Monday, January 26, 2009

60 years of the Indian Republic

India, Indian, Indianness. These words ring out in Desi communities the world over. Throw a Desi in a foreign country, he becomes successful. I am serious. We have one of the most successful 'diaspora' community in the world. Of course, we are not as omnipresent as our Cheeni bhais and behens, but we make it wherever we go. Indira Nooyi, Vikram Pandit (never mind current Citigroup fortunes), and the lodestars of Silicon Valley - Kanwal Rekhi, Rajat Gupta, Vinod Dham, Vinod Khosla, Sabeer Bhatia, all Indians. Kinda makes you feel proud. It goes on, Kalpana Chawla, L N Mittal, blah blah blah.

So what's the big deal? A bunch of Indians got out of our country, made it big and got covered in papers all these years. I may sound cynical when I ask, what is wrong with the Indian system, that these Indians chose to flourish outside the country. And what's the big deal with the patriotism, since we still don't have cleanliness, orderliness, discipline on roads, courtesy, more effective government. We need overall growth and not just growth of pockets, and an upgrade on the happiness quotient of the people. We still need better infrastructure, reduction in poverty, need to hold on to our intellectual capital, need true globalization, in the sense that people across the world must be as enthused about coming to India as Indians are to go out. So there are chinks in the Indian system, and so, we have greats developing outside, but not in India. But my take is that the Indian system is such that it teaches you how to struggle and work hard. So when thrown into a population that has thrived on prosperity (and has been fed the complacence tht accompanies prosperity), like the west, Indians stand out.

Our biggest USP - English and Math. I have seen kids in the west petrified of math. I have seen cashiers in stores in North America who can't calculate $100 - $37 mentally and tender out change if you give them $102. (We in India do that all the time!) English - we speak it with ease and so clients feel at home while dealing with us. China is ahead in terms of the math, but the lag behind on the English. But what do we have that China doesn't? We are a Republic. Constitution, democracy, bicameral legislature, democracy again. Granted, we may not have the most mature democracy, and it still may be years before we see an Obama fairytale in India, but we are getting there, and we eventually will, I am sure. And the power to choose who rules us, is immense, because it just means that we have the power to chart what we want to do.

We can feel proud of our Olympic Gold last year, Vish being the Chess World Champion, Tendulkar being the best cricketer in the world, Chandrayaan, Slumdog and A R Rehman. But if you look closely at the Indian success stories, they have all been personal dreams and personal achievements. Imagine what can happen if all 1 billion Indians develop a dream to make India the next superpower, and actually work towards achieving it? Happy Republic Day....

The Audacity of greed

'These are extraordinary times and they call for swift and extraordinary action' Man of the moment, Barack Obama made this statement this morning at the White House, while discussing the need for energy independence. America is now on the threshold of being the leader of energy thrift going forward. As a person watching the economic crisis from the sidelines, albeit apprehensive, that the rapidly unfolding mess, which shows no signs of having been completely unraveled, I can only watch, and watch with hope that the measures being taken by various economic superpowers to try and extricate the world from depressed gloom might actually work.

But every now and then, there are reports of how the top management of big firms squandered precious money, and how these excesses would have practically gone unnoticed, had it not been for the economic crisis.

Topping the list is John Thain - Merill Lynch CEO, who spent $1.2 million to redecorate his new office. His splurges include - $2,700 for six wall sconces, $5,000 for a mirror in his private dining room, $11,000 for fabric for a "Roman Shade”, $13,000 for a chandelier in the private dining room, $15,000 for a sofa, $16,000 for a "custom coffee table", $18,000 for a “George IV Desk", $25,000 for a "mahogany pedestal table", $28,000 for four pairs of curtains, $35,000 for something called a "commode on legs", $37,000 for six chairs in his private dining room, $68,000 for a "19th Century Credenza" in his office, $87,000 for a pair of guest chairs, $87,000 for an area rug in Thain's conference room and another area rug for $44,000, $230,000 to his driver for one year’s work, $800,000 to hire celebrity designer Michael Smith, who is currently redesigning the White House for the Obama family for just $100,000.

He apparently signed off on a check for $3000 for labor for replacing the light bulbs on those sconces! It is appalling, since Thain (ex-director of NYSE and former Goldman Sachs employee) was the man appointed to turn Merill's futures around. Yup, turnaround alright! From bad to non-existent! Hurried bonuses for top executives, not disclosing the full measure of the rot to Bank of America before the buyout, and grossly stupid excesses define the Bank of America - Merill Lynch union!

