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'If people have to trust markets, we have to offer risk-free products'

July 07, 2015 15:13 IST

Ashish Chauhan is generous in his praise for his former bosses and doesn't flinch in pointing out the reasons why the BSE lost out in the initial years of the NSE. 

Image: Ashish Chauhan, CEO of the Bombay Stock Exchange with Kajal Agarwal during the Muhurat Trading session. Photograph, courtesy: BSE.

"Frankly, I was not interested in joining the BSE," reminisces 47-year-old Ashishkumar Chauhan, managing director & CEO of the 140 year-old BSE, Asia's oldest stock exchange.

It was September 2009 and, as president and chief information officer of Reliance Industries, Chauhan had a cushy job, and a problem-ridden BSE, formerly Bombay Stock Exchange, hardly had any pull factor.

It was primarily an exchange for Mumbai brokers with very few outsiders and militant trade unions to boot. Apparently, there was betting among BSE brokers on his joining, with the odds heavily against it.

So what made him join after all? It turns out the BSE was negotiating with Chauhan to buy his 120-strong software-for-brokers family firm, and the exchange put a condition of a year of hand-holding to help integrate the software firm with itself. But why did he not leave once the lock-in was over?

"It was more like a challenge, you try to stay useful for the company, and the BSE had several challenges - in people, technology, products and distribution."

He stayed back, helped the BSE get its derivatives play right, and when the then CEO, Madhu Kannan, quit to join the Tata group, Chauhan took the corner office in late 2012.

Chauhan is on one of his regular Delhi visits, and we're meeting for lunch at the Taj Mahal Hotel's Indian restaurant Varq. He politely turns down the steward's suggestion of what sounds like an elaborate buffet, saying he's a diabetic and sticks to a la carte to avoid overeating.

Chauhan is a vegetarian, and I, too, settle for the same, partly because the scorching heat of Delhi has left me with little appetite for non-vegetarian food.

We order some subz ganderi kebabs for starters, and chhole martabaan, nadru aur anjeer curry with a roti basket for the main course.

Interestingly, Chauhan had been part of the founding team at the National Stock Exchange of India (NSE) in 1993.

The new, screen-trading based national exchange had given the then broker-run BSE a bloody nose, and outmanoeuvred it for the numero uno position. As BSE's CEO for two-and-half years now, how does he look back at that time?

Chauhan is generous in his praise for his former bosses and doesn't flinch in pointing out the reasons why the BSE lost out in the initial years of the NSE.

"Two things worked for the NSE - the perception that the BSE was a brokers' club, and the new exchange's CEO-led organisation.

The NSE was singularly lucky in getting good people - first Dr R H Patil and then Ravi Narain."

By the time the government-led demutualisation happened at the BSE in 2005-06, the time derivatives volume was taking off on Indian exchanges and the NSE already had its act together, whereas the BSE was still grappling with legacy issues.

I try to draw him back to competition between the BSE and the NSE now, and how his exchange is still far behind the leader, but Chauhan deftly skirts around the issue and says what he wants you to hear. "The NSE succeeded because of technology - satellite-based communication network et al. With technology changing fast, most businesses today are becoming non-linear payoffs."

Then he goes on and lists areas he thinks will be crucial for an exchange business in the future, and where the BSE currently is ahead of the NSE - an SME exchange, mutual fund distribution, offer-for-sale, debt distribution.

"For me, these are all future bets. Even if one of these become big, it will be a game changer. Do you know the BSE today is the largest contributor of systematic investment plans (SIPs) for the mutual fund industry with over 170,000 SIPs going through us?"

Chauhan throws in figures for effect. "And we're getting into commodities, too, and would be ready to start once regulatory approvals are through."

The kebabs are succulent; pity there were only five. The main course arrives soon enough and the conversation veers towards his formative years.

How did he manage to find a place in the five-member-strong founding team of the NSE, which had IDBI veterans like Dr R H Patil and Ravi Narain, also part of the team that set up market regulator Sebi?

"I guess I was the only Gujarati in the team and could communicate with the brokers in their language," Chauhan says in a lighter vein.

"I studied in a Gujarati-medium school till class 12 and, truth be told, I was not comfortable with English for a very long time."

Perhaps what worked in his favour was that he was the only engineer in that team, from an IIT to boot, and had already gained a reputation for being tech savvy in his one-and-a-half years at IDBI, and the NSE needed to harness all the technology it could to challenge the dominance of big daddy BSE.

"Technology changes pattern and behaviour in unexpected ways. It happened to Google, Facebook and Twitter later on. When I look back, something of the sort happened with the NSE, too, only that it is clear only in hindsight, as those days we were just bumbling through one problem after another."

Seven years with the NSE and right in the middle of the dotcom boom, Chauhan quit to launch his first entrepreneurial venture in an business-to-business exchange platform in, a software-as-service kind of model, with Reliance Industries as an investor.

And, like most things dotcom at that time, the venture didn't work out. "By the time we launched in early 2001, e-commerce was already going down and we were staring at a bleak future."

 Chauhan stayed back and started working for Reliance and created its e-ommerce framework, which he claims was very successful. And, with Reliance, he even got an opportunity to dabble in the sports business, becoming Reliance-owned IPL team Mumbai Indians chief executive in its formative years.

The main course over, and Chauhan suggests we try the apple kheer.

The Indian stock market might have adopted cutting-edge technology in the past 20 years and regulation, too, has become much stricter, but why is it that individual investors have stayed away from it?

Chauhan doesn't mince words and gets almost evangelical: "It is a collective failure of the financial sector in not being able to give comfort and safety to retail investors. For me, in the past 140 years of stock market history, it has given only two kind of products - risky and riskier, equities and derivatives, respectively. If people have to trust the markets, we have to get into risk-free products."

Chauhan says he has been talking with the Reserve Bank of India to allow primary auction of government bonds, ostensibly the most risk-free investment, on the exchange platform.

He says for a developing country like India, with a need to create millions of new jobs, entrepreneurship has to be promoted, and for that exchanges have to focus primarily on facilitating fund raising, with trading becoming secondary.

But isn't the whole business model of the exchanges and the brokers built around transactions, and often for the sake of it?

Chauhan admits as much. "If the markets have to remain relevant to the economy and society, they have to stand up and be counted." Brave words.

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