Prof. Jayanth R. Varma’s Financial Markets Blog

A blog on financial markets and their regulation

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Can India seize the Hong Kong opportunity?

As Hong Kong moves ever closer to a military denouement, India needs to think hard about the opportunity it could provide to its own fledgling offshore financial centre. Over the last several years, India has built the foundations for an offshore financial centre at GIFT City in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. A lot of physical infrastructure has been created, exemptions have been made from the normal exchange control regime, tax concessions have been provided, and some small beginnings have been made in offering offshore financial services. But the turmoil in Hong Kong presents opportunities of a vastly different order.

Is India willing to take the key steps that would make it an attractive option to businesses and individuals that may wish to relocate out of Hong Kong now or in the immediate future?

  • Are we willing to offer long term residence and work permits to those with an employment record in Hong Kong (and a citizenship of a friendly country)?

  • Are we willing to provide a legal and taxation regime that would allow Hong Kong based entities to re-domicile to an offshore financial centre in India with ease?

  • Are we willing to hire people with regulatory experience in Hong Kong to staff a unified regulator for our offshore financial centre?

  • Are we willing to facilitate global entities with substantial operations in Hong Kong that would like to set up an entity in an Indian offshore financial centre as a fall back option that could quickly take over operations currently carried out in Hong Kong?

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QE through unlimited buying of foreign equities

After the global financial crisis, central banks have done many things that were previously considered unthinkable, and Switzerland and Japan have probably been more radical than most others. But as the eurozone slips deeper and deeper into the quagmire of negative yields, the Swiss National Bank and the Bank of Japan are now at risk of being perceived as paragons of sound money.

The situation in the eurozone is so bad that the entire yield curve (all the way to 30 years) is negative in Germany and Netherlands, and it is possible that the ECB will be forced to push policy rates even deeper into negative rates. Both the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen have been pushed higher and even Bitcoin looks like a safe haven currency if you look only at a one week price chart.

The pioneers of monetary easing are reaching the limits of their existing unconventional policies, and will have to turn to something even more unthinkable. To compete with the frightening scale of European easing, Switzerland and Japan have to find an asset class that can accommodate almost unlimited buying without running into capacity constraints, creating excessive market distortions, or provoking a severe political backlash. I think at some point they will very reluctantly be driven to the conclusion that there is only asset class that fits the bill and that is global equities.

A portfolio of global index funds can absorb a few trillion dollars of central bank buying without too much disturbance. Political backlash would be muted for two reasons. First, by buying index funds instead of buying assets directly, they avoid getting involved in the sensitive issues of corporate governance and control. Second, every politician likes a rising stock market. Even America’s tweeter-in-chief who sees currency manipulators wherever he looks will probably tolerate a weaker yen if it takes the S&P 500 index to new highs.

Perhaps – just perhaps – falling global equities provide an opportunity for some ordinary investors to front-run the Swiss National Bank and the Bank of Japan before these central banks get into the game.

Big Tech 2019 = Big Finance 2005 = Big Risk?

That is the title of my post today in the sister blog on computing. In 2005, Big Finance was at the top of the world, but in 2008, it all came crashing down. It appears to me that Big Tech which enjoys a similar situation of dominance today also suffers from the same kind of hubris that destroyed Big Finance a decade ago. A change in fortunes could be as fast and as brutal as was the case with Big Finance a decade ago. Prudent risk management today demands that individuals and organizations take steps to protect themselves against the risk that one or more of the Big Tech companies would go bust or shutdown their services for other reasons.

A petty money dispute holds market to ransom

I am not a lawyer, and so it is with much trepidation that I write about a petty dispute that has been holding the Indian market to ransom. I venture to write only because I am convinced that the issue is not really about legal technicalities, and in any case the entire money dispute is quite petty and trivial compared to the broader issue of market integrity and the sanctity of key market infrastructure.

The facts of the dispute are well brought out in an order issued in May 2019 by the Securities Appellate Tribunal. The genesis of the dispute lies with a brokerage firm, Allied Financial Services, that allegedly stole about $50 million worth of its clients’ securities and pledged them as collateral with its Clearing Member, ILFS Securities, to support an options trade that they had done on the National Stock Exchange (NSE). On the strength of this collateral, ILFS Securities, deposited cash margins with NSE Clearing to support the trade done by Allied. After receiving complaints of fraud, the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) froze the collateral lying with ILFS Securities. When the time came to settle the trade, ILFS Securities asked for annulment of the trade. Even if the trade is annulled, ILFS would have to return the option premium and the benefit to them would be a only marginal reduction in the quantum of loss. ILFS Securities’ gain of probably $5-10 million would of course be the loss of the counter parties to the trade.

