Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Private equity disclosure

Opacity in private equity is a vexed issue. We don't know much about returns that private equity firms make out of businesses they run, who are the ultimate owners, how value is created.

Private equity justifies this lack of transparency essentially by saying: returns and other financial information are for owners, others have no business to demand information. Following criticism of the ways of private equity firms, the industry in UK responded recently with a voluntary code of disclosure.

In an analysis in FT, Chris Higson, a professor at London Business School, says the disclosure offered is inadequate. In particular, the industry is willing to disclose how value was created in the aggregate but is unwilling to do at the level of a particular unit. That would have meant shedding light on which stakeholders lose out when shareholders gain hugely.

Higson is scathing about the industry's stand that financial information is meant for owners. Not so, argues Higson. Almost any business has an obligation to practice a certain level of transparency because several stakeholders are involved, not just owners or shareholders:

As a matter of fact, both US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and international accounting standards emphasise that financial statements are aimed precisely at those people who do not have the close and easy access to the business that private equity partners do; also, that investors, creditors, managers and employees all have similar information needs since they all make risky investment decisions. Moreover, the entitlement of all to receive its financial statements is long-established in UK law, whether a company is public or private.

....Of course, privacy concerns apply with equal force to acquisitions by sovereign wealth funds, private individuals or families. The working assumption in the 20th century was that most businesses of any importance would be public, with the disclosure and scrutiny that brings. But the eclipse of public equity markets challenges those assumptions. Critics talk about companies “going dark” after private equity acquisition. Unless we understand the importance of transparency, and unless there is political will to protect it, more business activity will pass into shadow.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Homeopathy- cure or delusion?

Lancet, the British medical journal, is set to place itself firmly in the anti-homeopathy camp, a British GP, Margaret McCartney writes in FT.

“There are five homeopathic hospitals in the National Health Service, 40 per cent of GPs refer patients for homeopathic treatments,” he (Richard Horton, editor-in-chief, Lancet) told listeners, “and there’s not one shred of evidence to support homeopathic efficacy for any disease.”

McCartney herself is forthright in denouncing homeopathy:

The bottom line, and no homeopath with half an eye on the evidence can ignore it, is that homeopathic remedies are no better than taking a placebo. Homeopathy does not work. We should accept this and move on.
McCartney argues that homeopathic hospitals under the NHS must be closed down. However, that the placebo effect of homeopathy- the effectiveness of treatment that is chemically inactive- is worth focusing on. Homeopathy doctors tend to give more time and attention to a patient than their allopathic counterparts. This 'caring' factor itself may have beneficial effects and should be captured in some way in allopathic treatment.

How can this be achieved under NHS? McCartney has one concrete suggestion: ensure that patients meet the same GP on a continuing basis instead of being bounced from one GP to another.

When I read stuff like this, I thank heavens for the quality of medical care in India. Most of us have GPs we stay with for years. They know our ailments inside out, the treatments they have prescribed- and, not least, are willing to come home at short notice.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Banks' losses and gains in sub-prime crisis

Goldman Sachs estimates that financial institutions will take a hit of $400 bn due to the turmoil in financial markets. But the impact varies widely across institutions. Goldman, Lehman and Morgan Stanley have come out relatively unscathed while Bear Stearns, Merrill, Citigroup and Bank of America have suffered big losses.

For some banks, there is a big offset coming from stakes in Chinese banks. The increase in market value of the stakes of top international banks in Chinese banks - FT's Lex column places this at $70 bn- exceeds the sub-prime write-offs that banks have announced so far.

The difficulty, as Lex points out, is that international banks will be able to augment their capital only if they actually sell their stakes in Chinese banks. So far, they have been reluctant because they view these as strategic investments that will help them gain access to the Chinese market. But, as capital is progressively impacted by sub-prime exposures, the case for selling these stakes will become strong.

Two pieces of good news from the above. One, the banking system as a whole is better placed to weather the impact on capital of sub-prime losses than many would suppose. Capital may shrink but it is not likely to turn negative- in other words, a generalised banking crisis appears a remote prospect. That augurs well for the world economy.

Two, because there are good performers among banks, the bonus pool for 2007 is estimated to be slightly higher than for 2006 even though shareholders have seen their value eroded. How to explain this?

Well, there is an asymmetry in rewards and penalties in banking. In all banks, including underperforming ones, the divisions that have done well need to be rewarded generously. Those that have done badly will be penalised through job losses but there will be no negative payments, so to speak, for employees. Heads you win, tails you don't lose- that's the story for employees.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Om Shanti Om

I saw OSO. The first half is entertaining, especially the spoofs on Bollywood. Had the film remained a spoof throughout, one could have related to it. The trouble arises because there is a
more serious part to it. That makes the second half a drag.

