'Most stimulus packages have been far too small'

Vivek Kaul

Tim Harford is a senior columnist for the 
Financial Times. His long-running column, “The Undercover Economist”, reveals the economic ideas behind everyday experiences. Tim’s first book, “The Undercover Economist” has sold one million copies worldwide in almost 30 languages. He is also the author of “The Logic of Life“, “Dear Undercover Economist”, “Adapt” and most recently “The Undercover Economist Strikes Back.” In this free-wheeling interview to Forbes India, Tim discusses the ideas he explores in his latest book The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, from why he feels that stimulus packages to revive the sagging economies in the Western world have been far too small to why money does buy happiness to why Henry Ford was the man who invented unemployment.
One of the most interesting parts of your book is where you talk about the baby sitting recession. What is that all about?
The babysitting recession was first discussed in an article published by Joan and Richard Sweeney in the 1970s, but it has been made famous by Paul Krugman. There was a babysitting co-op in Capitol Hill, Washington DC, that suffered a severe and lasting depression. Couples would keep track of who was babysitting for whom by exchanging babysitting tokens; however, there weren’t enough tokens in the economy. Almost everybody wanted to babysit for other people, accumulating a few more tokens, as a reserve, before they spent any tokens themselves. But of course the arithmetic does not work: somebody has to go out or this no economy at all.
So what drew you this example?
A number of things are interesting about this example – notably that a total economic breakdown could be fixed by a simple policy tweak: printing more tokens. (Paul Krugman has more recently tended not to mention the end of the story: the co-op printed too many tokens and ended up suffering from a serious inflation problem. But that is more of an interesting sting in the tale than a refutation of the entire example.) In The Undercover Economist Strikes Back I use the babysitting recession as a nice simple example of a Keynesian recession; in a Keynesian recession there is some dysfunction in the way the economy works, a dysfunction that can be fixed by governments printing money or perhaps borrowing and spending money. Some commentators believe Keynesian recessions are logically impossible; this is nonsense and it is nice to have a simple counter-example.
Another interesting part is about the prison camp recession. What is that all about?
The prison-camp I talk about was in Germany during the Second World War. The economic activity in the camp – a bit of production, but mostly trading items sent to prisoners by the Red Cross – was analysed in a quite brilliant article by one of the prisoners, Robert Radford, who published his findings a few months after the war ended.
And what did Radford find?
The prison camp is almost the perfect counter-weight to the baby-sitting co-op. Trade in the prison camp worked amazingly well. There were well-understood prices and middlemen ensuring that prices in different parts of the camp tended to converge to similar levels. At one stage, coffee was worth more outside the camp in the cafes of Munich than it was inside the camp, that meant gains from trade, and coffee began to go “over the wall” – the prison camp had an export trade! Despite various attempts from the senior officers to regulate trade and particularly to fix prices at levels they regarded as fair, prices were flexible and refused to respect any social or ethical conceptions of the “just price”. This was close to a perfect market. And yet… and yet the prisoners nearly starved to death.
Oh, why was that?
Why they starved is not hard to understand. The parcels from the Red Cross began to dry up as the war progressed. Food and cigarettes both became scarce. In the last, desperate days, there were few goods and prices fluctuated wildly. Finally the US Army arrived and liberated the prisoners.
But what does all this have to do with a modern economy?
The point is that there are two conceptions of what a recession really is. One conception is Keynesian, like the babysitting co-op: some internal malfunction that needs fixing. But another conception is Classical: that economies fluctuate not because of anything wrong within the economic system itself, but because of policy errors or external shocks. Of course the prison camp is an extreme example of a recession caused by an external shock, but modern economies are subject to technological changes, fluctuations in the price of basic commodities, and of course financial shocks from a banking crisis.
Where do the baby sitting recession and the prison camp recession meet? What are the policy lessons one can draw from them?
A Keynesian, baby-sitting co-op recession invites a role for government intervention – most famously through fiscal policy (cutting taxes or boosting spending) but also through monetary policy (cutting interest rates or even printing new money). A Classical, prison-camp recession invites a more fatalistic response: there’s nothing the government can do to make things better, and plenty of things it can do to make things worse. The huge argument that has raged in many economies about fiscal stimulus versus austerity is really a debate about whether recent recessions have been mostly Keynesian, or mostly Classical. If Classical, then austerity is the right response: we’re poorer and we need to get used to it. If Keynesian, then fiscal stimulus is the right response: we’re only poorer if the government gives up and allows us to be!
