Kingfisher debacle to United Spirits row: Charting out the great fall of Vijay Mallya

vijay-mallya1Vivek Kaul

Vijay Mallya is too much of a stiff upper lip to have ever read the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. But if he has, he would know, that one of Ghalib’s most famous couplets, fits the current situation that Mallya is in, very well.
Sometime in the nineteenth century Ghalib wrote:

Nikalna khuld se aadam ka soonte aaye hain lekin
Bahot be-aabru hokar tere kooche se hum nikle

(We have heard about the dismissal of Adam from Heaven,
With more humiliation, I left the street on which you live…

Source of translation:

The board of United Spirits Ltd, India’s largest liquor company, has asked Mallya to step down as the Chairman of the company. The liquor baron may have been involved in financial irregularities as per an internal probe carried out by the company.
In a press release dated April 25, 2015, the company said: “The inquiry covered various matters, including certain doubtful receivables, advances and deposits. The inquiry revealed that between 2010 and 2013, funds involved in many of these transactions were diverted from the Company and/or its subsidiaries to certain UB Group companies, including in particular, Kingfisher Airlines Limited…The inquiry also suggests that the manner in which certain transactions were conducted, prima facie, indicates various improprieties and legal violations.”
Mallya in true Indian style has refused to bow out. ““All I wish to say is that I intend to continue as chairman of USL in the normal manner. This includes chairing monthly operating review meetings and board meetings,”
he told the Mint newspaper.
Where does this confidence come from? Mallya personally holds 0.01% shares in United Spirits. United Breweries Holdings Ltd (controlled by Mallya) holds 2.90%. Other investment companies controlled by Mallya own around another 1.18%. So Mallya’s holding in United Spirits is down to a little over 4%.
Diageo, the British company to which Mallya sold United Spirits, owns 54.78% of United Spirits. Mallya’s confidence stems from the fact that while selling United Spirits, Mallya and Diageo entered into an agreement, as per which Diageo has to endorse Mallya as the Chairman of United Spirits. This, till Mallya has a stake in United Spirits.
Given this, the stage is set out for a messy legal battle, which will continue for sometime to come. Nevertheless, the question is how did Mallya end up in the mess that he has? One reason was that he took his flamboyant style a little too seriously and ended up starting Kingfisher Airlines in 2005.
Airlines are huge cash guzzlers. As Warren Buffett has said in the past: “
The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers. Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down. The airline industry’s demand for capital ever since that first flight has been insatiable. Investors have poured money into a bottomless pit, attracted by growth when they should have been repelled by it.
Kingfisher Airlines became Mallya’s bottomless pit. Mallya was in a rush to buy planes. He had plans of buying one Airbus A-320 every month until March 2012. All this needed a lot of money. Mallya loaded up on debt from public sector banks. At the same time, Mallya being Mallya could not have run a low cost airline. In a October 2012 article,
Tehalka quotes an aviation sector CEO as saying: “Food served in KFA[Kingfisher Airlines], recalls an aviation sector CEO, was about Rs 700-800 per passenger compared to Rs 300 of Jet’s.”
Other than this Mallya was in a hurry to fly Kingfisher to international destinations. A domestic airline was allowed to do that only once it had completed five years of operation. That meant that Kingfisher would be allowed to fly abroad only by 2010. Mallya did not have the patience to wait for that long. He bought Air Deccan in 2007 to get around the regulation. He ended up overpaying for the low cost airline.
Further, he rebranded Air Deccan as Kingfisher Red. By doing this he diluted the premier positioning that Kingfisher Airlines had acquired in the minds of the consumer. The philosophy required to run a premium brand is totally different in comparison to the philosophy required to run a low cost brand. Hence, Mallya buying Air Deccan was mistake. And then changing its name to Kingfisher Red was an even bigger mistake.
So in the end this did not work and Mallya decided to close down Kingfisher Red. He explained it by saying that “We are doing away with Kingfisher Red, we do not want to compete in the low-cost segment. We cannot continue to fly and make losses, but we have to be judicious to give choice to our customers.”
It is very difficult to run a full-service airline as well as a low cost airline at the same time. The basic philosophy required in running these two kind of careers is completely different from one another. The full service Kingfisher also soon ran into trouble leaving Mallya with a lot of debt. He had got terrible publicity for not paying the salaries of employees of Kingfisher Airlines.
Other than running the liquor and the airline business, Mallya also has interests in real estate. Over and above this, he also indulged in expensive hobbies by buying a formula one and an IPL cricket team. Running an airline is a full time business and can’t be done in a part-time sort of way which Mallya did.
The best Indian companies in the last few decades have made money by concentrating on one line of business. Airtel made money in telecom. It did not make money trying to sell us insurance and mutual funds. The same stands true about DLF. Tata, Birla and Ambani, all lost money in the retail business. Businesses over the years have become more complicated. And just because a promoter has been good at one particular business doesn’t mean it will be good at another totally unrelated business. Mallya did the same with his main liquor business, which he is now losing control of.
Over the last few years, Mallya has been battling the banks which have been going after his assets, for all the debt that is unpaid. To conclude, Mallya has always been too busy living his flamboyant lifestyle and that seems to have caught up with his businesses in the end.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared on on Apr 27, 2015

