By 2015, gold price will average significantly below $1,200 per ounce

Gold, the yellow metal, has been touching new highs in India. But the international price in dollars has been largely flat since the beginning of this year. Nikos Kavalis, Strategist in the Commodity Research Team of RBS feels “By 2015, we expect the gold price will average significantly below its current levels, at $1,200/oz. As the road-map to more normal macroeconomic conditions is laid, we believe that more attractive opportunities will emerge for investors and, eventually, higher interest rates will also reduce gold’s appeal.”
In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
The price of gold has been largely flat in dollar terms since the beginning of the year. Why is that?
For most of last year, gold behaved like a “safe haven” asset and was negatively correlated with risk. For example, it rallied by 28% from end-June to its all-time-high of $1,920/oz in early September, whereas the S&P500 fell by around 15% over the same period. Aft/er the sharp September correction, when gold dropped to a $1,600-1,650/oz range (per ounce, where one ounce equals 31.1grams), the story changed dramatically. Since then, gold has been trading in line with risk.
Can you explain that further?
2012 so far can be divided in two periods. The first period was the euphoria of the first two months of the year. A series of good economic data and hopes that the worst of the Eurozone crisis was behind us, pushed investors to risky assets. This helped gold, which was also boosted by a weakening US dollar at the time – gold has traditionally been negatively correlated with the US currency. By late February, gold had rallied to $1,790/oz, from around $1,560 at the start of the year. The period since the end of February has been the mirror image of the first two months. The first hit for gold came after Ben Bernanke’s speech at end-February, which hurt market expectations of QE3. Renewed concerns about the Eurozone crisis, poor economic data out of Europe and concerns that China’s growth is slowing boosted risk aversion over the following few weeks. Greece’s election added fuel to the fire and intensified fears of a break-up of the Eurozone. Gold trended downwards and by the end of May its price had virtually erased all the previous gains, returning more or less where it started the year. The price rebounded somewhat in early June, but remains far below the late-February high.
But it’s been going up in terms of rupees…
Since its peak in September, the gold price has declined by 15%, in dollar terms. In rupee terms, and here I am looking at the nearest gold futures contract on the MCX, the price has recently made new highs! The story here is one of currency depreciation. As you know, the Indian rupee has been under pressure, partly because of fundamental reasons and partly due to the wider “risk off” environment hitting emerging markets currencies. It has depreciated by 5% against the US dollar since the beginning of the year and by more than 27% since the summer of 2011. This has boosted the Indian rupee denominated gold price. The rise in the rupee-denominated gold price has hurt Indian demand. High inflation eating into disposable incomes of local consumers has not helped either. This is evident in the World Gold Council data, showing weak jewellery and bar investment demand in the country, both in the fourth quarter of 2011 and the first three months of 2012. You no doubt will have also seen the numerous anecdotal reports that suggest demand has remained weak over the course of the second quarter.
How do you see the performance of gold in dollar terms during the course of the year?
I am moderately bullish towards gold for the rest of 2012. I think that the current uncertain macroeconomic environment still provides good reasons to own it, particularly against the backdrop of negative real interest rates. Moreover, we at RBS commodity research expect that the wider commodities sector will move upwards later in the year. We expect Chinese commodity demand to accelerate and I think that the latest interest rate cut and other steps taken by Chinese authorities towards a more accommodative stance will help in this. As risk appetite grows, flows into the space should also emerge. We believe that all this will benefit gold. Specific to the gold market, continued central bank buying should also help gold, both directly, by taking metal out of the market, and indirectly, by boosting investor sentiment. Lack of producer hedging and limited growth in scrap supply, are other positive factors.
Any target?
Finally, I want to note that at the moment speculator positioning in gold is very light. Look at the CFTC data on net positions in Comex futures for example – the net investor long is at the lowest since December 2008 and short positions are significant. When sentiment changes, I think this situation will be reversed and therefore believe there is some very good upside to be had. Our projections see gold average at $1,800/oz in the fourth quarter of this year.
What about the performance in terms of rupees?
We have a team of Emerging Markets economists at RBS and their outlook for the Indian rupee is cautious, owing to the imbalances (fiscal & current account) that weigh on the currency. The recent reduction in the petrol subsidy and the possibility for further fuel subsidy cuts are all steps in the right direction and some better news in Europe could also help, but our economists cannot see a material appreciation any time soon. Based on this and our forecast for a higher dollar-denominated price, we expect the rupee price to also rise in 2012.
What is the scene on the investment demand for gold?
There are a few different “segments” of gold investment and activity in them has varied. Investment in physical gold continues, although at a slower pace than last year. You still have the risk-averse retail players buying bars and coins in Europe and North America and of course the Indian and Chinese demand. We are seeing a lot less large scale metal account buying than in 2011 and before, but on the positive side, we have also not really much selling from these positions. We had some good inflows into gold ETFs earlier in the year, but these were in large part offset during the recent liquidations. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, positioning in Comex futures is very low and has declined year-to-date. Our outlook for investment demand in gold is positive and this assumption is an essential part of our bullish outlook for the price of the yellow metal. We think that, for reasons discussed earlier, investor appetite for gold will continue and actually grow later in the year. A very important driver for this growth will likely rising speculative investment in gold futures. These guys have actually been net dis-investors in 2012-to-date and many of them are now short gold (based on CFTC data).