So are the recent recessions Keynesian or Classical?
In a book you can give black-and-white examples and in life, nothing is black and white. But in my view the recent recessions have been at least partially Keynesian and governments – especially in the UK and US, where they had a choice – should have postponed austerity measures.
The western world has been running stimulus programmes. Do they really work?
It’s interesting that this is your perception. I think most stimulus packages have been far too small – although the US has at least tried. The evidence on such things is always tricky because macroeconomists (unlike microeconomists) cannot run controlled trials. But we can try our best.
Can you elaborate on that?
The International Monetary Fund at first estimated a modest effect from fiscal stimulus – that is, government spending does make the economy larger in the short run, but only a bit. But the Fund later recanted and argued that in the recent recession, fiscal stimulus was far more effective than they’d believed at first.
Let’s assume this is correct (I think it is). How did the Fund make their original mistake? The problem was that they were looking at historical evidence on stimulus spending, and the historical evidence incorporated much milder recessions in which monetary policy was a good alternative to fiscal stimulus. Those mild recessions weren’t a good guide to recent experience, alas.
What is the best way to make a stimulus work?
As for how to make stimulus work, I argue in my book that the best bet is advanced planning: governments should have a list of well-planned infrastructure projects, and should accelerate those plans in case of a downturn. That way, we carry out the investment we were intending to anyway, but at a time when it will have nice macroeconomic side-effects.
Economists have been criticised for having too much faith in GDP growth. Even Simon Kuznets, the man who invented GDP never saw it as a measure of welfare. You write that “they rely on the popular misconception that much of what is wrong with the way the economy is organised is wrong because we collect GDP statistics, and that the way to fix our economic problems is to measure something else. I think that is a mistake”. Why is that a mistake?
Because it isn’t the measuring of GDP that has caused the problems. We had economic growth – and inequality, environmental degradation and other problems – long before we could measure it. Of course there are thoughtful critics of GDP who suggest additional things we could measure, or ways to make GDP a better measure of economic activity. But the more radical critics seem to assume that our economy is organised the way it is because some sinister force is trying maximise GDP. And that’s just crazy.
A lot of recent thinking talks about happy economics (or what you call happynomics). Does money buy happiness?
Money does buy happiness, it seems – or at least having more money, within a particular society, is correlated with being happier (or rather, with telling surveyors that you are more satisfied with your life). The big contested question in happynomics is whether that’s also true across countries: so, is a richer country such as the US happier than a poorer country such as India?
Is that the case?
Early research from Richard Easterlin suggested that richer countries aren’t happier – hence the phrase “the Easterlin Paradox”: if money buys happiness for individuals but not for countries which are collections of individuals, what’s going on? Two possible explanations: one is that what really counts is relative income. Indians compare themselves to other Indians; Americans compare themselves to other Americans. If Americans compared themselves to Indians they’d feel rich and would be happier. But they don’t, so they don’t. An alternative explanation – favoured by economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson – is that Easterlin is just wrong: at the time of his research, the data were of poor quality. Now we have better quality data and we see that money is correlated with happiness both across and within countries. It will be interesting to see this debate play out.
Can economic growth carry on forever?
In principle, yes. Quite a few environmentalists and physicists have pointed out that the planet simply cannot support exponential growth – sooner or later (and, with exponential growth, sooner than we think) we will reach environmental limits.
You don’t buy that?
I regard myself as an environmentalist myself but I think this is just a simple conceptual error. Of course we cannot continue to use more resources or energy at an exponential rate. But economic growth is just growth in the market value of output. So it can continue forever – at least in principle. There are already signs that energy growth is being decoupled from economic growth: in countries such as the UK, the US, Germany and Japan, energy consumption per capita has been falling for a long time now. Population growth is also low or negative in many rich countries. I believe that we need to focus on practical environmental questions – for instance, how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions now – rather than these very abstract concerns about exponentiation.
One of things that you write about India is that “there simply isn’t enough money in India yet for it to be unequal”. What do you mean by that? Do you see it changing in the years to come?
The World Bank economist Branko Milanovic has this idea of the “inequality possibility frontier”. Imagine an extremely poor subsistence society. Then imagine some class of plutocrats, who somehow confiscate wealth and spend it themselves. How much can they take? The answer is: not much if the society is to survive, because the poor cannot dip below the average income because the average income is barely enough to keep you alive. Now imagine a much richer society. This, in principle, could be far more unequal because the poor could still survive on a tiny fraction of the average income. Milanovic and co-authors were interested not only in how unequal a society is, but how unequal it is relative to how unequal it could possibly be. My point was that despite important gains over the past twenty years, India is still a very poor society. There’s a limit to how unequal it can get until it gets richer – which should make us worry about the inequality we do see.
