We are talking Trade…

Away from politics, four key meetings took place over weekend. Success and failure of these four events hold the key for world economy.

Finally, world found time to talk about trade. For last 6 months, it was all politics; domestic (Impeachment, Parliament suspension, Kashmir etc.) or International (Iran Oil, Afghanistan etc.) while world economic was bumping around. Last week (or more specifically weekend); 4 key events happened with likelihood of some tangible closures in coming months. The showstoppers were US – China Trade talks and EU-UK negotiating on Brexit but equally important were RCEP meeting in Thailand and PM Modi and President Xi meeting in India.

US and China after aggressive posture have agreed on truce with US agreeing to not impose higher tariffs on additional import from China and in return China agreed to buy more agriculture produce from US. Though this is no-where near expectation and all the issues still remain on table to be resolved, but after so much acrimony even this will be relieve to market and as both have agreed on next round of talks there is optimism around finding a long lasting solution.

Meanwhile UK and EU negotiators are working overtime in Brussels during last weekend to agree to a new deal. There seems to be slim chance of any agreement happening, but as in case of US China trade; at-least stalemate is broken. Both parties genuinely trying their best to find a deal as 31st Oct deadline approaches. With so low expectation on deal, any positive news will be lapped up by markets.

10 members of ASEAN and 6 FTA partners with combined GDP being approx. 40% of the world has their 2 day Intercessional Ministerial Meeting in Thailand to negotiate 16 countries mega trade deal, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. Again no deal agreed yet but Trade negotiating committee is meeting on 17th and 18th Oct with more substantial progress expected, probably finding agreeable draft by their leaders meeting on 4th November.

Not faraway from RCEP Meet, PM Modi and President Xi, leaders of 2 Asian superpower with combined PPP GDP of $37trillion had a informal meeting at seaside historic town of South India. This was second informal meeting but unlike Wuhan, which was more political to diffuse post Dokhlam crisis, issues of investment and trade were discussed. They have agreed to setup a special panel to address concerns mainly around huge trade deficit in favour of China (role reversal when compared with US).

These four events if concluded positively in next 3 months will determine if year 2020 will be happy one or not. WTO which helped in opening up international trade is one of the key reason for the progress made by emerging countries to speed up their growth. In last 5 years, there is consistent threat to this roadmap and therefore these talks are important for the world economy future.

Lets hope better sense prevailed, keeping economic out of politics, to whatever extent possible.

 

 

Can 2019 be 2008!

Remembering 2008 as uncertainty looms over world economy.

In last 6 months as new data are coming out across USA, China, EU, Asia etc., discussions in Boardrooms, Central Banks, Economist, Policy Commentators, Business news channels has veered from whether recession is coming to when is it coming? And Is it structural / cyclic or man-made (read: US – China trade conflict). Judgment is still out but Isn’t right time to remember 2008.

2008 i.e. “Great Recession” will always be remembered as how few mighty financial institutions for their greed brought down nations to their knees, impact of which can still be seen across some of the European nations and emerging markets. Nevertheless. we will be doing injustice to 2008 if we don’t recall what was done post crisis as it is this learning which will probably help in 2019 or beyond. The 2008 crisis was the first such event after rapid growth of emerging economies which helped to integrate large part of global economy then anytime before that. The 1930s “Great depression” in USA though impacted large number of countries, 2 large populations have minimal impact i.e. China and India and there was time-lag as it unfolded in 1929 in USA to its impact in say France. This was the first time when its impact can be seen simultaneously from America to Greece to Columbia to India to South Africa. Anything like great depression of 1930s could have rattled and undermine all the progress made during first 7-8 years of new millennia.

Better sense prevailed and in an unprecedented coordinated action from political class and Central Bankers from USA, EU, Japan, China etc.; what could have been otherwise certain death was avoided through practical solutions, some sacrifices / compromises, give & take and so on. There are point of view if these actions will actually be detrimental in long term, but no one can deny the intentions of political leadership to come together for larger cause which is to not let common man suffer.

