Saturday, December 24, 2011

How RBS failed

Royal Bank of Scotland was among the notable failures in the sub-prime crisis. The UK's FSA has published a comprehensive report on the failure. The acquisition of ABN Amro was an important cause as was the bank's dependence on wholesale market funding, and its plunge into certain risky assets. The report lists other factors as well. I was drawn to the analysis of the governance issues in the report, whether there were any conspicuous failures on the part of the board.

It turns out that there were none for which legal action can be taken against the board. The acquisition of ABN Amro, being a hostile acquisition, was not done with the necessary diligence but it had the board's approval. I read the section on governance carefully, and I find that the only thing the FSA can pin on the board is that it did not question or challenge the CEO strongly enough on this and other issues.

If that is a failure, then the vast majority of boards would be guilty of it. Those who talk of the board challenging or opposing the CEO have no clue about the culture that permeates boardrooms. In this culture, any sort of serious questioning of the CEO is a no-no. It is a very cheery, backslapping culture in which nobody makes wrong noises. If we want bank boards or any board to be more active and more questioning, we need to revisit the issue of independent directors and bring in people who are not appointed by management. Then, we may get a vestige of independence on the board. Today's independent directors can only collect their fee and commission and enjoy their lunch and drinks. Bank boards can't prevent bank failure, only stringent regulation can. More in my ET column, Boards and bank failure. 

The Telegraph carries an investigative report on the RBS failure. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

India's growth outlook

I present an optimistic view of growth prospects in my ET column, It can't be worse than 2009. This was before the latest figures showing a deceleration in IIP came out.

Why we need to retain AFSPA in Kashmir

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act has come under fire from human rights groups in Kashmir. A letter to the editor in Business Standard has a hilarious take on why it is still required.

Monday, November 28, 2011

McKinsey introspects

FT carries a detailed piece on the impact of the Rajat Gupta insider trading case on McKinsey, the firm that Gupta headed for three successive terms of three years each. The narrative is interesting but it does not enlighten us on what McKinsey might have done to prevent such a thing or whether there was anything at all in the way it functions that might give rise to such problems.

McKinsey executives ask,"Why didn't we pick up on it?" Well, is there any way you can? Is there any means of spotting potentially dangerous persons? Maybe one can keep an eye on traders in investment banks but very often these are the ones who actions get overlooked- they are stars, you see.

McKinsey has a rigorous process for screening people for higher levels of responsibility, it is not wanting in culture or training. Any firm is occasionally bound to have people who behave badly (and, most importantly, the allegations against Gupta relate to a period after he left McKinsey). The article suggests that values get compromised in times of runaway growth and it suggests that McKinsey would like to be careful in its pace of growth in the years to come. That would ensure that systems don't come under strain. But can firm policies really impact on the values and actions of individuals?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

No systemic risk in Indian banking

Bank stocks have been hammered quite a bit in recent weeks, with SBI leading the lot. This was preceded by Moody's downgrades of SBI and the banking sector as a whole. You might think Indian banking is in a bit of trouble. You couldn't be more wrong. Going through the RBI's latest Trend and Progress in Banking, I was struck by how sound most of the indicators are. I was especially by the rise in the Net Interest Margin, a key driver of profitability, in 2010-11 and the fact that overall return on assets has gone past 1%. Don't be carried away by talk of mounting NPAs. We should NPAs to rise in the present environment but there is nothing to indicate that the NPA level will become unmanageable.

More in my ET column, Indian banks in good shape.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Ratan Tata successor

Just a few quick responses to the choice of Cyrus Mistry as Ratan Tata's successor. One, it is quite a surprise- I don't recall Mistry's name ever having been mentioned. Not the best advertisement for the Indian media's reporting skills. Two, the appointment has been welcomed widely and even applauded by a few. Not much is known about Mistry's managerial abilities although it has been noted that he has been on the board of Tata Sons for a few years now. But the fact that he is an insider and close to the Tata family, if not part of it, has gone down well.

This is most interesting since several professionals, including high-profile names from abroad, had been mentioned as possible successors. I believe the reception accorded to Mistry is a measure of how perceptions about family management and professional management have changed in India over the past couple of decades. No longer are family businesses seen as inferior to those run by professionals; if anything, a certain distrust of professionals has crept in.

Those are the positives. In the many reports on the succession, I see lack of experience, especially lack of international exposure, being cited as negatives. But much the same could have been said against Mr Tata when he took over. Mr Tata's own lack of international experience did not come in the way of his making huge bets in terms of the Rover and Corus acquisitions. His general lack of experience did not keep him from venturing into cars.

The most essential requirement for Mr Tata's successor is maintaining the Tata group's reputation for aligning business with social purpose (admittedly frayed in recent years) and the enormous goodwill it enjoys with the Indian public.  A second requirement is consolidating diverse businesses. A third is keeping the group's competitive edge in what can only be more demanding times ahead. As an insider, Mr Mistry is well placed to take care of the first. Whether he is up to the second and third requirements only time will tell. All one can say he has that he has cut its teeth in his family business that ranges over real estate, construction, infrastructure and allied sector- not really a game for soft guys. Mr Tata has picked several able CEOs for his many businesses, so it would be fair to expect that his choice of successor would have been carefully thought through.