Why was Henry Ford the man who invented unemployment?
Ah yes, this is one of my claims – and I should say that it’s an exaggeration, of course. But here’s the puzzle: Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company raised wages at his factory to such a level that men were queuing round the block for jobs, being hosed down by police in a sub-zero Chicago January. Why have such high wages? Why not cut them and save money, given how much demand there was for jobs?
The idea here is “efficiency wages” – that it can be efficient for an employer to pay well above the market rate because it gives him the pick of applicants, and a fiercely loyal group of workers who will do almost anything to keep their jobs. And of course, that describes many – perhaps most – jobs in the formal sector today. That means, in turn, that we’ll always have unemployment, not because of some macroeconomic slump, but because individual profit-maximising companies prefer efficiency wages.
You quote a lot of John Maynard Keynes all through the book. One of the things you quote in the last chapter is “the master economist must posses a rare combination of gifts…He must be a mathematician, historian, statesmen – in some degree….” Do you see that in current day economists?
Not enough. But that challenge is what makes economics such a marvellous subject to study. Everything is there in the subject, waiting to challenge us. Despite all the difficulties, economic remains a wonderfully important and rich topic to explore – and it’s still a great time to be an economist.
The interview originally appeared in the Forbes India magazine dated December 13, 2013

'Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication'

pictureVivek Kaul
 Stefan H. Thomke, an authority on the management of innovation, is the William Barclay Harding Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School(HBS).He is chair of the Executive Education Program Leading Product Innovation, which helps business leaders in revamping their product development processes for greater competitive advantage, and is faculty chair of HBS executive education in India. He is also author of the books Experimentation Matters: Unlocking the Potential of New Technologies for Innovation and Managing Product and Service Development. In this interview he talks to Forbes on the various aspects of innovation.  
Innovation is a very loosely defined term these days. How do you define innovation?
When I started looking at innovation more than 20 years back, it seemed to be a little crisper then, in terms of definition. Now its all over the place. Interestingly, Wall Street Journal did an analysis sometime back where it counted the number of times the word innovation appeared in the quarterly and annual reports in the United States in 2011. They counted more than 33,000 times. Its just a much overused word.
So what does the world really mean?
The word innovation itself really means two things. It means novelty and value. The value requirement is a really important point. And that makes it different from the word invention. Invention is a more legal term. It is about getting patents. If you have a name on your patent you know that value is not a requirement to get a patent. It just has to be new and non obvious to get a patent. There are companies that have lot of patents which have no value for anybody. So its an input to innovation.
Innovation at times can be a really simple idea as well?
I was working once with a company in the area of in vitro diagnostics. Basically they made equipment to do blood analysis. So when you go to a hospital they draw blood from you and put it into a machine. The machine analyses your blood and gives printouts. One of the biggest innovations for their customers was an algorithm, which was essentially a piece of software that ensured quality control. That was one of their main selling points and customers would basically buy their equipment because they highlighted that. They said that I have this insurance that when I run these tests that the equipment automatically checks for quality and is actually very reliable. And they marketed that. From an R&D perspective it was one of the easiest things that they have ever done. It was really just an algorithm that they figured out using data.
That’s really interesting…
Yes. So sometimes you know the most expensive things are not necessarily that provide the greatest value to the market and vice versa as well.
I came across a blog you had written on product innovation where you questioned putting more and more features into a product. Tell us something about that?
I wrote an article together with Donald Reinertsen and in this article we talk about myths. This was one of the myths. He is also an expert on product development. And we have been in many meetings where the entire meeting is dedicated to discussing more and more features. There seems to be an assumption that in a lot of teams that we are basically done when we can no longer squeeze more features into a product. Presumably assuming that more features that a product has, the customer actually sits there and counts the features, and that somehow drives our ability to price it.
And you don’t agree with this approach?
Sometimes you can actually add value to a customer experience by taking features out, by de-featuring. But that rarely happens. I have rarely been to meetings where the main purpose of the meeting was to remove features from a product with the intent to add value. Usually when we sit around and discuss to remove features, it is usually because it is too expensive, it is not manufacturable. Maybe what teams should do is think about when they can no longer take things out of a product rather than when they can no longer add things to it. It’s a very different way of thinking about it. 
