I OVERVIEW OF M&A ACTIVITY2

M&A activity in Hong Kong grew substantially in 2015. Hong Kong saw a 235.2 per cent increase in the value of M&A deals announced in 2015 compared to 2014, with a total of 625 deals totalling US$153.83 billion in 2015 compared with a total of 595 deals totalling US$45.9 billion in 2014. Similarly, there were 317 M&A deals completed in 2015, at a value totalling US$118.2 billion, up 208 per cent compared to the 314 completed deals at US$38.3 billion in 2014.3

The Hong Kong securities markets showed a slight decrease in terms of market capitalisation but a significant increase in terms of trading activity in 2015. The total market capitalisation of the securities market at the end of 2015 was HK$24,683.7 billion, 1.55 per cent lower than the year-end total market capitalisation in 2014. Total securities market turnover in 2015 was HK$26,090.6 billion, an increase of 52.08 per cent compared with 2014. A total of 138 companies were newly listed on The Stock Exchange of Hong Kong Limited (SEHK) in 2015, and the total amount of equity funds raised on the SEHK in 2015 was approximately HK$1,115.6 billion.4

During 2015 as a whole, Hong Kong’s economy grew modestly by 2.4 per cent, less than the 2.6 per cent growth in 2014 and the average annual growth rate of 3.4 per cent over the previous decade. The government has forecast that the Hong Kong economy will grow by 1 to 2 per cent in 2016.5

II GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK FOR M&A

The law governing mergers and acquisitions in Hong Kong comprises primary legislation, regulatory rules, the law of contract and case law.

The primary legislation, which applies principally to Hong Kong-incorporated companies in general, is the Companies Ordinance (CO), and includes provisions relating to financial assistance for the acquisition of a company’s own shares, merger relief, transfers of shares and schemes of arrangement affecting mergers. The Securities and Futures Ordinance (SFO) is also relevant, covering the regulation of offers of securities, and the communication of invitations and inducements to engage in securities transactions. For companies in certain industries, there is also specific legislation that may be relevant, for example:

  • a the Banking Ordinance for banking, restricted licence banking and deposit-taking companies;
  • b the SFO for securities, financial advisory and asset management companies;
  • c the Broadcasting Ordinance (BO) and the Telecommunications Ordinance (TO) for radio, television broadcasting and telecommunications companies; and
  • d the Insurance Companies Ordinance for insurance companies.

Prior approval of ownership changes from relevant regulatory bodies may be required under the legislation listed above.

If an M&A transaction involves a company whose shares are listed on the SEHK, the Rules Governing the Listing of Securities on The Stock Exchange of Hong Kong Limited (Listing Rules) will also apply. In addition, the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC), in consultation with the Takeovers and Mergers Panel (Panel) – a committee formed by the SFC pursuant to the SFO – has issued the Code on Takeovers and Mergers (Takeovers Code), which applies to takeovers, mergers and share buy-backs affecting public companies6 in Hong Kong and companies with a primary listing of their equity securities in Hong Kong. The Takeovers Code is not statutory and does not have the force of law, but the Listing Rules expressly require compliance with the Takeovers Code. As a non-governmental statutory body, the SFC regulates the securities and futures markets in Hong Kong and oversees the development of these markets. Its decisions apply to M&A of public companies.

Since Hong Kong is a common law jurisdiction,7 the law of contract (which is largely derived from English law) and case law8 also form an important part of the law governing M&A in Hong Kong.

III DEVELOPMENTS IN CORPORATE AND TAKEOVER LAW AND THEIR IMPACT

i Takeovers Code

To ensure that the Takeovers Code takes account of market developments and developing international practice, it is kept under regular review by the Executive of the SFC, in consultation with the Panel. During 2015, there were no amendments to the Takeovers Code.

ii Listing Rules

The Listing Rules reflect currently acceptable standards in the market place and are designed to ensure that investors have, and can maintain, confidence in the market. To ensure that the Listing Rules take account of market developments and developing international practice, the SEHK regularly reviews the Listing Rules and may, subject to the approval of the SFC under Section 24 of the SFO, make amendments to the Listing Rules.

