Friday, October 22, 2010

When reality pales into insignificance

Imagine a company which was for decades a byword in inefficiency. It pollutes like hell. It has 400,000 workers, none of whom can be sacked, although it needs far fewer. Most of the places it operates in are rife with insurgency, where the government's writ doesn't run very deep. Corruption is endemic. Technology is antiquated. There's a mafia which operates almost exclusively thanks to its presence. It struggles to transport its production to its customers. Governments set prices, allocate stocks and fix wages - not the market.

You get the drift ? Now this company wants to sell its stock to you. You would run a million miles. Right??

Wrong ! You actually fall over yourself in trying to invest in its stock. Welcome to the crazy world of stock markets.

The company, is Coal India. It is a government owned monopoly that has been around for decades and for most of that period was of dubious financial capability. And yet, for the last few days, everybody around me seems to be subscribing to Coal India's IPO - the government is offloading 10% of its stock. Even the famed Rajalakshmi, who's probably never seen a lump of coal in her life, is applying. The IPO has been oversubscribed some 15 times.

Does any of this make sense ?? Of course it does. The IPO was priced at a discount. There is an opportunity to make a quick buck. The equity culture in India is unbelievable. The aforesaid Rajalakshmi, for whom a Balance Sheet is a concept that could very well be from Mars, sits in front of the telly watching the stock ticker creep by on CNBC every day. Investing logic is derived from "buzz" - if everybody is doing it, I must do it too.

Coal India is a monopoly. India's demand for coal, and power is not going to come down for many a decade. Its IPO got the highest credit rating from CRISIL - the domestic credit rating agency. Voila - the ugly duckling has suddenly become a beautiful swan.

Everybody seems to be happy. The punter who's subscribing is waiting to make a quick buck. The government is grinning from ear to ear as the musical sound of the cash pouring in is heavenly. The bankers who "advised"" on the IPO have made fat fees. The employees are burping loudly, having been given the opportunity to make the quick buck themselves. The company itself is finding it wonderful to be in the headlines for the right reasons.

I am scratching my head in bewilderment. Did somebody say the stock market was supposed to be an efficient mechanism to allocate capital ?? As the Americans say, Wall Street and Main Street seem to be operating on two entirely different planets.