The chicken or the egg? - The Honest Truth By Ajit Dayal
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Investing in India - Honest Truth by Ajit Dayal
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22 MAY 2008

Philosophers have debated this for centuries.
Mankind has been trying to hunt for its own roots, to search for the meaning of Life? Why were we born? Why are we here?
And then there is the other big question: how did we get here?
If we all came from Adam's rib, where did Adam come from - and where did that special rib of Adam come from?
What came first: the chicken or the egg?

My brother gave me an answer, which is the most logical one that I have heard to date: "The egg," he said matter-of-factly, "because we have it for breakfast!"

Not quite the philosopher, but puzzled by the daily behavioural patterns of a seemingly intelligent race sent to Mother Earth on some Unknown Mission, I enjoy making observations.
And I have discovered a certain pattern of behaviour in New York city that makes me ask my Big question.
What came first: the labyrinth system of bell boys and bell captains and doormen and taxi drivers that populate New York City or the crooked behaviour of Wall Street?

As any visitor to New York will tell you, the city is out to get your money.
You land at the airport and the money-taking begins in rapid earnest.
The taxi ride into the city is loaded with a toll of USD 8 (INR 325) just to enter the Kingdom of Money.
You reach the hotel. The taxi driver waits to get his "tip". If it is anything less than 10% of the fare you just paid, be ready for some abuses.
And since the taxi driver is from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh chances are that you will get a very good idea of his description of your behaviour.

Before you have even allowed yourself to absorb the taxi driver's impression of your family history and the legitimacy of your birth, the doorman turns to you.
"Anything more, sir?" the doorman asks looking at you with his hand outstretched.
He took the bags out of the trunk of the taxi and kept them on the pavement.
The taxi driver, you see, is not supposed to do that. The taxi driver's job in New York city is to get you from point A to point B.
Your luggage is your luggage.
So the doorman stands there waiting for his birthright of a tip.

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Next in line is the hotel bellman. He rambles along with a luggage cart.
"Good afternoon, sir", he greets you with enthusiasm, "how are you doing today?"
I am about to tell him that my day was quite fine till I landed in New York, paid toll to enter the city, got abused for giving the taxi driver a tip that seemed good enough for me but not good enough to pay the taxi driver's down payment on his next condo....but, before I can get my thoughts together, I find myself at the reception area, waiting to be checked in.
"Jim will take care of you from here, sir", said the bellman, not moving till I pay he required toll for him to get away from me.

Jim ambles along and takes the cart from the previous bellman, "Whenever you are ready, sir."

I get the gist of it by now and know that there will be another tip that I have to pay to see the bags in my bedroom.
I lean over to the receptionist and ask them to change a ten dollar bill: I figured I would need the "singles" (the one dollar bills) to pay all those tips.

After an estimated USD 19 in tips and tolls, I am in my room - with my luggage.

And that is only for starters.
Every restaurant adds a "suggested tip" to their bill which is usually 15% of the bill amount.
No matter how good or bad the service is.
The waitresses, the bar tenders, the doormen, the bellboys, the taxi drivers get their tip.
It is their birthright.
The "compensation structure" is designed that way.
Now, I don't wish to discourage not-so-rich people from making money and trying to get rich.
And I recognise the effort that goes into most of those jobs and the desire to earn a living.
But there seems to be a similarity in this New York pay structure and that of another species that lives in New York.
Namely, the CEOs and finance folk who dominate Wall Street and the financial companies.
They, too, get paid "extra" for a lot of doing nothing "extra".

Think about it.
The financial services industry has built its "compensation structure" to take a lot of money from those they serve and have added layer upon layer of costs as their service fee.
Take the home loan industry.
Since the year 2005, the banks were willing to give loans to buy a house many Americans could not really afford.
To make it really affordable they gave you the loan really cheap.
To process your application they charged you a "processing fee" usually USD 350
Then they took bundles of loans - like the one they gave you - stacked them all together, and sold it to some investor.
They got a processing fee for doing that, too. About 0.25% of the loan amount.
Then their sales teams charged some kind of distribution fee for selling it all around the world, including to the specialised mortgage funds and pension funds that bought these low risk assets.
Oh, yes, and to assess the risk they paid a credit rating agency a fee. That was passed on as a cost to the end buyer.
And when these assets were traded and actively bought and sold, these financial firms earned a nice trading and brokerage fee.
Sometimes they gave a line of credit to the end buyer to buy these assets and that line of credit also came for a fee.
Eventually, when these assets began to get recognised as sub-prime, they went to the central banks of the world and said, "Sorry, gentlemen, we are actually sitting on some pretty big losses and if we take all these losses on our books, we will be bankrupt. And that would not be good for the financial health of the economy, would it?"

The central bankers and overseers of excess (many of them had worked in the finance industry, most of them waiting to retire as Special Advisors to these same finance companies they regulate) nodded in silence and decided to "guarantee" the health of these bad assets.
If your future employer goes bust, who will give you a job?
The act of printing notes has "saved" the finance companies.
And guess who pays for the printing of those notes?
You do, Mr Sucker in main town, middle America.
Your tax payer money is going to save Wall Street.

And, although not yet reported as yet, I can imagine these same banks and investment banks that created the mess, charging the Federal Reserve and the central banks around the world a fee for suggesting the rescue and bail out package!

Isn't that a wonderful "compensation system"?
Wall Street generated big bucks in salaries and bonuses to "create, distribute, and trade".
When the trades went bad, they passed on the sour assets to the central banks and the tax payers.
They kept their mansions and their money and their bonuses.

So, I wonder as I sit numb in my room in a New York hotel, what came first: the attitude of "give me a tip" from the millions of ordinary New Yorkers living ordinary lives - or the attitude of "take the money" from the tens of thousands of racketeers on Wall Street?

Which was the Original Sin?

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Note: Ajit Dayal, the author is a Director in Quantum Information Services Private Limited and Quantum Asset Management Company Private Limited. Views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author and may not be regarded as views of the Quantum Mutual Fund or Quantum Asset Management Company Private Limited or Quantum Information Services Private Limited.

Mutual Fund Investments are subject to market risks. Please read the offer documents of the respective schemes before making any investments.


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