Tuesday, April 6, 2010

ICICI Bank is a foreign bank !

This blog started life a year and a bit ago with the very first post titled “What is 'American Goods' anyway ?" . Now I return back to the same theme after reading a news item that the Reserve Bank of India has declared both ICICI Bank and HDFC bank to be “foreign banks”.

For those unfamiliar with the Indian banking environment, throughout the socialist days of the 70s and 80s India lived with a nationalized banking environment. Government owned banks were the only choice. While they had their strengths, technology and innovation were not among them. They were forced to give out buffalo loans to “poor farmers” and then write them off (collecting buffalo tails as proof of death).

Two banks changed the landscape in just 5 years – ICICI Bank and HDFC Bank. Both were private banks and they revolutionised banking in India. Sure, they have their faults (many actually), but they were a completely different experience to the government banks. In no time they shot up to be market leaders.

They are listed in the Indian and US stock exchanges. Probably 90%+ of their business is in India. Most of their branches are in India. The management is entirely Indian. They are headquartered in India. But apparently more than 50% of their equity is now held by foreign entities, as they are freely traded on the stock exchanges. Voila – the country’s central bank has declared them to be foreign banks.

This just goes to show the devilish difficulty in trying to decide nationalities of corporations. Many companies today are truly global. Their shareholders are from all over the place. Actually which nationality do you ascribe to ICICI Bank. More than 50% of the shareholding may be in “foreign” hands, but that is many nationalities put together. Almost certainly the single largest shareholder nationality will be Indian. So if ICICI Bank is not “Indian”, then what is it ? Stateless person ??

So what IS the nationality of a company ? Does it indeed have to have a nationality at all ?? Usually in law, the place where the company is registered is deemed to be its nationality. To determine whether its “foreign” or “local”, its usually the % shareholding that is considered. Some countries, most notably Britain and France, value heritage. Cadbury is always a ‘British” company and Danone always a “French” company, no matter what. Some value where its headquarters is – HSBC is a prime example. Its name says Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation. Its listed in Hong Kong and in the UK. Its boss is British, but he recently moved to be based in Hong Kong. What about companies which have split personalities – companies like Unilever, Royal Dutch Shell and Reed Elsevier which have two headquarters, two parent companies, etc ?

Actually it doesn’t matter. Except when you have clauses like ‘Buy American” and “Buy Chinese”. Except when you discriminate “foreign companies” from domestic ones. Companies are the truly global manifestation of the human race. Companies have gone where the species should go – being truly global and one – but where societies and nations will never go.

Here’s an aside. You may recall the post about a company standing in the US elections. Presumably only “US companies” are entitled to stand. But we come back to the old problem – what is an US company ? Imagine Osama bin Laden floating a company with majority holding by his US followers, registered in the state of Delaware and standing for the office of the President of the United States. That would be something !