Today, as world enters another uncertainty and likelihood of 2008 part 2 (form and nature may be different), Can we depend on world leadership to sail us through. Instead there is high probability that they will be taking us to abyss. To the Central bank credit, they are trying to do everything possible; fact is they have already used most of the ammunitions in last 10 years managing the fall out of 2008 bailout. They will need the might of Politicians and nations they lead to put some kind of defence.

In 11 years since, economy landscape has changed as well. There is new power and only a fool could ignore it and find a solution. The dragon is critical and has to be part of the high table running the show i.e. FED and EU Central Bank. China can no longer shirk its responsibility, it need to adhere to global rule and be ready to share pain. Stakes are far higher than before for the world and any set-back can now undo 20 years of hard work which has helped to pull out a large world population from poverty.

If there is going to 2008 like crisis in 2019, lets our response also be like 2008 in 2019.

The Billionaire Raj

This is book review of The Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree published in India by HarperCollins in 2018

In his latest book, Of counsel, Ex-CEA Arvind Subramanian referred to The Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree while making a point on crony capitalism. The opinion from an outsider who has spent considerable time in India provides a very different and refreshing perspective than Indian intellectuals or outsiders with limited first hand experience about India. James Crabtree has spent five years between 2011 to 2016 in India as Mumbai bureau chief for the Financial Times. Going by his accounts, he seems to have travelled across India (Mumbai to dusty rural UP) and met cross-section of peoples (Tycoons to Politicians). He lived in India during interesting 5 years and put in lot of efforts to understand the complexities of such a vast and diverse country, which even us Indians don’t comprehend enough.

The central theme of the book is crony capitalism i.e. rise of Indian tycoon and the nexus between them and politicians to corner inappropriate share of wealth of the nation. It has 12 chapters structured in 3 parts taking reader on a journey from Mumbai high-rise (to showcase wealth of the few) to Indian States like UP, Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh (to establish nexus) and finally trying to make a sense of all of this in a new India which wants to be counted among US and China. The chapters and parts are well connected for readers to not get lost while author is taking them through the maze of politics, business, media, sports etc. The book tries to be as relevant for Indian reader as for outsider and therefore goes back and forth to establish links and historical perspective, though last few chapters divert from central theme. The chapters start with setting the context in dramatic way, language is fluid and keeps reader engaged. He met some of the key influencers in Politics, Business, Media, Sports and Intellectuals. Each topic covered has some of these characters playing up the main lead like in a Bollywood movie and his style of presenting them also has similar masala flavour which only an outsider like him with audacity can do (Checkout his description of Mukesh Ambani when he first met him – in his mid-fifties, he was shorter and chubbier then I expected with dark black hair swept back with oil). The openness and frankness appears all over the book which make these lead characters more human than Indians are used too.

He explains the book title, essentially India’s shift from British Raj to License Raj and to post 1991, which he termed as Billionaire Raj. But book is not restricted to these wealthy tycoons and how they built their empire by hoarding resources with help from politicians and bureaucrats but in the process walks his reader through India’s transformation, eco-socio-politico, since Independence. The book looks at India from multiple angle; right, left and centre. Unlike others who are either too optimistic or pessimistic on India, past or future, his is a balance narrative. While he agree to India’s potential but mentions all the headwinds which could stop it realising these potential. He acknowledge the steps taken to streamline many ills but list all where no action is taken.

Anyone who is interested to go through a quick flashback on India particularly between 2011-2016, this is a good book to flip through. James is currently in Singapore, not far from Indian shore and we should be looking forward to his follow-up story.

 

Welcome 2019

Happy New Year, another year landing at our shores bringing hope. Lets Welcome 2019.

