Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Open societies. Closed markets?

There is enough wealth behind him — $7.2 billion was the last estimate by Forbes, where he was ranked 71 among the world’s wealthiest people in 2006 — to get a topline audience in any country. So, it wasn’t surprising to see India Inc sitting up. Soros didn’t quite deliver — instead of the money manager par excellence sharing his investment strategies in the global space, the 75-year-old self-made billionaire-philanthropist talked about subjects as diverse as global warming, George Bush, open societies and his theory of reflexivity.
Soros wants more. Within his greatly successful financial and philanthropic mind there lurks an eagerness to be accepted as a thinker. Many successful women and men live through life and decide the coordinates that have got them their success, try and transplant those coordinates onto others.Unfortunately, it requires more than success to be able to theorise; not many are able to cross the line from ‘successful businessman/investor/philanthropist’ to ‘successful thinker’.

Opinion in The Indian Express, December 20, 2006

Friday, December 15, 2006

It’s never a steel

The undertone among Indian analysts examining the India-based Tata Steel fighting the Brazil-based Companhia Siderurgica Nacional (CSN) in order to acquire the UK-based Corus Group is veering mildly on irrational patriotism laced with irrational exuberance. That an Indian company is there, slugging out billions, negotiating its long-term strategic interests with short-term financing, dealing with private equity majors and global banks to raise equity or debt, while sitting on what looks like a global auction of the Sistine Chapel, is heady.
The pin stripes point to Tata Steel’s potential wealth erosion — higher interest payments will eat into profits, equity dilution will lower EPS; either way, stock prices will fall. And they have: between October 20 when the deal was announced and yesterday, the share price of Tata Steel fell 14.2 per cent in a market that rose 1 per cent.

Opinion in The Indian Express, December 15, 2006

Friday, December 1, 2006

A bill noble and flaccid

The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens’ Bill 2006 that is likely to be tabled within the next 10 days is just a lot of noise. By no reckoning will this one Bill be able to better the lives of the elderly. If intent is missing, no law, rule, regulation can bring any change in the way children mistreat their elderly parents. The not so well off will abandon the past (parents) in favour of the present (themselves) and the future (children). The well off will continue to mirror their poorer brethren and perhaps go a step further, try and squeeze properties and other financial and non-financial assets out of their parents before laying out the path to their graves; many, as we all know, have already turned the lives of their parents, who are no longer seen as economic agents, into living hell that only the Final Journey can soothe.
With about 76 million Indians above the age of 60 today and expected to rise to 112 million by 2016, largely due to rising life expectations and better healthcare, the figure though small in percentage terms when compared with other countries, is large in absolute terms. To put it in perspective, the number of Indian elderly a decade from now will be more than the entire population of Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam, Egypt or Turkey; it will be six times more than Australia and two-fifths of US. The scale of the problem, no doubt, is humungous and India is fortunate to have a demographic advantage today — a third of India’s population was below 15 years in 2000 — an advantage that will ensure that just 12 per cent of India will be over 60 years in 2025 and not a third as in Germany, a fourth as in the US or a fifth as in China.

Opinion in The Indian Express, December 01, 2006

Thursday, November 30, 2006

FDI in higher education needs vision

Before we begin celebrating the opening up of higher education to foreign direct investment as we should --- the Foreign Education Providers (Regulation) Bill is likely to be tabled in the coming budget session of Parliament --- let’s pause. The assumption that universities across the world, from Harvard and MIT to Cambridge and Oxford, are just waiting for the clearance of this Bill to enter India with all their intellectual and financial infrastructure may not quite be realised. What we do see today are liaison offices of two-bit, unknown universities making a pitch that’s part education, part ‘come share the good life’.
That private investment --- Indian or foreign --- in education (primary, secondary or higher) is an aching need is a rhetoric that has been bled to death. Of course, it is needed. It should have happened decades ago. The cost of not doing that is a mediocre teaching infrastructure, where status and financial incentives to a teacher are based on how long s/he has worked for rather than the foremost quality: Quality.

