What Ramdev, Biyani, Mallya and Govt can learn from Buffet

Vivek Kaul

So what is common to Baba Ramdev, Kishore Biyani, Vijay Mallya and the government of India, other than the fact that they have all been in the news lately? To put it simply, they all like operate in areas where they lack expertise and in the process make a mess of it.
Let us start Baba Ramdev who became a household name by selling the benefits of Yoga to the masses. He claimed that even diseases like cancer could be cured through yoga. Those who have seen his yoga DVDs will recall the line “karte raho, cancer ka rog bhi theek hoga”.
So far so good. Then he decided that he had enough of preaching yoga and wanted to get into politics and vowed to get all of India’s black money hoarded abroad, back to India. The politicians in the government clearly did not like this (for obvious reasons) and went hammer and tongs after him. Stories were leaked to the media about the wealth he had accumulated over the years and that damaged his credibility as a yoga guru as well. Ramdev has continued in his attempts to establish himself as a politician but with very little success.

Kishore Biyani brought the retail revolution to India, having been inspired by Sam Walton who started Wal-Mart. His retail businesses were doing decently well till he decided to get into a wide variety of businesses from launching an insurance company to even selling mobile phone connections. When times were good he accumulated a lot of debt in trying to grow fast. Now he is in trouble in trying to service the debt and rumors are flying thick and fast that he is planning to sell Big Bazaar, his equivalent of Wal-Mart. This after he sold controlling stake in the cloths retailer, Pantaloons.
Vijay Mallya started Kingfisher Airlines in 2005, going beyond his core business of alcohol. Kingfisher now has accumulated losses of over Rs 6000 crore, and has never made money since its launch. The lack of focus has hurt Mallya’s core alcohol business and United Spirits is no longer India’s most profitable alcohol company. That tag now belongs to the Indian division of the French giant Pernod Ricard.

And finally the government of India, which has been bailing out the troubled airline Air India over and over again. The pilots of the airline keeps going on strike and the government keeps putting a few thousand crores every few months, to keep running the airline.
So the question that crops up here is what is Baba Ramdev doing in politics? Why is Kishore Biyani trying to sell insurance and mobile phone connections to you? And why are Vijay Mallaya and the government of India trying to run an airline?
They would be better off concentrating on things they are good at. These are things they shouldn’t be doing. It is not their area of expertise or what they are good at. The days when individuals, businesses and even governments could be an expert at many things at the same time are long gone.
In the last 100 years there have been only two individuals who have won the Noble prize twice for two different subjects. Marie Curie won the physics prize in 1903 and the Chemistry prize in 1911. Linus Pauling won it twice, the Chemistry Prize in 1954 and Peace Prize in 1962.
So in the strictest sense of the term, Marie Curie is the only person ever to have won a Noble prize in two different subjects and that happened almost 100 years back. This is primarily because as more and more things have been invented and discovered, subjects have become more complex requiring full time attention and expertise.
What is true about individuals is also true about businesses. The expertise and the attention required to run a business has increased over the year. Hence, the moment a businessman tries to go outside its area of expertise, he loses focus, and the chances of the new business doing well are remote.
Let’s take the case of DLF, the biggest real estate company in the country. It tried getting into the insurance and mutual fund business. It had to sell its stake in the mutual fund business and if news reports are to be believed it is trying to lower its stake in the insurance venture by selling its stake to HCL. Now why is a computer major trying to buy into an insurance business which is losing money, is beyond me?
Satyam was in good shape till it remained an IT company. The moments its owner developed aspirations beyond IT and got the company into real estate and infrastructure space, trouble cropped up. Real estate companies have tried unsuccessfully to get into the luxury hotel business and hotels have tried unsuccessfully to get into the luxury apartment business.
Reliance Industries attempts in the retail business haven’t gone anywhere. Anil Ambani who had build a good business in Reliance Capital is struggling with Reliance Communications and Reliance Power. Subrata Roy’s attempts to diversify into the film and television business have come a cropper, with the film business of Sahara, more or less being shutdown. NDTV, a premier English news channel, tried getting into the entertainment channel business with NDTV Imagine. It had to sell out. Cigarette major ITC has been trying to establish itself in the FMCG business for years now. Though it has had some success at it, the business hardly throws up any money in comparison to its cigarette business. All kinds of entrepreneurs have gone into the insurance business in India and are now struggling. This includes Kishore Biyani. At the same time the Tatas have been struggling with their telecom business for years.
There is a thing or two all these guys can learn from internationally renowned investor Warren Buffett. During the period of 1994-2000, the United States saw a whole lot of dotcom companies coming up with their initial public offerings. Some of these shares achieved astonishing highs. The shares of Netscape Communications Corporation, an internet browser company which controlled 75% of the browser market, were sold to investors at $28 per share. When the stock was listed on August 9,1995, it went to $74.75 during the course of the day and finally closed at $58.25, doubling in a single day. Another stock booksamillion.com went up by 973% to $47 in the course of just three days in November 1998. theGlobe.com which listed on November 13,1998, gained 606% during the course of the day and closed at a price of $63.50.
Despite these humungous gains Warren Buffett did not invest a single penny in these stocks. He did not understand the business models of these stocks and remain focused on his investment philosophy of “value investing”. Not surprisingly he had the last laugh as dotcom and technology stocks started crashing after they had peaked in March 2000.
Buffett did not abandon his core philosophy of value investing just because there was “easy money” to be made somewhere else. And he came out on top, for the simple reason that he chose to remain focused on what he knew.
But this is rarely the case. When times are good and there is a lot of easy money floating around every entrepreneur likes to “expand” his business and get into other things. But in this day and age, when things are as complicated and competitive as they are, diversification into different businesses rarely works.
Businesses these days need full time attention from entrepreneurs. Let’s take a look at the airline business. As Warren Buffett put it in a letter he wrote to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway “The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers. Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down…The airline industry’s demand for capital ever since that first flight has been insatiable. Investors have poured money into a bottomless pit, attracted by growth when they should have been repelled by it.”
The reason airline businesses burn capital endlessly is for the simple reason that airlines have very little control over their cost. The major expense in running an airline is oil (the company can lease the aircraft it doesn’t have to always buy them). And oil prices have been over $100 per barrel for a while now. Airline companies have no control over this price, though they can hedge themselves by buying derivatives. But that can be a risky business as well.

