Thursday, October 30, 2008

Don't blame it on sub-prime loans

That's the title of my column in ET today.

The present crisis has been called a 'sub-prime crisis'. This does suggest that sub-prime loans- loans to not very credit borrowers or financial inclusion- underlies the present crisis. Once you take this view, there is a whole cast of villians available- the US Fed which flooded the world with liquidity; greedy borrowers; greedy bankers; political pressure for financial inclusion.

This, I argue in my column, is rather simplistic. There have been housing bubbles earlier, banks have extended themselves in making housing loans but we have not had a global financial crisis. To complete the chain of causality from a housing bubble through sub-prime loans to a financial crisis, you need to bring in a vital link: the 'marketisation' of loans, that is, conversion of loans into traded securities.

This 'marketisation' was made possible by incorrect credit rating. The securities passed into the hands of non-regulated or lightly regulated entities such as investment banks and hedge funds. These institutions face mark-to-market accounting on their securities portfolios whereas bank loans are not marked to market. This sort of accounting tends to exaggerate losses especially where illiquid portfolios are concerned.

If the financial system had been exposed only to sub-prime loans, we would not have had such a big problem. It is their exposure to sub-prime loans through sub-prime related securities that has created havoc. So, the problem is not financial inclusion, it is poor regulation.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Financial regulation: west on trial now

Kishore Mahbubani, former foreign minister of Singapore and currently Dean of Lew Kuan Yew, University, makes the point that the quality of regulation in western economies will now be closely watched by Asian regulators.
In the past, Asian governments expected western counterparts to be role models of good governance. One story illustrates how times have changed. This year, a European banker consulted the Reserve Bank of India to learn how to get a banking licence in India. He was briefed on the conditions and told that the Indian authorities would also assess his regulator. The European banker smiled and said: “No problem. We have excellent regulation.” The Indian officer replied: “After subprime, we are not sure of US regulation; after Northern Rock, British regulation; after Société Générale, French regulation and after UBS, Swiss regulation.”
This is very different from the times when banks from Asian economies were considered suspect until proved innocent.

Responses to comments

1. Abi: Thanks for the pointer to Brad de Long's blog about multiple objectives for the US Fed

2. Shailender Birla: asks what criteria would be adopted for appointment of non-government nominees of the pan-IIM board. (The board will have five government nominees and 10 non-government nominees). Well, here is the relevant extract from the report:

4.18 The Pan-IIM Board may consist of 15 members. Of these 5 should be nominees of the Central Government. They need not all be serving Government officers. The rest should be made up of independent professionals of eminence and record of success, living in India or abroad. Other things being equal, preference should be given to IIM alumni for appointment to this Board. One third of the Board would retire, by rotation, at the end of each year. A member would be eligible to be re-appointed, provided his/her total period on the Board does not exceed 6 years. Future vacancies would be filled by the Board itself, through recommendations made by a nominations committee of the Board, consisting of four non Government members.

4.19 The Chairman of the Pan-IIM Board should be nominated by the Prime Minister.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Multiple objectives for the US Fed

Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley argues in favour of the US Fed having multiple policy objectives. In addition to price stability and full employment, the two objectives it has at present, there should be a third: financial stability.

By adding “financial stability” to the Fed’s policy mandate, I am mindful of the pitfalls of multiple policy targets. However, single-dimensional policy targeting does not cut it in a complex world. As such, the Fed will need to be creative in achieving its mandated goals – using monetary policy, regulatory oversight and enforcement and moral persuasion. Just as the Fed has been reasonably successful in its twin quests for price stability and full employment, I am confident it can rise to the occasion with the addition of financial stability to its mandate.....

In times of asset-market froth, I favour the “leaning against the wind” approach with regard to interest rates – pushing the Federal funds rate higher than a narrow inflation target might suggest. But there are other Fed tools that can be directed at financial excesses – margin requirements for equity lending as well as controls on the issuance of exotic mortgage instruments (zero-interest rate products come to mind)

The methods Roach advocates in the second para above are ones that the RBI has not hesitated to use. And the RBI has long had multiple objectives, including financial stability. I wonder what the Raghuram Rajan committee has to say now about its insistence on price stability as the sole objective for the RBI!

Goldman's overture to Citi

It appears that Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein spoke to Citi's head Vikram Pandit about a possible merger between the two companies. This was soon after the US Fed announced that Goldman and Morgan Stanley would be given banking licenses. Goldman's approach was rebuffed.

