Legal Lingo seeks to break down legal buzzwords, concepts and jargon into bite-size explanations to make the industry more accessible for aspiring trainees. Read the full directory below.
TRAINEE INSIGHTS – LEGAL LINGO DIRECTORY
UK Real estate investment trusts (REITs), despite the name, are not trusts. They are companies that carry on a property rental business; they typically own and operate income-producing real estate with money that has been pooled from a large number of investors.
In common with various other jurisdictions, the UK has a specific REIT regime which enables qualifying companies and groups of companies to elect to be treated as REITs for tax purposes.
The range of tax benefits that results from election to be treated as a REIT is a key driver in structuring real estate investment through this vehicle. The tax treatment of REITs includes:
- Exemption from UK corporation tax on the profits (income and capital gains) derived from their qualifying property rental business;
- Instead, distributions of income profits and capital gains by REITs are treated as income from a property business in the hands of the REIT’s shareholders (the investors); and
- 20% withholding tax is imposed on any “property income distributions” made to REIT investors, subject to exceptions and reduced rates for some treaty qualified investors (and with a credit against income tax).
This means that qualifying property rental business profits are not taxed at the REIT level and are only taxed once distributed to investors, i.e., subject to income tax for UK individuals (maximum rate of 45%) or corporation tax for UK companies (19% but rising to 25% in April 2023). In most cases the withholding tax acts as a final UK tax for non-UK investors. The policy rationale of the regime is to shift the tax burden up a level, to the investors. To achieve this, REITs must distribute 90% of their tax-exempt income profits each year (gains can be rolled up in the vehicle). As the profits are not being taxed at the REIT level, there should be more profits available for distribution while transfers of property-owning REIT subsidiaries should also not carry any “latent” capital gains. This can make REITS a very attractive holding vehicle for UK real estate investments.
REITs are typically listed on a stock exchange, but since April 2022 – and a liberalisation of the rules – it has been possible to have unlisted REITs where certain “institutional investors” hold at least 70% of the ordinary share capital. This liberalisation and the pending increase in UK corporation tax rates means that smaller, private REITs are attracting investor interest.
A real estate fund (REF) is an investment fund, often in the form of a limited partnership, that uses money invested by private / institutional investors to acquire interests in underlying real estate assets, either directly or via interests in holding entities.
There are three main forms of REF:
- Private real estate investment funds: A professionally managed fund that directly invests in real estate assets. Typically involving a significant minimum investment, such funds are generally restricted to institutional, high net-worth, qualified investors (i.e. non-retail investors).
- Real estate exchange-traded funds (ETFs): ETFs buy shares in real estate companies and REITs which then trade on major stock markets with share prices fluctuating throughout the course of trading.
- Real estate mutual funds: Similar to private real estate investment funds, these funds are professionally managed but involve pooled investments in a varied number of vehicles e.g. stocks and bonds. Like real estate ETFs, they invest predominantly in REITs and real estate companies, providing a diverse investment portfolio. However, unlike ETFs, they only trade once a day after the market closes.
REF investment strategies
REFs are usually discussed as employing one or more of four key investment strategies:
- Core: Investments in low-risk, high-quality assets with a long realisation horizon on individual assets. The low risk profile of such assets is matched by their high value and comparatively lower rate of return.
- Core-Plus: Core-Plus strategies take a similar approach to Core, but seek investments with a slightly higher risk profile and that may require inputs, such as improvements or renovations, in order to realise their full potential. As a result, Core-Plus strategies typically target higher returns than Core.
- Value Add: Value-Add strategies aim to make investments that have a higher risk profile than Core-Plus and typically require physical improvement, development or operational reorganisation with a view to achieving moderate-to-high returns.
- Opportunistic: Opportunistic strategies focus on finding even higher returning investments than Value-Add with an even higher risk profile. Examples include entirely new developments and brownfield investments in land to be developed. The level of development needed typically requires a larger amount of upfront capital to be deployed raising the risk profile of such investments.
The use of leverage in REFs varies according to the strategy employed. The majority of REF investments will use leverage. However, the more capital that is required to develop an asset and the higher the return target, the more likely greater levels of debt finance will be used. As a result, Core strategies typically represent the least leveraged position, often with 0-10% leverage, and Opportunistic strategies the most at 60%+. Core-Plus and Value Added are less easily distinguished by their leverage ratios, but typically use 30-50% and 50-60% respectively.
The ability of real estate to hold a more consistent value throughout economic periods has often been a key attraction of REFs over higher risk alternative investment models. Yet REFs were by no means immune to the effects of the pandemic, being among some of worst hit asset classes with valuations tumbling.
The historically low-risk appeal of REFs is also under threat both from within the sector, with interest rates weakening the fundraising climate for higher-risk strategies, such as Value-add and Opportunistic strategies, and as a result of the macro environment where the market for low-risk long-term investment strategies is being increasingly dominated by the infrastructure fund market.
