When it comes to investing in the stock market in Sri Lanka nowadays, the chorus that has regrettably echoed has been market manipulation and State-owned funds losing billions of money by investing in the stock market.
Market manipulation or creating a ‘false market’ or one of its more locally familiar tributaries ‘pump and dump’ has a long, eventful and storied history. From the Tulip Mania of the 1600s all the way to the recent US housing bubble that precipitated the global financial crisis, market manipulators have employed all-and-sundry tactics to skim the wallets of gullible investors.
Manipulated markets have come in all domains and dimensions. The Erie War of 1867 where Jay Gould a director of Erie Railroad Company converted debentures illegally and then bribed the legislators to make the conversion legal is one historical example. The CEO of Enron, Jeff Skilling, who made use of accounting loopholes and misappropriated investments to keep billions in debt off the books and then coercing the reputed Accounting Firm, Arthur Anderson to play along, in addition to the great internet swindle where two UCLA students in 1999 drove the stock of a bankrupt printing company from 13 US cents to more than US $15 in two trading days, and booking over $350,000 in profits thereby demonstrating how the Internet has given a new dimension to the old game of stock market fraud, are all more recent but dramatic examples.
What happened to the Colombo stock market in 2011 and early 2012 has been distressing to those who had exposure to our stock market and to those who make a living from the industry. Although some have blamed SEC, CSE, retail investors, high net worth investors, state owned funds, politicians, the financial press and stockbrokers, all are culpable for the state of affairs today. The damage is done and stock brokers have lost much of their good standing and public respect today. The investment profession stands at cross roads. Time has come for each and every one of us in this industry to take personal responsibility and act in an ethical manner to take our industry to a higher level. Now is the time for action to rebuild the confidence.
The painful truth is that investor trust in the investment industry has been diminished in recent years be it here in Sri Lanka or globally. Polls have shown that people mistrust financial advisors and believe most are greedy, dishonest and the game is rigged. The root cause of all these problems is a failure of self-control and short-sightedness. The erosion of values and morals of a few have made a whole industry suffer the consequences. People are tired of reading negative commentary in the newspapers about the stock market and certain investments made by State-owned funds. The public will not see the good from the bad and the ugly.
Developing a relationship of trust is a foremost priority for finance professionals. They always need to put their client’s interests ahead of themselves and never let their personal interests and temptations get ahead of doing the right thing for their clients. The compliance records of the best advisors are virtually spotless. They have to be principled individuals and have demonstrated those principles from the beginning of their careers. They recognise that they are in their careers for the long term with great deal of patience and are willing to make less money initially to develop a long-term relationship of trust.
They know there is tremendous advantage in having satisfied clients, because satisfied clients provide referrals and are willing to bring more money in once the relationship of trust is established. When clients trust their advisor, they will follow their advisor’s guidance. A relationship built on trust takes time to earn, but once established, it’s priceless. At Heraymila, safeguarding our reputation is supreme, because it takes 20 years to build reputation and a minute to ruin it. Warren Buffett once said, “Lose money for the firm, I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, I will be ruthless” — a rule, he said, is generally applied at Berkshire.
The time has come for everyone in the industry to act and take personal ownership for restoring trust. Firstly, we need a bolder voice for professional ethics as there has never been a greater need to conform to a robust code of moral principles. Secondly, let us focus on financial activities that enable economic and social progress, rather than on finance as an end unto itself. Businesses exist thanks to a social contract granted in exchange for an expectation of professional services. In today’s atmosphere of mistrust, we must reconnect our profession with the public interest. Thirdly, let us extend our knowledge, our skills and our behaviours to wider communities within the field of finance. Leadership means sharing, teaching, and engaging. That means we mentor and inspire colleagues. It means we share and engage with peers, regulators, clients, and our service providers.
It is imperative that State-owned institutional funds that manage public funds have proper governance structures by adapting globally accepted standards of best practice such as the ‘CFA Institute Asset Manager Code,’ which specifically state that asset managers should:
1.Act in good faith the best interest of the beneficiaries of the funds whose livelihood after retirement largely depends on performance of these funds
2.Act with prudence and reasonable care.
3.Act with skill, competence, and diligence.
4.Maintain independence and objectivity by, among other actions, avoiding conflicts of interest, refraining from buying stocks at inflated prices, following orders from top management who have vested interests and refusing to take any kickbacks from service providers such as stockbrokers that could reasonably be expected to affect their independence (the financial press is full of acquisitions of how these funds are managed in Sri Lanka today).
5.Abide by all applicable laws, rules, and regulations, including the terms of the scheme documents.
6.Deal fairly, objectively, and impartially with all participants and beneficiaries.
7.Take actions that are consistent with the established mission of the fund and the policies that support that mission.
8.Review on a regular basis the efficiency and effectiveness of the fund’s success in meeting its goals, including assessing the performance and actions of scheme service providers, such as investment managers, consultants, and actuaries.
9.Maintain confidentiality of scheme, participant, and beneficiary information.
10. Communicate the performance of the funds with participants, beneficiaries, and supervisory authorities in a timely, accurate, and transparent manner. (Information such as the year on year performance of the part of the state owned fund invested on the stock market benched marked against ASPI would help alleviate a lot of criticism about their investment practices).
A collection of 50 things investment professionals can all do called ‘The Integrity List’ to help restore trust in the industry has been developed by the CFA Institute. Forty of those relevant to stock broking companies and investment advisers in Sri Lanka are itemised in the table. If all stock broking firms and investment advisors use them as part of their professional practice, advocate them at their firm, regaining the trust and confidence of our investors in Sri Lanka will not be too far away.
I leave you with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “If you want to change the world, you must begin with yourself. You must first become the change that you want to see in the world.”
(The writer is Chief Executive Officer at Heraymila Securities Ltd., a subsidiary of Heraymila Investments Ltd. (HIL) UAE. HIL directly manages over 290 million dollars of private and public investments on behalf of Abdulaziz Al Mashal’s family office.)