Monday, April 20, 2015

Succession planning? What's that?

Outlook recently had a story on two high-profile companies, L&T and ITC, whose chairmen have hung in for longer than investors and analysts would think desirable. At L&T, AM Naik has been chairman for 12 years; at ITC, Y Deveshwar has been around for even longer-18 years. Neither is exactly young- Naik is 72 and Deveshwar 68.

Many promoter-managed companies have put in place norms for the person at the top to exit at some age. These are two professionally managed companies where succession planning has been found wanting. I refuse to buy the argument that a CEO deserves to stay on because he has performed well. Performance cannot be judged by financial results alone. One dimension on which performance needs to be measured is having a solid line of successors- and seeing how well the company performance after the CEO has exited.

What does the record of the two companies on succession planning say about corporate governance? I leave it to you to judge.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

CEO cuts own pay to pay employees more!

It could be a story straight out of Ripley's Believe it or Not.

A CEO of a small company in the US has decided to cut his own pay from $1 million to $70,000 and will dip into his company's profits so that he can pay his employees more. His objective: to raise the minimum wage in his company to $70,000 over the next three years.

What's special about the figure of $70,000? Well, it turns out that upto $70,000, extra money adds to one's happiness.

To me, what's striking about the CEO's act is that it drives home a basic point about corporate pay: what those at the top earn is often at the expense of what those at the bottom earn. CEOs lobby to keep minimum wages low. They ensure that unions are kept weak. They fire workers in droves and use some of the savings to boost their own pay. They move operations to low-cost economies so that US workers lose their negotiating power.

The result is that the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay has risen from 20:1 in 1965 to 296:1 in 2013. The average CEO pay in the top 350 US companies was $15.2 mn. High CEO pay goes hand in hand with enormous inequality in pay. As the New York Times story, referenced above, notes, the SEC has been reluctant to make it mandatory for US companies to disclose the ratio the highest to lowest pay in US companies.

The story also cites Peter Drucker's norm of 20:1 for the ratio of the highest to lowest pay in a company. In India, the ratio is even higher. I wonder what the ratio is at Infosys where Vishal Sikka is paid more than Rs 30 crore. Would it be 1000:1? And this is the company where N R Narayana Murthy was not long ago talking about a ratio of 20:1 or 25:1 as an acceptable level of disparity in pay!

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Are online education's prospects brightening?

Yes, it appears from a recent article in the Economist.

We have to be clear what we mean here. Online education through mass open online courses (MOOC) has caught on - in the sense of helping people educate themselves. But the nub of the issue is whether such education translates into a job, whether an online degree is saleable. So far, this hasn't happened because universities and employers are unwilling to recognise an online degree as a substitute for an on-campus or full-time degree. But this may be changing in subtle ways. Universities can use online education to supplement on-campus courses, instead of viewing it as an alternative. Then, online begins to look really attractive. Here are some models:
  • Mix of online and on-campus courses: Many universities are now willing to experiment with a mix of online and on-campus courses- a notable example being the Arizona State University at Phoenix. It's using online courses to help under-prepared students with remedials, for instance. It's also using data analytics to zoom in on students who need help. This way, online can help students finish their degrees on time and help them cut the costs of college education. It also means faculty resources can be freed from certain kinds of teaching work and more students can be enrolled. ASU is able to offer a degree as a result for $10,000 for in-state applicants.
  • Offering a course both on-campus and online: Students have a choice of getting credits for some courses either online or by being on campus. A degree can be done full-time or part-time.
  • Taking credits online from another university: Some of the lesser universities could allow their students to take credits by doing online courses from a credible place such as Harvard.
The trick, therefore, is not to position an online degree as a substitute for a full-time degree. Market acceptability for that may be long in coming. The more sensible thing is to have a mix of online and on-campus courses. This cuts costs for students while helping universities to maintain their revenues by reaching out to larger numbers.

Online's big advantage is lower cost. Campus education's big advantage is acceptability in the market. Marrying the two is the way to make education affordable and worthwhile for more and more people.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Remaking RBI: Rushing changes is unwise

Moves are afoot to diminish the role of RBI in the financial sector. Whatever the theoretical merits of the different proposals, the government needs to hasten slowly. It's not as if financial regulation or the RBI in particular is an obstacle to growth today. There are plenty of other things the government needs to do more urgently in terms of the economic agenda - it's hard to see why remaking the RBI should be a priority at the moment.

