November 05, 2020

Will Someone Please Think About The Affected FT Investors?

I just finished reading the Karnataka High Court judgement.  I am a slow reader, hence it took me a while.  Based on my limited grasp of legalese, the foremost thing that stood out for me is that this judgement has asserted the need for investors’ approval as a pre-requisite to the winding up of an open-end scheme.  Unfortunately, investors are not guaranteed the best, or even a good outcome.  And for some investors, there is also the possibility of more delay in their plight being resolved.

The single most sacred right of an investor in an open-end fund is to be able to redeem his/her investments at fair value, and at will.  I believe that this is a right that every fund house, and indeed SEBI, should seek to preserve at all cost.  Seen from that angle, the decision to wind up 6 schemes, especially the way it played out, represents a joint failure on the part of Franklin Templeton (FT) and SEBI in that it robbed investors of their right to redeem at will.  The one saving grace about this decision was that it was better than doing a fire sale of the securities.

As for the legal petitions, they may well have been with the best of intentions, but it seems that the plight of the investors was never a matter of direct consideration before the court.  Instead, it appears that the lawyers of the petitioners were more keen to argue about technical aspects of the mutual fund regulations, about the role of SEBI, and about the legality of the actions of FT AMC and the trustees of the affected schemes. 

However, in this judgement, I see one bright spot.  I see the court’s criticism of SEBI as a positive, that allows it a free reign to do whatever it thinks is right, for the sake of protecting investors.  Add to that the fact that the court did not allow the course of action chosen by FT to go ahead, even if on a technicality.  Put together, these two things, in my humble opinion and limited understanding, provide FT and SEBI a way to go back to the drawing board and think about a better course of action than the one previously chosen.

I think it is imperative for them to do so, for investors to have faith in the open-end structure that is the lifeline of most mutual fund investors.  It is convenient to dismiss this episode, as some have, as a one-off incident that affected investors in a single fund house.  It is easy to say that this was triggered by the hubris and overconfidence of a single CIO.   None of that can wish away the possibility of similar events happening again.  More importantly, none of that can take away the fact that what happened is a deep tragedy for investors, and one whose memory is likely to persist for a long, long time.

When disaster strikes in the real world (or rather, outside the financial world), we hear of ex-gratia payments made to the affected.  Not for a minute am I suggesting that we have something similar for financial disasters.  But it’s worth considering why such payments happen.  In my view, those payments are a tacit acknowledgement that such disasters are, first and foremost, a tragedy, and should be treated as such, and that the cause and attribution can be analyzed later.  I would urge FT and SEBI, and indeed all of us, to look at what has happened in the same way.

Special thanks to Robin Jehangir for his invaluable inputs.

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