Monday, March 22, 2021

Unanswered questions on Mehta's exit from Ashoka University

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, professor at Ashoka University, resigned a week ago. He wrote in his letter that it had become "abundantly clear" to him after a meeting with the founders of the University that his continued association with it would become a "political liability". 

A storm of criticism ensued. Eminent academics from all over the world condemned what they believed was pressure brought on Mehta to exit because of his forthright writings. Two days later, economist Arvind Subramanian resigned as Director of a centre at the university by way of expressing solidarity with Mehta. Students called for a two day strike starting March 22. They demanded the reinstatement of Mehta.

The Vice Chancellor, Malabika Sarkar, denied there had been external pressure on the university. However, the university's administration chose to issue a joint statement with Mehta and Subramanian which said there had been "lapses in institutional processes":

We acknowledge that there have been some lapses in institutional processes which we will work to rectify in consultation with all stakeholders. This will reaffirm our commitment to academic autonomy and freedom which have always been at the core of the Ashoka University ideals

The university also ensured that Mehta and Subramanian joined the administration in sounding a positive note:

 Pratap and Arvind would like to emphasize that Ashoka University is one of the most important projects in Indian higher education. They are sad to be leaving Ashoka, especially its outstanding students and faculty,” the statement said, adding that the two professors will remain “available for advice and consultation to the University in the future.

The Chancellor, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, then wrote a letter saying the founders had "never interfered with academic freedom". The Chairman of the board of trustees, Ashish Dhawan, wrote to students saying the founders "have always had the best interests of Ashoka at heart". Mehta, for his part, urged the students not to insist on his return:

The underlying circumstances that led to the resignation will not change for the foreseeable future, in my case, at any rate. So I must close this chapter. I urge you not to press on this matter. I know you will be disappointed. But if I may exercise one last bit of professorial discretion: your mission is larger than the fate of two Professors

Clearly, what is on is an exercise in damage limitation, with Mehta and Subramanian trying to help out.

One can understand the anxiety to protect the university's brand. However, it is important that the questions related to the episode are answered.

First, who were the founders who met Mehta and what exactly transpired at the meeting? It is important that Mehta shed light on this. I am also a little puzzled about the meeting. In his capacity as professor, Mehta reports to the Vice Chancellor and, perhaps, the Chancellor. If there were any concerns about his functioning, it should have been conveyed by the Vice Chancellor. It is not for the the founders or board members to interact directly with faculty in such matters.

Secondly, the statements by Sarkar and Mukherjee contradict what Mehta said in his resignation letter. If there was no external pressure and if founders had never interfered with academic freedom, then what led up to Mehta's resignation? All statements cannot be true.

Thirdly, Mehta stepped down as Vice Chancellor two years ago. There was speculation at the time that his stepping down from an administrative role had to do with his trenchant writings. Mehta needs to clarify whether this is true and, if so, why he chose to continue as a faculty member.

Lastly, one wonders what prompted Mehta and Subramanian to agree to a joint statement. Was any assurance given that the founders who had spoken to Mehta would not continue in an active role? What precisely were the "lapses in institutional processes" that are now sought to be rectified?

Both faculty and students must demand answers to these questions so that academic freedom at Ashoka University is insulated hereafter from the interference from the founders or the board.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Not easy to privatise India's public sector banks

The government announced in its last budget its intention to privatise two public sector banks (PSBs) in the coming financial year.

This is more easily said than done. I argue in my column in BS today, Bank privatisation as an experiment, that the task involves huge challenges. If privatisation doesn't work out, it will pose serious risks to financial stability. So, the government must proceed cautiously. Let it treat the privatisation of two banks as an experiment and watch the outcomes over three or four years. Only if things work out, should we think of privatising more PSBs- this should not be turned into an ideological issue. The government must hope that privatisation doesn't mean more Yes Banks that will have to be thrown into the lap of SBI for rehabilitation.

As the BS article is behind a pay wall, here is the full text:


Bank privatisation as an experiment 

The government must test the efficacy of privatising two banks first before going the whole hog


Say this for the proposed move to privatise two public sector banks (PSBs) in the coming financial year: It’s preferable to the course proposed by the P J Nayak Committee on bank governance (2014). 

 The committee had proposed a bank holding company, run by professionals, to which shares of PSBs would be transferred. The proposal was always a non-starter. Handing over 60 per cent of the banking system to a group of “independent” professionals, however eminent, is unthinkable. If the government wishes to give autonomy to PSBs, it can do so today. And if it doesn’t, creating a bank holding company run by professionals won’t make any difference.