This led the US Treasury to include the two in the recapitalisation plan announced soon after. Which, of course, reflected the Treasury's perception that the two would otherwise meet the fate of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers.

Soon after the two companies were given bank licenses, I wrote saying that this was intended to send out a signal that the US Fed was solidly behind them. It did not imply at all that the two could successfully convert themselves into banks. The sequence of events described above bears out my conclusion.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Bhargava committee report- at last!

I was getting a little fed up with the tit-bits about the Bhargava committee report on IIMs appearing in the media, so it was a pleasure to finally get hold of the report and read it in full.

Let me highlight what I believe are the most important recommendations:
  • Creation of a pan-IIM Board: It will have 15 members, 5 of whom will be government nominees and the others persons of eminence, including IIM alumni. The chairman will be appointed by the PM. This will be the principal goal-setting and monitoring mechanism for the IIMs. It will approve IIM business plans and review performance every two years.
  • IIM boards to have powers to select director, set fees and propose chairman's name to pan-IIM board.
  • IIM boards to be reconstituted and comprise 11 members (instead of the present 25 or so). Initial board appointments to be made by ministry, subsequent vacancies to be filled by boards themselves.
  • Appointment of faculty on contract basis with the freedom to pay market-related compensation.
  • IIMs A, B and C to increase PGP intake to 500 by 2011.
  • Consulting income of faculty to be limited to 15% of salary
There are many other recommendations and observations. The report requires detailed treatment.

My immediate response is that the creation of a pan-IIM board is a constructive suggestion. The committee observes that with responsibilities being divided between the ministry and the Boards, accountability has become a casualty. In the ministry, officers keep changing and managing six IIMs (with several more to come) is well nigh impossible. The Boards themselves, the committee notes, have not lived up to their monitoring role for a variety of reasons mentioned in the report (one being the perception in the Board that it's the ministry that finally calls the shots).

So some mechanism for setting objectives and monitoring performance in the IIM system is required. A pan-IIM board with the secretariat housed in the ministry is the proposed answer. One of the ticklish issues to be sorted out is the demarcation of roles of the pan-IIM Board and the IIM Boards.

The report says that the pan-IIM Board should not be involved in day to day management of the IIMs. Well, nor should the IIM Boards. A Board's role is primarily in the areas of strategy and monitoring of performance- and both these responsibilities will now be vested in the pan-IIM Board. So, will the IIM Board be confined to selecting the director and other members of the Board and giving approvals to financial proposals that exceed limits delegated to the director?

The reduction in the sizes of IIM boards to more optimal levels is welcome; so also the proposal to limit board memberships to a maximum of two terms of three years each. To me, the puzzle is that the IIM fraternity itself did not make these proposals all these years. Did it require a government committee to make these eminently sensible suggestions?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bhargava committee on IIMs

The report of the Bhargava committee on IIMs is yet to be released. We have to be content with snippets appearing in the press. The latest bit will not please the IIM fraternity at all:

The IIM Review Committee has suggested that the pan-IIM board’s secretariat should be within the HRD Ministry. It has slammed IIMs for not “reacting to the market need quickly enough”, said that IIM Board directors and chairmen have failed to be effective CEOs, pointed at a ‘lack of mutual confidence and trust between the IIM and the Government’, and recommended that a common interview be held for all IIMs.

Regarding faculty, the committee has called for fixing of “higher level base salaries”, though it has put a cap on the consultancy and executive training programmes. The committee has recommended that time spent on these by the faculty should be limited to 90 days in a year with not more than 40 days during the nine month period when the institute is running post-graduate programmes.
The recommendation on consulting caps it not clear. Does the committee mean a total of 90 days in a year for all faculty or 90 days per faculty? If the latter, that would actually be a relaxation of existing norms which limit faculty to 53 days' consulting.

The committee faults IIM boards for not doing their jobs. These boards, be it noted, include representatives of the central government (and, in some cases, the state government). The committee has judged that one reason for the ineffectiveness of these boards is they are too large- with 25 members or so- and poor attendance on the part of board members. It recommends that the size of the board be pruned to 11 and also that minimum attendance requirements be laid down. That would mean that government nominees on the boards should also take their jobs more seriously.

