In your interest.
Online Personal Finance Magazine
No beating about the bush.
SEBI’s knockout punch to mutual fund distributors in August 2009 has left a trail of tribulation across all intermediaries in the mutual fund industry. We put together the actions and their impact to highlight why even a raging bull market has failed to enthuse the fund industry
The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) abolished entry loads in August 2009, in what it thought was an investor-friendly move. But consider how a slew of thoughtless actions that followed this move have bludgeoned the mutual fund industry and every one of its intermediaries until assets under management are dwindling rapidly.
The starting point was of course, the distributors who were suddenly left without a business. Without fees, it made no sense for them to dish out free advice, while investors, who were unused to paying for advice, weren’t willing to start now. SEBI couldn’t care less, beyond regulators loftily pronouncing that “distributors must charge customers” and “investors must learn to pay”.
When a few hundred crore rupees began to be pulled out, SEBI swung into action to make the situation worse. It started its infamous turf battle with the insurance regulator to stop mutual fund assets flowing to unit-linked-insurance products. The result: legislation that put the finance ministry in charge of sorting out squabbles between regulators. Also, hundreds of distributors have shut shop and are looking for alternative business avenues.
In July 2009, just before the ban on entry loads, SEBI exempted micro SIP investments upto Rs50,000 from having to submit PAN numbers. This translated into higher volumes under SIP without any significant addition to the overall Assets Under Management (AUM) of fund companies. An unintended consquence was that Registrar & Transfer Agents (RTA) were burdened with additional work and no commensurate increase in income.
In December 2009 came a circular asking for stricter and more detailed Know Your Customer (KYC) documentation for “prevention of money laundering”. This happened when SEBI realised that some mutual funds did not even know their customer and were entirely dependent on distributors not even RTAs.
This triggered huge documentation efforts between RTAs and channel distributors — the top 20 distributors account for 4.78 lakh unique investors with a minimum of three documents (a/c opening, KYC, PAN ) consisting of 65–180 pages each (4.78 crore records). While the process was being completed, commissions to the tune of Rs100 crore were withheld, angering the distributor community even further.
Interestingly, all this was left to a few RTAs to handle — it is interesting that the entire capital market boom since 1990 has not led to increased competition in the RTA segment — Karvy remains the dominant player, with three or four others picking up the rest. SEBI has never tried to find out why this business does not attract more participants.
Incidentally, SEBI’s fatwa meant that to comply with KYC norms, old and inadequate customer data, with older funds such as UTI Mutual Fund had to be obtained afresh, with identification (photo, phone and address) and put in a standard format for easy access. We learn that RTAs coped with this by procuring third-party screening software to aid in this process.
In March 2010 SEBI decided to attack trail commissions and permit investors to change distributors without a no-objection certificate. It decided that in case of any change in the broker code, no trail commission would be paid to both brokers — the one who lost a customer as well as the one who gained a customer. This immediately triggered a virtual war to grab customers by hook or by crook — it only led to RTAs being choked by reams of paper requesting a change in broker code. The apparent lack of clarity between SEBI and the industry body Association of Mutual Funds in India (AMFI) didn’t help matters either. The misinterpretation of the rule unleashed trading in customer data. Only after AMFI issued a subsequent clarification did the volumes subside.
Many other proposals introduced by SEBI, such as shrinking of NFO allotment time from 30 days to five days or extending the ASBA facility to mutual funds, although for the benefit of investors, led to confusion because the industry and intermediaries were never given enough time to set up robust implementation processes.
One example is SEBI’s decision in June 2010 to switch from AMFI certification for mutual fund distributors to certification by the National Institute of Securities Management (NISM) which has been set up by SEBI and is now scouting for revenue opportunities. The certification leads to the issue of a certification number or code. Since older IFAs (independent financial advisors) are unlikely to get an NISM code, it has created an additional process for fund intermediaries to manage NSIM and AMFI codes.
In August 2010, SEBI asked all fund houses to facilitate smoother shift of mutual fund units between two demat accounts. This not only meant that AMCs would have to shoulder additional costs, but it would also increase activity at the RTA’s end. Various participants have pointed out discrepancies in this system, with several intermediaries submitting their own challenges in dealing with the requirement in its current form. Similarly, in order to check fraudulent activities by some distributors, SEBI asked fund houses not to accept third party cheques for mutual fund subscriptions. This is under implementation, requiring fund branches to track investor applications with investor cheques to corroborate the investment.
SEBI followed this with a killer blow to the distributor community, when it introduced tedious and intrusive know your distributor (KYD) norms. These didn’t go down well at all with some distributors, who felt they were being treated like common criminals, particularly questioning the extent of verification as demanded by SEBI. Moneylife’s article on this matter (see here: http://www.moneylife.in/article/78/9202.html) generated significant interest from the distributor community.
The problem is that each time SEBI introduced a change, without enough thought or discussion, the industry began to invest in systems and processes, only to have the regulator move on to another change. Or worse, the investment was wasted because investors were unimpressed by the change.
One good thing that has come out of all this mess is the facility of consolidated account statements on a monthly basis. This service provides the investor with the ability to track his mutual fund investments across all fund houses under a single roof. This may also reduce the costs and efforts at the RTAs’ end as it will eliminate the need for daily confirmations.
With SEBI mulling more regulatory changes for the industry, any move without involving the industry participants will only create more headaches for all the players in the industry.
