The impact of COVID-19 (coronavirus) cannot be miscalculated in project finance, as this virus is considered as a global pandemic and has resulted in the closedown of construction work and its related operations. The consequences can be seen as slow production and manufacturing of necessary equipment in projects are delayed due to the outbreak of COVID-19 which means the supply chain will be disrupted worldwide. Moreover, in project financing, Project Company is usually considered as a special purpose vehicle (SPV), and pursuant to present critical situation lenders are having no recourse to sponsors where the project is not performing as per the expected plan. But considering the different scenarios as the government now is hacking interest rates and making banking rules more convenient at this time of financial crunch.
Due to lower interest rates, demand for financing the new upcoming projects will increase along with debt financing and this effect will operate for the long term from the present. However, this article provides a snapshot of FORCE MAJEURE clause activation in project financing, how to get through the force majeure risk, and what all are the necessary consideration for the purpose of force majeure. Along with the force majeure aspect this article will also focus upon other immediate impacts on project financing due to COVID-19.
ACTIVATION OF FORCE-MAJEURE IN PROJECT FINANCING
Force majeure clause comes into play when one party is unable to perform his contractual obligation which he needs to perform and due to natural circumstances i.e. unforeseeable circumstance’s which includes acts of war and natural disaster, he was hindered or delayed in performing the same. Force majeure is governed by Section 32 and Section 56 of Indian Contract Act, 1872 and is also considered as exception to what amounts to breach of contract. This concept is explained in detail in one of the celebrated Supreme Court Judgement titled Energy Watch Dog vs. CERC. Usually this concept of force majeure is prevalent in project financing and construction cases. In an epidemic or pandemic scenario, like of COVID-19 this clause gets into play by contractor in construction project because he is the first one to encounter the consequences because of disrupted supply chain. When the force majeure clause is invoked due to the COVID-19 outbreak there is no surety that the contractor will succeed because it will depend on contractual interpretation whether this outbreak will be considered as “epidemic” or not.
After invoking force majeure number of key considerations arose which are as follows:
- Project Company has to ascertain that whether force majeure will succeed as per the interpretation of construction contract and this has to be done with the limited time frame.
- Assessing the evidences and circumstances which will prove that due to COVID-19, project company/contractor is unable to perform their obligation. Also, on the basis of a contractual agreement between the parties, it demands the contractor to prove that he is being prevented by the force majeure event to carry on his contractual obligation. Furthermore, the contractor also needs to produce the evidence to prove his onus pertaining to the contract
Now in order to analyze the force majeure in the contract the contractor or say the project company has to establish connectedness between the qualifying force majeure event and the impact to its performance of contractual obligations, and in most of the cases this will be based upon factual circumstances which will differ from case to case basis. Due to government measures that are related to business lockdown, mandatory quarantine measures, which will directly affect the working of the project and contractual obligations can be considered as evidence for the activation of force majeure clause. Concerned expert feedback would be required for the collection and preparation of evidence for notices of force majeure.
This also requires the affected to take steps in order to mitigate the force majeure events and it is considered as an obligation upon the affected party to do so. Also, it was required to draft or take the alternative options in consideration to perform the obligations pertaining to the contract and it would be advantageous to take remedying measures to address the impact due to unforeseeable events like COVID-19. However, in order to ensure that the claim is not time-barred, time is an essential ingredient for the notice requirement for the purpose of force majeure claim.
HOW TO TACKLE FORCE MAJEURE RISK?
The loopholes in the force majeure clause should be taken into consideration and such gaps should be addressed when the project documents were subject to bankability due diligence. Bankable project documents will typically contain similar force majeure provisions and the contractor's notice of force majeure will form part of the project company's notice in the project documents. Also, if there is any discrepancy or say loophole is identified, then the force majeure will be tested through the COVID-19 outbreak.
Further, others get through consideration include the timeline for submission for force majeure clause. In practice, the contractor and the project company may be engaged in negotiations or discussions on the impact of force majeure and will, therefore, need to consider the timelines that are running in parallel. Usually, Project documents with future cash flows contain time which provides a sufficient amount of time to project companies to provide its notice of force majeure under the upstream project documents. Another important contemplation is the different governing laws for project documents. Offshore construction contracts will be governed by English law, but on the other hand, power purchase agreements should be governed by the local law. Therefore, if the risks associated with different governing laws are not mitigated when the project documents were being developed, contractual interpretation of force majeure provisions can be difficult.