Friday, October 24, 2008

ICICI Bank draws judiciary's ire

ICICI Bank marketing agents apparently made the fatal mistake of bothering some Delhi High Court judges with their marketing calls. A lawyer, who had been similarly bothered, approached the honourable High Court - and found the judges sympathetic to her cause.

ICICI Bank faces contempt proceedings in the State Consumer Commission, having ignored earlier court injuctions about unsolicited marketing calls. Justice Sen had some strong words:

“I receive calls at all time of the day from ICICI Bank,” Justice Vikramjit Sen said. “I do not know what business you get out of such calls.... You are a nuisance and have to face the music for making these unsolicited calls.”......

Do you think you are above the law?” the judge asked. “Who is your highest ranking officer in northern India... bring him here; let him explain these calls.”

The Express story adds:

On December 26, 2006 the consumer commission had levied a Rs 12.5-lakh penalty on the bank for making nuisance calls. Though the High Court subsequently stayed the Commission’s decision on September 11, 2007, the court had warned the bank against making “unsolicited marketing calls”.

Et tu, Goldman?

Goldman Sachs finally joins the ranks of firms that will slash jobs- a 10% cut in workforce is planned, FT reports. The axe will fall heavily on fixed income and investment banking. Nobody should be surprised- Goldman's reputation for invincibility has been badly dented in the present crisis. Bad news for India's top B-schools, I guess.

Monday, October 20, 2008

And now for British govt support for manufacturing!

I read this piece by FT's manufacturing editor with some disbelief. It is nothing but a thinly disguised call for industrial policy- the targeting of particular sectors in manufacturing by the British government. The author argues that government ownership of UK banks provides just the right basis for such an approach:
The government will have the power to put representatives on the boards of the three banks most affected by the debacle – Royal Bank of Scotland, HBOS and Lloyds TSB. In reviewing these institutions’ lending policies, the government should ensure they take a proactive approach to supporting companies in the manufacturing sector......

There should be an emphasis on lending to youthful, poorly capitalised businesses attempting to commercialise new technologies – especially in promising fields such as zero-carbon energy production, lightweight construction materials and low-power electric motors. In the next 20 years, more UK-based customers will require specially tailored manufactured goods – in fields from home heating systems to aerospace parts – that on the grounds of transport costs and order times are made locally rather than shipped in from China. The new policy should help those UK production companies that have the skills to meet the new demands for short-turnaround “customised” manufacturing.
This is not just industrial policy but a form of directed lending. Maybe the British government can turn to the RBI for advice?

Preview of Bhargava committee report on IIMs

Apparently, the ministry of HRD is close to making available the report of the R C Bhargava committee report on the IIMs. Indian Express carried a story yesterday which offered a preview of key recommendations. The report is right in suggesting that these are unlikely to go down well with the IIMs:
  • Creation of a Pan-IIM board
  • Reducing the size of IIM boards to more manageable proportions (from 24 or so to 11)
  • Initial appointments of boards to be done by a committee comprising Secretary, MHRD, and three professionals
  • Annual intake of PGP to rise to 750
  • IIMs operating for more than five years to limit their operational surplus to provide for infrastructure and scholarships
  • IIMs to go slow on executive training and consulting
  • Separation of administrative and teaching functions of faculty
I would not like to comment on the report until I have read it myself. Just a few quick repsonses to the story.

One, what would be the role of the pan-IIM board? Two, chairmen of IIM boards are even now made by the MHRD, so what is proposed would not be much of a departure. Reducing the size of IIM boards makes sense- indeed, I had suggested this myself to the Bhargava committee. No point in having boards where half the members fail to show up for meetings.

Quote from Montek Ahluwallia

BS quotes Planning Commission Dy Chairman Montek Ahluwallia as saying:

The belief that the financial markets are somehow very efficient and that the American financial system invented all kinds of new instruments that were bringing about tremendous efficiency gains which deserved to be emulated..... I think this view has been totally discredited".
Hmmm.... so what does this bode for the Percy Mistry and Raghuram Rajan committee reports on financial sector reforms?

Ahluwallia's views are a bit of a revelation considering that the Rajan committee was sponsored by the Planning Commission.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Treasury funds for US banks

So Hank Paulson has finally bit the bullet. The US Treasury will put $250 bn in capital to banks as part of the $700 bn bail out. Clearly, asset purchase alone will not impress the markets. In the first staeg, $125 bn will offered to a list of banks that reads like a who's who of survivors, mind you, not the battered ones: Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Merrill, Goldman, Morgan Stanley and two others.

