India investigates Wal-Mart over stake in local unit

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SummaryIndian authorities are investigating claims that Wal-Mart Stores Inc.violated foreign exchange rules.

Indian authorities are investigating claims that Wal-Mart Stores Inc.violated foreign exchange rules when it invested $100 million in a domestic unit owned by its wholesale joint-venture partner, a law enforcement official said.

An Indian lawmaker first raised the allegations in a letter to the prime minister in early September, and the complaint was subsequently passed from one government department to another without action being taken.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has denied any wrongdoing. The allegations relate to the company's complex investment through debentures – which could later be converted to an equity stake – at a time when direct ownership by foreign firms was prohibited.

Yes, the Enforcement Directorate has initiated an investigation into the allegations against Wal-Mart, a senior official, who declined to be named, told Reuters on Friday. The Enforcement Directorate, an elite agency that falls under the finance ministry, investigates financial crimes.

The probe is at an early stage and therefore (it is) difficult to say what the outcome will be, the official said.

News of the investigation comes at a bad time for the Congress Party-led minority government, which is preparing to do battle with opponents in parliament next week over its decision to allow foreign companies into India's retail sector. The furore could derail parliamentary proceedings.

Parties opposed to the new retail policy, which include some government allies, may use the investigation to fan suspicion among supporters against foreign retailers including Wal-Mart whose entry is seen threatening the livelihoods of local mom-and-pop store owners.

Arkansas-based Wal-Mart has repeatedly denied the allegations. The central government has sought certain information and clarification, which has been provided by us. We are not in a position to offer further comments as the matter is before the courts, a Wal-Mart spokesman said on Friday.

India liberalised its retail sector in mid-September to allow global superstores to buy stakes in Indian companies - one of a number of big-ticket reforms passed in September by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to revive a sluggish economy. Previously, foreign retailers were only allowed to invest in wholesale operations.

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