My take on the economy and current events in the world of finance. Plus a look at finance and economics from a psychological and behavioral perspective. Happy reading.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The India Story - Part 1

The other day, I had an opportunity to listen to a talk on entrepreneurship. The India story is being touted all over the place. Everyone perceives the West - US and Europe included as aging tigers with the BRIC nations, particularly India and China as the two young raging tigers poised to pull the world out of the mess created by the sharks of capitalism. This two part post is a calculated look into the plausibility of that claim.

Now, before anyone begins to assume a socialistic or communist tone to this post, my belief system is rooted in meritocracy and capitalism. So no worries on that count. But whether the Indian story really deserves such mention is something one needs to sit up and think about. For starters, just to put things in perspective, California's economy alone is worth $ 1.8 trillion, which is much larger than Russia's economy! India's GDP in relative PPP terms stands at $ 3.53 trillion, hardly twice that of California! So is it really such a big deal?

The Indian and Chinese story are intense to say the least! And one thing we must remember is that a growth story like the Indian or the Chinese story perhaps has no precedent. A growth of such scale and magnitude - unforeseen. If pulled off, like George Mallory's feat in the book 'Paths of Glory', the kudos would be tremendous. And if we flounder, the results would be disastrous.

For starters, let's talk advantages.
Government : The first and biggest point is Democracy. No matter how dysfunctional it may be, the world respects democracy, almost in an anti - Socrates way! Somehow a population of a billion being led by a democratically elected government is an achievement. The country looks dependable. And the developed world that follows a democracy identifies with the concept. And somehow a sense of stability is associated with the nation. Classic democracy implies that if a government does not deliver on promises it can and will be replaced. And that adds come credence to the country.

Population: India has a huge population. Billion mouths to feed, billion aspirations, a billion people learning about the wondrous ways of the West. Huge opportunity indeed. The Indian population would be young too, with an average age well below 40! So, huge, earning, productive population. Fourth, we have a lineage. A history of being achievers. Right from the Tatas and Narayana Murthy to Lakshmi Mittal to the Ambanis. From Dipak Jain and Nitin Nohria to Raghuram Rajan, we have an imprint in industry, academia and thought leadership per se.

Labor : One implication of population and a model we've mastered so far is making our labor efficient. At least in terms of cost. So our service sector is well developed - almost to the extent of providing us a competitive advantage. In addition, our urban population is competent in English and so, we have yet another competitive advantage! Also, our education system, for the larger part is strong. So the number of A class engineers, doctors and managers India churns out, provides a strong, capable population that can carry India's progress on its young shoulders.

Location: India is situated neatly in the middle of the world. So, our proximity to the Far East and Europe at least in terms of time zones is an advantage!

But if the achievements are intense, the issues are even more glaring. Next up, we look at the issues.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Retail in India - what is different

Retail is quite interesting as a business concept, especially in India. The whole concept is developing every day and at the same time the Indian consumer is quite different from her counterparts elsewhere in the world. India itself has grown fast, and the exposure of the urban Indian to Western methods has also been immense. Such a growth story, and I speak not just of the growth numbers or the speed of growth, but also the circumstances of such growth are unprecedented. And the beauty of retail is the fact that you get to seen an application of consumer behavior almost blatantly in everyday life. Shelf space politics, as I'd like to call it, product placement, loyalty programmes, discount schemes, sales, are all studied assiduously in terms of their efficacy and the impact of behavioral sciences on such decisions. And these may be research topics, but the beauty is that you experience these and can relate to the ideas much easily! A while back, when Ikea had initiated and killed plans of setting up shop in India, I'd put in a post on that plan - 'Ikea pulls out of India'. And that event was a clear example of how cultural and behavioral attitudes influence retail decisions in India. So, these posts here on Indian retail are going to present the retail industry as it pans out in India. I am sure, several years later, a look at the retail journey here would be worth an interesting read.

So today, I look at the way retail used to be early on in India. And I am going to talk mainly about the post-reform period post 1991, so that the relevance of foreign players and entry barriers also come into the picture.

The future of Indian retail is often discussed to a very great extent. The rapidly developing industry is studied with care, and based on past models that have panned out in other countries, people guess what the direction of Indian retail is going to be. For instance, take grocery retailing in India. Now, over the years, the Indian consumer has been used to the small mom-and-pop store around the corner for satisfying her grocery needs. The model was built on relationship, trust and knowing the shop keeper. To the extent that in school, till about 15 years ago, the word 'mall' was never in use in India. It was always grocer, green grocer, shop keeper and so on. Retail as a concept in India has several unique attributes that have defined Indian retail since the past. Shopping for the household was an errand run by the kid of the house to the nearby shop, and would be unplanned typically. Elaborate beginning of month shopping would be conducted with a long list, and the shopkeeper would have a person deliver the goods at home. In several areas, credit would be extended, and the outstanding amount would be settled at the end of the month. Such a format can still be seen in several parts of rural India and to some extent even in tier 3 cities in India.