Making things simple is difficult…
We often talk about it as a quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. To make things simpler is very hard because that requires you to have a very deep understanding of what the user really wants. And once you have that deep understanding you have the confidence. Mark Twain once said if I had more time I would write a short letter. In fact that should be true in your field as well?
Yes, longer pieces are easier to write.
Exactly. And the same is true about innovation. Creating something out of a lot of bells and whistles is a lot easier to do sometimes than actually creating something that has the essential features because that requires a lot more thought and a lot more research.
Can you give us an example on this, other than Apple?
A small example is the Danish company, Bang & Olufsen. They make very very high end speakers, stereo systems etc, which are beautifully designed. These speakers are one of the most expensive speakers that you can buy. But there are no buttons for adjusting the frequencies, you just have the volume button. That’s it. What they have done is that they have created products that are very expensive and they have taken away all the controls that normally you would like to have.
How did they get away that? 
They set themselves a very interesting standard. They said, when you listen to something on our speakers it should sound like the real thing. And we believe that no user will be able to get close to that by tweaking a few buttons than the way we set up. So they set their standards to be very high and said we don’t want the users to fiddle with it because we are getting as close as we can. All we want you to do is turn the volume button up and down. It’s quite contradictory. You would imagine that if you are charging all that money you would want to give more control to the customers.
But a lot of people love fiddling with features…
Yeah. There is always a market for everything.
If you look at mobile phone marketing, the selling point seems to be features…
Look at Japan for example. If you look at Japanese mobile phones they have more features than anything you can imagine. You can watch television on them. They have got everything on these phones. But when you ask Japanese consumers, one of their problems is that they are so complicated to use. Not surprisingly, the iPhone has one of the highest penetrations in the Japanese markets. So the question is how can that be? It is more expensive. It has less technology in it. It has fewer features in it and yet it has one of the highest penetrations in terms of growth.
That’s an interesting example…
The reason why I came up with this observation is because I bought this toaster, which came with a manual and had a little LCD display on it. And it set me thinking. I bought an iMac and it had no manual and I bought a toaster and it came with a manual that thick.
There is no manual with an iMac?
No. There is no manual with an iPhone. You just get a little leaflet in there in terms of what to do if something goes wrong. In fact when Steve Jobs came back to Apple one of the first things he did was he took manuals away from developers. The belief was that manuals are for developers who don’t know how to make it intuitive. So as a developer if we don’t know how to make it intuitive we think that’s there is always the manual where we can write down and explain how it works. The problem is that nobody ever reads a manual. So the perfect solution was lets just take away the manuals from the developers. If you cannot explain it, if you cannot make it intuitive, then don’t it.
Do organisations become less innovative as they become large?
I wish I could give you a yes or no response. There are actually certain advantages that come with size and there are some disadvantages that come with size. As you get bigger., you have a momentum. You have an established customer base. Sometimes you can take a long term view as well because you have got an ongoing business and you can afford to wait a little bit. But you have some disadvantages as well. You have got a customer base, that may hold you back and drive you in a different direction. As you get a bigger, you need to have processes and procedures for coordination that are often then viewed as bureaucratic.
Can you give us an example of a large company that is innovative?
Take a company like BMW. It is very innovative. Right now they are launching the i3 which is an extremely innovative car. Its a fully electric car. But that’s not the only innovation. They also figured out how to actually make the entire body shell out of carbon fibre. This is an example a great innovation in all dimensions. They had to come up with a process innovation. Carbon fibres are basically carbon bodies, very light structures that go into very high end automobiles. For example, Formula 1 cars are typically made from re-enforced carbon fibre bodies. You need to bake them. Its a very labour intensive process.
And BMW changed that?
They couldn’t follow a manual process for a car like this because they want to mass manufacture it. It would be way too expensive. So they had to actually innovate in manufacturing. They had to automate the production of carbon fibre. And it changes everything. Once you make the body of your car from carbon fibre, things like crash dynamics totally change. Then there was the electric side of it as well. So the i3 which is coming out this fall. The whole project was more expensive than any of the car platforms that they have developed recently. Estimates are of around $1-5-2 billion. Its a huge risk and they don’t know whether the car is going to sell in enough numbers. It is going to be priced pretty close to $35,000-40,000 in the United States and close to around 35,000 euros in Europe. This is a huge bet that they are placing.
And they are able to do it because they are big?