Mr Mistry is seen in the newspapers today in an unbuttoned shirt and rolled up sleeves and is reported as having showed up at Bombay House in a not very fancy car. It does appear the young man has made the right beginning.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

HDFC Bank is no 1

It's no 1 in market cap, not asset size, ET reports.  That is quite an achievement considering that it is only one sixth the size of SBI. HDFC Bank's performance vindicates one of the themes I have consistently propounded over the years, namely, that asset size is not crucial to performance and, therefore, the quest for consolidation in India's commercial banks is misplaced (although there is a case for it in the cooperative banking sector). HDFC Bank did not turn into a stellar performer recently; it was among the best performers in Indian banking when it had an asset size of Rs 50,000 crore. It had one of the highest net interest margins in the business while having only around 300-400 branches. It has delivered profit growth of 30% every quarter for years now.

HDFC Bank is representative in many ways of what might be called the 'Indian banking model. In this model you stick to the basics: retail deposits, managing credit risk, staying away from fancy structured products and concentrating on the home market. Do a good job of this and you will be in the front rank of international banks as the Indian economy booms for another 10 years or so. If a bank is attempting something else, one needs to be wary. Why would you attempt something fancy when the simple works- as in the case of HDFC Bank?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Do we need to separate investment banking from banking?

Is the era of the financial conglomerate coming to an end? In the US, the Volcker Rule will go into law soon. Under the rule, commercial banks cannot indulge in proprietary trading or hedge funds. In the UK, the Vickers Commission proposes a ring-fence around the core banking activities. The intention is to separate out the casino part of the bank from the essential banking activities.

Some recent events provide an impetus to such moves, the collapse of MF Global and, earlier, the $2 bn that UBS lost on account of a rogue trader. But there are significant costs to reducing the scope of banks- the Vickers Commission has tried to quantify these for the UK. I am not sure whether reducing banks to utilities is the right answer. We saw in the recent crisis that highly focused banks also went under- Northern Rock, for example. Banks have significant externalities on account of size. Between reducing the scope and reducing the size, I would plump for the latter.

More in my ET column, When banks turn casinos.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Investment bankers reign supreme

The financial sector is always a work-in-progress- it is forever being remade. One big change is the disappearance of many merchant banks and brokerages- Warburg, Smith Newcourt, Morgan Grenfell, Kleinworth Benson- and, more recently, investment banks themselves. In the US, three of the top three investment banks disappeared in the 2007 crisis- Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. The biggest, Goldman Sachs, had to convert itself into a bank.

Whatever the fate of investment banks, investment bankers today reign supreme, as John Kay points out in an article in the FT. The banks may have swallowed the investment bankers but it was the investment bankers who got the upper hand over commercial bankers:
In 2011, the chief executives of three of Britain’s four large banks, like their counterparts at Citigroup, Deutsche and UBS, are men who have built their careers in investment banking. When António Horta-Osório of Lloyds returns to health, it will be four out of four. When the titans of global finance today exchange reminiscences, only one man has different stories to tell: Brian Moynihan of Bank of America, who was in charge of consumer and small business banking before he assumed the post of chief executive. 
Kay says that investment bankers had to grab control as they felt suffocated in the conservative culture of retail banks. This does not explain why this happened.Well, it was a matter of who brought in the moolah. Investment banking divisions contributed significantly to profits, often the biggest chunk, as at Deutsche. He who pays the piper calls the tune. If it is investment bankers who help keep shareholders happy, they are bound to be in the drivers' seat. What this has done to the culture of the traditional bank is worth exploring. The more interesting question now is what happens if regulation in the US and the UK goes through and investment banking activities are demarcated from core banking activities.

Friday, November 04, 2011

In defence of Rajat Gupta

ET carries an article asking that Rajat Gupta not be denigrated for whatever lapses he may have committed. The article carries the names of Analjit Singh, chairman of Max India group, Pramath Sinha, who was among those who ran ISB in the initial years, Savitha Mahajan, deputy dean of ISB, and Vijay Mahajan, the microfinance entrepreneur. They write:
Our intention is not to defend , or offer a view on charges levelled against him. But we find it unfair and unacceptable that as a people, we should negate all the past good that a man has done and suddenly discover that we always knew that he was a 'rogue' , and 'deserves' this fall from grace. We find it sad that wise, grown-up people should, in full public view, behave like five-year olds, who would clap their hands and mock one from among their group who has tripped and fallen......We all have our weaknesses, but, on balance, some people compensate for theirs and still make a huge impact on the world and people around them. Rajat is one such person.

It is for the court to judge whether Gupta committed any offences. And I agree with the authors that if he did commit some, that would not take away from his significant contributions, such as the founding of the ISB and the Public Health Foundation in India.