Opinion in The Indian Express, November 30, 2006

Friday, November 10, 2006

Who is a stock? How is a bond? Wrong questions

Every time I think of wealth creation --- defined in my book as turning our sweat into financial comfort, security, independence and finally freedom without sweating further --- I realise just how far we are from it collectively. Talking about the mass affluent, a fast growing category of young, urban professionals carrying money and attitude in their wallets, and houses and cars in their EMIs, this quest to be wealthy has just one hurdle: financial literacy.
There are two aversions that most middle class citizens carry. One, a fear of finance --- when the numbers begin to flow, things as basic as compound interest turn into monsters that blank out understanding. Two, a pride in not knowing --- I wonder where that comes from; probably a corrupted DNA of a pretentious intellectual elite of India (both the rich and the poor are very careful with their money).

Opinion in The Indian Express, November 10, 2006

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Lost: 13,000 chances

When Prakash Karat, general secretary of CPI(M) came to The Indian Express, I looked forward to a heady debate, among many other issues, on why the party is averse to stock markets. I thought, finally, as I drag myself out of the analytical, empirical, logical paradigm, enter the “people”, the “political”, the “national” arenas and revisit my assumptions all over again, I may get a little enlightenment.
I was disappointed. Question: what’s wrong with the stock market? Answer: a paper on the Chilean experience. Question: why not invest in the market if returns are guaranteed? Answer: putting Government funds in the stock market means you are providing a vast source of capital to the corporate sector.

Opinion in The Indian Express, October 31, 2006

Monday, October 30, 2006

Karma of business

The evolution of management, from military to business to personal. Its progression from Taylor’s time and motion to behaviouralists’ mind and commotion, from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the prosperous hierarchy of wants, is now moving from matter and ideas to spirit, using spirit to enrich ideas and matter. If Ved Vyasa’s Bhagwad Gita is replacing Sun Tsu’s Art of War among US executives learning to put “purpose before self”, or realising that karma is a “principle of action” from professors at Harvard, Kellogg, Wharton, as Businessweek reports, it is not a victory of Gita over War or even India over China. It is an enrichment of matter with spirit.

Opinion in The Indian Express, October 30, 2006

Monday, October 23, 2006

From light to wealth

Diwali has just gone by. I really don’t know when a festival that celebrates good over evil --- symbolised by the return of Rama and Sita after their 14-year-long vanvaas or the killing of Narakasura by Satyabhama (Krishan’s wife) --- turned into a festivity of wealth. When for instance, in Hindu homes, Rama and Sita got replaced by Lakshmi; the dharma of justice and righteousness, replaced by the dharma of money.

Opinion in The Indian Express, October 23, 2006

Friday, October 6, 2006

There’s no gilt in wealth creation

At a board meeting in Mumbai last week, the discussion went beyond taking organisational decisions into the future of economic reforms. On top of the agenda was pension reforms. In any such discussion, faces usually light up, ideas begin to stream. But this time, in a matter of a few minutes, the faces were crestfallen, the ideas were conspicuous by their absence. I have yet to see a group of men, managing hundreds of thousands of crores, so pessimistic on the future.
With nobody else left to strike at, they blamed the reforms troika of Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia for backtracking on reforms. They said that despite having icons of liberalisation at the helm of affairs, reforms in the UPA administration have reversed; what the NDA had begun, the UPA has ended. Their conclusion: having reformists is no guarantee to having reforms delivered.

Opinion in The Indian Express, October 06, 2006

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Handling the heights

At around $600 billion or Rs 27,46,200 crore, the total banking assets in India are about the same as the world’s 25th largest bank, the Rabobank Group. India’s biggest bank, State Bank of India (SBI), has assets of $107 billion. Still, it’s only the world’s 84th largest bank its assets are less than 7 per cent of Barclays Bank, the world’s largest.
In a business where size matters most, the Indian banking sector is small and scattered. As on March 2006, there were 218 scheduled commercial banks, of which, the top 25 accounted for about 85 per cent of assets. Of these, 18 have the same owner (the government) and do the same thing, but any move to merge some of them is likely to run into a wall of Left opposition.

