The Budget Fails India’s Demographic Dividend

Fostering Public Leadership - World Economic Forum - India Economic Summit 2010

The Economic Survey released on January 31, points out: “Over the next three decades… India… seems to be in a demographic sweet spot with its working-age population projected to grow by a third.”

Estimates suggest that a million Indians enter the workforce every month.  They are India’s demographic dividend. The hope is that as these Indians work, earn and spend money, India will grow at a faster growth rate than it currently is.

This theory works if and only if India’s demographic dividend can find jobs. And the question is where are the jobs?

As per the Report on Fifth Annual Employment – Unemployment Survey, the unemployment rate in India during 2015-2016 stood at 5 per cent. If a person is employed for 183 or more days during the year, he is considered to be employed.

Further, only 60.6 per cent of those who were available for work for 12 months of the year, found work all through the year. Hence, India’s problem is underemployment and not unemployment. There aren’t enough jobs going around for everyone. And in this scenario, the single most important focus of the Indian government should be to facilitate policies and create an environment in which jobs are created.

This should have been the focus of the annual budget of the central government as well. But the budget failed miserably on this front.

Take the case of public sector banks(PSBs) which are sitting on a huge amount of bad loans. In fact, in 2009-2010, 58.7 per cent of all banks loans went to industry. By 2015-2016, it was down to 13.4 per cent. In the last one year, industrial credit has contracted.

Unless, banks give loans to industry how will industries expand and jobs be created? But banks are in no mood to lend to industry given the huge amount of bad loans they have accumulated over the years by lending to industry. The budget makes no effort to come up with a holistic solution for bad loans of banks. Many piecemeal solutions have been tried and they have failed.

These banks require a large amount of capital to continue to function. In the budget for 2017-2018, the government has allocated just Rs 10,000 crore towards their recapitalisation.

An estimate made by Viral Acharya (now one of the deputy governors of the RBI) and Krishnamurthy Subramanian, suggests that in a prudent scenario PSBs would require around Rs 9,97,400 crore of capital. The government clearly doesn’t have this kind of money. In this scenario, it should be looking at exiting out of the ownership of most of these banks. But nothing of that sort has been suggested either in the budget or otherwise.

Over and above the PSBs, the government also continues to run loss-making companies which include an airline, a couple of telecom companies as well as a company which used to make photo-films. There was no mention in the budget about getting out of these companies.

In 2014-2015, the total losses of loss-making public sector enterprises stood at Rs 27,360 crore. Given the government’s total expenditure that is not a lot of money, but at the same keeping these companies going, does take away the focus and attention from other more important areas like education, health and agriculture.

At the same time, another factor that continues to hold back India are its labour laws. The Economic Survey talks about generating jobs in the apparel sector. The sector should be employing a large number of unskilled Indians entering the workforce. It has the ability to generate close to 24 jobs per one lakh rupees of investment. Rapid export growth can create close to a half a million jobs every year in the apparel as well as the leather goods sector.

But that is not happening primarily because an average Indian apparel and leather firm continues to be small and thus lacks economies of scale to compete globally. As the Economic Survey points out: “Indian apparel and leather firms are smaller compared to firms in say China, Bangladesh and Vietnam.”

This situation can be handled by ensuring that we simplify our labour laws. But no government worth its salt has been able to do anything about it till date. Nevertheless, if the government wants to handle India’s demographic divided well, it needs to simplify the labour laws and in the process help companies grow and create jobs.

If that does not happen, it is worth “remembering that demography provides potential and is not destiny”. And the budget was as good an opportunity as any to set this right.