So higher the oil price, higher is the cost of running an airline and given the lure of owning an airline, the sector remains a very competitive one, all over the world. Hence companies cannot always pass on an increase in their costs to the end customers though higher ticket prices. Given these reasons airlines are a specialised business, which require full time attention. It is definitely not a business which Vijay Mallya can look to successfully manage, busy as he is running his diverse businesses of alcohol and real estate, indulging in expensive hobbies like IPL and Formula 1, and cheaper ones like commenting regularly on Twitter.
The government of India falls in the same category. Its primary area of activity is governing the nation(which it is anyway making a mess of) and not running an airline. It simply doesn’t have the expertise to run one. Southwest Airlines is successful because it has remained focused on the airlines business. It did not suddenly decide to launch a new beer just because their airline business was constantly throwing up cash over the years.

Kishore Biyani should learn from his inspiration Wal-Mart. The company did not get into the insurance business. They did not say “now that we have so many people coming to our stores, let’s try and sell insurance to them along with fast moving consumer goods”. Or as Warren Buffett puts it ” If you buy things you don’t need, you’ll soon sell things you need.”
That leaves Baba Ramdev. He can learn from his more famous predecessor the Sai Baba of Puttaparthi. Given the following he had he could have easily gotten into politics. But that would have put him at the same pedestal as the politicians who looked up to him as their guru. And thus rightly he did not.
Marketing guru Al Ries has said in the past “Focus is the essence of marketing and branding.” I guess it’s time to rephrase that phrase. “Focus is the essence of marketing, branding and business”. And its time Ramdev, Biyani, Mallya, the government and many others learnt that lesson.

(The article originally appeared on May 10,2012 at http://www.firstpost.com/business/what-ramdev-biyani-mallya-and-govt-can-learn-from-buffett-304770.html).

