A Petty Money Dispute Holds The Market To Ransom
An electronic stock price board is reflected in a glass facade at the National Stock Exchange in Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

A Petty Money Dispute Holds The Market To Ransom

BloombergQuintOpinion

I am not a lawyer, and so it is with much trepidation that I write about a petty dispute that has been holding the Indian market to ransom. I venture to write only because I am convinced that the issue is not really about legal technicalities, and in any case the entire money dispute is quite petty and trivial compared to the broader issue of market integrity and the sanctity of key market infrastructure.

The facts of the dispute are well brought out in an order issued in May 2019 by the Securities Appellate Tribunal. The genesis of the dispute lies with a brokerage firm, Allied Financial Services, that allegedly stole about $50 million worth of its clients’ securities and pledged them as collateral with its clearing member, IL&FS Securities, to support an options trade that they had done on the National Stock Exchange. On the strength of this collateral, IL&FS Securities, deposited cash margins with NSE Clearing to support the trade done by Allied. After receiving complaints of fraud, the Economic Offences Wing froze the collateral lying with IL&FS Securities. When the time came to settle the trade, IL&FS Securities asked for annulment of the trade.

Even if the trade is annulled, IL&FS would have to return the option premium and the benefit to them would be only a marginal reduction in the quantum of loss.

IL&FS Securities’ gain of probably $5-10 million would of course be the loss of the counter parties to the trade.

I deliberately call this a petty dispute because for some of the institutions involved, $5 million or even $50 million is quite likely a rounding error on their balance sheets. Even for the smaller entities, it is not by itself a bankruptcy threatening event. We are not talking about a poor investor whose lifetime savings could be wiped out by the dispute; we are talking about some big institutions which might be somewhat better off or somewhat worse off depending on which way the dispute is resolved. We are also not talking about recovering money from the alleged fraudster; the dispute is all about allocating the losses among different victims of the alleged fraud.

The tragedy is that as a result of this petty dispute, there has been a stay on the settlement of the trade.

If not resolved soon, this settlement failure risks causing serious damage to the integrity and reputation of India’s largest stock exchange and its clearing corporation.

Also read: SAT Sends Allied Financial Services Options Dispute Back To SEBI

The core function of a stock exchange and its clearing corporation is to allow complete strangers to trade without doing any due diligence on each other. If you do an OTC trade or bilateral trade, you have to worry about whether your counter party is trustworthy. On the other hand, when you sell some shares on an exchange, you do not even bother to ask who was the buyer because it does not matter. The whole function of the exchange is to make that question (whom am I trading with) irrelevant and thereby create a national (or even global) market. OTC markets are a cosy club, while exchanges are open to one and all. At the centre of this magical transformation is the clearing corporation that becomes the counter party to all trades (novation) and thereby insulates buyer and seller from each other.

It is this core promise of the clearing corporation that has been called into question by the way this petty dispute has been allowed to fester and linger.

A shadow has been allowed to fall on the sanctity of a key market infrastructure.

Also read: India’s Trade Settlement Track Record May Be At Stake In This Options Dispute

I do not blame the judiciary for this tragedy because the judiciary adjudicates only issues that are brought before it. And it is the money dispute that has come before the judiciary because all the big and mighty entities involved have the wherewithal to hire the best lawyers to argue that this trivial dispute is the most important thing in the world.

The burden of preventing this tragedy lies primarily with the regulator who has the responsibility and mandate to draw the judiciary’s attention to the systemic issues and national interest involved in the smooth functioning of our market infrastructure.

A $5 million or even $50 million dispute should not be allowed to threaten the integrity of a $2 trillion stock market.

Also read: Supreme Court To Hear SEBI Plea Against SAT Order In Allied Financial Options Dispute

As I said, I am not a lawyer, but I find it hard to believe that SEBI would not receive a patient hearing in the highest courts of the land if it made an earnest plea on its statutory duty to protect the investor interest and the public interest. Instead, it has confined itself to narrow legalistic arguments about who has the power to annul a trade and under what conditions. It has allowed the disputants to frame the debate instead of seeking to change the frame of the debate.

JR Varma is professor of Finance and Accounting at IIM Ahmedabad. This article was originally published on his blog.

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

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