Thursday, June 30, 2011

India's governance crisis: Tales from the battlefront

The Competition Commission of India (CCI) has written an order on NSE and MCX-SX in the currency derivatives market. Even if you do not take interest in financial markets, this is an interesting episode in Indian governance. It illuminates the larger problems of building regulatory agencies, and India's middle income trap.

In an impressive show of strength with the media, there was a flurry of editorial and other commentary praising CCI for this order - even before the order had been released. The files are now on the CCI website. Here is the main order and here is the dissent by two members of CCI.

Gautam Chikermane has written an excellent analysis of the order in the Hindustan Times. Unlike much of the other commentary on this order, he has actually read the two PDF files above. Also see this editorial and column by Mobis Philipose, in Mint, on 6 June.

The order has breathtaking ramifications. If this works as a precedent, it would impose huge complexities upon an array of industries where some products and services are given out free. This feature is particularly prevalent in the new economy, where systems such as google search are free and have been free for the longest time, and where a blizzard of new product launches (e.g. google plus) are free.

In India, regulatory organisations are still finding their feet. They have to gradually build up credibility and respect. When a regulatory body signs on a breathtakingly large penalty which will have huge implications for the economy, they have to be absolutely sure they are right. Otherwise, the institution loses credibility. I fear that with this order, CCI is now in a soup. If the appeals process is half decent, the order will be overturned, which will make CCI look bad. If the appeals process is not half decent, CCI will be seen as a source of trouble in the Indian regulatory landscape. In numerous industries, zero pricing will run into trouble. More generally, such muggings will be a new dimension of the political risk faced by firms operating in India.

India's crisis of governance is about the puzzle of building agencies like the Competition Commission of India, of taking these agencies closer to the competence and honesty seen at SEBI in recent years. How do we master the intricate recipe of public administration, so that such events don't happen? Until this is done, the structure of incentives encourages a certain kind of entrepreneur, and will damage the outlook for India.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to damage market quality

The problem of measuring the price

In a liquid and transparent financial market, there is no doubt about the price. There is high pre-trade transparency, because orders are visible on the limit order book, and the best estimate of the true price is (bid+offer)/2. You glance at the screen and you know what is the price.

In a non-transparent market, it is hard to know the true price. Special schemes have to be constructed in order to measure the price. Price measurement does not happen `for free' as a minor side effect of the very trading process.

Why price measurement matters

As a thumb-rule, the best design for a derivatives contract is to use cash settlement, as long as you can be pretty certain about observing the price. If you can't measure the price, then physical settlement is better.

Cash settlement is a great technology. But it requires sound measurement of the price.

Measuring price on an OTC market

In an OTC market, information is not visible at a glance. It is dispersed. Many traders have private information about the price, but you do not. If you could setup an electronic order book, you would see bid and offer at a glance: these are the prices at which a small buy and a small sell transaction could be done. On an OTC market, the dealer has a sense about where the market is, but you don't. So a natural strategy is that of asking the dealer what he is seeing.

Dealers have positions on the market, so we have to worry about what they say. Standard schemes used involve removing extreme observations, and thus coming up with a more robust price measure. These schemes have been used in India with the NSE MIBOR (the dominant price measure on the interest rate swaps market), the CMIE measurement of commodity spot prices for NCDEX, etc.

RBI's measurement of the INR/USD exchange rate

In India, RBI is an information producer in reporting the INR/USD exchange rate at 12 noon. This `official RBI price' is widely used in computing the settlement price for cash-settled derivatives on the rupee. It is used for the official closing price on the NSE currency futures/options market, which in many ways is shaping up as the main market where the INR exchange rate is discovered. As an example, yesterday (an expiration day), the open interest closed at $7.2 billion, and turnover was $6.2 billion.

RBI has not had a formal methodology for how this price is computed and reported.

I have always been a bit uncomfortable with RBI producing this vital information, since RBI has many other goals which can conflict with the goal of producing high quality information. But for a while, this seemed to be working.

