The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) Chairman M. Damodaran has a way of effecting major changes in regulation and statute without the market getting a whiff of his plans. The move to have the retirement age of Sebi's whole time members hiked from 62 to 65 was one such move with serious long-term ramifications for the organisation. Last week, the mutual fund (MF) industry was informed of a steep hike in fees. Sebi quadrupled application fees to Rs 100,000 and doubled registration fees to Rs 50 lakh. It also moved away from flat filing fees (Rs 25,000) for New Fund Offerings (NFO) to collecting a percentage of funds raised. The decision became known only after it was published through a Gazette Notification making it pointless for MFs to protest. Industry insiders say that they want the Association of Mutual Funds of India to raise the issue with the regulator; some see the new structure as penalising larger and more successful funds. Interestingly, some mutual funds are working on ways to limit the filing fee hike. One trick under discussion is to close NFO offerings within a couple of days, and quickly open the scheme for NAV (Net Asset Value) based subscriptions. It remains to be seen if the industry succeeds in pulling this off, because early closing has its own implications. MFs keep subscription lists open for extended periods in order to be able to garner more Assets Under Management (AUM), which is the only basis of their income. A smaller corpus is probably worse than paying higher filing fees.
Meanwhile, the hate mail campaign against a Sebi Member and Chief General Manager continues unabated. For the last few months, several persons have received scores of vicious letters targeting these two Sebi officials in charge of investigation. The attempt at character assassination refers to specific investigations handled by them and alleges leniency in select cases. It was earlier believed that the letters were emanating from market intermediaries and aimed at discrediting the IPO investigation (multiple applications) spearheaded by the duo. However, the recent spate of letters, through the detail that they contain, make in abundantly clear that it is an inside job. The writers also know that government regulations do not take cognisance of anonymous letters, so each letter has a name and detailed addresses from different parts of Mumbai but no contact numbers or email address. The letters are addressed to the Finance Minister, CBI and Central Vigilance Commission and others. The regulator clearly needs to turn its sleuthing skills inwards and address some of the HR issues apparent in the campaign; otherwise it will create an environment of fear, suspicion and persecution within the organisation. Interestingly, if the letters had any substance, the writers would have followed it up with evidence instead of flitting from one unverifiable allegation to another.
While the once beleaguered steel majors took advantage of the commodity price boom and generous Corporate Debt Restructuring (CDR) packages offered by lenders, Ispat Industries, belonging to the Indian branch of the Mittal family, remains deeply in the red. But insiders say although lending institutions express concern about Ispat's repayment problems, they do little to check its profligate ways despite the board presence of multiple institutions. At a meeting on July 31, 2006, they approved the purchase of a helicopter for around $2 million. Given that its losses are running at Rs 1,600 cr and it is on the verge of a CDR default, the cost of the helicopter will not make a big difference to Ispat's finances, but it reflects a refusal to tighten its belt. Ispat's acknowledged debt is Rs 7,500 cr and the company says it will repay Rs 300-500 cr to lenders this year. This was after a report that ICICI Bank was in favour of asking the Sajjan Jindal group to take over Ispat Industries. sources say ICICI's strategy forced the Mittals to make some quick payments and ensure there is no default in September; especially since two other steel majors have apparently expressed interest in a bank-blessed acquisition.
Last week, a Mumbai newspaper published a picture of a dangerously ripped portion of a prominent promenade held up by a flimsy patch-up wall. The picture was taken at Worli Sea Face, a two-kilometer strip by the sea that is a favourite walking spot for retired cricketers, police commissioners and government secretaries not to mention heads of banks, software companies, multinationals and infrastructure companies. Every year, they watch the raging monsoon sea rip up bigger chunks of the promenade, which is quickly barricaded with makeshift fencing or flimsy walls. But, in over four years nobody has stepped forward to adopt the promenade (except one patch by MLA Sachin Ahir) sea face and make is cleaner, safer or more beautiful for the public. Clearly, all talk about public-private partnerships or corporate involvement in redevelopment comes to nothing if there is no commercial interest involved.