The column originally appeared in Daily News and Analysis on February 2, 2017


Greece is now a political crisis not just an economic one


Last week Greece was bailed out for the third time. The total bailout amounts to 82-86 billion euros. In order to access this money the Greek government has to follow a series of austerity measures like pension reforms, implementing the highest rate of value added tax for business sectors which currently pay a lower rate, etc.
Before the bailout was announced many economists were of the view that Greece should leave the Eurozone. Eurozone is essentially a term used to refer to countries which use the euro as their currency.
The logic offered by these economists is fairly straightforward: Greece needs to get out of the euro and start using its own currency, the drachma. In this situation, the drachma would fall in value against other currencies and in the process make the Greek exports competitive. This would help revive Greek exports as well as tourism, and in turn the Greek economy.
The austerity measures that Greece has had to follow since 2010, when it was first bailed out, have crippled the Greek economy. The economy has contracted by 25%. The unemployment is at 26%. Among youth it is over 50%. Small and medium businesses are shutting down by the dozen.
The government debt as a proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP) has jumped from 126.9% in 2009 to 175% currently. This has happened primarily because the size of the Greek economy has contracted leading to the total amount of debt as a proportion of the GDP(which is a measure of the size of an economy) shooting up.
If Greece leaves the euro and moves to the drachma, it will be in a position to devalue the drachma and in the process hope to revive its economy. This is something that it cannot do currently given that it uses the euro as its currency.
The economists who have been calling for Greece to leave the euro are looking at the situation just from an economic point of view. What they forget is that euro has political origins.
The euro came into being on January 1, 1999. But it took a long time for the countries which originally started to use the euro as their currency to get there. A brief history is in order.
Before the euro came the European Union. The origins of the European Union can be traced to the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC) formed by six countries (which were France, West Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries i.e. Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg) in 1958.
The goal of ECSC was to create a common market for coal and steel in Europe. The EEC on the other hand worked towards advancing economic integration in Europe. The economic integration of Europe was deemed to be necessary by many experts to create some sort of bond between different countries in a continent destroyed by extreme forms of nationalism during the Second World War.
As the Nobel Prize winning American economist Milton Friedman wrote in a 1997 column: “The aim has been to link Germany and France so closely as to make a future European war impossible, and to set the stage for a federal United States of Europe.”
The EEC and the ECSC organisations gradually evolved into the European Union (EU) which was established by the Maastricht Treaty signed on December 9 and 10, 1991. After the formation of the EU by the passage of the Maastricht Treaty, the members became bound to start a monetary union by January 1, 1999.
What this tells us loud and clear is that the euro was as much a political project as it was an economic one. Given this, asking Greece to leave the euro, is not an easy decision to make politically, as it goes against the basic idea of the United States of Europe. As long as the European politicians are serious about this basic idea, Greece will continue to stay in the Eurozone.
The issue has taken another political dimension with the United States (US) of America getting involved. The US isn’t directly involved but as is often the case, it is operating through the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
On July 14, 2015, the IMF released a four- page report in which it said that the Greek public debt is unsustainable. Public debt is essentially government debt minus government debt that is held by the various institutions of the government.
As the IMF report pointed out: “Greece’s public debt has become highly unsustainable…Greece’s debt can now only be made sustainable through debt relief measures that go far beyond what Europe has been willing to consider so far.”
The IMF wants Europe to handle the Greece issue with more care. “There are several options. If Europe prefers to again provide debt relief through maturity extension, there would have to be a very dramatic extension with grace periods of, say, 30 years on the entire stock of European debt, including new assistance… Other options include explicit annual transfers to the Greek budget or deep upfront haircuts,” the IMF report points out.
Basically there are three things that the IMF wants. First, it feels Greece should be allowed more time to repay the debt that it owes to the economic troika of IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission. The IMF wants to give Greece a 30 year moratorium on its debt.
Third, it wants Europe to help Greece more by giving more money to the country ever year. And fourth, it wants lenders of Greece to take a haircut, which basically means that they should let Greece default on a part of the debt that it has taken on.
The question is why are the Americans doing this? A simple explanation for this is that if Greece is abandoned by Europe it could approach China or Russia for help. And this is something that the Americans won’t be comfortable with. A television analyst used to making flippant statements could even call it the start of the second Cold War.
The trouble is that IMF released this report after the third bailout of Greece had been announced. As Albert Edwards of Societe Generale put it: “I simply do not understand why the IMF did not come out loud and clear…and say they would not participate in this charade without debt forgiveness.”
The mess in Eurozone just got messier.

