Friday, November 25, 2011

Taxing investors to pay NGOs

In India, NGOs are fashionable. It is almost never wrong, in the Indian discourse, to give more money and more functions to NGOs.

Many people have worried about the extent to which NGOs are being used to supplant failing State machinery. This may seem expedient, but no country every became a developed country on the back of NGOs. There is no alternative to fixing the core mechanisms of the State.

In recent days, two pro-NGO policy elements seem to be in the pipeline:
  1. A new Companies Bill seems to require that 2% of profit be spent on corporate social responsibility (CSR).
  2. SEBI decided to force listed companies, starting with the top 100 firms, to describe measures taken by them along the key principles enunciated in the ‘National voluntary guidelines on social, environmental and economic responsibilities of business,' framed by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA).
When the government grabs 2% of the profit of a company, and hands it out to any purpose (no matter how good or bad), that is called expropriation. The fact that it satisfies some bleeding hearts does not change the fact that it is expropriation. In a good country, property rights would be fundamental, and the Supreme Court would block such expropriation.

The job of a corporation is to efficiently organise production, and send dividends back to shareholders. It is the individual, the shareholder, who has to then make a call about whether he would like to give money to charitable causes or not. We do wrong by expropriating this money even before it reaches the individual.

For an analogy, it is Bill Gates' birthright to gift away his own money, in his capacity as an individual. And I really admire the intelligence with which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation works. But Bill Gates (or the government or anyone else) has no right to expropriate money belonging to shareholders, through charitable initiatives by Microsoft.

We do wrong by placing the burden of charitable works upon the corporation. Corporations should not be organised to be do-gooders. They should be organised to obey laws, have high ethical standards and then power India's way out of poverty by efficiently organising production. Anything that corporations do, other than focusing on efficient production, is a distraction from the main trajectory of India's growth and development.

When a country is run by bleeding hearts, things start going wrong. If such a tax is enacted, it reduces the post-tax return on capital that Indian firms generate. Foreign investors and domestic investors have choices about where to invest. They will demand that firms only invest in a smaller set of high-return projects, which are competitive on the rate of return by global standards, even after being taxed. In other words, many projects will not be undertaken. This can't be good for India.

To make progress in India, we need to be hard headed. We should not let the urge to do good crowd out intelligence and analysis. We are falling into this trap too often.

One key element that I blame is the Indian college education. We fail to teach political science, we have   too many people who have not read The Republic, so we get trouble like Anna Hazare. We fail to teach economics, so we get Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan and the education cess. Given the absence of a positive strategy for what India should be doing, in the mainstream, we are willing to turn away from the hard work of fixing the State, and feel satisfied by funding some do-gooding NGOs.

Intellectuals are the yeast that make a society rise. India is a big mighty youthful stagnant dough, waiting for a pinch of yeast.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Guide to the Eurozone crisis

by Percy S. Mistry.

How did it happen?

The worst financial crisis in the western world for nearly 80 years broke in September 2008.

It required banking/financial systems to be supported and recapitalised by governments across the EU and in the US.

In June 2009 it became apparent that the peripheral countries of the Eurozone (Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland) were grossly over-indebted.

Yet in some instances (Spain) their public debt to GDP ratios happened to be lower than those of the US, France, the UK and Germany.

The continued viability of their public finances depended entirely on markets being willing to refinance them with cheap money.

But, when markets scrutinised the sustainability of their fiscal positions, they baulked from refinancing except at punitive rates.

CDS spreads (against Germany as a benchmark) of peripheral Eurozone countries (PIGS or Club Med) debt began widening relentlessly.

Global financial markets began to price in an escalating risk of partial/full voluntary/involuntary default on PIGS bonds since December 2009.

Contrary to first impressions, except for Ireland, that was a result not just of the financial crisis and bank recapitalisation demands on the fiscus.

It became apparent instead that bank recapitalisation demands on public finance were only the last straws that broke the camel's back.

Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy, as a direct consequence of joining the Eurozone, had been running up unsustainable fiscal deficits since 2000.

