Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hollowing out of the Indian financial system

Business as usual, in India, is taking us to a destination where RBI & SEBI & company will preside over a minor and inconsequential financial system. The bulk of India-linked finance will take place overseas, and the overseas market will dominate price formation for India-related financial products.

Why might this happen?

Finance is the business of bits and bytes. Orders being sent to India can be easily switched to other venues. An array of other venues are now springing up:

  1. Nifty futures trade in Singapore on the SGX
  2. An array of sophisticated derivatives on Nifty trade on the OTC market offshore (also termed `the PN market').
  3. Derivatives on the rupee trade overseas on the OTC market (linear contracts are termed `the NDF market').
  4. Trading in individual stocks is taking place on the ADR and the GDR market.
Let's focus on Nifty - the most important financial product in India. (The arguments pretty much identically apply to everything else).

The success and survival of the onshore securities markets is fundamentally about NSE. NSE faces an array of problems rooted in domestic policy (example, example, example, example, etc). The overseas market faces no such problems. The CEO of SGX wakes up in the morning and thinks about competing with NSE. The CEO of NSE wakes up in the morning and thinks of an array of weird things.

And then, there is taxation. The fundamental principle worth using in this field is residence based taxation. We, as India, should not tax the activities of non-residents. For a global investor, sending orders to the Nifty futures on SGX is tax-efficient as Singapore follows a residence-based taxation system. Sending orders to India is inefficient today (owing to the STT and the stamp duty) and could get worse tomorrow (if GAAR is used to abrogate the Mauritius treaty).

We think we are comfortable, because India has capital controls, and residents don't have much of a choice on taking their custom elsewhere. Things aren't that simple. First, non-residents can pioneer sending order flow to overseas venues, and make them liquid. The next stage will be about Indian MNCs, who run global treasuries, who can easily patronise the overseas venues. The third stage will be HNI residents, who can take $200,000 per year per person outside India. In addition, the richest 1% of India would systematically shift money out of the country through various means fair and foul [example].

Put these factors together, and suddenly Nifty futures on SGX are a credible option. And this is exactly how things have worked out. Palak Shah in the Business Standard says:
As on date, the SGX Nifty OI is 27 per cent higher than that for Nifty futures on the National Stock Exchange (NSE). The figures are more alarming if one considers the OI in a single month in May as the built-up positions on the SGX are 70 per cent higher than on the NSE. In May, the SGX Nifty OI was worth over Rs 16,200 crore while that on the NSE stood at over Rs 9,250 crore. As far as three-month contracts go, the Nifty futures OI on the NSE is over Rs 12,750 crore.
In 2008, before these troubles had come together, SGX open interest was 59.78% of NSE. By 2012, where all these problems have come together, SGX open interest has come to 101.77% of NSE's. It is astonishing to see that for the biggest Indian product - Nifty - an overseas exchange has got superior open interest.

In the baseline scenario, Indian policy-making will meander on clueless and unconcerned. NSE will continue to lose ground. Why do we care? Is this mere protectionism - what is wrong if the entire India-linked equity index derivatives business takes place overseas?

  • A rich and complex ecosystem of finance has developed surrounding the Nifty contracts. Hundreds of thousands of high skill workers are in this industry. A decisive loss of market share for India would endanger their livelihood.
  • The tax revenues associated with all these activities, at present, come to the Indian authorities. The Indian tax man earns income tax (on wages and on corporate profit) and VAT (on an array of activities of the firms). All this will go away if the business shifts to Singapore.
  • A sophisticated Indian financial system is required if monetary policy is to be effective. The demise of the onshore financial system will damage the onshore monetary policy transmission. It will further take us back towards a world where government is unable to play a role in business cycle stabilisation.
  • Prospects of Bombay emerging as an international financial centre will subside. If we can't even hang on to market share for Nifty or the rupee, where is the question of competing against overseas financial firms or markets on things that aren't India-linked?
  • Access to finance for firms will tend to split into a two-tier world: the big firms will go abroad to get their corporate finance done. The small firms will face greater constraints since they will not easily access finance abroad (there is a greater information distance between the typical Singapore investor and the typical Rs.1000 crore or Rs.100 crore Indian company), and the local financial system would be weak.
When India started trying to build a mature market economy in 1991, at first, it felt like a sophisticated financial system would emerge, which would both serve India and start competing for the global market. From 1993 to 2001, India achieved a remarkable revolution in the equity market. This increased optimism in the ability of India to understand problems, to achieve change, and to maintain high ethical standards.

It now seems that those hopes were premature. The more likely scenario is one where India-linked finance will happen offshore, while RBI/SEBI/CBDT/CCI/FMC/IRDA squabble over a minor and inconsequential onshore financial system that is riddled with ethics problems. In the short term, onshore Indian finance will suffer from one setback after another.

We are likely to go back to the conflicted arrangements that gave us the Harshad Mehta scandals of the early 1990s and the Ketan Parekh scandals one decade later. I used to think we were finished with those problems. But we are about to restart on that entire story; there is little institutional memory about how those things came about and how dangerous our present path is. Each future scandal, of this nature, will be greeted with joy by overseas financial providers, who will scoop up market share every time India falls into turmoil.

Many years from now, we may one day get to fundamentally superior governance arrangements in finance, and achieve high ethical standards in public life and securities infrastructure. If this happens, we would be able to come back to these questions. As an example, Japan lost the Nikkei 225 contract to Singapore in the mid-1980s and got back into this to a significant extent 15 years later. In the years or decades that will go by until domestic financial governance structures are corrected, a great deal of organisational capital in the onshore financial system will have been lost.

The revolution in the stock market used to be one of the best success stories of economic reforms in India [link, link]. It may well fall apart in coming months and years.

6 comments:

  1. I was going through your "conditions". One aspect which I find incongruous is the one which advocates accurate spelling, grammatically correct sentences, etc. If one of your readers who may be interested in the subject happens to be linguisticall challenged, do you necessarily have to delete his comments? Perhaps his contents may add value to your blog / the discussion on the topic being commented upon.

    Your thoughts please!

    Nath

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think these conditions are valid and fair. "accurate spelling, grammatically correct sentences" are key to good communication and are in fact the essence of good communication. Hence the need..

      Delete
    2. "The CEO of SGX wakes up in the morning and thinks about competing with NSE. "
      And
      The CFO of Singapore wakes up in the morning and thinks about how to make Singapore competitive. The CFO of India wakes up in the morning and thinks about how to appease the other coalition members, what new taxes to create etc..

      We collectively do not think about how to make India competitive and that is a very large blind spot for us..

      Singapore is also a highly regulated country, perhaps in some ways more than India, but they continually think about Singapore's competitiveness..

      You are a lone voice Ajay.. Do you think the regulators care that they "will preside over a minor and inconsequential financial system". I think not..

      Delete
    3. Do see: http://www.finmin.nic.in/the_ministry/dept_eco_affairs/capital_market_div/recommFM070613.pdf

      Delete
  2. Money always follows the path of least resistance. Get rid of taxes, corruption, arbitrary diktats by all the powers that be in India and watch the money flow in.

    Not holding my breath for that to happen in India though.

    ReplyDelete

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