The benchmark BSE Sensex has soared past 13,500 and most stocks are on fire, but nowhere is the hype as intense as in the realty market. Nearly 80 to 100 companies plan to raise public money and there is a clear vested interest in keeping investor sentiment charged up. As a result, it is difficult to tell the difference between irrational exuberance and brazen manipulation. The stock of a sick company like Nirlon has jumped from Rs 16 to Rs 48 and is hitting the upper circuit in minutes after trading begins, apparently because of its huge land holding in Mumbai; and an active grey market has developed in the IPOs of Sobha Developers and Parsvnath Developers. Meanwhile a regional developer with global aspirations and a foreign partner wants to raise upwards of Rs 1,200 crore of public money. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) tells us, "There are no internal rules regarding disclosure of land banks by realty companies". This was in the context of Sobha Developers which told Sebi that its strategy of acquiring small plots of land made the data about sellers too "voluminous" to reveal all names. It only disclosed "number of sellers, consolidated payments made for land and amount outstanding on location basis". Further, "instead of affirmation to the effect that the land is free from all encumbrances, disclosure has been made about the procedure followed for verification of title deeds and also about status of title on lands". Sobha also has certain private companies as subsidiaries for land holding where two key managers are shareholders. Clearly, all this is difficult for ordinary investors to understand, making realty IPOs an ideal sector for mandatory IPO grading. As Sebi told us, "public issues by realty companies is a recent phenomenon and disclosures in respect of such companies are getting evolved and there is an attempt to constantly improve upon disclosures based on offer documents filed by different issuers".
Sebi's investor fund
Unlike the Investor Education and Protection Fund (set up under the Ministry of Company Affairs), which comprises unclaimed dividends and interest, Sebi's proposed Investor Protection Fund will be funded by fines and penalties that are levied by the regulator. It was asked by parliamentarians if the fines were significant enough to undertake investor protection activities, but the regulator has very little to show. Although it is allowed to levy stiff penalties going up to three times the illegal gain with a Rs 25 crore ceiling, its high penalties were often struck down or slashed by the Securities Appellate Tribunal. Consequently, Sebi collected just Rs 1.72 crore in FY 2004-05 and a mere Rs 62 lakh under end of January 2006. In contrast, IEPF has over Rs 385 crore in its kitty which is transferred to the Consolidated Fund of India (CFI). It usually draws up an expenditure plan of Rs two crore per year and struggles to spend it. SEBI also credits penalties to the CFI. However, it argued to retain the money by pointing out that the newly established pension regulator is permitted to credit penalties levied by it to a Subscriber Education and Protection Fund. Having hiked various fees charged to intermediaries the regulator now has a real incentive to hike penalties as well. Investor Funds are clearly the flavour of the season and the Association of Mutual Funds of India also wants one. It is proposing to pool unclaimed dividends into a corpus and use the interest earned to protect investors. But wouldn't investors be better served if mutual funds examine their systems and ensure that every investor is credited his/her legitimate investment proceeds.
Insurance in overdrive
With the de-tariffing of insurance premia round the corner, insurers have got into a marketing overdrive. They now head the list of pesky marketing callers, hard-selling new schemes or egging customers to switch between schemes. Like the RBI, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA) will soon have to think of mandating a No Call Directory to shield those who dont want to be harassed by marketing calls. From the consumer point of view, relief from incessant phone calls may also reduce through privacy protection rules in the proposed amendments to the Consumer Protection Act. The draft amendment says, "There is an increasing trend of violation of the privacy of consumers. Hence it is considered essential to declare the right to privacy as a separate right.'' Service providers who part with customer information can then be hauled before consumer courts.
When it comes to property deals, retail investors are not the only ones who are in the soup. In Delhi, Ernst & Young and PriceWaterhouse, two among the big four accounting firms find themselves in a property muddle. While the former was the target of last week's sealing drive by the municipal authorities, PriceWaterhouse rushed off to obtain legal opinion on some of its properties and has learnt that there are indeed irregularities in their acquisition.