The degeneration towards the end is precipitous. As though it's not bad enough that Shah Rukh and Deepika both appear in a reincarnation, there is a lookalike of Deepika who rescues Shah Rukh. She then disappears into nothingness. It's a bhoot, you see, not the reincarnated Deepika! That really got my goat.

OSO simply does not deserve the hype surrounding it. There are a couple of decent songs. Deepika has the makings of a superstar but she's under-utilised. The film is all about Shak Rukh- his endless baring of his chest is not funny at all, not least because he shows clear signs of ageing.

I believe OSO is a box-office success. That tells me what clever marketing of films can achieve. You build a brand out of a film- everybody wants it, never mind the content. Will this work in general? I doubt it. You can't fool all the people all the time. Ultimately, the test of a film is: do you want to recommend it to somebody? With me, OSO fails the test.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Drumbeat on Iran grows louder

Western experts warn that Iran could be in a position to develop nuclear weapons way ahead of the 2010-2015 period estimated earlier. Some believe that Iran may be just 12-24 months way, according to a report in the FT.

“It looks like they could be there in a year,” said Richard Garwin, one of the designers of the US’s first H-bomb, referring to the possibility that Iran could build up a sufficient stockpile of enriched uranium in the next 12 months. That would mean it could produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb at a few further months’ notice.

Prof Garwin said the IAEA report showed that Iran was stepping up uranium enrichment. The report says that between February and November this year Iran fed 1,240kg of uranium feedstock into its enrichment facility in Natanz, south of Tehran, up from 690kg between February and August.

This means that in the last three months Iran has pushed almost as much uranium through the system – 550kg – as it did in the preceding seven months. It also indicates that Natanz has not only expanded in size but may also now be operating more smoothly.

Prof Garwin said the figures signified that Iran would now have more than 100kg of fuel-grade uranium, which could be fed back into the system to produce weapons-grade material in a matter of months.

I don't know what to make of these reports- remember also those warnings about WMD in Iraq? I do know one thing: the appearance of such reports makes a US attack on Iran more likely. I had thought that such an attack would happen in 2007. I think the probability is even higher in 2008. That is part of the reason oil prices inched up to the $100 mark recently. They receded after a top US general warned against the risks of such an attack.

Defence experts have been saying that the US would lauch a comprehensive air attack on Iran's nuclear and physical infrastructure with as many as 1500 targets. Very few ground troops would be involved. The idea would be to bomb Iran back into the stone age.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Customer service in Indian banks

I quoted from an ET story sometime back about the poor quality of services in London, including in banking. Why would a competitive, modern banking system deliver shoddy customer service?
You get an answer when you look at the Indian banking system. After having opened up to competition in a big way over a decade and a half ago, we are getting serious complaints.

That's because customer service is not just about speed or promptness, nice-looking branches or even a choice of diverse channels such as ATMs and internet. Pricing and charges are always an issue- and it hurts when you find that the marble interiors in bank branches are being paid for by extortionate lending rates, hidden charges and lack of transparency in pricing.

One other item in customer service that is in the news is the methods used by banks to effect loan recovery. Private banks mostly use recovery agents and these agents do not hestitate to use force and intimidation to effect recovery. Bankers say this is necessary when borrowers wilfully resort to default. But, I argue in my ET column,A fair deal for bank customers, that problems in recovery often have to do with bad lending practices and that tighter regulation is needed. Credit information bureaus and better rules for repossession will also help.

But, under no circumstances can the regulator allow banks to resort to coercion. The ordinary citizen already has a sense of living in a lawless environment where he has little recourse against powerful individuals and institutions. Imagine what would happen as banks fan out further into the smaller cities and towns. The cooption of the underworld into the banking system is the ultimate nightmare.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

IIMs through FT's lens

I read the story on IIMs in FT by Della Bradshaw with a sense of disbelief. The FT's correspondent seems to have bought whatever a few people in positions of authority at the IIMs told her especially about lack of autonomy at the IIMs and the government's "counter-productive intervention".

Let me take up some of her key statements one by one:

1.After five years as director of IIM Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, Bakul Dholakia had to step down from the top job, in spite of the hopes of many at the school that this forward-looking figure would be allowed to serve a second five-year term.

It is a time-honoured convention at IIMA for directors to serve only one term. This convention owes to the legendary founder-director of IIMA, Ravi Mathai, who chose to step down after one term after a spectacular record and despite fervent entreaties from the board as well as the IIMA community to stay on. If Prof Dholakia had indeed been given another term, that would have come as a shock to the community. I do not know who the "many at the school" are whom the FT correspondent refers to.

