Depositary Receipts – Definition, History and Types

A Depositary Receipt (DR) is a type of negotiable (transferable) financial security traded on a local stock exchange but represents a security, usually in the form of equity, issued by a foreign, publicly-listed company. The Depositary Receipt, which is a physical certificate, allows investors to hold shares in equity of other countries. One of the most common types of Depository Receipts is the American depository receipt (ADR), which has been offering companies, investors and traders global investment opportunities since the 1920s.

Since then, Depository Receipts have spread to other parts of the globe in the form of global depository receipts (GDRs). The other most common type of Depository Receipts are European DRs and International DRs. ADRs are typically traded on a US national stock exchange, such as the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) or the American Stock Exchange, while GDRs are commonly listed on European stock exchanges such as the London Stock Exchange. Both ADRs and GDRs are usually denominated in US dollars, but can also be denominated in Euros.

History of Depository Receipts

American Depository Receipts have been introduced to the financial markets as early as April 29, 1927, when the investment bank J. P. Morgan launched the first-ever ADR program for the UK’s Selfridges Provincial Stores Limited (now known as Selfridges plc.), a famous British retailer. Its creation was a response to a law passed in Britain, which prohibited British companies from registering shares overseas without a British-based transfer agent, and thus UK shares were not allowed physically to leave the UK. The ADR was listed on the New York Curb Exchange (predecessor to the American Stock Exchange.)

The regulation of ADR changed its form in 1955, when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) established the From S-12, necessary to register all depositary receipt programs. The Form S-12 was replaced by Form F-6 later, but the principles remained the same till today.

Crucial novelties brought the new regulatory framework introduced by the SEC in 1985, which led to emergence of range of depository receipt instruments, as we know it nowadays. Then the three different ADR programs were created, the Level I, II and III ADRs. This change was one of the impulses for revival of activity on the otherwise stagnant ADR market.

In April 1990, a new instrument, referred to as Rule 144A was adopted, which gave rise to private placement depository receipts, which were available only to qualified institutional buyers (QIBs). This type of DR programs gained its popularity quickly and it is very frequently employed today.

The ADRs were originally constructed solely for the needs of American investors, who wanted to invest easily in non-US companies. After they had become popular in the United States, they extended gradually to other parts of the world (in the form of GDR, EDR or IDR). The greatest development of DRs has been recorded since 1989.

In December 1990, Citibank introduced the first Global Depository Receipt. Samsung Corporation, a Korean trading company, wanted to raise equity capital in the United States through a private placement, but also had a strong European investor base that it wanted to include in the offering. The GDRs allowed Samsung to raise capital in the US and Europe through one security issued simultaneously into both markets.

In 1993, Swedish LM Ericsson raised capital through a rights offering in which ADDs were offered to both holders of ordinary shares and DR holders. The Ericsson ADDs represented subordinated debentures that are convertible into ordinary shares or DRs. German Daimler Benz AG became the first European Company to establish a Singapore depositary receipts program (SDRs) in May 1994.

Types of Depository Receipts

American Depository Receipts (ADR)

Companies have a choice of four types of Depositary Receipt facilities: unsponsored and three levels of sponsored Depositary Receipts. Unsponsored Depositary Receipts are issued by one or more depositaries in response to market demand, but without a formal agreement with the company. Today, unsponsored Depositary Receipts are considered obsolete and, under most circumstances, are no longer established due to lack of control over the facility and its hidden costs. Sponsored Depositary Receipts are issued by one depositary appointed by the company under a Deposit Agreement or service contract. Sponsored Depositary Receipts offer control over the facility, the flexibility to list on a national exchange in the U.S. and the ability to raise capital.

Sponsored Level I Depositary Receipts

A sponsored Level I Depositary Receipt program is the simplest method for companies to access the U.S. and non-U.S. capital markets. Level I Depositary Receipts are traded in the U.S. over-the-counter (“OTC”) market and on some exchanges outside the United States. The company does not have to comply with U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”) or full Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) disclosure. Essentially, a Sponsored Level I Depositary Receipt program allows companies to enjoy the benefits of a publicly traded security without changing its current reporting process.

The Sponsored Level I Depositary Receipt market is the fastest growing segment of the Depositary Receipt business. Of the more than 1,600 Depositary Receipt programs currently trading, the vast majority of the sponsored programs are Level I facilities. In addition, because of the benefits investors receive by investing in Depositary Receipts, it is not unusual for a company with a Level I program to obtain 5% to 15% of its shareholder base in Depositary Receipt form. Many well-known multinational companies have established such programs including: Roche Holding, ANZ Bank, South African Brewery, Guinness, Cemex, Jardine Matheson Holding, Dresdner Bank, Mannesmann, RWE, CS Holding, Shiseido, Nestle, Rolls Royce, and Volkswagen to name a few. In addition, numerous companies such as RTZ, Elf Aquitaine, Glaxo Wellcome, Western Mining, Hanson, Medeva, Bank of Ireland, Astra, Telebrás and Ashanti Gold Fields Company Ltd. started with a Level I program and have upgraded to a Level II (Listing) or Level III (Offering) program.