 Getting PSBs to match private sector compensation by letting the government’s shareholding drop below 50 per cent is also fanciful. No government enterprise can have the sort of inegalitarian pay structure that one finds in the private sector. The public sector could certainly do with better incentives. But these can never match those of the private sector. 

 The public sector and the private sector are two distinct business models. One offers high pay, the prospect of rapid promotion and considerable work pressure. The other offers job security, enormous challenges, quality housing and a lower cash component. It’s a choice of two different lifestyles. Picking elements from the two models and combining them will take us nowhere. 

 You want fewer PSBs? Better to go the whole hog and privatise the ones you think you don’t need. Then, the government is no longer accountable to parliament for the performance of the bank.  Starting off with a couple of banks is a good idea. Provided it’s understood that this is strictly an experiment. We have to carefully watch governance and performance at privatised banks over at least three or four years before we think of privatising any more PSBs. 

Even privatising just two PSBs is a huge challenge. The big question is: Whom can the government sell the PSBs to? The larger private banks in India have a significant pan-Indian presence. They are unlikely to want to take over a large PSB with a very different culture and legacy issues. Handing over PSBs to Indian corporations is inadvisable and politically contentious. 

 Foreign banks have been retrenching their Indian operations in recent years, especially in respect of retail operations. Assuming there are some with an appetite for the Indian market, how many will be keen to set up a subsidiary subject to the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI’s) stringent norms for the same? That leaves foreign institutional investors. The Nayak Committee had held up Axis Bank as a role model for dropping government shareholding below 50 per cent. But the case is by no means self-evident.

 Let us ignore the issues Axis Bank faces today. Whatever success the bank has had did not arise simply from the government’s shareholding dropping below 50 per cent. Axis Bank started off as UTI Bank, a government entity.  Even after the government’s shareholding dropped below 50 per cent, LIC and other government entities held significant stakes in it and they still do. It wasn’t that the government decided to hand over matters overnight to dispersed institutional shareholders. 

Moreover, UTI Bank was quite small in size when the government opted to privatise it. Almost any PSB that the government wishes to privatise today would be bigger in size than UTI Bank at the time of privatisation. 

 We need investors who will actively monitor the privatised bank. Private equity firms fit the bill. The RBI’s Internal Working Group to review bank ownership had recommended that non-promoter shareholding be enhanced to 15 per cent. This was, no doubt, intended to facilitate a significant stake for investors such as private equity firms. It must be seen as part of the prelude to bank privatisation.

 A couple of other measures must be seen in the same light. The decision to set up an Asset Reconstruction Company (ARC), sponsored by PSBs and private banks, is one such. The proposal had not taken off earlier because it wasn’t clear why a government-owned ARC that aggregates good loans would do a better job of restructuring them than a consortium of banks. Nor is that any clearer now. The principal motivation for an ARC at this point appears to be to get some bad loans off the books of banks that are to be privatised. That way, they will be more attractive to private suitors. So will allowing private banks to do government business, another measure recently announced. 

 Nevertheless, several challenges remain. The impact on depositors of a drop in government shareholding below 50 per cent is one. Dealing with the large tracts of land PSBs sit on is another.  These include a bank’s headquarters, regional offices, training centres and accommodation for employees. Private investors may not want to pay for all of these, they will be interested mainly in the branch network. As in the case of Air India, it may make sense to move some of the land and building to a Special Purpose Vehicle. 

 Private investors will want to rationalise branches and reduce employee strength. According to media reports, moves are afoot to transfer some of the employees of PSBs to be privatised to other banks. With a chunk of bad loans off the books, a reduced employee strength and land transferred to an SPV, valuation of a bank may become easier. But it does not ensure that it will be free from controversy. Most PSBs are trading way below their book values today. Getting a reasonable valuation will require a competitive auction process with a large number of bidders. Yet, for the reasons mentioned above, the set of potential bidders is quite small. 

 Overcoming resistance from bank unions is another challenge. Bank unions have already called for a two-day strike. The government must take steps to avoid the sort of confrontation it is facing with farmers. One, it must convince bank unions that the government wishes to strengthen the PSBs that are not privatised, not dismantle the public sector. It may like to assure unions that PSBs’ share will not fall below, say, 50 per cent in the next three years. Two, it must assure unions that that employee interests in privatised banks will be safeguarded.  

Three, the government must offer to use the capital raised from the sale of two PSBs to bolster capital at some of the remaining PSBs. Increasing capital in some PSBs will improve their valuations and boost lending as well. Re-investing privatisation proceeds in the remaining PSBs will help the government produce positive outcomes in quick time. It is the surest way to win hearts and minds on bank privatisation.