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Place of Supply for Custodial Services to Foreign Portfolio Investors: Navigating the Complexities of GST

Navigating the Complexities of GST: Place of Supply for Custodial Services to Foreign Portfolio Investors


In the ever-evolving landscape of Indian taxation, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) continues to present unique challenges and interpretations. One such area of complexity is the determination of the place of supply for custodial services provided by Indian banks to Foreign Portfolio Investors (FPIs). This article delves into the intricacies of this specific scenario, exploring the regulatory framework, recent clarifications, and their implications for the financial services sector.

Understanding the Regulatory Landscape

GST Fundamentals

The Goods and Services Tax applies to all inter-State and intra-State supplies of goods or services, with certain exceptions. While ‘securities’ are excluded from the definition of goods and services, transactions in securities are considered exempt supplies for the purpose of input tax credit reversal under the CGST Act, 2017.

India as a Global Investment Destination

India has emerged as a favored destination for global investors, particularly Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), due to the booming stock market. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) regulates the activities of Foreign Portfolio Investors in the country.

Regulatory Requirements for FPIs

Under the SEBI (Foreign Portfolio Investors) Regulations, 2019, every FPI is mandated to appoint a local custodian to manage their securities transactions in India. Banks often serve in this custodial capacity, maintaining accounts of securities held by FPIs.

Defining Custodial Services

The SEBI (Custodian of Securities) Regulations 1996 defines ‘Custodial Services’ in relation to securities as:

  1. Safekeeping of client securities
  2. Maintaining accounts of client securities
  3. Collecting benefits or rights accruing to the client
  4. Keeping clients informed of relevant actions by securities issuers
  5. Maintaining and reconciling records of the above services

Investment Options for FPIs

SEBI regulations allow FPIs to invest in a specific range of securities, including:

  1. Shares, debentures, and warrants issued by corporate bodies
  2. Units of mutual fund schemes
  3. Units of Collective Investment Schemes
  4. Derivatives traded on recognized stock exchanges
  5. Units of REITs, InvITs, and Category III AIFs
  6. Indian Depository Receipts
  7. RBI-approved debt securities
  8. Other SEBI-specified instruments

The Place of Supply Conundrum

General Rules for Place of Supply

When either the supplier or recipient is located outside India, the place of supply is determined as per Section 13 of the IGST Act, 2017. The default rule under Section 13(2) states that the place of supply is the location of the recipient, except for specific cases outlined in Sections 13(3) to 13(13).

Special Provision for Banking Services

Section 13(8) specifies that for services supplied by banking companies, financial institutions, or non-banking financial companies to ‘account holders’, the place of supply is the location of the supplier. The term ‘account’ is defined as an account bearing interest to the depositor, including non-resident external and ordinary accounts.

Interpretational Challenges in Place of Supply for Custodial Services

GST officers in some cases interpreted that custodial services provided by banks to FPIs fall under Section 13(8)(a), making the place of supply the location of the service provider (i.e., the bank). This interpretation led to confusion and potential disputes in the industry.

Clarifications and Guidance

CBIC FAQ on Financial Services

The Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) provided clarification through its FAQ on the Financial Services Sector. It defined services qualifying as ‘account holder’ services, including:

  1. Services linked to bank account operations (lending, deposits)
  2. Money transfer services

The FAQ also listed services not typically provided to account holders, including:

  1. Financial leasing and hire-purchase
  2. Merchant banking
  3. Securities and forex broking
  4. Asset management, including custodial and depository services
  5. Advisory and auxiliary financial services
  6. Banker to issue services

For services not qualifying as account holder services, the place of supply is defined as the location of the recipient.

Historical Context: Service Tax Education Guide

The Service Tax regime’s Education Guide, while not a formal circular, provided valuable clarifications on similar issues. It explicitly stated that custodial services were not considered services provided to account holders, and their place of supply was determined by the default rule (location of the recipient).

The Need for GST-Specific Clarification

Despite existing clarifications, differing interpretations by GST officers, particularly at the state level, necessitated a clear stance under the GST regime. The unfamiliarity of State GST officers with certain service-related concepts, previously under central government purview, further complicated the issue.