(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

The pain in Spain will get us too; so forget market rallies

Vivek Kaul

If you are the kind who reads the pink papers religiously, you would have come to conclusion by now that good times are back again for the stock market investors in India, now that the finance minister has deferred the implementation of GAAR to next year. But before you open that champagne bottle and say cheers, here are some reasons why the stock market will remain flat or fall in the days to come.
Pain in Spain:
The gross domestic product (GDP) of Spain grew at the rate of 8% every year from 1999 to 2008. This primarily happened because Spain went all out and promoted the Mediterranean lifestyle. As Jonathan Carman points out in a presentation titled The Pain in Spain “Millions flocked to its sun-drenched shores, buying houses along the way. As the demand for houses increased, construction became the industry. Housing prices exploded, tripling in just over a decade.”
So far so good. The trouble was Spain ended up building way too many homes than it could sell. Even though Spain forms only 12% of the GDP of the European Union (EU) it has built nearly 30% of all the homes in the EU since 2000. As John Mauldin and Jonathan Tepper point out in Endgame – The End of the Debt Supercycle and How It Changes Everything “Spain had the mother of all housing bubbles. To put things in perspective, Spain now has as many unsold homes as the United States, even though the United States is six times bigger”.
All this building was financed through the bank lending. Loans to developers and construction companies amounted to nearly $700billion or nearly 50% of the Spain’s current GDP of nearly $1.4trillion. With homes lying unsold developers are in no position to repay. And Spain’s biggest three banks have assets worth $2.7trillion or that is double Spain’s GDP.
What makes the situation more precarious is the fact that the housing prices are still falling. Carman expects prices still need to fall by 35% from their current levels if they are to reach normal levels. This will mean more home loan defaults and more trouble for Spain. The Spanish stock market is already taking this into account and IBEX-35, the premier stock market index of the country is down a little more than 10% in the last one month. Banking stocks have fallen much more.
While countries like Greece may be in more trouble, they are not economically big enough to cause a lot of trouble worldwide. But if Spanish banks go bust, there will be a lot of trouble in the days to come. Spain has now emerged the basket case of Europe, but other countries in the European Union are not doing well either and this means trouble for China.
China’s After Party:
If things are not well in Europe, it has an impact on China because Europe is China’s biggest trading partner. The Chinese exports to Europe in March were down 3.1% in comparison to last year. Chinese exports had ranged between $475billion and $518billion in the last three quarters of 2011. In the first three months of this year the number has fallen to $430million. Falling exports are not the best news for China.
There are other things which aren’t looking good either. As Ruchir Sharma writes in Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles “In the last decade the main driver of China’s boom was a surge in the investment share of the GDP from 35% to almost 50%, a level that is unprecedented in any major nation…The investment effort focused on building the roads, bridges, and ports needed to turn China into the world’s largest exporter, doubling its global export market share to 10% in the last decade.”
This spending spree which was responsible for its fast growth is now slowing down. New road construction is down from 5000miles in 2007 to 2500 miles. Railway spending is down by 10%.
The other major factor likely to pull down growth is wage inflation i.e. salaries are rising at a very fast rate. In 2011, the average wage was rising at a rate of 15%, in a scenario where the consumer price inflation was around 5%. As Sharma points out “In fact hourly wages are now rising twice as fast productivity, or hourly output per worker, which is forcing companies to raise prices just to cover the cost of higher wages.” This has led to manufacturers moving to cheaper destinations like Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Given these reasons it is highly unlikely that China will continue to grow at the rates that it has been. Since 1998, China’s economic growth has averaged around 10% and it has never fallen below 8%. As Sharma points out “China’s looming shadow is about to retreat to realistic dimensions.” Sharma expects Chinese growth to slowdown by 3-4% percentage points in comparison to its current growth rate over the next decade.