SEBI’s rejection of MCX-SX’s application to start equity trading, not only stifles much-needed fresh thinking, competition and innovation, but draws attention to SEBI’s own sordid ethical standards
That the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) rejected MCX Stock Exchange's (MCX-SX) application to launch the equity segment was no surprise. Nor is the MCX-SX's decision to fight back. The regulation of demutualised bourses remains a contentious issue, despite being referred to several committees. But it is obvious that the narrow and illiquid Indian capital market urgently needs to get rid of a score of defunct, parasitic, regional bourses and permit fresh thinking, competition and innovation which MCX-SX can inject. Whether this happens or not will be decided by the courts, but there are some intriguing angles to the entire controversy.
For starters, does India, whose economic growth is attracting so much foreign attention, support entrepreneurship, or do we secretly revel in discrediting our own success stories? Will we ever support open competition or cripple businesses on the whims of self-serving netas and babus?
On 31st August, MCX launched the Singapore Mercantile Exchange (SMX). It should have been a proud moment, but the domestic war with SEBI cast a dark shadow. On 23rd September, SEBI rejected MCX-SX's application to launch equity trading saying it was 'not fit and proper' and 'dishonest' to boot. Isn't it ironical that India, which ranks a low 84th on Transparency International's corruption perception index, took the high moral ground, to discredit a management that Singapore, which ranks No 3 in terms of transparency, found fit enough to launch its first international, pan-Asian derivatives exchange? Singapore is not alone. MCX runs the multi-asset, multi-access Bahrain Financial Exchange. It is in the process of setting up multi-asset exchanges in Mauritius and Botswana (called Bourse Africa). It also successfully launched, and handed over, the Dubai Gold and Commodity Exchange.
There are domestic successes as well. The flagship Multi Commodity Exchange (MCX) is by far the market leader in commodity derivatives; MCX-SX was a leader in currency derivatives (jointly regulated by SEBI); it runs the National Spot Exchange Ltd which trades agricultural commodities; the Indian Energy Exchange which trades electricity and IBS Forex, is its inter-bank forex exchange platform. No other exchange group has achieved so much so fast in a competitive environment. And there are no reports of other regulators having problems with MCX either.
None of this mattered to the SEBI's whole-time member, while rejecting the case of MCX-SX with 68 pages of hair-splitting.
He found that MCX and Financial Technologies were 'acting in concert'. He discovered that the warrants issued to promoters (for the value they sacrificed by shrinking promoters' capital to meet SEBI's norms) had economic value even though such warrants earned no dividends, have no voting rights and cannot be converted into shares unless SEBI rules change. It is almost as if SEBI knows that its ridiculously low 5% cap on individual shareholding will have to be increased to the 15% or 26% that is permitted in the commodity and currency derivatives markets. Were that to happen, MCX's promoters would legitimately want to convert warrants and enhance their holding. SEBI wants to kill any such possibility.
Interestingly, the National Stock Exchange (NSE), an opaque and secretive, virtual monopoly basked in high valuations that were possible because the regulator gave it plenty of time for equity dilution without imposing the restriction it did on MCX-SX. But MCX-SX was systematically cornered.
First, SEBI allowed NSE to subsidise currency derivatives through the high fees charged in the equity segment. MCX-SX suffered huge losses, while the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) simply shut its currency derivatives segment within two months. The newly launched USE (United Stock Exchange) is also boasting market leadership without a revenue model. Neither the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) nor SEBI bothered to explain how they permitted a fourth currency derivatives exchange whose high trading volumes translate into direct losses since, like the NSE, it does not collect transaction charges. What happens when its net worth slips below Rs150 crore? USE must be hoping the Competition Commission will rescue it by ruling in favour of MCX-SX on NSE's predatory pricing.
When the loss-making MCX-SX was denied permission to launch new segments, it couldn't possibly find new investors and was forced to reduce capital to meet SEBI norms. Stunningly, the idea allegedly came from JN Gupta, SEBI's executive director in charge of secondary markets, who used to be a commodity trader in Kazakhstan before returning to SEBI. The SEBI order simply ignores Mr Gupta's role in 'misleading' MCX-SX into opting for capital reduction.
If SEBI had higher regulatory standards than Bahrain, Singapore and Dubai, its action against MCX-SX would have somehow seemed plausible. SEBI's actions appear malicious when we see how the same regulator buried the cases against the National Securities Depository Ltd (NSDL) in the IPO (initial public offering) scam of 2006, in order to absolve chairman CB Bhave of taint or even constructive liability in that scam (he was chairman of NSDL then). The SEBI board went so far as to discredit a two-member committee of its own board directors and declared their orders 'void'. In the process, it also ignored a legal opinion by Justice JS Verma, one of India's most respected Chief Justices of the Supreme Court.
In throwing the rulebook at MCX-SX, SEBI is essentially saying, "show me the person and I will show you the rule."
Why would SEBI be so determined to finish off MCX-SX? MCX has openly accused it of favouring NSE whose high valuation is at a serious risk (not to mention the stunning salaries of its top three executives) when up against a serious competitor. Remember, MCX has beaten NSE in every segment where they have been in direct competition: commodities, currency and energy.
Then there are the personal relationships. When CB Bhave was desperate to leave SEBI in the early 1990s, under chairman DR Mehta, NSE gave him a berth at NSDL. Mr Bhave was thus in the happy position of writing the statute that ensured that the depository was not entirely under SEBI regulation; he used it to his advantage to expand into other areas without seeking SEBI approval.
It may be clever to ensure that rules and ethical standards are flexible enough to be twisted at convenience. But sadly, it makes for very dubious regulation.
Why CB Bhave’s tenure as SEBI chairman will go down as among the worst in nearly two decades
By his own admission, Bhave often looks in the mirror to ask: "Am I proud of what this guy did today?" The answer invariably is a resounding yes, Bhave had told this newspaper some time ago. He also said, "Nothing else bothers me, as your conscience will never lie".
- Business Standard, 14...