It may be well that the political establishment, including the bureaucracy, has been upset over the years over the RBI's stand on interest rates.Some of its frustration is understandable but the solution is not to cut the RBI to size but to engage more vigorously with the RBI governor on interest rates.

More on the differences between the finance ministry and RBI in my piece here.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Manufacturing: China's loss may not be India's gain

India's manufacturing sector has disappointed in the past- it has failed to create the large number of jobs India needs. Many think that, with the right policies, India can grab a big share of manufacturing jobs out of China and into other Asian countries. This may not happen, as an article in the Economist points out.

One reason China is expected to lose is that wages in China have been rising rapidly. But China is offsetting this through use of greater automation- it has stepped up use of robots- and by massive investment in infrastructure. If productivity gains keep ahead of wage rates, Chinese manufacturing will remain competitive.

Secondly, the jobs that are moving out of China are moving into South-East Asia, which has close linkages to China. In other words, China is emerging as the centre of the Asian supply chain, with South East Asian countries on the periphery.

Thirdly, China is a big consumer of manufacturing goods, so locating production close to China reduced transport costs.

The article correctly points out that India does need to create more jobs in manufacturing. But job creation cannot happen merely by replicating the Chinese low-cost manufacturing strategy. Both services and agriculture will have to contribute to the process. As many have pointed out, India's strengths may well lie in knowledge-based manufacturing, not the light engineering that has been China's forte.

 There's one point the Economist overlooks. The revised GDP figures show that the share of manufacturing in GDP has been understated in the past. It's not 16% as thought earlier but around 25%. If these figures are to be believed, the 'challenge' of raising the share of manufacturing does not exist- it has already happened!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Global banks no longer make money

As readers of this blog would know, I have always been sceptical about size in banking. It's not that the bigger you are, the more money you make; or the more spread about you are across nations, the more money you make.

Today, three Cs- the costs of capital, compliance and complexity- overwhelm the size effect, as the world's top banks are discovering. The Economist tried to see what sort of return on equity the big global banks would make under the new Basel 3 capital requirements (they assumed equity capital requirement or core tier I equity would come to 12-12%). They stripped out one-off costs that these banks have incurred, such as fines for violation of regulations. It turns out that the best case ROE is a little above 10 percent for HSBC, 10 percent for JP Morgan Chase and below 10 percent for Stanchart, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup and BNP Paribas.

Why has global banking turned out to be unprofitable of late? The Economist offers explanations:

First, these giant firms proved hard to manage. Their subsidiaries struggled to build common IT systems, let alone establish a common culture. Synergies have been elusive and global banks’ cost-to-income ratios, bloated by the costs of being in lots of countries, have rarely been better than those of local banks...

Second, competition proved to be fiercer than expected. The banking bubble in the 2000s led second-rate firms such as Barclays, Société Générale, ABN Amro and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) to expand globally, eroding margins. In 2007 RBS bought ABN in a bid to rival the big network banks. It promptly went bust, proving that two dogs do not make a tiger. The global giants also lost market share in Asia to so-called “super-regional” banks, such as ANZ of Australia and DBS of Singapore. 

Bank supervisors, meanwhile, have imposed higher capital standards on global banks. Most face both the international “Basel 3” regime and a hotch-potch of local and regional regimes. A rule of thumb is that big global banks will need buffers of equity (or “core tier one capital”) equivalent to 12-13% of their risk-adjusted assets, compared to about 10% for domestic firms. National regulators increasingly demand that global banks ring-fence their local operations, limiting their ability to shift capital around the world. The cost of operating the systems that keep regulators happy is huge. HSBC’s compliance costs rose to $2.4 billion in 2014, 50% higher than the year before. JPMorgan is spending $3 billion more on controls than it did in 2011.

Compare Indian banks with these global giants and you find that we are much better placed. Private banks had an average return on equity of 16 per cent in 2013-14, SBI and its associates over 10 per cent and nationalised banks just under 8 per cent. These are under unusually stressed conditions, given the problems in infrastructure related lending. Combine these returns with credit growth of 15-20% in the next few years, with  a high retail component with low risk and high yield and you realise why Indian banks are sitting pretty. Global fund managers who believe in India should be putting their money in a big way into Indian banks.

