Offshore vehicles or companies incorporated in international financial centres (IFCs), including Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands (BVI), the Cayman Islands, Jersey and Guernsey have long been a popular choice for listing vehicles and feature in over 20 exchanges across the world including Australia, London, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and more recently Shanghai.
With just under 200 IPOs of offshore listing vehicles in 2019 alone, and during these times of international political uncertainties, market disruptions and regulatory reforms, their popularity only looks set to continue to grow.
On the London Stock Exchange there are more than 320 offshore vehicles listed with Guernsey and Jersey companies featuring dominantly. In the US and Asia however, Cayman, Bermuda and BVI companies are the offshore heavyweights; with Cayman remaining a favourite offshore jurisdiction of choice for not only listings on Asian stock exchanges, but also listings by Asian businesses on international stock exchanges around the world including in the United Kingdom and the US.
Most notably, the listing of Alibaba was through the use of a Cayman listing vehicle on the New York Stock Exchange, which raised more than US$25 billion in September 2014 making it the world’s largest ever IPO. In Hong Kong, by the end of 2019, Cayman vehicles accounted for more than 50% of companies listed on the main board of the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong (HKEX), and between January and July 2020 approximately 95% of total listings on HKEX used a Cayman company as the listing vehicle. In Taiwan, when the Taiwan Stock Exchange opened its doors to foreign issuers, a Cayman Islands exempted company became the first foreign company to be listed on that exchange in 2010 (and since then more than 100 Cayman companies have followed suit and listed or registered on that exchange and the Taipei Exchange). That trend is set to continue following the launch of the Science and Technology Innovation Board of Shanghai Stock Exchange (STAR Market) in July 2019, where the first ever listing of a ‘red chip’ company (i.e. companies incorporated in foreign jurisdictions with main business operations in China) was a Cayman vehicle. To date, 100% of ‘red chip’ companies listed on the STAR Market are Cayman vehicles.
More recently, we’ve seen a resurgence in the use of special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) or ‘cash shells’ to raise funds through IPOs for the purposes of acquiring or merging with target entities (similar to a reverse merger), with Cayman SPACs accounting for a majority of non-US SPACs listed on Nasdaq. Given current geopolitical and other considerations, we’ve also seen US-listed Cayman incorporated Chinese businesses looking to ‘return home’ by seeking secondary or new listings on HKEX or Chinese exchanges.
Why are the Cayman Islands so popular for IPOs and what factors should be considered when choosing your listing vehicle? The answer is a relatively simple one: the Cayman Islands offers stability, corporate law flexibility a trusted legal system (with their roots in English law), tax neutrality, minority shareholder protection and lower costs whilst continuing to adapt and align with international gold standards. Cayman vehicles are accepted by exchanges, institutional and private investors, rating agencies, underwriters and regulators around the world.
When choosing your listing vehicle whether that be the Cayman Islands or elsewhere, there are a number of key factors that should be considered. The following highlights some of the potential advantages in using a listing vehicle incorporated in Cayman and the BVI. In particular, these two offshore jurisdictions continue to have a central role in Chinese deal flows sand IPOs of Chinese businesses, having already become embedded in PRC corporate structures since the late 1980s.
Trusted and Reliable Legal Systems
Both Cayman and the BVI are recognised as leading IFCs in the world, combining advanced, flexible and business-friendly laws with balanced regulatory regimes and sophisticated professional infrastructures. As British Overseas Territories, the Cayman Islands and the BVI enjoy political and economic stability. Each jurisdiction’s legal system is based on established English common law principles, with the final court of appeal being the Privy Council in London, if needed. This is a source of comfort for international investors who may seek reassurance that if rights need to be enforced before a court, it will be before a familiar and trusted system. Corporate and commercial statutes are continually being revised and improved in response to the demands of commerce. This ensures that both Cayman and BVI companies are well understood and accepted internationally.
Corporate Law Flexibility
Company laws in the BVI and Cayman are flexible and adaptable to the rules of most stock exchanges. Additionally, BVI and Cayman companies can adopt, institute, amend, modify or revoke corporate governance policies or initiatives as required by the listing rule requirements or expectations of the relevant exchange.
