Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why reducing IIM fee subsidy actually harmed the whole MBA student body

People feel that subsidizing IITs/IIMs by the tax payer, is like the poor subsidizing the rich. After all, the average pay of the graduates exceeds that of most tax payers. There are flaws with this argument(education as public good, the average fallacy etc) but even taking this as true, there is another major reason for keeping the IIM fee structure low.

For good or bad, most other colleges take cues from the IIMs. Whether it be faculty appointment, case method, admissions(removing GD), curriculum etc, IIMs are the trend setters for most colleges(I say most because a few like IIPM dare to think beyond the IIMs). Even in fee structure, this had shown. Colleges like NMIMS, XLRI, SP Jain etc had benchmarked themselves(and thereby their fees with IIMs). No college could seriously justify keeping a fee structure above IIMs. But with the IIM fee structure(A, B, C) ranging from Rs 13Lakh-Rs 15Lakh(around $30,000-$35000 at $1=INR 45), even lower rung private colleges have been emboldened to keep their fees around 1/2/ 1/3rd of IIM fees, without any improvement in infrastructure/economic rationale for the same. This had hurt the students because placements at those colleges have not improved commensurate with the fees. And for that reason alone, subsidizing IIM students(and thereby keeping IIM fees low) would have helped students at other colleges,as those colleges could not have hiked their fees then.

Please note that I consider the value of my IIM-A education to be much above the fees I have paid-I take no issue with that. But in the larger interest, changing the fee structure to maybe having a deferred fee component, may help students of other colleges.

Friday, March 25, 2011

How Indian newspapers typically fail the Google triple test for objectivity

The very title may raise eyebrows. How can I even compare the world's No1 search engine, to the sensitive sector of news? Though Google News straddles the two worlds of search and news, this post highlights a different aspect. Presently, the Indian news sector(like most other nations) is regulated on quasi-commercial principles. This means that regulators can overrule commercial decisions(selling rates of advertising space, content, circulation) on the grounds of public interest. This makes it paramount for newspapers to keep the customer in mind, or else risk extra regulation, as happened recently when SEBI ordered, But are they doing this?In India, newspapers sell for anywhere between 10%-20% of printing cost, so advertising revenues are key. This may lead one to argue that shifting towards advertisers interest is inevitable? But is it really so? Let us analyze the Google promise(Google does not charge search engine users and earns all revenues from advertisers). They promise the following:-

  1. We will do our best to provide the most relevant and useful search results possible, independent of financial incentives. Our search results will be objective and we will not accept payment for their inclusion or ranking.
  2. We will do our best to provide the most relevant and useful advertising. Ads should not be an annoying interruption. If any element on a search result page is influenced by payment to us, we will make this fact clear to our users.
  3. We will never stop working to improve our user experience, our search technology, and other areas of information organization. 
Against this, how do Indian newspapers(both English and others) perform?
  1. Content censorship does happen depending on the target company. A sign of this is that the main investigative campaigns have originated outside newspapers like from Tehelka, OPEN magazine, RTI applications etc. To their credit, newspapers have carried the items prominently post facto, but this may merely be due to competitive pressures
  2. Advertorials/Special Editorial features etc(HT Media's business daily Mint being a notable exception) carried in the same font/prominence often violates this principle
  3. Indian papers score well on this front. The TOI group for instance has launched focused newspapers like Crest, Spirituality centered paper etc while HT Media has launched Brunch/Me as separate magazines, each for their particular niche. But has this come with dumbing down news? Only time can tell. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Has NSE become like Big Bazaar-not creating customer value?

God knows that I have no sentimental attachment to the BSE. In my view, the old broker lobby(which had and still has, a stranglehold on the BSE) is responsible for the scams, market manipulation, investor mistreatment etc that was the hallmark of the Indian markets pre liberalization. In that atmosphere, the financial institutions promoted National Stock Exchange(NSE)'s professional approach came as a breath of fresh air.The list of innovations done by NSE is too large to enumerate-screen based trading, demat etc. But in the last 2-3 yrs, NSE seems to have stagnated. Barring the reforms carried out at SEBI's insistence, there is no new paradigm. But now, BSE seems to have woken up to the reality that it must compete on innovation. It has launched a new very user friendly free platform BSE Plus. This allows an retail investor to(for others there is always Bloomberg/Reuters/CIQ)
  1. Peer Comps(default + pick and choose)
  2. Retrieve annual reports and exchange filings
  3. Visualize certain indicators graphically(presently only default options).
BSE Plus type initiative could have been done by the tech savvy NSE much easier and better. But they preferred to sit it out. And when a new player innovates(like MCX), NSE adopted predatory pricing(zero transaction charges) to kill the competition. This tactic though legal, is not in investor's long run interest.

Similarly, the Kishore Biyani venture Big Bazaar's USP was 'Isse sasta aur accha aur kahin nahin' translating to 'You won't get it cheaper and better elsewhere'. As some one who has shopped in multiple cities(Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Pune) over an extended time period, I note that the value proposition has steadily eroded. Groceries, fruits and consumables have become costlier. Branded items are sold at merely 5% discount and they give pride of precedence to their store brands. While this is an international trend(retailers preferring store brands for higher margins), Big Bazaar should simply drop its tag line, which is now more appropriate to a Star Bazaar or a D Mart.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Are we readers to blame for declining editorial standards in newspapers?

It has become fashionable to trash the print media for 'paid news', private treaties' and going soft on their key advertisers like IIPM. But from an economic perspective, what can they do? 

In her book, 'The Indian Media Business', the noted journalist Vanita Kohli-Khandekar(Pg 8) estimates the marginal cost of producing a newspaper to be Rs 15-20. But no newspaper sells for over Rs 1-5(the higher end is more for regional media than for English language papers). And then, the newsvendor may get a commission upto 50%. So the advertisers are the ones who largely fund the newspapers. And given that the Indian reader spends little on serious content(magazines like Money Life, Tehelka are struggling to get subscribers), the publishers have little option than to depend on advertisers. So what other options do these papers have to raise money?
  1. Transferring content online:- Paywalls have not caught on yet(except with Business Standard) but advertisers may support this online content
  2. Offering archives to subscribers:-This strategy, followed largely by print magazines, may work for newspapers if readers need to search a particular paper..
  3. Selling subscriber Data(of direct subscribers):- Papers like TOI, HT, Mint, Business Standard offer cut rate subscriptions(B2C) where they get customer data. This may help them push for better advertising rates and also insurance companies/others may like this data for mail promotions. But regulators may stop this route.
Routes (1) and (2) may at best pay for online prescence. Offline is still an issue.I am not tarring all papers with the same brush. Newspapers like Business Standard, Mint and Hindu manage to navigate that thin line quite successfully but the others quite openly show their priorities.
Bottomline:- Vote with your wallet by subscribing to independent quality media. Else, we do forfeit the right to comment on how the content standards are declining