Certain amendments to the Listing Rules relating to the Risk Management and Internal Control section of the Corporate Governance Code and Corporate Governance Report came into effect for accounting periods beginning on or after 1 January 2016. The amendments include a definition of the roles and responsibilities of boards and management, clarifying that a board has an ongoing responsibility to oversee an issuer’s risk management and internal control systems, and the upgrading of certain recommended best practices in relation to risk management and internal control to be in line with Code provisions.

Amendments have also been made to the Environmental, Social and Governance Reporting Guide (ESG Guide) and related Listing Rules. The upgrading of general disclosures under each aspect of the ESG Guide regarding ‘comply or explain’ provisions, the inclusion of a disclosure of gender diversity as a recommended disclosure and the related Listing Rules amendments came into effect for issuers’ financial years commencing on or after 1 January 2016. The upgrading of key performance indicators in relation to environmental matters from recommended disclosures to ‘comply or explain’ provisions will be effective for issuers’ financial years commencing on or after 1 January 2017.

iii The Companies Ordinance

The Companies Ordinance came into effect on 3 March 2014. Various key concepts under the Companies Ordinance that are relevant in the context of M&A are set out below:

  • a the takeover and privatisation of a company can be implemented by a members’ scheme of arrangement involving a takeover offer or a general offer to buy back shares, which requires (1) approval by shareholders representing at least 75 per cent of the voting rights present and voting at the shareholders’ meeting; and (2) the votes cast against the scheme not exceeding 10 per cent of the total voting rights attached to all disinterested shares (the ‘10 per cent objection test’);
  • b a company and its wholly owned subsidiaries may amalgamate and continue as one company without the sanction of the court, provided that certain conditions are met. Such conditions include, for example, that each amalgamating company is a Hong Kong incorporated company limited by shares, that each amalgamating company is solvent and that no creditor of an amalgamating company will be prejudiced by the amalgamation;
  • c there is a general prohibition on both a private and public company providing financial assistance for an acquisition of shares in itself, and streamlined ‘whitewash’ procedures are extended to listed companies. In addition, it is expressly provided that a company is not prohibited from giving financial assistance for the purpose of an acquisition of shares in its holding company if the holding company is incorporated outside Hong Kong; and
  • d companies now enjoy more flexibility in structuring and organising their share capital in light of the updating of certain concepts relating to share capital (par value (or nominal value), share premium and the requirement for authorised capital have been abolished). Despite the absence of share premium, merger relief continues to be available. The amount required to be recorded as share capital in respect of the consideration shares issued by an acquiring company is the subscribed capital attributable to the acquired shares.

IV FOREIGN INVOLVEMENT IN M&A TRANSACTIONS

Given Hong Kong’s position as a hub for investment into China, its status as a major regional financial centre, and the widespread use of offshore companies for investment into and out of China, a substantial number of transactions have foreign involvement, including in the form of acquisitions by offshore companies. An analysis by reference to foreign involvement in transactions is therefore not particularly meaningful.

V SIGNIFICANT TRANSACTIONS, KEY TRENDS AND HOT INDUSTRIES

As a significant number of companies whose shares are listed on the SEHK have controlling shareholders, there is not a large number of unsolicited M&A offers.

In 2015, the two largest M&A transactions by value in Hong Kong were both part of a business combination, reorganisation and spin-off involving companies controlled by Mr Li Ka-shing, a well-known Hong Kong businessman. In January 2015, Cheung Kong (Holdings) Limited acquired a 50.03 per cent stake in Hutchison Whampoa Limited for US$40.3 billion. As part of the acquisition arrangement, two new companies were formed in place of Cheung Kong (Holdings) Limited and Hutchison Whampoa Limited to improve the valuation of the underlying businesses and create shareholder value. CK Hutchison Holdings was formed to hold all the non-property assets of both groups (e.g., telecoms and infrastructure assets), while CK Property Holdings was formed to hold the property assets of both groups. In May 2015, Cheung Kong (Holdings) Limited sold Cheung Kong Property Holdings Limited to CK Hutchison Holdings Limited for US$34.9 billion. Cheung Kong Property Holdings Limited was subsequently listed on the SEHK on 3 June 2015 (stock code: 1113).