What does this mean? Well, the word 'strong' is a highly relative term in today's context. Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, Wells and Citigroup which were in the business of acquiring weak banks, are now certifiably in need of capital.

The banks would question this saying they never asked for capital and could have ridden out the storm. But the Treasury wants the top banks to do more than sit out the crisis. It wants them to lend so as to keep the economy from going under. So, this bout of recapitalisation is not so much about preventing bank failure as preventing a serious downturn arising from what the Treasury regards as inadequate capital.

The coupon rate of 5% on convertible preferred stock for the first five years, incidentally, involves a subsidy at today's rates.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Soros' plan for US bail out

Soros spells out details of how he would like the US's Tarp (troubled asset relief programme) to work:
  • The regulators must work out how much capital banks would need to meet 8% capital adequacy
  • The government must infuse required capital through 5% convertible preferred shares
  • Fed should guarantee interbank borrowings by banks eligible for recapitalisation
  • Capital adequacy requirements should be lowered to facilitate fresh lending
  • Home mortgages need a plan to limit foreclosures
This is pretty much along the lines of what the UK has done. I am not sure that lowering capital adequacy requirements is desirable until the storm has blown over. Banks must have enough capital to prevent another bout of loss of confidence in the event of some fresh problems.

Bank nationalisation in UK

The UK government stands to own up to 30% of equity in the top four banks- not very different from the level of 33% recommended by the Narasimham committee for public sector banks in India. We are not talking of small, insignificant players. The banks include: LLoyds TSB, Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays. So far, HSBC, Banco Santander and Standard Chartered have said: thanks, no.

The British government intends to have its nominees on boards of banks where it will acquire an equity stake. It could end up being the biggest stakeholder in these banks. And it has already said it will have limits on executive pay and bonuses.

Somebody, please tell me: is this beginning to look like the Indian banking system or not?

PS: After I put up this post, the details of the capital injection have been finalised. The government will inject 37 bn pounds into RBS, Lloyds and HBOS (the latter is being acquired by Lloyds). The move would give the UK government a 60% stake in RBS and 40% in the combined Lloyds-HBOS. The Treasury is expected to appoint 3 new RBS directors and 2 directors to the board of the combined Lloyds-HBOS. There will be restrictions on dividend payments until the banks have repaid 9 bn pounds in preference shares they are issuing to the Treasury.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

ICICI Bank's woes

ICICI Bank is paying dearly for its international forays and for its reputation for aggression in general.

I have long been sceptical about the merits of Indian banks going abroad. I have always contended that banks need to make the most of domestic opportunities and develop a solid repertoire of skills before thinking of an overseas presence.

Setting up a subsidiary abroad as ICICI Bank has done would involve tapping into the following opportunities:
  • India-related retail opportunities: NRI remittances and deposits, for example, and investment in Indian stocks, mutual funds and real estate
  • Corporate banking: serving Indian companies with an overseas presence
  • Local market in overseas location: selling mortgages and other products to locals, Indian and non-Indian
India-related retail opportunities can be catered to without a foreign presence. They can be handled through correspondent relationships with overseas banks. Corporate banking does present opportunities but major ones such as overseas funding for acquisitions can be better done by foreign banks. As for grabbing a slice of the local market, what strengths do Indian banks bring to the table? Can they offer a higher rate on deposits or a lower rate on loans? How?

When you look at it very carefully, the Indian market growth is so high and the margins so attractive that going abroad does not seem attractive. There are also significant downsides to going abroad.

One, the overseas subsidiary may get into risky investments that happen to be the flavour of the moment (as in the case of ICICI Bank). Two, the regulatory risks can be high- it's hard for management in India to be keeping tabs and if there is a slip-up, there would be a heavy cost in reputational and other terms. As a result, the overseas operation can make disproportionate demands on management time.

ICICI Bank had set a target for international operations of 20-25% of overall revenue. What was the proportion in terms of profit? Going by its last annual report, PAT for the bank was Rs 4158 crore. ICICI Bank, UK, earned a mere Rs 155 crore while ICICI Canada and ICICI Bank Eurasia were in the red. Losses on investments in the sub-prime crisis can be expected wipe out the cumulative profit of ICICI Bank's overseas operations to date. It is not obvious that the international foray has been worth it.