Quantitative easing carried out by countries all over the world was one reason for the bull market in gold. Is that still a reason? I think that the expectation of QE3 in the US has been a very important driver of gold investment in the past. This was illustrated by the sharp correction following Ben Bernanke’s statement in late February that dampened expectations of further quantitative easing. Recent developments continue to suggest that QE3 is very much in gold investors’ minds. For example, look at the early-June rally (from ~$1,550/oz to ~$1,640/oz); it came after the poor US payrolls data on 1st June and dovish comments by Federal Reserve officials, which rekindled QE3 expectations. Similarly, the sharp correction that followed was triggered by Ben Bernanke’s latest testimony, which, again, lacked any clear indication that QE3 is on the way.
What are the chances of QE III happening, and that in turn pushing up the price of gold?
Our US economists ascribe better than even (60%) odds of Federal Reserve action, but think that an extension of “Operation Twist” is more likely than outright QE3. Having said this, if QE3 were to materialise, I think that gold would clearly benefit, for a number of reasons: the risk-on trade that would follow; the negative impact on the US dollar; and rising inflationary expectations (perhaps to a lesser extent now than in the past).
What can be the newer reasons for a bull market in gold?
As I mentioned earlier, we are only modestly bullish on gold, for the reasons I explained earlier. Moreover, our projections see the end of the gold bull market is in sight and we see a downtrend emerge from next year onwards. By 2015, we expect the gold price will average significantly below its current levels, at $1,200/oz. As the road-map to more normal macroeconomic conditions is laid, we believe that more attractive opportunities will emerge for investors and, eventually, higher interest rates will also reduce gold’s appeal.
If a country like Greece were to decide to leave the euro zone, do you see that having any impact on the price of gold?
Absolutely. I think the immediate reaction would be for gold to fall sharply, as investors sell all risky assets and there is a flight to cash. Further down the line, “after the dust settles”, I would expect that such an event would re-ignite safe haven buying of gold and as such drive the price higher.
What can pull down the price of gold?
I think the biggest headwind for gold at the moment is the strength of the US dollar. If the US currency continues to strengthen, gold will remain under pressure. Further into the future, there are a number of potential factors which we indeed expect will push gold down, such as flows into other asset classes and, eventually, higher interest rates.
Do you see more central banks buying gold in the time to come?
Yes, we expect central banks will continue to be net buyers of gold and that purchases will amount to 400 tonnes overall in 2012. As I mentioned earlier, we think that this is supportive for the gold price both directly, as these purchases take bullion out of the market, and indirectly, as central bank buying confirms gold’s status as a key reserve asset and boosts investor sentiment towards the metal.
What sort of retail consumption of gold does China have?
Chinese demand for high-carat gold jewellery and for investment products is huge and in 2011 was the second largest, after India. Chinese jewellery demand amounted to nearly 500 tonnes and bar investment to 250 tonnes last year. Importantly, it is a market with potential for further growth and I would not be surprised if in 2012 Chinese demand surpassed India, particularly given the recent weakness of demand in the latter.
There is a lot of speculation about how the Chinese central bank is quietly buying up gold. How true is that?
In 2009 China did publish revisions to its official gold reserves which suggested it had been buying and there indeed is much speculation that this continues. In April, net imports of 67 tonnes were one of the highest figures on record and twice the average of the previous three months. As I do not believe there was a similar increase in jewellery and investment demand, this does suggest more gold entered the country than was consumed privately and one possible explanation for this could be official sector buying, although it is also possible that local commercial banks were building inventory. Ultimately, I can only comment with certainty on published information and, as you know, there is no data or announcements confirming Chinese official sector purchases of gold have taken place recently.
(The interview originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) on June 18,2012)
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

Is Manmohan following Lalu’s no-growth Bihar strategy?

Vivek Kaul

In a piece titled Farewell to Incredible India, which deals with the current economic problems in India, The Economist writes: “The Congress-led coalition government, with Brezhnev-grade complacency, insists things will bounce back.”
Leonid Brezhnev was the General Secretary of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). He ruled the country from 1964 till his death in 1982.
I guess The Economist looked too far. They could have found someone right here in India to describe the complacency of the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance(UPA) government. The man I am talking about is none other than Lalu Prasad, the former railway minister and former chief minister of Bihar.
Yes, you read it right. Before I get into explaining why I just said what I did, let us go back a little into history.
The lucky Lalu Yadav
Lalu Yadav re-entered politics in 1973, just by sheer chance. He didn’t have to struggle for it. The opportunity just fell into his lap.
As Sankarshan Thakur writes in Subaltern Sahib: Bihar and the Making of Lalu Yadav, “On the eve of elections of Patna University Students Union (PUSU) in 1973 non-Congress student bodies had again come together, if only for their limited purpose of ousting the Congress. But they needed a credible and energetic backward candidate to head the union. Lalu Yadav was sent for.”
The only trouble was that Lalu Yadav was no longer a student, but was an employee of the Patna Veterinary College. He had quit student politics in 1970, after having lost the election for the presidentship of PUSU to a Congress candidate. Before this, Lalu had been the general secretary of PUSU for three consecutive years.