This is just one case. Just before the Street came crashing down, at the start of 2007, Todd Thomson was ousted as head of wealth management at Citigroup since tough times called for cost-cutting and Todd's excesses came out into the open! Apparently the office boardroom, which was almost exclusively used by Thomson, had marble flooring and polished wood cabinets. His main office had a house for Flipper, which is fine, except that it was a tropical fish-tank. The office took on a more Forrester Creations look with Persian rugs and a giant wood-burning fireplace. Mr Thomson also ruffled angry feathers with his use of the corporate jet, relegating other executives to 'cheaper' transport, (which I am sure would have been nothing short of First Class on some high priced airline) for the return leg of a visit to China so he could travel alone with CNBC's Mario Bartiromo. Excesses indeed!!!

Next - AIG. CDS took AIG under. And while AIG went sputtering, gasping for help, 70 employees had been rewarded with a week-long stay at the luxury St Regis Resort in California. The bill? $440,000. And look at the audacity of greed (good title for a new book... I stake my claim on that title) , a week later, it came out into the open that the company was planning another trip – but executives cancelled that one.

Finally (hopefully) - Bear Stearns. This story just is the crown jewel of the excesses saga. Jimmy Cayne, long standing chairman of Bear Stearns, wanted to be Tiger Woods one day! He stressed more on Golf practice, and seldom ever came to work on Fridays. When I hear about investment banking jobs from my friends, I get the picture of 20 hour workdays, ears stuck to the phone, fingers glued to the blackberry, divorces, what not! But 'let the company go to hell while I play golf', seems like a fun occupation for earning 8 figure salaries! Even working days called for golf. Manhattan traffic? well, there's no one up in the sky! Helicopter rides to the green - well, golf was an addiction indeed. Nero fiddled while Rome burnt. Well, Cayne putted when BS went under. Apparently when two of his flagship hedge funds toppled, Mr Cayne was very much on course, I mean the Golf course! And when BS finally said goodbye, he was at Detroit at the North American Bridge Championship. Much like the case of old man Thain. While Bank of America implored Congress for additional taxpayer bailout, with Ken Lewis working overtime to resolve the mess, each day discovering new black holes, which Mr Thain had never mentioned, Thain was busy skiing in Aspen Colorado!

India is seeing its worst disgrace ever. Satyam, one of India's largest IT services provider has been embroiled in a dirty fraud. Latest news says 2 PWC partners in India have been put behind bars along with the perpetrators - B Ramalinga Raju and his brother Rama Raju. The fraud? Siphoning funds from the publicly listed Satyam (shareholders' money) into Ramalinga Raju's son's firm Maytas, while falsely depicting augmented cash and reduced debts. Sounds Thainy to you? Very much indeed, except that Mr Raju unfortunately has a prison loo at his disposal.

Extraordinary times bring out extraordinary stories indeed.....

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

With a little over an hour to go for the Oath of office of America's 44th President, Barack Obama, the deep significance of the moment, does indeed deserve a thought or two. The weight of the post of the President of the United States, need not be described. Suffice it to say that it is THE MOST COVETED POST in the World. And when a quiet, unassuming man who has a Kenyan parentage actually undertakes the journey and makes it to the end, it seems like a fairy tale. Abraham Lincoln was the father of the Civil Rights movement. He took the bold steps for slave emancipation, an thus earned himself his rightful place in history. Martin Luther King wanted equal rights, the right to vote and be called equal citizens of a variegated America, to be treated with an ounce of respect at least. And from that modest request, America, in an astounding way voted for her first non-white President. In a country where affirmative action begins from refraining the use of the term 'Black', in a highly progressive manner, even predominantly 'white' states voted hugely in his favor. Such were the times, such were the circumstances. America, and indeed the world have been witnessing the gory side of capitalism that borders on and at times is engulfed by greed. Job losses keep rising by the minute. Years of gnarled banking and finance have started a painful tailspin, wherein the Big Daddys of Wall Street are wiped out, without a trace. Billions are being lost at the same time on a war that is globally perceived as being wasteful.

At such a time, Obama offered change. The chance to break free from the current methods and herald in a new beginning. In a very smartly designed campaign that reached grassroots and literally enfranchised the citizens of America, Obama promised the dawn of a new beginning. Not just for the millions of African Americans, but for the everyday common man American, who was afraid for his job, afraid for his ballooning mortgage, tired of the war, and desirous of change.