ICICI Bank's general reputation for aggression is also part of the problem. That sort of reputation is a double-edged sword: at the top of the business cycle, it can boost your price-earnings multiple but, on the downside, it can undermine confidence. Many no doubt think that ICICI Bank, with its reputation for taking risks, is concealing more than it has revealed. This concern may be misplaced but it's there. The bank is heavily dependent on wholesale deposits. These would be the first to flee at the sign of trouble.

Interestingly, the bank's CEO, K V Kamath, has ruled out international acquisitions given "global challenges". Only a few weeks ago, top management was saying it was scanning the horizon for such opportunities.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Depressing times for Modi baiters

Heaven knows there is enough depression out there in the financial world but baiters of Gujaratr CM Narendra Modi have more reasons to crib.

First, the Nanavati commission report on the Godhra riots. The commission made two very important points:
  • The fire in the train was the result of a conspiracy, it was not a reaction to teasing carried out by kar sewaks after the train arrived at Godhra
  • There was no indication that the post-Godhra riots were planned. They appeared to be the result of outrage caused by media reports.
Both these contentions undermine the entire basis for the denunciation of Modi for his alleged role in the riots and of Sangh parivar in general. To be sure, there are judicial commissions and judicial commissions and people are selective in which report they want to accept. The Nanavati report has been castigated by many. But that does not alter the findings of the officially constituted probe into the riots.

The other blow is the Tata group's decision to locate Nano in Gujarat. The photo of Ratan Tata and Narendra Modi with their arms wrapped around each other while announcing the decision cannot have gladdened Modi's critics. What will they do now? Will they dare to criticise Tata's decision? They should spare themselves the trouble. Long before the Nano project, several businessmen, including Tata, have forged close ties with Modi over several Vibrant Gujarat summits.

Soon after the Godhra riots, the CII attempted a mild condemnation of Modi. There was a revolt in the Gujarat chapter. Tarun Das of CII had to rush to Gandhinagar to make amends and he was seen embracing Modi at the time. As Modi himself has pointed out in an interview with ToI today, businessmen's preference for Gujarat has little to do with which party is in power. But it is also true that businessmen are not going to be deterrred by what social activists think of a particular government.

Chew over this one!

The sub-prime crisis is producing its own genre of funny and unfunny stories. Here's one I read about Lehman Brothers in London.

When news came of the firm's bankruptcy,its staffers collected their belongings, of course,and carried these out in cartons. The financially more alert souls also made sure they encashed their pre-paid 100 pound cards at the in-house vending machines for candy- you never know, the machines might be empty later.That must have translated into hundreds of bars per capita- no doubt, it gave the staffers something to chew over.

Didn't the staffers pause to ask what all that candy might do to their systems? We know the people there missed some financial risks but one would have thought they might have been a little more wary about cardiac risk.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Bail out of the real sector too!

I quoted in my post yesterday (Rethinking government ownership) from an article in FT that urged government to extend its ownership to the real sector as well. The writer needn't have worried: it's already happened in a small way in the US.

Somewhat unnoticed in the current financial storm, the US has extended a $25 bn loan guarantee to the Big Three in the automotive sector- General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. The Economist reports:

The Big Three have been hit by petrol prices pushing towards $4 a gallon, by more demanding federal fuel-economy rules and by the credit crunch wrecking consumer finance. But the federal government came to their aid this week when George Bush signed an energy bill that includes $25 billion in loan guarantees to ease their pain. Supposedly this is to allow the Big Three to retool their factories to produce more economical vehicles.....

The rules are still being worked out, but the deal means that car companies—blessed with the government guarantee—should get loans with an interest rate of around 5% rather than the 15% they would face on the open market in today’s conditions.....

The logic of bailing out Wall Street is that finance underpins everything. Detroit cannot begin to make that claim. But, given its successful lobbying, can it be long before ailing airlines and failing retailers join the queue?

On a related note, Goldman Sachs is not the only firm to benefit from legendary investor Warren Buffett's munificence. GE is getting a timely infusion of $3 bn from him. It can use the money given the problems arising from GE Capital:
Most of GE’s recent problems have come from its financial arm, GE Capital, which it has belatedly decided to shrink somewhat. As well as some exposure to subprime mortgages and problems in its vast credit-card portfolio, there are growing concerns about its exposure to commercial property, which has been pretty solid so far but is vulnerable to a sharp economic downturn. Investors have also worried about what would happen to GE’s hybrid industrial-financial business model if it lost its cherished triple-A rating. Happily S&P, one of the leading rating agencies, said Mr Buffett’s investment and the decision to raise more cash reinforced the triple-A rating.