There were also numerous high-profile takeovers in Hong Kong in 2015. For example, through its subsidiary Alibaba Investment Limited, Alibaba Group Holding Limited acquired the media business of SCMP Group Limited, a company listed on the SEHK for a total consideration of approximately US$267 million. The acquisition was announced in December 2015 and was subject to, inter alia, SCMP shareholders’ approval due to its constituting a very substantial disposal by SCMP under the Listing Rules. The announcement attracted considerable worldwide coverage. On 14 March 2016, SCMP shareholders overwhelmingly approved the sale of SCMP’s media assets to Alibaba Group, and the sale was formalised on 5 April 2016.

VI FINANCING OF M&A: MAIN SOURCES AND DEVELOPMENTS

In common with many other jurisdictions, Hong Kong’s Takeovers Code requires an offeror to have certainty of funds to make an offer for a public company. Under the Takeovers Code, in an announcement of a firm intention to make an offer, that announcement should include a confirmation by a financial adviser (or another appropriate third party) that resources are available to the offeror sufficient to satisfy full acceptance of the offer (a sufficiency statement). Such confirmation is not only required when the consideration is cash, or includes an element of cash, but is also required when the consideration consists of, or includes, any other assets except new securities to be issued by the offeror. The executive may also require evidence to support the sufficiency statement, and evidence that the offeror has sufficient resources to complete the purchase of shares that gives rise to the offer obligation.

Depending on how the acquisition is structured, M&A transactions in Hong Kong are usually financed by:

  • a internal resources;
  • b shareholders’ loans;
  • c equity issues;
  • d debt issues;
  • e loan facilities from banks and financial institutions; or
  • f a combination of two or more of the above.

VII PENSIONS AND EMPLOYMENT LAW

Under Hong Kong law, there is no specific regulation that provides for the transfer of employment contracts when there is a change of ownership of a business, as opposed to an employing company. Employment contracts would therefore be terminated in the case of an acquisition of a business, and the new employer would have the freedom to decide whether to enter into new employment contracts with existing employees. However, generally speaking, where termination of an employment contract takes place due to a transfer of business, this would constitute redundancy and employees previously employed may be entitled to severance payments and long-service awards, for which the old employer would be liable. However, under Sections 31J and 31C of the Employment Ordinance (EO), severance payments and long-service awards are not payable in the case of a business transfer if, not less than seven days before the end date of an employee’s previous contract, the new employer has offered to renew that employee’s contract, or to re-engage him or her under a new contract, on no less favourable terms and conditions, and the employee has unreasonably refused that offer. If an offer of renewal or re-engagement is accepted by the employee, the new contract has effect as if the renewal or re-engagement had been a renewal or re-engagement by the old employer without any substitution of the new employer,9 and, therefore, the employment relationship will be regarded as being ‘continuous’ for the purposes of the EO.10 Any redundancy issues that may arise in future disposals of the business would therefore be passed to the new employer after the renewal or re-engagement.

Generally speaking, under the Mandatory Provident Funds Schemes Ordinance (MPFO), an employer11 must enrol its employees as members of one of the registered MPF schemes (as defined in the MPFO) available in the market in Hong Kong. An employer may enrol different employees in different registered schemes. During the contribution period (as defined in the MPFO), the employer must contribute to the registered scheme, from its own funds, an amount determined in accordance with the MPFO, and deduct, from the employee’s relevant income for that period, as a contribution by the employee to the scheme, a further amount determined in accordance with the MPFO. Employees and employers may make additional voluntary contributions to the employee’s scheme.

Where there is a proposed disposal of a business, the existing employer and the proposed new employer should consider the implications of the MPFO and arrangements to deal with the accrued benefits of employees under the applicable MPF scheme. If a merger or acquisition is to be effected by way of a share sale, it is not likely that there will be any MPF implications (unless the relevant target company is spun out from a group of companies that operates a group-based scheme), as the merger or acquisition will not involve a change of employer. The surviving party or acquirer would nevertheless be well advised to carry out due diligence to ensure that all target employees are employed by the target company on terms that comply with the MPFO.