Recent Developments in Place of Supply for Custodial Services

GST Council Recommendation

Recognizing the need for clarity, the GST Council, in its 53rd meeting, recommended that the government clarify the place of supply for custodial services provided by Indian banks to FPIs.

CBIC Circular No. 220/14/2024-GST. In response to the GST Council’s recommendation, the CBIC issued Circular No. 220/14/2024-GST on April 26, 2024. This circular definitively clarified that the place of supply for custodial services provided by Indian banks and financial institutions to FPIs shall be the location of the recipient of supply.

Implications and Analysis

Clarity for the Financial Services Sector

The recent clarification brings much-needed certainty to banks and financial institutions providing custodial services to FPIs. It aligns the GST treatment with the previous service tax regime, ensuring continuity in tax treatment.

Impact on GST Liability

With the place of supply now clearly defined as the location of the recipient (FPI), most custodial services to foreign investors will be treated as exports of services, potentially zero-rated under GST. This clarification may lead to significant tax savings for the financial services sector.

Compliance Considerations

Banks and financial institutions should review their existing practices and ensure compliance with the new clarification. This may involve:

  1. Reassessing GST charged on past transactions
  2. Updating internal systems and processes
  3. Training staff on the correct application of place of supply rules

Potential for Refund Claims

Institutions that may have paid GST on these services based on previous interpretations might now be eligible for refunds. They should carefully review past transactions and consider filing refund applications where applicable.

Broader Implications for Cross-Border Services

This clarification may have ripple effects on the interpretation of place of supply rules for other financial services. It underscores the importance of carefully analyzing the nature of each service provided in cross-border transactions.

Enhancing India’s Attractiveness for FPIs

By providing clarity and potentially reducing the tax burden on custodial services, this clarification may enhance India’s attractiveness as an investment destination for foreign portfolio investors.

Lessons for Future Policy-Making

The journey to this clarification highlights several important lessons for tax policy and administration:

  1. Importance of Clear Guidelines: The need for this clarification demonstrates the importance of providing clear, comprehensive guidelines when implementing complex tax systems like GST.
  2. Continuity in Tax Treatment: The alignment with previous service tax interpretations emphasizes the value of maintaining consistency in tax treatment across regime changes.
  3. Proactive Clarification: The GST Council’s proactive approach in recommending clarification is commendable and should be emulated in other areas of ambiguity.
  4. Collaboration Between Central and State Authorities: The issue highlights the need for better coordination and knowledge-sharing between central and state tax authorities, particularly in areas previously under central jurisdiction.
  5. Industry Consultation: Engaging with industry stakeholders to identify and address areas of confusion can lead to more effective and practical tax policies.

Conclusion: Clarifying Place of Supply for Custodial Services

The clarification on the place of supply for custodial services to FPIs represents a significant step towards reducing ambiguity in the GST framework. It demonstrates the government’s commitment to addressing industry concerns and ensuring a fair, consistent tax environment. For banks and financial institutions, this clarification provides a clear path forward in their GST compliance for custodial services. It also potentially opens the door for tax savings and refunds, improving the sector’s competitiveness in serving foreign investors. However, this case also serves as a reminder of the complexities inherent in interpreting and applying GST laws, particularly in cross-border scenarios. It underscores the need for ongoing dialogue between tax authorities, industry players, and tax professionals to identify and resolve areas of uncertainty. As India continues to position itself as a key player in the global financial landscape, such clarifications play a crucial role in enhancing the country’s attractiveness to foreign investors. They contribute to a more predictable, transparent tax environment, which is essential for fostering long-term economic growth and development. Moving forward, both tax authorities and businesses should remain vigilant in identifying similar areas that may require clarification. Proactive engagement and timely resolution of tax ambiguities will be key to maintaining India’s competitive edge in the global financial services sector. Ultimately, the journey to this clarification serves as a valuable case study in the ongoing evolution of India’s GST system. It highlights the importance of adaptability, clear communication, and collaborative problem-solving in creating a robust, fair, and efficient tax framework for the 21st-century economy.



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