New methodology at RBI

On 1 July, their methodology will change to something new:

  1. They will choose a random five-minute window from 10:30 to 12:30 (i.e. a two-hour window).
  2. The reference rate will be computed using these five minutes.
  3. It will be released at 13:00.

I cannot imagine the logic which led up to this, but I have to say that this is not a good idea.

A two hour window is a lot of time in the life of a market. The RBI reference rate is then no longer a reference rate of the market. It is a measure of the price at a randomly chosen time in that window. This makes it much less informative.

As an analogy, imagine if the official NSE closing price for Nifty was plucked out of a randomly chosen time from 2:30 PM to 3:30 PM. This would be a lot less informative as compared with the present methodology (value weighted average of all trades from 3 PM to 3:30 PM). It would be even better if NSE were to do a call auction from 3:15 PM to 3:30 PM and report that price as the official closing price. That would be sharp and interpretable.

All cash derivatives settling on the RBI reference rate will now suffer from a new source of uncertainty: the randomly chosen time at which the price is reported. The cash-and-carry arbitrageur needs to sell his spot position at the exact time at which the derivatives expire. In the case of the Nifty futures, there is a simple trading strategy which roughly approximates the Nifty closing price: In each of the last 30 minutes, do 1/30 of your required trade. This is typically automated, i.e. it requires algorithmic trading, but it's fully feasible.

With a randomly chosen timepoint over a two hour horizon, the arbitrageur does not know when to closeout. This will exert a negative impact on pricing efficiency and thus basis risk on the derivatives market.

If the INR/USD exchange rate is a random walk in trading time, then the 9% annualised volatility maps to a standard deviation of 28 basis points over a two hour horizon. On a base of Rs.45 a dollar, this is a standard deviation of 12.6 paisa. This is quite a bit for traders and arbitrageurs. These small issues have a disproportionate impact in contaminating market efficiency.

But wait. There are some people who know at what time the pricing is done: the banks who are polled! So suppose there is a fixed panel of banks who are asked by RBI. The moment the RBI phone call comes in, they closeout. These banks will find it profitable to do currency arbitrage while others are not. Such shifts in the currency arbitrage constitute a distortion induced by RBI's new method of price measurement.

Lessons

RBI needs to cultivate improved knowledge of finance amidst its staff.

This illustrates the importance of legal process in rule-making. If RBI had gone through a formal notice-and-comment process, then they could have heard from external experts and desisted from doing this. I wasn't able to find a document on the RBI website explaining the rationale for what is being done.

Information production should be done by specialised information organisations. If information is produced by people who have other conflicting interests, then such sub-optimal decisions are more likely to arise.

Alternative information producers, such as Reuters, should leap into this opportunity by producing a better INR/USD reference rate. FEDAI already has an alternative reference rate. We should all switch away from the RBI reference rate towards alternatives.

Unfortunately, many people in the trade are fearful of the RBI and would not evaluate alternatives rationally. This tells us two things. First, RBI needs to be enveloped in the rule of law so that there is no fear of RBI on the part of market participants. Second, RBI should not be a producer of information. As long as two private agencies are producing INR/USD reference rates, the decision in the derivatives trade about what information measure to use will be based on technical merits alone. If someone then tries to come up with a scheme where a randomly chosen time over a two hour window is used for the measurement, his market share will go to zero.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The impending cabinet reshuffle: A few interesting links


The UPA-2 seems to be trying to come back into the game with a new look cabinet:

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Envisioning future scenarios for India and China

Suppose we go back to 1870 and envision future scenarios for four interesting and promising countries.

Britain: the incumbent, the pioneer of the industrial revolution, home of Newton and Darwin, with a head start on building institutions, with sound economic policy and deep integration with a global empire.

Germany: the rising power of Europe, rapidly catching up with the frontier (and ahead of Britain in some fields). More centralisation of power, which perhaps gave an edge in certain things.

The US: a vast country blessed with a great constitution, inhabited by a colourful cast of characters drawn from the mavericks, misfits, nutcases and adventurers of Europe.

Argentina: a vast country with boundless prospects, sound policies after 1852, and tightly integrated into globalisation on both trade and capital.

