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Institutionalizing Insider Trading?

Insider trading, I’ve often thought, must be one of the easiest white-collar crimes to pull off. Even easier than procurement fraud, which must be one of the most pervasive.

Someone in the accounts department of a listed company tells his friend or relative: ‘We’ve done better than expected this quarter. We’ll beat market expectations.’ The friend promptly buys a hundred shares of the company. And when the results come out and the share price surges, the friend is a few thousand rupees richer.

Now, how do prosecutors even begin to establish that price-sensitive information was used to profit from the trade? Unless, of course, the insider was foolish enough to put his tip on an email or a text message. Not only is insider trading easy to pull off (at least on a small scale), it is also horrendously difficult to prove.

There are tens of thousands of people in listed companies who possess such price-sensitive information from time to time. It’s not just the blokes in the accounts department, but also others too – both employees and outsiders (auditors, consultants, I-Bankers, advisors, etc.).

During my tenure at the Big Four audit/consulting firms, this was something we had to constantly look out for. The law explicitly prevents auditors and consultants from divulging such information – inadvertently or otherwise – to any party who may benefit from it. And we were prohibited from owning stocks of companies we audited or advised. Independence/propriety is indeed a big deal at these firms.

Be that as it may, many do believe that insider trading is prevalent in India. On a small scale, at least.

A couple of years back, I was wondering how insider trading could be ‘institutionalized’ (by a hypothetical Indian Prof. Moriarty, if you will) and scaled up. I sat down and ‘designed’ a suitable mechanism. To my delight, I found the scheme eminently workable, and reasonably watertight. And more importantly, it could be implemented with simple technology that is widely available.

I then put on another hat (that of an investigator or SEBI), and began looking at how one would go about discovering and unraveling the insider trading scheme once it was implemented. Clearly, that would require sifting through tons of stock market data, and possibly the use of analytics.

Once I had both ends of the scheme figured out, I built a murder mystery around it. That became Insider, the novel that Hachette has just released. If you do get to read it, please drop me a note. I’d like to hear what you think of the workability of the little scheme.

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Different Worlds

For much of the 40-odd years that I have been devouring fiction, the imaginary worlds I journeyed to have been divorced from the real world I lived in. Be it the nineteenth century London of Conan Doyle and Edgar Wallace, or the mid-twentieth century England of Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton, or Perry Mason’s California, they were all a far cry from the Indian city life I was immersed in.

What were moors and mews that Christie and Doyle revelled in? What were these mouth-watering scones and tarts that peppered Enid Blyton’s pages? I had never seen a scone in my middle-class life of the seventies. Nothing I read seemed to have much in common with the real world around me. While they were not as alien as Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Asimov’s Trantor, they were nonetheless unfamiliar.

Why didn’t we have fiction from our own world, I wondered. Was that why RK Narayan appealed to so many of us? Apart from the undeniable craft he possessed, one could relate to his characters and locales. They seemed real; they felt as if they were from our world. Admittedly, what we read was limited by what local libraries stocked and Sunday second-hand book shops offered.

When I gave up studenthood to enter the corporate world, another question popped into my head. Why was so little fiction set where I spent the largest chunk of my waking hours? Why did so few authors write about the corporate world? Surely, there was no shortage of conflict and emotion in the workplace? And the stakes were high too; far higher than in private lives. Talk about motive for crime, and there was ambition, collusion, malfeasance, corruption, love, lust, frustration – you name it!

Yet, there was very little ‘corporate crime fiction’.

Wouldn’t it be great to have good crime fiction set in India? Well-crafted plots that we can relate to; familiar victims we can empathise with; recognisable antagonists we can heartily hate? With more Indians turning to writing, will we see a surge of crime fiction set in India? Above all, wouldn’t it be great to read gripping narratives written by Indian hands for Indian eyes?

Then, the penny dropped. While I waited for others to do it, why not take a shot at it myself?

I had already made a beginning with writing epic fantasy, and I had loads of material from my three decades in the corporate world. I had seen ambition and greed at close quarters, and had witnessed sharp minds cross the thin line that separated the two. Opportunities for crime were aplenty, with many readymade for crime fiction.

I did take a shot at it, and the attempt became Fraudster. I am happy that one of the Big Five global publishing houses decided to back the novel. Fraudster is about greed and temptation in banking, which is a very thin sliver of larger corporate India. There is space for a lot more stories; tons of them. I hope better writers than I turn to it too.