Implications of new international financial centres

Business Standard, 21 November 2007

The Indian license-permit raj in finance is going to face significant stress from the external world. In particular, Dubai and Qatar could prove to be important in catalysing a breakdown in the role of domestic finance.

At present, India runs an elaborate license-permit raj in finance. While the license-permit raj has been dismantled in the real economy, it is flourishing in finance. In areas such as banking and pensions, steep entry barriers are in place; it is very difficult to start a new firm. FDI is proscribed. In all parts of finance, launching products requires permission from the government. These permissions are often not given (e.g. currency futures are banned). When permissions are given, they involve substantial delays, thus robbing financial firms of the incentive to innovate. As a consequence, we have a slothful financial sector with stable market shares, much like the cosy existence of Indian non-financial firms prior to the reforms of the 1990s.

This license-permit raj is failing to meet the needs of domestic non-financial firms, who are increasingly turning into world-class firms. For firms like Infosys, Reliance or Tata Steel, the world is the market, and competition is global. Buying inferior raw materials leads to competitive disadvantage. As a consequence, these firms have evolved towards buying the best products and services -- such as low cost debt capital or sophisticated financial derivatives -- from the global financial sector.

Through an elaborate system of capital controls, the government is valiantly striving to prevent Indian firms from buying the best financial products and services. However, the pressures of global competition are real. If international steel companies have access to world class finance, then forcing Tata Steel to buy inferior local raw materials hampers competitiveness. This gives Tata Steel a strong incentive to find ways to get past the wall of capital controls and do business on a global scale as befits a global company. As an example, the bulk of the international financial services (IFS) associated with the Tata Steel - Corus transaction were put together outside the country, at a safe distance from the Indian license-permit raj.

This puts Indian financial firms in an extremely uncomfortable position. Indian financial firms are unable to compete in selling to their natural customers - local firms requiring IFS - because the government comes in the way. Some governments try to be `protectionist' so as to prevent foreign competition from adversely affecting local firms. Through the license-permit raj that is operating in finance, the Indian government is doing `reverse protectionism': it is preventing local financial firms from adversely affecting foreign firms.

In this situation, important developments are taking place in Dubai and Qatar. Both cities are trying to develop a capability to produce IFS. They are approaching it in two different ways. In Dubai, an enclave approach has been used. The Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) is removed from the local economy, which continues to operate under old fashioned rules. In Qatar, the new effort consists of transformation of the country and not setting up something new in an enclave.

In both countries, a remarkable effort is underway to leapfrog to the frontier in terms of financial regulation. Concepts of financial regulation based on the `principles-based' approach of the UK are being implemented. The senior financial regulatory staff are typically recruited from first world countries. This yields rapid transfer of knowledge, and also inspires international credibility. This senior staff is free of the `fear of finance' that afflicts senior people in Indian financial regulators, who have often imbibed the attitudes to finance found in socialist India of the 1970s or 1980s.

These countries are emphasising the common law framework, where laws define broad principles and courts work out the implications of broad principles for specific institutional detail. The common law framework is intimately linked to the `principles based' approach to financial regulation. However, operationalising common law requires high quality judges, who have skills in understanding intricate details of financial markets and products. In order to achieve this, foreigners are also being brought in to be judges. The willingness to sacrifice holy cows is remarkable: Qatar even has one judge who is Jewish.

Dubai and Qatar are both tuned into the opportunity of rescuing Indian financial firms from the Indian license-permit raj. In January, Rajat Gupta of McKinsey joined the board of the Qatar Financial Centre Authority. In May, ICICI Bank became the first Indian bank to setup a branch in QFC. Any ambitious CEO of an Indian financial firm needs to consider a strategy of setting up operations in London, Qatar, Dubai or Singapore so as to be immune to the Indian license-permit raj, and be able to offer IFS to Indian customers from that platform.

These developments suggest two possible scenarios for India:

The Mumbai International Financial Centre (MIFC) report has given a blueprint of the financial sector policy initiatives that are required in order to cope with this challenge. The political leadership now faces a choice on whether this effort needs to be undertaken. While the task appears daunting in terms of rewriting obsolete legislation, reforming legacy agencies, and treading on bureacratic toes, it is not one which requires expending important political capital, because voters do not care about these things. It is much easier to transform RBI and SEBI than it is to reform labour law.

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