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GDR Robbery - Views on News from Equitymaster
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  • Feb 20, 1998

    GDR Robbery

    We all know about the robbery of 10 million Indian investors by the primary market offerings made by fly-by-night operators in 1994 and 1995. And we all know how many Indian corporates, egged on by naive research analysts (like myself) and greedy foreign investment bankers (yes, that is what many of them are despite the fact that they wear suits and colourful ties!) tapped the international markets with overpriced GDR issues and used that money to buy real estate and bought-out deals.

    But no one in the Indian press or the Indian government talks about the biggest rip-off still being committed by the foreign broking community in the way GDRs are being priced and traded even today. Let's step back a bit in history. It is 1993 and the foreign brokers have begun to enter India. They scream for a seat on the Indian stock exchanges and they continuously flood their foreign investors with horror stories of how crooked the Indian brokers are and how there is no transparency in trading in the Indian stock market. Alarmed at these allegations of fraud (most of which was true), the foreign investors make sure that they make the right noises when they meet the government officials and the regulators: Sir, we are keen to invest in India but will only do so when there is transparency in the Indian markets which we believe will happen when the foreign broking houses are allowed to be members of the Indian stock exchanges.

    So, between 1994 and 1997 the Indian stock exchanges are placed on what must have been one of the most revolutionary changes anywhere in the world. In 3 years flat (a really short time given the scandals in the GDR market) the Indian market goes from complete opaqueness to outright transparency; from yelling and screaming in trading pits to silent electronic blips in air-conditioned rooms. Now, with dematerialised trading the market will move to paperless form in less than 12 months. Whatever the historic perception of the Indian broking community, they must be congratulated for where they stand today. The average spreads on the liquid Indian shares is now less than 0.1% and their brokerage charges to institutions is 0.5%, of which probably 0.3%is due to the finance cost of delivery mechanisms.

    But what of the GDR market? Despite the fact that it is run by foreign broking houses, it is the most illiquid and opaque market in which investors are being taken for a ride! The more liquid GDRs have bid-offer spreads of 10% and some, like Tata Electric have spreads of 25%. Imagine, Tata Power being quoted at Rs 100-125. And when that foreign broking house quotes a price it is usually for small volumes. There are no screens to show what investors are doing or the volumes that have been traded. As one GDR issuer correctly pointed out, the broking house's market maker will first try and ensure that his employer is making money and worry about the investor last! Think about it, the foreign brokers came in and told us to change: we did. But now they run a racket in GDR trading - five years after the first Indian GDRs hit the foreign markets! And the shocking part is that foreign broking houses still highlight the risks of the Indian domestic market and prod investors to trade in GDRs - where they can make a lot of money.

    There are many lessons to the GDR story - and opportunities, too. There is the issue of power: the foreigners imposed discipline on us, can we not now impose their own yardsticks of discipline on them? Or are we happy to be ruled by double-standards? Can we not use this lack of liquidity in the GDR market as an opportunity to allow Indian brokers a chance to market-make in GDRs? Sure, FERA rules will need to be changed but these have been done anyway to allow the issuance of GDRs. Assuming trading in GDRs is US$ 10 million each day and that the foreign brokers make 10% profit on that, that is US$ 1 million profits per trading day is what can be opened up for the Indian broking community. All that the RBI needs to do is to set aside 1%of its fx reserves - US$ 270 million - to be made available to Indian broking houses to trade in GDRs and settle in GDRs for foreign clients. This US$ 270 million - or some such number - can be kept with a custodian bank the same way local shares are given to a custodian bank against GDRs issued. The market capitalisation of all Indian GDRs today is about US$ 3.5 billion so a US$ 270 million pool of money will amount to about 8% of the issued GDRs outstanding - sufficient to cover any inflow-outlfow of US$ on account of GDR trading by foreign investors. If the RBI is worried about losing fx, they need not be: knowing the Indian brokers, they will capture a large chunk ofmarket share and earn fx in spreads and commissions. Foreign investors will welcome this change to enhanced liquidity and transparency and they will finally have an alternative to the GDR market in its present form. The Indian broking community has done a fantastic job in re-orientating their business. They deserve a chance to beat the foreign broking houses at their own game.



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