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To sideline smugglers, Centre may cut gold import duty in Union budget

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India is expected to slash the import duty on gold to undercut smugglers who have been offering hefty discounts as illicit imports boom after COVID-19, denting the market share of banks and refiners, government and industry officials told Reuters.

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A cut in the import duty by the world’s second-biggest consumer could lift retail sales by making gold cheaper ahead of peak demand season and support global prices. It could also revive operations of domestic gold refineries, who have seen their business wither over the past two months as they are unable to compete with grey-market operators.

“The government is aware of problems created by the higher duty structure and they will be fixed soon,” said one government official, who declined to be identified, in response to a question about the possibility of a cut in the import duty.

Grey market operators, who smuggle gold in from overseas and sell it for cash to avoid duties, got a boost in July when the government raised the basic import duty on gold to 12.5% from 7.5% to bring down the trade deficit and support the rupee.

The effective duty is now 18.45%, which includes the 12.5% import duty, 2.5% agriculture infrastructure development cess and other taxes.

Another official said the government was considering bringing the effective rate down to below 12%, adding: “We will take a final call soon.”

The finance ministry declined to comment while the trade ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An official at the Ministry of Commerce said it was in favour of cutting the import duty on gold and had asked the finance ministry to do so.

“Smuggling is going up,” said the commerce ministry official, adding that the duty could be cut in an upcoming budget.

The July increase in the duty on gold was a welcome boost for the smugglers, who were largely sidelined in 2020 and 2021 because of travel restrictions imposed to contain COVID-19.

The grey market operators are now offering a more than $40 per ounce discount on official domestic prices, which no bank or refiner can match, said James Jose, managing director of refiner CGR Metalloys.

“Substantial reduction in the duty is the only solution to stop smuggling,” Jose said.

Customs and other agencies seized 3,083.6 kg of gold illegally brought in last year up to November, the highest in three years.

Indian gold prices jumped to a record 56,850 rupees per 10 grams last week.

The increase in smuggling has contributed to a decline in legal imports in December by 79% from a year earlier to the lowest level in at least two decades for the month, the commerce ministry estimated.

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‘Rationalise corporate tax rates’: US group’s appeal to govt ahead of budget

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Ahead of the annual budget presentation, an India-centric top US strategic and business advocacy group has urged Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to simplify and rationalise direct and indirect taxation system in India, a move it believes would increase the confidence of global investors and yield greater foreign direct investment.

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Direct taxes can be in the form of income tax, capital gains tax or securities transaction tax, while indirect taxes such as GST, Customs Duty or VAT are levied on all end-consumers to buy any goods or services.

“Rationalise corporate tax rates for foreign companies,” said the US-India Strategic and Partnership Forum (USISPF) in its submission to the finance ministry ahead of the annual budget presentations on February 1. It said that the rate for foreign companies, including banks be reduced to bring parity and sought to rationalise tax for new manufacturing companies.

Urging India to simplify capital gain tax reforms, USISPF sought harmonising holding periods and rates of different instruments.

“Reiterate India’s commitment to the global tax deal,” it said and urged the Union Finance Minister to extend the concessional tax regime to Foreign Portfolio Investment (FPI) from investment in securities.

USISPF has also suggested tax incentives to specific sectors like renewable energy and R&D investment in the health sector.

Among the Forum’s recommendations include advocating for a stable and predictable tax environment, improving the ease of doing business environment, rationalisation of the cost of doing business, and rationalisation of tax rates and tariffs.

On indirect taxes, the USISPF sought clarification on customs duty exemptions provided to oil and natural gas companies, reduction in customs duty rates for x-ray machines from 10 per cent to 7.5 per cent and providing customs duty exemption on all items imported by specified research and development units.

USISPF urged the finance minister to roll back the customs duty increase on nutritional products considering the importance and significance of the product and encourage the availability of scientifically designed nutritional food in India.

Among its recommendations on customs tariffs and duties and customs, processes include addressing ambiguities in the customs tariff act on telecom products, an extension of concessional customs duty to advanced biofuel projects and strengthening the process on the ground with respect to trade facilitation schemes like CAROTAR and Faceless Assessment.

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LIC doubles down on Adani amid Hindenburg’s fraud claims

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India’s largest life insurer is plowing more money into Gautam Adani’s flagship unit, undeterred by a short seller’s fraud allegations that wiped out more than $50 billion of the conglomerate’s market value in two sessions. State-controlled Life Insurance Corp. of India is spending about 3 billion rupees ($37 million) as an anchor investor in a $2.5 billion new share sale by Adani Enterprises Ltd., according to a filing. The investment would add to its current holding of 4.23%.

Also Read | LIC, SBI savings at risk amid Hindenburg vs Adani? Here’s what banks said

LIC’s investment signaled its vote of confidence in Asia’s richest man and his beleaguered group on Jan. 25, which is facing its toughest test yet after US-based Hindenburg Research in its report earlier this week characterized its meteoric rise as “the largest con in corporate history.” LIC is among 33 institutional investors coming in as anchors in the FPO, along with names such as Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and Al Mehwar Commercial Investments LLC.

While the amount Mumbai-based LIC is investing is relatively tiny — considering it has almost 43 trillion rupees of assets under management at LIC — it marks a contrarian position to other domestic financial institutions that have little to no Adani investments. It also comes in the face of a contagion that hit stocks exposed to Adani Group, including LIC that plunged the most in more than a month on Friday in Mumbai.