BMW is a very big company . A small company may not be able to take that bet because they don’t have the expertise. They may have the expertise in one area but they don’t have all the different knowledge bases that this will require to put something like this together. So BMW has the deep expertise. They are very profitable. So they can afford. Whether they can afford to let the i3 fail that remains to be seen. If it fails that will be a big dent. But they can afford to put $2 billion into something like this which could really change the future not just for BMW but for the car industry as well. So large companies can be innovative.
I was reading one your research papers in which you talk about the fact that you cannot treat R&D like manufacturing and unleash techniques like six sigma….
There is a real danger right. I was working in the quality field when six sigma first came out. Six sigma was essentially designed to address production variability in Motorola’s semiconductor factories. It was adopted by others. And at GE it became a big change management programme. But we should also fundamentally understand what Six Sigma is all about. Six Sigma is about reduction of variability. And that is very suitable for tasks that are very repetitive. Variability is actually a bad thing and you want to drive it out. If I am at a bank and I am processing transactions then I want to these transactions to go through with zero mistakes. Any kind of variability is bad. That’s true…
But if you take a concept like this to innovation where we talk about experimentation, creativity and all these sort of things, variability is something that is quite natural. You take a technique like this and you are trying to drive out variability you can kill the entire process. The more upstream you go the more dangerous it is. Something by the way 3M found out the hard way. Jim McNerney became CEO of 3M. Having come from GE he was a master of six sigma. He drove it in at 3M. It initially helped them because there was a lot of variability at 3M. Fifty five divisions there was not enough co-ordination. When six sigma was implemented in upstream R&D driving out variability, they killed a lot of good things that they were working on. This frustrated a lot of people and later on when the next CEO came he really had to correct that.
Ideas often come at the edges.
It is also sometimes not predictable. If I am a developer and I am developing something new I don’t know exactly what I am going to be doing three weeks down the road. I don’t know the tests I am going to run one month from now because that is the whole point of innovation. Its uncertain. If I had all these answers, I probably wouldn’t be innovating. There wouldn’t be novel because I already know everything about what is going to happen. So inherently there is uncertainty that is built in and we just have to be comfortable living with that uncertainty. That is why I talk about business experimentation.
Can you tell us something about?
One of things that executives need to understand is that most assumptions/hypothesis that they make about novelty turn out to be wrong. The real danger for an executive is that if they feel they have an assumption about novelty and they go out without running the experiment, it could be quite disastrous. I don’t know if you have been following the JC Penney story.
What’s happened there?
It’s a fascinating story. Ron Johnson was the person responsible for Apple stores. More than 1 million are walking through Apple Stores everyday now. He was hired by J C Penney as their CEO, with the mission to revolutionise retail for JC Penney. So that was his job. He was one of the most admired executives in the retailing space for having done what he had at Apple. He tried to innovate retail for JC Penney and it turned out to be a disaster. I think sales were down 25-30% or so. And he didn’t run the experiment.
What happened? 
He basically made an assumption of what the future of JC Penney retail should look like and he did away with discounts. He was very confident because he was right in the past. And turned out to be wrong. He should have taken some 20 stores and run randomised field trials. A lot of executives get hired for their expertise and they have a lot of confidence. If you were right ten times in the past. You believe that you will be right the 11th time as well. Sometimes its a curse if we are right all the time. Sometimes the kinds of things we learn in one context we may not be able to move it to another context, when the context changes.
No interview around innovation is complete without talking about Google. The company keeps doing many things, but other than there AdSense business nothing really has been a big money spinner.
That’s been making a lot of money.
Innovation should also lead to some profit. How do you explain the disconnect in case of Google?
I am no expert on Google. There are two ways to look at. One way to look at it is the way you describe it. They have got one business model essentially and they are trying all these things. None of it, at this point seems to be able to create another business model or another source of significant revenue for them. Another way of looking at it is that all the things they do drive more traffic towards them. I don’t know how much money they are spending on Google Glass. But that in itself is driving so much traffic to their site, which then increases the costs of the ads. They can probably pay for the whole project and more, just from the addition of the incremental traffic and the incremental ad revenue that one project created.
This makes tremendous sense…
When you use Gmail, you are actually giving them information. They can actually use it to place customised ads. Its the same thing with Android, which they give away for free. But by making Andorid available for free, its all on the mobile phones and gives them access to mobile phones, which then allows them to do ads on mobile phone. You can kind of see the whole logic. All these things ultimately lead back to their fundamental business model which is the ad model. I bet they are trying really hard to think of other ways at one level, but at another level they are probably thinking about an eco system that they are trying to create that ultimately drives people back into the ad space, and gets more information about them.