But even in his wildest of dreams, the reluctant Democratic nominee would not have imagined the toxicity of his inheritance. He would never have imagined the depth and breadth of the mess he was getting to manage. And he has a very difficult task cut out for him. Look at the nearly 2 million people gathered on Penn Avenue chanting the Obamanthem - YES WE CAN. Obama, through his measures and policies is answerable to these million hopes, to the billion hopes watching worldwide. People have traveled from California, Atlanta and even Bahamas, to watch this man take office. They stand braving -20 degrees in cold, with the flame of hope in their eyes. And therein lies the unease. My most memorable dialogue from the Spiderman movie was 'With extreme power comes extreme responsibility'. That holds true here, with the only difference being that in this case, with extreme responsibility comes extreme scrutiny and the burden of matching up to expectations is a daunting task indeed.

So for this uneasy head, the billions of citizens of the world wish Mr Obama THE VERY BEST OF LUCK.... Less than one hour to go.............

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My take on the Slumdog phenomenon

First things first. This is not my review of Slumdog. This has been an opinion I have been wanting to write for a very long time. I saw Slumdog Millionaire a while back, and I must say it is a brilliant movie. When it won a slew of Golden Globes, I was highly impressed, as were a whole bunch of people. I felt the music, the screenplay, why the movie itself was brilliant, and the kudos it received, was amazing.

One of my friends pointed out a blog by an Indian, who had slammed the movie and called it a typical western movie. My friend guessed that I might agree with what that blogger had to say. And my take is this. On an absolute scale, this movie is brilliant. The way it has been taken, of every question's correct answer being related in some way or the other to Jamal's life is cinematographic excellence. The 'Rama's weapon' question, is blunt. The hard hit behind the knowledge of the correct answer takes your breath away. At some places the string binding the boy's life to the question's answer goes slack. Like the 'Cambridge Circus' question. However, as a concept, I must say that the movie is gripping and decidedly well taken.

Now the things I didn't like. India is really not a shitty place. And no one is such a huge fan of a filmstar to want to jump into his own poo, just to see the star and get an autograph. The extreme portrayal of filth and dirt in Mumbai, does not do justice to Maximum city. Second, the love story was insipid. According to me, the two looked more like thick friends than anything else. Never once was a look of love visible in either of the two protagonists.

That said, I have mainly two comments. One, if Indians feel that this is a gross affront to Indianness, I'd say, personally I think, NO. Begging cartels are a reality, and it takes a hard hitting reality check to actually get the wheels of action moving. And the bias of the 'pseudo-affluent' towards the humble chaiwallahs, is an undercurrent, not just in India, but the world over. Marie Antoinette is a phenomenon everywhere. But the one thing that really irks me is the fact that almost everyone wants to dwell upon the dirty, awful part of India, which according to me, and I must agree with the Slumdog slammers here, is a little over the top. I feel, and this has been my take for a very long time now, that between every 10 'India dirty' movies and books, let us have at least one book or movie that can portray the India as we see it - vibrant, lively, brimming with hope and progress as well. Face it. I live in India, and I see not just slums and filth, but a lot more - Democracy, safety on streets, festivity, cultural vibrancy and so much more. And I feel that once the media, and the ones that fete art begin to like and applaud Hopeful, Happy India with the same zeal that meets Dirty India, me and also a whole bunch of those who felt that Slumdog was crappy because it was anti Indian, will feel that India is being given her rightful due.

Friday, January 16, 2009

It's always relative!

A friend of mine who belongs to Chennai was going to Delhi for a meeting this week. From the grimy ever hot climate of Chennai, he was going to single digit winter temperatures in Delhi. He 'Facebooked' "Petrified of going to Delhi. Its too damn cold." I saw the snippet, and smirked to myself. Here I am, at -23, enjoying the weather. The cutest part is, no one's on the streets, and there is a scary lull. The branches are still, the sun is bright, almost blinding, and the minute you open the door for the paper, it hits you in the face. Go out and stand, for more than 3 minutes, your nose freezes, tears come out, and your hands get numb. In spite of a fleece, a parka and leather gloves. The cold creeps in.

I came into the house, and over a cup of piping hot tea, turned on my computer. A caption on Yahoo, says - the 5 Coolest Places in the World. Juxtaposition, Ding indeed!!!

After reading this, I said " I craved for shoes, till I saw a man with no feet". I then sent this article with this caption to my Chennai friend, in a mail that said, 'It's always relative'. He then, boldly decided to go to Delhi with no woolen clothes!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why Mumbai is rude on the roads - an after thought

Yesterday I wrote about an old survey that proclaimed Mumbai the rudest city on earth. I wrote that I agreed with the fact pointed out by many Mumbaikars that the criteria used to judge the cities was too 'western'. A couple of people commented that amongst other cities, Mumbai is a lot more 'sophisticated'. Agreed again. But that said, I ask, of what use is it to compare oneself with those worse off than you? Why not look ahead and try to improve?

