Mr. Tran Thai Binh – Partner
The real estate market in Vietnam has seen a quite lot of growth in the last two years, with foreign investors returning, and many busy M&A transactions in real estate. Some local developers have sought to transfer their incomplete projects in order to do internal re-structuring for better growth.
For foreign investors, investing in Vietnam is challenging, especially in real estate investment due to differences in the legal framework for land and real estate, as well as transaction practices and other factors.
Below are some notes for property project buyers (especially foreign buyers) to overcome challenges in acquiring real estate projects in Vietnam.
Acquiring a real estate project may be done one of two ways: by a “project transfer deal” where the project is transferred to the buyer, or through a “share transfer deal” where the buyer would acquire the shares held by the sellers in the company that owns the real estate project. The Law on Real Estate Business now allows for a partial or whole of transfer of the real estate project. With regards to the “the project transfer deal”, under the applicable law, the transferor is required to complete their project infrastructure development as a condition precedent for transferring the project. The assessment of the completion of infrastructure development is a lengthy process and somewhat subjective. It may be time consuming to get the getting necessary approvals for a project transfer, and many business opportunities may pass by in the mean time.
Therefore, another way for the parties to get to the desired outcome is for the buyer to acquire all shares and/or equity held by the sellers in the company that owns the real estate project. The Law on Investment now sets out a clear legal framework to allow foreign buyers to acquire shares or equity in local companies. Accordingly, a foreign buyer may directly acquire shares or equity from the sellers. This approach is more favorable for acquisition in certain cases.
Buyers often prefer to use a “project transfer deal” rather a “shares transfer deal”. However, things are not always as accessible in reality due to legal limitations and restrictions.
Due Diligence of the project company or the real estate project
Either way, a due diligence report, which is a process of checking and finding out any legal and financial issues of the project and project company (or the developer), is always essential. The due diligence process is designed to find out any legal or financial liabilities that the sellers may have with respect to the real estate project and/or of the developers. The process vets any risks in the business operation of the developer or with implementing the project, the possibility of licenses being revoked, as well as any other factors that mayimpact on the transaction.
As for legal liabilities, the buyer is required to review all approvals, permits or licenses for the project, for example: the issuance of the land use rights certificate, the suitability of the land use purpose for the development of the project, licenses and permits relating to the designs and construction of the project, the developer’s legal compliance in implementing the project and/or in corporate operations, and so on.
As for financial liabilities, the buyer needs to review the performance of all financial obligations to the Government and/or to third parties by the developer with respect to land use rights, rights of third parties in the land use rights and/or the company, encumbrances to the land use rights and/or the project and/or the company’s assets, current liabilities or debts by the developer, as well as undertakings and commitments by the developer, and so on.
Negotiations on the terms and conditions of the deal
Based on the findings from the due diligence report of the project and/or the project company, the buyer needs to define the conditions precedent for entering into or completing the transaction. Setting such conditions requires skill and tact in order to limit them to a reasonable but sufficient extent. This helps to avoid difficulties and controversies in negotiations that may become deal-breakers to the sellers feelings of distrust from the buyers.
Foreign buyers are usually familiar with using lengthy agreements that are tens or hundreds of pages long, but not with local sellers. Therefore, a lengthy agreement with unnecessary terms or clauses may lead to an end of the transaction due to long negotiations (which may sometimes be unnecessary), as well as concerns from the sellers. The agreement may use precedents from the common-law system. However, a simple copy of the terms and conditions of the transaction documents for deals in Vietnam is sometimes not only legally impractical, but can also cause difficulties to the parties when completing the deal.
The buyers need to agree on a payment schedule that is proper for closing the deal. In practice, the seller usually requests the buyer to deposit an amount to secure the buyers’ performance of the deal. The buyer may have concerns on legal and financial liabilities arising from the deal due to inadequate awareness by the sellers. Therefore, a bank will be engaged as an agent to manage the deposit amounts. The parties may agree on the release of payment by the bank upon the seller’s fulfillment of certain conditions. Therefore, an agreement on payment must also be strict, and requires a local insight on the assessment of the closing to mitigate the buyers’ risks.
As for the “share transfer deal”, the buyer will want to hold a reasonable retention amount to cover obligations or financial liabilities of the enterprise or of the project, and the seller usually wants to receive all payments upon the transfer of the project to the buyer. In practice, it is not so easy for the parties to reach such an agreement.
When buyers are foreign investors, attention should also be paid to Vietnamese regulations and requirements on foreign exchange controls. Specifically, the buyer should require the project company to open a direct investment capital account through which the payments can be made. This will ensure the investor’s capital withdrawal at a later stage. Although it is the seller’s obligation, the buyers should request for documentation of the seller’s income tax fulfillment for filing and submitting to the authority later.
Completing the deal requires registration with the authority. As such, foreign investors must apply for approval from the competent authority for the transfer deal with respect to real estate projects, and will be granted M&A approval.
Regardless of the closing of the deal, some seller’s representations and warranties still live on. What if the buyers, after taking-over of the project, discover these representations and warranties are inaccurate or noncompliant? This issue should be foreseen by the buyers to ensure that security measurements (e.g. right to sell back or or claim for damages) are in place.
It is necessary for the parties to agree on a legal regime to settle disputes or conflicts arising during the deal, and in case of failure, on the competent jurisdiction. According to Vietnamese commercial law, the parties may choose either the court or arbitration for settlement. In practice, the parties often prefer arbitration due to its simple and non-public procedures. Arbitration awards are as binding and enforceable as a court decision, even though arbitration fees are higher than that of a court’s.
The buyer must pay attention to the handover of project documents as well as to the rights to control and run the company. Some buyers, after taking over the company, have faced difficulties in operating the company due to a lack of corporate documentation.
Sellers may also have promises to favor the buyers’ financial interest in the acquisition such as possible adjustment of the planning and construction criteria. However, in some cases, such adjustments are impossible due to the requirements of the master plan. Foreign investors therefore, should pay attention to these requirements.
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