So basically they won’t allow any other search engine to come up…
They won’t want to do that. Of course not. They want traffic. The worse thing that can happen to them is traffic going somewhere else and the ad revenue falling .The whole business model will go away. 
The interview originally appeared in the Forbes India magazine dated November 15, 2013 with a different headline 

In theory, Rupee at 72 to dollar is the solution to CAD

Gary Dugan 4

Gary Dugan is the CIO – Asia and Middle East, RBS Wealth Division. In this freewheeling interview with Vivek Kaul he talks about the recent currency crash in Asia, where the rupee is headed to in the days to come and why you would be lucky, if you are able to find a three BHK apartment, anywhere in one of the major cities of the world, for less than $100,000.
What are your views on the current currency crash that is on in Asia?
People are trying to characterise it as something like what has happened in the past. I think it is very different. It is different in the sense that we know that emerging markets in general have improved. Their financial systems are more stronger. The government policy has been more prudent and their exposure to overseas investors in general has been well controlled. I don’t think we are going to see a 12 month or a two year problem here. However, countries such as India and Indonesia have been caught out and the money flows have brought their currencies under pressure. So, it’s a problem but not a crisis.
One school of thought coming out seems to suggest that we are going to see some version of the Asian financial crisis that happened in 1998, over the next 18 to 20 months…
I totally disagree with that. The rating agencies have looked at the Indonesian banks and they have said that these banks are well-abled to weather the problems. If you look at India, the banking system is well-abled to weather the problems. It is not as if that there is a whole set of banks about to announce significant write down of assets or lending. The only thing could go wrong is what is happening in Syria. If the oil price goes to $150 per barrel then the whole world has got a problem. The emerging market countries would have an inflation problem and that would only create an exaggeration of what we are seeing at the moment.
Where do you see the rupee going in the days to come?
There is still going to be downward pressure. I said right at the beginning of the year, and I was a little bit tongue in cheek when I said that in theory the rupee could fall to 72. At 72 to a dollar, in theory, clears the current account deficit. I never expected it to get anywhere near that, certainly in a short period of time. But some good comes out of the very substantial adjustments, because pressure on the current account starts to disappear. Already the data is reflecting that. Where the rupee should be in the longer term is a very difficult question to answer.
Lets say by the end of year…
(Laughs) I challenged our foreign exchange market experts on this and asked them what is the fair value for the rupee? I ran some numbers on the hotel prices in Mumbai, relative to other big cities, and not just New York and London, but places like Istanbul as well. India, is the cheapest place among these cities. Like the Economist’s McDonald Index, I did a hotel index, and on that you could argue that the rupee should be 20-30% higher. But, if you look at the price that you have got to pay to sort out your economic problems, it is probably that the currency is going to be closer to 70 than 60 for the balance of this year.
One argument that is often made, at least by the government officials is that because the rupee is falling our exports will start to go up. But that doesn’t seem to have happened…
It takes a while. I was actually talking to a client in Hong Kong last week and he said that warehouses in India have been emptied of flat screen TVs, and they have all been sent to Dubai because they are 20% cheaper now. It is a simple story of how the market reacts to a falling currency.
But it’s not as simple as that…
Of course. A part of the problem that India has is that the economic model has more been based on the service sector rather than manufacturing. The amount of manufactured products that become cheaper immediately and everyone says that I need more Indian products rather than Chinese products or Vietnamese products, is probably insufficient in number to give a sharp rebound immediately. Where you may see a change, even though some of the call centre managers are a little sceptical about it, is that call centres which had lost their competitive edge because of very substantial wage growth in India, will immediately get a good kicker again. It would certainly be helpful, but I would say that it normally takes three to six months to see the maximum benefit of the currency adjustment.
What are the views on the stock market?
I am just a bit sceptical that you are going to see much performance before the elections. I always say it is a relative game rather than absolute one. If all markets are doing well, then India with its adjustment will do fine. Within the BRIC countries, India falls at the bottom of the pack, in terms of relative attractiveness, just because there is a more dynamic story for some of the other countries at the moment.