Now comes the deal. I thought, where does such a huge difference in road culture come from? Rather why? Is it something in or culture? I guess not, since the first human civilization was Indian - the Harappan civilization. And I guess the lack of civility and politeness is what we're talking about. And then this happened. The other day, a coffee in hand, I got into a friend's car. Talking as usual, we kept driving. At a light, she looked in my direction, and I saw her face turn scarlet. Well, not really red as a beetroot thing, but she asked me to 'please belt up'. Expecting a display of some F1 racing driving skills, I played the joke, saying, "You can't drive that fast!!" At which she said, " Well, if I get caught or seen by the police with an un-belted passenger, my points increase, which means, my insurance premium will be raised. Here I am fighting to retain my job with a mortgage to pay down, the last thing I need is a heightened premium because of an un-belted Indian tourist!"

Oops! I sheepishly belted up and looked straight ahead. (She promised to get me a short mild tomorrow to atone for the loss in temper. Yay!!) But then, since we're on the topic of driving and culture on roads, I thought that maybe people are unruly on roads, since no one will subject the errant drivers to punitive action. An uncle of mine greatly disapproved of my driver's license. He said, "You may be a sterling driver, but on Indian roads, you have a bunch of baboons with blinkers behind the wheel. It's they I am afraid of, not your driving acumen. Perhaps we need to introduce a 'No driving without insurance' law as well, by which our traffic could also perhaps be a lot more responsible.

Ultimately, we are all primates, and primates understand the word of the whip. Many people don't shovel snow from their front yard. The result - snow becomes ice an ice can be awfully slippery. Postmen and other delivery people fall, and sue the state, the resident, whoever. The resident enters into a painful trial, at times back-suing the state, for faulty winter gear provided to the postmen! A measure suggested by the Canadian Government - fines to be imposed if anyone leaves snow unattended.

Eco-friendly regulations. Till the time, that no regulations were in place, people never carried shopping bags to malls. It was the omnipresent plastic bag that flew off cash counter hooks. Till the time people were urged to care for the environment, their eco-friendliness was contingent on convenience. A five cent cost per bag, suddenly brought out all old shopping bags and discarded carts.

But then again, only policing may not be the panacea. Consider the skiing season in Canada this year. 8 people died in a massive avalanche attack in BC. The people and the families held police authorities and the resort authorities responsible. Later sources revealed that the tourists were skiing in 'avalanche - danger' marked areas. Could such a tragedy have been averted if the people had been a tad more responsible? Perhaps. The resort people later said, 'how much or how many can we police? People need to realize that they have families waiting at home.'

It is up to us to weigh the options, and wonder about what we want. Whether we need to lose mental peace each time we step out on the roads, expecting self-regulation, which almost always is a matter of convenience or look for very strict policing in matters that rob our peace. Understanding what we Indians are like (social mores blah blah blah), I guess the latter would only work. What say?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How rude - Mumbai in retrospect

In 2006, there was a survey conducted by Reader's digest, wherein Mumbai was voted the rudest city in the world. At that time, I was up in arms against the survey, since I am a die hard Mumbaiphile. I detest anyone who says anything bad against my city. Yes, we are a crowded city, that is bursting at its seams, our infrastructure is creaking, but we are the city of dreams, and the city where dreams come true.

Ok, I'll stop the rhetoric and get to the point. When that survey came out, I was miffed, since I have lived in Mumbai and know its essence. I know that when someone is rushing to catch the jam packed 7.23 local to CST, its either this train or no train for another half hour. Its either this train or another 'bumboo' from the mean boss. Its either this train or 'kids asleep when I get home late'. At such a time, expecting someone to help the reporter with papers, is insane! Likewise, the holding the door open funda is not a norm, mainly because one, there are hardly any public buildings, and second, the public buildings, have no doors. Our shops have rolling shutters, no doors, and the ones that do have doors are air-conditioned, and so, by typical Indian norms, aer visited by the 'genteel - Duniya Dekha' class. And finally, the shop keeper smiling funda. Just today I spoke to a friend who was in India on a vacation, and he spoke about how he chatted with a Parsi 'uncle' - actually the owner of the tea shop he'd visited. I have gone to so many shops and made purchases, and each time, my thank you was reciprocated with a smile or a nod or a kind word. Then again, I have been to shops in the 'more polite' countries, where since the clerk has apparently had a bad day, my rather large purchase doesn't get even a small hint of a smile.

