Of Yuvraj Singh, stock markets and the Vietnam War


Vivek Kaul

 It is in the last week of March 2014 that I am writing this piece. The stock market in India is flirting with all time high levels. At the same time in the T20 cricket World Cup that is on, Yuvraj Singh’s bad form with the bat continues (as I write India has played two matches, and in both, Yuvraj has failed with the bat).
Despite the fact that the stock market is flirting with all time high levels, there are still a lot of investors who are holding onto stocks they had bought at the peak levels reached in 2008. Real estate and infrastructure stocks were a favourite among investors back then.
Once the stock market started to crash in 2008, these stocks crashed big time. They still are nowhere near the high levels they had achieved way back in 2008. And more than that, the prospects for these sectors(particularly real estate) in India, are not looking good either. Nevertheless, there are still some investors who have held onto these stocks bought in 2008, in the hope that these stocks will make money for them one day. So what is happening here? Barry Schwartz explains this in his book The Paradox of Choice. As he writes “People hold on to stocks that have decreased in value because selling them would turn the investment into a loss. What should matter in decisions about holding or selling stocks is only your assessment of future performance and not (tax considerations aside) the price at which the stocks were purchased.”
But the price at which the stock is bought does turn out to matter. This fallacy is referred to as the sunk-cost fallacy by behavioural economists.
And what about Yuvraj Singh? What is he doing here? Vijay Mallya owned IPL Royal Challengers Bangalore bought him for a mind-boggling Rs 14 crore in a recent auction in the Indian Premier League(IPL). The tournament starts in mid April, right after the T20 World Cup ends. From the way things currently are, Yuvraj doesn’t look in great form. But despite that he is likely to be played by Royal Challengers Bangalore in all the matches that they play.
And why is that? Simply because the sunk-cost fallacy will be at work. The Royal Challengers Bangalore have paid so much money to buy Yuvraj that they are likely to keep playing him in the hope that he will eventually start scoring runs. Schwartz discusses this in the context of professional basket ball players in the United States. “According to the same logic of sunk costs, professional basketball coaches give more playing time to players earning higher salaries independent of their current level of performance,” he writes.
The sunk-cost fallacy is a part of our everyday lives as well. Many of us make instinctive expensive purchases and then don’t use the product, due to various reasons. At the same time, we don’t get rid of the product either, in the hope of using it in some way in the future.
Richard Thaler, a pioneer in the field of Behavioural Economics, explains this beautifully through a thought experiment, in a research paper titled Mental Accounting Matters. “Suppose you buy a pair of shoes. They feel perfectly comfortable in the store, but the first day you wear them they hurt. A few days later you try them again, but they hurt even more than the first time. What happens now? My predictions are: (1) The more you paid for the shoes, the more times you will try to wear them. (This choice may be rational, especially if they have to be replaced with another expensive pair.) (2) Eventually you stop wearing the shoes, but you do not throw them away. The more you paid for the shoes, the longer they sit in the back of your closet before you throw them away. (This behaviour cannot be rational unless expensive shoes take up less space.) (3) At some point, you throw the shoes away, regardless of what they cost, the payment having been fully `depreciated’.”
Along similar lines people hold on to CDs they never listen to, clothes they never wear and books they never read. Keeping these things just holds up space, it doesn’t create any problems in life. But there are other times when the escalation of commitment that the sunk-cost fallacy causes, can lead to serious problems. As Daniel Kahneman, writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow “The sunk cost fallacy keeps people for too long in poor jobs, unhappy marriages, and unpromising research projects. I have often observed young scientists struggling to salvage a doomed project when they would be better advised to drop it and start new one.”
As far trying to salvage doomed projects go, CEOs and businesses seem to do it all the time. As Kahneman points out “Imagine a company that has already spent $50 million on a project. The project is now behind schedule and the forecasts of its ultimate returns are less favourable than at the initial planning stage. An additional investment of $60 million is required to give the project a chance. An alternative proposal is to invest the same amount in a new project that looks likely to bring higher returns. What will the company do? All too often a company afflicted by sunk costs drives into the blizzard, throwing good money after bad rather than accepting the humiliation of closing the account of a costly failure.”
A similar problem afflicts a lot of government infrastructure projects as well, where good money keeps getting thrown after bad. It also explains why the United States kept waging a war in Vietnam and then in Iraq, even though it was clear very early in the process that Vietnam was a lost cause and that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
To conclude, it is important to understand why human beings become victims of the sunk-cost fallacy? “Sunk-cost effects are motivated by the desire to avoid regret rather than just the desire to avoid a loss,” writes Schwartz. And if you, dear reader, do not want to become a victim of the sunk-cost fallacy, this is an important point to remember.