You're probably thinking: `Argentina?' But in the middle of the 19th century, there were many people who thought that Argentina had better prospects than the US. From 1850 to 1930, Argentina did astonishingly well. In particular, from 1880 to 1905, GDP growth averaged 8 per cent over 25 years, which was unheard of in those years.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know what happened. Argentina collapsed into illiberal populism (first into socialism/fascism (1930) and then into Peronism (1946)). Germany collapsed into nationalism and militarism. The US and the UK managed to build liberal democracies.

With this framing, let's ask about how India and China will work out in coming decades.

Will India make it to good institutions, like the UK or the US? Or will India collapse into illiberal populism, much like Argentina did? All too often, the Indian elite tends to take good outcomes in the deep future for granted. I am not so sure and it is worth worrying about the foundations of liberal democracy and a market economy. Given the weak foundations of liberal ideas in India, political freedom is not something to take for granted. Given the weak foundations of market economics in India, economic freedom is not something to take for granted. Argentina's binge of welfare programs and populism is uncomfortably close to the instincts of most Indian politicians.

Will China make it to good institutions, like the UK or the US? Or will China descend into nationalism and militarism, much like Germany did?

The story of Argentina and Germany, from 1870 to 1914, reminds us that what works in a country for a short time is often not enough to carry the country through to a happy ending. Germany did very well from 1870 to 1914 (a full 44 years). Argentina did very well from 1850 to 1930 (a full 80 years) of which 50 years had really high growth.

To many people, sustained success that we have seen in India has generated complacence. We have started trusting in our governance DNA, thinking that it has delivered results after 1979 and particularly after 1993. This complacence hinders the process of identifying incipient problems, criticising the status quo, and changing course. The fact that a economic/political recipe worked well for a few decades does not mean that this recipe will continue to deliver. For a country to work out in the long run, it has to constantly nurture the foundations of liberal democracy and the market economy, and repeatedly reinvent itself.

In the late 19th century, growth rates were low in absolute terms, other than outlandish episodes like Argentina (1880-1905). Germany was the star performer of Europe over 1870-1914, with GDP growth of 2.9 per cent. The UK did just 1.9 per cent in this period. At 2.9 per cent growth, GDP doubles each 24 years. In other words, the economy and the political system need to be reinvented in each generation.

At 7 per cent growth, in India, we are getting a doubling of GDP every decade. This requires a reinvention of the economy and the political system every decade. But India presents a stark contrast with what's required: we have grossly failed on modifying laws, government agencies, policy frameworks and world views at a rapid pace.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Great SEBI orders, continued

Today we get the privilege of reading another amazing SEBI order: on Sahara. You might like to see some of the other orders which have caught my eye.

It takes immense competence and integrity to go after the facts and write a top quality order like this. The individuals and institutions who add up to this capability are the essence of attacking India's problem of corruption.

Does someone know how much money will have to flow back from Sahara to the investors of India, as a consequence of this order? And how will Sahara do fund-raising to meet this obligation? Within how much time will this money flow back? Other than 45 days to appeal at SAT, what are the other delays which could arise?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Making sense of the Mauritius tax treaty

Since the Mauritius treaty is back on the front burner, do see some sophisticated thinking on how the tax system can be made compatible with globalisation:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Interesting readings

Sanjaya Baru in the Business Standard on India's relationship with Taiwan.

I added Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert D. Kaplan to my suggested India bookshelf. It is a truly fabulous book.

Sanjay Banerji in Business World on how socialism went wrong in Bengal.

Minxin Pei has an excellent note on the CASI website titled Dangerous misperceptions: Chinese views of India's rise.

On 16 May, I had written a collection of links titled A new low for Indian economic policy. This story has evolved badly. Today, the Economic Times has reported a set of accusations by K. M. Abraham. SEBI's autonomy is under attack by Mobis Philipose in Mint. Mahua Venkatesh in the Hindustan Times. Editorial, titled India's wobbly regulators in the Mint. Govt influencing selection of UTI AMC head, alleges T Rowe by Shaji Vikraman and Sangita Mehta in the Economic Times and Why North Block can't do without Omita Paul by Sruthijith KK, in the Economic Times.

