(Image: BloombergQuint)

Indian Banks: Quiescent Shareholders And Activist Regulators

BloombergQuintOpinion

The Indian central bank or other government agencies have been instrumental in effecting a change of management in three under-performing private sector banks (ICICI Bank, Axis Bank, and Yes Bank) in recent months. While much has been written about the functioning of the boards and of the central bank, the more fascinating question is about the dog that did not bark: the quiescent shareholders of these banks. They have suffered in silence as these banks have surrendered the enviable position that they once had in India’s financial system. The void created by the wounded banking system in India is being filled by non-bank finance companies. So much so that one of these non-banks (Bajaj Finance) trades at a Price/Book ratio 3-4 times that of the above mentioned three banks and now boasts of a market capitalisation roughly equal to the average of these three banks.

The question is why has this not attracted the attention of activist investors. One looks in vain for a Third Point Management, Elliott Management or TCI Fund Management writing acerbic letters to the management seeking change.

The Indian regulatory regime of voting right caps and fit and proper criteria has ensured that such players can never threaten the career of non-performing incumbent management in Indian banks.

The regulators have entrenched incumbent managements and so the regulators have to step in to remove them.

Incidentally, the securities regulator in India has been no better. It too has ensured that the big exchanges and other financial market infrastructure in India are immune to shareholder discipline, and over the last several years many of these too have performed far below their potential.

Indian regulators do not seem to understand that capitalism requires brutal investors and not just nice investors talking pleasantly to the management. Capitalism at its best is red in the tooth and claw.

JR Varma is a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. This article was first published on his blog.

The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.