Opinion in The Indian Express, October 03, 2006

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Our own Gandhigiri

It’s not his non-violence. It’s not his vegetarianism or abstinence. It’s not even his Satyagraha. And while not undermining their strength and success, I find all these mere outer ramifications of the man’s inner actions. They are an extension, a reflection of Gandhi’s personality, his core. The core itself is one of great conviction, a swadharma — discovered and practised by himself — that led to swaraj, non-cooperation, Dandi march and all the other ideas we saw him wear, ideas that were as simple as his clothes and therefore startling in a complicated world. It is his swadharma, own becoming, that is the key to, and substance of, the man.

Opinion in The Indian Express, October 01, 2006

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Multiplied by Ground Zero

I asked: “How can one say, ‘You’re either with us or against us?’” He answered: “Well, we have.”

On September 30, 2001, as I walked into the world’s holiday destination, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t here on a vacation. Even so, from a tame tour of the US, the Fellowship gathered a momentum of its own, as it attracted senior officials and soldiers from the Government and the military, businessmen, editors, academics, all targeting a new terminology, a new language, negotiating new words - and a new world of terror.

Opinion in The Indian Express, September 14, 2006

Monday, September 4, 2006

Wisdom of crowds, shared

There's something to be said about the saving and investing habits of Indians. Surprising as they may be, they have a logic that remains unseen in the short term, but when you zoom out and see the big picture, that logic, however peculiar, comes to life. Data in the Reserve Bank of India’s 2005-06 annual report released on Thursday is one such and I’m surprised it’s gone unnoticed, unreported.

Tucked away in the appendices are a set of statistics that reveal the mind of Indian investors. The percentage of household savings that went to shares and debentures in financial year (FY) 2006 rose from 1.1 per cent to 4.9 per cent. This 3.8 percentage point increase is the highest over the past six years. And the champagne corks are out in offices of non-UTI mutual funds whose share increased by 3.2 percentage points, the highest ever, though I suspect it’s more to do with smart marketing of NFOs than with great performance.

Opinion in The Indian Express, September 04, 2006

Cash and creed

The interference of religious leaders in softer and short-term issues like who should sing the Vande Mataram or which temple or mosque should be demolished to make way for development has been accepted by Indian society as a given. We are no longer shocked by restrictions on our freedoms governing marriages, processions, education. But when religious leaders issue a fatwa declaring insurance and earning interest on bank deposits as illegal, it’s time to take stock and realise that these fatwas are human interpretations that may corrode long-term security. Darul Uloom of Deoband, which was responding to a query, is looking at money through the prism of religion. I’d like to turn this around and view religion through the prism of money.

Opinion in The Indian Express, September 04, 2006

Monday, August 28, 2006

A meeting of fears

I’M sure the final number will be a multiple of this number, but at this minute I’m aware of 619 kinds of fear. From theophobia (fear of God) to satanophobia (of Satan), it seems for every thing and thought that exists, there’s a fear someone harbours. Often one man’s phobia is another man’s mania — caligynephobia (of beautiful women) or chrematophobia (of money), for instance. Show me a man who’s completely fearless and I’ll show you the face of God.

Opinion in The Indian Express, August 28, 2006

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The best always retire

One of my long-time colleagues never watches business channels, is unconcerned about which companies create wealth, is least interested in business personalities — they’re so boring, he says. So, when he tells me that he enjoyed watching the silver jubilee celebrations of Infosys, and in particular found its executives, notably chairman and chief mentor N.R. Narayana Murthy, “interesting people”, I wondered whether he has finally crossed the line dividing big business from the rest of us. “Not at all,” he says, “they speak a language that is not self-aggrandising, self-promoting. They’re humble and talk about the very big picture and the place of Infosys in it, rather than the other way round.”

