When it comes to senior appointments at the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi), government bungling is almost a norm. In the past, appointments to the post of Executive Director (ED) have been cancelled after discovering vigilance issues. This time, however, there is a twist in the tale. Instead of objecting to a wrong appointee, three government directors on the Sebi board have apparently kicked up a fuss over the right appointment — a banker, with relevant capital market experience who was appointed ED nearly three months ago. Three of the directors were of the view that although the banker was a part of a panel of three, they should have been explicitly consulted on the specific appointment. What is more, they have all submitted written objections, apparently in consultation with the finance ministry. The action raises many questions. Was this mere ego? Will the board take responsibility for the quality of senior appointees, including obvious failures of competence? How is it that the same board that aggressively objects to an ED appointment has hardly every demanded action or transfers when Sebi’s reputation as a market watchdog is sullied by the poor record of investigation or dubious orders of officers on short term deputation from other cadres?
Now that the Finance Ministry has closed the door on dubious Foreign Currency Convertible Bond (FCCB) and Global Depository Receipt (GDR) issues (by eliminating discounted pricing and mandating domestic listing), it is time to complete the clean up and ask investigating agencies to examine shady issues of the past. Those connected with the issue process provide some interesting leads. Although all small issues are not necessarily dubious, a starting point is to look for tiny issues done through obscure foreign investment bankers. These investment bankers are connected with some European banks, especially one in Portugal and to finance firms in the Mecca of numbered accounts — Switzerland. In most cases, the modus operandi is simple. Companies issue GDRs worth around $5 million to 10 million which are subscribed by fake front companies, financed in collusion with a foreign bank. This is followed by a domestic price ramping operation. The GDRs are then converted and dumped in the Indian market at a substantial profit and the loans repaid. Earlier, corporate leaders believed that subscription to tiny GDRs and FCCBs was promoters’ own money, round-tripping back to India through tax havens. We now learn that a promoter nest-egg abroad is not mandatory. In some cases, the domestic company ‘guarantees’ loans by a foreign bank to overseas fronts that subscribe to the GDRs. This should be easy enough for investigators to verify; meanwhile Sebi can check which FII sub-accounts are dumping small GDRs. Investment bankers also say that dubious FCCB issues are not necessarily small. They talk about a $300 million FCCB that was placed without any genuine institutional investor getting wind of the issue.
Sebi’s discovery and action against an investor who misused the primary market process by opening 6,315 demat accounts to make multiple IPO applications has raised questions about other areas of dangerous abuse. Fingers automatically point to the Permanent Account Numbers (PAN) issued by the Income Tax Department. According to high level IT sources, the number of PAN cards issues is almost twice the number of Income Tax assesses. Obviously, the department does not want to go into details and claims that some people may have obtained a PAN card in anticipation of paying taxes. After all, India has just around 26 million income tax assesses, of which only 20 million actually pay taxes. Businessmen however say that it is most unlikely that people will obtain PAN cards in anticipation. Despite the people-friendly publicity campaigns by the department, Indians prefer not to draw the attention of tax officials until they simply cannot hide their income; otherwise India would have had many more tax payers, especially in the Rs 10 lakh plus income segment.
The central character in the Yes Bank drama is one Roopalben Panchal who apparently has a few thousand demat accounts to her name. Yet everybody is certain that the woman is just a front and there is no notorious Roopalben or Devangiben who have been stirring up the IPO grey market. Even in 1992, several scamsters owned brokerage memberships and investment firms in the names of their wives. In all these cases, even the investigative agencies refused to question the women, since their men informally absolved them of responsibility. In these days, when women are top traders, business leaders, terrorists and suicide bombers this sympathy for name lending must come to an end. The women should be told that letting the men folk hatch scams under their name will be a severely punishable offence. And, our brave men who hide behind accounts opened in the names of their wives and mothers should also be told that they cannot indemnify them after they are caught. Will the Income Tax officials start by checking the tax returns of the two women?