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RBI Consultation Paper on P2P Lending: Legality and Implications

Posted by Pavishka Mittal at May 23, 2016 06:45 AM |
The Reserve Bank of India published a Consultation Paper on Peer-to-Peer Lending on April 28, 2016. The Paper proposes to bring the P2P lending platforms under the purview of RBI’s regulation by defining P2P platforms as NBFCs under section 45I(f)(iii) of the RBI Act. Once notified as NBFCs, RBI can issue regulations under sections 45JA and 45L. The last date for submission of comments to the Consultation Paper is May 31, 2016. In this post, Pavishka Mittal discusses the legality and implications of the proposed classification of Peer-to-Peer lending companies as NBFCs.

 

1. Introduction

2. Legal Basis for Classifying P2P Lending Platforms as NBFCs

3. Legal Implications of Classifying P2P Lending Platforms as NBFCs

3.1. Threshold Mechanism under Indian Law

3.2. Change in Management or Control of NBFCs

3.3. Compliance with KYC/AML/CFT Norms

3.4. Compliance with Guidelines on Fair Practices Code for NBFCs

3.5. Obligations to Share Credit Information

4. Endnotes

5. Author Profile


1. Introduction

RBI in its Consultation Paper has proposed to classify Peer-to-Peer (P2P) lending platforms as NBFCs. NBFCs in India are considered to be an alternative to the banking sector, with the only distinction being the prohibition on collecting demand deposits and the absence of running accounts. The established categories of NBFCs as per section 45I include loan, investment, asset finance and residuary non-banking companies incorporated under the Companies Act 1956. This blog post will examine the various categories of NBFCs in India and whether P2P lending platforms are within any of these established categories under law. The legality of the proposed course of action by the RBI in its consultation paper is subsequently examined. Further, the legal implications of the same, i.e the components of the increased compliance by the P2P platforms is discussed in detail.

2. Legal Basis for Classifying P2P Lending Platforms as NBFCs

P2P lenders are platforms serving as marketplaces for the lenders and the borrowers of funds to connect. Their very business model does not render them as a provider of finance, they are only an intermediary in the financial services sector. There is no question that loan companies are NBFCs under section 45I(f) of the RBI Act, 1935 [1]. However, since these P2P platforms do not provide any finance themselves, there can be no ground for classifying them as a loan company within section 45I of the RBI Act. NBFCs are also classified into deposit taking NBFCs and non-deposit taking NBFCs. In this situation, the question of permissibility, or legal basis, of taking deposits by the platform does not arise as the funds are to be directly transferred from the lender to the borrower, as stipulated in the Consultation Paper itself. The Paper further states that the balance sheet of the platform cannot indicate any borrowing/lending activity, which entails that the platform cannot itself provide finance or receive any funds for the provision of loans to others. Platforms are not allowed to determine the interest rates as they are not a party to the transaction. Neither would they be liable in cases of default by the borrower. These rules, standard for P2P platforms in other jurisdictions too, confirm the assumption that the platform itself is not providing finance and thus, cannot be entrusted with any liability, obligation from the transaction. However, it has to be vigilant in its role in maintaining data on the market participants on the platform for the fulfillment of KYC norms.

Serious concerns as to the financial health of the economy, however, are bound to arise if such entities are to continue operations without any regulatory supervision. The existing regulations, when made could not have fathomed the niche business models of the present. It is for this reason that sector-specific guidelines are often released for the benefit of all market participants as was seen in the case the revised e-commerce regulations [2]. In the present case, the proposed action is classifying P2P lending platforms as NBFCs with the RBI reserving the power to name any 'non-banking institutions' as NBFCs. Clause (a) of section 45I of the RBI Act 1934 declares that the business of a non banking financial institution includes the business of a non-banking financial company as specified under subsection (f). Clause (iii) of subsection (f) defines a non-banking financial company to include any other non-banking institution or class of such institutions, as the RBI may, with the previous approval of the Central Government and by notification in the Official Gazette, specify. Clause (c), in contrast identifies NBFCs through their activities, through their 'principal business'. The fifty/fifty test to determine the principal business of the firm as to the engagement of at least fifty percent of the assets of the firm in the core operations of the firm is not applicable if the RBI chooses to declare any 'non-banking institution' as a NBFC. In the present case, in the absence of any established characteristics of a NBFC within clause (c), the RBI has made use of clause (f) to meet the primary objective of regulation. The RBI will not exceed its regulatory authority in doing so. The only restriction on such an action is that an NBFCs cannot include any institution whose principal business is that of agricultural activity, industrial activity, sale/purchase of goods, sale/purchase/construction of immovable property.