Opinion in The Indian Express, August 22, 2006

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Spiritual shorthand

Prophets, messiahs and souls we call ‘realised’ have had a few common mantras — ideas that have transcended civilisations, geographies, histories. These spiritual LCMs (lowest common denominators), while seemingly simple to read and understand, are exceedingly complex to execute. I’ll take just three: ‘Have faith’, ‘Everything happens for the best (EHFTB)’, and ‘Surrender to God’s will (STGW)’. So many generations of Indians have passed on these homilies as truth, without going through the rigour of assimilating them, questioning them. Perhaps that’s why we are such a contented nation, active to a point, inert beyond. Many wear these badges almost as stars and stripes on their shoulders.

Opinion in The Indian Express, August 20, 2006

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Premium league needs a level playing field

The underreported July 7, 2006 circular by The Oriental Insurance Company (OIC) on zero commissions for its Mediclaim policy for individuals over 55 is the result of a typical half-way reforms trap, a three-sided prism that takes the clean white concept of market and colours it in hues of morality, subsidies, social justice. Side 1: reversal of the level playing field argument, being made by an incumbent, state-owned company. Side 2: 40,000 incumbent agents and brokers seeking to revoke their money trails. Side 3: 350,000 policyholders, who need health insurance the most and at the cheapest price. This circular has everything that helps turn reforms into a four letter word. It has more to do with the process of opening up a sector, with the way PSUs are transformed into delivering social justice than with servicing policyholders and investors.
Read beyond the order and you see three questions underlying it:
• Should public sector companies subsidise private sector ones?
• Should the young subsidise the old, the healthy subsidise the unhealthy?
• Should fire or marine insurance subsidise health and motor third party insurance?

Opinion in The Indian Express, August 10, 2006

Monday, July 24, 2006

Faith and growth

Are some religions friendlier to economic growth than others? Do religions influence our economic thoughts and attitudes? Is there a relationship between tolerance of immigrants and religion? Did you think these questions are a waste of time? So did I, until I read People’s Opium? Religion and Economic Attitudes, a paper by three economists, Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza and Luigi Zingales.

Opinion in The Indian Express, July 24, 2006

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Markets react to bottomlines, not headlines

Terrorism and markets make for the strangest of partners, simultaneously in and out of sync with one another. The stock market has its own paradigm (making profits over time), its own logic (buying low, selling high), its own reasons (economic, sectoral, firm level growth). So does the Terror industry—paradigm (create fear over time), logic (fear creates uncertainty in the minds and monies of governments), reason (if I have might and money, who can stop me from reaching my goals?). But try and spot a trend between them or seek a mutual interdependence and your trend lines will mirror INSAT-4C’s flight path.

Opinion in The Indian Express, July 12, 2006

Friday, July 7, 2006

Dharma of money

What is harder --- to create wealth or to give it away? The desire for wealth is really a desire to get into the flow of what Sri Aurobindo defined as the Money Force. Quite like how wind and water are harnessed to create electricity, channelling the Money Force is to turn an intangible, unseen, abstract power, an idea, into matter through the purchase and acquisition of things and availing oneself of services. Just as converting one form of energy takes some doing, earning money is not easy --- we spend the first two decades of our lives studying to get an entry into the money club, the next four decades earning it to finance the last two decades. We fight to get admission into colleges, careers, jobs. Turn into rats. Leaving our little wants and desires and joys and delights by the wayside.

How can we give this away?

Opinion in The Indian Express

Monday, July 3, 2006

Call this divinity?

To speak with even an iota of conviction that Lord Ayyappa’s temple, Sabarimala, has lost some of its divinity because a woman entered its premises and touched the feet of the idol is reflective either of the speaker’s religious arrogance or his self-delusion. In the former case, he has to be shown the earthly, undivine slime he stands in; in the latter, with compassion, he needs to be introduced to a psychiatrist. For, if indeed this man is able to distinguish divinity from non-divinity, he is himself worthy of being worshipped --- only a person who has undergone the great transformation from man to God can dare to comment and tell us lesser beings what is divine and what’s not. Which, again, is granting far too many concessions.