A troubling upheaval in SEBI is in the works. After the departure of C. B. Bhave, we are now facing the departure of K. M. Abraham, M. Sahoo, J. N. Gupta, K. N. Vaidyanathan, J. Ranganayakulu and Pradnya Saravade. These individuals were of essence to SEBI's remarkable performance in recent years, and will be very hard to replace.

The Economic Times, the Hindustan Times and the Mint are clearly winning on this story.


Striking the right keys by Vikram Doctor and Kalyan Parbat, in the Economic Times.

`Coke Studio' is an impressive concept in innovative music that's run by the American corporation, Coca Cola, in Pakistan. A precis on Wikipedia, and here's their web page. This is an interesting future for music: All the music is freely downloadable. And now, they are bringing this to India.

Google street view will now come to India.


The uncommon experience of reading high quality thinking on Indian macro in the press: Keerthik Sasidharan.

For all of us interested in Satyam, here's a fascinating story about the fraud at Longtop Financial Technologies, a Chinese firm, which was similar to Satyam in many ways.

I did an interview for IFMR Blog on India's financial architecture. Here is the interview in text and the audio.

Siddhartha Deb has a fascinating profile of IIPM and Arindam Chaudhuri in Caravan magazine.

Mahesh Vyas analyses the CMIE Capex database for insights about emerging trends in investment (in the Financial Express).



Martin Feldstein evaluates the scary things that Greece has to now pull off.

Tina Rosenberg, in New York magazine, tells the story of the world's first person who had AIDS and was cured.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Can we get back to track on corruption now?

India's corruption crisis


Somewhere in 2010 or so, I started getting much more gloomy about India's problem of corruption. For a snapshot of the zeitgeist, see this group of articles from August 2010. A large swathe of the economy operates in close contact with government. If government will not sensibly make rules, and then fail to impartially enforce rules, then the entire enterprise of the market economy is under threat.

In the months that followed, the topic of corruption exploded in the Indian public policy discourse. The two main events were the Commonwealth Games scandal and the 2G Spectrum scandal. But alongside these, many smaller events also played a role, such as the Adarsh Housing Society scandal.

The two spoilers


I was, at first, hoping that this energy would be channeled into making progress on core issues of governance. But sadly, the first flush of interest in the field was wasted thanks to the Anna Hazare spoiler followed by the Baba Ramdev spoiler. These have provided comic relief, but more importantly they have taken the focus away from the genuine problem of corruption. They have helped increase an entrenched sense of pessimism that nothing can be done about corruption (given that these prominent efforts were irrelevant).

However, the lesson is not that nothing can be done about corruption. The lesson is that such spoilers are not the answer. Genuine institutional reform is. The problem of corruption will resist quick fixes proposed by people who only dimly understand it. Careful thinking in incentives and public administration is required, in diagnosing where corruption comes from and how it can be addressed. Now that the two spoilers seem to be getting out of the way, can we get back to this main quest?

The main quest


Under the topic of `sensibly making rules', we have had two kinds of problems. The first is the problem of old Indian thinking, where socialism and autarky have impeded good sense. But alongside the process of this obsolete economics being weaned out of the system, the new problem is that of hard-driving entrepreneurs rigging the system to make rules that favour themselves.

Under the topic of `impartially enforcing rules', the puzzle is: How do we get humble civil servants in enforcement agencies (CBI / Police / SEBI / RBI / TRAI) to go about doing their job? This task is under fire from three points of view. On one hand, humble civil servants are often outgunned by the sophistication of hard-driving entrepreneurs. When the civil servant is presented with a sufficiently complex scheme, he might just not have the energy to unravel it and pinpoint the skullduggery. It requires an exceptional capability in government, by Indian standards, to hammer down the details of the arrangements that firms might undertake [example]. The second problem is that politically powerful people might try to block investigations. The third problem is simple outright corruption, where the humble civil servant is bribed to not do an investigation properly. In the real world, all three elements are at work.