Ireland had not. It suffered because the bailout of its disproportionately large banking system caused its public debt to rise astronomically.

PIGS became over-indebted despite the supposed self-imposed discipline adopted by the Eurozone of prohibiting fiscal deficits >3% of GDP.

That discipline was violated by almost all Eurozone members, beginning with France and Germany, but more egregiously by the PIGS.

To make matters worse, however, the PIGS were also running increasingly large current account deficits (with Germany, France, China).

Though countries like France (and to a lesser extent) Germany were fiscal sinners, they were at least running current account surpluses.

PIGS had access to excessively cheap public and private money available on terms totally inappropriate to their economic circumstances.

Given their inherent risks, which markets mispriced completely, their borrowing costs should have been 300-500 bp higher than Germany's.

Instead, they were virtually the same for nearly a decade. That relieved market-induced pressure on PIGS' governments to behave responsibly.

Consequently, their public expenditures after 2000 ballooned out of all proportion to their intrinsic capacity to fund them from tax revenues.

Such expenditures became almost wholly dependent on access to increasing amounts of cheap public borrowing from capital markets.

In response to access to excessively cheap money, wages in the PIGS rose across the board as did growth in public sector employment.

With the financial crisis triggering bank recapitalisation needs, on top of this unsustainable structure, the edifice began to crumble.

The first early warning signals became apparent in December 2009 but the dam broke in mid-2010 with the first Greek bailout.

How has the Eurozone crisis been handled?

Extremely ineptly; indeed very foolishly, by sophisticated Eurozone authorities (political, fiscal and monetary) that should have known better.

Eurozone leaders learned nothing from the preceding debt crises in Latin America (1982-87, 1994-95) and Asia (1997-2000).

They went through avoidable phases of serial denial that there was a structural debt (solvency) crisis that could spread via contagion.

They treated it as a liquidity crisis that could be dealt with by temporary patch-ups of additional money combined with fiscal restraint.

They reiterated their commitment to ensuring there would be no default - partial or full, voluntary or involuntary - by any Eurozone member.

They believed that their remedial measures would stop the crisis from ballooning beyond the first bailout package for Greece.

They were totally wrong. That package did nothing to convince markets that Eurozone leaders understood the nature/severity of the problem.

In fact, the inadequacy of that first bailout package -- which did not provide enough money for sufficiently long - became quickly apparent.

Eurozone leaders were fixated on debt-affected PIGS being forced to live within their means through indefinite austerity without end.

Debt recovery/sustainability models did not provide sufficient new money, or permit debt restructuring, in ways that would restore stability.

Least of all were bailout packages designed to restore growth in a conscionable period of time that would be socially/politically acceptable.

Without financial system (and borrowing cost) stability, and absent growth, debt problems can never become better. They can only worsen.

Instead, as a result of poor design, all the bailouts did (except for Ireland) was to add new debt to bad debt and reduce growth prospects.

To exemplify: In mid-2009 the debt/GDP ratio for Greece was 115% of GDP and the debt service ratio about 11% of GDP.

But, by October 2011 the debt/GDP ratio for Greece was 161% of GDP and the debt service ratio nearly 20% of GDP.

It is projected with the third bailout to rise to 185% of GDP (although debt service will be lowered to 16%) before it comes down again.

In the meantime, over the last 32 months, the Greek economy has shrunk in size by almost 17% in nominal terms. It will be 1/5 th less in 2012.

Such inane 'remedies' do not solve debt problems. They only aggravate and exacerbate them.

While behaving in this absurd fashion Eurozone leaders repeatedly asserted for two years that they would do everything in their power to:

  • Maintain the credibility of the Euro while ensuring that every member stayed in the Eurozone
  • Not allow any default of publicly issued bonds to occur; and
  • Do everything possible to avoid contagion spreading beyond PIGS (even as it became clear that markets were worried about Italy.

Instead they achieved the exact opposite of all three objectives through their inability to understand the implications of what they were doing.

Though now contrite and claiming to have learnt a few lessons from their serial bungling over 30 months Eurozone leaders have no solution.