Now why am I writing about a survey that came out two and a half years ago? Scores of Mumbaikars gave their 2 penny worth soon after the event. But like they say, if you truly like something, be the first to point out faults. So, on the face, I agree with the general population that the criteria selected for judging politeness was flawed, since it failed to consider Desi/ Eastern behavior and societal mores. That assumed, here is my take. Mumbai is rude on roads. Congestion, perennial construction, pollution, crowds, whatever the reason may be, the rudeness is present.

A few things I really found sweet about other countries is the amount of 'bhaav' given to pedestrians. Like in Japan, on main roads, people halt, to give way. Pedestrians seldom ever break a signal, but in spite of that, the politeness is present. In a place like Canada, in winter, a pedestrian is of paramount importance. Motorists wave you ahead, if you stand on a sidewalk waiting to cross. If I am hunting for place to park in a mall parking lot, someone who is leaving, waves to me and says - 'I am leaving hold on'. Two cars on the road, if one is faster, the slower one dips the lights to say 'move on - I won't cut'. And once the move is done, the faster car driver looks up into the mirror and gives a subtle nod. Oh and if you honk, it is assumed that you are in distress, much like the 'Bachao' of Hindi film heroines.

Take Mumbai. If you don't honk, your horn is broken. I may be at the traffic light, which just turned green a second ago. I hear a series of painful honks behind me. Hello!!! I don't drive an F1 car, I don't have launch control. Besides, people fail to understand, that a traffic light in Mumbai is the last place one would want to fall asleep in! Parking ethics - how do you spell that? I will park at 90 degrees to the road, because someone in my car needs to get down, and he/she will not walk two steps. The person will get down at the gate! - Red carpet celebrity to a temple indeed!!! Lane cutting - you can never enjoy a drive in peace. Taxi drivers will swoop in from anywhere and everywhere. For them, all road's a lane, and they epitomise the ultimate level of concentration. They only look straight ahead, and don't care who's at the side. They can never drive in one line. One day, when the traffic lights conk off, there's chaos. Elsewhere, a free left or right turn is commonplace. If I am cutting into opposite direction traffic to take a left, the drivers and the incoming traffic are disciplined and cautious enough. In Mumbai, even turns with signals meet with a blaring horn from some errant party or the other.

Exasperating indeed! I generally prefer to drive with earphones on, so that its Yanni and not some pig snorting horn in my ears while I drive. I once mentioned it to my Delhi friend who is now in the US and she said, "You are such a cribber. Mumbai has the most disciplined traffic in India, and yet you complain" Ahem... I guess... I complained for new shoes until I saw a man with no feet......

Oh and here is the article on the Reader's Digest survey.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Yippee for India at the Golden Globes....

Yay! Slumdog Millionnaire was a huge winner at the Golden Globes. At last something is looking up for India.

This movie was shot by a foreigner, but starred an Indian crew. It was shot in Mumbai, but won accolades outside. It was a foreign film with an Indian soundtrack. A foreign director with Indian actors.

The win is in line with the storyline, in line with Indian cinema as well. Sweet dreams bordered by destiny, fighting odds, but leading to happy endings. The movie is essentially Indian. We fight, we fight the system, the enemies, the corruption, the sorrow, the poverty, but we win. We win in terms of happiness, culture quotient, hope and survival. This movie is that spirit captured on celluloid.

And a win for the music score (completely Indian with Mr Rahman making desi music - Thank you sir, you have made India truly proud), the director and the best movie of 2008, is a promising ray of hope for Indian cinema, and definitely India. After all, this is an Indian story of an Indian dream, shot in India with Indian actors, Indian music, and based on a book written by an Indian. This was one highly deserved victory, and one highly celebrated one as well. Cheers to India.

Just an afterthought - If Danny Boyle could manage to make a movie that was Indian in all respects, couldn't we Indians make a 100% Desi movie, complete with an Indian director? I mean I am happy about this win, but that kind of a win, might make a billion Indians ecstatic!

These awards truly feted talent - Kate Winslet for the Reader and Revolutionary road - a highly talented actress, who has always been eluded by golden statuettes, Slumdog Millionaire, and of course the man with the Golden Touch - Steven Spielberg who was given the Cecil B Demille award.

And finally - one thing caught my eye at the end of the ceremony - the Golden Globes are 'audited' by E&Y - a Big 4 accounting firm. So wow! The Big 4 cover everything - from fraud to the Golden Globes - Inspiring stuff indeed.........

This was one happy way to write my hundredth post at The Lilac Avenue!!!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

India's Madoff - Made off with the millions - but how???

