By Jayanth R Varma
I am asserting the opposite of the conventional wisdom that foreign portfolio investment is fickle while foreign direct investment is more reliable. The conventional wisdom was on display late in 2014, when news reports suggested the parliament’s apparent willingness to allow foreign direct investment in the insurance sector, but not foreign portfolio investment.
The conventional wisdom is propagated by macro economists who look at the volatility of aggregate capital flows.
It is abundantly clear that portfolio flows stop and reverse during crisis periods (“sudden stops”) while FDI flows are more stable. Things look very different at the enterprise level, but economists working in microeconomics and corporate finance who can see a different world often do not bother to discuss policy issues.
Let me therefore give an example from the Indian banking industry to illustrate what I mean. In the late 1990s, after the Asian Crisis, one of the largest banks in the world decided that Asia was a dangerous place to do banking and sold a significant part of their banking operations in India and went home. That is what I mean by fickle FDI. At the same time, foreign portfolio investors were providing tons of patient capital to Indian private banks like HDFC, ICICI and Axis to grow their business in India. In the mid 1990s, many people thought that liberalization would allow foreign banks to thrive; in reality, they lost market share (partly due to the fickleness and short termism of their parents), and it is the Indian banks funded by patient foreign portfolio capital that gained a large market share.
In 2007, as the Great Moderation was about to end, but markets were still booming, ICICI Bank tapped the markets to raise $5 billion of equity capital (mainly from foreign portfolio investors) in accordance with the old adage of raising equity when it is available and not when it is needed. The bank therefore entered the global financial crisis with a large buffer of capital originally intended to finance its growth a couple of years ahead. During the crisis, even this buffer was perceived to be inadequate and the bank needed to downsize the balance sheet to ensure its survival. But without that capital buffer raised in good times, its position would have been a lot worse; it might even have needed a government bailout.
Now imagine that instead of being funded by portfolio capital, ICICI had been owned by say Citi. Foreign parents do not like to fund their subsidiaries ahead of need; they prefer to drip feed the subsidiary with capital as and when needed. In fact, if the need is temporary, the parent usually provides a loan instead of equity so that it can be called back when it is no longer needed. So the Indian subsidiary would have entered the crisis without that large capital buffer. During the crisis, the ability of the embattled parent to provide a large capital injection into its Indian operations would have been highly questionable. Very likely, the Indian subsidiary would have ended up as a ward of the state.
Macro patterns hide these interesting micro realities. The conventional wisdom ignores the fact that enterprise level risk management works to counter the vagaries of the external funding environment. It ignores the standard insight from the markets versus hierarchies literature that a funding that relies on a large number of alternate providers of capital is far more resilient than one that relies on just one provider of capital. In short it is time to overturn the conventional wisdom.
Prof. Jayanth R. Varma is a professor of finance at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmadabad.
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