In each of these jurisdictions, many aspects of the Companies Law of the Cayman Islands (Companies Law) or BVI Business Companies Act 2004 (BC Act), together with common law, provide the basic company law framework and building blocks for the life cycle of a company. Save where required by law, companies are generally permitted to adapt their articles of association or constitutional documents to alter, expand or refine that framework to a model that may be suitable or desired for a particular exchange or set of circumstances. For example, through its articles of association a Cayman or BVI company may set out its distribution policies, provide for the specific powers and duties of directors, cater for defensive takeover tactics such as ‘staggered boards’ and ‘poison pills’, allow for weighted voting rights (with Class A Shares and Class B Shares) and/or provide for additional shareholder protections.
Both jurisdictions also have flexible distribution regimes. In the Cayman Islands, the most commonly used vehicle is an exempted company, which has both an authorised and issued share capital. Dividends may be paid out of profits or, provided that immediately following the payment the company is able to pay its debts as they fall due in the ordinary course of business (i.e. a 'cash flow' solvency test), from share premium. In the BVI, there is no concept of authorised share capital and no minimum share capital is prescribed in respect of a BVI business company. As a result, dividends may be paid provided simply that the directors are satisfied that immediately after the payment of the dividend, (i) the value of the company’s assets will exceed its liabilities and (ii) the company will be able to pay its debts as they fall due (i.e. a combined ‘cash flow' and ‘balance sheet’ solvency test).
Cayman and BVI companies can be incorporated quickly and inexpensively, and may adopt a dual foreign name in a foreign script (such as Chinese). In each of the jurisdictions, there is no prohibition on the giving of financial assistance by a Cayman or BVI company.
In the Cayman Islands and the BVI, there is no need to prepare or file a prospectus for companies making public offers outside Cayman or the BVI respectively, unless it is a Cayman mutual fund or BVI public fund (there is legislation drafted in relation to the preparation of prospectus’ in the BVI, but this has not come into force). This allows for a simplified process and the issuer may therefore focus on the listing rule requirements of the relevant exchange, without the need to consider any additional Cayman or BVI law requirements. Equally, there is generally no need to obtain the approval of any regulatory body or authority in either the Cayman Islands or the BVI in respect of the issuance or transfer of shares or depositary receipts (where the issuer is listing depositary receipts rather than shares).
More recently in 2018, the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority (CIMA) entered into a non-binding memorandum of understanding with the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CRSM) to facilitate regulatory cooperation in recognition of the increasing international activities in the securities, futures and other related investment products markets. In particular, through the MOU the regulatory bodies agreed to enhance the exchange of supervisory information and cross-border enforcement cooperation with regards to Cayman companies, which carry out public or private securities offerings in China and/or whose securities are trading on stock exchanges in China. This further strengthens and entrenches the relationship between China and the Cayman Islands. To date, there is no equivalent MOU between the competent authorities in the BVI and CRSM, but BVI and China have developed a close relationship over the years.
Both Cayman and the BVI comply with all relevant international standards on financial regulation, AML, tax transparency and information exchange and this compliance is recognised by the relevant international bodies – most recently demonstrated by the EU’s expected removal of the Cayman Islands from its temporary ‘blacklisting’ in October 2020.
In the Cayman Islands, there is no form of income, inheritance, gift, withholding, corporate or capital gains tax imposed on any Cayman company or its shareholders. Additionally, it is possible for a Cayman company to apply for an undertaking from the government that there will be no such taxes imposed, which usually lasts for a period of up to 20 years. Stamp duty may be applicable on instruments executed in, or brought within, the jurisdiction of the Cayman Islands, which is generally at a nominal amount.
In the BVI, there is no form of inheritance, gift, withholding, corporate or capital gains tax imposed on any BVI business company or its shareholders. BVI companies are specifically exempt from income tax and stamp duty (other than instruments relating to the transfer of an interest directly or indirectly in BVI land). Individuals resident in the BVI may be subject to local payroll taxation.
Therefore, Cayman and BVI companies are tax neutral in terms of tax paid by shareholders – each shareholder will be subject to tax in its own taxable jurisdiction, but there is no ‘additional’ level of Cayman or BVI tax at the company level.
There are no exchange controls in Cayman or the BVI.