3. Legal Implications of Classifying P2P Lending Platforms as NBFCs

The Reserve Bank under section 45JA of the RBI Act 1934, can validly determine the policy and give directions to all or any of the non-banking financial companies relating to income recognition, accounting standards, making of proper provision for bad and doubtful debts, capital adequacy based on risk weights for assets and credit conversion factors for off-balance sheet items and also relating to deployment of funds by a non-banking financial company, or a class of non-banking financial companies, or non-banking financial companies generally, as the case may be. Further, such non-banking financial companies shall be bound to follow the policy so determined and the directions so issued. Without prejudice to the generality of the powers named above, the Bank may also give directions to NBFCs generally or to a class of NBFCs or to any particular NBFC as to (a) the purpose for which advances or other fund based or non-fund based accommodation may not be made; and (b) the maximum amount of advances or other financial accommodation or investment in shares and other securities which, having regard to the paid-up capital, reserves and deposits of the NBFC’s and other relevant considerations, which can be validly made by that NBFC.

Section 45JA of the RBI Act 1934 is illustrious of the vast powers with the central bank to frame directions and policies applicable to NBFC’s. Powers of regulation extend to the subjective satisfaction of the RBI that the affairs of the NBFC are being conducted in a manner prejudicial to its depositors or the NBFC itself other than the established grounds of public interest and regulation of the financial system of the country to its advantage. This is of importance to P2P lending platforms because the characterization of their organizations as NBFCs would not just indicate compliance with the existing regulatory mechanism applicable to NBFCs but also any other direction, notification, policy that can be validly issued in the future on the subjective satisfaction of the above broad grounds. P2P lending platforms, many not even public companies presently may not be able to operate in the manner that is most beneficial to its private interests in the interest of the public. Further, no other legal form of organization other than a company would be valid under law. Further, no P2P Platform would be able to adopt any other legal form of organization (sole proprietorship, partnership etc.) other than a company due to the fact that clause (c) grants the power on the RBI to name any non-banking financial ‘company’ to include any other non-banking ‘institution’ or class of ‘institutions’. These ‘institutions’, when named NBFCs under law would be companies and would have to change their form of organization, by registration as a company within the Companies Act 2013, if necessary.

As per section 45I of the RBI Act 1934, all NBFCs excepting those which are regulated by other statutory/regulatory bodies are to be registered with the RBI. P2P lending platforms will thus have to comply with the following:

  • Minimum net worth requirement of Rs 2 crore for registration.
  • Make minimum investments as stipulated in RBI notifications in central, state government securities and would be liable to pay a penal interest in the case of non-compliance.
  • A minimum of 20% of net profits will have to be transferred to the Reserve Fund from which no appropriations are permissible except with intimation to the Central Bank within 21 days from such withdrawal.
  • Statements, information called for under the provisions of chapter IIIB would have to be furnished.
  • RBI bank is empowered to file a winding up petition if it is satisfied that the NBFC is unable to pay its debt or its continuance is detrimental to public interest/depositors of the company.
  • Prohibited from disclosing any information contained in any statement or return submitted by such company under the provisions of Chapter IIIB; or obtained through audit or inspection or otherwise by the Bank. Such information is to be treated as confidential with the exception of disclosure to any other NBFC in accordance with the practice and usage customary amongst such companies or as permitted or required under any other law.
  • Scope of business of banks is limited by section 16(1) of Banking Regulation Act - the only limitation being the prohibition on checking facilities, due to absence of demand deposits.

3.1. Threshold Mechanism under Indian Law

Due to differential financial risk posed by different categories of NBFCs, there exist different regulatory mechanisms applicable to the different classes. For these reasons other than administrative convenience, NBFCs were categorised into the following three groups:

  • Deposit accepting NBFCs,
  • Non-deposit accepting NBFCs with assets of less than Rs.100 crore, and
  • Non-deposit accepting NBFCs with assets of Rs.100 crore and above.

