Ashish Kumar Chauhan, BSE says it is almost 10 years since BSE was demutualised so 2007 since then BSE has been trying to do the listing and now hopefully we are closer to it one more step.
Chauhan graduated from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay) with a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1989, after which he joined Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIM Calcutta) for an MBA. After graduating from IIM-C in 1991, Chauhan joined IDBI Bank.
Interestingly, Chauhan had been part of the founding team at the National Stock Exchange of India (NSE) in 1993. The new, screen-trading based national exchange had given the then broker-run BSE a bloody nose, and outmanoeuvred it for the numero uno position. As BSE’s CEO for two-and-half years now, how does he look back at that time?
Chauhan is generous in his praise for his former bosses and doesn’t flinch in pointing out the reasons why the BSE lost out in the initial years of the NSE. “Two things worked for the NSE – the perception that the BSE was a brokers’ club, and the new exchange’s CEO-led organisation. The NSE was singularly lucky in getting good people – first Dr R H Patil and then Ravi Narain.” By the time the government-led demutualisation happened at the BSE in 2005-06, the time derivatives volume was taking off on Indian exchanges and the NSE already had its act together, whereas the BSE was still grappling with legacy issues.
I try to draw him back to competition between the BSE and the NSE now, and how his exchange is still far behind the leader, but Chauhan deftly skirts around the issue and says what he wants you to hear. “The NSE succeeded because of technology – satellite-based communication network et al. With technology changing fast, most businesses today are becoming non-linear payoffs.”
Then he goes on and lists areas he thinks will be crucial for an exchange business in the future, and where the BSE currently is ahead of the NSE – an SME exchange, mutual fund distribution, offer-for-sale and debt distribution. “For me, these are all future bets. Even if one of these becomes big, it will be a game changer. Do you know the BSE today is the largest contributor of systematic investment plans (SIPs) for the mutual fund industry with over 170,000 SIPs going through us?” Chauhan throws in figures for effect. “And we’re getting into commodities, too, and would be ready to start once regulatory approvals are through.”
The kebabs are succulent; pity is there are only five. The main course arrives soon enough and the conversation veers towards his formative years. How did he manage to find a place in the five-member-strong founding team of the NSE, which had IDBI veterans like Dr R H Patil and Ravi Narain, also part of the team that set up market regulator Sebi? “I guess I was the only Gujarati in the team and could communicate with the brokers in their language,” Chauhan says in a lighter vein. “I studied in a Gujarati-medium school till class 12 and, truth be told, I was not comfortable with English for a very long time.” Perhaps what worked in his favour was that he was the only engineer in that team, from an IIT to boot, and had already gained a reputation for being tech savvy in his one-and-a-half years at IDBI, and the NSE needed to harness all the technology it could to challenge the dominance of big daddy BSE.
“Technology changes pattern and behaviour in unexpected ways. It happened to Google, Facebook and Twitter later on. When I look back, something of the sort happened with the NSE, too, only that it is clear only in hindsight, as those days we were just bumbling through one problem after another.”
Seven years with the NSE and right in the middle of the dotcom boom, Chauhan quit to launch his first entrepreneurial venture in an business-to-business exchange platform in exchangenext.com, a software-as-service kind of model, with Reliance Industries as an investor. And, like most things dotcom at that time, the venture didn’t work out. “By the time we launched in early 2001, e-commerce was already going down and we were staring at a bleak future.” Chauhan stayed back and started working for Reliance and created its e-commerce framework, which he claims was very successful. And, with Reliance, he even got an opportunity to dabble in the sports business, becoming Reliance-owned IPL team Mumbai Indians chief executive in its formative years.
The main course over, and Chauhan suggests we try the apple kheer. The Indian stock market might have adopted cutting-edge technology in the past 20 years and regulation, too, has become much stricter, but why is it that individual investors have stayed away from it? Chauhan doesn’t mince words and gets almost evangelical: “It is a collective failure of the financial sector in not being able to give comfort and safety to retail investors. For me, in the past 140 years of stock market history, it has given only two kinds of products – risky and riskier, equities and derivatives, respectively. If people have to trust the markets, we have to get into risk-free products.” Chauhan says he has been talking with the Reserve Bank of India to allow primary auction of government bonds, ostensibly the most risk-free investment, on the exchange platform.