Transfer of shares
For Cayman companies, shares are transferred in accordance with the requirements of the articles of association. If shares are listed on an approved stock exchange, the shares can be evidenced and transferred in accordance with the laws, rules and regulations that apply to that stock exchange. There are no statutory pre-emption rights.
For BVI companies, an instrument of transfer is required to transfer shares. If shares are listed on a recognised exchange they may trade and settle freely in accordance with the rules and procedures of the recognised exchange. There are statutory pre-emption rights but those only apply when stated in the articles of association (and are usually expressly dis-applied).
Investor confidence – director’s duties
Subject to the articles of association and the law, a company incorporated in Cayman or the BVI is managed by the directors of the Company which have all the powers necessary for managing, directing and supervising, the business and affairs of the company. Cayman and BVI companies have a single-tier board structure. In both jurisdictions directors owe fiduciary duties to the company.
As a matter of Cayman Islands law, the duties of a director primarily derive from common law, the Companies Law, and the articles of association of the Company. Under common law principles that will be applied by the Cayman Islands courts, directors have fiduciary duties to a company including: (i) the duty to act honestly and in good faith in what he or she considers are the best interests of the company (generally meaning the interests of the shareholders as a whole); (ii) the duty of loyalty and to avoid actual or potential conflicts of interest arising between his or her duties to the company and his or her personal interest; (iii) a duty to exercise his or her powers as a director under the Companies Law and the articles of association of the company only for the purposes for which they are conferred and not for a collateral or improper purpose; (iv) a duty not to fetter his or her discretion as a director; and (v) a duty of care, diligence and skill.
In the BVI, there is statutory footing to the equitable and common law duties owed by a director. In particular, as a matter of statutory law, a director must (i) act honestly and in good faith and what he believes to be in the best interests of the company, and (ii) exercise power for a proper purpose. Similar to Cayman, there is also a common law duty of care and skill.
A director must also act in accordance with any specific duties set forth in the articles of association from time to time. There is no need for a Cayman or a BVI listed company to appoint Cayman or BVI resident directors.
Minority shareholder protections
Under common law principles, shareholders in a Cayman or BVI company are entitled to have the affairs of a company conducted in accordance with such company’s articles of association and applicable law.
As such, shareholders may bring personal or representative actions against a company in respect of breaches of their (and other similarly affected shareholders’) rights as shareholders under the articles of association of the company and applicable law (for example, in the event that they are prevented from exercising voting rights).
A shareholder may also bring a derivative action in the name of a company in a limited number of circumstances, including in order to challenge any matter or act of the company which (a) is ultra vires the company or illegal; (b) constitutes a ‘fraud on the minority’ where the wrongdoers control the company; (c) constitutes an infringement of individual rights of shareholders (such as a right to attend and vote at a meeting); or (d) where the company has not complied with provisions requiring approval of a special or extraordinary majority of shareholders.
The law also gives power to the courts to wind up a company if the courts are of the opinion that it would be just and equitable to do so.
Additionally for BVI companies, a shareholder who considers that the affairs of a company have been, are being, or are likely to be, conducted in a way that is, or any act of the company has been, or is, likely to be oppressive, unfairly discriminatory or unfairly prejudicial to the shareholder in that capacity may apply to the BVI High Court for relief. The BC Act confers wide powers on the High Court to grant relief in the case of unfair prejudice.
Both Cayman and BVI law provides that shareholders may be entitled to payment of the fair value of their shares upon dissenting from certain proposed transactions such as consolidations, mergers or in the case of BVI companies, where there is a disposal of a significant asset (being any sale, transfer, lease, exchange or other disposition of more than 50% in value of the assets or business of the company) not made in the usual or regular course of business.
Business combinations, migrations and takeovers
The Cayman Companies Law makes specific provision for the acquisition of a Cayman Islands company by way of a court-approved scheme of arrangement, by way of mandatory squeeze-out following a tender offer, and by way of merger or consolidation. It is also possible to migrate Cayman companies to other jurisdictions and vice versa.
The BC Act makes specific provision for the acquisition of a BVI company by way of a court-approved scheme of arrangement or plan of arrangement, by way of forced minority shareholder redemption, and by way of merger or consolidation. It is also possible to migrate BVI companies to other jurisdictions and vice versa.