Many other trends can be noticed, and you might find an example by looking around various localities in an Indian city. So much for an intro. So, next up, we can look at the face of retail in various categories. Retail in groceries, medicines, apparel, durables and so on.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Success and Excess II

Somehow success and excess always seem to go hand in hand. A while ago when the China - Arunachal Pradesh conflict was at its peak, the visa issue, the rock painting fiasco and so on, elicited 'Power, Politics, Success and Excess'. A talk about ethics and transgressions and how you always have a choice came out in 'How much is too much'. And today, again, on the topic of where to draw a line, here are some thoughts.One of my professors mentioned a very interesting trend in hedge funds . He said, "Some firms are engineered to blow up." He spoke of LTCM and Bear Stearns' 2 funds that were forced to fold. LTCM failed in a macro sense because of a black swan that no one expected. No one dreamt that Russia, America's cold war nemesis and erstwhile feared superpower would default! But one can always argue against such exigencies and ask why risk management practices weren't more robust to prevent even the rarest of rare events from causing damage. Then when we speak of Bear Stearns that broke because of massive exposure to subprime lending and the subsequent drying up of credit markets, one asks again, isn't it a manifestation of excesses? Why didn't people stem the exposure long before the situation went beyond salvage? Take GM. Why do entities need to blow up to 'bailout size' and then justify bailouts saying that they are too big to fail?

Take hedge funds again. We came to know that John Merriweather of LTCM, recently floated his third or fourth fund after busting subsequent funds! Who would have lent him money, you ask? Well, every fund makes some money for some (to the tune of several millions) and loses money for some others. Those who make money, do so thanks to discerningly or luckily removing their money from the fund at the right time and they will lend to these fund managers in their new escapedes, despite the previous fund's having folded! They get the guts to lend again, thanks to the confidence built by having several million dollars of disposable income! The poor, loyal, unsuspecting bunch end up on the left tail of the bell curve, and these are the scapegoats who bear the brunt of irrational exuberance displayed in excesses by successful managers, or they are unfortunate souls who think that their pot of gold just needs an ounce more ! And these people, well, many-a-time, aren't able to reach even 50% of their starting baseline level of affluence! And the story goes on and on.

So more often than not, success leads to excess and this excess can catapult some to untouched heights, while thrusting some others into the chasms of lonely failures. So is regulation the key? Now apparently there are thoughts of regulating some hedge funds by a central authority. Being a strong proponent of efficient markets and classical economic theory, all I can say is - entities that have thrived through self regulation are better off being left alone. Humans never interfere in the laws of the jungle, but somehow, a justice system exists and functions (more efficiently) in the wilderness. So we are better off observing the beauty of self-regulation, Darwinian theory of selection, machinations of the wheels of fortune and the extremes of successes and excesses playing out in front of our eyes, rather than pillage the same with concrete barriers that can destroy this beauty.

Such are the ways of the world. Every black has a white, every God has a satan, every right has a wrong and every winner has a loser.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Biting more than they can chew? M&M

Is Mahindra really biting more than they can chew? That is the question here. Just last year, they took over the dubious Satyam. Experts say that big clients are still wary and are still keen on pulling out of Mahindra-Satyam because there is still some murkiness as regards Satyam's books. People are still unclear of how far the virus has spread and what other skeletons could emerge from that closet. And after over 6 months, the jury is still out on whether Mahindra-Satyam was indeed a marriage made in heaven. At a time of such uncertainty, Mahindra's announcement of a vision to equal Brazilian Embraer is nothing short of stumping! In December M&M acquired a majority stake in Aerostaff Australia and Gippsland Aeronautics in forming what became Mahindra Aerospace. Aerospace is expensive, and such diversification even before the previous debt-laden acquisition (Satyam) could get consummated is looked upon by many as being risky. True, markets thumped Mahindra on the 7th when he announced his plans at the Auto Expo in Delhi. But can we really write off the plan?

Well, this is India - an Emerging Economy. Emerging economies are called so because in a way they are highly unpredictable - a euphemism for the unpredictable third world if I may say so. The ways of the land, the way people conduct business there and almost everything about these countries is different. Even typical Government bond rates are higher! Risk is higher as well, which is why during the Asian crisis, although the problem was mainly with the Thai Baht, the contagion spread through Malaysia, Korea all the way to Brazil, since everyone was bundled under the mysterious ways of the 'emerging land'. So conventional wisdom really doesn't apply to doing business here. Besides, Mr Mahindra is known to have walked away from the JLR deal when he realized that he might have to end up paying too much. So one can eliminate the possibility of managerial hubris in his operational methods. Besides, M&M is known to operate a strategy of initiate, incubate and cash in on any venture. So, given their past successes, one is tempted to think that some serious thought has gone in to making this decision.