One of the major negatives for the stock market in India is the fact that the private companies in India have a huge amount of dollar debt…
It is definitely a reason to worry. It’s not something I have looked at in detail. But as you were asking the question, I was just thinking that people are dragging all sorts of bad stories out. When there were bad stories before, people were just finding their way through it. And India has a wonderful way of working its way through its problems and has been doing that for many many years. Remember that these problems come to the head only if the banks call them to account. I think there will be a re-negotiation. It is not as if a very substantial part of Indian history is about to go under because someone is going to pull the plug on them.
Most of the countries that have gone from being developing countries to becoming developed countries have gone through a manufacturing revolution, which is something that is something that has been missing in India…
It is. You look at the stories from the past five years, and the waning strength of the service sector in India, in th international markets, comes out. A good example is that of call centres that have gone back to the middle of the United States from India. A part of that came through currency adjustment. You can say that maybe the rupee was overvalued at the time when this crisis hit. But it is true, in a sense, that India has got to back-fill a stronger manufacturing industry and it has got to reinforce its competitive edge in the service sector.
What is holding back the Indian service sector?
A number of structural things. I talked to some service sector companies at the beginning of the year. And one of things I was told was that I have got all my workers sitting here in this call centre, but now they cannot afford to live within two hours of commuting distance. Why did that happen? That is not about service sector. It is about the broad infrastructure and putting people at home, close to where they work. There are lot of problems to be solved.
There has been talk about the Federal Reserve going slow on money printing(or tapering as it is called) in the days to come. How do you see that going?
Everyone has got to understand that the principle of quantitative easing is to generate growth. So, if there is enough growth around they will keep tapering, even if they get it wrong by starting to taper too early. They will stop tapering if growth is slow. Secondly, number of Federal Reserve governors are worried about imprudent actions of consumers and industrialists, in terms of taking cheap money and spending it on things that they typically do not need to spend on. A good example is speculation in the housing market, something which created the problem in the first place. So they want to choke such bad behaviours. They will probably start tapering in September in a small way. The only thing that may stop it from happening is if the middle Eastern situation blows up. The US didn’t think it was going to get involved a few weeks ago. Now it is.
Isn’t this kind of ironical, that the solution to the problem of propping up the property market again, is something that caused the problem in the first place…
That’s been very typical of the United States for the last 100 years. Evertime there is a problem you ask people to use their credit cards. Or use some form of credit. And when there is an economic slowdown because of the problems of non performing loans, then you get the credit card out again. So, yeah unfortunately that is the way it is.
Why is there this tendency to go back to the same thing that causes the problem, over and over again?
It is the quickest fix. And you hope that you are going to bring about structural changes during the course of a better economic cycle. So people don’t bring the heavyweight policies in place until they have got the economy going again and sadly the only way you can get the economy going again is to just to make credit cheap and encourage people to borrow.
Inflation targeting by central banks has come in for criticism lately. The point is that because a central bank works with a certain inflation target in mind, it ends up encouraging bubbles by keeping interest rates too low for too long. What is your view on that?
These concepts were brought in when central banks thought they could control inflation. If you look at one country that dominates the world at the moment in terms of product prices and in terms of the inflation rate, it is China. Your monetary policy isn’t going to change the behaviours of China. And some of the flairs up in inflation have been as a consequence of China and therefore monetary policies have no impact. Secondly, the idea of controlling inflation, the concept worked for the 20 years of the bull market. Then we got inflation which was too low. So we have changed it all around to actually try to create inflation rather than to dampen inflation. I don’t think they know what tools they should be using. The central banks are using the same tools they used to dampen inflation, in a reverse way, in order to create it.
And that’s where the problem lies…
For nearly two to three hundred years, the world had no inflation, yet the world was kind of an alright place. We had an industrial revolution and we still had negative price increases, but that did not stop people from getting wealthy.
Many people have been shouting from the rooftops that because of all the money that has been printed and is being printed, the world is going to see a huge amount of inflation, so please go and buy gold. But that scenario hasn’t played out…
Chapter one of the economic text book is that if you create a lot of money, you have got a problem. Chapter two is that there is actually another dimension to this and that is the velocity of money. If you have lots of money and if it happens to go around the world very very slowly it doesn’t have any impact. And that has been the point. The amount of money has gone up considerably but the velocity of money has come down. To date, again in the western world, there is little sign of the velocity improving. We are seeing this in the lending numbers. Even if banks have the appetite for lending money, nobody wants to borrow. Someone’s aged 55, and the job prospects are no wage growth, and the pension is tiny, I am not sure that even if you have gave him ten credit cards, he’ll go and use any of one of them. And that is the kind of thing that is happening in Europe and to some extent in the United States.