However, it would be incorrect to suggest that such contributions would somehow 'compensate' for misdemeanours. If one accepts that, one would have to excuse corporate and other misconduct because people at the level do make contributions to society at large; it would mean that if somebody indulged in philanthropy, for instance, that would excuse his breaking the laws of the land. One cannot grant that. All one can say is that that the misdemeanours, in Gupta's instance, may not by themselves warrant the sort of outrage that has been expressed.

Somehow, there is a suggestion in all this that Gupta's behaviour is something of an aberration, that people at the top have superior standards of conduct. It is possible to be sceptical on this account. It is not as if people make a few mistakes or mis-judgements along the line and then get it right once they reach the top. In  most places, a certain disregard for scruple or ethical considerations is an integral part of the behaviour of those at the top; they do at the top exactly what they have done in order to get there. In other words, they survive and prosper precisely because of their disregard for values. Any excessive concern for values would be a burden and a disqualification. Thus, the sort of behaviour for which Gupta is being reviled now by many in his own class may well be the norm, except that others are lucky or smart enough not to be caught out. Once you grasp this truth, you arrive at a better appreciation of Gupta's own lapses.  

By the way, please do not jump to the wrong conclusion from the title. I am not trying to defend Gupta, just referring to an article written in his defence.

Monday, October 31, 2011

'Every bloody Indian cooperated.....'

Rajaratnam's bitter remark, given in a fascinating interview with Suketu Mehta (of Maximum City fame), will be remembered long after the present insider trading case concludes. Rajaratnam contrasts with his own sense of honour and loyalty with those of the Indians who were part of his group:
Anil Kumar’s son worked at Galleon one summer. I used to vacation with Rajiv Goel’s family. Their families knew my family. You don’t think this is going to haunt these guys? They wanted me to plea-bargain. They want to get Rajat. I am not going to do what people did to me. Rajat has four daughters.

 In the interview, Rajaratnam contrasts the American justice system with that of his native land:
In Sri Lanka I would have given the judge 50,000 rupees and he’d be sitting having dinner at my house. Here, I got my shot. The American justice system is by and large fair.
Also notable is his reference to ola leaf readers in Sri Lanka, one of whom pulled out his leaf and gave a recording to a friend of Raj's after Raj got into trouble.  Mehta describes what happened:

The astrologer chanted into a tape for 45 minutes. The recording said there was a government case against Raj, that he was in the stock business, that he was world-known. That he had to close his business down.
On now to the Rajat Gupta case. I read with disbelief news reports suggesting that Gupta could get up to 105 years in jail. America is notoriously tough on crime but 105 years for sharing confidential information or even for insider trading? Even 10 years would seem excessive. If I have understood the law incorrectly or  if there is something more serious involved, I am happy to be corrected.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Wall Street protests

These are not the French student protests of the sixties nor Tiananmen Square nor the Arab Spring. Occupy Wall Street if far too inchoate to make a lasting impact. I visited their website to see if they have an agenda that could capture the imagination of the public. I was disappointed. Another rant against capitalism is unlikely to make much of an impression. Or even talk of growing inequalities in the US and elsewhere. Martin Wolf, writing in the FT, says the protests have a message, that something is wrong with today's capitalist system, but fails to articulate any alternatives or solutions.

Occupy Wall Street needs a focus. It must focus on what it professes to be about, which is the problems posed by today's banks and the enormous influence they wield on public policy. The whole movement could gather momentum and amount to something if it focused on one item: the break-up of large banks in the US.

More in my ET column, Occupy Wall Street lacks focus.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Disintegrating Team Anna?

Swami Agnivesh is out. Arvind Kejriwal is under fire reportedly for jumping the bond he signed for availing of leave from government service. Kiran Bedi faces flak for submitting travel bills that did not correctly reflect the expenses she had incurred. Prashant Bhushan also faces allegations and criticism for his comments on Kashmir. Santosh Hegde has said that he is part of Team Anna only for the purpose of fighting corruption, which could imply that if members of the Team take up other causes, he may not stay on.

At this rate, will anything be left of Team Anna by the time parliament is done with processing the Lok Pal Bill? If not, I suppose it will be left to parliament to decide by itself the content of the Bill. That may result in a Lok Pal that is not the omnipotent authority that Team Anna envisages but one that focuses on politicians and the upper bureaucracy. It may also result in some procedures being put in place for referral of corruption charges to the Lok Pal, instead of anybody having the right to file complaints.

These will be entirely desirable outcomes, in my view. It does not cease to amaze me that the Jan Lok Pal Bill, drafted by Team Anna, managed to garner so much support from the public and the media. That version is certain to result in a bureaucratic nightmare, an authority with staff running into thousands that will watch over the rest of the bureaucracy as well as politicians. This can only lead to paralysis of all decision making, signs of which we can see already. One of the most common complaints about the CVC is that it renders decisions in PSUs slow, that it comes in the way of risk-taking and commercial decisions. If the CVC could have this effect, what should one expect of the more fearsome Lok Pal?