In both jurisdictions, there is no takeover code or legislation applicable to BVI or Cayman listed companies (unless that company is regulated by BVI FSC or CIMA or, in the case of a Cayman company, it is listed on the Cayman Islands Stock Exchange), nor are there any statutory restrictions in respect of defensive mechanisms which the board of directors could utilise in respect of actual or potential takeover or merger offers, subject to their usual fiduciary duties.
These features offer flexibility and creative solutions to any pre-IPO restructuring and/or reverse takeovers to their onshore counterparts, outside of a typical share swap. They are also particularly ideal for SPACs as they offer a quicker, lower cost and simplified process when it comes to the acquisition of target companies. Growing tensions between the US and China, heightened regulatory scrutiny of US-listed Chinese businesses by US regulators and potentially higher trading multiples upon a re-listing in China (or Hong Kong) are key drivers for the recent spate of “take-private” transactions of Cayman and BVI companies by way of arrangement, tender offers and statutory mergers.
Cayman and the BVI, together with other non-EU jurisdictions, recently introduced legislation in 2019 aimed at addressing concerns raised by the Council of the European Union as to offshore structures engaged in certain activities which attract profi ts swithout real economic activity. The regime introduced certain economic substance requirements for certain in-scope “relevant entities” which are engaged in certain “relevant activities” and receive relevant income from that. A “relevant entity” includes both Cayman and BVI companies (other than those which are tax resident outside of the respective jurisdictions). The “related activities” refer to nine types of business: banking; distribution and service centre; finance eand leasing; fund management business; headquarters business; holding business; insurance business; intellectual property business; and shipping. Each of the Cayman Islands and the BVI have introduced guidance or rules, which expand on the economic substance requirements.
Typically a listing vehicle will usually be a holding body. Provided that the listing vehicle only holds equity participation in other entities and only earns dividends and capital gains, it will be carrying on “holding company business” for the purposes of the economic substance regime and will be subject to reduced economic substance requirements, which requires the company to (i) comply with all applicable filing requirements under the relevant companies law; and (ii) have adequate human resources/employees and premises in the Cayman Islands or the BVI for holding and managing such equity participations in other entities. Unlike the other heads of “relevant activity”, the company will not be required to be “directed and managed” in the Cayman Islands or the BVI. When structuring the affairs of any potential listing vehicle, it is important to consider the intended activities of the listing vehicle, especially where it will be carrying on one or more ‘relevant activity’. For applications to the STAR Market, this will be a relevant factor for the exchange who will likely seek confirmation in respect of the impact of the economic substance law on not only the listing vehicle itself, but also the “controllers” of the listing vehicle (which may also be an offshore vehicle).
Carey Olsen’s global corporate team is one of the largest and most widely recognised in the offshore world, advising on all aspects of corporate law including IPOs, mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, corporate restructurings and listings of both debt and equity securities on internationally recognised stock exchanges.
Our “full service” Singapore and Hong Kong offices supply Asia-based clients with Mandarin and Bahasa language capability and on-the-ground legal advice on the laws of Bermuda, the BVI, the Cayman Islands and Jersey.
The team at Carey Olsen Singapore have particular experience in acting for PRC clients and underwriters in connection with IPOs of Cayman and BVI companies on the STAR Market and US exchanges.