With the aim to achieve a balance between under-regulation and over-regulation in the sector, RBI increased the threshold asset size for an NBFC to be considered systemically important (NBFC-ND-SI) from Rs.100 crore to Rs.500 crore [3]. A simplified regulatory framework has been established for NBFCs which are not systemically important (NBFCs-ND), i.e. NBFCs having total assets less than Rs.500 crore.

As per Economic Times, Faircent’s [4] enterprise valuation, which can be indicative of its net assets, is Rs 50 crore [5]. Keeping in mind that Faircent is arguably one of the biggest market players in the P2P segment, it seems that most P2P lending platforms will have net assets worth less than 500 crore, at least in the near future. Thus, this blog post, to analyse the applicable regulatory regime relies on the assumption that P2P lending platforms, if recognized as NBFCs, would not be systematically important as per the criteria laid down under law. Systematically Important NBFCs have different leverage, capital adequacy, asset classification, corporate governance and disclosure norms.

The RBI issued Prudential Norms Directions for Non-Systematically Important Non-Banking Financial (Non-Deposit Accepting or Holding) Companies in 2015 [6]. This framework classifies non deposit taking NBFCs on the basis of their access to public funds and customer interface. Subclause (ii) of clause (3) of Paragraph 1 states that these directions, excepting paragraph 15 are not applicable to NSI-NBFC’s provided that they do not accept or hold public funds. As per paragraph 15, a certificate will have to be submitted to the Regional Office of the Department of Non-Banking Supervision by the statutory auditor within one month from the date of finalization of the balance sheet and in any case not later than December 30th of that year.

NSI-ND-NBFCs do not have to comply with the limited prudential norms when there is no access to public funds, either directly or indirectly. In the present case, the P2P Platform will not itself have any access to public funds, the funds being transferred directly from the lender to the borrower. The RBI in its consultation paper has proposed the applicability of a leverage ratio to P2P platforms which is in contravention of Paragraph 1 of the deemed regulations. The powers of the RBI under section 45JA of the RBI Act 1934 do not include the making of any directions/regulations which involve the applicability of a leverage ratio. If P2P platforms are made to comply with the deemed leverage ratio requirement under law, 7, it results in apprehension as the possibility of applicability of the other provisions of the NSI-ND-NBFC Prudential Norms Directions. The question as to the existence of regulatory authority to impose the leverage ratio arises which deserves clarification by the RBI.

3.2. Change in Management or Control of NBFCs

The Non-Banking Financial Companies (Approval of Acquisition or Transfer of Control) Directions, 2014 [herein after referred to as ‘Change in Control Directions’) was a step towards ensuring that all NBFCs are managed by ‘fit and proper’ management [8]. Earlier, only intimation with the Regional Office was required.

In 2015, addressing the responses from the industry, the RBI issued revised guidelines [9] to make prior written permission of the Reserve Bank be required for the following activities:

  • Any takeover or acquisition of control of an NBFC, which may or may not result in change of management.
  • Any change in the shareholding of an NBFC, including progressive increases over time, which would result in acquisition/ transfer of shareholding of 26 per cent or more of the paid up equity capital of the NBFC. This would not extend to cases involving buyback of shares/ reduction in capital provided approval from a competent court has been obtained.
  • Any change in the management of the NBFC which would result in change in more than 30 per cent of the directors, excluding independent directors. Prior approval would not be required for those directors who get re-elected on retirement by rotation.
  • Further, P2P lending platforms will have to continue to inform the RBI regarding any change in their directors/ management as stipulated under Non-Systemically Important Non-Banking Financial (Non-Deposit Accepting or Holding) Companies Prudential Norms (Reserve Bank) Directions, 2015.

3.3. Compliance with KYC/AML/CFT Norms

Non-deposit-taking NBFCs with assets of Rs 25 Crore and above are to comply with Know Your Customer (KYC) norms / Anti-Money Laundering (AML) standards / Combating of Financing of Terrorism (CFT) through the allotment of Unique Customer Identification Code for NBFC Customers in India (UCIC) as intimated by the RBI in its circular dated May 3, 2013 [10]. According to RBI's master circular dated July 1, 2014 [11], NBFCs are required to prepare a risk profile of each customer and apply enhanced due diligence measures on higher risk customers. Further, NBFCs are to put in place policies, systems, and procedures for risk management keeping in view the risks involved in a transaction, account or banking/business relationships. In 2015, the RBI issued another notification [12], which stated that the periodicity of the updation of the data required to be maintained through the 'client due diligence' directions should not be less than once in five years in the case of low risk category customers, and not less than once in two years in case of high and medium risk categories. Full KYC exercise will have to be done every two years for high risk, every eight years for medium risk, and every ten years for low risk individuals and entities taking in to account the adequacy of the data obtained through client due diligence measures, if any. The 2014 directions also stated that detailed guidelines on Customer Due Diligence (CDD) measures made applicable to Politically Exposed Person (PEP) and their family members or close relatives will have to be complied with.