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

The column appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on July 21, 2015

The Indian Hustler

Ramalinga_Raju_at_the_2008_Indian_Economic_SummitVivek Kaul

At the heart of it most scams are very simple—Satyam was no different. Sometime in 2003, B Ramalinga Raju, the founder and chairman of Satyam Computer Services started over-declaring revenues of the company. The process continued till 2008. On January 7, 2009, Raju in a letter to the board of directors of the company admitted to fudging the accounts of Satyam.
Between 2003 and 2008, Raju over-declared revenues of the company by creating fictitious clients. Once he had over-declared revenues he automatically ended up over-declaring profits. Over-declared profits had to be invested somewhere. This led to the creation of fictitious bank statements and fixed deposit receipts. With a rapid advancement in the quality of colour printers, creating fictitious bank statements wouldn’t have been very difficult.
In his letter to the board, Raju admitted that the cash and bank balances were hugely overstated. The cash and bank balances of the company as on September 30, 2008(the last time the company declared quarterly results) were at Rs 5,313 crore. Th actual number was at a much lower Rs 273 crore. More than half a decade of declaring fictitious profits had led to a massive jump in the cash and bank balances of the company. But the number, like the profits of the company, was fictitious.
The company was guzzling whatever “real” cash it had at a very fast rate. By the time January 2009 started, the company’s actual cash and bank balance of the company would have been much lower than Rs 273 crore.
One of the theories put forward after Raju admitted to all the wrongdoings in the letter was that only when he realized that the company wouldn’t have enough money to keep paying salaries to its employees did he decide to come out with the truth. As Raju said in his letter: “The company had to carry additional resources and assets to justify higher level of operations…It was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten.”
The irony is that Raju had to get off the tiger, and he still hasn’t been eaten. Like all big businessmen in India, Raju is also a survivor. A special court in Hyderabad has found him and nine others guilty of cheating, criminal breach of trust, destruction of evidence and forgery. The court pronounced a seven year-jail term for the founder and also imposed a Rs 5 crore fine on him.
It took the judicial system six years and three months to sentence Raju. And this is not the end of it. The decision will be challenged in higher courts and the process will continue for a while.
The question I want to explore in this column is the timing of Raju’s confession. Raju sent a tell-all letter to the Satyam Board in January 2009. Why didn’t he do the same in January 2008? Or even earlier, for that matter, is a question worth asking.
The probable reason is that Raju was confident enough of pulling off the scam till he wasn’t. And why is that? It is worth remembering that between 2003 and 2008, the stock market in India had a huge bull run. The economy was also booming. And in such a scenario, when the financial system is flush with money, it is easy to keep a scam going.
As economic historian Charles Kindleberger writes in
Manias, Panics and Crashes: “The propensities to swindle and be swindled run parallel to the propensity to speculate during a boom.” This precisely what Ramalinga Raju was busy doing.
The stock market started crashing from early 2008, due the advent of what we now call the global financial crisis. And because of this, money wasn’t as easy to raise as was the case earlier. Raju tried to plug the huge gap in Satyam’s balance sheet by buying out two real estate firms Maytas Properties and Maytras Infra. Both these firms were owned by his family (Maytas is the opposite of Satyam).
But by late 2008, an era of easy money had come to an end. And sham transactions were not as easy to pull through. The idea here was to use Satyam’s fake cash and bank balances to buy out the real estate firms and thus have “real” assets on the balance sheet. As Raju wrote in the letter: “ The aborted Maytas acquisition deal was the last attempt to fill the fictitious assets with real ones…Once Satyam’s problem was solved, it was hoped that Maytas’ payments can be delayed.” But this deal fell through after the independent directors on the Satyam board raised issues about an IT company taking over real estate assets. In fact, if Raju had tried to push this deal through a year earlier, chances are that the board might have agreed, given that the going was good at that point of time. And when the going is good no one wants to spoil the party by asking inconvenient questions.
As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith writes in
The Great Crash 1929: “At any given time there exists an inventory of undisclosed embezzlement. This inventory – it should perhaps be called the bezzle – amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. In good times people are relaxed ,trusting, and money is plentiful. … Under these circumstances the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases rapidly. In depression all this is reversed. … Just as the (stock market boom) accelerated the rate of growth (of embezzlement), so the crash enormously advanced the rate of discovery.”
Interestingly, the Satyam scam was the first of many scams that were to hit the nation starting in 2009. It was followed by the 2G, Commonwealth games and the coalgate scam. Sahara, Saradha, Rose Valley and many other big Ponzi schemes came to light. The National Spot Exchange scam came to light as well. These scams were mostly executed during the period between 2003 and 2008, when the economy was doing well and the stock market was going from strength to strength, but they were only revealed after the good days came to a stop.
In that sense Raju set the trend of things to come. We have to give him credit for at least that.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The article originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on April 12, 2015