However, if the merger or acquisition is to be effected by way of a business transfer involving a change of employer, the employee must, in accordance with Section 14 of the MPFO, elect to: transfer the accrued benefits to a contribution account12 under the new employer’s MPF scheme; retain the accrued benefits in the previous MPF scheme under
a preserved account;13 or transfer the accrued benefits to a preserved account of another
MPF scheme.

Both the seller and the buyer must observe and comply with the requirements of the MPFO with respect to the transfer of the accrued benefits of employees.

On 1 May 2011, the Minimum Wage Ordinance came into effect in Hong Kong and introduced a statutory minimum wage.

VIII TAX LAW

Hong Kong’s competitive economy is reflected in the transparency, predictability and simplicity of its low-rate tax system. These attractive qualities mean that, unlike many other jurisdictions, Hong Kong tax is generally not the determining factor in the way in which a transaction is structured in Hong Kong. There is no capital gains tax on the disposal of assets, including the disposal of shares and property. In addition, dividends are not classified as taxable income, and there is no withholding tax on dividends.

Stamp duty on the transfer of Hong Kong shares is currently 0.2 per cent of the consideration paid (or market value), and is generally payable in equal shares of 0.1 per cent by both the seller and the buyer. Transactions that are structured as schemes of arrangement do not attract stamp duty. With effect from 23 February 2013, stamp duty on the transfer of immoveable property in Hong Kong ranges from 1.5 per cent (for transactions up to HK$2 million) to 8.5 per cent of the amount or value of the consideration (for transactions over HK$21,739,130), and is usually paid by the purchaser. The Stamp Duty Ordinance is the principal source of legislation governing this area.

The Inland Revenue Ordinance sets out three separate and distinct taxes on income: profits tax, salaries tax and property tax. Liability to tax under these three heads, as a general rule, is limited to persons or entities carrying on a trade, profession or business in Hong Kong, and to income that ‘arises in or is derived from’ Hong Kong. To this extent, the residence status of persons and companies is irrelevant to income tax assessment. Profits tax for 2015 and 2016 is 16.5 per cent for corporations and 15 per cent for unincorporated businesses.

In respect of loan repayments, as a general rule a borrower’s interest expenses will be deductible where the lender is subject to Hong Kong profits tax on its receipt of the interest. In addition, where a financial institution (whether onshore or offshore) makes a genuine loan, interest expenses will generally be deductible.

IX COMPETITION LAW

The Competition Ordinance, Hong Kong’s first cross-sector competition law, came into effect on 14 December 2015. Previously, only the broadcasting and telecommunications industries were subject to competition law, as provided for in specific provisions of the BO and the TO (now largely repealed). The TO provided a regulatory framework for the Communications Authority to consent to certain M&A involving carrier licensees in the telecommunications industry.

The Competition Ordinance retains a merger control regime in Hong Kong for the telecommunications industry, known as the ‘Merger Rule’. Like the regime under the TO, the Merger Rule applies only to mergers involving a carrier licensees, and the Communications Authority has concurrent jurisdiction with the Competition Commission in relation to the Merger Rule. However, unlike the merger regime under the TO, the Competition Ordinance does not specify thresholds upon which regulatory consent is triggered. Instead, the Merger Rule refers to the acquisition of ‘control’, which could apply even if the acquisition involves a minority interest not exceeding 30 per cent. A merger could be prohibited if it has or is likely to have the effect of substantially lessening competition in Hong Kong. It is worth noting that notification of mergers is voluntary, rather than mandatory, but in practice the Communications Authority is consulted in most (if not all) cases, even when no competition concerns are expected.

In the run-up to the drafting and passing of the Competition Ordinance, which, on the whole, was supported by the public, there was some debate on whether there is a need for merger control in Hong Kong to govern M&A activity. The Public Consultation Paper on Detailed Proposals for Competition Law in 2008 showed a softening of the government’s stance on this issue, from ‘we don’t need a merger control regime’ to inviting views on three possible options regarding such a regime. The recommendation of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau of Hong Kong (CED Bureau) was that merger activities are not to be regulated, except in the telecommunications sector, which was already subject to such regulation under the TO. The CED Bureau stated that this proposal would give the Competition Commission more time to focus on its initial work of implementing the proposed Competition Ordinance, and would allow for a more effective assessment of whether merger control provisions would be desirable in other (or all) sectors in the future once the Competition Commission has accumulated some experience in the operation of the competition regime. This was the position ultimately adopted in the Competition Ordinance. The government has indicated that it will review the Competition Ordinance in a few years’ time, at which point the question of introducing a cross-sector merger control regime in Hong Kong may also be revisited.