Further, NBFCs have been warned in the notification that the information collected from the customer for the purpose of opening of account should be kept confidential, and should not be divulged for cross selling or any other purposes. NBFCs have to ensure that the information sought from the customer is relevant to the perceived risk, is not intrusive, and is in conformity with the guidelines issued in this regard. Any other information from the customer should be sought separately with her/his consent, and after opening the account.

If the NBFC has knowledge or reason to believe that the client account opened by a professional intermediary is on behalf of a single client, the client must be identified. NBFCs should not allow opening and/or holding of an account on behalf of a client/s by professional intermediaries, like Lawyers, Chartered Accountants, etc., who are unable to disclose the true identity of the beneficial owner due to professional obligations of customer confidentiality. Some documents have been specified which should be called for and verified for the opening of an account in the name of a proprietary concern.

A Principal officer should be appointed to ensure compliance with the KYC/AML/CFT norms and the obligations under the Prevention of the Money Laundering Act 2002. A system should be made for the recording of transactions involving counterfeit coins/currency, cash exceeding Rs 10 lakh rupees, either individually or in a series, and for transactions that are ‘suspicious’ according to the Money Laundering Act 2002. NBFCs should maintain for at least ten years from the date of transaction between the NBFC and the client, all necessary records of transactions referred to in rule 3 of the Prevention of Money-laundering (Maintenance of Records of the Nature and Value of Transactions, the Procedure and Manner of Maintaining and Time for Furnishing Information and Verification and Maintenance of Records of the Identity of the Clients of the Banking Companies, Financial Institutions and Intermediaries) rules 2005, (hereinafter, referred to as the PMLA rules) to enable the reconstruction of transactions and the provision of evidence for prosecution of persons involved in criminal activity [12]. Even if P2P lending platforms do not enter into the transaction with the customer for the provision of the loan itself, there does exist a transaction involving the payment of processing fee etc. to the P2P lending platform, indicating compliance with the PMLA rules. Further, records pertaining to the identification of the customer will have to be maintained for a period of ten years after the termination of the business relationship. ‘Suspicious transactions’ will have to be reported to the Financial Intelligence Unit India. To combat financing of terrorism activities, continuous screening and monitoring of transactions which have no apparent economic or visible lawful purpose should be done. NBFCs should give special attention to business relationships and transactions with persons in countries which do not or insufficiently apply the FATF recommendations.

3.4. Compliance with Guidelines on Fair Practices Code for NBFCs

Though P2P lending platforms are not loan companies, the object of classifying them as a NBFC would be defeated if they are not made to comply with the RBI established FCP guidelines. These requirements include:

  • All communications to the borrower shall be in the vernacular language or a language as understood by the borrower.
  • To enable the borrower to make an informed decision, loan application forms should include necessary information which affects the interest of the borrower, so that a meaningful comparison with the terms and conditions offered by other NBFCs.
  • A system of providing acknowledgement for receipt of all loan applications with a time frame should be established.
  • The amount of the loan sanctioned along with the terms and conditions including annualised rate of interest and method of application thereof should be kept on record by the NBFC.
  • NBFCs shall mention the penal interest charged for late repayment in bold in the loan agreement.
  • Non furnishment of a copy of the loan agreement or enclosures quoted in the loan agreement being an unfair practice, NBFCs are, therefore, advised to furnish a copy of the loan agreement along with a copy each of all enclosures quoted in the loan agreement to all the borrowers at the time of sanction / disbursement of loans.
  • The NBFCs should give notice to the borrower of any change in the terms and conditions including disbursement schedule, interest rates, service charges, prepayment charges etc.
  • NBFCs should also ensure that changes in interest rates and charges are effected only prospectively. A suitable condition in this regard should be incorporated in the loan agreement. Decision to recall / accelerate payment or performance under the agreement should be in consonance with the loan agreement.
  • NBFCs should release all securities on repayment of all dues or on realisation of the outstanding amount of loan subject to any legitimate right or lien for any other valid claim. If such right of set off is to be exercised, the borrower shall be given notice about the same with full particulars about the remaining claims and the conditions under which NBFCs are entitled to retain the securities till the relevant claim is settled/paid.
  • NBFCs should refrain from interference in the affairs of the borrower except for the purposes provided in the terms and conditions of the loan agreement (unless new information, not earlier disclosed by the borrower, has come to the notice of the lender).
  • In case of receipt of request from the borrower for transfer of borrowed account, the consent or objection of the NBFC, should be conveyed within 21 days from the date of receipt of request. Such transfer shall be as per transparent contractual terms in consonance with law.
  • In the matter of recovery of loans, the NBFCs should not resort to undue harassment. Staff should adequately trained to deal with the customers in an appropriate manner.
  • The Board of Directors of NBFCs should also lay down an appropriate grievance redressal mechanism within the organization to resolve disputes arising in this regard.
  • NBFCs will have the freedom of implementing measures which enhance the scope of the guidelines without sacrificing their underlying spirit.