Opinion in The Indian Express, July 03, 2006

Friday, June 30, 2006

Killing death

The man lies sprawled out. Blood flows from his head, down the neck, turning his white shirt crimson. A few little rivulets are drying on his left arm that is stretched towards me, as he lies on the road divider. On the other side, a white car blocks traffic at an angle, beyond it is a motorcycle, mirroring its owner’s plight. A few men stand around the fallen man, studying him. A man with a worried expression, answering questions, clearly defensive. The traffic slows down before me. I honk hard, before reaching the scene. It’s 40 degrees outside but I turn cold when I see the fallen man.

Opinion in The Indian Express, June 30, 2006

State religion? No

Why do countries have a state religion? The answer perhaps lies with Adam Smith who, keeping market dynamics in mind, argued that having a state religion is to accord a monopoly position to a favoured religion, using the two omnipotent weapons that states use to enforce any policy: creating entry barriers and delivering subsidies. The result, he concluded, was that the quality of service and religious participation fall. Two centuries later, as Robert J. Barro and Rachel M. McCleary of Harvard observe in their paper, ‘Which Countries Have State Religions?’, of the “188 independent countries in 2000, 72 had no state religion in the years 2000, 1970, and 1900; 58 had a state religion at all three dates; and 58 had some kind of transition”. As we all know, economists have a nasty habit of breaking down things into a rational-incentive paradigm — people are rational and driven by incentives. Apply that to the study of religion and you’re studying morality from a factual prism, something like an ideal being clouded by facts. In the case of state religion, what’s more interesting is the issue of choice. According to the Harvard duo, this decision is based on a “political calculus that involves interactions between the Government and the religion sector”. The incentives: for the religion, monopoly power; for the state, control over the religious sector. There’s product differentiation too. As they note communist countries and dictatorships avoid state religion to weaken the power of organised groups that would compete with the state, but in theocracies like Iran, the maintenance of an official state religion becomes part of the government’s plan for controlling society.

Opinion in The Indian Express, June 30, 2006

Thursday, June 29, 2006

In giving, Buffet completed the circle of capitalism

After much reflection, the Sage of Omaha has finally passed through the looking glass. And as in creating it, Warren Buffet’s philosophy of giving his wealth remains the same: seeking long term growth of value. His disdain for diversification and all high-cost intermediaries the idea brings with it, his focus on decades rather than quarters in terms of returns, his long term seeking of a charity that will do the “most good” rather than “some good” are direct reflections from his 30-year mirror of investing — more bang for the buck, in this case a ‘social’ bang.

Opinion in The Indian Express, June 29, 2006

Monday, June 19, 2006

Beyond redemption

The war of and over religions has spilled into cyberspace. The Internet hosts some 2.8 billion pages of “god”, 487 million pages of “religion”. You get evangelists, you browse through individual seekers, you meet religious organisations. With so many sites, you might think that finally man is expressing his inmost Truth, sharing his intimate Journey as he evolves to godhood.

Opinion in The Indian Express, June 19, 2006

Clause & effect

Not quite a clause for concern yet, but if property prices fall far enough, trouble lies ahead. Buried deep in the bowels of any home loan agreement is a sub-head that goes, ‘events of default’, within which is tucked away a clause that in English means, if the value of the house for which a loan has been taken falls below the loaned amount, the bank, unilaterally, can demand that the borrower make good the difference, or else be declared a defaulter.

Opinion in The Indian Express, June 19, 2006

Monday, June 12, 2006

Market meltdown shows Mutual Funds run with the bulls, get mauled by the bears

NEW DELHI, JUNE 11 : Take all diversified equity mutual fund schemes. Find out how they fared over various time periods. Crunch the numbers. Put them against the market benchmark, the BSE Sensex. What do you get? A rather uninspiring look at fund managers, experts who we pay about 2.5 per cent of our investment to outperform markets.
Take a look:
• During the past month, when the Sensex crashed by 25.4 per cent, the average fall in 158 diversified equity funds was 28.9 per cent—an underperformance of 3.4 percentage points. Only one out of 10 funds managed to beat the Sensex in this period.
• In the past two weeks, when the Sensex fell by 12.8 per cent, the funds on an average, fell by 16.6 per cent, an underperformance of 3.8 percentage points, with just 16 of 161 funds being able to beat the Sensex. In other words, just 9.9 per cent of funds were able to deliver returns better than the Sensex.
• A study of 161 diversified mutual funds over the past week, two weeks, one month, three months, six months, 12 months and 36 months shows that on an average the funds have been lagging the Sensex in all but the 36-month period.

