The article was first published in The Business Times on 5 April 2017.
While Singapore is now the second largest Reit market in Asia, recent headlines have highlighted possible deficiencies of the Reit industry, including the accountability of Reit managers.
This issue has not gone unnoticed by the authorities. While the conduct of Reit managers is currently regulated by the Code on Collective Investment Schemes (CIS) and the common law, Parliament in January 2017 passed the Securities and Futures (Amendment) Act 2017, which introduces statutory protections for unitholders against the failure of Reit managers and their directors to act in the best interests of unitholders.
In this first of a two-part article, we explore some options available to the unitholders of a Reit under the current regime to hold a Reit manager accountable for its actions.
The Singapore courts have yet to determine whether the manager of a Reit owes fiduciary duties to unitholders. Nevertheless, Lee Chiwi, who authored a book on the legal nature of a unit trust, suggests that such duties are owed for two reasons.
First, Reit managers exist not solely for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of unitholders, which is a characteristic common to fiduciaries. Second, a Reit manager's position should be supervised under equitable principles as unitholders are not able to unilaterally amend or determine what powers and duties a manager possesses under the trust deed of a Reit. Unitholders are also vulnerable with limited or no rights to interfere with the management of the Reit, as the manager typically has autonomy to determine how the interests of unitholders are served.
The trust deed of a Reit is required to contain provisions which allow the manager to be removed by a simple majority of unitholders present and voting at a general meeting (with no unitholders being disenfranchised), and to allow a general meeting to be convened at the request of at least 50 unitholders or unitholders representing at least 10 per cent of the issued units of the Reit.
While convening a general meeting to pass a resolution to remove the manager is theoretically possible, this may prove difficult in practice. In a 2007 article in the Singapore Academy of Law Journal, Adjunct Associate Professor Joseph Chun noted that Reit managers are usually owned by the sponsor of the Reit, which in turn would typically hold the lion's share of units in the Reit and thus a greater proportion of the voting power. Therefore, even if unitholders are able to requisition a general meeting, they may find it difficult to gather the required simple majority to pass the resolution for removal of the manager.
The CIS requires a Reit manager to "have arrangements in place to take all reasonable steps to obtain the best possible result for the scheme, taking into account the following execution factors: price, costs, speed, likelihood of execution and settlement, size, nature or any other consideration relevant to the execution of a trade or transaction".
That said, the requirements of the CIS are not statutory obligations, and a breach of the CIS does not itself generate criminal liability. If, however, a breach of the CIS is established, it may support the unitholders' case in civil or criminal proceedings that the manager is liable. Also, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) may take into account a breach of the CIS in determining whether to revoke or suspend the authorisation of the Reit, or to refuse to authorise new schemes by parties responsible for the breach in question.
Nevertheless, it may not be easy or rewarding for unitholders to show that a manager has breached the CIS. For instance, it is unclear whether paying a higher price for a property acquisition from a related party would in itself demonstrate that a Reit manager did not use "all reasonable steps" to obtain the best possible result for the Reit.
Moreover, given the possibility of the authorisation of the Reit being revoked or suspended by MAS, unitholders may wish to consider whether establishing such a breach achieves their objectives, as such revocation or suspension of authorisation may negatively impact the value of their investment in the Reit.
For instance, if it is clear that, but for the manager's under-performance, the Reit would be performing well, it is more sensible for unitholders to explore other options to preserve the Reit as an investment vehicle whilst addressing the quality of management. The most advantageous option for unitholders will depend on the unique circumstances of each case.
Unitholders may apply to the Singapore courts for an order under the Securities and Futures Act where the Reit manager has conducted the affairs of the Reit or exercised its powers in a manner that is oppressive or disregards unitholders' interests. Another ground for such application to the Singapore courts is where an act of the Reit manager has been done or is threatened which unfairly discriminates or is prejudicial to unitholders.
The court is empowered to make a wide range of orders, including an order which cancels or varies any transaction or regulates the conduct of the affairs of the Reit manager in the future. However, there are no instances where the Singapore courts have interpreted or applied this provision in the Securities and Futures Act, and it remains to be seen how these grounds would be satisfied.