Governance- or accountability- is desirable. But it should not come in the way of governing. Decision makers must be judged, in general, by the totality of decisions they take, not by putting every single decision of theirs under the scanner. With an omnipotent Lok Pal, the latter is what we must expect, with all its deleterious consequences.

Monday, October 24, 2011

MBA oath

In 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis for which b-schools and MBAs were held substantially responsible, Harvard students decided to start the practice of an MBA oath, whereby MBA students would commit themselves to certain standards of integrity. Around 250 b-schools have since signed on and 6,272 graduates have taken the oath. Two years on, enthusiasm for the oath is fading, FT reports. Only 300 of the HBS class of 2011 has signed the oath compared to 600 in 2009.

This is not surprising. As the FT article notes, it makes little sense for individual MBAs to take the oath when organisations they work for are not willing to observe the necessary standards. That apart, the commitments made in the oath are hardly measurable - and are seldom measured- except for the ones on correct reporting (taken care of by listing and other regulations) and on corrupt practices (covered by the necessary laws). The other items in the oath have to do with being a good or responsible person and that is neither enforceable nor is it widely practised.

Not to sound too cynical but one could argue that the whole of one's education, with its competitive element, and the whole of corporate life often requires individuals to act in ways that are contrary to what are contained in the oath- that is, if one wishes to succeed, as all good MBAs do. Take at a look at the oath and judge for yourself:


As a business leader I recognize my role in society.

• My purpose is to lead people and manage resources to create value that no single individual can create alone.

• My decisions affect the well-being of individuals inside and outside my enterprise, today and tomorrow.

Therefore, I promise that:

• I will manage my enterprise with loyalty and care, and will not advance my personal interests at the expense of my enterprise or society.

• I will understand and uphold, in letter and spirit, the laws and contracts governing my conduct and that of my enterprise.

• I will refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society.

• I will protect the human rights and dignity of all people affected by my enterprise, and I will oppose discrimination and exploitation.

• I will protect the right of future generations to advance their standard of living and enjoy a healthy planet.

• I will report the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.

• I will invest in developing myself and others, helping the management profession continue to advance and create sustainable and inclusive prosperity.

In exercising my professional duties according to these principles, I recognize that my behavior must set an example of integrity, eliciting trust and esteem from those I serve. I will remain accountable to my peers and to society for my actions and for upholding these standards.

This oath I make freely, and upon my honor.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Selecting a director/dean

In my post, Selecting a CEO (two posts below this one), I suggested that there was nothing to beat the systematic screening of insiders for the post of CEO. Some people have asked me how I square this with my known position on selection of directors of institutions of national importance, which is to have a transparent, competitive, global search. This obviously means not confining the search to insiders (but by no means excluding them).

Well, this could, perhaps, serve as a quiz question in courses on leadership. The answer, of course, is that, in a company, it is possible to study the leadership potential of an executive by putting him or her in charge of business units, subsidiaries, etc. In an academic institution, there is really only one leadership position, and that is the director's. How somebody fares as a professor may not offer clues to whether he or she can lead the institution; indeed, an outstanding academic may be singularly ill-suited for a leadership role. It becomes necessary, therefore, to look at outsides who have headed academic institutions or led initiatives elsewhere.

That said, what I have stated is not a comprehensive answer. It does not explain why Harvard Business School often chooses an insider for the job. The more difficult thing to explain is what Booth Business School (of Chicago) or Stern School have done in the recent past, which is to import an academic from another institution (both from Stanford) and both very young. Sudhir Kumar, who is dean at Booth, had served as Senior Associate Dean at Stanford.

These two appointments, I must confess, took my breath away. Neither Booth nor Stern lacks first-rate academics. Some of them would also be very good administrators and entrepreneurs. And yet the two schools reached out to outsiders for the dean's job. I take it as proof of greatness.

There are other schools that have brought in people from industry in the past- Insead and London. That fits more easily into what I have said. So does Insead's most recent appointment of Dipak Jain as dean- Jain has been Kellogg's dean in the past.

The key to the director's appointment is the same as the one for a CEO's. The board needs to be clear what the institution needs most at a given time- entrepreneurial skills, academic ability, managerial qualities or dealing with business and government? Once the profile is set, the choice becomes a little easier.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Reviews of my book on Ravi Matthai- IIMA: Update

I reproduce links to the following reviews of my book on Ravi Matthai- IIMA (Brick by Red Brick: Ravi Matthai and the Making of IIM Ahmedabad; Rupa Publications) that I have seen so far:

Friday, October 14, 2011

Selecting a CEO

The man at the top looms large in the modern firm. Wherever you go in the firm, you can see his shadow. The CEO has the potential to do much good as well as much harm. Getting the selection of the CEO right is, therefore, one of the foremost functions of the board. Most boards, I am sorry to say, don't get it right; more importantly, they don't give it the attention it deserves.

