Sunday, December 09, 2007

The box needs fixing

So Deloitte runs a survey on the potential return for PE firms in India, going forward. It says Global private equity firms are expecting lower returns from India in the next six months as a booming economy and stock market drive up valuations. The basis ? Callow statements like this - “There is no more low-hanging fruit. India has been discovered. We will see more moderate – 20-25 per cent – returns going forward.”

The PE firms can do with a bit of open mind and flexibility. They have to innovate and adapt. You can’t make money in India by just transposing the same business process that are followed in the US or Europe. Result – they keep whining on their clich├ęd gripes (a) ban on leveraged buyouts (b) families that own businesses are reluctant to sell (c) restriction on issue of convertible preference shares and other regulatory impediments.

That puts me in a mood to quip.

Take gripe (a) – leveraged buyouts are banned. So what? That's why we didn’t have a credit crisis and points to a credible lending process that insulates Indian banks from global crises. The fact that doubtful debt can’t be bundled with a good credit risk and palmed off to unsuspecting bond investors is a sign of systemic maturity. [Indian banks faced a crisis 10 years back when most of our PSU banks had high NPAs because major borrowers didn’t repay. They siphoned the funds to build their personal assets even as their companies were going broke. Now that's plugged].

On gripe (b) families don’t sell out - because they feel one of them will be shortchanged in the process by the dominant share owning family member. Search for recent scuffle at Patni (computers) and Bajaj (Auto) families. The strategy here for PE firms is to get upclose with the family and broach the subject thro an investment banker that is close to the management. Choose the wrong messenger and you lose the deal. For that you need someone that is pretty much clued in… Why not me? Yeah, You can try.

The gripe (c) is on choice of instruments. Yes, convertible preference shares have been banned in construction and real estate since PE firms took that route to breach the FDI limits prescribed for the sector. PE firms lent against convertibles and the money was never repaid. In effect it was indirect infusion of equity since the loans were convertible into common stock. They used that to jack up their stakes in real estate companies that had huge land banks. You try to break a law and you're sure to be canned. But they can pitch for specific projects. Use a strategic investor, that is a professional consulting / EPC firm that can capitalize (thereby part-fund) the project cost. There are several other ways but then I can't blog everything here. I need to make a living too, pal....

If you are creative enough, there are ways to have the cake and eat it too… I’ll tell you what’s the problem. Investment banks don’t innovate. They just want to ride the coat-tails of their colleagues in the west. No, I am not asking you to start thinking out of the box. If one has to do that often, then the box needs fixing. It's a bit like walking between raindrops, agreed. Or a closer parallel will be learning to drive on a pot-holed road without getting a flat tire way too often. The day you get it right, you'll sight opportunities here all the more.

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