I deliberately call this a petty dispute because for some of the institutions involved, $5 million or even $50 million is quite likely a rounding error on their balance sheets. Even for the smaller entities, it is not by itself a bankruptcy threatening event. We are not talking about a poor investor whose lifetime savings could be wiped out by the dispute; we are talking about some big institutions which might be somewhat better off or somewhat worse off depending on which way the dispute is resolved. We are also not talking about recovering money from the alleged fraudster; the dispute is all about allocating the losses among different victims of the alleged fraud.

The tragedy is that as a result of this petty dispute, there has been a stay on the settlement of the trade. If not resolved soon, this settlement failure risks causing serious damage to the integrity and reputation of India’s largest stock exchange and its clearing corporation.

The core function of a stock exchange and its clearing corporation is to allow complete strangers to trade without doing any due diligence on each other. If you do an OTC trade or bilateral trade, you have to worry about whether your counter party is trustworthy. On the other hand, when you sell some shares on an exchange, you do not even bother to ask who was the buyer because it does not matter. The whole function of the exchange is to make that question (whom am I trading with) irrelevant and thereby create a national (or even global) market. OTC markets are a cosy club, while exchanges are open to one and all. At the centre of this magical transformation is the clearing corporation that becomes the counter party to all trades (novation) and thereby insulates buyer and seller from each other.

It is this core promise of the clearing corporation that has been called into question by the way this petty dispute has been allowed to fester and linger. A shadow has been allowed to fall on the sanctity of a key market infrastructure. I do not blame the judiciary for this tragedy because the judiciary adjudicates only issues that are brought before it. And it is the money dispute that has come before the judiciary because all the big and mighty entities involved have the wherewithal to hire the best lawyers to argue that this trivial dispute is the most important thing in the world.

The burden of preventing this tragedy lies primarily with the regulator who has the responsibility and mandate to draw the judiciary’s attention to the systemic issues and national interest involved in the smooth functioning of our market infrastructure. A $5 or even $50 million dispute should not be allowed to threaten the integrity of a $2 trillion stock market. As I said, I am not a lawyer, but I find it hard to believe that SEBI would not receive a patient hearing in the highest courts of the land if it made an earnest plea on its statutory duty to protect the investor interest and the public interest. Instead, it has confined itself to narrow legalistic arguments about who has the power to annul a trade and under what conditions. It has allowed the disputants to frame the debate instead of seeking to change the frame of the debate.

US wants to nurture single stock futures

Two decades ago, when India was trying to set up its equity derivatives market, the most contentious issue was that of single stock futures – market participants were keen on this product, while a large group of sceptics argued that the product did not exist in the US and was in fact confined to a handful of countries. It was also thought to be too similar to the indigenous system of rolling settlement known as badla which was somehow thought to be evil. The compromise was to begin with index futures and defer the launch of single stock futures. In reality, the single stock future was the first equity derivative to become successful in India, and then the earlier products picked up with a significant lag. India also became one of the largest single stock future markets in the world while also creating very liquid index futures, index options and single stock option markets. The Indian experience also demonstrated that each of these four markets catered to a different need. For example, my former doctoral student Sonali Jain in a recent paper, along with my colleagues, Sobhesh Agarwalla and Ajay Pandey and myself found that in India, single stock futures play the role that the options market plays in the US for informed trading around earnings announcements. This implies that single stock futures have some clear advantages over options in informed trading.

With this background, I found it quite amusing to read the joint proposal by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to reduce margins for retail investors in single stock futures (see press release and proposal). The US set up a single stock futures market a decade ago, but it remains tiny. The SEC is now very clear about its desire to promote the growth of this market:

The security futures market can provide a low-friction means of obtaining delta exposures, and relatively high margin requirements … may have played a role in restraining its development.

To the extent that the proposed reductions in margin requirements encourage significant growth in the security futures markets, it may, in time, improve price discovery for underlying securities. In particular, a more active security futures market can reduce the frictions associated with shorting equity exposures, making it easier for negative information about a firm’s fundamentals to be incorporated into security prices. This could promote more efficient capital allocations by facilitating the flow of financial resources to their most productive uses.