“LIC thinks contrarian,” said Arun Kejriwal, founder of Kejriwal Research & Investment. “It has always minted money whenever there is market volatility. It doesn’t receive money for short duration. It acts as long-only fund.”

Also Read | Gautam Adani: Asia’s richest man in the eye of a storm

An email and text messages sent to the LIC chairman seeking comments on its Adani Group investments were not immediately answered.

With over 250 million policy holders across India and assets under management as large as the nation’s mutual fund industry, LIC is among India’s systemically most important institutions. Its exposure to the Adani Group, known to be closely aligned to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s development goals, is also symbolic of the tycoon’s political clout.

LIC is an investor in five Adani companies, with stakes ranging from 1% to 9% that was worth a total of 722.68 billion rupees on Jan. 24 — just before the Hindenburg report was published.

No other Indian insurance company has any significant holding, as per December 2022 data filed with stock exchanges. Most mutual funds have largely stayed away from the group, despite some wild rallies seen by some of the stocks. Adani Enterprises for instance, surged over 1,900% in the last five years, trumping even the likes of Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc.

The high exposure of state-backed financial institutions “has implications for financial stability” and for the millions of Indians “whose savings are stewarded by these pillars of the financial system,” Jairam Ramesh, a lawmaker with the opposition Indian National Congress party, said in a statement Friday.

Adding Weight

The sell off triggered by Hindenburg’s report may now be adding more weight to such concerns. The rout deepened Thursday, with some units like Adani Green Energy Ltd. and Adani Total Gas Ltd. tumbling by their daily limit of 20%. Adani Enterprises fell 19%.

The short seller has alleged that Adani Group was involved in “brazen” market manipulation, accounting fraud, used offshore shells for money laundering and siphoned from listed companies. The conglomerate has dismissed the report as “a malicious combination of selective misinformation and stale, baseless and discredited allegations.” It said it’s also exploring legal action.

Last week, Adani Group Chief Financial Officer Jugeshinder Singh acknowledged the lack of interest shown by domestic institutional investors.

“We understand mutual funds missed Adani growth stock rally,” he said at a press briefing. “We should have communicated to mutual funds.”

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LIC, SBI savings at risk amid Hindenburg vs Adani? Here’s what banks said

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As the shares of Indian billionaire Gautam Adani faced a bloodbath on Friday following a report by a US investment firm claiming it had committed “brazen” corporate fraud, concerns have been raised over its implications for financial stability and savings of crores of Indians in financial institutions such as Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) and State Bank of India (SBI).

The Congress party called for an investigation into the allegations made by Hindenburg Research and said it may have exposed India’s financial system to systemic risks “through the liberal investments in the Adani Group made by strategic state entities like LIC, SBI and other public sector banks”.

Jairam Ramesh, Congress general secretary in charge of communications, said in a statement that the Hindenburg report demands a response from the Congress party since the Adani Group is “no ordinary conglomerate” and has been “closely identified with Prime Minister Narendra Modi since the time he was Chief Minister of Gujarat.”

“Furthermore the high exposure of financial institutions such as the Life Insurance Company of India (LIC) and the State Bank of India (SBI) to the Adani Group has implications for financial stability and for the crores of Indians whose savings are stewarded by these pillars of the financial system (sic),” Ramesh said.

“These institutions have liberally financed the Adani Group even as their private sector counterparts have chosen to avoid investing because of concerns over corporate governance and indebtedness. As much as 8 per cent of LIC’s equity assets under management, amounting to a gigantic sum of 74,000 crore, is in Adani companies and comprise its second-largest holding,” the statement added.

Also Read | For Hindenburg Research, Adani Group is a man-made disaster in the making

CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury said if the allegations are proven correct it will “destroy lives of crores of Indians who park lifelong savings in LIC & SBI.”

As Friday witnessed a sharp fall in shares of group companies and the lenders that have exposure to it, some of India’s leading public sector banks said their exposure to the Adani Group was within the limits prescribed by the Reserve Bank of India. RBI allows for no more than 25% of a bank’s available eligible capital base to be exposed to any one group of connected companies.

“There is nothing alarming about our Adani exposure and we don’t have any concerns as of now,” Dinesh Kumar Khara, chairman of country’s largest lender State Bank of India, told Reuters.

Khara said the Adani Group hadn’t raised any funding from SBI in the recent past and that the bank would take a “prudent call” on any funding request from them in the near future, reported Reuters.

SBI has reached out to the company for clarification and the board will take any decision on the bank’s exposure to the group only after that, reported Reuters quoting an unnamed official.

An official at the state-run Bank of India said the loans to the Adani group were within permissible limits.

“Our exposure to the Adani Group is below the large exposure framework of the Reserve Bank of India,” Reuters quoted an unnamed executive at the Bank of India as saying.

“Till last month, the Adani Group’s interest payment on loans has been intact.”

Bank executives at two other private lenders said that they were not yet in “panic mode” but being watchful, according to the report.

The Adani Group comprises the flagship Adani Enterprises Ltd, as well as Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd, Adani Power Ltd, Adani Green Energy Ltd and Adani Transmission Ltd.

The ports-to-energy conglomerate said it was exploring legal action against Hindenburg Research calling the report “maliciously mischievous”. Hindenburg responded that Adani had ducked the issues its research had raised and instead resorted to “bluster and threats”.

“If Adani is serious, it should also file suit in the US,” the firm said in a statement. “We have a long list of documents we would demand in a legal discovery process.”

(With inputs from Reuters)


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