Story in The Indian Express, June 12, 2006

Monday, June 5, 2006

Four pages of fear

Make no mistake: the moral plank on which Form 2F — the tax form that will replace the current variant — stands is not insubstantial. Despite tax reforms and technology, citizens of all kinds, even the salaried, continue to evade taxes. But going beyond the moral argument, Form 2F, notified on June 1, 2006, is a tool that allows the tax administration to look at salaried perks and expenses from the other side of FBT (fringe benefit tax), introduced last year. Form 2F, therefore, is like a mirror in which tax officials standing behind FBT statements released by companies are able to pin-point employees who show expenses like entertainment, official travel and suchlike and use those reimbursements to run their households.

Opinion in The Indian Express, June 05, 2006

Friday, June 2, 2006

Call off the wild

What else is the financial services industry if not wild? It’s growing at a wild pace. Its first family of product manufacturers and top distributors have been given wild returns through eight-digit salaries and sinful commissions — and nobody’s grudging them that. The returns on equity over the past three years have been wild and insurance companies and mutual funds have benefited immensely as have intermediaries selling their products.

Opinion in The Indian Express, June 02, 2006

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Tails of the unexpected

It took 33 trading days for the Sensex to rise from 10,941 on March 20 to its closing peak of 12,612 on May 10. But in just seven trading days, the Sensex returned to 10,939, falling 826 points on May 18 and 453 points yesterday. We all knew this linear trend had to reverse some time in a market that has jumped four-fold since 2003, doubling in the past 12 months alone and delivering 60 per cent compounded average annual returns over the past three years. But the last two days’ 10.5 per cent fall has been unexpected. To put that in perspective, this 1,279 point Thursday-Friday fall was the value of the Sensex 16 years ago (on September 10, 1990 the Sensex stood at 1,283).

Opinion in The Indian Express, May 20, 2006

Friday, May 19, 2006

Silver lining to cloud: good time to buy

NEW DELHI, MAY 18 : Of course, the conclusion is neither straightforward nor unlayered. But it is directional, it is strategic, it is definitive. For, when you address the fundamental principles of investing in shares or riding it passively through equity funds, the age-old dictum, buy-low-sell-high, comes into play. And at extreme situations like today’s, when the Sensex fell a record-breaking 826 points, closing 6.8 per cent lower at 11,391, you don’t think, you buy.

Story in The Indian Express, May 19, 2006

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Turning Property Into Profits

Would you pay 500 times a company’s earnings to buy its stock? That is, for every rupee the company makes, would you pay Rs 500? To put it in yet another manner, if the company continues to make Re 1 of Earnings Per Share (EPS) every year till perpetuity, would you be willing to wait for 500 years — something like six to eight generations — for returns to accrue? Your answer would probably be, “No way, not when I can get hundreds of pedigreed stocks available at less than a 10th of this value!” You would, therefore, not buy Unitech (PE: 353), you would not touch Mahindra Gesco (305), you would not go near Ansal Properties (113). You would ignore all realty stocks, including DLF Universal’s forthcoming 500 PE IPO.

Opinion in The Indian Express, May 18, 2006

Friday, May 12, 2006

Give us a smash, not a lob, Mr Damodaran

That mutual fund distributors must be regulated is a foregone conclusion. This newspaper has been reporting, analysing, commenting and arguing for the need to regulate this sector of the huge and growing financial services industry for a long time. It included a series of reports, last July, on how mutual fund agents were getting investors to needlessly churn their money. Although it has taken almost a year for SEBI to react, last month it ended this dirty game by changing the rules to stop amortisation of new fund offer (NFO) expenses in open-ended schemes. But that’s just one solved problem; several others remain.