There is also a degree of anxiety about foreign markets that have stolen a march over the US in this product:

Lowering the minimum margin requirement also could enable the one U.S. security futures exchange to better compete in the global marketplace, where security futures traded on foreign exchanges are subject to risk-based margin requirements that are generally lower than those applied to security futures traded in the U.S.

To make things more interesting, there is also a public statement of dissent by one of the SEC Commissioners. I never thought that a day would come when it would be easier to obtain consensus between the SEC and the CFTC than to get consensus within the SEC. What is striking about this dissent is that it does not disagree with the goal of promoting single stock futures. Commissioner Jackson says:

So [stock futures] can provide a valuable price-discovery function in stock markets and give investors an important way to diversify.

But he is not convinced that reducing margins are the best way to accomplish this goal. He believes that there are many alternatives that could and should have been considered. As an example, he suggests that:

rather than asking us to lower margin requirements, an exchange could simply reduce the contract size for single-stock futures. … reducing contract size could also increase access to single-stock futures for the most popular securities and improve efficiency. … Indeed, one of the most liquid contracts in the world, the S&P E-mini Futures contract, is the product of cutting the classic S&P Futures contract in half.

To me, what is noteworthy is that, in two decades, the world has moved from frowning on single stock futures to trying to nurture them.

Deep fakes in finance?

For the last couple of years, I have been following the phenomenon of Deep Fakes with a mixture of cynicism and disinterest. It is only in the last few weeks that I have begun to worry that this is not something that concerns only a few celebrities, but could become a problem for the financial sector in general.

Last week, I read two things that brought the matter to focus. First was the news report about the fake French minister in a silicone mask who stole millions of euros from some of the richest men of Europe (h/t Bruce Schneier). The minister who was impersonated was quite impressed by the quality of the fake video: “They did a pretty good job. Unfortunately some people fell for it. They did a really good impression of my voice. But no-one can truly pass themselves off as me.”

The second was the following recommendation in the report of the Expert Committee on Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises set up by the Reserve Bank of India under the Chairmanship of Shri U K Sinha:

Presently the KYC process is manual and necessitates a physical presence, thus increasing costs and timelines in completing the required KYC processes. As an alternative to enabling e-KYC, the Committee recommends video KYC to be adopted as a part of digital financial architecture as a suitable alternative to performing a digital Aadhaar-based KYC process towards enabling non-physical customer onboarding. (Box XIV- Video Based KYC in Chapter 8)

It appears to me that we will see more of this: only a handful of Luddites will oppose the use of technology that saves cost and eliminates hassles. However, it is part of the folklore of digital security that you can pick any two of Secure, Usable and Affordable – you cannot get all three. Most market architectures would make the natural choice of Usable and Affordable and de-prioritize Security. Deep Fakes would thus emerge as a problem for mainstream finance over a course of time, but I guess it will (perhaps rightly) be treated as a cost of doing business.

The bankers, by contrast, moved on

I just finished reading Hassan Malik’s book Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2018) which is based on his PhD dissertation. I was struck by the close parallels between the excessive risk tolerance that we are seeing in the world today and the complacency and reaching for yield that Malik documents in international lending to Russia between 1906 and 1917.

In his final chapter, Malik describes the sorry fate of small French investors and Russian technocrats after the Russian default of 1918. He then concludes the book with the line that I have used as the title of this post:

The bankers, by contrast, moved on.

In that respect, not much changed between 1918 and 2008.

Allowing a corporate body to be a director

A few months back, Joseph Franco published a fascinating paper about a commoditized governance model adopted by a small minority of US mutual funds where the entire governance is outsourced to an unaffiliated entity that specializes in providing governance services. (Commoditized Governance: The Curious Case of Investment Company Shared Series Trusts (February 14, 2019). 44 J. Corp. L. 233 (2018) ; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 19-7. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3334701). Franco concludes that this model is merely an interesting curiosity:

Where a board’s role primarily involves organizational, rather than strategic, oversight of an underlying business, as in the fund industry, commoditized governance may prove attractive for at least some industry participants. In contrast, where a board’s role encompasses both organizational and strategic oversight of an underlying business, as is more commonly the case, commoditized governance will not be a successful governance model. Accordingly, and consistent with practical experience, commoditized governance will exist largely as an exceptional, rather than common, form of entity governance.

This discussion got me thinking about a related idea – would it make sense to let specialized unaffiliated corporate bodies (like LLPs, LLCs or private companies) to become independent directors of large companies? (I do not want to contemplate the recursion involved in letting the independent director be another listed company.)

