Monday, July 11, 2011

GTL group corporate governance sham-the reason for the price crash?

In June-11, the two listed companies of the GTL group crashed nearly 75%-80% in a day(since then they crashed even more and there seems no respite). The rumored reasons for the crash(promoter pledged holdings being sold) turned out to be false. And the company took corrective action by clarifying to the stock exchanges in detail, appointing SBI Caps as their merchant banker for restructuring etc. Such actions were necessary to regain a modicum of investor trust(given that the group companies were manipulated stocks in the Ketan Parekh scam in 1990s). As a value investor, I spent 2 hrs poring through the filings/presentations of the companies from 2009 till date. It took time and effort, but finally this is what I could gather.
  1. Artfully structuring shareholdings within the promoter group to avoid consolidating certain balance sheets:- Debt covenants signed by GTL, for GTL Infra and CNIL make it guarantee a major portion of its associates debt, and retain management control. GTL owns 36% in GTL Infra, which(till Mar-11) owned 51% of the Aircel towers acquisition SPV CNIL. Now, GTL owned nearly 33% of CNIL, with the promoter Manoj Tirodkar owning 16%.  Though GTL controlled CNIL indirectly by virtue of controlling GTL Infra, bright line rules were read so that CNIL came only on GTL Infras balance sheet, without being consolidated on GTL. Why should you bother? CNIL represented Rs 5000Cr+ debt.
  2. Avoiding consolidating 'associate companies' where it has equity, guarantees debt and contractually exercises management control:- The main entity GTL(52% promoter owned) is made to co-invest a minority stake along with group companies/promoter itself. And this co-investing is often accompanied by corporate guarantee of the total debt of the associate. For example(before CNIL was amalgamated into its parent GTL Infra), GTL invested Rs 1067crores( with promoter investing 650 Crores individually) for a 49% stake, with GTLs fellow subsidiary investing 51%. Despite this, accounting was done as an 'associate'
  3. Independent directors receiving hefty ESOPs:-'Independent Directors' own 1% or so of both GTL and GTL Infra. This does seem unreasonable. Will they ever have the incentive to speak up? Though other companies DO allow such ESOPs, none to my knowledge have been so generous
  4. Shareholder Quality:- Both companies have low holdings from Banks/FIs/MFs, and even retail shareholders. The major holdings are from hot money(FIIs) and promoters. Considering that India's only independent tower company must have undergone investment analysis atleast once, the omission from the portfolios does seem odd. 
  5. Extension of financial year:- In its 4Q'11 earnings release, GTL decided to extend its financial year from Mar-11 to Jun-11. This reeks of wanting to delay the inevitable viz default. 
  6. Doubtful selection of auditors:- The joint auditors of the firms do not have any international presence, and do not audit a single subsidiary. Though the subsidiary auditors listed in the annual report are all reputable firms, one wonders why did GTL avoid a single firm auditor, which could have done the audit much more effectively? I'm not a Big4 fan, but large complex audits do need it, given that international revenues for GTL(not GTL Infra) are quite large.
 Ironically, GTL has received the ICAIs Golden Peacock award for corporate governance-you all know what happened to another illustrious recipient of that award-Satyam Computers. The company does seem sincere on 'green engineering'(investing 2400crores), financial disclosures(like Enron, all it needed was someone to patiently pore through the disclosures) and corporate philanthropy. And the promoter's rags to riches story is commendable(aka Satyam's Raju). His judgement calls have worked right before, and he MAY have a magic solution to this morass. 

But all that does not compensate for dodgy structuring practices. Even the market seems to realize this, with the severe penalty to even whispers of doubt about the company's stability.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Independent directors/auditors-not busines advisors but rats ditching sinking ships

Whether it be Money Matters, SKS Microfinance, Satyam or companies caught in a legal/regulatory tussle, a few things inevitably happens. The auditors resign/refuse to seek reappointment, and so do the independent directors. This was evident during the Money Matters case(top executives of the company were accused of bribing loan sanctioning officials for seeking loan approval of their clients). The scam broke out in Dec-10, and within a month, the statutory auditor AND the independent directors resigned, leaving the others to bear the brunt. Now, I understand that noone like to be associated with failure. But the reason for resigning certainly is not due to professional grounds. If they had tried to bring changes within and failed, then I would understand. But abandoning a scam hit company, at the time it needs third party help the most, is quite unethical, to say the least.

During every corporate governance debate etc, it is alleged that Indian companies are 'family run' and not 'professionally managed'. The hypothesis is that when owners take a back seat leaving the steering to professional management and independent directors, it is best for the company. But, these are the very people who will abandon ship at the first sign of trouble. Right from the junior employees to the senior CEO level guys, they have little invested in jumping ship. No wonder then, that 'seth companies' may prefer loyal employees from their own region/language etc, who will stick with them through thick and thin. Same for independent directors also.

Now, auditors are not really expected to advice the company, except maybe on improving its controls. But independent directors have a fiduciary duty to the shareholders(besides the company itself). At times when promoters are arrested(like Money Matters/Unitech), it gives independent directors a golden opportunity to step up to the plate, take control and prove their worth. But no, the gutless wimps prefer to resign. If like in Satyam, they had acquiesced in the events leading to disaster, then I can understand(they have no moral right to stay on then), but otherwise it is quite timid of them to resign. 
Takeaway: Show me 1 company whose existing  independent directors steered it from crisis to renewed success. The fact that one is hard pressed to think, proves my point.