The directions as to the formation of appropriate internal principles and procedures in determining interest rates excepting processing and other charges are not be applicable to P2P lending platforms. Thus, P2P lending platforms are not be made to adopt the interest rate model and communicate with the borrower as to the approach for gradation of risk and rationale for charging different rate of interest to different categories of borrowers.

3.5. Obligations to Share Credit Information

In terms of Section 2(f) (ii) of the Credit Information Companies (Regulation) Act, 2005, a non-banking financial company as defined under clause (f) of Section 45-I of the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934 has also been included as "credit institution" [13]. Further, the Credit Information Companies (Regulation) Act provides that every credit institution in existence shall become a member of at least one credit information company [14]. Thus all NBFCs being credit institutions are required to become a member of at least one credit information company as per the statute. In this regard, in terms of sub-sections (1) and (2) of Section 17 of the Credit Information Companies (Regulation) Act, 2005, a credit information company may require its members to furnish credit information as it may deem necessary in accordance with the provisions of the Act and every such credit institution has to provide the required information to that credit information company.

In terms of Regulation 10(a) (ii) of the Credit Information Companies Regulations, 2006, every credit institution shall:

  • keep the credit information maintained by it, updated regularly on a monthly basis or at such shorter intervals as may be mutually agreed upon between the credit institution and the credit information company; and
  • take all such steps which may be necessary to ensure that the credit information furnished by it, is update, accurate and complete.

Thus, P2P lending platforms will have to regularly disclose credit information, both current and historical, to enable the creation of robust databases with Credit Information Companies.

4. Endnotes

[1] See: https://rbidocs.rbi.org.in/rdocs/Publications/PDFs/RBIAM_230609.pdf.

[2] See: http://dipp.nic.in/English/acts_rules/Press_Notes/pn3_2016.pdf.

[3] See: https://rbidocs.rbi.org.in/rdocs/content/pdfs/PNNBFC200315.pdf.

[4] See: https://www.faircent.com/.

[5] See: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/small-biz/startups/faircent-com-raises-pre-series-a-funding-of-250k/articleshow/47630279.cms.

[6] See: https://www.rbi.org.in/scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Id=9830&Mode=0.

[7] See: http://dipp.nic.in/English/acts_rules/Press_Notes/pn3_2016.pdf.

[8] See: https://rbi.org.in/Scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Id=8899&Mode=0#f1.

[9] See: https://rbi.org.in/Scripts/BS_NBFCNotificationView.aspx?Id=9934.

[10] See: https://rbi.org.in/scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Id=7962&Mode=0.

[11] See: https://rbi.org.in/scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Id=9081&Mode=0.

[12] See: https://rbi.org.in/Scripts/BS_NBFCNotificationView.aspx?Id=9449.

[13] See: http://www.incometaxindia.gov.in/Pages/acts/credit-information-companies-act.aspx.

[14] See: https://rbi.org.in/Scripts/BS_ViewMasCirculardetails.aspx?id=9913#16.

5. Author Profile

Pavishka Mittal is a law student at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata and has completed her second year. She takes contemporary dance very seriously and hopes to contribute to the dance community in India. Other than dancing, she indulges in binge-watching in her spare time.

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