 The article originally appeared in the April2014 issue of the Wealth Insight magazine.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected]

RBI and Rajan are on the right track: the inflation monster needs to be killed first


There is almost a formula to it.
A few days before the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) is supposed to meet to review the monetary policy, business lobbies and industrialists start coming out with statements demanding that the RBI cut the repo rate. Repo rate is the interest rate at which RBI lends to banks and sets the benchmark for the interest rates at which banks in turn lend to businesses and consumers.
This time was no different. “We hope for a 50 basis points cut in the repo rate as retail inflation has started receding,”
Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) Director General Chandrajit Banerjee had said on March 30, 2014.
Rana Kapoor, president, Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham), echoed the same sentiment when he said that the RBI should cut the repo rate by 50 basis points. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.
But the RBI did not oblige the lobbies this time as well. In it’s first First Bi-monthly Monetary Policy Statement, 2014-15, the central bank decided to keep the repo rate at 8%. This, despite the fact that inflation as measured by the consumer price index(CPI) has been on its way down.
In February 2014, CPI inflation was at 8.1%. This after it had touched 11.24% in November 2013. A major reason for the fall has been a fall in food prices.
As RBI governor Raghuram Rajan had said in speech on February 26, 204 “inflation measured by the new CPI has remained in double digits during April 2012 to January 2014, averaging 10 per cent over this period. Food inflation, which has a weight of 47.6 per cent in the index, has contributed the largest share of headline inflation. Food inflation itself has stayed in double digits throughout this period, edging down to 9.9 per cent only in January 2014.” In February 2014, food prices rose by 8.57% in comparison to last year.
Has the risk of food prices rising at a much faster rate gone away? Not really. Unseasonal rains and hailstorms in parts of the country have damaged crops, and this is likely to push up prices again. The RBI also thinks that the fall in food prices may be temporary. “Retail inflation measured by the consumer price index (CPI) moderated for the third month in succession in February 2014, driven lower by the sharp disinflation in food prices, although prices of fruits, milk and products have started to firm up,”
the RBI statement said.
It also feels that vegetable prices may not fall any further. “Since December 2013, the sharper than expected disinflation in vegetable prices has enabled a sizable fall in headline inflation. Looking ahead, vegetable prices have entered their seasonal trough and further softening is unlikely,” the RBI statement said.
The central bank also feels that there are “risks…stemming from a less-than-normal monsoon due to possible el nino effects.” Even this could drive up food prices.
Having said that, what is the link between interest rates and food prices? Prima facie there does not seem to be any link. But Rajan explained a link in his February speech. As he said “There has been an increase in liquidity flowing to the agricultural sector, both from land sales, as well as from a rise in agricultural credit. More loans to agriculture have fostered substantial private investment in agriculture, but may also have pushed up rural wages.” This in turn has played a part in pushing up food prices in particular and overall prices in general. And hence it is important to maintain high interest rates.
Rajan had also said that “monetary policy is an appropriate tool with which to limit the rise in wages, especially urban ones. The slowdown in rural wage growth may be partly the consequence of tighter policy limiting wage rise elsewhere.”
Also, non fuel- non food inflation, which constitutes around 40% of the consumer price index continues to remain high. “Excluding food and fuel, however, retail inflation remained sticky at around 8 per cent. This suggests that some demand pressures are still at play,” the RBI statement said. This number has barely budged for a while now. Non fuel-non food inflation takes into account housing, medical care, education, transportation, recreation etc. And this is a major reason why the RBI does not seem to be in any mood to cut the interest rate.
Business lobbies need to understand a basic point here. India’s retail inflation continues to remain high despite a collapse in investment. As Chetan Ahya and Upasna Chachra or Morgan Stanley write in a recent research report titled
Five Key Reforms to Fix India’s Growth Problem and dated March 24, 2014, “Public and private investment fell from the peak of 26.2% of GDP in F2008 to 17.3% in F2013. Indeed, private investment CAGR[compounded annual growth rate] was just 1.4% between F2008 to F2013 vs. 43% in the preceding five years.”
Now imagine what would happen if investments were to pick up a little? Inflation instead of coming down would have gone up for sure, creating further economic problems.
As economist Rajiv Malik of CLSA writes in a column in the Business Standard today “In fact, it is more than likely that if the investment had not weakened as much as it needed to – or if it had recovered sooner or more strongly than has been the case – India’s macroeconomic imbalances, including elevated inflation, would have been much worse.”
If India’s economic growth has to come back on track, the inflation monster needs to be killed first. And given that RBI and Rajan are on the right track.
The article appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on April 1, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

A day ahead, who is Chidambaram fooling?


