Govt posts guidelines on controversial GAAR taxes

NEW DELHI Fri Jun 29, 2012 1:11am IST

An employee counts rupee notes at a cash counter inside a bank in Kolkata June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

An employee counts rupee notes at a cash counter inside a bank in Kolkata June 18, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India published draft guidelines on Thursday to implement rules that target tax evasion but have provoked an outcry among foreign investors at a time when the country needs capital inflows.

The general anti-avoidance rules (GAAR), introduced in the budget in March this year, target companies and investors routing investments through tax havens.

Vague wording and lack of clarity on their implementation left scope for potential misuse, which panicked foreign investors and hammered India's equity and currency markets.

A flight of investors forced the government in May to defer implementation of the guidelines until 2013.

The guidelines issued by the Finance Ministry have sought to address some of the concerns by suggesting GAAR be invoked only in cases where foreign investors have opted to take the benefit of tax treaties entered into with India.

"Where an FII (foreign institutional investor) chooses to take a treaty benefit, GAAR provisions may be invoked in the case of the FII, but would not in any case be invoked in the case of the non-resident investors of the FII," the draft guidelines said.

The rules would not apply retrospectively, as many investors had feared, and would apply only to income accruing from April 1, 2013. An income threshold also has been suggested for invoking the GAAR.

The guidelines say that the onus of proving tax liability lies with the Indian authorities and have proposed time limits for completion of various actions under the GAAR.

The draft guidelines come after a government official told Reuters that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would seek within two to three weeks to clear up confusion over tax policy that has rattled investor confidence in Asia's third-largest economy.

Though the flurry of comments and promises of action have lacked specifics, investors are anticipating more policy reforms after Singh on Tuesday assumed an additional role of acting finance minister after the previous incumbent, Pranab Mukherjee, stepped down.

"The market is having significant expectations that a lot of tax policy issues would get sorted out and there will be renewed focus on investment cycle," said Nilesh Shah, chief executive of Envision Capital, an investment advisory firm in Mumbai.

"Markets are eyeing either fiscal measures, monetary measures, tax measures or clarity on policy issues to move further," he added.

Another issue that has displeased investors is an amendment to income tax law that empowers the government to retroactively tax investments.

Analysts says the move is intended to target Vodafone's (VOD.L), purchase of Hutchison Whampoa's Indian assets, as the government says the London-based mobile operator had structured the deal to avoid paying taxes.

REVIVING CAPITAL INFLOWS

Earlier, an official told Reuters the prime minister's office planned to issue an "explanatory note" on portfolio investments, without giving details about what the statement would say or which tax issues it would address.

However, it is widely known that the prime minister's office was unhappy with the way Mukherjee handled the tax proposals in the federal budget in March.

Singh said at a meeting of economic advisers and top Finance Ministry officials on Wednesday that "reviving investor sentiment" was a top priority.

The uncertainty about taxes had led some investors to reduce investments in India, with $926.8 million in outflows from markets in April, sharply down from a combined $12.3 billion in inflows from January to February.

A Finance Ministry official said the government recognised that a revival of capital inflows would prop up the equity market, bringing retail investors into mutual funds. This in turn would deter investments in gold and other assets, which widen the current account deficit.

Singh told officials at Wednesday's meeting he was concerned that "investor sentiment is down and capital flows are drying up".

He said he wanted to revive the "animal spirit" of an economy that was roaring with growth of well above 9 percent in the three years before the global financial crisis in 2008-2009.

India's economy is growing at its slowest pace in nine years, the rupee is the worst performing currency in Asia this year, inflation remains high, industrial production has flatlined and the country faces the threat of having its credit rating downgraded to junk.

Many investors and economists blame weak leadership and muddled policies that have failed to curb government spending and alienated many foreign investors.

(Additional reporting by Rafael Nam and Suvashree DeyChoudhury in Mumbai and Arup Roychoudhury in New Delhi; Editing by Kim Coghill, Robert Birsel and Michael Roddy)

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