Relentless cricket and the fleeting sense of loss

dhoni and sharma

It was March 1996. India had just lost to Sri Lanka in the cricket World Cup semi-finals. And I remember roaming around listlessly in the colony I grew up in, trying to make sense of what had just happened.
It was not supposed to end like this. India was supposed to win the World Cup. For many months to come, me and my friends kept talking about the loss. And even after we had discussed the issue threadbare, we still kept coming up with new reasons for the loss. Such was the pain or our inability to accept what had happened. Those were the days.
This is how things were back then. Losses to England in the 1987 World Cup semi-final and Pakistan at Sharjah in 1986, when Javed Miandad hit a last ball six of Chetan Sharma’s bowling, were events that were discussed for years to come.
Cut to now—India lost to Australia in the World Cup semi-final on March 26. Television channels tried to create a lot of outrage. Some showed footage of people burning their televisions protesting against the loss. They did not bother to tell us how many televisions were burnt? Or how many such incidents happened all across the country?
Given the pressures of TRP, what were possibly a few isolated incidents made it to prime time television news. And then other television channels blamed the loss on a girl friend of a star cricketer. Her fault being that she was at the Sydney Cricket Ground watching the match. Since when did such idiocy start to become news?
A few others said the selection was all wrong. Yuvraj Singh should have been in the team. The question is, if the selection was wrong, how did the team win seven matches at a trot before they lost to Australia. And then there came the proverbial reason—it was fixed!
When it comes to the inability of the Indian cricket fan to accept a loss, not much has changed. But what has changed is the fact that the losses don’t linger in the minds of people like they used to. By the time the next week starts people would have moved on and there would be other issues to rant about.
What has led to this change over the last two decades? First and foremost is the fact that in the 80s and through much of the 90s there was only one state owned television channel. So, whatever it broadcast(from Ramayan and Mahabharat to cricket) was fodder for discussion for days at end. There was no social media, no cable television and even no FM radio channels, around. Hence, the chances that the attention of people could be diverted once they had caught on to an issue was rare. These days there are too many things seeking the attention of the Indian cricket fan.
Further, as far as cricket is concerned, back then, there weren’t as many matches as are played now. The ICC till very recently used to organize three major events—the Champions trophy(which it has now disbanded), a T20 World Cup every two years(which it has now changed to every four years) and a 50 over World Cup every four years.
Back in the 80s and the 90s, there was just one 50 over World Cup (starting from 1987 onwards, before that it was 60 overs). And even other one day internationals played between two countries were few and far between. That isn’t the case now. Also, there was no T-20 cricket. Within ten days of the cricket World Cup ending the Indian Premier League (IPL) starts on April 8, 2015.
Given this, the gap between matches has come down dramatically. And there isn’t much time to linger over a loss. In a way this is a good thing. It gives the Indian cricket fan an opportunity to move on quickly, until the next big disappointment comes along.

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

The column originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on Mar 28, 2015 