Large scale financing – be it for project finance, acquisition finance or working capital – often requires more than one lender. A syndicated loan is an arrangement whereby a group of lenders (the “syndicate”), which may consist of banks and/or non-banks, provide funds to a borrower. The syndicated loan facility may comprise a single loan facility or a variety of facilities such as a term loan, a revolving credit facility, a letter of credit facility, a swingline facility or other similar financing arrangements. Together, these make up a total facility commitment under a single facility agreement which, in the European market, is usually largely based on the recommended forms of primary syndicated loan agreements produced by the Loan Market Association.
At the outset of the deal, the borrower mandates one or more financial institutions to act as mandated lead arranger(s) (“MLAs”) to negotiate the terms of the facility agreement. Once the MLAs have sold down parts of the total loan amount to interested lenders in the primary market, the loan is syndicated. The MLAs often keep a larger portion of the loan on their balance sheets while the other lenders often sell their tranches on the secondary market. A lender in the syndicate (usually the MLA) will act as facility agent to administer the loan and, if the syndicated loan is secured, the facility agent (or other lender) will typically act as security trustee.
Syndication is generally beneficial to lenders as they can participate in a variety of financings of different sizes and split the overall commitment with other lenders. This reduces their exposure to risk as each lender’s liability is contractually limited to the amount of its own commitment. With access to more lenders, borrowers are better able to secure loans of a greater quantum and fund bigger projects.
Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as:
‘a category of cross-border investment in which an investor resident in one economy establishes a lasting interest in and a significant degree of influence over an enterprise resident in another economy.’
Over the last few years (and following the global COVID-19 pandemic), governments around the world have implemented FDI regimes to protect what they consider to be strategically important businesses from foreign acquisition or influence. An FDI regime offers a national government the ability to investigate and potentially block or impose conditions with respect to a proposed investment from (typically) foreign investors in companies operating in key sectors of the economy.
Historically, these sectors focused on key areas of national security, such as military and defence-related companies. However, driven in part by increased geopolitical threats elsewhere and developments in powerful technologies, the concept of national security now includes critical infrastructure (including energy networks and ports), communications assets, and advanced technology and data (e.g., artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and advanced encryption technologies and materials). The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the relevance of a much wider range of businesses being directly related to matters of national security and public health (e.g., companies working on vaccines and personal protective equipment).
Against a backdrop of increasing global protectionism, FDI regulation has become a critical piece of the regulatory jigsaw in recent years, such that careful consideration must be given to the application of FDI rules to cross-border M&A from the outset, alongside merger control and other regulatory clearances. This can be the case even for acquisitions of minority interests as little as 1%. While most investors are unlikely to be viewed as ‘problematic’, these regimes have significant implications for investors, particularly in terms of transaction timetables. Investors need to consider both their own position but also that of any investment partners, and factor in these approval requirements into their acquisition strategies.
Want to find out more about FDI? If so, here are links to three excellent articles on the subject:
An introduction to carried interest, a.k.a. “incentive fee”, “performance fee” or “carry”.
Carried interest is a method of compensation received by individual fund managers (ie. executives) in private FUND or hedge fund structures.
These executives receive a share of the profits generated by the realization of the fund’s investments in portfolio companies. It is typically paid to the carried interest recipients at a rate of 20% of the fund’s profits (with 80% paid to the fund’s investors). However, carried interest is generally only paid after the fund returns the initial capital investors put into the fund plus a certain minimum return (known as the preferred return or hurdle rate) to investors.
Therefore, the level of Carried Interest paid to executives is derived from the performance of the underlying investments and the amount (if any) is not guaranteed. It aligns the interests of the executives with the performance of the fund and creates an additional incentive to maximize the fund’s returns for investors.
Typically, the amounts of Carried Interest paid to executives is also subject to other restrictions. For example, if the fund fails to meet a certain level of return or an unforeseen liability arises, any overpayment of Carried Interest previously paid to the executives could be required to be repaid back to the fund and paid to investors via a process known as “Clawback” to ensure that no more than 20% of the profits have been paid as carry.
Most fund managers also charge a management fee (typically of around 1.5 - 2% per annum of an investor’s commitment), however unlike carried interest the management fee is not dependent on fund performance.
“Institutional strip" and “sweet equity” are two cornerstone terms used in private equity transactions.
Institutional strip refers to securities invested into by (institutional) private equity sponsors to fund the purchase of a target business.
Institutional strip will typically consist of a combination of ordinary shares and preference shares or loan notes. Alongside the private equity sponsors, senior / key members of a target’s management team will be expected to either rollover existing equity interests in the target or otherwise invest their own cash to subscribe for institutional strip. The intention is for the management team to put “skin in the game” (i.e. bear the financial risk of the acquisition alongside the private equity sponsor), thereby creating alignment between the sponsor and the management team.
Alongside the concept of institutional strip, sweet equity operates to incentivise the management team with the growth / performance of the target business. In UK private equity transactions, sweet equity typically takes the form of ordinary shares held by the management team, which will appreciate in value as the target business grows. This serves to incentivise management to promote the success of the business and maximise its value.
Most people are comfortable with the term 'private equity'. Firms like Bain Capital, TPG and Advent in the US and 3i, Bridgepoint and Cinven in the UK have been investing money in businesses, developing them and selling them on for decades. But private equity and venture capital are just part of a wider private capital universe. It is an area of finance that has been around forever but has become increasingly commented on in the last couple of years.