The EFSF facility they created is woefully underfunded. It can barely deal with financing the third Greek bailout.

The idea of leveraging it or using it as a partial guarantee facility is absurd since it would add to risk and uncertainty not resolve them.

Yet over-indebted governments (including France and Germany) would have to issue more public debt in order to fund the EFSF properly.

That would simply mean requiring their fragile, near-bankrupt, banking systems (or the ECB) or global markets to buy more Eurozone debt.

Except for Germany (and even that will be in doubt soon) the market has no appetite for taking on more Eurozone debt given its risks.

Contagion has spread from the periphery and now lodges at the core of the Eurozone economy in which Italy is the third largest member.

What could have been resolved with about 300 billion euro in additional financing in mid-2010 is now a problem that may require 2 trillion euro.

Where are we now?

Over 35 EU/Eurozone summits in 30 months have resolved nothing. They have made matters worse; despite Herculean exertions!

Right now Greece is in 'effective' default; though markets are overlooking that because of the implications of CDS contracts being triggered.

Its borrowing costs for refinancing its debt would exceed 30% if it had any access to private markets; which it does not.

Any refinancing of, or addition to, Greek debt can now only be financed by the ECB; which the Germans will not permit the ECB to do.

Meanwhile the Greek banking system is bankrupt. Indeed the entire Eurozone banking system's credibility/stability/solvency is in doubt.

Today an outstanding portfolio of about 11-12 trillion euro in Eurozone debt - of which about 80% is held by EU firms - is souring relentlessly.

About 7 trillion euro of that portfolio is sufficiently affected by contagion to require provisioning (France and Belgium may soon be added).

About 5 trillion euro of Eurozone high-risk-debt is currently held by EU banks, insurance companies, pension funds and individuals.

That sovereign debt, which is supposed to constitute the 'safest' component of any asset portfolio, now constitutes perhaps the riskiest element.

That reality inverts the whole basis of banking/financial system soundness and stability across Europe (including the UK).

It compounds the problem of calculating capital adequacy requirements for these banking systems and puts regulators in a quandary.

Ireland's bailout programme is working but could be derailed by what is happening in the rest of Europe.

Portugal's programme is not working as intended. But nobody is talking about it because it pales in comparison with Italy and Greece.

Italy's outstanding public debt will soon cross 2 trillion euro (120% of GDP) and its debt service payments amount to around 300 billion euro per year.

That is made up of about 120 billion euro in interest payments and 180 billion euro in principal repayments. Average duration is 5 years.

Public debt service in Italy now amounts to around 17% of GDP and will rise to 20% unless Italy's debt is dramatically restructured.

Italy now needs to borrow about 40 billion a month euro (gross) and about 28 billion euro a month net in private markets to refinance its debt.

The world is holding its breath with every auction of Italian public debt (3-8 billion euro per week) any of which could trigger accidental default.

The cost of refinancing Italy's public debt has risen from around 4% a year ago to around 7% now. That adds 20 billion euro a year to its debt.

Meantime the Italian economy is flat-lining and its capacity to service additional debt is diminishing despite its running a primary balance.

Banks around the world are dumping their holdings of Italian public debt but there is no buyer other than the ECB because of the risk.

The ECB's capacity to refinance Greek, Italian and Portuguese debt is limited and constrained by Germany's unwillingness to consider that.

Contagion from Italy is now beginning to affect Spain and France which is supposed to be a bulwark for the EFSF's borrowing capacity.

The resulting gridlock is pushing the entire Eurozone system toward a catastrophic denouement with a binary outcome. Either:

  1. Crisis-induced progress toward fiscal union with national sovereign bonds being replaced by a single Eurozone bond with a joint/several guarantee, or
  2. Sudden disorderly collapse of the Eurozone with unimaginable fallout and consequences that would trigger a global double-dip recession.

Such a recession would last for a minimum of 2-3 years and would probably be quickly followed by a similar debt crisis in the US.

The resulting fallout of disorderly Eurozone break-up could trigger a break-up or restructuring of the larger EU as well.

So where do we go from here?