Dear 2019

Welcome, we were so eagerly waiting for your arrival. To be frank, equally excited when your sibling 2018 came but what a disappointment her stay was. After a painful demonetisation in 2016 and equally troubling GST in 2017, Indians were hoping for some respite in 2018. But then she took all of us on a roller-coaster ride for her 365 days stay. Economics and Politics were her prime victims. When world economy was appearing set on track, She wrecked markets with US-China trade dispute, rising Crude Price, Volatile Currency market and whoa !! by end of the year, Asia alone lost $5trillion in market capitalisation. Her flirtation with nationalism and nationalist leaders meant world became a battleground for world leaders like Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Xi, Saudi Prince and so on. Suddenly the world and  India is back to square one, with politics means Migrant & Mandir and economy is Protectionism & loan waiver. It’s like one step forward and 2 backward.

Let me also give credit where it’s due to 2018. She helped in setting new milestone on personal freedom and women empowerment. “Metoo” movement gave voice to women around the world, LGBT community won legal battles in across globe including India where law against it got repealed. Saudi has allowed driving to women, India is getting its Triple Talaq scrubbed, Court has permitted women entry into temple and dargahs. There is worldwide lash back against Internet giants who are infringing into private lives and making mockery of privacy.

You have lot on platter dear, to reverse economic and political back to normal and keep the momentum on progressive social agenda. Get the climate change debate back on table. Realign nationalism with global good.

I wish you a happy stay. Let’s start the journey.

Yours truly

third person

RBI and GOI

Post Raghuram Rajan, RBI is no longer a staid and boring Institution which worked behind the scene with hardly any debate over its action or inaction. Suddenly RBI is in the middle of political discourse, they are no longer confined to business pages of National dailies but made to front page headline. And therefore the recent dispute between RBI and Government which led to Governor departure is discussed in office canteens, drawing rooms and dinner tables. But the problem is people are clueless. At first it looked simple, depending on which side of debate are you. On government side, there is excess monies lying with RBI which should be used to the benefit of Country and on opposition side, government is trying to loot RBI money.

And the common man is confused; RBI (Reserve Bank of India) and GOI (Government of India) has one thing in common, India. If there is excess capital lying idle with RBI, which is earning marginal Income to nation, why this is not used. Remember, this is not small change, it ranges between 4.5 lakh Cr. to 7 lakh Cr. as per various estimate. At higher range, its equal to 30-35% of the Union Budget (7 months of GST collection) and at lower end equal to NPAs of all PSUs put together. The discussion on channels or news article is not helping much as there are eminent politicians, economist, Intellectuals on both sides of debate and both seems to have valid points. But finally, we are all family and there is money, what to do. Let’s try to simplify;

If you are from traditional middle class family, did you wonder how our household finance works. Whenever there is crisis in family, and head of family is struggling to arrange finance, from nowhere lady of the house brings out the treasure chest. The so-called pin-money has come to rescue many times in our middle and low-income households (during demonetisation, this was actually a larger booty than known cash). And now substitute head of the family with GOI, lady with RBI and People, rest of the family. RBI is keeping the so-called excess capital for emergency. The problem is to agree on – What is emergency and how much money should be kept of that emergency. GOI and RBI differs on both. The lady thinks that head of the family is lying about emergency and going to squander away this fund and hence can’t be trusted. Head of the family thinks there is an emergency and lady is not coming to rescue of the family. While rest of the family is excited to get that money but wonders who among the family is going to get it (and if it’s not me that lady is right, he is wasting the resource). And the solution is similar to what is done for ages in our families;

Let the parents (RBI & GOI) discuss among themselves, aided by grand parents (MPC, eminent economist and Parliament) to frame a working guidelines to define capital required, end use of excess capital, process to transfer the capital and safeguard against squandering of the emergency funds. And rest of the family (Public) should go back to their work and as in the past, keep RBI policy out of political discourse and canteen debate.

Even real life Bond is anonymous, so be RBI governor.

Why large companies does not lead Innovation?