The current model of allowing only individuals to become independent directors is not working well. First of all, most independent directors have quite meagre wealth, and so when things go wrong, investors can recover virtually nothing by suing the independent directors (They gain much more by suing the auditors or other gatekeepers). At the same time, prosecutors and regulators are very keen to punish the directors, and this keenness often depends more on the quantum of the loss and less on the degree of negligence of the director. This means that highly risk averse people would be reluctant to become independent directors. If the only people willing to serve on the board are those with a high degree of risk tolerance, then the companies that they govern would naturally tend to pursue high risk strategies as was well illustrated by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

Second, most independent directors lack the administrative and analytical support that is often needed to challenge management strategy at a fundamental level. Almost all independent directors can only envy the massive support that non independent directors (venture capitalists, private equity firms, activist investors, nominees of the lenders and representatives of controlling shareholders) get from their respective organizations. Unfortunately, these well endowed non independent directors are often more interested in looking after the interests of their respective constituencies, than the interests of the company itself or its shareholders as a whole.

The governance deficit that we observe in some of the largest companies in the US, in India, and elsewhere in the world, is symptomatic of these fundamental problems of the current model of relying on individuals to serve as independent directors. I think there is much to be gained by shifting to a model of incorporated independent directors. This will also make it easier to impose capital adequacy and skin in the game requirements. Valuation metrics in the financial services industry (for example, asset managers and rating agencies) suggest that a large incorporated independent director service provider would command a valuation of 5 – 10 times revenue. If independent directors are paid 0.5 – 1% of profits, and each incorporated independent director serves on boards of 30 – 100 large companies, then the independent directors of a company would probably have a combined valuation of twice the annual profits of a large company. That would represent a juicy litigation target for shareholders who suffer losses due to a governance failure (probably a more juicy target than the auditors). The large franchise value of the business would motivate these incorporated independent directors to exercise a high degree of diligence in performing their work, and would also make them highly sensitive to reputation risk. Would this not be a major improvement over the current system?

Bonds and loans

Banks give loans, while mutual funds buy bonds. Recent difficulties of Indian debt mutual funds in dealing with corporate defaults suggest, however, that these lines are quite blurred. Illiquid bonds are like loans in all but name, and then mutual funds start looking a lot like banks with all the attendant risks. Problems of this kind are not unique to India. The suspension of dealing in the LF Woodward Equity Income Fund run by one of the UK’s “star” fund managers raises similar questions about the difference between an equity mutual fund and a venture capital fund.

Both in the Indian and the UK situations, the core of the problem is that while regulators insisted on mutual funds investing in listed assets, “listed” does not necessarily mean “liquid”. The core premise of an open end mutual fund is that assets are sufficiently liquid that (a) no external liquidity support is needed and (b) a fair Net Asset Value (NAV) can be reliably computed. The problem is that many listed assets do not meet this requirement (and, on the contrary, some unlisted assets might).

In India, we have created a large debt mutual fund industry without paying enough attention to creating a liquid corporate bond market. The result is that much of what passes as bonds are loans dressed up in the legalese of bonds and listed on exchanges which collect listing fees but do not provide worthwhile liquidity.

More importantly, we have not encouraged the creation of a vibrant Credit Default Swap (CDS) market. A liquid CDS market would facilitate the flow of negative information about bonds (through shorting the CDS) and would thus hopefully provide early warning signals about impending downgrades and defaults. Currently, distressed bonds are often valued close to par right up to the date of default, and then they just fall off a cliff.

Unfortunately, regulators in India have been hesitant to allow markets that can speak truth to power, while being very happy to create a simulacrum of a corporate bond market.

Korean derivatives reforms come full circle

Back in 2011, South Korea embarked on a significant clampdown on retail participation in its equity derivatives market which is one of the largest in the world. The result of these measures was to effectively hand over the Korean derivatives market to foreigners. As for protecting retail investors from speculative misadventures, probably the only effect was to divert the speculative energies into bitcoin, exotic structured products and the like. It took the Koreans eight years to realize that the 2011 measures had basically thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Now they are pedalling back furiously and trying to bring Korean investors back into the market. The announcement last week by the Korean Financial Services Commission (FSC) reads like a mea culpa (if you read between the lines).

This episode holds a lot of lessons for India as well as we too have a host of would-be reformers who would love to clampdown on retail speculation in equity derivatives. There is every reason to believe that if they succeed, the results will be similar to that in Korea – the purported cure will be worse than the purported disease.