With the foregoing in mind it seems absurd that the world is waiting with bated breath to see what the new technocratic governments in Greece (Papademos) and Italy (Monti) will actually achieve by way of structural reform and increased debt servicing capability in coming months.

These technocratic governments inject new credibility but lack political and social legitimacy. They have been appointed not elected.

It remains to be seen how long their technocratic legitimacy holds out without the backing of gradually earned political/social legitimacy.

The risk is that if the ministrations of these technocratic governments (which their societies believe have been imposed on them from the EU above) do not work and bear fruit relatively soon (the probability is that they won't), public patience with them will melt.

Will they be able to convince electorates to accept the inevitability of austerity without growth for the indefinite future?

The next Greek crisis is perhaps 10-12 weeks away.

The next Italian crisis could be triggered by any one of the upcoming weekly auctions of Italian government debt.

Despite these rather obvious realities, global markets deem to be reacting in dream-like hope and optimism that all will be well.

There is of course a solution at hand; and the only one that will work because all the other options seem to have been exhausted.

That option requires Germany to reconsider its refusal to bear its large share of the fiscal burden that will come with Eurozone fiscal union.

It requires political/social willingness on the part of rich northern Eurozone members to finance fiscal transfers to poorer southern members through an exponential expansion of structural funds, currently applied to help develop more rapidly the poorer regions of the EU.

Reciprocally, it requires other Eurozone countries to relinquish fiscal, and a great deal of political, sovereignty immediately; in order to assure global markets of their commitment to structural reform, restoration of competitiveness, and relentless pursuit of fiscal/monetary discipline.

It requires all unwanted national sovereign bonds of Eurozone members to be replaced by a single Eurobond that is jointly and severally guaranteed and underpinned by the weight and ability of the ECB behind it to print money if necessary to ensure that such bonds are honoured.

This solution would resolve both the over-indebtness problem of the Eurozone and the problem of banking system collapse at a single stroke.

If it were adopted the need to provide for risky Eurozone debt and recapitalise (yet again) the EU banking system would disappear.

Yet, this is the one solution that keeps being discarded because of legitimate German constitutional, judicial and political constraints.

They inhibit movement in such a direction regardless of the consequences for the Eurozone, the EU, and mostly Germany itself.

It is like witnessing a repeat of 1939; not of conquest but of mindless destruction. But, this time with money rather than tanks being involved.

If that only workable solution continues to be discarded, the other possibility that will manifest itself is the disorderly break-up of the Eurozone; simply because its orderly break-up defies contemplation and imagination.

Talk of Greece being ejected from the Eurozone, or of Germany departing from it voluntarily, is fanciful simply because neither can afford to bear the costs of the consequences that will follow, regardless of what their populations and political leaders may believe or think (though 'thought' seems to be conspicuously absent from the process just now). Neither can their neighbours, regardless of what they may think.

Yet it is not unimaginable that a break-up will be forced on Eurozone members by global markets if the only workable solution continues to be ruled out as it seems to be repeatedly by the German Chancellor. But she has changed her mind so often the hope is she will yet again.

A disorderly break-up may result in a reversion to national currencies; which would be better than members trying to retain some semblance of the Euro through separate residual monetary unions of more compatible economies.

That would probably require four different Euros (for the super-efficient Northern economies a Baltic Euro, for the relatively efficient middling economies a Franco-Euro; for the newly acceding countries an Eastern-Euro and for the inefficient, uncompetitive Club-Med economies, a PIGS-Euro). Other than the first, none of the others would be credible for holding as reserves, or for trading significantly in global currency markets.

Finally, bear in mind that we have spoken of only the public debt problem in the Eurozone.

Should the unthinkable (but increasingly likely) disorderly break-up happen, the public debt problem will be accompanied by an unresolved private debt problem throughout the Eurozone of equally monumental proportions! That really will break the system and the banks!

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Interesting readings

A pioneering conference of the academic community in the field of international relations in India.



Pramit Bhattacharya in Mint on the impact of transaction charges on the currency futures/options markets.