But Lalu got around the problem. “Assured that the caste arithmetic was loaded against the Congress union, Lalu readily agreed to contest. He quietly buried his job at the Patna Veterinary College and got a backdated admission into the Patna Law College. He stood for elections and won. The non-Congress coalition in fact swept the polls,” writes Thakur.
And from there on Lalu Yadav went from strength to strength. In 1974, the students’ agitation against then prime minister Indira Gandhi spread throughout the country. As Thakur points out, “An agitation committee was formed, the Bihar Chatra Sangharsh Samiti to coordinate the activities of various unions and Lalu Yadav as president of PUSU was chosen its chief.”
These events catapulted Lalu Yadav into the big league. In the 1977 elections, Lalu was elected to the Lok Sabha as a Janata Party candidate at a young age of 29.
Chief Minister of Bihar
VS Naipaul once described Bihar as “the place where civilisation ends”. Lalu Prasad first became the chief minister of Bihar in 1990. Between him and his wife Rabri Devi they largely ruled the state till 2005, and almost brought civilisation to an end.
When India was going from strength to strength with economic growth rates that it had never seen before, the economy of Bihar was shrinking in size. As Ruchir Sharma writes in Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles , “Bihar was the only Indian state that not only sat out India’s first growth spurt but also saw its economy shrink (by 9 percent) between 1980 and 2003.”
Lalu and his wife Rabri ruled for the major portion of the period between 1980 and 2003. Economic development was nowhere in the agenda of Lalu and on several occasions when questioned about the lack of economic development in the state, he replied that economic development does not get votes. And he was proved right.
In fact such was Lalu’s lack of belief in development that even money allocated to the state government by the Central government remained unspent. As Santhosh Mathew and Mick Moore write in a research paper titled State Incapacity by Design: Understanding the Bihar Story, “Despite the poverty of the state, the governments led by Lalu Prasad signally failed to spend the money actually available to them: ‘…Bihar has the country’s lowest utilisation rate for centrally funded programs, and it is estimated that the state forfeited one-fifth of central plan assistance during 1997–2000.’”
Between 1997 and 2005, the Ministry of Rural Development allocated Rs 9,600 crore. Of this, nearly Rs 2,200 crore was not drawn. And of the money received only 64 percent was spent. Similarly, money allocated from other programmes was also not spent.
How did he survive?
Lalu survived by building a potent combination of MY (Muslim + Yadav) voters. The Yadavs are the single largest caste in Bihar. Such was his faith in the MY voters that Lalu did not even promise development, like most politicians tend to do. As Mathew and Moore write: “He finessed this problem…by departing from the normal practices of Indian electoral politics and not vigorously promising ‘development’. For example, if during his many trips to villages he was asked to provide better roads, he would tend to question whether roads were really of much benefit to ordinary villagers, and suggest that the real beneficiaries would be contractors and the wealthy, powerful people who had cars. He typically required a large escort of senior public officials on these visits, and would require them to line up dutifully and humbly on display while he himself was doing his best to behave like a villager. He might gesture at this line-up and ask ‘Do you really want a road so that people like this can speed through your village in their big cars?’”
So what was Lalu Yadav trying to do here? “Lalu Prasad Yadav was not trying to fool most of his voters most of the time. He was offering then tangible benefits: respect (izzat – a Hindi term that he employed frequently) and the end of local socio-political tyrannies
Where does Manmohan Singh fit in here?
Some time after Lalu Yadav became the chief minister of Bihar, India had a financial crisis. PV Narasimha Rao was looking for a technocrat for the Finance Minister’s position. He first approached Dr Indraprasad Gordhanbhai Patel, who was the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) from 1977 to 1982. Patel refused and suggested the name of his successor at the RBI, Manmohan Singh, who had been the Governor of the RBI from 1982 to 1985. Singh had just taken over as the Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) in March 1991. He was pulled out of there and made the Finance Minister of India. And thus started Singh’s second career. Like Lalu, Singh’s career got a second life.
And he, like Lalu, before him went from strength to strength and finally became the Prime Minister of India. A few days ago, Mamata Banerjee had even proposed his name for President. He would make for an excellent President given that the Indian President doesn’t really do anything, except what the government (in this case Sonia) wants him to.
If Pratibha Patil, who no one had ever heard of, could become the President of India, so can the much more loyal Manmohan. He fits all the parameters Sonia Gandhi is looking for in a President. But the trouble, of course, is she wants the same parameters in her Prime Minister as well. And he can’t be at two places at the same time. So Singh’s name as a presidential candidate has been rejected by the Congress party. It would have been a rather glorious end to an “illustrious” career.
The irony
However what is ironic is that a man, who once spearheaded the economic reform process in India, has now totally withdrawn himself from the same. In fact, at times one wonders whether it is even a priority with him and his government? Now that Pranab Mukherjee is leaving the finance ministry for Rashtrapati Bhawan, we will find out what Manmohan has in store.
There has hardly been any response from the UPA government to the recent low GDP growth rate number of 5.3 percent for the period between January and March 2012. Pranab Mukherjee has blamed the slow growth on the problems in Greece in particular and Europe in general. This is a typical Lalu response where the old adage “if you can’t convince them, confuse them” is at work. The problems of India are not because of problems in Greece or Europe, but because of the economic policies of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government. (It’s not Greece: Cong policies responsible for rupee crash).