It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to read in the October issue of HBR about succession planning at P&G. I must confess I was impressed with the rigour of the process described, with the search starting within the company from the very day that A G Lafley took over as CEO. The distinctive aspect of the process is the involvement of the board. Because of its involvement in the search, the board gets to know several layers of management very well. It occurred to me that succession planning, if taken seriously, can transform the very functioning of the board.

More in my ET column, How to pick a CEO, where I also spell out lessons for Indian companies.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Take care of the banks, stupid

Roger Altman urges a US-style Tarp for European banks. The key points for Europe's policy-makers is that banks need to be strengthened for the markets to shed their jitters. The markets are jittery because they think the banks will collapse under the weight of sovereign bonds. If they do so, they will take the Eurozone economies with them. Strengthen the banks- and you save the Eurozone.

Altman urges recapitalisation of banks through a common European facility. The governments must decide unilaterally which bank needs how much. It must back capital infusion with sovereign guarantees for bank borrowings. The taxpayer must have an upside on the infusions through warrants. It's quite likely that European governments end up making money by recapitalising banks, as the US Tarp did.

Once the banks are strengthened, the problem of sovereign debt can be addressed, with varying degrees of debt being written off for a range of countries. Then, we preserve Europe, avert a financial meltdown and also create the basis for economic recovery.

A Nobel for management?

The Economics Nobel was an addition to Nobel's list. Andrew Hill, writing in FT, asks whether the time has come for a Nobel in management. He is not very sure. Breakthrough ideas in management are rare, so it would be difficult to confer an award for theory. The award would have to go to managers. Here, we face a serious problem. Managerial performance can be judged properly only over a very period. Many of the corporate heroes of yesteryear are no longer around- Enron and Lehman Brothers, for instance. But, conferring an award on a manager after, say, 40 years may take away much of its shine.

No, an award for management doesn't make sense. Let's stick to intellectual contributions and those that are truly original. That rules out management for now.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


N R Narayana Murthy has been quoted as saying that 80% of students at IITs are of poor quality. My first reaction is to ask: what would be the comparable figure for NITs and private engineering colleges? 95%? And what would that say about the quality of hires at Infosys, most of whom are drawn from second- and third-rung colleges?

Although an ex-IITian myself, I am not in a position to judge whether there has been any decline in standards in students at IITs as I have little contact these days with IITs or engineering. How do we test such a statement? We could use a number of indicators:
  • Acceptance of IIT students at foreign colleges and their performance there
  • Success rate of IIT students appearing for the IIM entrance test
  • Acceptability of IIT students to employers in India
Are fewer IIT students going to the US? Are companies now reluctant to visit IIT campuses for recruitment? I would like to know from readers.

NRN also comments on the poor English speaking skills of IITians:
The Infosys mentor also lamented the poor English speaking and social skills of a majority of IIT students, saying with Indian politicians "rooting against English", the task of getting good English speaking students at IITs gets more difficult.
I can readily respond to this comment. Some of the best performers in my time at the IITs were from vernacular schools. Their English was poor but this took nothing away from their brilliance- they were among the toppers at IITs and went on to make a mark in the US. I met some of them a few years ago at an IIT Bombay reunion and their English was now as good as anybody else's. The great change at IIT was not counting English marks in the entrance exam. This opened up IITs to some great brains in the interior of the country. To judge the calibre of IIT students by their English speaking skills makes no sense at all.

NRN, in his New York speech, has also advocated doing away with the tenure system at IITs; he wants faculty on five year contracts instead. If this is what is required for producing quality, how is it that US universities have a tenure system and produce great quality? The tenure system was created precisely to give academics the sense of security that is needed in order to produce high quality output over a long period.

I have a suggestion. Let NRN and a few other businessmen pool their resources and set up their own engineering college. They can set their own norms for admission, faculty, fees etc. They can then realise their dream of creating in India the equivalent of MIT and Stanford.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Corporate delusions

I have often wondered how much of all the talk of 'empowerment' , 'democratisation', 'values' and the rest is actually practised by corporations, much as corporate bosses love to expatiate on these. My own sense is that most corporations (and most organisations, in general) are run despotically with the person at the top calling most of the shots.

I learn that my impression is not wide of the mark. The Economist quotes from a survey on corporate culture which says that what employees think of their organisations is at odds with the delusions their bosses harbour. The survey was commissioned by Dov Seidman, author of 'How', a book that emphasises that how businesses are run is as important at what they accomplish.