In continuation of my blog post on Pakistan, India, MFN, read Bibek Debroy on the subject.

Watch me talk about risk aggregation in the Indian economy, presenting joint work with Sucharita Mukherjee. This is from a fascinating conference organised by IFMR. From this same conference, also see the most excellent opening talk by Nachiket Mor.


The ally from hell by Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder in the Atlantic magazine. Things aren't going well in Pakistan. What can India do to help? Mani Shankar Aiyar says, and I fully agree: One, return to the Musharraf/Manmohan Singh proposal to create a borderless Kashmir - where the LOC is rendered irrelevant - as a precursor to a borderless subcontinent. Two, agree to maintain uninterrupted and uninterruptable dialogue, that will remain unbroken and regular, irrespective of terrorist attacks or any other calamity. Three, introduce a visa regime similar to Nepal and remove all restrictions of pilgrimages. The fourth remedy is to ensure a full and free media exchange, including and not limited to movies, TV channels and newspapers. Five, an open investment regime without any barriers to trade. Six and seven involve standing together on the international stage to push for the expansion of the UN Security Council and launch a joint initiative for global nuclear disarmament.

David E. Sanger in the New York Times about how things aren't going well in Iran.


Adam Satariano and Peter Burrows have a fascinating story about how, in addition to innovation and design, Apple has a great third weapon: Operations.

In continuation to my post about Dennis Ritchie and Steve Jobs, read M. Douglas McIlroy on Dennis Ritchie, written on 19 May 2011.

Paolo Pesenti takes us back to 20 years ago, when Europe went through another economic crisis. It is useful knowledge about economic history, and it gives us some insights into the Eurozone crisis of today.

How to decontrol the price of oil

We know a lot about price controls from the field of exchange rates. Here's an argument from way back, in 1998:
When change comes to a stabilised currency, as it must, that change is painful. Change in the long term is inevitable. The random walk doles out a little change every day, which is less painful than sudden large changes. 
...
Currencies which are random walks yield a deeper sort of stability. The steady pace of small changes every day generates realistic expectations about currency risk and continual realignment in production processes in the economy. It avoids sudden changes, and keeps the currency out of the domain of politics. The random walk regime is sustainable without incurring serious distortions in the economy.
In the field of exchange rates, India understood these arguments, and moved to a floating exchange rate. In March 2007, the INR/USD volatility moved up to roughly 9% and from early 2009 onwards, RBI stopped trading in the currency market. This was the biggest achievement of the UPA in economic reforms: In the 2007-2009 period, we got to a market determined rate on the most important price of the economy.

These same ideas are useful in thinking about the price of petrol. A large jump of Rs.1.8 per litre attracts attention. It is far better to let the price fluctuate every day. Ultimately, the price has to adjust. We suffer a lower political cost by letting it adjust every day (through the depoliticised market process). If we bottle up the small changes, then we have to make large changes. These are a bad use of political capital.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Are the inflationary fires subsiding?


On 25 October, Dr. Subbarao announced a 25 basis point hike in the policy rate. Alongside this, he made statements that were widely interpreted as being dovish:
Keeping in view the domestic demand-supply balance, the global trends in commodity prices and the likely demand scenario, the baseline projection for WPI inflation for March 2012 is kept unchanged at 7 per cent. Elevated inflationary pressures are expected to ease from December 2011, though uncertainties about sudden adverse developments remain.
 ...
Inflation is broad-based and above the comfort level of the Reserve Bank. Further, these levels are expected to persist for two more months. ... However, reassuringly, momentum indicators, particularly the de-seasonalised quarter-on-quarter headline and core inflation measures indicate moderation, consistent with the projection that inflation will begin to decline beginning December 2011.
... 
The projected inflation trajectory indicates that the inflation rate will begin falling in December 2011 (January 2012 release) and then continue down a steady path to 7 per cent by March 2012. It is expected to moderate further in the first half of 2012-13. This reflects a combination of commodity price movements and the cumulative impact of monetary tightening. Further, moderating inflation rates are likely to impact expectations favourably. These expected outcomes provide some room for monetary policy to address growth risks in the short run. With this in mind, notwithstanding current rates of inflation persisting till November (December release), the likelihood of a rate action in the December mid-quarter review is relatively low. Beyond that, if the inflation trajectory conforms to projections, further rate hikes may not be warranted.
WPI inflation is not interesting in thinking about monetary policy. The WPI basket is not consumed by any household. The right measure of inflation that all of us should focus on is the CPI.