UK bail out plan

Britain has unveiled a bail out plan that commentators recognise as more comprehensive and hence more likely to succeed than the US plan. Two distinctive elements:
  • Recapitalisation of British banks upto 50 bn pounds.
  • A 250 bn pound guarantee on wholesale funds raised by banks
The latter is important because provision of short-term liquidity by the central bank is not enough. Banks have a serious problem with getting term finance.

The first step is even more critical. Shoring up bank capital is critical to protecting them against failure and ensuring that credit flows resume. The US plan attacks this problem indirectly by putting a floor on their assets. But banks will need more capital- and it may take time for private investors to regain confidence in banks. So government recapitalisation must be a critical component of any bail-out plan in today's conditions.

This should have happened much earlier. If it had, the turmoil in the financial system would not have been as great. But, in the western economies and in the US particularly, there is a huge mental block against government ownership. There is also the issue of how much capital can be given to which private party. That's why governments have dithered.

In contrast, recapitalisation of India's banks has not posed a problem because they are predominantly government-owned. The government's readiness to recapitalise as required plus the fact of government backing of deposits are two reasons why the Indian banking system today stands out in today's crisis.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Rethinking government ownership

The pendulum is really swinging the other way, isn't it? The present financial crisis has focused minds on regulation, alright, but it is also causing a rethink of sorts on government ownership in the financial sector. At a minimum, people think that, in a crisis, government takeover troubled banks is okay.

Richard Sennett, writing in FT, goes further. He wants government to infuse equity into real sector firms in order to safeguard employment in the western world. He even writes approvingly of the role of public investment in certain sectors in India:

We are entering a period of financial socialism, by which I mean that the government is buying enterprises which cannot survive in the free market – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the $700bn credit bailout in the US, Northern Rock and Bradford and Bingley in the UK. Most observers look at such financial socialism as an emergency measure – and a bad thing. To me it is a good thing; indeed, public ownership needs to be extended from the financial sector to the manufacturing and service sectors.The reason for this is that Europe and the US have many industries and service businesses which cannot survive in the global economy....

Regulation, of the kind the financial sector is now experiencing, is largely irrelevant to expanding the number of jobs. The point is not to restrain risky action, but to encourage investment and innovation. That agenda requires money, more money than can be justified by the austere calculus of the market. This extra cash is where public investment comes in.

If this seems too much to swallow, consider India. Much of its construction, information technology and healthcare sectors have been – on a western calculus – over-staffed and inefficient, supported by government grants. Public investment has, however, developed these industries and as they have grown the need for government aid has declined.

Is it really a bail out?

Writing in Business Standard, Percy Mistry contends that the Treasury plan cannot be called out a bail out because the Treasury stands to make profits ultimately on the assets it buys. Assets will be bought at distress prices. Asset prices should improve later. Hence the profit. Banks that have provided for a higher loss than indicated by the Treasury's purchase price can write back provisions. So, it's win-win for Treasury and the banks. Where is the bail out, he asks?

Well, we are quibbling here, aren't we? When we talk of a government bail out, what we mean is that, absent government intervention, firms would fail. A bail out is any move that saves firms from failing through the operation of market forces. By this definition, the Treasury's initiative certainly constitutes a bail out.

If we go by Mistry's interpretation, there was no bail out of LTCM by private parties in 1998- the parties ultimately ended up making a profit on their investment. More to the point, the Indian government's investing Rs 20,000 in public sector banks in1992-93 and the subsequent infusions into Indian Bank and UTI do not constitute a bail out because the government has made a handsome profit on these investments.

On a different note, what is the cost of a banking crisis? Government purchase of assets or infusion of equity capital may not constitute costs to government because these are eventually recouped. Besides, once a loss happens in the banking system, government infusion of capital is merely a transfer- it is not an additional cost because the cost has already happened.