X OUTLOOK

Despite the global slowdown in M&A activity in the first quarter of 2016,14 the outlook of M&A market in Hong Kong remains optimistic. It is expected that secondary sales will increase as an exit strategy alternative to public listing amid uncertainties in the stock market.

The government has predicted that Hong Kong’s GDP is likely to grow by 1 to 2 per cent in 2016.15 Hong Kong’s economic performance in 2016 will first hinge on developments in external demand, as the tepid and uneven global recovery is expected to continue.

The outlook for M&A in 2016 is promising given that the deal appetite in Hong Kong is high, with M&A markets remaining very busy in the first quarter of 2016 and ready access to capital.

A major determinant in the medium term will be the continued economic development of China. During the global financial crisis, Hong Kong’s economy was somewhat cushioned by the resilience of the Chinese economy, and is likely to continue to benefit through closer cooperation and deeper integration with China.

The wave of acquisitions involving Chinese companies is expected to remain a dominant theme for some time. As Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) implement reform plans pursuant to the Chinese government’s direction, top M&A deals in the first quarter of 2016 continue to correlate with SOEs – three of the top five highest-valued M&A deals in China and Hong Kong in the first quarter of 2016 were backed by SOEs.16

Hong Kong has traditionally followed a ‘market leads, government facilitates’ principle in forming public policy and Hong Kong has been ranked as the world’s freest economy by the Heritage Foundation for many years.17

Footnotes

1 Jason Webber is a partner at Slaughter and May. The author would like to thank Nicola Lui and Nicolette Chan for their assistance in preparing this chapter.

2 Statistics on mergers and acquisitions involving Hong Kong companies differ significantly among various sources. This summary covers all Hong Kong M&A activity from 1 January
2015 to 31 December 2015.

3 Source: Thomson Reuters.

4 Source: SEHK Fact Book 2015.

5 Source: Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department.

6 The Takeovers Code states that all circumstances are to be considered, and an economic or commercial test is to be applied (taking into account primarily the number of Hong Kong shareholders and the extent of share trading in Hong Kong), in deciding whether a company is a ‘public company’. For the purposes of the CO, a private company is a company incorporated in Hong Kong that, by its articles of association, restricts the right to transfer its shares; limits the number of its members to 50, not including persons who are in the employment of the company and persons who, having been formerly in the employment of the company, were, while in that employment, and have continued after the termination of that employment to be, members of the company; and prohibits any invitation to the public to subscribe for any shares or debentures of the company (Section 11 of the CO).

7 Under the ‘one country, two systems’ approach, implemented after the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (China) on 1 July 1997, Hong Kong remains a common law jurisdiction.

8 English case law has persuasive authority only and is subject to interpretation by the Hong Kong courts.

9 Section 31J of the EO.

10 Subsection 3 of Section 31J of the EO and Paragraph 5 of Schedule 1 of the EO.

11 Under the MPFO, an ‘employer’ means any person who has entered into a contract of employment to employ another person as his or her employee.

12 A contribution account is an account mainly used to accumulate MPF contributions in respect of current employment and investment returns.

13 A preserved account is an account in which accrued MPF benefits in respect of former employment are held.

14 M&A activity totalled US$699.4 billion in the first quarter of 2016, which equates to an 18 per cent decrease from comparable 2015 levels. Source: Thomson Reuters Global M&A Financial Advisory Review.

15 Sources: Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government budget 2016, and HKSAR government press release, ‘Economic Situation in the First Quarter of 2016 and Latest GDP and Price Forecasts for 2016’, published on 13 May 2016.

16 Source: www.dealstreetasia.com/stories/38437-38437.

17 Source: www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/economy/article/1908626/hong-kong-ranked-
worlds-freest-economy-22nd-year-running.