Satyam is a rude shock. In ways more than one. There are some key questions everyone wants to ask. Some key points that Indians need to ponder. This whole fiasco can be described in a few short stages. Satyam, a listed IT company wanted to acquire huge stake in Maytas, which is owned by the Satyam Chairman's sons, without so much as a shareholder consent. After investors raise hue and cry, the deal is called off, but an even bigger can of worms is opened, after a startling confessional by Mr Raju, about massive fraud in their books, causes India's fourth largest IT major to collapse like a pack of cards.

The key points to ponder here are first, how did seemingly independent directors approve unanimously the Satyam - Maytas deal? Did everybody forget that every shareholder whether he holds a million shares or just one share, is still an integral part of the investing body and has a right therefore, to know what is happening to his money? Second- what was the role of PWC? It is indeed one of the big 4 and it has a massive reputation and an even bigger credibility to live up to. Was it condoning the massive fraud? If not, then how did Satyam (whoever may be involved - CEO or CFO or Chairman or anybody) cook up such a fairy tale balance sheet. And manage to pull it off for not one or two years but 10 years??? Most importantly, how did auditors find evidences for the non-existant Rs. 5040 CRORES and the non-existent accrued interest of Rs 376 crores and the non-existant debt of Rs 490 crores????? And, how did they not find evidences for a liability of Rs.1230 crores?

We can consider this scam to be the worst in years, almost to the scale of the Madoff swindle! And, somethings need to be addressed and acted upon very fast. First, we would need to understand how such dubious figures were concocted. ICAI would need to rework the accounting rules to prevent frauds of this scale. Extreme freedom to capitalism leads to greed, as it happened in the US in the run up to the credit crisis, and extreme regulation will lead to a contrived economy like that of China or erstwhile USSR. Clearly self - regulation with independent directors need not necessarily imply a clear, transparently governed corporate entity. A certain degree of government interference is needed. In the case of Satyam, the FIIs dumped shares to express disapproval, and hence the Satyam-Maytas deal fell through. But is the retail investor and indeed the FII as concerned in case of all other listed firms? Case in point Sterlite's attempt, in September 2008, to transfer the high-quality aluminum business and merchant power to Malco, in return for the low-quality, high cost, copper Konkola mines, going through without shareholder approval. Does that mean that only Satyam lost out for not having been smart enough???? Morbid indeed. And finally, what does this bode for Indian IT? And indeed for India, since although this scam is compared to Enron in US, its impact will be far more debilitating to India than Enron was for the US, since IT is India's primary key to growth and economic success.

Here is my summary of the whole Satyam story so far - Satyam Saga.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Of frauds and scandals - Wrong thing at a wrong time

It wasn't a premonition that made me write about Satyam yesterday. But it is a demolition that has made me write today. Satyam, one of India's strong IT firms has reported fraud. Fraud of the first kind. Reported cash where there was none, and reported under exaggerated spending figures. Wait, it got worse. This has not been a trend of the past year or two, but of the past 10 YEARS! And the worst part is - PWC audited them and Satyam was ranked one of the top 50 companies of all time in corporate governance. Well, a rude shock indeed.

When the world is reeling under a credit crisis, stock markets are spiralling to hitherto unknown depths, the mayhem is spreading to other sectors after affecting manufacturing and housing, unemployment in the West keeps augmenting, general investor sentiment is to hoard cash under the mattresses, the world needs some strands of hay to cling on to! Unfortunately, now, since freely flowing credit has dried up, all the skeletons are coming out of the closet, much like the bones on a riverbed can be seen during a hot summer as the river dries up! First - Bernie Madoff - a classic 'iski topi uske sar ' story. Remorseless profiteering, using unfair means. Now, Satyam, whose woes began with a crazy diversification of stockholders' money into a family enterprise finally leading up to the opening of the ugliest can of worms India has ever seen since Harshad Mehta.

This has loads of implications and repercussions. India has a rather strongly regulated banking sector. So, India was spared the debilitating effects of the credit crisis the world now faces. IT and IT services are India's main USP. But India is still a young nation. We haven't even reached a 3 digit figure for years after independence. So, facing fraud in the sector that in a way differentiates India from other emerging markets is, tough and sad to say the least. Investor and client sentiment would decidedly begin to spiral down. Where can India then move to find its elusive economic stronghold?

