Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Countries build a reputation for themselves over time.

Sometimes good - sometimes not so good.

Take Switzerland.

The images of pristine alpine ski slopes, the famous Toblerone chocolates that are shaped like its beautiful peaks and lazy cows with bells singing in the mountain air are what the travel brochures project.

But Switzerland is still seen as that shady country willing to hide the illegal wealth of African dictators, Asian politicians, Middle East arm dealers, Russian oligarchs, or India's notoriously dishonest businessmen and members of the establishment.

A James Bond movie will typically have a scene of "bad" money changing hands in a Swiss Bank.

A crime novel will have some link to a numbered account of a Swiss Bank.

The SEC and the Eurozone still badger the Swiss to get rid of their secrecy and open their banking practices to global scrutiny.

If you wish to embarrass a politician (not that they ever get embarrassed), all you need to do is allege they have a Swiss bank account. You don't need to say its "dirty" money - that is a given.

So, while most people love Switzerland for its chocolates, the real secret of Switzerland's success may have been the ability and willingness to act as a laundering machine for dirty money.

A marketing person would say that is the "brand attribute".

And with that they would promptly release an ad campaign:

Why is Switzerland such a clean country?

Because it is one big laundering machine.

Swiss under threat?

But in a world that is flat (though crooked) the monopoly of that brand attribute is rapidly changing - you no longer need to go to Switzerland, Singapore, or Mauritius to launder money.

As the Cobrapost sting operations across 49 branches of Axis Bank, HDFC Bank, and ICICI Bank in five zones have shown, you can allegedly launder money right here at home in India.

24x7: the branch managers will be willing to open the bank branches for you at special hours.

True, the chocolates in India are terrible - nor is the air as clean and crisp as the air in Switzerland.

But, when laundering money is your main objective, maybe those ancillary things don't matter.

These private sector banks have been opening branches at the rate of maybe 5 per business day. Over the next seven years, by the year 2020, these banks will have covered every nook and corner of India with their glass and steel branches. Before you can say "Cobra Sting" they will have converted all your dirty black money into sparkling white life insurance policies.

It may cost you Rs 880 per Rs 100,000 to do this magic trick - and it will cost you a lot more in hidden commissions if you buy those insurance products - but what are a few rupees between friends?

The good news is that the branch managers will have met their monthly targets. And these companies will have met their annual earnings targets. The senior managements of these banks will retire rich - their ESOPs will be worth a lot more.

After all, life is a "baniya ka hisaab kitab" - as a senior member of one of the stung banks had told me many years ago.

And that clearly shows up in the video tapes.

Life is about targets, profit growth, and market cap.

Life - and business - is not about ethics, about doing the right thing, or about being fair. We lost that innocence when people we look up to tell you "as it is".

The Mahatma's image may be on the notes but the impunity of Mrs Gandhi is in the hands that grab them.

Mr. Deepak Parekh, the venerable Chairman of HDFC, reminded us while talking at a CNBC event a few months ago: corruption is a non-issue and cannot be eradicated; the media are wasting their time talking about it.

It is this same corruption that generates the black money which allegedly gets laundered by supposedly holy private sector banks. Banks which have commanded a valuation premium (in full disclosure companies I am affiliated with, may own some of these shares for clients). This black money is one of the large engines of growth in earnings.

Banks moving into clean-tech, Indians can buy gold

The boring scientists and PhD types tell us that clean tech is a process of converting a low energy input into a higher energy output, without pollution.

But we know these scientist-type folks remain poor with dishevelled hair, frayed collars, and torn chappals.

The scientists need to learn the creative use of clean-tech technology as mastered by the suave bankers with gelled hair, stiff button-down shirts, and polished black shoes.

Normally, a person earning an income of Rs 1 lakhs would need to pay a 30% rate of tax to convert his income to what is called "white money".

But the clean-tech banks, using business principles that have baffled those with Ph. D.'s, can find ways to convert cash or "black money" into "white money" by paying Rs 880 per lakh, or a "conversion charge" of 0.88%.

That sure beats the official tax rate of 30% for your hard earned profits.

In fact, banks can now boldly advertise:

Clean-tech investing with low tax impact.

Contact your bank for further details.

The Finance Minister should no longer focus on telling the RBI what he thinks the interest rate should be. Instead he must give tax credits to the private sector banks to devise a method to convert our unclean air into energy and reduce India's oil-import bills. If that were to happen, the FM will finally allow us to buy as much gold as we want! And buy gold we must.

India certainly needs more of these private sector banks (yes, RBI, please grant more licenses) and India needs more of its respected business leaders to suggest that fighting corruption is waste of time.

So, every time you hear about a new branch being opened in your smelly, stinky neighbourhood just think of it as another step in the right direction: by 2020 India will be the cleanest country in the world.

But, sadly, you will still need to visit Switzerland for their chocolates. They are the best!

The above is from "The Honest Truth" written by Ajit Dalal for the Equitymaster.

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