在包括澳大利亚、伦敦、纽约、香港、新加坡、台湾在内的全球 20 多个交易所，长期以来一直热衷于在百慕大、英属维尔京群岛 (BVI)、开曼群岛、泽西岛和根西岛等国际金融中心 (IFC) 注册离岸载体或离岸公司作为上市主体，并成为一种流行趋势，近期上交所也加入其中。仅去年一年，即有近 200 家离岸上市主体发起首次公开募股 (IPO)。当前环境下，国际政治不确定性、市场动荡叠加监管制度改革，离岸上市主体似乎将更为普及。
伦敦证券交易所 320 多家离岸上市公司中，绝大多数在根西岛和泽西岛注册；而在美国和亚洲地区，重量级境外上市公司的注册地在开曼、百慕大和英属维尔京群岛。对于亚洲证券交易所上市公司以及全球各地（包括英国和美国）国际证券交易所上市的亚洲企业而言，开曼仍然是首选离岸地。其中最著名的实例，2014 年 9 月，阿里巴巴通过一家开曼上市主体实现在纽约证券交易所上市，募集资金超过 250 亿美元，成为全球有史以来最大的 IPO。在香港市场，截至 2019 年底，香港交易所（“港交所”）主板上市公司中，开曼公司占比超过 50%，而在 2020 年 1 月至 7 月期间，港交所上市企业中，大约 95% 利用开曼公司作为上市主体。台湾证券交易所市场向外资发行商开放后，2010 年，一家开曼群岛豁免公司成为第一家在该交易所上市的外国公司（此后，已有 100 多家开曼公司效仿，在台湾证交所和台北交易所上市或注册）。2019 年 7 月，上海证券交易所科创板 (STAR Market) 正式开市，在该板块首次上市的一家“红筹”公司（红筹公司是指注册地在境外、主要经营活动在中国境内的企业）是一家在开曼注册的企业，预示着这一趋势将会持续。目前为止，科创板上市的“红筹”公司全部为开曼公司。
本所留意到，利用特殊目的收购公司 (SPAC) 或“现金壳公司”，通过 IPO 筹集资金收购或合并目标公司（类似于反向合并）最近开始卷土重来，在纳斯达克上市的非美资 SPAC 中，开曼 SPAC 占据绝大多数。同时，鉴于当前的地缘政治形势和其他因素，在开曼注册并赴美上市的中国企业有意“归国”，正寻求在港交所二次上市或在深沪两市重新上市。
开曼群岛为何会成为 IPO 的热门之地，选择上市主体时应考虑哪些因素？
选择上市实体（无论注册在开曼群岛或其他法域），应考虑众多关键因素。下文重点说明了使用开曼/英属维尔京群岛注册的上市主体的潜在优势。20 世纪 80 年代后期以来，前述两个离岸地已经融入中国企业结构，在中资企业交易流程和 IPO 中持续发挥着核心作用。
开曼群岛《公司法》（《公司法》）或英属维尔京群岛 2004 年《商业公司法》（《商业公司法》）的许多方面以及普通法规定了覆盖公司全部生命周期的基本公司法框架和构件。除法律要求外，一般来说，允许公司调整章程或组织文件，将该框架更改、扩大或完善，成为适用或适合某一特定交易所或特定情形的模式。例如，开曼公司或英属维尔京群岛公司可在公司章程中列明分配制度，规定董事的具体权力和职责，配合“交错董事会”和“毒丸”等抵御型反收购策略，允许设立“双重股权架构”（A 类股和 B 类股）并/或规定为股东提供额外保护。
两处离岸地都具备灵活的分配制度。开曼群岛最常见的形式为豁免公司，同时设置法定股本和已发行股本。股息可以从利润中支付，或者，如果支付利润后立即能够支付正常业务过程中的到期债务（即“现金流”偿付能力测试），则可以从股份溢价中支付。英属维尔京群岛商业公司不设法定股本，对最低股本也没有规定。因此，只要董事确信在支付股息后：(1) 公司的资产价值将超过负债，且 (2) 公司将能够支付到期债务，则可支付股息（即综合“现金流”和“资产负债表”的偿付能力测试)。
最近在 2018 年，有鉴于国际范围内证券、期货和其他相关投资产品市场交易活动日渐增多，为促进监管合作，开曼群岛金融管理局（CIMA）与中国证券监督管理委员会（“中国证监会”）签订了一份不具约束力的谅解备忘录。谅解备忘录中，两个监管机构同意，在中国开展公开或非公开证券发行和/或其证券在中国证券交易所交易的开曼公司范围内，加强监管信息交流和跨境执法合作，进一步加强和巩固了中国与开曼群岛之间的关系。迄今为止，英属维尔京群岛主管机构与中国证监会尚未签署相应的谅解备忘录，但英属维尔京群岛和中国多年来已经建立了密切联系。