A Chinese slowdown will mean disaster for nations which have been thriving by exporting commodities to China. In 1998, when China was a $1trillion economy, to grow by 10% meant it had to expand its economy by $100billion. This could have been done by consuming 10% of the world’s industrial commodities, raw materials like oil, steel and copper. In 2011, China is a $6trillion economy. If this economy needs to grow by 10% or $600billion, more than 30% of the world’s commodity production would be needed. With growth slowing down, China’s commodity requirements will come down as well. As Sharma puts it “It’s my conviction that China – commodity connection will fall apart soon”.
China’s stock markets remain largely closed to international investors. But the Hang Seng index listed in Hong Kong has a lot of Chinese companies. This index has gone up 0.9% over the last one month.
The Kangaroo Won’t Jump:
In fact the Aussies are already feeling the heat with a slowdown in Chinese exports. Australian exports to China in 2011 stood at A$72billion (Australian dollar), up 24% from 2010, or around 26% of total exports. An ever expanding China bought coal, iron ore and natural gas from Australia, driving up Aussie exports. But exports for the month of February fell to A$24.4 billion, the lowest in an year. Coal exports were down by 21% to A$3.4billion. The S&P ASX/200 one of the premier stock market indices in Australia, has been flat for the last one month.
Brazil – God’s Own Country:
The rise of China has led to huge demand for Brazilian commodities. As Gary Dorsch an investment newsletter writer points out in a recent column “Brazil has been enjoying an economic boom based on soaring prices for its natural resources including crude oil, agricultural products, such as soybeans, corn, and cattle, and metals such as iron ore and bauxite-aluminum.”
The rise of Brazil was captured very well by Glenn Stevens, governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Stevens pointed out that in 2006, money received from shipload of iron ore could buy 2,200 flat screen TVs. In 2011, the same shipload could buy 22,000 flat screen TVs.
Since the start of the financial crisis a lot of money printed by Western governments to revive their economies has flowed into Brazil. This has driven up the value of the real, the currency of Brazil, and made Brazil one of the most expensive countries in the world. As Sharma points out “Restaurants in Sao Paulo are more expensive than those in Paris. Hotel rooms cost more in Rio than French Riviera”.
An expensive currency has meant that imports rising faster than exports. This situation is expected to get worse as China’s slowdown and the demand for Brazilian commodities falls. In fact the impact is already being felt. As Dorsch points out “Brazil’s economy stalled out in the past two quarters, showing near zero growth in Q’3 of 2011 and Q’4 of 2012. Factory output in February was -3.9% lower than a year ago.” The premier stock market index Bovespa is down 4.5% over the last one month.
On a totally different note the most popular television serial in Brazil is a soap opera called “A Passage to India” shot in Agra and Jodhpur and which has Brazilian actors playing Indian roles and as Sharma puts it, they could “pass easily for North Indians”.
India- Done and Dusted:
The economic problems of India deserve a separate article. But let me list a few. In the year 2007-2008 (i.e. between April 1, 2007 and March 31,2008) the fiscal deficit of the government of India stood at Rs 1,26,912 crore. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends. For the year 2011-2012 (i.e. between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012) the fiscal deficit is expected to be Rs 5,21,980 crore.
Hence the fiscal deficit has increased by a whopping 312% between 2007 and 2012. During the same period the income earned by the government has gone up by only 36% to Rs 7,96,740 crore. The targeted fiscal deficit for 2012-2013 is Rs 5,13,590 crore. This is likely to go up given the fact that the rupee is depreciating against the dollar and thus our oil bill is likely to go up, pushing up our fiscal deficit. This would mean that higher interest rates will continue to prevail.
The stock market obviously realizes this and hence has fallen by 1.8% over the last one month, yesterday’s brief rally notwithstanding.
Over the last few years stock prices all across the world have moved in a synchronized fashion because the international investors like to move in a herd. Whenever there has been trouble in the United States or Europe it has led to emerging markets all across the world falling. Now we are in a situation where the emerging markets themselves are in a lot of trouble. So it is a no brainer to say there will be no rally in the stock market in the near future. Unless of course a certain Mr Ben Bernanke decides to open up the money tap again and go in for Quantitative Easing Round Three or to put it in simple English, print some more dollars. If that happens, then investors can get ready to have some fun.
(This article was originally published on May 8, 2012 at http://www.firstpost.com/economy/the-pain-in-spain-will-get-us-too-so-forget-market-rallies-302278.html. Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

