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.