开曼和英属维尔京群岛均遵守对金融监管、反洗钱、税收透明度和信息交流进行规管的所有相关国际标准，此类合规得到相关国际机构的认可——欧盟预计将于 2020 年 10 月从临时“黑名单”中删除开曼群岛。
开曼群岛不对任何开曼公司或其股东征收任何形式的所得税、继承税、赠与税、预扣税、公司税或资本利得税。此外，开曼公司可向政府申请一项有效期可长达 20 年的、不征收此类税项的承诺。在开曼群岛管辖范围内签署或提交的文书，可能征收印花税，一般以名义数额收取。
因此，开曼公司和英属维尔京群岛公司在股东待付税款方面保持税收中立 — 每个股东仅须支付应税司法辖区的税项，开曼或英属维尔京群岛在公司层面不征收任何“额外”的税款。
投资者信心 — 董事职责
根据开曼群岛法律，董事主要须遵守普通法、《公司法》和公司章程规定的职责。根据开曼群岛法院将采用的普通法原则，董事对公司负有诚信义务，包括 (i) 诚实守信，以其认为符合公司最佳利益（一般指全体股东的利益）的方式诚信行事；(ii) 忠诚责任，避免在对公司履行职责与其个人利益之间实际产生或潜在产生利益冲突。(iii) 仅根据《公司法》和公司章程规定为获授权之目的（不得为附带目的或不正当目的）行使作为董事的权力；(iv) 不限制其作为董事的自由裁量权；及(v) 注意、勤勉和技能义务。
在英属维尔京群岛，董事负有衡平法和普通法项下的职责，具有法律依据。特别是根据成文法，董事必须：(i) 诚实守信，以其认为最符合公司利益的方式诚信行事；(ii) 本着正当目的行使权力。与开曼群岛类似，董事也须履行普通法下的注意和技能义务。
极有限情况下，股东可以公司名义提起股东代位诉讼，包括质疑公司的任何事项或行为 (a) 越权 或非法；(b) 过错方控制公司，构成“欺诈少数股东”；(c) 构成对股东个人权利的侵犯（如会议出席权和投票权）；或 (d) 公司未遵守要求多数/绝大多数股东批准的规定。
在开曼和英属维尔京群岛，均不存在针对开曼上市公司或英属维尔京群岛上市公司的收购法规或法律（但受英属维尔京群岛金融委员会或 CIMA 监管的公司，或在开曼群岛证券交易所上市的开曼公司除外），对于董事会在实际或拟将作出收购或合并要约时可能采用的抵御机制，也不设任何法律限制，但其惯常应遵守的诚信义务除外。
依托上述优势，离岸地的任何 IPO 前重组和/或反向收购，可在典型的股份交换方法之外，提供比境内同行更为灵活、更具创造性的解决方案。该类解决方案使得收购目标公司更为快速、成本更低、流程更为简化，尤其适用于 SPAC。
为解除欧盟理事会对离岸结构从事不满足经济实质要求的相关活动并从中赚取利润的担忧，开曼、英属维尔京群岛及其他非欧盟管辖区近期于 2019 年出台新立法。该制度规定，范围内的“相关实体”从事“相关活动”并从中赚取利润，应该满足经济实质要求。“相关实体”包括在开曼及英属维京群岛注册的公司（相关司法辖区以外的税收居民除外)。“相关活动”划分为九类业务：银行业务、分销及服务中心、融资与租赁、基金管理业务、总部业务、控股业务、保险业务、知识产权业务及航运业务。开曼群岛和英属维尔京群岛均出台了指导意见或规定，拓宽经济实质要求的适用范围。
通常情况下，上市主体是一家控股机构。如果上市主体仅持有其他实体的股权，并只收取股息和资本利得，则该主体仅开展经济实质法规定的“控股业务”，只需满足简化的经济实质要求，也即要求须 (i) 满足相关公司法规定的所有适用的备案要求；(ii) 在开曼群岛或英属维尔京群岛配备足够的人力资源/员工和办公场所，以持有、管理其他实体的该类股权。与“相关活动”的其他项目不同，公司无需在开曼群岛或英属维尔京群岛“管理和指示”。对任何潜在上市主体之事务进行规划时，请务必考虑上市主体预期开展的活动，上市主体开展一项或多项“相关活动”时尤其如此。对于是否适用于科创板，这是一个相关因素，交易所除了求证经济实质法对上市主体本身的影响外，还将考量对于上市主体“控股方”（控股方可能同样为离岸主体）的影响。
凯瑞奥信新加坡团队尤其专长于就开曼公司在科创板 IPO 相关业务向中国客户/承销商提供法律咨询服务。
An original version of this article was published by Asian Legal Business, January 2021.