It(the survey) found that 43% of those surveyed described their company’s culture as based on command-and-control, top-down management or leadership by coercion—what Mr Seidman calls “blind obedience”. The largest category, 54%, saw their employer’s culture as top-down, but with skilled leadership, lots of rules and a mix of carrots and sticks, which Mr Seidman calls “informed acquiescence”. Only 3% fell into the category of “self-governance”, in which everyone is guided by a “set of core principles and values that inspire everyone to align around a company’s mission”
Does it matter how the company is run? Apparently, yes. A high proportion of people in the "self-governance" and "informed acquiescence" categories believe that their firms adopt good ideas; not so in other categories. Equally interesting, the perceptions of bosses are at variance of those of their employees:

Tragicomically, the study found that bosses often believe their own guff, even if their underlings do not. Bosses are eight times more likely than the average to believe that their organisation is self-governing. (The cheery folk in human resources are also much more optimistic than other employees.) Some 27% of bosses believe their employees are inspired by their firm. Alas, only 4% of employees agree. Likewise, 41% of bosses say their firm rewards performance based on values rather than merely on financial results. Only 14% of employees swallow this.
It would be interesting to see whether firms with a superior culture (as perceived by employees, not bosses) perform better. Then, we have a strong case for fostering an open, non-tyrannical culture. This may be achievable in a relatively small organisation. A large organisation that achieves this is truly worthy of praise. I invite readers to name a few.

My own impression is that the atmosphere is most corporations tends to be toxic, if not hellish, and they simply would not perform but for the fact that they are able to dole out large amounts of money. Bosses who think their companies are little paradises are living in one- meant for fools.

Europe can avert a Lehman

Time is running out for the Eurozone economies. They have to show quickly that they have the will and the means to tackle the sovereign debt problem emanating from Greece and embracing several other countries, including large ones like Italy. It is possible to avert a 'Lehman moment', a cataclysm in the financial markets. But this requires deep pockets to recapitalise banks and to provide finance to distressed economies, including Greece. There is no escape from doing these two things. Either this is done in an orderly way, and possibly at a lower cost, or it is done in a chaotic way, and at a higher cost.

It's no use quoting stress tests that show only 8 banks are vulnerable. Or pointing to potential losses of €300 bn on sovereign debt. Once mayhem breaks out in the markets, losses will escalate and so will the number of failing banks. The key to understanding the banking problem is not to tot up losses on sovereign debt exposure as of today but to understand their dependence on short-term US money market mutual funds. It is is this dependence that creates the potential for another Lehman moment. More in my ET column, Europe's Lehman moment.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

No more JEE- IITs/NITs to have aptitude test

The IIT Council has decided in favour of a common aptitude test for IITs/NITs and all state government and private engineering colleges, TOI reports.

The exam will replace the current JEE. The Council favours giving due weightages to the aptitude test and standard XII marks. This is subject to the approval of the finance ministry and, in the case of state government colleges, to approval by the states. If it goes through, this will be a huge relief to thousands of engineering aspirants in the country and, of course, a massive blow to private tutorial colleges for the JEE.

The Council also decided to retain the IIT fee at Rs 50,000 per year but will require those with a family income of over Rs 4 lakh to cough up an additional amount totalling to about Rs 6 lakh for the course once they take up a job. There will be exemptions to those pursing M Tech or Ph D courses. The modalities of recovering the fee from salaries is to be worked out.

The change in the exam format and the idea of a common exam for all engineering colleges are both to be lauded. But I have to wonder: how is it that initiatives such as these emanate from the ministry and not the IITs themselves? Why do the IITs have to be prodded towards doing the sensible thing by students and the education system?

Basel III bounty for India

Basel 3 may turn out to be a blessing for India- and other BRICS countries such as China and Brazil. Basel 3 will depress returns on equity in western banks by raising capital requirements. Indian banks's return on assets of 1% and return on equity of 12-18% is better than what western banks can produce and it's likely to stay at that level, thanks to financial inclusion.

Financial inclusion will force Indian banks to reach out to high-yielding small borrowers. This will entail a significant upfront cost but will yield payoffs in terms of an increase interest rate margin. Indian banks also have the potential to increase overall returns by raising fee income and by returning to credit cards and personal loans.

Thus, Basel 3 will have the effect of accelerating the process of catching up of emerging market banks with those in the west. More in my ET column, Stormy tide favours Indian banks.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Christian Lagarde steals the show at Jackson Hole

No mistake who was the star at the central bankers' meet at Jackson Hole. It was neither Ben Bernanke, the Fed chief, nor Trichet, the president of the ECB. It was Christian Lagarde, the former French minister and now head of the IMF.

Most economists think that all policy bolts have been shot in the present crisis. They have become classical economists for now: sit back and watch while economies slowly get back to normal. Naturo-therapy for economies, if you like. But this may be just wishful thinking. Not doing anything could cause the bottom to fall from the global economy.

Lagarde alone had some concrete prescriptions to offer. Although a European, she didn't hesitate to call a spade a bloody shovel when it came to Europe's banking sector. More in my ET column, IMF's bold recipe for recovery.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Forget S &P downgrade, watch Eurozone

The S&P downgrade is a non-event. It could be turn out to be an event for S&P and for other rating agencies, given that the Senate is to initiate hearings into the downgrade. This could eventually result in a major downgrade of the ratings business itself, but that's a different matter.

The downgrade signifies nothing of importance in the US economy itself. All the bad news is already in and there is nothing to suggest that a recession is imminent although recovery will remain sluggish. The danger to the world economy is posed by the Eurozone where bank exposure to government debt has the potential to trigger another financial crisis.This too is a low probability event as of now, since it appears that sense has dawned finally on the leaders in the Eurozone.