The true cost of a banking crisis is the loss of an economy's output. So, you compare potential output without a bail out with the cost with a bail out and measure the difference. It cannot be Mistry's case that the US economy will not suffer a loss of output if government does not intervene.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Outsider as head of Unilever

Here in India, Unilever gets a great press- cradle of star managers and all that. Interesting, then, that the firm has decided to pick an outsider as its new CEO, somebody who worked for rivals P & G and Nestle.

FT has a story in which it notes:

The news came as a welcome surprise to investors used to complaining, as one puts it, of an “insular executive team” that ran the business “like the civil service”. It was even more startling to those who know the group from the inside. After years of underperforming its peers, had Unilever finally found the man to return it to its former glory?
Unilever has been something of an underperformer in India too lately. But that doesn't keep its managers from getting rave reviews in the media. Incidentally, I remember reading that M S Banga and Harish Munwani were in the running for the top job. They seem to have lost out as Keki Dadiseth had earlier.

A kind word or two about investment banks

Wall Street fact and fiction. That's the title of my last ET column. I explore some of the loose comments on investment banks in the media, especially the belief that they were undone by high leverage. No, high leverage in itself is not a correct measure of financial risk in financial firms. It was the combination of high leverage, illiquid assets and dependence on short-term funds that proved fatal. I explore other misconceptions as well.

Now, readers of this blog would know that I am no starry-eyed admirer of the go-getting culture of investment banks, no believer in their superior risk-taking skills or their repertory of talent. But I do think they had several things going for them.
  • They had a more egalitarian culture than most firms. Managing directors were to be found hundreds in Morgan Stanley and other places. You did not a big budget and an army of people under you to be called Managing director. The amount of business you did and the profit you raked in was enough. A star trader hooked to a terminal could be an MD.
  • They had greater employee ownership than most firms- at Bear Stearns, employee stock ownership was around 40%, at Lehman's 30%. As I have said earlier, the stock options schemes might have been better designed, they ought to have vested over longer periods. But the principle of large numbers of employees (down to secretaries) being owners is a good idea (although it's not such a great idea, from their point of view, to have all one's savings in one's own firm).
  • They were quite sensitive to operating costs (other than employee costs where they went overboard). Otherwise, business divisions operated on the principle of return on capital allocated. Since their bonus numbers were linked to this, they went all out to slash costs wherever possible.
  • They were more meritocratic in their orientation than firms in other sectors. Performance was recognised quickly and rewarded. Two reasons for this. Performance was easily recognisable- if you brought in an investment banking deal, everybody knew what that translated into; traders' profits are easily measured (although not always the capital to be allocated to them). Secondly, firms could not afford to disregard performers- they would simply leave in what was a highly competitive market for people.
  • They had high burn-out rates among employees and the work-life balance was terrible. But these places gave you at least a theoretical chance of quitting when you were 40 or so and turning to other things- collecting art, kayaking, setting up a nursery. And many did.

Who gained, who lost in sub-prime crisis?

I've been travelling a bit, hence this lull in posts on the blog.

There's a lot of stuff on losses and gains in the sub-prime crisis. Let me explore two contentions.

1. Executives of financial firms are big losers, they have been punished heavily for their sins: The point being made is guys like Richard Fuld of Lehman and Jimmy Cayne of Bear Stearns have seen their personal fortunes in the form of stocks tied up in their own firms plummet in value, so it's not as if they have not been punished for their follies.

Well, yes, they have suffered losses on their stocks. But, this is not the complete story. These are people who base pay is huge- say, upwards of $20 mn. Many executives also get cash bonuses. Last, many have cashed out some portion of their stocks. One needs to add up all these to get an idea of the accumulated rewards. The value of their stock holdings at the time of their firms' demise, while large, is only one component of their overall reward. Now, this total is not small in absolute terms. It could typically amount to over $200-300 mn- no mean sum f0r destroying shareholder value.

The short point: top executives will be big losers only if base pay is kept smaller and variable pay comes in the form of stocks that vest over a very long period, say five to ten years.

2. Shareholders of firms such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have paid a price because they've got nearly wiped out, so it's not that they gained from implicit government support: As a shareholder in such firms, you would be wiped out only if you invested at the beginning and held on till the end. Let's say one set of shareholders, who bought at the beginning, sold out at the peak. They would have made huge gains. Another set of shareholders who bought from the first at the peak would have lost heavily.

Shareholders as a class
would have made zero gains (not a loss) but that does not mean that individual shareholders did not make huge gains when the going was good.