We just released an updated batch of seasonally adjusted data, and the news for inflation, for September 2011, is bad. CPI-IW grew at an annualised (seasonally adjusted) rate of 20.15% in September 2011. As a consequence, the 3-month moving average inflation went up from 8% in August to 11.77% in September.  If we compute the policy rate as the halfway mark (8%) and subtract out this latest value of the 3-month moving average inflation rate (11.77%), the policy rate expressed in real terms is -377 basis points.

Here's the picture of what's been going on with point-on-point seasonally adjusted CPI-IW inflation:

The key fact about India's inflation crisis is: "Headline inflation", which I would define as the year-on-year rise of CPI-IW, has been outside the target range of 4-5 percent in every single month from February 2006 onwards. High inflationary expectations have now set in. Given what is happening on prices of both tradeables and non-tradeables, I find myself skeptical about the sanguine picture on inflation that was painted on 25 October.

The bottom line: Headline inflation (year-on-year rise of CPI-IW) went up from 8.99% in August to 10.06% in September. This is inconsistent with a sanguine analysis of inflation on 25 October.

Or perhaps the econometricians at RBI have some aces up their sleeves. Will point-on-point seasonally adjusted inflation, under the benign influence of a strongly negative real rate, veer back into the 4-5 per cent range by December 2011? Stay tuned. So far, the score is: September 2011, 20.15%.

Piped natural gas (PNG) in India: Not priced to displace electricity

In continuation of my previous post on piped natural gas, I found that Mahanagar Gas charges Rs.33/m^3 for natural gas. The energy content is 8500 kcal/m^3 or 35.56 MJ/m^3. This corresponds to 10 kwhr i.e. 10 units. In the units of electricity pricing, then, this gas is priced at Rs.3.3 per unit (i.e. $0.066 per unit). This is slightly cheaper than electricity but not by much. I'd have expected gas to be cheaper than this. This isn't a pricepoint at which one can obtain a big shift from electricity to NG. It is more convenient than shipping bottles around, but that's about it.

For a comparison, in Los Angeles, the price of gas works out to $0.036 per kwhr while the price of electricity is $0.132 per kwhr. That is, piped electricity is 3.667 times costlier than piped gas. It makes you wonder about what we're doing wrong with natural gas in India.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Residential water heating and the rise of the gas-fired economy

When electricity distribution networks fall into place, people start using electricity for everything. Heating, air conditioning, cooking, etc.: electricity is the supple path to all applications. Electricity is conveniently accessed at home, but at a system level, there are problems. Electricity is typically made in big facilities, primarily by burning coal or gas. It is then inefficiently transported to the home. Coal has the worst carbon footprint. Given the domination of coal in Indian electricity production, electricity consumption in India is highly carbon intensive.

Gas delivered to the home is a superior alternative, but this requires gas distribution to the home. A brand-new distribution infrastructure needs to be built, for delivering gas to the home. Once gas is at the home, it can be used for cooking and for heating. To the extent that this is done, it reduces the carbon footprint of residential energy consumption. And, given the way the world is going, gas delivered to the home is likely to be significantly cheaper (per joule) when compared with electricity, even without a carbon tax. (Question: Does someone know the price per joule for residential electricity versus piped gas in India?)

When we think about global warming in India, the dominant impulse is to say to the rich countries "this is not our problem; you guys loaded up the atmosphere with CO2, you guys fix it". While this approach has strengths, it is also important for India to find low-carbon paths to development. We have a problem in having a highly coal-fired economy. We also have the malleability in having the bulk of our energy system of 2050 having not yet been built out: this gives us choices about what should be done. In contrast, most rich countries have less room to maneuver. Policy decisions in India will determine whether cities develop energy-efficient mass transportation systems (such as the Delhi Metro) or not; in contrast, there is no possibility of Los Angeles or the Bay Area developing a good transportation system.