Comparisons of the S&P downgrade with the collapse of Lehman are completely misplaced. The Lehman collapse happened when banks were battered and it wrecked money market confidence in the banking system, making things worse for banks. Banks are today better capitalised and bank exposure to Eurozone debt is well documented although exposure to credit default swaps is a grey area. The S&P downgrade changes nothing on the ground and it could, in effect, be something of a wake-up call for leaders everywhere.

The prospects are for slow growth in the world economy and this will impact on India's growth prospects. Since, lower growth is what our policy makers are praying for in their bid to contain inflation, they will not lose much sleep on account of recent developments. More in today's ET column, A continuation, not a repeat, of 2008.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Anna Hazare's googly

Am I the only one to be taken by surprise by the turn of events in L'affaire Anna Hazare? Yesterday, when I heard on TV that Hazare had been subjected to preventive detention, I cannot say I was outraged.

There is merit in the contention that the police, having availed of Sec 144, were within their rights to judge whether Hazare's proposed actions would disturb the peace or not. But I did feel that the politically astute course for the government would have been to allow Hazare and his fans in the visual media to spend themselves over a day or two.

That was not to be. The government sent Hazare to Tihar Jail only to reverse its decision and order his release by the end of the day. I am not in a position to judge how great was the groundswell of sentiment in favour of Hazare in Delhi and elsewhere. But the TV channels (one of which openly espouses his cause) certainly made one feel it was significant. They and sundry personalities kept clobbering the government through the day, perhaps giving the Congress bigwigs the sense that they were losing the PR battle.

What followed was even more astonishing. Hazare refused to accept the release order and leave the jail until assured that he could carry on his protest at a venue of his choosing. This was indeed a googly and the government was completely stumped. It could not, I suppose, have asked the cops to evict Hazare. The option of escorting Hazare out of Delhi must have been weighed and rejected. It appears now that Hazare will have his way.

It is certainly a blow to the government but that is not the point. We need to consider what the episode forebodes for the functioning of our democracy. What happens to the prerogative of parliament to make laws? Does this get suspended when parliament is seen to be not heeding the wishes of a large number of people? Who decides this in a given case and who is to be presumed to speak for the people? And if some of the clauses of the Janata Lokpal Bill are to be included in the government's draft, what purpose will be served by parliament debating them? Parliament can reject them only at the risk of facing another fast and trial by media!

This is not a referendum. It is not even mobocracy. It is mediacracy. Once the TV channels decide to root for a cause, an individual with a reasonable following may be able to foist his wishes on the elected government and parliament. Why have elections, let's settle for TV debates and online polls.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Ratan Tata succession

There is word of a professional (instead of a member of the Tata family) succeeding Ratan Tata as head of the Tata group. Many people have been rooting for such a move. I am not so sure. There was the same talk when Mr Tata himself succeeded JRD. Not many gave Mr Tata a chance of succeeding. The sceptics have been proved wrong.

The number of businesses in the group has been pruned (although not enough, some would say). Controls have been tightened. The group is more international today (with the majority of revenues coming from overseas). The group has got into areas for which many had believed it unsuited (eg cars, communications). Mr Tata has put pep into many of the older businesses (steel, power, chemicals, tea).

True, the group's image has been dented by the 2 G affair and the Radia tapes. But, in commercial terms, Mr Tata has succeeded beyond all expectations. I see the Tata experience as part of a broader phenomenon of the reinvention of Indian family businesses. Reforms have not sunk India's family managed businesses but have brought out the best in many. It is no longer obvious that family-managed businesses must turn to professionals and not entrust their destinies to family members.

More in my ET column, It's okay to keep it in the family

Monday, July 25, 2011

Are sprawling IIM campuses justified?

The IIMs have campuses that sprawl across 100 acres of more or land. They produce less than 3000 MBAs put together, says Nirmalya Kumar in an article in ET. He believes this is inefficient use of a scarce resource, land. Is this true?

There are two components to this point. One, the IIMs don't need sprawling campuses in order to meet their educational objectives. Two, given that they have so much, the IIMs can produce more postgraduates or doctorates.

To take the first point, Kumar argues that London Business School operates on less than 5 acres and graduated 1000 students this year. Why can't the IIMs do likewise? Maybe they should sell off most of the land they are sitting on?

I am not sure this is a valid argument. Both faculty and students in London (and other western cities) can easily rent apartments over a wide range of rentals. In Indian cities, it is rather more difficult, so there is a case for a campus that will obviate the need for people to look around for a place. Public transport in many places is nowhere as good as in London and there can be difficulties in commuting to work as well. Many cities may not be as safe those in Europe or North America. So, for the smooth functioning of the school, a campus may be required.

Secondly, the IITs and IIMs are governed by the Pay Commission framework and are restricted in the pay they can offer faculty. Campus accommodation is a valuable perk and we know from experience that for NRI faculty wanting to relocate to India, it's a big attraction. One would, therefore, make out a case for a campus on grounds of promoting academic excellence.