The Indian development project critically requires institution-building in order to address this. High quality rule making procedures are required, so that the rule-making process cannot be rigged. The hardest job is that of creating an organisational culture for enforcement, so that agencies like SEBI can write the top quality orders of the kind which came out in recent years.

And then, we need the surrounding infrastructure of courts such as SAT and the Supreme Court. These are required to play two kinds of roles. First, when a government agency tramples upon an innocent, the courts have to protect the innocent. Second, when these agencies smell an agency that is about to fold and not actually go through with an investigation or the following court process, they have to be tough about it, as the Supreme Court has been doing in recent months.

To make a difference to corruption, we have to go after these questions. This requires a slow careful process on three fronts:
  1. Recruiting top quality individuals, who combine high competence with the highest ethical standards,
  2. Modifying rules and procedures so as to make them more robust to corruption, and
  3. Strengthening the courts.
There will be no quick results, but over time, this hard work will yield results. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

India's privatisation problem

When the UPA came to power, the word privatisation was buried, partly out of deference for the communist parties which were supporting the UPA. The sale of shares did revive after the UPA-2 commenced [history].

On a global scale, the experience with firms like British Airways and AlItalia has done a lot to persuade people that government is a terrible owner of firms. As a consequence, even though governments worldwide took up ownership of many financial firms during the global crisis of 2008 and 2009, there was never any question that this `nationalisation' would be more than temporary. In OECD countries, there is full clarity that even if government gets into a firm when the firm is in trouble (for certain public policy reasons), this ownership must only be temporary and government must get out of this unpleasant state as soon as possible.

Given the lack of commitment to economic reform in the UPA, expectations in India on the question of privatisation have been low. But the problems of public sector firms are glaringly large and the issue does not go away.

We are all used to Air India being a phenomenally bad use of public money. But as T. N. Ninan points out in the Business Standard today, there are quite a few other such breathtakingly large sinks for public resources. As he says:

...it takes a special kind of government company to lose Rs 8 crore a day, while earning just Rs 10 crore as revenue -- and that in the booming field of telecommunications. That's Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) for you. Its big sister, the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), also loses Rs 8 crore a day, though it earns much more revenue -- about Rs 90 crore daily. BSNL blames the jailed former minister A Raja for its troubles, but there must be more to the story. Now the two companies propose to merge; expect an Air India kind of situation, with staff from the two companies battling over pay and seniority many years into the future.

Air India, meanwhile, provides more proof that the government is a lousy shareholder. One minister destroyed the airline. Another now watches while the airline cuts flights because it has exhausted its credit and credibility, and therefore has to pay for fuel in cash. The staff, meanwhile, is not paid incentives that are equal to something like half their monthly salary in most cases -- and the government expects this de-motivated staff to fight and regain lost marketshare, to offer service with a smile to passengers.

And what about Prasar Bharati, the once supposedly autonomous broadcaster which is now once again little more than a government department? It employs 38,000 people, and loses Rs 2.5 crore a day, to earn about as much revenue. Someone should ask the obvious question: Why is the government in the business of running phone companies, airlines and news broadcasting when it is losing large dollops of money, when private providers are doing a reasonable job, and when there is no shortage of competition? For that matter, does the government need to make watches (at HMT), cement (at Cement Corporation of India), tyres (at Tyre Corporation of India), or shoes (at Bharat Leather)?

The UPA-2 made a big break with the pessimism by moving forward on selling off Scooters India. The long spell of zero privatisation may come to an end, with the UPA-2 selling off Scooters India.

But how might one view the prospect of government selling off some of the other public sector firms? I think a sound approach to this question involves three elements.

1. Removing entry barriers

The first piece of the story is that it is essential to remove entry barriers in various fields, which were once dominated by the public sector. Our poster child in this regard is telecom. Private and foreign firms came into Indian telecom; Indian users of telecom services were huge beneficiaries. Whether MTNL / BSNL were privatised, as VSNL was, was of second order importance. The most important thing that is required for India to make progress is for government to not get in the way of the private sector.