Why it’s always an unknown start-ups linked to every disruptive innovation in recent times and not large corporates. This malaise could be traced centuries back.

“Why large companies does not lead Innovation” may not be appropriate since they do innovate but it’s incremental. Innovations from their stable is like Version2, 3 and so on. Their innovations are rarely disruptive or game changer except in few cases. And this seems to inflict every company who starts with a Big Bang Innovation but as it becomes large, forget to how to be creative again. It was not established large IBM but off the block Microsoft to bring the best Personal computer operating system but then it was not large Microsoft but relatively start-up Apple, which got it right with mobile operating system. There are umpteen such examples where start-ups have beaten large companies in bringing about disruptive changes in their Industry.

It should not be the case. Innovation = Talent + Resources and who could beat these fortune 500 companies in hiring the best talent from campuses or managing all the resources needed. So what’s going wrong?

I just finished reading Simon Singh brilliant book on origin of Universe; Big Bang. It was surprising to note that even innovators / Scientists / astronomers were behaving like large corporates of todays. It takes ages even to acknowledge new Idea from a budding scientist by the renowned names thereby wasting precious human time and endeavour to move forward. Copernicus, first mooted the Idea of Sun and not Earth being at the centre of Solar System in 1514 but it took more than 300 years for the scientific community to accept this Idea. Almost 200 years after Galileo made observation to support Copernicus. This was not only because of religion (Church being against the change) but also due to well-known and reputed names in the field of astronomy resisting the new Idea. This has not changed in 20th century as well. It took almost 40 years for Einstein to be convinced that there is no need for a cosmological constant in his general theory of relativity as Universe is expanding. He out-rightly dismissed this new Idea from new kids and his dismissal means instant death to the new way of thinking about origin of Universe. Though later this was proved right and Einstein himself acknowledged that cosmological constant was the ugliest idea and he was never comfortable with it. Simon Singh has summarised this beautifully in his book;

The shift from one paradigm to another could happen only once the new paradigm had been fully discredited. The speed of the transition depends on numerous factors, including the weight of evidence in favour of the new paradigm and the extent to which old guard resists the change. Older Scientists, having invested so much time and effort in old paradigm, are generally the last to accept the change, whereas younger scientists are generally more adventures and open minded. The paradigm shift might therefore be completed only when the older generations have retired from scientific life and the younger generation has become the new establishment.

This is so true for an established large corporates as well. The do recruit the best talent from younger generation but hierarchy on the top always comes from older generation (more so now as average life span has increased and retiring age is moving north). This Older generation has tasted success albeit a long time back by doing things in a certain way. It’s impossible for them to understand why same way of doing things will not bring in more success. They only promote those new ideas / innovation which is only incremental, does not try to make paradigm shift and is predictable. Imagine how a 70 year old head of any large conglomerate would have reacted in late 1990s if one of his young recruit has presented a social networking Idea like Facebook. He will be lost to understand why people need to connect on Internet, they could probably connect over a dinner at Restaurant and therefore opening a restaurant is probably better business for him.

So how to make that leap from slow moving behemoth to nimble start-up. You can’t. But there is way out and some of them have already started doing. Remember, these behemoth has the best talent and resources. They could not only make disruptive changes but also mobilise resources to quickly get the acceptance.

First, Instead of trying innovation in the existing and tired corporation, support a budding start-up like any other PE / VC fund. The R&D fund given to these start-ups will provide better results than wasting on internal R&D, where any good idea will take eternity to come out of bureaucracy and gain any visibility.

Second, encourage entrepreneurs within organisation. Start-ups within conglomerate, divorce from any existing corporate hierarchy.

Third, move older generation out of the way. Let them lead and run established business, don’t let them take decisions on new Ideas. They should be driving at left lane and right lane should be cleared for new generation.