An important part of finance minister P Chidambaram’s job for a while has been to keep telling us that “all is well” on the economic front.
He continued with this on the last day of the financial year when he said “the Indian economy is now stable and the fundamentals have strengthened.” The statement was in response to 18 questions on the economy posed by former finance minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha.
So how strong is the Indian economy? “We have contained inflation. Our biggest success is containing fiscal deficit,” said Chidambaram.
But how do the numbers stack out? In February 2014, inflation as measured by the consumer price index was at 8.1%. It has come down from levels of greater than 10%. The primary reason for the same has been a rapid fall in food prices. Food products make up for around half of the consumer price index. The question is how much credit for the fall in food prices goes to the government? Not much. Also, it is worth reminding here that unseasonal rains and hailstorms in parts of the country have damaged crops, and this is likely to push up prices again.
If we look at non fuel-non food inflation, or what economists refer to as core inflation, it stood at 7.9% in February 2014. This number has barely budged for a while now. Non fuel-non food inflation takes into account housing, medical care, education, transportation, recreation etc.
What about the fiscal deficit? “We will end FY14[period between April 2013 and March 2014] with a fiscal deficit of 4.6%, as planned,” Chidambaram said. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
But how has this target been met? A lot of expenditure has simply not been recognised. Oil subsidies of Rs 35,000 crore have not been accounted for. Estimates suggest that close to Rs 1,23,000 crore of subsidies (oil, fertilizer and food) have been postponed to next year. A March 4 report in this newspaper pointed out that the central government owes the states Rs 50,000 crore on account of compensation for the central sales tax.
On the income side, public sector banks have been forced to give huge dividends to the government despite not being in the best of shape. Coal India Ltd has paid the government a dividend and a dividend distribution tax of close to Rs 19,600 crore. India has the third largest coal reserves in the world but still needs to import coal. Shouldn’t this money be going to set up new coal mines? Neelkanth Mishra and Ravi Shankar of Credit Suisse point out in a recent report titled 
Elections: Much Ado about Nothing dated March 19, 2014 that “True utilisation in thermal power generation is below 60%, near 20-year lows (reported plant load factor is 65%).” This is because we don’t produce enough coal that can feed into the power plants.
Getting back to Chidambaram, he further said “The CAD has contracted. We have added to reserves. FY14 CAD is likely to be about $35 billion.” The current account deficit is the difference between total value of imports and the sum of the total value of its exports and net foreign remittances.
This has largely happened because of two things. The government has clamped down on legal gold imports. But anecdotal evidence suggests that gold smuggling is back with a huge bang. This has a huge social cost. Also, over the last few months non gold non oil imports have fallen due to sheer lack of consumer demand. And that surely can’t be a good thing.
Chidambaram also expects “spirited growth going forward”. The finance minister has been spinning this yarn for a while now. In early February he had said that the economy will grow by 5.5% in this financial year.
Growth during the first three quarters of the financial year has been less than 5% (4.4% in the first quarter, 4.8% in the second quarter and 4.7% during the third quarter). A simple back of the envelope calculation shows that the economy will have to grow by 8.1% in January to March 2014, for the Indian economy to grow by 5.5% during 2013-2014. You don’t need to be an economist to realise that this is not going to happen.
Interestingly, in July 2013 Chidambaram had said that “People should remember India continues to be the second fastest growing economy after China.” By January 2014 this statement had changed to ““India remains one of the fast growing large economies of the world.” What happened in between? A whole host of countries in our neighbourhood have been growing faster than us. This includes countries like Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and even Bangladesh.
Given these reasons, it is fair to say that Chidambaram was cracking an April Fools’ joke, a day early.

The article appeared  in the Daily News and Analysis dated April 1, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is the author of Easy Money. He can be reached at [email protected]