Opinion in The Indian Express, May 12, 2006

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Caste myopia

To ascribe a precise state of consciousness to a particular community, race or religion and fix it into rigid clusters of misery is a needlessly short-sighted look at a vision profound. And India has been suffering from this myopia for centuries. It is today a part of a constitutional mechanism that seeks to “uplift” the socially downtrodden through a series of measures, including reservations, so that India moves towards being an egalitarian state, a nation where equal opportunities are not a theoretical construct but a practical reality.

Opinion in The Indian Express, May 07, 2006

Friday, April 28, 2006

Let’s all share

But for a minor glitch, it could well be one of the best explained, best researched Sebi orders. Released late Thursday evening, this 94,473-word, 252-page order, that attempts to bring credibility and confidence in the capital markets, seeks to track down market and policy manipulators in the IPO sub-sector and hopes to deliver “demonstrative regulatory action”. Unfortunately, since under law all culprits have to be treated alike, the demonstrative impact may be shaved off when some depository and scam participants who have been prevented from dealing in the securities market appeal, the noises of which have already begun.

Opinion in The Indian Express, April 28, 2006

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Fasten your seat belts

Having transited, duty-freed, coffeed, magazined, escalated, trolleyed, parked, taxied in 19 airports across 15 countries, excluding India, I can say with as much conviction as the family across the aisle that Indian airports suck. Just what are our benchmarks, the sheds of Addis Ababa, Kano, Islamabad? Why not the passenger traffic of Atlanta or Beijing, the cargo passage of Memphis or Hong Kong, the duty-free delights of Bahrain International Airport, the country window of the upcoming Suvarnabhumi Airport (Bangkok) and the smell of Starbucks at any international airport worth its airstrip? Not only in India, but across the globe, this humble hub of air travel, the airport, is the Big Story, binding cities and countries, investors and businesses, travellers and workers. Airports affect not just us consumers, but also employees, consultants, customs, immigration, regulators.

Opinion in The Indian Express, April 25, 2006

Fasten your seat belts

Having transited, duty-freed, coffeed, magazined, escalated, trolleyed, parked, taxied in 19 airports across 15 countries, excluding India, I can say with as much conviction as the family across the aisle that Indian airports suck. Just what are our benchmarks, the sheds of Addis Ababa, Kano, Islamabad? Why not the passenger traffic of Atlanta or Beijing, the cargo passage of Memphis or Hong Kong, the duty-free delights of Bahrain International Airport, the country window of the upcoming Suvarnabhumi Airport (Bangkok) and the smell of Starbucks at any international airport worth its airstrip? Not only in India, but across the globe, this humble hub of air travel, the airport, is the Big Story, binding cities and countries, investors and businesses, travellers and workers. Airports affect not just us consumers, but also employees, consultants, customs, immigration, regulators.

Opinion in The Indian Express, April 25, 2006

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why IPOs must not be rated

We have enough problems with the way stocks in general and IPOs in particular are seen and devoured by retail investors. Almost like fast moving consumer goods, IPOs have over the past two years been consumed at the speed of thought — a company only has to announce its IPO plan and it dreams of 100 per cent plus returns for Rs 1 lakh minus investors. The money pours in, the issue gets oversubscribed, and while listing gains have narrowed down and in some cases even fallen, the trend so far has been positive in a market that raised Rs 10,808 crore (45 per cent of all the money raised in the primary market) last year.

Opinion in The Indian Express, April 18, 2006

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Market and mayhem in Meerut

The footage on TV and pictures in papers brought me head on with a past I had left 16 years behind. The same city. The same fire. The same bodies. The same mortuary. The flames claimed anything between 50 and 100 lives. Sixteen years ago, the extent of the inferno was larger, though the bodies were fewer. I had walked the brick-littered streets then; I walked this time on TV. If the Meerut riots on the 1991 election eve were a harsh slap that woke me up from my school-college, carefree-living slumber and introduced the real world, the Victoria Park fire is bringing to life memories of an India that lies beyond the metro malls. If election violence put me off political reporting, yesterday’s fire is a reminder that I can run but I can’t hide.