Manmohan Singh—The dishonest politician

India's PM Singh speaks during India Economic Summit in New DelhiIf Bollywood like Hollywood made political biopics, and if things hadn’t turned out the way they have, the story of the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have made for a reasonably good movie.
Here was a man who rose through the ranks and got a doctorate in economics from the Oxford University. He became the Chief Economic Adviser in the seventies, governor of the Reserve Bank of India and the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission in the eighties, the finance minister of India in nineties and finally the Prime Minister of India in the noughties.
It was the classic story of an underdog who was sometimes “very lucky,” making it in life. This is a format that biopics thrive on. Nevertheless, in the autumn of his career, things aren’t going quite right for Singh. A happy ending is no longer on its way. His tenure as Prime Minister saw him overseeing probably the most corrupt and inefficient government that India has ever seen.
And now Singh, despite being not corrupt is paying for the same. A few days back, special CBI judge Bharat Parashar, summoned Singh as accused in what is now known as the Coalgate scam.
Parashar has summoned Singh for re-allocating a coal mine to Hindalco. As the judge said in his order: “There was a conscious effort on his part to somehow accommodate M/s Hindalco in Talabira-II coal block.” The screening committee had earlier allocated the block to the government owned Neyveli Lignite Corporation.
Singh could have easily saved himself from this embarrassment, if he had acted in a way he thought was the correct way to go about things. But before we get into that, a few other things need to be discussed.
On June 9, 1993, the the Coal Mines(Nationalisation) Act was amended to allow companies which were in the business of producing power and iron and steel, to own coal mines for their captive use. This was done primarily because the government owned Coal India could not produce enough coal to meet demand.
Between 1993 and 2011, more than 200 hundred coal-blocks were given away free by various governments. Most of these blocks were allocated between 2004 and 2011 when the Congress led United Progressive Alliance was in power. A straight forward explanation for this lies in the fact that this was the period when coal prices had started to rally and hence, a free coal block had great value. Interestingly, Singh was coal minister for a significant period between 2004 and 2011.
The blocks were allocated by an inter-ministry screening committee which had the coal secretary as its Chairman. The committee was supposed to allot blocks after assessing applications by using parameters like techo-economic feasibility of the end-use project, the past record of the applicant in executing projects, the financial and technical capability and so on.
The trouble is that the process followed by the committee was not clear from its records. The former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai makes this point in his book Not Just An Accountant: “All that the records showed was that the committee met, deliberated and merely recorded the name of the block allotted to a company, and the state where the end-use plant existed. It is left to the reader to decide if transparency was a victim.”
Interestingly, from 2004 onwards the number of applicants for coal-blocks just went through the roof and it was not possible for the screening committee to be objective about the coal-block allocation. This is something that former coal secretary P C Parakh recounts in Crusader or Conspirator—Coalgate and Other Truths: “108 applications were received for Rampia and Dip Side of Rampia Block [names of two coal-blocks]. I found it difficult to make an objective selection when the number of applicants was in single digits. How could the Screening Committee take objective decisions when the number of applicants per block had run into three digits?”
In August 2004, Parakh proposed to Manmohan Singh(who had taken over as coal minister after Shibu Soren resigned) that the coal-blocks should be allocated through a process of competitive bidding. This would ensure transparency in allocation. It would keep also keep away non-serious players and help the government earn some revenue. On August 20, 2004, Singh approved allocation of coal-blocks through the competitive bidding route.
Immediately, letters written by various MPs opposing competitive bidding started to come in. As Parakh recounts in his book: “This included one from Mr Naveen Jindal who had considerable interest in coal mining.” What did not help was that Shibu Soren, who was a former coal minister by then, and would become coal minister again, opposed it. Dasari Narayana Rao, who was minister of state for coal, was also not in favour of the decision.
Politicians not wanting an auction was understandable because it would take away the influence that they had in allocating coal-blocks.
Singh gave into the pressure and on July 25, 2005, it was decided that the coal ministry would continue to allot coal-blocks through the screening committee route.
In a decision on September 24, 2014, the Supreme Court cancelled 204 out of the 218 coal-blocks allocated by the government since 1993. In fact in August 2014, the Court had stated that: “the entire exercise of allocation through Screening Committee route thus appears to suffer from the vice of arbitrariness and not following any objective criteria in determining as to who is to be selected or who is not to be selected.”
Singh could have saved himself a lot of embarrassment if he had insisted on the competitive bidding route, which he had agreed to in August 2004. But he looked the other way, choosing to give in to the compulsions of coalitions politics and the fact that if he did things his way, he would not last as the Prime Minister.
That’s the thing about being in power. Once you have it, it is better to look the other way than stand up for what you believe in and risk the chance of being fired and leading a retired life of loneliness. Singh may not have been personally corrupt, but he was dishonest to himself. He ultimately did not stand up for things that he believed in, in order to ensure that he continued to be the prime minister. And that is indeed very tragic.

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

The column originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on Mar 20, 2015