Moreover, the party claiming force majeure has to prove that he has taken all reasonable circumstances in order to avoid or mitigate the risk and its effect. Thus, this will depend upon case to case basis and in project company case contractor has to prove the same. In project financing consideration under financial document needs to be taken care of, project lenders are widely analyzing the COVID-19 outbreak as they begin receiving notices related to force majeure and due to which they cannot wash their hands off this outbreak. This outbreak requires taking steps in financial documents that are in consonance to the terms of the project document. Furthermore, after receiving the notice of force majeure the project lender has to consider carefully the impact on the project and positions under the financial document. Also, prior consent is also required before agreeing to any relief obtained through force majeure and certain time constraints need to be undertaken by the project company in this case.
EVENTS WITH ITS NEGATIVE IMPACT
After considering force majeure scenario there are other events too which will be triggered due to COVID-19 outbreak in project financing and major of these defaults might extend to necessary parties involved in the successful completion of the project that is construction contractor, operator, and main manufactures of necessary equipment’s. Default events are as follows:
- Emerging Economies: COVID-19 outbreak affected economy drastically which would be clearly seen through interruptions created in supply chains, fall in exchange rates, limited support, or say financial support of government for projects as impacted by COVID-19 outbreak. Whilst it also includes travel restrictions, the lockdown of major working sites and financial covenants involved in the projects are also affected. Thus, this pandemic affected economy but it insurances should be taken into consideration to take up protection form this drastic effect and all these measures should be taken into consideration by the project company, lenders, and all sponsors, who may be coming under pressure due to this outbreak.
- On-going Projects: one should expect, that this outbreak already affected on-going construction projects due to hampered supply chain and labour availability worldwide. In India, labourers are going back home because of this outbreak and it is expected that this impact will be amplified in the future. Further, as the government has taken initiatives in lowering interest rates and baking measures which will benefit the upcoming projects in the future but presently debt financing and tax equity financing is going through a negative impact. Lack of funds would be witnessed pertaining to the on-going projects which will attract defaulting lending provision in loan documentation.
- Material adverse effect clauses: ongoing projects which contain Material adverse effect clause, will get triggered because of circumstances that arose due to COVID-19. Further, this clause will be activated when specifically the situation or say circumstances will affect the project. Thus, there should be material adverse effect and circumstances from case to case basis has to be administered and considered. In my opinion, this clause will get in activation mode because each and every project is hampered due to this virus outbreak. Also, the borrower should inform the lender about these circumstances from time to time.
- Financial ratios: The effect of COVID-19 as of now cannot be said to be accurate because it is still in action and according to the Health Ministry and government inputs it may extend for some more time. Due to which debt financing or tax equity financing will hamper but the project financing sector will surely bounce back with a boom in itself from this recession as it was earlier seen in the 1987 recession. The present slashing interest rates and tax incentive proposal will allow the project finance sector to recover.
Considering the impact, Project Company has to take the following measures:
- A project-related review should be done by the project companies so that it can analyze the impact which the project has to go through due to the COVID-19 outbreak. As seen in normal circumstances the risk associated with the project will be the supply of necessary equipment, labour availability risk, financial covenant risk, and other lending and funding scenario. Whilst with the effect of COVID-19 these risks will get one level up and due to the slowing of economy financial crunch will also arise in project financing.
- Major contracts involved in project financing like an employment contract, shareholder agreement, the loan agreement should be critically analyzed in respect of termination, force majeure, and law jurisdiction and dispute resolution mechanism. Also, repayment covenants, information covenants, events of defaults should be critically reviewed.
- A detailed review of Supply chains should be done so that an alternate option can be finalized in advance by the project company. This step should be in respect to mitigating the losses and reasonable steps that can foresee.
- Expected outcome after inserting force majeure and list of events in which it can be invoked and other ways as stated earlier about how to get out of the force majeure and compliances which are necessary as per Indian Contract Act, 1872.
- Consider developments or impacts of steps taken up by the government pertaining to the COVID-19 outbreak with respect to project financing along with tax implication involved. Also, the Project Company should amend all it’s an important document well in advance so that it can save time and cost for the same.
COVID-19 outbreak is spreading at an alarming rate due to which economy is diversely affected and the project finance sector is also facing uncertainties through the hampered supply chain, labour availabilities, financial crunch, and unforeseen circumstances. This outbreak has also affected debt financing and tax equity involved in project financing. Further, continuous monitoring of government policies are required for project financing. So, at last, after considering the crucial aspects of force majeure, the negative impact of several defaults due to the COVID-19 outbreak is one of the worst nightmares in today’s economic sense for project financing.
Authored By: Vaibhav Chauhan
JEMTEC School of Law
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