China's Infrastructure Bank can't be thwarted

The US is miffed with the UK for agreeing to join China's proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. India too is expected to be among the 35 countries that will join.

Infrastructure in Asia needs enormous funding. The World Bank cannot meet its needs nor the ADB. The IMF/ World Bank have refused to change their governance structure in line with the changing realities of the world. China is sitting on foreign exchange reserves of $ 3.8 trillion. The AIIB is inevitable under the circumstances.

The AIIB will be dominated by China, unlike the proposed Brics Bank where all the founding shareholders will have equal votes. There's every prospect that China may reserve veto powers for itself. Still, Martin Wolf of the FT thinks the rest of the world should join- he spells out his reasons for saying so:
First, the US, Europeans and Japanese treasure a degree of influence on global financial institutions that is increasingly out of line with their position in the world. Moreover, they have failed to exercise that stewardship as well as they ought to have done. Not least, they have insisted on the right to appoint leaders who have been far from consistently excellent.
Second, it is five years since the Group of 20 leading economies agreed on new quotas that would moderate their outsized influence at the International Monetary Fund. The world is still waiting for the US Congress to ratify the changes. This is an abdication of responsibility.
Third, the world economy would benefit from larger flows of long-term capital to developing countries as well as from a bigger insurance fund than the IMF can offer to countries exposed to “sudden stops” in capital flows. 

Monday, March 09, 2015

Women on board in Germany- two cheers!

The big news on international women's day yesterday was Germany's decision to mandate 30% of board seats on listed companies for women. One report says that the move will affect 100 listed companies. That's a small number but these are the biggest names in business, so the move is indeed significant.

The move came after it's become clear that women are heavily under-represented in top Germany companies and that the only way to get these companies to change is to shove quotas for women down their throats. Germany is only following in the footsteps of other European countries. Norway, Spain, France and Iceland all have 40% board quotas for women. Italy has a one-third quota, Belgium 30% and the Netherlands and non-binding quota of 30%. Interestingly, the UK does not have such quotas.

Gender diversity is, of course, necessary and useful. I happen to think that, by pushing gender diversity, we will be able to get diversity of other kinds- class, ethnic and professional diversity. Why? Because, it will be difficult to fill the positions with women with only a certain background or class- say, high income, corporate types. Companies will be forced to cast their nets wider and, in the process, will have to break out of the closed club from which board members now come. They will have to look for women with varying backgrounds.

How does diversity help? Well, it's established that diversity of viewpoints contributes to better decisions. Boards need this badly because today they happen to suffer from group think. It's interesting that a study , done by MSCI, has found that companies with more women on the board are less likely to be hit by scandals. As one asset manager correctly points out, this has less to do with women per se than with women bringing in diversity, a different way of looking at things:
I don’t think this is because women are inherently more ‘moral’ than men. And it’s difficult to tease out cause and effect — are better companies more likely to embrace diversity or does diverse leadership make for better companies?
What we can say with certainty is that gender diversity is a good proxy for more general cognitive diversity, and we know that cognitive diversity leads to better problem solving and outcomes.

This would be the argument for pushing for such quotas in India as well. It's shameful that companies are huffing and puffing to fill the one seat mandated for women under clause 49. Even more shameful that promoters have chosen to fill the sit by appointing their wives, mothers and daughters on to the board. This is not genuine diversity at all.

I know the I run the risk of getting lynched but I would argue for quotas for SCs/STs and OBCs as well on boards- and for the same reason, namely, that it brings in more diversity. It will also go a long way towards making companies more tuned to the bottom of the pyramid if somebody from that segment is on the board. So, you see, boardroom diversity is not about affirmative action or correcting wrongs in society. It is simply about making boards more effective.

Setting quotas is one way of getting diversity but this will be fought and resisted. Another way is to introduce proportional representation boards- allowing all stakeholders, not just the promoter or dominant shareholder, to select board members. Today's boards are stuffy, boring places where there's no genuine debate or active questioning. We need to shake them up. Setting quotas and introducing proportional representation will make boards and companies more vibrant.