As The Economist puts it, “India’s slowdown is due mainly to problems at home and has been looming for a while. The state is borrowing too much, crowding out private firms and keeping inflation high. It has not passed a big reform for years. Graft, confusion and red tape have infuriated domestic businesses and harmed investment. A high-handed view of foreign investors has made a big current-account deficit harder to finance, and the rupee has plunged.”
In fact, there is a state of total denial within the UPA that there are serious economic problems facing India. The spin-doctors of UPA are even working overtime to sell the country that famous song from 3 Idiots “All is Well“. On a recent TV show, Montek Singh Ahulwalia, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, kept insisting that a 7 percent economic growth rate was a given. As it turned out the GDP growth rate fell to 5.3 percent.
Economic development doesn’t matter
The way the UPA government has been working over the last few years, it is very easy to conclude that economic development of this country isn’t really top of the agenda. Like was the case with Lalu Yadav.
The solutions to the problems are simple and largely agreed upon by everyone who has an informed opinion on the issue. As The Economist puts it, “The remedies, agreed on not just by foreign investors and liberal newspapers but also by Manmohan Singh’s government are blindingly obvious. A combined budget deficit of nearly a tenth of GDP must be tamed, particularly by cutting wasteful fuel subsidies. India must reform tax and foreign-investment rules. It must speed up big industrial and infrastructure projects. It must confront corruption. None of these tasks is insurmountable. Most are supposedly government policy.”
But then there is hardly any policy coming out of the government. So what is top of the agenda? To stay in power and enjoy its fruits? And by the time the 2014 elections come around, set the stage ready for Rahul Gandhi to take over? But the question that crops up here is this: like Lalu, does the Manmohan Singh-led UPA have a MY formula? And even if it does have a formula, will it work?
Lalu found out in 2005 that formulas become useless over a period of time. “We could not make it because of overconfidence and division in Muslim-Yadav (votes),” Lalu told India Today magazine after his defeat to Nitish Kumar in the 2005 election.
Overconfidence is the word the Manmohan Singh led UPA needs to watch out for.
(The article originally appeared on on June 16,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

Kharif MSPs: Subbarao ‘ka bad luck heech kuch kharab hai

Vivek Kaul

Many years before he became a social ambassador trying to highlight all that is wrong with India, actor Aamir Khan did this film called Rangeela. The movie had many firsts to its credit. The actress Urmila Matondkar, who had had a string of flops till then, wore a swimsuit on screen for the first time. It was AR Rahman’s first Hindi film, with all his releases before Rangeela being dubbed versions of his Tamil scores. The movie also had a lead character (played by Khan) speaking Mumbaiya Hindi, one of the earliest in the history of Hindi cinema, throughout the movie.
One of the lines that Khan spoke in the movie, and which has since become a part of popular culture, was “apun ka to bad luck heech kharab hai” (We all know what it means, so let me not waste time translating it). But before you start wondering why am I talking about Aamir Khan in a piece which is clearly not about him, let me explain.
Subbarao is in a huge Catch-22 situation. Even if he manages to lower long term interest rates the borrowing may not pick up.AFP
An individual mouthing the same lines like Aamir Khan in Rangeela 17 years back, right now, must be Duvvuri Subbarao, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The government of India seems to be in the mood to make his job tougher by the day.
The Cabinet Committee for Economic Affairs on Thursday (14 June 2012) approved sharp increases of 15-53 percent in the minimum support prices (MSP) of kharif crops, which are typically sown around this time of the year for harvesting after the rains (ie, September-October). “The government has accepted the suggestion made by the Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices (CACP), which recommends MSPs after taking into account the cost of production,” said Home Minister P Chidambaram , after a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs.
The MSP for paddy (rice) has been increased from Rs 1,080 per quintal to Rs 1,250 per quintal. For the ‘A’ grade variety the prices have been increased from Rs 1,110 per quintal to Rs 1,270 per quintal. Other major products like bajra, ragi, jowar, soybean, urad, cotton, etc, have seen similar increases.
This means UPA-2 has already put itself in election mode, and any interest rate cuts will mean helping a profligate government seek re-election with other people’s money. Should Subbarao be helping politicians by obliging?
The impact
Every year the Food Corporation of India (FCI), or a state agency acting on its behalf, purchases rice and wheat at MSPs set by the government. The “supposed” idea behind setting the MSP much in advance is to give the farmer some idea of how much he should expect to earn when he sells his produce a few months later. This price support is expected to encourage higher production of rice and wheat.
FCI typically purchases around 15-20 percent of India’s wheat output and 12-15 percent of its rice output. But what this price support often leads to is farmers producing a lot more than the required demand. With the FCI obligated to purchase what the farmers produce, its godowns overflow and at times the wheat and rice are dumped in the open, leading to rodents feasting on the crop. So if you see more such news items and photographs later this year showing this, don’t be surprised.
The significantly higher prices that the government is offering for the rice crop also mean an increased fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
For the current financial year 2012-2013 (i.e. the period between 1 April 2012 and 31 March 2013) the food subsidy has been budgeted at Rs 75,000 crore. Experts are of the opinion that this amount is underprovisioned and with the MSP of rice paddy going up, the food subsidy bill will shoot up significantly. “The underprovisioning of food subsidy in the current year is at Rs 31,750 crore. Now with increased MSP on paddy, the total food subsidy deficit at the end of the current year will be about Rs 40,000 crore, putting immense pressure on the food subsidy burden of the government,” a food ministry official told The Economic Times.