Opinion in The Indian Express, April 11, 2006

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Today’s PEs, tomorrow’s profits

Beginning next week, corporate results will start streaming in, giving strength to a market that has almost quadrupled over the past three years --- from under 3,000 in April 2003 to over 11,700 today. If a person had invested Rs 1 lakh in the Sensex in 1979, when the index was conceived (it came into force in 1986, but with 1979 as its base), he would be sitting on more than Rs 1 crore today. Which means a return of over 19 per cent per annum.

Opinion in The Indian Express, April 05, 2006

Driving a turnaround

It’s difficult to even imagine, leave alone believe, that the Indian Railways, a Rs 54,700 crore giant, lumbering since 1996, has turned around over the past two years. What turnaround? The stations suck, the trains stink and let’s not even begin to talk about service. Yes, it’s difficult to visualise this turnaround. But if that’s difficult, let me increase the degree of difficulty --- the turnaround has been, and is being, driven by Lalu Prasad, the man accused of driving Bihar aground, single-handedly.

Opinion in The Indian Express, April 05, 2006

On track

A Rs 54,700 crore giant can’t rise up and compete, get customer focussed, generate record-breaking surpluses. An organisation whose costs increase at Rs 5,000 crore per annum, irrespective of whatever else it does, cannot turn around. An institution that has been diagnosed by economists as being in a “terminal debt trap” can’t be reformed. A state-controlled ministry carrying the financial weight of 1,422,251 staffers and 1,152,087 pensioners can’t execute productivity jumps. A perceivably somnolent rail bureaucracy can’t fight for market share from roads and air. Elephants don’t dance.

Opinion in The Indian Express, April 05, 2006

‘We’re only milking the cow’

Tracking Lalu Prasad is not an easy task --- you have to struggle through crowds, through security, through long queues of favour-seekers to get to him. We were lucky to get an inside view of things over the two days that we trailed him across three states in the Railway Minister’s Special Train. Excerpts from a series of interviews with Gautam Chikermane, held at Lalu’s new residence, in his special train, at various rallies and over quiet meals on trains, at stations and in the BNR House, South Eastern Railway’s heritage building on Garden Reach Road.

Interview in The Indian Express, April 05, 2006

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Birth and death

Can prenatal babies understand? Can foetuses learn? Do they know good from bad, life from death? If science and its commercial manifestation of product sales are concerned, the answer is yes. There is a $199.95 prenatal education system in Australia that, according to its sellers, “helps kick-start learning for children still in the womb — by providing stimulating, rhythmic sounds that mimic their mother’s heartbeat. As the rhythms change, babies learn to differentiate the sounds, strengthening brain development”. Biological research is clearly indicating the presence of consciousness in the foetus, apart from life.

Opinion in The Indian Express, April 02, 2006

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

To save the girl child — invest

Like all well-planned crimes, Anil Sabhani and Kartar Singh, both doctors, had only pulled the triggers. The masterminds behind the killings are still walking free. The two good doctors are part of a fast-growing club of medical professionals using technology as a sex-seeking weapon of mass destruction. The duo had a code that would give many criminals a run for their crimes: if parents were told to collect the sex determination report on a Monday, it was a boy; if Friday, a girl. According to the Indian Medical Council, doctors like Sabhani and Singh have killed about 5 million foetuses through abortion; the Lancet puts it at 500,000.

Opinion in The Indian Express, March 29, 2006

Friday, March 10, 2006

Where’ll the Sensex be tomorrow?

Give some time flexibility to the last word — next week, next month, next year — and this headline could well be the most frequently asked question I’ve had to deal with, over the last 14 years or so. People of all hues, across all income groups and ages, in any profession, irrespective of the city they’re in, have asked me this question — the last of them being on a post-budget chat last week at It is the third question I’m asked by total strangers (the first two being my name and job).

Opinion in The Indian Express, March 10, 2006