Sponsored Level II And III Depositary Receipts

Companies that wish to either list their securities on an exchange in the U.S. or raise capital use sponsored Level II or III Depositary Receipts respectively. These types of Depositary Receipts can also be listed on some exchanges outside the United States. Each level requires different SEC registration and reporting, plus adherence to U.S. GAAP. The companies must also meet the listing requirements of the national exchange (New York Stock Exchange, American Stock Exchange) or NASDAQ, whichever it chooses.

Each higher level of Depositary Receipt program generally increases the visibility and attractiveness of the Depositary Receipt.

Private Placement (144A) Depositary Receipts

In addition to the three levels of sponsored Depositary Receipt programs that trade publicly, a company can also access the U.S. and other markets outside the U.S. through a private placement of sponsored Depositary Receipts. Through the private placement of Depositary Receipts, a company can raise capital by placing Depositary Receipts with large institutional investors in the United States, avoiding SEC registration and to non-U.S. investors in reliance on Regulation S. A Level I program can be established alongside a 144A program.

Global Depositary Receipts (GDR)

GDRs are securities available in one or more markets outside the company’s home country. (ADR is actually a type of GDR issued in the US, but because ADRs were developed much earlier than GDRs, they kept their denotation.) The basic advantage of the GDRs, compared to the ADRs, is that they allow the issuer to raise capital on two or more markets simultaneously, which increases his shareholder base. They gained popularity also due to the flexibility of their structure.

GDR represents one or more (or fewer) shares in a company. The shares are held by the custody of the depositary bank in the home country. A GDR investor holds the same rights as the shareholders of ordinary shares, but typically without voting rights. Sometimes voting rights can be the executed by the depositary bank on behalf of the GDR holders.

Depositary Receipt Trade Mechanism

A Depositary Receipt is a negotiable security which represents the underlying securities (generally equity shares) of a non-U.S. company. Depositary Receipts facilitate U.S. investor purchases of non-U.S. securities and allow non-U.S. companies to have their stock trade in the United States by reducing or eliminating settlement delays, high transaction costs, and other potential inconveniences associated with international securities trading. Depositary Receipts are treated in the same manner as other U.S. securities for clearance, settlement, transfer, and ownership purposes. Depositary Receipts can also represent debt securities or preferred stock.

The Depositary Receipt is issued by a U.S. depositary bank, such as The Bank of New York, when the underlying shares are deposited in a local custodian bank, usually by a broker who has purchased the shares in the open market.

Once issued, these certificates may be freely traded in the U.S. over-the-counter market or, upon compliance with U.S. SEC regulations, on a national stock exchange.

When the Depositary Receipt holder sells, the Depositary Receipt can either be sold to another U.S. investor or it can be canceled and the underlying shares can be sold to a non-U.S. investor.

In the latter case, the Depositary Receipt certificate would be surrendered and the shares held with the local custodian bank would be released back into the home market and sold to a broker there.

Additionally, the Depositary Receipt holder would be able to request delivery of the actual shares at any time. The Depositary Receipt certificate states the responsibilities of the depositary bank with respect to actions such as payment of dividends, voting at shareholder meetings, and handling of rights offerings.

Depositary Receipts (DRs) in American or Global form (ADRs and GDRs, respectively) are used to facilitate cross-border trading and to raise capital in global equity offerings or for mergers and acquisitions to U.S. and non-U.S. investors.

Demand For Depositary Receipts

The demand by investors for Depositary Receipts has been growing between 30 to 40 percent annually, driven in large part by the increasing desire of retail and institutional investors to diversify their portfolios globally. Many of these investors typically do not, or cannot for various reasons, invest directly outside of the U.S. and, as a result, utilize Depositary Receipts as a means to diversify their portfolios. Many investors who do have the capabilities to invest outside the U.S. may prefer to utilize Depositary Receipts because of the convenience, enhanced liquidity and cost effectiveness Depositary Receipts offer as compared to purchasing and safekeeping ordinary shares in the home country. In many cases, a Depositary Receipt investment can save an investor up to 10-40 basis points annually as compared to all of the costs associated with trading and holding ordinary shares outside the United States.


Depositary Receipts are issued or created when investors decide to invest in a non-U.S. company and contact their brokers to make a purchase.

Brokers purchase the underlying ordinary shares and request that the shares be delivered to the depositary bank’s custodian in that country.

The broker who initiated the transaction will convert the U.S. dollars received from the investor into the corresponding foreign currency and pay the local broker for the shares purchased.

The shares are delivered to the custodian bank on the same day, the custodian notifies the depositary bank.

Upon such notification, Depositary Receipts are issued and delivered to the initiating broker, who then delivers the Depositary Receipts evidencing the shares to the investor.

Transfer — (Intra-Market Trading)

Once Depositary Receipts are issued, they are tradable in the United States and like other U.S. securities, they can be freely sold to other investors. Depositary Receipts may be sold to subsequent U.S. investors by simply transferring them from the existing Depositary Receipt holder (seller) to another Depositary Receipt holder (buyer); this is known as an intra-market transaction. An intra-market transaction is settled in the same manner as any other U.S. security purchase. Accordingly, the most important role of a depositary bank is that of Stock Transfer Agent and Registrar. It is therefore critical that the depositary bank maintain sophisticated stock transfer systems and operating capabilities.

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