Given that the government is offering a significantly higher MSP for paddy in the kharif crop, a similar move can be expected for wheat, which is substantially part of the rabi crop, planted in the autumn season and harvested in winter. This means that food subsidies will go up even further, in turn pushing up the fiscal deficit.
Higher inflation
The MSP for urad has been increased by Rs 1,000 per quintal to Rs 4,300. The MSP of cotton has been raised from Rs 600 to Rs 800 per quintal. Jowar saw the biggest jump of 53 percent per quintal.
Other than rice and wheat, many of the crops with announced MSPs do not have a designated government agency that buys the crop at the prescribed price. Hence, when an increase in MSP is announced it doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase sowing of these crops. But what it does is push up prices. As Madan Sabnavis, chief economist, Care Ratings, told Business Standard: “I can’t understand the need to announce MSPs for crops other wheat and rice, given (that) there is no official procurement. It does nothing, except pushing up food inflation.”
Religare Commodities, in a research note, expressed a similar sentiment. It said though higher MSPs for agri-products were thought to increase the sown area for a crop, in the last few years that doesn’t seem to be happening for most crops, except paddy, cotton and soybean.
The difficulty of being Duvvuri Subbarao
This announcement makes life even more difficult for Duvvuri Subbarao. First and foremost, the government is most likely to overshoot its planned fiscal deficit of Rs 5,13,590 crore for the current financial year 2012-2013. The government will have to borrow more in order to finance the increased fiscal deficit. More borrowing means that the current higher interest rate scenario is likely to continue.
The RBI is meeting on 18 June 2012 to decide on what its interest rate policy is going to be. It is widely expected that the bank will cut the repo rate (the rate at which it lends to banks). This, after the GDP growth rate for the period of January to March 2012 fell to 5.3 percent. The idea is that once the RBI cuts interest rates, banks will cut interest rates as well. Then business will borrow and so will you and me.
But reality is always different from economic theory. The RBI might cut the repo rate, which is a short-term interest rate, but long term interest rates on home loans, car loans, loans to business, etc, may not fall. This is because the government of India will have to borrow more for the long term to finance its increased fiscal deficit. And since its borrowing needs will go up, it will have to offer a higher rate of interest to attract lenders.
When the government borrows more, it crowds out private borrowing, meaning, there is a lesser pool of “savings” for private borrowers to borrow from. Hence, banks and other financial institutions which needed to borrow in order to give out home loans have to offer an even higher rate of interest than the government to attract lenders.
Hence, even if the RBI cuts the repo rate, whether that will have an impact on long term interest rates in India is doubtful. Over and above that, an increase in the MSP of the kharif crop will most likely to lead to higher inflation. This inflation will be on two fronts. One, as explained above, will be in the form of food inflation. The second will be in the form of suddenly increased incomes in rural India. This will lead to a situation where more money will chase the same amount of goods, leading to higher prices and thus higher inflation.
In a scenario where inflation is expected to go up, should the RBI be cutting interest rates or should it be raising them? Subbarao is in a huge Catch-22 situation. Even if he manages to lower long term interest rates the borrowing may not pick up. As John Kenneth Galbraith points out in The Economics of Innocent Fraud:
If, in recession the interest rate is lowered by the central bank, the member banks are counted on to pass the lower rate along to their customers, thus encouraging them to borrow. Producers will thus produce goods and services, buy the plant and machinery they can afford now and from which they can make money, and consumption paid for by cheaper loans will expand..The difficulty is that this highly plausible, wholly agreeable process exists only in well-established economic belief and not in real life… Business firms borrow when they can make money and not because interest rates are low.”
And the current economic scenario in India does not look good enough for the businesses to borrow.
To conclude
What the huge raise in MSPs tells us is that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance is also getting into an early election mode. And the easiest way to get votes is to bribe voters at the taxpayers’ cost. Before the last Lok Sabha elections, the UPA waived off Rs 71,000 crore of farm loans. This move of substantially increasing MSPs of crops is in line with that move, though it’s not as big as that. However, the UPA raised MSPs by huge amounts even in 2008 — a year before the elections.
It’s likely that this might be a first in a series of moves which might lead to the UPA bringing the elections forward from 2014. Having the elections before 2014 clearly makes sense for the Congress, given that the state of the economy is only going to get worse in the days to come. Hence we might be entering a scenario where the UPA will come up with more boondoggles to woo voters.
This will make things even more difficult for Duvvuri Subbarao, who might well be telling himself “apun ka to bad luck heech kharab hai” more often in the days to come.
(The article originally appeared on on June 15,2012.
Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected]

Pranab Mukherjee does a Paulo Coelho

Vivek Kaul

The rating agency Standard and Poor’s(S&P) has warned that India could lose its investment grade credit rating. In a report titled Will India Be the First BRIC Fallen Angel?, the rating agency said “Slowing GDP growth and political roadblocks to economic policymaking could put India at risk of losing its investment-grade rating.”