So much for India. A bigger repercussion according to me, is the dent on the credibility of the Big 4, at least in India. Auditors are historically feared by all firms, big or small. Now, if a huge auditor has not noticed anomalies for not one, but 10 years, its like the 'Dark Ages' all over again. Who do we believe? Madoff has sparked off fire on the SEC in the US. Will Satyam cause ICAI to re-visit its processes? Must SEBI also stop resting on its laurels and begin to ensure that the prices of stocks are truly aligned to the core competence of the listed firms? But then again, will an over-reliance on external governance result in contrived growth on account of controls based on extreme caution and suspicion? Will this eventually turn the whole world RED?????

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

One man show in Corporate Governance - a thought

Big news today was Steve Jobs losing weight. Big Indian story this year was Satyam investing in Maytas. What binds these two stories together? Corporate governance. Oh yeah. Stock prices showed how 'One man can make a difference', though that one man was not Michael Knight of the Knight Rider. The Internet abounded with stories of Jobs being plagued with an unknown disease, perhaps even dying, since everyone was stumped at the precipitous loss of weight! So, to allay the fears and make everyone know that Jobs was not yet ready to quit his job, Mr Steve Jobs of Apple went on to sing 'Alright, Alright, everything's gonna be alright...' Well, he didn't really sing, but most i-pods generally do!

On the issue of corporate governance, one event that kinda tainted India's image in the world in terms of governance is the Satyam debacle. Why? Again, one man. One man decided to use funds of a listed public company to invest in his son's real estate enterprise. In other words, he wanted to run a family business using shareholders' money. The effect - snowballing scrutiny into corporate governance, and a 'Yikes, Indians can do this too????' question from foreign investors who look upon India as a key player in IT services. In a way the hullabaloo that followed the crappy decision of Mr Raju of Satyam bodes well for India, since it shows that the shareholder is still king, and that the company owner is in every way answerable to the millions of investors. Perhaps the democratic government can learn a thing or two about accountability from this model followed by corporate India.

On the one-man issue, we've seen a case where stock prices are dictated by one man. One man's well-being, or one man's folly. Look at Israel - Hamas. Soon after the head of Hamas was killed, the outfit went on to say that the struggle would endure, since leaders had been groomed along the echelons. Similar is the fear about all terrorist organizations. Just removing the head, does not decapitate the whole outfit. They grow another head much like a salamander or a starfish. Scary thought? Yes indeed. Although it is a practice followed for nefarious purposes, as a concept, perhaps corporate India and indeed the corporate world can think about corporate governance and leadership development along the lines of such a model. What say?

Friday, January 02, 2009

Terrorism in India - It is a management case study

2008 was a bloody year. Literally as well. Carnage everywhere. The mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan continued undeterred, while the world continued to burn elsewhere as well. South Ossetia, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Tibet, Israel, Sri Lanka, India (all over - Jaipur, Delhi, Mumbai, Guwahati) and now Palestine. The color of the flame however was the same - a violent yellow, with splashes of blood red everywhere.

I wrote a lot during the Mumbai carnage. A lot is an understatement. Well, when your manager asks you and your team to please work from home (since people are their most valuable capital), TV is on a terrorism overdrive, Gtalk conversations revolve only around the 'dastardly' acts of violence inflicted on Maximum city, anxious clients send emails asking us to be safe and please not worry about work deadlines and going out is ruled out, since for family, we are the only one of the kind, annnnnd, the only tool at your disposal to vent out the thoughts stacked up inside your mind is, you, tend to write. And write I did, like here.

The thoughts ranged from anger to frustration to outrageously enraged to plain stumped. Now that the dust has settled and the Mumbai terror attacks have formed the topic of discussion for Indian diplomats and foreign ones with an Indian interest, all that is left is retrospection and a push for urgent action.

Why do we need immediate action after Mumbai? India shining. Over the last decade, India was a glorious investment destination for people across the world. As recession began to hit the big boys of the world economy, many looked to the east for support. India-China. But soon, the hyphenation with Pakistan (India-Pakistan, a dreaded term from which India had managed to slowly but surely move away), sort of managed to preponderate over the hyphenation with China. I had an opportunity to speak to a person who invests in real estate in the US. With the real estate bubble bursting with disastrous effects in the US, he looked to invest in Indian housing. But one statement he made was, 'How can India expect investment in the country when the country's own peaceful existence is perennially threatened?' Ouch! On that score, our nefarious neighbors with hostile 'non-state actors' seem to have dealt a massive blow. A recent article in the economist underlined this fact, and this sorry event has effectively dented international confidence in India. Do I feel bad? Yes. Can I blame the international community? No. How many invest in Rwanda? Or Zimbabwe? Or Sudan? Unless India gets serious about internal security, we cannot aspire to become the world leaders, torch-bearers who can and will bring the world out of economic gloom. Also, India has historically been a patient nation. We have put up with multiple insurgencies by our neighbors (a whole post was dedicated to our 'honorable neighbors' here). But this time, with the terror attack reaching horrendously evil limits, everyone is scared. What happened in Mumbai can happen anywhere. Suspicion will abound, since every commuter with a big bag sitting next to me in a subway, will be looked at with a million thoughts and images in my mind. People are scared. Real scared. They are more disgusted with the failing system that failed to avert this attack, than with the terrorists.

