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The confession of a finance professional
M R Venkatesh | July 07, 2008
Every morning in the southern part of the country, mostly in my home state of Tamil Nadu, hundreds of astrologers sit below a shade, usually a tree and predict the future of their 'clients'. Their tool is a caged parrot. The mechanism - the parrot when allowed to come out of the cage is trained to pick one booklet from many that the astrologer spreads out.
And based on the clues printed in that particular booklet the astrologer predicts the future of his clients. Mostly the questions are predictable - problems relating to cash flows, business, finance, health, children and of course marriage. Years of experience has taught the astrologer to give non-standard yet satisfactory replies to these standard questions even to the most intelligent clients. Interesting, isn't it? Or is it mastery of the human psyche?
Cut to the metros. Every morning across the country, we the finance professionals begin our work as meticulously as the parrot-astrologers mentioned above, but with a crucial difference. Instead of the parrots we use laptops, and instead of the unsophisticated printed booklets, we rely on Microsoft office.
Without Excel spreadsheets and Power Point we will instantly be rendered hors de combat. Ask us any question about anything we will answer you only through these tools - even if it means introducing ourselves, our company or our services. We will use jargons or acronyms even for silly things. We have our own grammar for our operations.
The idea is to bamboozle our clients and give them an impression of being in a hurry. If a client is a multi-product company we would advice them on de-merging and concentrate on core competencies. If it is a single product company we would ask them to diversify to de-risk themselves. Never mind, in both cases we are actually experimenting with our clients at their cost.
And should a client have a rupee term loan we would advice them on a foreign currency loan and exactly the reverse should they have a forex loan. For the former we would predict the depreciation of the dollar, for the latter, the appreciation of the dollar. Who said cheese for the goose is cheese for the gander?
If we find a non-finance professional on the other side of the table we reckon that they are lambs to the slaughter. When we encounter fellow finance professionals on the other side, things are no different. After all, he would be compassionate to our cause, understand our jargons and empathise with our constraints.
In effect, others' ignorance (or their negligence) is our strength. We sell from the mundane to the complex, in the process warranting far above what we can deliver, causing much more havoc than what the clients could have ever imagined and charging much more than want is apparent. Welcome to the world of finance professionals and consultants.
You dream, we make money
We understand the fundamental human psyche far better than any other professionals with the sole exception of the parrot astrologer. We know the proclivity of businessmen to make quick money and the power of greed. We love such people. In fact, we encourage them to dream big, bigger and better. After all when you dream it is money for us.
Most of you don't waver. But if some of you do, we have the ready quotes of Shiv Kheras and Robin Sharmas of the world to motivate you, chosen with outmost care to be quoted out of context. Added to these are the real life stories of Narayana Murthys and Aziz Premjis. And when all these weapons are used, most of you fall. Only the extremely lucky escape from the heady brew that we concoct.
So, to a small timer we will recommend public issue. From being a partner of a small firm or to a private limited company, we play on his psyche and encourage him to go for a public issue. If his capacity today is 1000 MT, we easily work his profitability for 100,000 MT, never mind the availability of raw materials or ability of the person to market or any other fundamentals. Naturally profits one-hundred times the present levels can excite even a saint. Why talk of lesser mortals?
Surely, Excel spread sheets has made life easy for us. But to make life far simpler we have ready made templates, of course, with the usual disclaimers to cover our backs should something go wrong. Yet we occasionally goof up by denominating steel in litres or some liquid chemicals in meters. Our clients are very understanding - they do not find fault with us. How can they when we have bamboozled them in the first instance?
Our fundamental mantra is to calculate the earnings before Depreciation, Interest and Tax. Then we extrapolate such calculations to the next few years adjusting the prices to what we think is 'reasonable', never mind that the commodity prices are gyrating by the hour. If we decide, a four per cent variation can be serious. In the alternative a 40 per cent can be immaterial.
But if you still understand what we do, we will talk in terms of IRR, cash flows, MAT, dividend tax, tax-shield, leverage etc so as to flummox anyone. Management of most corporates wastes millions of precious man hours to check and recheck all these as if it were Bible, Koran and Veda all rolled into one. When all these happen, no wonder, we chuckle in front of you and have a hearty laugh behind you!
The next step is to approach banks for financing or other non-conventional lenders viz. venture capitalists and Private Equity. Here it is very easy for us. Since we have our own people on the other side of the table speaking our language, jargons and lingo, it becomes so easy. As we try to sell the dream of our clients, the finance professional sells his 'products'. And it takes two to a tango. Isn't it?
For us short term is few hours. Long term is a few days. And when something goes wrong we blame everyone from Bush, Iraq, Oil, Pakistan, Taliban and for that matter everyone except ourselves. And when people succeed we ensure that media covers the same adequately. On such occasions naturally we act with extreme alacrity and appropriate the credit.
Our relationship with these lenders means that it only we who can get you the funds or the facility. And when things go bad, it is only we who can bail you out. It is only our restructure package that will be accepted by these lenders. In tennis parlance - it is game, set and match for us. In chess, it is check and mate.
Horse multiplied by an ass is equal to a pig
The earnings of 30 companies that determine the BSE index is approximately Rs 1000 crores. We multiply the same with a price earning (PE - the Holy Grail) multiple of say 12 or 15 or even 21 to arrive at the BSE index. Much as all this is voodoo economics, when it is a bull market we point to markets that have a higher multiple and justify such higher prices. When it is a bear market we point out to markets with lower PE multiples to justify the market prices of shares. Either way you will lose.
Worse still, we move from channel to channel and from columns to columns using charts and what not to justify either the rise or fall in stock markets. And for the past six months we have first suggested resistance to NSE at 5,800, then at 5,400, then at 4,800, subsequently at 4,400.
In the process we had encouraged every small investor to stay invested. When all these levels have been broken, we have now suggested 3,700 little realising that an umbrella is of no use when you face a tsunami. Yet we continue without any shame or remorse to pontificate. How can you shame the shameless?
And when people survive all these, we tutor them to repurchase their shares or better still de-list. And should they have surplus cash even for a movement we move in silently as the big cats move in for their kill and make the gullible invest in commodities, real estate or some other exotic markets.
Better still, we advice on mergers or amalgamating with some other companies or better still sell the stake to others. Yes, in all these transactions we are interested.
And on all these, whether you make profit or loss, we would ensure that we make money first-up. Naturally, we see money in every transaction, why every part of a transaction. We would encourage one set to sell and other set to buy, and broker the deal both ways. Of course we do profit both ways. Did I hear that dirty word called ethics? Remember, we see value in everything except in values themselves.
But what is surprising is that despite what we do blatantly remains beyond the comprehension of many. Consequently as a class we remain un-critiqued. No wonder as the cliche goes, what is obvious is usually the most oblivious. This allows us, like the astrologer in the streets of South India, to endlessly play on the psyche of men and their greed.
PS: We believe, we can sell anything to anybody and buy anything from anybody. If only the PM had hired us, we would have sold even the nuclear deal to the Leftists.
The author is a Chennai based Chartered Accountant. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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