The agency revised its outlook on India’s ‘BBB-‘ long-term sovereign credit rating to negative from stable. What this means is that India runs the risk of losing its investment grade credit rating and being rated as speculative or junk.
Let us try and understand what this really means for India.
What is investment grade?
In 1970, the Penn Railroad, the largest railroad in the United States, went bankrupt. This was something that the rating agencies did not foresee. One of the repercussions of this bankruptcy was that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC, the American equivalent of the Indian Sebi) decided to penalize brokers who held bonds of companies that were less than investment grade. But who would decide what was investment grade?
As Roger Lowenstein writes in an article titled Triple-A Failure “This prompted a question: investment grade according to whom? The SEC opted to create a new category of officially designated rating agencies, and grandfathered the big three – S&P, Moody’s and Fitch…Bank regulators issued similar rules for banks. Pension funds, mutual funds, insurance regulators followed…Many classes of investors were now forbidden to buy non investment-grade bonds at all”.
Every rating agency follows different ratings. The rating agency Moody’s has 21 different type of ratings of which the top 10 are deemed to be investment grade. The remaining 11 are deemed to be speculative by the rating agency and “junk” by the market.
S&P has 12 different level of ratings of which the top 5 are deemed to be investment grade. India’s rating is BBB-, which is the last rating in the ratings which are deemed to be investment grade. If India’s rating is downgraded, then the next rating is BB+. S&P defines it as a rating which is “considered highest speculative grade by market participants”. Hence BB+ is the first rating at the junk level. The ratings are essentially meant to be an estimate of probabilities. Hence, the bonds of a country which has a BB+ rating are expected to default more than the bonds of a country which has a BBB-rating, thus making them more risky.
What will be the impact if India gets downgraded?
One clear impact will be foreign investors who are not allowed to invest in non-investment grade securities staying away from India. This would mean that pension funds and other long term funds will stay away from India. It could also mean that for foreign investors who have investments in India exiting their positions and the stock market might go down in the days to come. This after the brief rally it has seen recently in expectation of an interest rate cut by the Reserve Bank of India.
The way foreign investors think about India is very important in deciding how well the Indian stock market performs. Since the beginning of the year foreign institutional investors have been net buyers (the difference between what they have bought and what they have sold) of stocks to the extent of Rs 34,551.33 crore. During the same period the domestic institutional investors have been net sellers of stocks to the extent of Rs 18,666.06 crore.
This buying by the foreign investors is the major reason behind the BSE Sensex, India’s premier stock market index, giving a return of 7.85% since the beginning of the year. The threat of downgrade to junk status obviously does not put India in a good light in the eyes of the foreign investors. Given this, the stock market is likely to go down, and bring down the overall economic confidence in the country as well. It would also mean that Indian corporates looking to raise money from abroad would have to pay a higher rate of interest.
The bond market in India will largely remain unaffected because it doesn’t have much foreign presence.
The Azhar Syndrome
But the threat of a downgrade by S&P according to me is a smaller worry than the Azhar syndrome. So what is the Azhar syndrome? The term was first used in a report of the name brought out by First Global more than three years back in March 2009. As the report pointed out: “The Azhar Syndrome is all about Azhar… the kid from the slums in Slumdog Millionaire. He flew to LA for the Oscars, slept on clean sheets in an air-conditioned hotel room, for the first time (and possibly the last time)…came to his Bombay slum home…and moaned to the press “It is so hot here, and the mosquitoes…I can’t sleep”. He is finished. A few nights in a clean hotel room, and the guy can’t adjust back to the reality of his slum existence.”
Like Azhar assumed that the “five-day” party that he had in Los Angeles would continue forever, so has the Congress Party led United Progressive Alliance (UPA assumed that all is well and the economic growth that India saw for the last few years will continue forever on its own. India enjoyed a GDP growth averaging 8.7% during 2004-2008 and 7.8% during 2009-2011.
Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister, rejected the threat of the S&P downgrade. In a press release said that the Government is fully seized of the current situation and he is confident that there will be a turnaround in our growth prospects in the coming months. Mukherjee expects the Indian economy to grow by 7% in this financial year. “A reversal of interest rate cycle, weak crude prices and a normal monsoon were likely to improve the economic conditions and the slowdown would not be as sharp as widely feared, and that the economy would grow closer to 7 percent this fiscal,” Mukherjee told a conference of chief commissioners and directors general of Income Tax on June 11,2012.
The things that Mukjerhee expects will help India grow at 7% are things he has no control over. This is the Azhar syndrome, which has plagued the Congress party led UPA for a while now, at work. The confidence that come what may, economic growth will happen continue on its own. Mukherjee and the UPA seem to be big believers in what Paulo Cohelo wrote in the bestselling The Alchemist – A Fable About Following Your Dream “Here is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth… And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
The world might conspire to give India its economic growth. Interest rates might fall. Oil prices might fall. And the country might have a normal monsoon. But this is no way of running a country.
And the assumption that economic growth will happen because Mukherjee and his ilk say that it will happen, is clearly worrying. As Ruchir Sharma writes in his recent boo k Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles: “India is already showing some of the warning signs of failed growth stories, including early-onset of confidence.”