Yun hota to kya hota?

hitlerVivek Kaul

In August 2014, the world marked the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Over the years, a lot of analysis has happened on why the First World War happened. But what most historians do not talk about in their elaborate theories is that the War might have started just because a car happened to take a wrong turn.
At around 11 AM on June 28, 1914, a chauffeur of an automobile carrying two passengers in Sarajevo, happened to make a wrong turn. The car wasn’t supposed to make this turn and leave the main street. But due to the mistake of the chauffeur it ended up in a narrow lane and stopped right in front of a Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old student. But that wasn’t Princip’s only identity. He was also a member of the Serbian terrorist organization
Black Hand.
Princip couldn’t believe his luck. He drew out his pistol and fired twice killing the two passengers in the car. Princip had recognized them and gone ahead and pulled the trigger. They were Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Earlier in the day, Princip and his friends who “wanted to promote the cause of a greater Serbia,” had unsuccessfully tried toassassinate Archduke Ferdinand by lobbing a grenade at him. The attempt had gone wrong and Princip had escaped and walked into the narrow lane to have a light snack. And there he ran into Archduke Ferdinand.
The assassination led to a series of events in a politically fragile Europe and started what was first known as the Great War and later came to be known as the First World War. As Mark Buchanan writes in
Ubiquity “The First World War is the archetypal example of an unanticipated upheaval in world history, the war sparked by ‘the most famous wrong turn in history,’ and one may optimistically suppose that such an exceptional case is never likely to be repeated.
Historians over the years have analysed a number of reasons that caused the First World War. As Ed Smith writes in
Luck—A Fresh Look At Fortune “In this version of history, the assassination merely lit the fuse, but the tinderbox would have surely exploded anyway.”
Would that have been the case? “Perhaps. But had Princip
not killed Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the outbreak of the First World War would have at the very least been delayed. A war delayed is a war averted.”
Hence, it is a very interesting “counterfactual” to consider as to “what if” the Archduke’s chauffeur had not made that wrong turn that he did in June 1918. Possibly, the First World War would have never happened and the world would have turned out to be a much safer place. As Buchanan writes “When the First World War ended five years later, 10 million lay dead. Europe fell into an uncomfortable quiet that lasted twenty years, and then the Second World War claimed another 30 million. In just three decades, the world had suffered two engulfing cataclysms. Why? Was it all due to the chauffeur’s mistake?”
A few years after the chauffeur’s wrong turn, on December 13, 1931, an English politician “perhaps forgetting that American cars drive on the right-hand side of the road” met with an accident. The car was travelling at the speed of 35 miles per hour and could have easily killed him. But he survived and even wrote a 2400 word article detailing his “near-death” experience and made £600 in the process. The politician was Winston Churchill, who would successfully defend the United Kingdom against Germany during the course of the Second World War.
The question to ask if what would have happened if Churchill had died on that day. “There would have been no Churchill…to take over from Neville Chamberlain, no Churchill to galvanize Britain as it stood alone in 1940. What then? A successful German invasion…an occupied Nazi Britain…an isolationist America staying out of the War…And the whole history of the second half of the twentieth century would have been radically different,” writes Smith.
All this because there would have been no Winston Churchill to take on Adolf Hitler. But what if there had been no Adolf Hitler? A few months before Churchill was knocked down in New York, a young Englishman called John Scott-Ellis was spending sometime in Munich, Germany so that he could learn a new language.
As Smith points out “After a week in his new city, on a clear sunny day, Scott-Ellis bought his gleaming red Fiat and gave it a test drive around the streets of Munich…But a pedestrian crossed the road without looking left – just as Chruchill would do on Fifth Avenue[New York] four months later. ‘He walked off the pavement, more or less straight into my car,’ Scott-Ellis recalled.”
The pedestrian did not seriously injured himself. Three years later while waiting for an opera to start Scott-Eliss ran into that man again and introduced himself. He asked the man, whether he remembered about the accident, the man did.
Scott-Ellis did well in life and “became one of the great British racehorse owners”. As Smith writes “He often told the story of that crash in Munich in 1931: ‘For a few seconds, perhaps, I held the history of Europe in my rather clumsy hands. He was only shaken up, but had I killed him, it would have changed the history of the world.”
Scott-Ellis had run his car into Adolf Hitler.
History is influenced by fairly random small events, which have an overbearing impact on it. But these small random events do not make for ‘sexy’ theories that historians and analysts like to come up with and in the process these events get lost from public memory.
As Buchanan writes about all the history that has been written around what caused the First World War: “On the matter of the causes and origins of the First World War, of course, almost nothing has been left unsaid…The number of specific causes proposed is not so much smaller than the number of historians who have considered the issue, and even today major new works on the topic appear frequently. It is worth keeping in mind, of course, that all this historical ‘explanation’ has arrived well
after the fact.”
To conclude, it is worth remembering, what the great Mirza Ghalib, who had a couplet for almost everything in life, had to say on this: “
hui muddat ke ghalib mar gaya par yaad aata hai wo har ek baat par kehna ke yun hota to kya hota.