Traditionally observers are averse to change. Mahindra brings to mind tractors. We can imagine the Tatas to be everywhere from telecom to steel to autos to IT. But imagining another global conglomerate spanning autos, IT, aeroplanes and more is tough. Come to think of it, it really isn't a highly unrelated diversification. Although capital intensive, they are moving from one kind of autos to another - in a broad sense. So, I guess we need to watch M&M for a year and see whether Mr Mahindra is a calculative businessman, or whether M&M has displayed classic irrational exuberance. In the same breath, another thing to watch out for is Bajaj. Many spoke of their plan of hiving off the scooters in favor of motorcycles as being flawed. They said why kill the goose that laid golden eggs in favor of an unknown swan? In both these cases, the business leaders have shown immense guts, believing the fact that fortune favors the brave. Whether this tenet holds in business, especially in Indian business in the wake of a fragile, just improving economy is what we need to wait and watch.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Right time to withdraw the stimulus???

So now, when we speak of India, we have the debate on whether it is too early to withdraw the stimulus package. India’s stimulus had a lot less to do with pumping money into the system than it had to do with tax cuts to the industry, lower interest rates and so on. So now, many feel that the recovery has been fragile and so stimulus should continue at least till September 2010. I am tempted to call in my great ‘Band Aid’ concept here :) . Are the wounds still green? And would prematurely pulling off the band-aid hurt? Observers and analysts feel, yes. I ask, was there a wound in the first place? What recovery are we talking about? We never slipped into negative growth, that defines a recession. We went from 9% GDP growth to 5.5% and now we are back at 7.9% GDP growth. Even this quarter the growth is expected to hover around the 8% mark. So, I ask – stimulus for what?

China entered into a stimulus since her economy was steeped in exports to the developed world and when the developed world was hit, it stopped consuming. And so China’s bread and butter was stolen away. But we are not so dependent on exports. And we can’t say that just because everyone in the world is stimulating themselves, we need to continue as well. If we keep up stimulation when the economy looks good to go, we’d be fuelling inflationary pressures. Through easy credit we’d be stepping into callous lending! At an extreme, we could be stepping into sub-prime territory in lending! Stimulus packages are a burden on the Government kitty and they divert funds away from much needed developmental expenditures. If India has been less hit by the Great Recession, we must thank our economy for having been resilient. We must thank the policy makers for quick action. And we must capitalize on this resilience to bounce back and out of stimulus-induced growth. The leading economic indicators spell cheer for India and so now is the time for the stimulus to be slowly decreased and eased off. This may be a bold step, but extreme times call for extreme measures.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Air India - the blunder of the decade!

‘Bailout to sail out’ spoke of bailouts and how economically they are wrong since they in a way condone wrongdoings and mismanagement. When GM asked for help, everyone was up in arms against the whole way in which they refused to change according to the times and still produced the fuel guzzling behemoths that consumers had fallen out of love with. ‘Why should taxpayers’ money go into rescuing a Jalsaghar (Satyajit Ray’s epic on pride and ego in spite of decadent poverty)’ was the question everyone asked. But then the ‘too big to fail’ card was played and the cascading effect a GM failure would have on Detroit, Ontario and the employment of millions was brought to light. I remember reading an article around 2008 Christmas in The Globe and Mail, about this family that lived in Ontario, where the only breadwinner was a 55 year old lady who had worked all her life in GM. She chronicled how her life and career had revolved only around GM, and at age 55 she wouldn’t find work anywhere. ‘Maybe this is the last Christmas we can spend together as a family, for next year perhaps we all need to move out of here to find jobs in order to survive’, she lamented. Such stories resulted in GM being bailed out, GM filing for Chapter 11 and so on.

Believers in classical economics, (me included), feel that free markets should be allowed to decide who is good and who is bad and poor performers should be penalized. Yes jobs would be lost, and there would be intermediate pain. But in the long run the cobwebs would be dusted off and quality would prevail. Keynesians believe that the State is present for a purpose and when corporate mess up, they are deigned to step in and clear the mess. So ‘the too big to fail’ funda has been bandied about and the verdict is still divided on whether it is the right thing to do or otherwise.

