India’s managing agency system may be dead but its spirit remains alive…

One of India’s foremost financial columnists Andy Mukherjee has this interesting piece. He links current affairs in Indian business to the managing agency system, which was a popular form of running  business in India until 1960s:

A smug, entitled business class driven by greed and hubris, but sorely lacking in resources to legitimize their control. I could be describing the India Inc. of today – or 1959. Nothing much has changed.

Jet Airways Ltd., India’s oldest surviving private-sector airline, is about to crash land. Founder Naresh Goyal neither brought in enough new equity of his own to rescue the debt-laden carrier, nor did he allow a timely sale to suitors who wanted the business, albeit without him. Jet may yet survive, but it’s touch-and-go. Or take the country’s second-largest hospital chain, put into the trauma room by its founders’ 4 billion rupee ($56 million) fraud. Fortis Healthcare Ltd. wants brothers Malvinder and Shivinder Singh arrested. Complicating matters, Malvinder has accused Shivinder of siphoning funds from the family holding company and diverting them to a spiritual guru. The whole thing is an unholy mess.

For at least six decades, scholars and policy makers have been aware of the strain placed by India’s feudal system of corporate governance on capital formation, job creation and growth. Yet the last major reform was in 1969, which ironically was also when India was nationalizing banks and lurching toward a more virulent socialism. Subsequently, globalization caught up with India, the economy opened up and attracted hundreds of billion dollars in foreign capital, but the foundations of corporate structure stayed weak. It’s only now, when the edifice is showing cracks, that it’s becoming clear a fresh coat of paint alone won’t suffice.

Back in the 1960s, “managing agencies” dominated India’s industrial landscape. The 70 companies in the Tata Group were run by nine agencies, while 49 firms in the Birla Group were managed by 13. Such was the sway of the “boxwallahs,” as the agents were pejoratively referred to, that State Bank of India wouldn’t lend to an operating company without its managing agency’s guarantee. Nevermind that a majority of these proxy controllers didn’t even have 1 million rupees in capital of their own. They were vehicles for business families to extract commissions and control empires in the garb of providing managerial expertise.

Andrew Yule, Martin Burn, W.H. Brady and MacNeill & Barry. As the names suggest, the managing agencies started out as part of the British colonial project, but about a hundred years ago ownership started to pass into Indian hands. The world wars and India’s 1947 independence hastened the switch. India eventually outlawed managing agencies in 1969, but entrenched families lost no time in gaming the corporate boards that were now in charge.

Explicit recognition of some shareholders as “promoters” has perpetuated their exorbitant privilege, and infected even firms of a newer vintage. The co-founders of Mindtree Ltd., a mid-bracket software services company, didn’t show any urgency when a large investor warned them of his intention to cash out. Now that the investor has sold to engineering firm Larsen & Toubro Ltd., the insiders are shocked, shocked that L&T is out to “decimate” Mindtree with a  $1.6 billion hostile takeover

….

Foreign investors believe they can navigate around India’s governance fault lines. Still, South Korea’s chaebol discount could also become a millstone for India if the grip of a handful of private interests on state institutions and economic opportunities tightens. The new boxwallahs will be much harder to shake off than the old cronies.

Hmm..

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One Response to “India’s managing agency system may be dead but its spirit remains alive…”

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