To conclude
Hardly any constructive steps have been taken to revive economic growth which is falling. Just talking about growth does not create economic growth. The solutions to the economic problems currently facing India are simple and largely agreed upon by everyone who has an informed opinion on the issue. As the Economist put it in a recent article titled Farewell to Incredible India “The remedies, agreed on not just by foreign investors and liberal newspapers but also by Manmohan Singh’s government, are blindingly obvious. A combined budget deficit of nearly a tenth of GDP must be tamed, particularly by cutting wasteful fuel subsidies. India must reform tax and foreign-investment rules. It must speed up big industrial and infrastructure projects. It must confront corruption. None of these tasks is insurmountable. Most are supposedly government policy.”
But there isn’t much hope going around. As the S&P report explains: “The crux of the current political problem for economic liberalization is, in our view, the nature of leadership within the central government, not obstreperous allies or an unhelpful opposition. The Congress party is divided on economic policies. There is substantial opposition within the party to any serious liberalization of the economy. Moreover, paramount political power rests with the leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, who holds no Cabinet position, while the government is led by an unelected prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who lacks a political base of his own.”
(The article originally appeared at on June 6,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

'The best thing that can happen to Google is that all its new products fail early'

Michael Brandtner is one of the leading branding and focusing consultants in Europe. and Associate of Ries & Ries. Beside his consulting work he is a frequent speaker on the topics of branding and positioning. “All my presentations start with “Brandtner on Branding”. But “focusing” is still the most important job to do in branding. A brand without a focus has no power at all in the long term. Take Sony! What does Sony stand for? Fifteen years ago Sony was a brand superstar. Today it is a burned out brand,” he points out. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
You are a focusing consultant. What does a focusing consultant do?
I help companies to find the right focus for their brands. Most brands today are unfocused. That means that they try to stand for many different attributes at the same time. In a typical brand statement you will find phrases like this: Our brand stands for high quality, great service and innovation. Maybe this makes sense in a brand or positioning statement. But it sure makes no sense in the mind of the customer. Today, if you want to be successful, you need a powerful focus like “driving” for BMW, “breathes” for Geox or “search” for Google. The most powerful brands today are built around a single idea or even better a single word. That is the focus of a brand. And in my consulting work I help companies to find this one word.
What does it take for a company to be focused?
It takes strategic long-term thinking. You really must decide what your brand should stand for. Here in Europe Ryanair is focused on “low fare” airline. Today Ryanair is the most successful airline in Europe. Most other airlines are unfocused. They try to appeal to everybody. Of course most other airlines are in trouble today. Or take the Automobile industry. The brands in the so-called mushy middle are in trouble. The real successful brands are at the high end like Porsche, BMW. Mercedes-Benz, Audi or Lexus or at the low end like Hyundai or Kia. The brands in the mushy middle are unfocused. The brands at the high end or at the low end are focused. So I predict that Hyundai will become the largest Automobile brand in the world.
How does it help if a company is focused?
For most managers it seems not logical to focus. They still believe that the more you have to sell the more you will sell. It sounds so logical. But it isn’t. Marketing is not a battle of products. It is a battle of ideas. So if you want to win the marketing war, you have to focus on the right idea. Here is an example from Germany: In 1988 Dr. Best was just another toothbrush with a market share of about five percent. Then the brand becomes the first “flexible” toothbrush. This idea is the focus of the brand. They only make flexible toothbrushes. The advertising is focused on the flexible idea. They developed a powerful key visual or better called visual hammer with a tomato to dramatize the benefits of a flexible toothbrush. Dr. Best is flexible, flexible and flexible. Today the market share is over 40 percent. This is the power of a clear defined focus. A focus is more than an idea, it also a long term direction for the brand. It is the single idea that helps a brand to dominate a category.
Any other examples?
Take Opel. Opel is a European car manufacturer that makes a lot of different car models. But Opel has no focus. Why should anyone buy an Opel? I don’t know. Most people don’t know. In the mind of the prospect Opel is just another manufacturer of different car models.
What does it take a company to be all over the place?
Not much! A brand becomes successful with a single idea even a single product like Red Bull as the first energy drink. Then the management starts to add a “sugarfree” Red Bull and even a Red Bull Simply Cola. In most companies this is a natural way to grow a brand. And it is the perfect way to lose focus. This does not happen overnight because it is not easy to change the mind of the prospects. And that is the big problem with the issue of brand- and line-extensions. You can expand a brand over a long period of time and you are still clearly positioned. Then one morning you wake up and you have to realize that your brand does not stand for anything anymore. It takes time to build a brand and it takes time to destroy a brand. Take Sony! What does Sony stand for? Fifteen years ago Sony was a brand superstar. Today it is a burned out brand.
How does it hurt if a company is not focused?
If a brand has no focus, it will end up standing for nothing. That is the problem of Sony today. And maybe it will be the problem of Samsung tomorrow. Samsung is also unfocused. But today Samsung has the Galaxy. The success of the Galaxy is the main reason why most people think that Samsung is a hot company and brand. But Samsung as a brand does not stand for anything specific. Do you know what Samsung stands for? I do not. Fifteen years ago many people thought that Sony was a hot brand because of the success of products like HandyCam, CamCorder and Trinitron. These products faded away and Sony was left as an unfocused brand that stands for nothing specific. Now Sony is in deep trouble. It is like in the political world: If a political candidate tries to appeal to everybody, he will appeal to nobody. Take Barack Obama in 2008! He really did a brilliant move by focusing his entire campaign on one word, on “change”. “Change we can believe in” became his battle cry. That is the power of a focus.