As an example, Indian banking is a place where there are steep anti-competitive restrictions against private and foreign banks. While I believe we should have strong rules about ownership and governance for banks (just as we should in critical financial infrastructure), we should not be blocking the rise of suitable private and foreign banks. We should not be blocking the long-term decline in importance of PSU banks. Getting out of the way of private and foreign banks is as important, if not more important, as the task of selling PSU banks.

2. Dispersed shareholding corporations rather than strategic sales

If all PSUs were sold off, the top 500 families of India would likely endup controlling all of them. This prospect makes one worry, about the increased concentration of economic and thus political power. It would be far better if India move towards privatisation by creating dispersed shareholding (e.g. ICICI or HDFC) instead of privatisation through strategic sales (e.g. VSNL).

This issue also links nicely to the problem of corruption. A country where spectrum auctions can take place while requiring bids to be placed in 45 minutes is a country where auctions that sell off PSUs could be rigged. It is, hence, far better to setup a steady drip whereby 0.1% of the shares of a PSU are sold every day into the pre-opening call auction at NSE and BSE, so that 25% is sold every year. Such a procedure comprehensively eliminates the problems of government process in the sale of shares. The government would merely put out an advertisement, before the story began, saying that over the next 250 days, it will sell 0.1% of this firm on every single day into the NSE and BSE call auctions.

Alongside this sale of shares, government would need to take interest in establishing good quality corporate governance structures for these companies, which are transiting out of government control into becoming dispersed shareholding corporations.

Even in the case of Scooters India, suppose government decided to sell off its ownership of 95.38% within 100 days. It is better to do this without bringing any investment banker into the picture, by selling 0.9538% into the call auction for every day in the coming 100 days, after making a public announcement to this effect. Alongside this, government would need to setup a good quality board and then allow ordinary corporate governance procedures to work.

3. GDP growth, not proceeds

Every now and then, these discussions get stuck on the issue of how government can maximise the proceeds from selling off (say) Scooters India. This is the wrong end of the puzzle. The really important story is about how the labour and capital that's blocked inside Scooters India can turn into greater output. Once that's done, government collects the NPV of future taxation that this productive enterprise will generate.

The focus should be on getting assets out of public control, while avoiding the corruption or political complexity of strategic sales. As long as these are achieved, the magnitude of the proceeds is not of great importance.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Freedom of speech in Pakistan and India

One of Pakistan's more remarkable journalists, Syed Saleem Shahzad, was tortured and murdered, probably by Pakistan's ISI.

In one view of the world, freedom of speech is something that you are gifted by your founding fathers. As an example, if you have the good fortune of having a well drafted Constitution, it would say Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;. This would block the ability of politicians to enact legislation that is inimical to freedom of speech. Then, as long as rule of law prevails, we get freedom of speech. This seems like a palace coup, it seems rather easy, as long as you have the right intellectual capabilities in the hands of those who draft the Constitution of a country.

We in India or Pakistan are not blessed thusly. The Indian Constitution is not clear-headed about freedom of speech, and anti-defamation law of colonial vintage continues to be on the books. This is an important tool for harassment and intimidation. And then, there is the question of rule of law. What is going on in Pakistan is way beyond questions of how the Constitution should be drafted.

It is, instead, more useful to think that democracy and freedom are made of a million battles, small and large. Freedom of speech is won, piece by piece, through a million mutinies. It is important to constantly think, and speak, and write. Each little act of writing about troublesome issues pushes the envelope of freedom of speech, and creates a culture of honest discussion and discourse.

I feel the media in India has become quite complacent about the tawdry condition of free speech in India. All too often journalists can be warned off a seamy story by a tiny exercise of power or influence. All too often, the crooks are able to buy the loyalty of a journalist quite easily. There isn't enough intellectualism going around, among the men and women in the media. Eshwar Sundaresan, writing in Dawn, says that India badly needs more journalists of the character of Pakistan's Najam Sethi. This is one of many areas where India's success in the last 20 years is leading to an erosion of the very foundations of that success.