Wondering where all those Arthur Andersen accountants went? It may have been India.
It’s tempting to make that mental leap amid Satyam Computer Services Ltd’s book-cooking scandal. B. Ramalinga Raju is no longer the entrepreneur who built India’s fourth biggest software maker. He’s now allegedly the nation’s answer to Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron Corp. chief executive officer serving a 24-year prison term.
Satyam’s crisis may be more jaw-dropping than Enron’s in 2001. It’s not just the magnitude of the scam—53,000 employees may lose their jobs compared with 5,000 at Enron—but the simplicity.
Enron’s fraud was conducted through a labyrinth of off balance sheet deals and other accounting gimmicks. Accounting firm Arthur Andersen approved the company’s financial creativity and collapsed in 2002. Enron didn’t make it easy for the auditor.
Satyam’s con was impossibly transparent: The Hyderabad-based company said it had $1 billion (Rs4,860 crore) in the bank that it didn’t.
Raju said he inflated earnings and assets. Assuming he’s telling the truth, you would think auditor Price Waterhouse (an arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers Llp.) or board members could have cleared up a mess years in the making with a phone call, a fax machine or even a postage stamp. Management says it has a mountain of cash in the bank and you just flat-out believe it?
And why did the World Bank appear to know more about Satyam’s business practices than everyone else? Last month, the Washington-based lender declared Satyam ineligible for contracts for eight years, alleging improper benefits were given to the bank’s employees.
If Raju’s version of the story is the right one, it raises a stark question: Could a moderately sized start-up company claim to have $1 billion or $2 billion in cash and then go public without observers delving deeper?
Then again, Raju’s claims have yet to be proven. Investigations are afoot and no one is talking publicly—no comments all around from auditors and Raju, who was arrested along with brother Rama Raju on 9 January.
“There can be two possibilities,” says Ved Jain, president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India. “One, the auditor has been negligent. Second, he was aware and intentionally overlooked it.”
The bigger question, of course, is what else is hiding below the surface in Asia’s third biggest economy. Is this “Enron moment” merely the tip of the iceberg? Or will it have a chastening effect that leaves India better off five years from now? It’s impossible to know.
The days of giving corporate executives the benefit of the doubt are long gone. The shenanigans at Enron, WorldCom Inc. and Parmalat SpA have even lost their shock value following the failure of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and financier Bernard Madoff’s alleged $50 billion fraud.
Clearly, this isn’t an India-specific problem. It’s important to remember that India’s economy and 1.2 billion people have vast potential. This is as much a setback for global corporate governance as it is for Indian officials.
Yet, this is the second big blow to Indian companies in recent months. It’s unclear how the Mumbai terror attacks in November that left 183 people dead will affect business. The Satyam affair has only compounded concerns that foreign investors will view India less favourably.
Arun Kejriwal, founder of Kejriwal Research and Investment Services in Mumbai, spoke for many when he said: “This is a black day for India.”
The reason is, this scandal involves India’s premier global industry. That amplifies the economic ripple effect. It’s anyone’s guess whether the government will heed calls for a public bailout.
Credit Suisse Group analysts Nilesh Jasani and Arya Sen advised investors in a report last week to own shares of Indian companies with “good corporate governance” as Satyam’s troubles may prompt disclosure of more one-time losses. That’s all well and good, yet that’s what Satyam investors thought they had done.
The last decade has been disorienting for investors, especially the last 12 months. First it was regulators asleep on the job, then credit rating companies and then accountants.
Raju, 54, was named Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007. It seems he was far more entrepreneurial than regulators knew. Raju presumably also fooled Satyam’s board of directors. In a letter to the board last week, Raju could have been speaking for shareholders when he said that hiding the truth “was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”.
Things just got harder for India at the worst time imaginable. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expects the economy to grow about 7% in the 12 months ending 31 March. Even if that rate is achieved, global trends have turned decidedly against India’s prospects.
Two months ago, officials in New Delhi were still saying India was less vulnerable to the global credit crisis than Asian peers. Two stimulus packages since early December, four interest rate cuts since October and Satyam’s woes all belie that claim.
The risk is that recent events will reduce the foreign investment needed to maintain rapid growth and spread its benefits. India’s 2009 just got a bit more precarious.
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