2....under the Indian system of academic appointments, it is the Indian prime minister who decides who will be the next director and the politically controversial Prof Dholakia had spent much of his time in office spearheading the IIM campaign against government dictates.

Only on paper does the PM decide the next director. The choice of director was left to a search committee of which the IIMA Chairman was member. The IIMA Chairman had extensive interactions with IIMA faculty on the basis of which he drew up a three person short-list. The search committee seems to have gone by the short-list given to it by the Chairman and it proposed two IIMA faculty for consideration by the government. It is a travesty of the truth to suggest that it was the PM's office that decided who would succeed Prof Dholakia.

3. On a practical level, it (the method of choosing the director of IIMs) has hampered the IIMs in their efforts to become world-class business schools

Not true. Prof Dholakia himself emerged through the same selection process the last time.

4."We've been arguing - with not much success - that as we don't take money from the government, we should be able to decide salaries," he (Rishikesha Krishnan of IIM Bangalore) says. "What we're hoping for, but seems unlikely to happen, is that we will get more autonomy for deciding salaries."

IIMs are part of a much broader fraternity of government sponsored institutions- and the list includes such heavyweights as SBI, ONGC, BHEL and BSNL- whose salaries are part of the government framework.

There is room for improvement in salaries in these institutions but it is a moot question whether greater autonomy for IIMs will translate into superior salaries. Do IIMs have the capacity to pay a lot more? I am not sure. At IIMA, which leads the others by a wide margin in revenues, there is concern today over the impact of the Sixth Pay Commission, leave aside paying anything more!

5. Trying to attract new faculty is one of the biggest issues affecting the six IIMs - located in Ahmedabad, Calcutta, Bangalore, Lucknow, Indore and Kozhikode. (A seventh IIM has been created in Shillong, near the Chinese and Burmese borders.) And the biggest problem in faculty recruitment is salaries. ......"Attracting international faculty? You can forget it," says Prof Krishnan.

I have said this before in my blog: the notion of attracting international faculty on the strength of superior salaries at IIMs is bogus. Universities in Europe, Hong Kong and Canada offer a premium to those in the US and are yet unable to draw the best faculty. The IIMs cannot hope to get anywhere near those packages whatever the improvements they effect. When IIM faculty say, 'please let us make salaries more attractive', they do not seriously mean they can attract better faculty. They mean: let us get richer.

Note, however, that at IIMs salaries for many faculty are only a small part of the total compensation. Dholakia is quoted as saying that his top faculty earn seven or eight times the government stipend. If that is true, them comparing the salary alone with corporate salaries
(the ratio is said to be 1:10) is incorrect. One should compare average total compensation for IIMA faculty with corporate salaries.

6. With India's top business schools eager to establish themselves as leading global brands, government control is hugely restrictive, says Prof Dholakia.

This statement is often made but without substantiation. Government intervention is felt mainly in respect of salaries for faculty. As I have said earlier, this is only notional because it's not clear IIMs have the capacity to pay a great deal more. Other than this, I am not aware of anything the government does that comes in the way of developing a global brand.

Developing such a brand is not just about globe-trotting- pitching a tent in Nigeria or Oman- but developing teaching and research capabilities that can compare with those in the top schools abroad. There are hundreds of business schools in India, including the Indian School of Business, that are free from government interference. Not one of them has been able to attain even the level of the IIMs.

The limitations are inherent in our situation. The top B-schools in the US have had a head-start and their financial and academic strengths today are overwhelming. It makes as much sense to talk of the IIMs catching up with them as it does to talk of India catching up with the US in defence capability- not even China or Russia harbour such a delusion.

FT, I am disappointed, one expects a better critical sense of a world-class daily.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Accountability of the judiciary

How to make the judiciary accountable is undoubtedly one of the most important questions in governance today. Whether it is the media or the IIMs or the medical fraternity or the judiciary, one key principle should be upheld: self-regulation is simply not the answer. The merchant bankers used to say the same thing: leave it to us, we will set standards. Stock exchanges used to say that. Accountants in the US claimed it worked for them. Every body of professionals would rather not have somebody from outside looking closely into what they are upto. Sorry, this cannot be permitted.

In an article in EPW, Prashant Bhushan lays out the case for judicial accountability. Today, the only recourse against an errant judge is the process of impeachment. To initiate this requires the signature of 50 MPs. For this, in turn, to happen, there must be conclusive evidence against a judge; and the evidence must be published so that it assumes the proportions of a scandal. But because the media is afraid of publicising charges against a judge and politicians do not wish to invite the wrath of the judiciary, these conditions are almost impossible to satisfy. Bhushan adds that it is virtually impossible to register an FIR against a sitting judge because, under a 1991 Supreme Court judgement, no judge can be prosecuted without the written consent of the CJI.