What kind of action can be taken? US has imposed a 46 year trade embargo on Cuba, because Castro overthrew the America-backed dictator Batista. Can the world community do the same to Pak? Will that help? Well, for a country that has always been sending defence ammunition meant for a war on terror, to the perpetrators of terror, how long will it take to find another means of propping up the already failed economy? Like the filmy dialogues by our Hindi movie villains - 'I wasn't born a criminal, Samaj ne mujhe aise banaya', a trade embargo could perhaps send Pakistan further into the clutches of terror. When Mumbai happened, the youth urged for war. A surgical war even. That was the anger translated into a wish for immediate action. Look at Israel and Hamas. I for one feel that the Israel-Hamas conflict is akin to India-Pak. Nefarious, meddling neighbors, perpetrators of crime and terror, disturbing peace in the region, making the everyday man worry whether he'd be alive the next day. Too many similarities right? The recent conflict - Israel has launched an all out war against Hamas. Is Israel really to blame? Granted Hamas was elected to power in Gaza. But the elected government had resorted to trouble making. Rockets in the backyard everyday, killing a handful of Israelis almost daily. Israel, has historically never been a calm and patient country. But nevertheless they put up with the shelling and killing for a while. At one point, like the protagonist of a Premchand novel, one would want to just pick up a stick and hit back. And hit they did, BIG TIME! But what happens? A personal evil agenda, of a handful of terrorists (in this case Hamas) who operate from the cushy comforts of their safe havens kills hundreds. The retaliatory effect is disastrous. Is war, no matter how surgical, an answer? I think, No. Terror is a new enemy, and we need to think out of the box to cure this canker, before the 'eye for an eye' strategy renders the world blind.

India has chosen the diplomatic route against Pakistan. Piling pressure through US, UK, UN. This pressure has so far only resulted in eyewash. There are hints of imminent war. Only hints. Since only God knows the effect of war between two nuclear powered nations in a precarious place like the Asian sub-continent, whose Middle eastern part has been ravaged by war and violence for ages. But can Satyagraha help against barbarians? I don't know. I, for one have always felt that Gandhiji won independence for India, because the British were still civil and cultured. But this time, the enemy is evil, and barbaric. Another kind of a fight is needed here.

But one thing we ought to notice in this whole carnage story, is the fact that only Israel or USA or Russia can actually launch an all out offensive against another country. Why? They have the political and economic power in whatever way that may be, to face the world after their 'job' is done. So, like I'd written in one of my earlier posts, there are only two things that we can do, in the immediate future. Beef up internal security - cameras, spot checks, tight intelligence, civilian alertness, breed suspicion. Yup! Breed suspicion. It's better to be suspicious, than dead! Second, build the economy and the political system to a level of strength, so strong, that like the world fears action against Israel or China, for the numerous ills they may harbor, we Indians become a true force to reckon with, and we don't need the intercession of any other country into our 'personal affairs'.

Perhaps what happened in Mumbai, can actually influence the thinking millions in India and across the world to perhaps put on their thinking caps and find a solution that could really work and in Pranab Mukherjee's words produce 'tangible results'... What say?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Resistance to change ... Not really...

Resistance to change. It is everywhere. A resistance to change unregulated banking. A resistance to change outlook towards terrorism and rogue nations. A resistance towards changing perceptions about a team, after a string of test match losses (Warne saying the Aussie loss to India and SA is not something to feel disgraced about). Resistance to change the 'I won't spend' ways in the wake of a financial crisis, on account of the fear of the unknown - which, will certainly not help the economic revival!

But the one change no one is resistant to, is the change from last year to this year. People gather in hordes at Times Square or Nathan Philips Square, at -20 degrees Celsius, to ring in the new year. A foursome was on stage dressed in just a suit while the rest of the population could not stand in one place on account of the bone-chilling cold. Why? To change the old, and bring in the new. To bring in 2009, which, it is hoped will be a panacea for the millions of souls.

I love this change, as do the millions, and keeping the happy spirit going - wish you all a very very happy new year indeed.....