If at the end of reading this piece, you feel it is an “impractical” and “theoretical” approach to “Indian realities”, you may not be alone. Yet, the following has to be said: Our policymakers just demonstrated doublespeak in relation to market integrity. They have flinched in making truth available to financial markets, a vital element for informed market decisions.
A terse one-line press release, appropriately drafted in passive voice, was issued by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) on September 29, 2017. It read: “It has been decided to defer implementation of Sebi circular no CIR/CFD/CMD/93/2017 dated August 4, 2017, until further notice.”
The press release is significant for what it did not say rather than for what it did. What the circular being deferred was about, when it was meant to take effect, what weighed with the regulator in introducing it and what weighed with the regulator to indefinitely defer its introduction, what transpired in the time between the two events were all left unsaid.
This column is not another iteration of lawlessness in the process of law-making. Indeed, pre-legislative consultations are to be expected only for measures that the regulators are reluctant to introduce or repeal. On measures that could beget bouquets or brickbats, it is normal not to expect any pre-consultations.
Back to the circular that has been put off. On August 4, 2017, Sebi issued a circular to provide that effective October 1, every listed company would have had to disclose within one day, the occurrence of any default in payment of interest or principal on the due date. A simple measure that would have brought cleanliness and transparency to financial markets, it would also have spurred the solvent but indolent to buck up and ensure they did not inadvertently err in servicing financial obligations.
The measure was vital for integrating the securities markets with the rest of the financial market system. That a company is unable to meet its obligations when due could be material information that would inform investors’ decision on what to pay for or what to expect for the securities of that company. The disclosure obligation was introduced on this premise. However, the known inability to pay would make it clear to the market for banking and financial services that a company, which is unable to pay its debts when due, is borrowing from the system. This would enable a clearer profiling of the risk in dealing with such a borrower.
When the circular was issued, a retiring whole-time member of Sebi spoke about its virtues at length in public interviews. Sebi was happy to take credit for being the harbinger of a game-changing measure. The withdrawal, on the other hand, has been made in a whimper.
However, it seems these are not good times for dissemination of bad news. Perhaps it was felt that a spate of disclosures of defaults would follow, lending credence to the gnawing belief that the economy is in a spiral, headed for a hard landing. Inexplicably, without any articulation of the cause for change of heart, the regulator has given credence to that assumption.
“India is not ready for it” is an argument one usually hears in relation to any inconvenient policy reform measure — for example, making an open offer to acquire all the residual shares during a takeover of a listed company; and getting every listed company to publish a prospectus-type document to bring material information about the state of affairs into the public domain even without a securities offering being involved.
This circular had also imposed a statutory obligation on listed companies to inform credit rating agencies about such defaults. Virtually every credit rating agency of relevance is facing proceedings with Sebi for not having downgraded a certain listed company’s debt-servicing capacity. When this company’s inability to service debt was discovered, the effect was so severe that a certain mutual fund with exposure to that debt had to shut the gate for redemption of units. If the regulator now believes that full and clear transparency to rating agencies is not in public interest, surely it should stop making fall guys out of them.
Sebi is quick and prone to lashing out with premature actions against alleged insider trading. Even bank accounts get impounded for periods longer than the law permits in the garb of securing proceeds of insider trading. The introduction of an obligation to make timely disclosures would have served the regulatory war against insider trading. It would have prevented wrongdoing and obviated punishment — the quicker the dissemination of material information, the lesser the scope for those in possession of it, thereby reducing the ability to trade ahead of the rest of the market, without fear of also violating the law mandating dissemination.
The leadership at Sebi has been actively involved in a policy game changer in the financial system — the introduction of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, a legislation that has so far largely received a resounding endorsement from the higher judiciary. World markets were looking at this circular as a game changer in aiding the effectiveness of this new law. Now, it is not to be.
If media reports are to be believed, the circular was considered to be utopian enough to make many in the banking system chicken out. If we send a signal that bringing out the full truth would be unpalatable not only for listed companies but also for banks that have exposure to such listed companies, it would mean that we are happy to let the truth — not just about borrowing listed companies but also listed banking companies — be shoved under the carpet.
“Being practical” is in itself a dangerous phrase. Many a social problem today ranging from domestic violence to female foeticide has been compounded by living in denial and enforced silence. Perhaps, we just got the financial markets version. If inadvertent payment defaults by solvent companies sending avoidable panic signals to the markets was what the Sebi was worried about, it could have tweaked the timing of the mandatory disclosure to the date on which the cure period for the default expires without the default getting cured.
This column was published as Without Contempt in Business Standard editions dated October 5, 2017