I suspect that gas is likely to be India's low-carbon bridge to renewables and nuclear, exactly as it will be for the rest of the world. From this perspective, we need to start looking for market-based channels to do more on building the gas ecosystem. One interesting litmus test that we can use is the number of households where one sees gas-fired water heating. 

This requires distribution networks for gas, and then households have to switch from electric ovens, water heaters, stoves to gas-fired equivalents. In India, a few cities are now starting to have gas distribution to the home. In time, households should increasingly build up the capital stock of gas-fired appliances, motivated by the superior pricing of gas.

And this gives us an illustration of India's malleability. The CMIE household survey shows that at present, 5.5% of households in India today have one or more geysers (this is for the quarter ended June 2011). For these 5.5% of households, there is the question of junking the existing capital stock and shifting over to a gas-fired appliance. Presumably the differential pricing of electricity versus gas will justify such a shift for the household, but for India, it is a waste when there is such destruction of capital stock. Far more interesting are the remaining 94.5% of households. We should be doing things today, so that over the next 25 years, when 94.5% of India's households will buy a geyser, they will go towards a gas-fired heater rather than an electric one.

From this perspective, I was surprised to see a sales flyer of a small company -- P. K. L. Ltd. -- talking about a gas-fired water header:


This was news, atleast to me. I have never seen a gas-fired water heater being sold to a household before in India. I walked over to the Croma website and they don't have one. Similarly, all the water heaters at ezone are electric. Amusingly enough, the P. K. L. Ltd. website also does not talk about a gas-fired water heater. So either this is vapourware or their website is not updated. Do you know any firm selling gas-fired water heating for homes in India, and do you know any home that has one?

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Pakistan, India, MFN: What are the implications?

For once, I am pleased at how India played it: India gave Pakistan MFN status way back, in 1996, without getting into the silliness of reciprocity. A hallmark of professional competence in international trade is the idea of unilateral liberalisation: Even if another country is silly enough to have barriers against us, we should not have trade barriers against them. Removing barriers against India's globalisation is a favour to us, regardless of what it does to anyone else. India often gets into cul de sacs by obsessing on reciprocity - e.g. we won't open up to imports of agricultural products because the Europeans won't. We won't allow foreign banks to operate in India because some other countries have barriers against the operations of Indian banks. And so on. But for once, in this case, our guys seem to have played it right (and way back in 1996, too!).

And now, we have a nice next step: Pakistan will give India MFN status. What might happen next? Here are some conjectures:
  1. At present, there is significant Indo-Pak trade; it merely gets routed through Dubai. Once Pakistan gives India MFN status, the entrepot trade that was going Bombay -> Dubai -> Karachi will go Bombay -> Karachi. This is bad news for Dubai and for individuals and firms which are invested in the future of Dubai as an entrepot centre. Trade data should show a fairly sharp decline in India's exports to UAE and a fairly sharp rise in India's exports to Pakistan.
  2. There will be a boom in shipping, communication and trade serving the direct Bombay -> Karachi route. Similarly, the ports of Gujarat will do a lot of business directly to Karachi.
  3. At first blush, little changes: the goods that used to go via Dubai would now go directly to Karachi. Another dimension is the cost of the middleman in Dubai, which would be eliminated. To a reasonable man, these changes add up to small numbers. But a recurring theme in economics is the extent to which apparently small frictions loom large. The removal of fairly modest frictions matters a lot for business activity. So when the cost of shipping goes down by roughly 3x, even though the cost of shipping may be small in absolute terms, this would have a big impact on trade. 
  4. Important dynamics will now set in amidst firms in Pakistan. Firms that compete with exports from India will suffer. Firms that consume imported inputs from India will thrive. Creative destruction will take place; resources will shift from one group of firms to another. Exporters will be better able to export to India, both because of access to cheaper labour and capital that's freed up by firms that die owing to import competition, and because of improved competitiveness that comes from cheaper raw materials. Exports from Pakistan to India will go up significantly through this movement on import liberalisation.
  5. Large Indian and Pakistani corporations will look much more seriously at the opportunities that lie just beyond the national border. Over time, human capacities and human networks will build up on both sides, supporting cross-border operations. This will take time to ripen, but when it does, the effects will be large. A good fraction of global trade is intra-firm trade, so it's very important to have large firms of both countries having operations in both countries, in order to get growth of trade. But for this, both sides have to do more on capital account liberalisation through which firms will expand operations across the border.
  6. The biggest gains in India will be in Gujarat, given the myriad ports in Gujarat which are a short distance away from Pakistan. But in the future, if road and rail links open up, then there are big opportunities in Punjab also. Wouldn't it be nice to have a NHAI style road running from Ahmedabad to Karachi, and from Amritsar to Lahore?
To the extent that we're merely rerouting trade, bypassing Dubai, this will impose no new stress on ports and airports in Pakistan. But to the extent that new trade is created - as I expect it will (and as argued above) - then new work will be required in Pakistan on enhancing the capacity of ports and airports. I would personally be surprised if the effects are not large. In other words, this initiative will need to be followed through by new work on infrastructure in Pakistan.

