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Scams: Insuring against repetition

BS Bureau | December 19, 2003

The Securities and Exchange Board of India's order barring Ketan Parekh and his firms from trading in the stock market for 14 years will make no difference to market sentiment.

Some of Ketan Parekh's favourite stocks had made a comeback earlier in the year, and there was speculation about the stockbroker being back in the market.

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Sebi nipped that little racket in the bud by shifting all those stocks to the trade-to-trade category (which necessarily implies delivery for each transaction), which cooled the prices of these stocks.

To be sure, there continues to be talk in the market from time to time about Ketan Parekh's continued presence, but if the broker is indeed using dummy companies to trade or routing his transactions through third parties, it won't be easy to trace them.

The Sebi order, therefore, does little to change the situation on the ground. But the order does send a message to the market, and will be registered by all even if it was widely anticipated.

Looking ahead, the question is whether the market is better equipped to prevent a recurrence of such scams.

Sebi has said that its investigation showed Ketan Parekh's firms indulged in synchronised trades, financing transactions, circular trading, creation of artificial volumes and benchmarking of share prices by executing fake transactions that violated the integrity of the securities market and Sebi regulations.

Can there be a repeat of these practices? There have been significant improvements in the market since the scam. The most significant of these has been the demise of badla.

The opportunities for leveraging transactions under the badla mechanism, and the ability to carry forward these leveraged positions over a long period of time, no longer exist.

To be sure, transactions in the futures and options market too are leveraged, but the strict margin requirements and the provision for marking to market, make trading less risky.

While it is possible to ramp up share prices through collusive action, the shorter settlement cycle ensures that there are limits to such practices.

The other significant improvement has been in the functioning of the regulator. The creation of a trade-to-trade segment in the market, for example, is a clear indicator that Sebi is able to pro-actively take steps when undesirable market practices are suspected.

The regulator has also been hiking margin requirements regularly in response to spikes in the prices of various scrips.

Disclosure requirements have increased and are being strictly monitored, a fact brought out in companies being much more circumspect about releasing market-sensitive information.

Conduits of funny money into the stock markets, such as Overseas Corporate Bodies, have been blocked. Severe action was taken against dabba trading.

Steps have also been taken to check alleged insider trading, as the high profile action against Samir Arora illustrates.

So long as there are markets, there will be attempts at market manipulation. Recent developments in the US markets clearly show that all markets are vulnerable to collusion and manipulation.

Back home, the sharp movements in scrip prices before the announcement of important events indicate that trading on insider information is alive and well in this country.

Front running by fund managers is a well-known phenomenon. Cooperative banks are still open to misuse.

But it is also true that the Indian market has travelled a long way since Ketan Parekh's heyday both in terms of systems as well as surveillance, lowering risks for investors.

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