditional metrics, making them susceptible to the tax's implications. Investors, aware of these implications, might push for a lower valuation to mitigate potential tax liabilities.
  • Shift in bargaining power: With potential tax implications looming large, investors could have an upper hand in negotiations, especially if they believe that the startup’s proposed valuation might invite scrutiny from tax authorities.

2. Investor dynamics

  • Diversification of investment portfolios: With the extension of angel tax to non-residents, foreign investors might rethink their investment strategies in India. They might seek to diversify their portfolios, investing in a mix of early-stage startups and more established entities to balance potential tax implications.
  • Rethinking investment vehicles: Considering the nuances associated with angel tax, investors might consider alternate investment vehicles or structures, such as debt financing or convertible notes which can be converted into equity without going through the challenges faced due to issuance of compulsorily convertible debentures, since the valuation of convertible notes continues to be based on open market value, which could potentially fall outside the purview of angel tax applicability.

3. Transactional complexity

  • Due diligence: The importance of rigorous due diligence has been magnified. Both startups and investors must undertake comprehensive valuation exercises, ensuring they can defend their valuations if challenged. This diligence extends beyond mere financial metrics, encapsulating market potential, intellectual property, competitive landscape and other intangible assets.
  • Contractual safeguards: Transaction documents are now likely to incorporate specific clauses addressing angel tax implications. These might include representations and warranties concerning valuations, indemnity clauses to safeguard against potential tax liabilities and specific conditions precedent or subsequent based on tax clearances or certifications.
  • Escrow arrangements: Given the uncertainty surrounding valuations and potential tax liabilities, parties might resort to escrow arrangements. Such mechanisms would entail a portion of the investment amount being held in escrow, to be released upon the satisfaction of specific conditions, such as obtaining a favourable valuation report or clearance from tax authorities.

4. Evolution of funding mechanisms

  • Preference for convertible instruments: To circumvent the challenges posed by angel tax, there’s a growing inclination towards convertible instruments. Convertible notes or debentures, which convert into equity at a later stage based on predefined triggers (like subsequent funding rounds or specific milestones), might see increased popularity as they provide a temporal buffer against immediate valuation challenges.
  • Milestone-based investments: Investors might prefer structuring deals where investments are tranche-based, linked to specific milestones. This not only mitigates risks but also offers a potential workaround for valuation challenges, as each tranche could be priced based on the startup’s progress and market conditions at the time of the tranche's release.

5. Regulatory interactions and litigations

  • Increased scrutiny: Given angel tax’s prominence and the government’s intent to curb money laundering, startups could experience increased scrutiny concerning their fundraising activities. This necessitates maintaining meticulous records, undertaking periodic valuations, and being prepared for potential inquiries.
  • Litigations and appeals: The subjective nature of valuations, combined with angel tax;s implications, might lead to an uptick in litigation. Startups and investors, if aggrieved by tax demands or notices, might resort to legal recourse, seeking clarifications or challenging the tax department's stance.

Comparative analysis

While many jurisdictions employ anti-abuse measures, the direct imposition of a tax based on valuation discrepancies is relatively rare. This divergence underscores the need for India to continually reassess and recalibrate its approach, ensuring alignment with global best practices while safeguarding its fiscal interests.

The road ahead

Angel tax, since its inception, has been emblematic of the broader challenge regulators face i.e., crafting policy that deters fiscal misuse while simultaneously fostering entrepreneurial spirit and economic growth. As the startup ecosystem in India continues to burgeon, the role of regulatory frameworks, such as those surrounding angel tax, becomes even more paramount. 

While recent amendments to the angel tax regime are indicative of the government’s receptiveness to stakeholder feedback, it will be interesting to observe the applicability of the amendment to share issuances post imposition of angel tax to non-residents in April this year, in light of the amendments. The angel tax conundrum continues to govern the fate of stakeholders and the journey is far from over. Continuous engagement between policymakers, startups, investors, and legal experts will be crucial in refining the policy further. 

Such iterative policymaking, underpinned by robust discussions, can ensure that the tax system supports, rather than hinders, India’s ambition of becoming a global startup hub. Furthermore, as the global economic landscape evolves and new investment paradigms emerge, it’s imperative for India’s fiscal policies to remain agile. 

Angel tax and its future iterations must be seen not in isolation but as part of a larger tapestry of regulations that seek to create a conducive environment for business and investment. Ultimately, the aspiration should be to craft a fiscal framework where genuine business endeavours thrive without the shadow of undue taxation, and where both domestic and international investors view India as a favourable destination for their capital.


Edited by Swetha Kannan

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)