So speak of Air India. They have paid € 5 million to enter the Star Alliance group and another € 5 million is to be paid. They are in doldrums. They have a liability of Rs. 16,000 crores on their balance sheets. They asked for 5000 crores as Government bailout and got only 800 crores approved! And now they have engaged McKinsey at a whopping 14 crores to pull them out of this mess. Accenture and Booz Allen are already in the fray to rescue them and McKinsey has jumped on the loss maker’s band wagon as well. It really reminds of the Ferrari racing team between 1979 – 1999 when ace drivers and engineers joined the money bags team, milked it for big bucks and left without achieving that all elusive championship victory! What is the outcome of this massive bunch of blunders? Accounts payable amounts would increase albeit to consulting firms now, fat reports on glossy solutions would increase but implementation bugs would continue to persist, since clearly AI’s management team has management issues! And when AI goes beyond salvage, the eternal money bags – the Government would be called upon to HEEEEELLLLLLLLLLLLLP!!! The saga would just continue. I wonder what steps are going to be taken next in this biggest blunder of the last decade which began with the IA-AI merger, which sought to rationalize operations and ended up just spending more on painting all planes with the new logo! Integration went for a toss and from then on AI has been on a nose-diving tailspin! Perhaps its time to stop heeding the SOS.

Friday, January 1, 2010

2009 - a year that was

Ok, almost everyone chronicles the past year. On thing I like, is the one liner event history that figures on Wikipedia or the year round-up in the economist. But for me, the events come to mind at the top of my head at the end of the year, hold most consequence. Here's the roundup of things that defined the past year -

This year marked many things. It began with a bush fire in Australia and surprisingly ended with one in the same place as well - almost setting the tone for the fiery year in politics and the world ahead. Barack Obama became the 44th US President - after a well crafted, technologically and ideologically vibrant campaign. Although post election a number of factors have called into question the success of his presidency. Parleys on whether we were looking at a recession, or a depression, or whether countries like India were in a recession at all, occupied intellectual coffee table talks for a greater part of the year, while countries like Iceland collapsed, Dubai stared at sovereign default in the face, China boosted spending and India recorded 7.9% GDP growth.

Some things stayed staid, with a miscarriage of democracy in Iran and Afghanistan, which felt as though democratizing the Middle-East, an area famous for its tribal population suddenly were forced into something that they did not know how to handle! The Israel - Palestine conflicts continued. Zimbabwe saw the semblance of order with the power sharing deal to form a government, before a deadly car crash wounded the new President and killed his wife. The LTTE was finally defeated with the death of Prabhakaran, thus ending decades of civil war in Sri Lanka, opening a new can of worms related to human rights violations, displaced Tamils and alleged excesses by the Sri Lankan army. The Air France flight from Rio crashed into the middle of the Atlantic in one of the worst air crashes in history, killing all of 228 on board. The UNESCO launched the World Digital Library. Michael Jackson is gone - the music scene will never be the same ever again. This year also marked the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was much less the fall of an Iron Curtain, as it was the triumph of capitalism over communism.

Typhoons and hurricanes continued. India saw drought in the first half of the year followed by terrible floods in South India that almost wiped out portions of age-old villages. Climate change was becoming a reality and countries had to act really fast. Copenhagen came along, resulting in an eyewash of a climate treaty, which many hailed as at least a step in the right direction. Whether tangible benefits would come out of it, or whether the 'cold' war on who needs to blink first between the developed and the developing world would continue remains to be seen.

Sport faced several disgraceful moments with Lewis Hamilton and McLaren caught spying on Ferrari's technical documents, Flavio Briatore and Nelson Piquet Jr caught in crashgate, only to be topped by the great Tiger Woods proving he loved something more than the 18 holes of golf! Then again, the FedEx - Nadal duel got better, with Fed-Ex snatching sweet revenge thanks to an out of form Nadal. The Indian cricket scene never looked better, but the overdose of the willow implied that cricket now became almost akin to a 9-5 corporate job, with weekends off!! And then came the icing on the cake - the final and sure return of Michael Schumacher to competitive racing, thrilling several Schumi fans across the world.

2010 is not just a new year. It marks the start of a new decade. A decade that began with a promise post Y2K, saw the rise and fall of several governments, terrorism rise to its peak, economic crises of enormous proportions, a new Pope, an American President from a minority community, Saddam Hussein, Benazir Bhutto gone, shards of democracy in the middle east, strife in Pakistan, growth in the BRIC nations, the sudden rise and rise of China, the lost decade in Japan and a lottttt more. I could go on and on, but I'd perhaps reserve all that for another post. That said, hopes abound for 2010. Hope the economic downturn swings into an upturn. Hope there is peace in this world, with none of the disgruntled nations engaging in conflict. Hope that the blue moon that showed its face in India yesterday heralds a new beginning for everyone. Happy New Year everyone!