The column originally appeared in Mutual Fund Insight magazine dated Oct 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Dear PM, those who live in glass houses don't throw stones at others

The nation came to the realisation yesterday that the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh actually has a voice. And then we all came to the conclusion that just because he decided to speak, he spoke well. One commentator even went onto christen the event as “Manmohan on steroids”.
The part that the media loved the most was when Singh told the Parliament ‘
Jo garajte hain, woh baraste nahi(Thunderous clouds do not bring showers)’, a clichéd statement which was supposed to put the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party, in its place.
As far as clichés go, I would take this opportunity, to bring to your notice, dear readers, a dialogue written by Akhtar-Ul-Iman and delivered with great panache by Raj Kumar in the Yash Chopra directed Waqt. The line goes like this: “
Chinoi Seth…jinke apne ghar sheeshe ke hon, wo dusron par pathar nahi feka karte (Chinoi Seth…those who live in glass houses don’t throw stones at others).”
Now Singh may not have time to sit through a movie which runs into 206 minutes, given that he is the Prime Minister of the nation, and probably has decisions to make and things to do. But he would be well-advised to watch this 18-second YouTube clip and hopefully come to the realisation that those who live in glass houses, like Singh and his government, do not throw stones at others.
In fact, Singh’s speech to the Parliament yesterday was riddled with many inconsistent and wrong claims. It is a real surprise that the BJP has not caught onto rubbishing the arguments presented by Singh. Let us examine a few claims made by Singh:

Even BIMARU states have also done much better in UPA period than previous period: BIMARU is an acronym used for the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. These are states which have lagged in economic growth for a long period of time. There has been a recent spurt in their economic growth and this claims Singh has been because of the UPA government.
Three out of the four states (except Rajasthan) have had a non Congress-non UPA government for the entire duration of the UPA rule in Delhi. Rajasthan has had a Congress government since December 2008.
So trying to claim that the growth in these states has been only because of the UPA government is misleading to say the least. The argument is along similar lines where Congress politicians and some experts have tried to claim over and over again that Bihar has grown faster than Gujarat. Yes it has in percentage terms. But what they forget to tell us is that Gujarat is growing on a much higher base, meaning the absolute growth in Gujarat is higher. In fact, it is three times higher than that of Bihar (The entire argument is explained here).
If we look at the MSP across various commodities, they have increased by 50 to 200% since 2004-05: The government offers a minimum support price on various commodities including rice and wheat. At this price, the Food Corporation of India (FCI), or a state agency acting on its behalf, purchase primarily rice and wheat, grown by Indian farmers. The theory behind setting the MSP is that the farmer will have some idea the price he would get when he sells his produce after harvest. What it has led to is that more and more farmers are selling to the government because they have an assured buyer at an assured price. The government now has nearly Rs 60,000 crore of rice and wheat in excess of what it needs to maintain a buffer stock. While the government is hoarding onto more rice and wheat than it needs, there is a shortage of wheat and rice in the open market pushing up their prices and in turn food inflation and consumer price inflation. It has also pushed up food subsidies and fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends. And if the government continues with this policy there are likely to be other negative consequences as well. (The entire argument is explained here)
The current slowdown in industrial growth is a concern: This was the most tepid statement in the entire speech. Is it just a concern? Some of the biggest Indian industrialists have gone on record to say that they would rather invest abroad than in India. As Kumar Manglam Birla recently said in an interview “Country risk for India just now is pretty elevated and chances are that for deployment of capital, you would look to see if there is an asset overseas rather than in India…We are in 36 countries around the world. We haven’t seen such uncertainty and lack of transparency in policy anywhere.” The Birlas have known to be very close to the Congress party for a very long time.
And numbers bear this story. Indian corporates are investing abroad rather than India. In 2001-2002 this number was less than 1% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and currently it stands at 6% of the GDP (Source: This discussion featuring Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma and the Chief Economic Advisor to the government Raghuram Rajan on the news channel NDTV). So the situation is clearly more than just a concern. If Indian industrialists don’t want to invest in India who else will? Is it time to say good bye to industrial growth? Maybe the Prime Minister has an answer for that.
The economic growth has slowed down in 2012-13, because of the difficult global situation: This is something which the finance minister P Chidambaram also alluded to in his budget speech. What it tells us is that there is very little acknowledgement of mistakes that have been made by this government led by Manmohan Singh over the years.
When India was growing at growth rates of 8% and greater, there was a lot of chest thumping by various constituents of the government, that look we are growing at such a high rate. Now that we are not growing at the same speed its because of a difficult global situation.
Ruchir Sharma in a post budget discussion on the news channel NDTV made a very interesting point. India has consistently been at around 24-26
th position among 150 emerging market countries when it comes to economic growth over the last three decades.
We thought we were growing at a very fast rate over the last few years, but so was everyone else. As Sharma put it “The last decade we thought we had moved to a higher normal and it was all about us. Every single emerging market in the world boomed and the rising tide lifted all boats including us.”
But now that we are not growing as fast as we were it is because the global economy has slowed down. Sharma nicely summarised this disconnect when he said “When the downturn happens it is about the global economy. When we do well its about us.” India currently has fallen to the 40
th position when it comes to economic growth.
Will bring the country back to 8% growth rate: This is kite flying of the worst kind. As Sharma of Morgan Stanley told NDTV “I see people in government today including the Prime Minister talking about 8% GDP growth rate as if that is the level we should be. There is nothing to suggest that is our potential.”
Singh said that the government was committed to achieving a 8% growth rate for the period of the 12
th five year plan period of 2012-2017. In the first year of this plan i.e. the financial year 2012-2013 (the period between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013), the Indian economy is expected to grow at around 5%(numbers projected by the Central Statistical Organisation).
What that means is that if the 8% target is to be achieved, the economy has to consistently grow at 9% per year for the remaining four years of the plan. And India has never experienced such consistent high growth ever in the past.
Given that Singh’s statement needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. It is essentially rhetoric of the worst kind. As Nate Silver writes in The Signal and the Noise “Sometimes economic forecasts have expressively political purposes too. It turns out that economic forecasts produced by the White House , for instance, have historically been among the least accurate of all, regardless of whether it’s a Democrat or Republican in charge. When it comes to economic forecasting, however, the stakes are higher than for political punditry. As Robert Lucas pointed out, the line between economic forecasting and economic policy is very blurry: a bad forecast can make the real economy worse.” Singh’s 8% growth statement needs to be viewed along similar lines.
There were many things that Singh did not talk about. Among 150 emerging markets, the fiscal deficit of the Indian government is currently at the 148
th number. When it comes to inflation, India is currently at the 118-119th position. The current account deficit (which Singh did talk about) will touch an all time high during the course of the financial year 2012-2013. Interest rates have stubbornly refused to come down. And so on.
To conclude, Manmohan Singh was in poetic mood yesterday. “
Humko hai unse wafa ki umeed, jo nahi jaante wafa kya hai (We hope for loyalty from those who do not know the meaning of the word),” the prime minister said quoting the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, while taking pot-shots at the BJP.
It’s time the BJP got back to him with what are the most famous lines of the poet Akbar Allahabadi.
Hum aah bhi karte hain to ho jaate hain badnam,
wo qatl bhi karte hain to charcha nahi hota
(badnam = infamous. Qatl = murder. Charcha = discussion)
This article originally appeared on on March 7, 2013, with a different headline. 

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)