On top of this, Bhushant points out, courts have been trying to insulate themselves from the Right to Information Act. The application fee in many courts is Rs 500 instead of the Rs 10 that is normally required. Many courts have framed rules that prohibit the disclosure of information on administrative and financial matters. They have done this in the knowledge that any petition that challenges these rules will have to come up before the judges themselves!

The response to the rising clamour for accountability is the Judges Inquiry Act Amendment Bill 2006 under which an in-house procedure will be created for taking cognisance of charges against errant judges. Bhushan argues this won't work because it requires complainants to disclose the source of information for charges and it also provides for action against complaints that the judges believe are mala fide.

Bhushan argues in favour of a National Judicial Commission. The chairman will be selected by the judges of the Supreme Court. Other members will be selected by each of several groups: judges of high courts; the cabinet; a committee comprising the speaker of the Lok Sabha and the leaders of the Opposition in the two houses of parliament; and a fifth member selected by the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, the CVC and the CAG.

Curbing ECBs- some new proposals

The hottest topic in policy debate today is curbing capital flows into India. Amazing. Barely five years ago, people were talking about the things we should do to attract capital! One item in capital flows that has ballooned is external commercial borrowings (ECBs), foreign loans obtained by Indian companies. This is worrisome because, given the interest differential between India and the industrial economies, it makes sense for Indian companies to raise loans abroad. The appreciation of the Indian rupee makes this even more attractive.

ECBs can become unmanageable if not curbed. The government announced several measures last August, such as limiting the use of such loans in India to $20 mn, the rest of the borrowing having to be spent abroad. The government also has in place a ceiling on the spread over LIBOR that Indian companies can borrow at- this means companies that do not have high ratings will be automatically restricted from raising ECBs.

There is a sense that these measures are not enough and some new proposals have been mooted: auction of ECB loans among corporates and a sterilisation tax that will be borne by companies.The latter is meant to compensate the government for the cost it incurs on sterilising foreign inflows- the government sells securities at Indian interest rates when it sterilises inflows; the foreign exchange that it buys fetches it foreign interest rates. The difference in rates is the cost to the exchequer.

I contributed to a debate in ET on the subject. I don't believe these measures will be effective enough. The government should have a better capacity to sterilise. For this, it needs to have a bigger war chest of market stabilisation bonds and it also needs to bring down domestic rates. It must also act to make returns to investment in India less attractive through, for instance, introducing long-tax capital gains tax on equities.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

ICICI Bank cops it again

ICICI Bank has been slapped with a cost of Rs 5.5 mn in a consumer dispute. The Delhi Consumer Commission levied the penalty in a case involving the use of goons to recover a vehicle financed by the bank. As happens often in such cases, the wrong guy got beaten up- not the owner of the vehicle but his friend's son and ended up in hospital.

Only a few weeks ago, ICICI Bank was in the spotlight when a home loan borrower in Mumbai committed suicide- the bank entered into a settlement with the deceased borrower's family on that occasion.

Banks must beware- the RBI has warned that banks that attract strictures from a court will not be allowed to use recovery agents.

Rediff reports:

"No civilised society governed by rule of law can brook such kind of conduct," the Commission's president Justice J D Kapoor said, adding the violent methods adopted by the recovery agents were serious violation of "human rights".

Holding the ICICI Bank guilty of "unfair trade practice," the Commission termed such miscreants as "yahoos" and said they are boorish and a brutal lout, who care a fig for legal and judicial authorities, including the Supreme Court. While taking to task the leading bank, it vented its anger on ICICI for flouting the apex court's direction that restrained all the financial institutions from employing musclemen to recover a loan amount or possession of a vehicle.

The Commission, also comprising member Rumnita Mittal, issued notices to the collection manager of ICICI Bank and the CEO of the recovery agency, seeking their explanations over blatant violation of the direction of the highest court of the nation.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Fear not the Sixth Pay Commission

Some sort of panic has gripped economic commentators as the Sixth Pay Commission award draws nearer. There is talk that this will again deal a crippling blow to public finances.

I don't think so. I think the improvement in both central and state finances has been sufficiently impressive that we can withstand the impact of any SPC award. But, also, as I point out in my
latest ET column, Booming Sensex, smiling GoI, the government could easily mobilise the extra funds needed through disinvestment.

True, the unions and the Left oppose disinvestment. But this opposition can be overcome. I argue, by linking a generous award with: a. approval for disinvestment and b. assurance (if necessary by legislation) that government equity in PSUs will not be allowed to fall below 51% consequent to dinsvestment.

By holding on its to investment in PSUs and public sector banks, the government has ended up a big winner from the rise in the Sensex- and don't forget it was the Left that forced the government to hold on!