Since everybody is talking about Facebook these days, how focused is a company like Facebook?
Today Facebook is a focused brand and company. Facebook stands for “social network”. It is the leading social network in the mind.
What about Google?
Google as a company is in the process of becoming unfocused. Google as a brand is still focused, because it still stands for “search” in the mind of the customers. It is still the ultimate search engine. But if Google is successful in expanding the company, it will destroy the focus of the brand. The best thing that can happen to Google is that all the new products under the Google brand will fail early.
How do you view the potential of Facebook when it comes to brands advertising themselves?
Facebook is not an advertising medium. It is much more an information medium. To but it even better: It is an interactive information medium. On Facebook people are interested in information, in conversation, in gossip, in buzz. But they are not really interested in advertising. On Facebook marketers have to think more like editors than like classical advertising people.
How does a marketer market in the world of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and what not? How do you see social media changing marketing?
Social media today is totally overhyped. For many people it is a medium that will change the world of marketing as we know it. Here is my point of view: Social media is an important medium, but it is still only a medium. How important is television as a marketing channel for a company or a brand? It depends on the company, on the brand, on its strategy, on its messages and so on. How important are Facebook or Twitter or blogs as marketing channels for a company or a brand? It depends on the company, on the brand, on its strategy, on its messages and so on. For some companies and brands social media will become very important, for other companies and brands social media will only be another information medium like the web-site. For a car brand like BMW or Audi Facebook may be a great medium, because both brands have a lot of fans and a lot of relevant news for these fans. For a tissue brand Facebook is more like an additional web-site to give some basic information about the brand. Every company has to find out for itself how important Facebook, Twitter or blogs are in the media mix.
What’s the biggest branding mistake that a company can make?
(1) Believing that brand- or line-extension is the ultimate strategy to grow a brand.
(2) Believing that the better product will win
(3) Believing that it is easy to change the perception of customers with advertising.
Especially companies in trouble are doing these three things at the same time. Typical example here in Europe is Opel! Opel is in trouble. The typical reaction: We have to launch new models under our brand name to win market share. We have to build better products than the competition, because customers prefer better products. We have to change our logo and we have to launch a new advertising campaign to change the perception of our brand. Will it work? Of course not. Opel needs a new focus. Take Apple! About 15 years ago Apple was in trouble. What did Steve Jobs? He launched the iPod in 2001. He focused his efforts on a new brand to rebuild Apple. The success of the iPod did more for Apple than all other marketing efforts combined. It was also the base for the iPhone and the iPad. Steve Jobs knew about the power of a clear defined focus. He built three leading focused brands in only one decade, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. By doing this he made Apple the most admired company and brand in the world.
What are the areas of marketing according to you which marketers have the most trouble with? How can they address it effectively?
Still many management and also marketing people confuse reality with perception. That`s why they believe that the better product will win. Not true. The better brand will win. New Coke was the better product. Coke Classic is the better brand. Who wins? Coke Classic. Marketing is not a battle of products. Marketing is a battle of perceptions.
Could you elaborate on this point a little more?
Most companies are still building or investing in better products. But they should invest in better brands. Take Nokia! Nokia is the dominant brand for mobile phones. But Nokia is a weak brand in smart phones. Nokia stands for mobile phone, not for smart phone in the mind of the customer. So what is Nokia doing? They try to build better smart phones like the Nokia Lumia. Maybe the Lumia is a great smart phone in the factory. But in the perceptions of the customer it is just another smart phone on the market. Nokia should stop building better smart phones and start building a better smart phone brand. To achieve this they have to do two steps: Step one: Nokia has to create a new category of smart phones with a new powerful app. Step 2: Nokia has to give this smart phone a completely new brand name.
Why are big companies unable to launch successful new brands? They usually end up buying other brands. Like Google bought Orkut or Facebook bought Instagram recently.
The reason behind this is the so called corporate ego. If a company has a powerful brand name, it will tend to use this “powerful” name for all products. That is good thinking inside the company, but it is bad thinking outside the company. For the Kodak management is was logical to use the Kodak name also for the digital products. But this does not make any sense outside the company. Why should anyone buy a digital camera from a photo film company or brand? Kodak is not perceived as an expert for digital cameras. That`s the point. So it is not a bad strategy for big companies to buy new brands. If Google had launched a web-site for video search on its own, they would have probably called it Google Video. Instead they bought YouTube. Google now owns two strong brands and also market leaders in the search engine business. Google is the ultimate search engine. YouTube is the ultimate “video” search engine. Additionally Google has also Android. That is a great multi brand strategy. Google+ on the other hand is only a me-too social network. That’s a bad brand strategy.
So what does that mean?
That means: Companies have to overcome their corporate ego to launch second brands. But there is one very important point. It is not enough to launch a second brand first of all you need a new category. Take Microsoft in the search engine business! It is regardless whether the call the search engine MSN Search or Bing, because the strategy “launching a me-too search engine” is wrong. That means: If you launch a second brand, you first will need a new category. Without a new category you should not launch a second brand at all.
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

(The interview was originally published in the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) on June 11,2012.