Having said that, there remains the question of whether the IIMs are producing enough graduates to justify the land on which they are sitting. One reason often trotted out is that the IIMs are unable to attract quality faculty. I do not entirely buy this argument. As Kumar points out, it should be possible to bring in visiting faculty from overseas. This does not happen, nor is recruitment of faculty vigorous enough, because it suits the IIMs to limit the intake. This enhances the scarcity value of an IIM product and hence the value of the IIM brand itself, and it limits competition to existing faculty. I have made a reference to this issue in my recent book, Brick by Red Brick: Ravi Matthai and the Making of IIM Ahmedabad.

It does appear to me that the IIMs work backward from a high average salary in determining what should be the intake of students. Whereas the need of the country is for a large number of MBAs. In recent years, the IIMs have had to increase their capacity by 54% consequent to the introduction of OBC quotas- this is the most significant scaling up in the IIM system since they were set up! So they could do it when they were driven to by law. Why can't they scale up on their own as well- and provide better justification for the land they are using?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How do we price higher education?

I continue with the theme of pricing of higher education on which I had a couple of posts earlier. We need to ask ourselves: why do fees in higher education keep rising at a rate ahead of inflation in many countries? In b-schools in India, for instance, fees have doubled or tripled since 2007.

It turns out that the explanation is a straightforward one: institutions of higher education keep raising their fees because there are enough people out there willing to pay these. There is a mismatch between supply and demand and supply is not easily created because it takes years for a new institution to establish its reputation. In these conditions, universities and colleges get away with anything - if they are free to do so- and have no incentives to reduce costs or improve efficiency.

That must also explain why the production technology has not changed one bit in higher education for several centuries now- it's still the teacher using chalk and blackboard or, at best, slides and power point presentations. Quality is seen as a function of keeping the student-teacher ratio as low as possible.

The only way in which fees will be contained is if institutions are run by the state and are duly subsidised. If we leave it to the private sector, we must expect fees to escalate. We have to choose between the US model where private institutions are entirely free to set fees and the German model where the accent is on modest fees or free tuition and universal access. I argue in my recent ET column, Soaring costs of higher education, that the latter would be preferable in Indian conditions.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Britain struggles to price education correctly

I wrote yesterday about the contrarian move in Germany to make university education free. The UK moved the other way in Tony Blair's time by opting for more market-driven fees. The new government opted to stay the course, last year allowing universities to raise the maximum fee from £ 3375 to£ 9000 with effect from September 12. To the dismay of the government, most universities have veered towards the maximum, according to the Economist.

How come? One would have thought fee would vary depending on quality. I suppose mediocre institutions get away with the same fee because of the scarcity value of higher education: there is isn't enough competition and entry and exit are not really free. We see in India as well. The moment the IIMs raised their fee, so did other b-schools including those that are not a patch on the top IIMs. They know that even at absurdly high fees, there will be enough takers in the Indian market.

Now, the British government wants to introduce differentiation in the market. It has come up with two ideas. One, higher quality institutions will be allowed to expand as much as they like (higher quality being defined by the number of applicants with a certain number of A grades). This, it is believed, will force mediocre institutions to drop their fees in order to attract clever students. Secondly, 5% of all places will be reserved for institutions that charge £ 7500 or less. This latter, of course, assumes that capacity is sufficiently elastic at the cheaper institutions.

Will these measures work? I doubt it. Leaving aside a handful of top institutions, quality for the rest is rather hard to define. Besides, students will opt for institutions that are closer to their place of residence, other things being broadly equal. In other words, the link between quality and fee will not be as strong as expected and the gap between supply and demand in higher education will remain acute given that more and more people aspire for university education.

Right now, it is the government that makes available loans to students, not banks. Higher university fees only spell higher bad debts for the government0- at the best of times, the government finds it difficult to collect repayments. In other ways, the government's subsidy burden will go up. Whether transferring more of the subsidy burden from the private sector to the government will improve quality is doubtful- quality is not a function of fees alone, it is a function of overall funding and the broad ecosystem as well.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Germany opts for free tuition

Continental Europe can often surprise us in a big way. Most countries are going the way of increasing fees for university students. The model is market-based fee financed by loans (which may or not be subsidised by the state). Not so in Germany, according to a report in the Economist.

Many German states are opting for free university education. Fees in Germany generate revenues of only € 1.2 bn compared to total expenditure of € 36 bn. Private sources account for only 15% of revenues in German universities compared to two-thirds in the US. It could well be that not getting students to pay may be affecting the quality of universities- it's difficult to finance research and other activities of top quality without better funding. But education is inclusive.

Which model is better - the American model which imposes an enormous loan burden students but can produce very high quality or the German model which results in universities of lower quality but provides the widest access? The German economy is doing fine. Even though research in Germany may not be cutting edge, German manufacturing is known for quality. I leave it to you to judge.