What the UPA government can learn from B.E.S.T

Vivek Kaul
Ek bandra station,” I told the conductor of the B.E.S.T (BrihanMumbai Electric Supply and Transport) bus number 83, handing over a ten rupee note.
Do rupiya aur,” he replied.
12 rupiya ka ticket hai?” I asked him.
Ji sir,” he replied.
I was travelling from Century Bazar in Worli to Bandra. The ticket till very recently used to cost eight rupees. It has now been increased to Rs 12, a rather steep 50% increase. The prices of tickets of lower denominations haven’t been increased so much. A four rupee ticket is now five rupees. But at the same time a ten rupee ticket now costs fifteen rupees and a twelve rupee ticket costs eighteen rupees.
This got me thinking. Why had the B.E.S.T increased prices? Well for the simple reason that they had to match their income with their expenditure, which is the most basic thing that needs to be done for successfully operating any institution. The fact that it is not allowed to raise prices as often as it probably wants to has led to this very high increase.
While the B.E.S.T believes in at least trying to ensure that its income meets its expenditure, the United Progressive AllianceUPA) which runs the government of India, doesn’t. And this is neither good for the UPA nor for you and me, the citizens of India.
In the year 2007-2008 (i.e. between April 1, 2007 and March 31,2008) the fiscal deficit of the government of India stood at Rs 1,26,912 crore. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends. For the year 2011-2012 (i.e. between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012) the fiscal deficit is expected to be Rs 5,21,980 crore.
Hence the fiscal deficit has increased by a whopping 312% between 2007 and 2012. During the same period the income earned by the government has gone up by only 36% to Rs 7,96,740 crore.
Things cannot be quite right when your expenditure is expanding nine times as fast as your income. As Franklin Roosevelt, who was the President of America for a record four times, between 1933 and 1945 famously said “Any government, like any family, can, for a year, spend a little more than it earns. But you know and I know that a continuation of that habit means the poorhouse.”
So why is the UPA led Indian government headed to the poorhouse? For that we have to dig a little deep and look into this document known as the annual financial statement of the government of India. In this document the government gives out numbers for the amount it had assumed initially as the oil subsidy for the year, and the final oil subsidy it gave.
The data for the last three years has been very interesting. The subsidy assumed at the time of the finance minister presenting the budget has always been much lower than the final subsidy bill. Take the case for the year 2009-2010(i.e. between April 1, 2009 and March 31,2010) the oil subsidy assumed was Rs 3109 crore. The final bill came to Rs 25,257 crore (direct subsidies + oil bonds issued to the oil companies), around eight times more.
The next year (i.e. between April 1, 2010 and March 31, 2011) the oil subsidy assumed was Rs 3108 crore. The actual bill was nearly 20 times more at Rs 62,301 crore. For the year 2011-2012(i.e. between April 1,2011 and March 31,2012) the subsidy assumed was Rs 23,640 crore. The actual subsidy bill came to Rs 68,481 crore.
So in each of the last three years the oil subsidy bill has come out to be greater than what was assumed. For the current financial year (i.e. April 1, 2012 to March 31,2013) the oil subsidy bill has been assumed to be at Rs 43,580 crore. While this is greater than the assumption made over the last three years, it is highly likely that the oil subsidy bill will come to amount greater than this.
There are two reasons for the same. The first reason is that the rupee has been rapidly depreciating against the dollar and since oil is sold in dollars that means that the Indian companies are paying up more in rupees to buy the same volume of oil. Currently oil is priced at around $115 per barrel (around 159litres) of oil. This means that Indian companies pay around Rs 6141 per barrel of oil.
If the rupee falls further and one dollar equals Rs 60 (as has been written about on this website), the Indian companies will be paying Rs 6900 or 12.4% more per barrel of oil. In the normal scheme of things this cost would have been passed onto the customer and everybody would have lived happily ever after.
But that is not the case. Various products coming out of oil like kerosene, diesel etc, are heavily subsidized in India. Hence even with higher prices of oil internationally the Indian oil companies will have to keep selling their products at lower prices and suffer losses. These companies are then compensated for the losses they face by the government of India.
The second reason is that the price of oil is unlikely to go down in dollar terms as well. As governments and central banks around the world run close to zero interest rates and print more and more money (and are likely to continue to do so) in order to revive economic growth in their respective countries, oil has become a favourite commodity to buy among the speculators.
While central banks and governments can print all the money they want, they can’t dictate where it goes. As Ruchir Sharma writes in Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles “When money is loose, investors borrow to buy hard assets, which is why the prices of oil, copper, and other commodities have become disconnected from actual demand.”
This means that oil will either continue at its current price level or even go up for that matter. And with the rupee likely to depreciate further this means that India’s oil import bill is likely go up even further.
It is highly unlikely that this increase in price will be passed onto the end customer. This means that the government will have to bear the losses incurred by the oil companies, pushing up the oil subsidy, which has been assumed to be at Rs 43,580 crore.
A higher oil subsidy bill means the government expenditure going up and this in turn means a higher fiscal deficit. Typically, the government finances this deficit by borrowing money. With the government needing to borrow more money it would have to offer a higher rate of interest. At the same time a higher government borrowing will crowd out private borrowing, meaning that the private borrowers like banks and other finance companies will have to offer a higher rate of interest on their deposits because there would be lesser amount of money to borrow. A higher rate of interest on deposits would obviously mean charging a higher rate of interest on loans.
All this can be avoided if the government follows what B.E.S.T did recently i.e. allow oil companies to raise prices of its products. Why can’t a free market operate when it comes to oil products? If the price of oil products changes on a daily basis depending on its international price, like the price of vegetables, people will gradually get used to the idea of a changing price for products like diesel and kerosene.
And of course chances are that with the government borrowing coming down, interest rates might also fall. In 2007, when the government fiscal deficit was low, a 20 year home loan could be got at an interest rate of 8%. A loan of Rs 25 lakh would mean an EMI(equated monthly installment) of around Rs 25,093. A lot of banks are now charging their existing consumers around 13% on their home loans. This means an EMI of around Rs 35,147 or almost 40% more.
The huge subsidy on oil prices has had a role to play in this increasing EMI. Bad economics does not always mean good politics. Its time UPA woke up to that.
(The article was originally published on May 9, 2012,at http://www.rediff.com/business/slide-show/slide-show-1-special-what-the-upa-govt-can-learn-from-best/20120509.htm. Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])