We need Innovations / New Ideas to fight against poverty, climate change, income disparity, gender inequality and so on. Start-ups ability to bring change at large scale is limited and takes time. Large corporates hoards all resources and it’s important that they become part of change. Otherwise it will take another 300 years for Sun to occupy centre of our solar system.

2017, a year of hope & despair

2017 was such an roller & coaster ride for Indian economy.

What a contrasting two years for Indian economy, 2016 started with hope and ended in despair and in contrast 2017 started in despair but ended with hope. Who could remember that 2016 calendar year first quarter started with India growing at 9.2% while 2017 at 6.1% which plunged to its lowest at 5.7%. That’s where it’s important to look at events which shaped up during this year and in spite of one of the lowest growth year for India in recent years has more of hope at the end of it.

Even before 2016 was hit by demonetisation of high value currency, GDP trend was already heading south, from Jan-Mar @9.2%, to Apr-June @7.9%, Jul-Sep @7.5% and Oct-Dec @7%. Demonetisation was the proverbial last nail. Young 2017 inherited the mess of demonetisation with business confidence at its lowest but ended up by helping markets to grow by 28% from 26595 to 34056.

Demonetisation hardship to public was expected to last beyond March but an early end to general suffering mitigated some of the fears. ATMs and banks were back to normal in dispensing cash which helped people and businesses to quickly get into recovery mode, though impact lasted well into Q1 of the current financial year, with GDP hitting the bottom at 5.7%. Next on card was Budget, with UP election round the corner, there was general expectation that government may go for charity and miss the fiscal deficit target. A budget which not only kept fiscal deficit target sacrosanct but kept in line with long term goals restored investors’ confidence in India story. Thumping UP election victory meant, demons of demonetisation was finally buried for the good. How could we miss our own Rexit story, our own RBI Bond, Mr. Raghuram Rajan was on his way out. There were concern around his replacement and the stance on banks NPA, monetary policy etc. By nominating Mr. Patel to the post was continuation of Rajan mandate (as actual architect was of this policy was Mr. Patel) and implementation of Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) ensured transparent way of setting inflation target (and therefore Interest rate – a continuous bone of contention between RBI & GOI). Under his watch, RBI referred first set of cases under Insolvency & Bankruptcy code (IBC) triggering the final act of clean-up and pushing government to shore up the PSU banks capital, which they promptly announced.

But mother of all was announced mid-night of 30June in the Central hall of Parliament. India was finally going to be a true single market economy with implementation of Good and Services Tax (GST). This was truly revolutionary and as it happens with any such gigantic disruption – Chaos followed. It disrupted in the way business was done till date. Not only people were not ready, it turns out government didn’t helped the cause. Thankfully, system were responsive and during last 6 months, through multiple pro-active interventions, implementation has been stabilised to a large extent albeit taking its toll with Q2 GDP growth rate struggled at 6.3%.

Still, the million dollar question is, was 2017 a glass half full or half empty and depending on your allegiance to government or opposition, there are enough arguments for both sides. If we go by markets, it seems they are on the half full side. Sensex has moved from 26595 to 34056 and rupee strengthen against dollar from 68.32 to 63.83. This has to do more with hope (than facts) reflected in trend. Unlike last year, after hitting bottom in Q1, Q2 GDP moved to 6.3 and with tailwind, this trend is expected to continue with better GDP numbers projected for Q3 and Q4. The increasing trend line is also supported by global growth rate of 3% plus and general positive cue from around the globe. Brexit seems to be on track after initial hic-ups, Trump has got his Tax reforms through, and China is doing well and so on.

While it’s not all great going into 2018. Domestically, there is lurking inflation and political drama unfolding with IBC impact yet to hit Banks in full. Globally, demise of ISIS is followed by Saudi – Iran problem, possibly hitting Crude Oil price.

All said and done, 2018 inherited a far better world than 2017 and as we welcome young 2018, let’s say goodbye to our old friend 2017 who helped us all to be more hopeful about our future.