In the intuition of economists, there is a gravity model in the affairs of men. Proximity and low transactions costs are incredibly important. The natural opportunity for India to grow international integration on all dimensions (goods, services, people, ideas, capital) lies in our immediate neighbourhood. India's connections into the region are shockingly below those seen for all other large countries. Doing better on connections with Pakistan would be a nice step forward.

Consider a product like cement, which is ordinarily considered a non-tradeable. Transportation of cement is so hard, there isn't a unified national market even within India. There are a series of regional markets. But even in this, modifications of transportation have mattered greatly. E.g. when Gujarat Ambuja came up with the innovation (back in the mid 1990s) of sending cement from Saurashtra to Bombay, by sea, this was a very big deal. By that same logic, cement from the coast of Saurashtra can go to Pakistan (or vice versa, depending on who produces at a lower price).

We should not see trade in goods in isolation. All dimensions of globalisation are intimately connected to each other. It is not possible to have mode of internationalisation (trade in goods) without having the others. To do more trade in goods and services, we need more movement of people. Ergo, the silly visa restrictions that both countries impose on each other need to be eased. Finance follows trade: So where trade in goods and services leads the way, bigger financial integration will follow with trade financing, cross-border banking, payments, purchases of information, operations of multinationals and FDI, INR/PKR currency risk management, and investment flows. More will need to be done on investment guarantees, export/import trade financing, etc. Conversely, if all those elements are blockaded, then trade in goods and services will not blossom.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

`The Quest' by Daniel Yergin: A great job but we need more

I recently read Daniel Yergin's fascinating book The Quest. It's a panoramic view of the global energy industry. For me personally, many parts were familiar territory. But many parts were new to me, and the overall integration of the story was valuable. I encourage every non-specialist (like me) who is curious about energy to read the book.

But I was left thirsty for two more books.

The first book would be a more technical treatment of the same material.

I repeatedly found myself wanting more technical detail. The pollution from cars has come down by 99% between 1970 and 2010. How was this done!? New nuclear reactor designs are fundamentally safer than the reactors that got into trouble at Chernobyl or Fukushima. What are these designs and why are they fundamentally safer!? Hybrid cars give you much higher mileage than ordinary cars. What are the key innovations which make this possible and how much did each of these new ideas contribute? The oil industry is doing incredible things digging deep into the sea. What are these engineering challenges and how are they being overcome?

And so on. The Quest is a good book but the The Quest for Geeks would be a great book.

The second direction in which I was curious and unsatisfied was India. The book has roughly nothing about India. It talks a bit about about Suzlon and has some political stories about India's views in global climate negotiations. For the rest, there is nothing about India's energy industry. It would be great if a comparable panoramic treatment was done, focusing on India. Perhaps Girish Sant and/or Rangan Banerjee should embark on such a project.