Although all of the above schemes are equally important, one key initiative that will unlock the potential of others is the National Monetisation Plan, which involves the monetisation of India’s public infrastructure assets, so as to fund various other infrastructure initiatives. As of April 2022, the government has generated INR 96,000 crores under the scheme, exceeding the target of INR 88,000 Crore set for FY22.
India has over 58,97,671 kilometres of the road network, with 12 major ports and 212 non-major ports, total trackage of 1,26,366 kilometres of railways, a total of 136 airports under the ownership of the Airports Authority of India, and a total of 20,236 kilometres of navigable inland waterways. This is besides the length of water and sewerage networks owned by several state governments, and other existing public utilities that constitute public infrastructure owned by the government or the Public Sector Undertakings (“PSUs”). Hence, it is pertinent that these public infrastructures at the disposal of the Indian government are optimally monetised. According to a recent announcement by the Government of India, a total of INR 6 trillion in public assets are sought to be monetised by leasing the assets to private operators for a fixed term, unlocking a value of INR 111 trillion.
Asset Monetization: The Apprehensions and Options
Most countries are sceptical about fully privatising their public infrastructure assets, although this is not necessarily unheard of in the past. Asset monetisation in the context of the infrastructure sector in India involves the limited offer of public infrastructure to institutional investors and other private sector investors, through certain structured mechanisms in order to generate more value from the same assets. Some mechanisms include the Toll Operate Transfer (“TOT”) model, which awards concessions for completed road projects to entities that have experience running toll roads. Here the concessionaire (a private entity) shall win the right to operate and maintain the road and collect toll from the roads for a particular period in consideration of a lump sum amount paid to the government or the PSU. The government shall, in turn, use this money to fund other infrastructure projects.
Another model for monetizing public infrastructure assets is the use of infrastructure investment trusts (“InvITs”) and real estate investment trusts (“REITs”), in which the underlying infrastructure or real estate assets are transferred to a trust, which then operates similarly to a mutual fund, attracting investors while securitizing the proceeds from the underlying infrastructure or real estate assets. For the purpose of this article, we shall focus on InvITs.
InvITs: Structure, Advantages and Risks
Advantages of InvITs
- Long, stable and predictable cash flows: The SEBI (Infrastructure Investment Trust) Regulations, 2014 (“InvIT Regulations”) and its attendant notifications mandate that 90% of the cash flows from the underlying infrastructure assets shall be distributed to the investors of the InvIT Net Distributable Cash Flows (“NDCFs”). Some of the concession agreements governing the underlying infrastructure assets have long concession periods of 15 to 20 years, sometimes even 50 or 60 years. If the InvIT is well managed, then there would be an assured 50 to 60 years of stable and predictable cash flows, depending on the tenure of the underlying concession agreement.
- Infusion of Public Funds: Traditionally infrastructure projects have only attracted funding from syndicated banks, investments from developers, and the government. With this unique model, not only are institutional investors allowed an opportunity to invest money into these projects, but the general public can also own a stake in the development of the infrastructure sector by holding units in InvITs.
- The professionalisation of Infrastructure Management: The InvIT Regulations mandate a minimum number of years of experience in handling certain volumes of transactions or projects for the key stakeholders of an InvIT, such as the Sponsor, the Trustee, the Investment Manager, the Project Manager, and even the auditors.
- High-Quality Underlying Assets: The InvIT regulations have very specific norms on what kind of infrastructure assets can be rolled over into the InvIT framework. The regulations specify that only those projects that have started generating revenues after completion of construction or achieved commercial operations date (“COD”) or at the pre-COD stage of the project with almost 80% of the construction work complete, or those projects that have received all requisite approvals and certifications (non-PPP projects), can be rolled over into the InvIT framework.
- Special Tax Recognition: The Finance Act, 2014, added a new definition of “Business Trust,” which applies to InvITs and REITs, under which these types of entities enjoy certain benefits. The most recent amendment in the Finance Act of 2020 included unlisted InvITs and REITs under the umbrella of business trusts. Prior to the above amendment, only listed InvITs and REITs enjoyed this recognition. Some of these advantages include the pass-through mechanism, wherein any dividends earned from an InvIT are not taxed at the InvIT level, but in the hands of the unit holder. Similarly, interests from debt provided to the underlying infrastructure assets are also taxed only at the level of the unitholders, thus avoiding double taxation. There is also a push by Niti Aayog to introduce Section 54EC capital gains exemption status under the Income Tax Act, 1961, to InvIT units, similar to the bonds issued by the National Highway Authority of India, Power Finance Corporation Limited, Indian Railways Finance Corporation Limited, and Rural Electrification Corporation Limited.
Risks of InvITs
- Regulatory Risks: The concept of InvITs is very unique to India, and therefore SEBI’s InvIT Regulations are one of a kind in the world. Since the introduction of the InvIT Regulations in 2014, there have been regular changes to the laws so as to make them effective for on-the-ground rollouts of InvITs. Some risks connected with these changes still need to be accounted for.
- Credit Rating Risks: Many credit rating agencies have difficulty appropriately valuing the returns that can be generated from the underlying infrastructure assets. Since the disaster of IL&FS, there have been several attempts to introduce different rating methodologies that apply uniquely to the infrastructure sector, as opposed to the standard rating processes that are used for manufacturing and other service industries. In fact, vide its July 2021 circular, SEBI introduced the “expected loss” model for rating infrastructure assets. As this is an evolving sector, considerable revisions can be expected in the methodology of rating infrastructure assets, which can pose a potential risk.
- Operational Risks: The pandemic has been the biggest disruptor of the infrastructure sector in recent times. Similar force majeure incidents, along with other risks associated with the operation of assets, such as erratic usage of the operating assets, for example, inadequate traffic in a road project or increased operational costs due to lack of availability of raw materials in solar-powered power generation and transmission plant leading to increased operational costs in the subsequent supply-chain and many similar issues can decrease the value provided by the underlying infrastructure assets.
InvITs in India – The Scenario Thus Far
India is witnessing a boom in the number of InvITs that are getting established. Currently, there are 18 InvITs registered with the SEBI. With increased impetus provided to the National Monetisation Pipeline, the NHAI has offered 3 additional road projects totalling 247 kms to its InvIT, attracting international pension funds such as the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan Board as anchor investors. The profitable returns provided by the initially established InvITs, such as the India Grid Trust and IRB InvIT, touched 56% and 83% in 2021. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is an increased interest in investing in infrastructure development by such pension funds and sovereign funds. For example, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan each took 25% equity in the INR 6,000 crore issue of NHAI’s InvIT as anchor investors. Similarly, the private InvIT, IRB Infrastructure Trust, recently completed INR 243 crores worth of fund raising with IRB holding 51% and the Singapore-based sovereign fund GIC holding 49% in the InvIT. Other InvITs looking to raise funds include the Canadian pension fund CDPQ-owned Indian Highways Concessions Trust and Tata Powers intending to reduce debt from its renewable energies business by hiving off the same into an InvIT. The railways sector, similarly, has a mandate to monetise its assets via the InvIT route.
All of these are indicative of increased activity in the infrastructure funding space via InvITs. The Government of India’s push for increased asset monetisation, combined with the regulatory body, SEBI’s proactive approach to reducing the risks associated with investments in InvITs, is providing more assurances to foreign investors. However, the returns provided by the initially established InvITs in the country have proven to be a decisive attraction factor for investors.