The term 'private capital' refers to investments in unlisted assets, often (but not always) by private pools of money such as buyout firms, sovereign wealth funds, private investment funds and wealthy investors. Institutions with a long-term view, such as pension funds and university endowment funds are also active in the market (either via direct investments or through investments in funds), as are banks. The distinction between private capital and private equity is that the former is the umbrella term for all types of investments in unlisted assets. This includes private equity (investments in private companies and/or buyouts of public companies) but also encompasses venture capital (investments in early stage companies with high growth potential), real estate (investments in real estate assets), private debt (debt investments that are not publicly traded), infrastructure (investments in infrastructure assets) etc.
Want to find out more about private capital? If so, here are links to three excellent articles on the subject:
“Withholding tax” or “WHT” refers broadly to tax which the person making a payment has to deduct from that payment and account for to the tax authorities. The UK makes some payers withhold tax on certain types of payment including, amongst other things, certain salary and interest payments. Instead of requiring the recipient to pay all the applicable tax following receipt of the full amount, a portion of the payment is withheld and paid directly to HMRC by the payer and the recipient gets a “credit” for that in their tax return. Withholding tax can therefore be considered a collection mechanic.
For example, if income tax were charged at 20% on a £100 salary payment, the employer would instead pay the employee £80, and hand £20 directly to HMRC. The employee should then not have to pay the same tax again in their annual tax return.
Withholding tax benefits tax authorities in several ways, for example:
- It often means the tax accounting and payment is done by the party better equipped to do so – for example, employer payroll departments rather than individual employees.
- It provides a tool against tax evasion/ non-compliance. Where payments are made “gross,” i.e. including the tax amount of a payment, they can become more difficult to tax, particularly where a payee is located overseas. Taxing at the source can mean catching the payment while it is still in the tax authority’s control.
- It can offer a cash flow advantage. Rather than waiting for the end of the period when the recipient completes their tax returns, the tax authorities are paid the tax earlier by the recipient.
A Sovereign Wealth Fund is a state-owned investment vehicle run and managed by a government agency. A nation typically establishes a sovereign wealth fund when there are budget or trade surpluses on its balance of payments. The surplus capital can then be pooled into a state-owned fund which the government uses to make investments for the benefit of its citizens and their economy.
Common types of Sovereign Wealth Funds include:
Stabilization funds: used to insulate the economy from inflation and volatile commodity prices, a common risk with the large influxes of revenue from mineral wealth like oil.
Future generation funds: designed to invest surplus revenue into a diverse portfolio of assets to provide for future generations.
Public pension reserve funds: set up to put money aside to finance a nation’s pension system.
The world’s largest sovereign wealth funds:
Norway: Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is currently the largest in the world with $1.27tn worth of assets under management. The Norway Government Pension Fund was established in 1990 to invest the large revenues derived from the nation’s oil wealth.
China: China’s sovereign wealth fund is the second largest with $941bn worth of assets under management. The China Investment Corporation Fund was established in 2007 due to surplus foreign exchange reserves.
Abu Dhabi: The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority was established in 1976 to manage the budgetary surplus derived from state-owned oil and has $578bn worth of assets under management.
Countries with budget deficits, such as Turkey, South-Africa and Senegal, are establishing sovereign wealth funds to better manage state owned assets in a government’s portfolio.
Investments made by private equity buyout funds have the following key characteristics:
- The fund’s participation in the target is anticipated to be a 4 to 6-year investment horizon in order to realize a profit for investors. This contrasts with corporate M&A where the buyer may well expect to own the target in perpetuity;
- Private equity funds seek out competent management teams to manage the company day-to-day under the guiding hand of the fund’s overarching growth strategy;
- This management team is incentivized by receiving equity in the target company, pro rata to a personal investment on the same terms that the fund invests on (“strip equity”) and/or via shares purchased at a low initial cost that have the potential for significant upside (“sweet equity”), allowing managers to directly benefit from any increase in the company’s value; and
- The target business is acquired via a mixture of the funds received from fund investors and debt finance, known as leveraged finance. On a successful investment, the leveraged finance will enhance returns for investors.
A “private equity fund” is an investment fund, often in the form of a limited partnership, that uses money invested by private investors to acquire shares in private companies, either directly or by delisting public securities (hence “Private Equity” or “PE”). There are also funds that lend debt but these are usually referred to as “credit funds”. Investors in the PE fund, for example sovereign wealth funds or pension funds, become limited partners (or “LPs”) in the PE fund. Via the PE fund, these investors deploy considerable capital in moderate-term investments (often referred to as “portfolio companies”) in expectation of significant returns from the pre-agreed fund investment strategy.
The investments for the PE fund are sourced, implemented and managed by the general partner, or manager, of the fund. In practice, this is a group of individuals otherwise known as the “private equity deal executives” who are rewarded through a combination of bonuses, co-investment and carried interest for executing investments and, in particular, making successful returns.
The investments are then sold for a capital gain with the profits divided between the LPs and the fund managers.