Yes that’s true…
The only money going into housing at the moment is the money coming from the institutional market, as they speculate. If you look at students coming out of college in the United States, they have come out way down with debt. There is again no way that they are going to go and take more loans from the bank because they have already done that in order to fund their education. So I do not seeturnover of money in the Western world.
There may be no inflation in everyday life but if you look at asset inflation, it has been huge.. That’s right. People just find stores of value. Gold went up as much as it did, in its last wave. If you look at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, in the art market, they are doing extremely well. The same is true about the property market. Places which are in the middle of a jungle in Africa, there prices have gone up to $100,000 an acre. Why? There is no communication. No power lines. It is just because people have money and are seeking out assets to save that money. Also, there has been cash.If you go to Dubai, 80% of the house purchases there, are in cash. So you don’t need the banks.
Can you tell us a little more on the Africa point you just made?
I did laugh when Rwanda came to Singapore to raise money for its first ever bond issue and people were just discovering these new bond markets to invest purely because they did not know what to do with their money. So someone said that I am building, you know in a Rwanda or a Nigeria, and people just ran with their cash, buying properties and buying up land wherever the policies of the government allowed. Sri Lanka again just closed the door on foreign investors because you start to get social problems as the local community cannot afford properties to live in. It was amazing how commercial many of these property markets became, even though in the past they were totally undiscovered. And as we have seen with many of them, you take considerable risk with the legal system. The world has got repriced. I always say that if you can find a three bedroom house below a $100,000-$150,000 in a major city, you are doing well anywhere in the world today.
In Mumbai you won’t find it even for that price..
Yes, though five years ago it was true. It is impossible now.

(The interview appeared in the Forbes India magazine edition dated Oct 4, 2013) 

The Great Indian FDI conundrum

ghemawat 2

Our politicians think our problems come from being connected with the world, but the reality is we are too little connected to the world, says Pankaj Ghemawat.

Vivek Kaul

The United Progressive Alliance government is fond of telling us that India’s weakening macroeconomic indicators – a falling rupee, a declining stock market, rising bond yields – are the result of being tied to a weak global economy and factors external to India. But if you were to ask Pankaj Ghemawat, Anselmo Rubiralta Professor of Global Strategy at IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, India is not exactly as globally connected as we think it is.
Ghemawat has constructed a broad index of international integration, the DHL Global Connectedness Index, which was first released in November 2011. The 2012 version of this index was released last year and it shows India closer to the bottom. “This index extends beyond trade to incorporate capital, information and people flows as well, and covers 140 countries that account for 95% of the world’s population and 99% of its GDP,” says Ghemawat.
India ranks 119 out of 140 countries on the depth of its global connectedness. “When it comes to trade intensity, India still ranks in the bottom 25% in the sample. As far as capital connectedness is concerned, it is closer to the median,” says Ghemawat.
Capital connectedness is calculated from measures of foreign direct investment (FDI) and foreign portfolio equity investment into the stock market of the concerned country. India’s decent performance on capital connectedness is primarily on account of the huge money that has come into the Indian stock market from abroad in the last decade and big outward FDI flows in the form of overseas acquisitions by Indian corporates.
If one looks at just inward FDI, the performance is dismal. As Ghemawat puts it, “In terms of inward FDI stock (i.e. foreign companies having built or bought businesses in India) expressed as a percentage of GDP, India comes in the bottom 10%.”
FDI flows into India have also fallen in three out of the last four years. For 2012-13, FDI fell by 21% to $36.9 billion, government data show. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in a recent release, said that FDI inflows to India declined by 29% to $26 billion in 2012.
The government has, faced with an unsustainable current account deficit (CAD), has been trying to encourage FDI into the country to firm up the rupee against the dollar. Last year in September, the government opened up FDI in multi-brand retailing with the rider that each state can decide whether it wants companies like Wal-Mart to set up shop within its borders.
But since then not a single dollar has come into the sector. “One reason for foreign money not coming in is that investors are not sure whether the policy will continue as and when a new government comes in. Also, letting states set their own rules on such an international economic policy matter is basically unheard of elsewhere,” said Ghemawat. Towards the middle of July 2013, the government relaxed FDI norms in 12 sectors, including telecom, insurance, asset reconstruction, petroleum refining, stock exchanges and so on. 
Ghemawat feels that there is a lot that India can learn from China on this front. China started opening up its retail sector to FDI in 1992, initially with various restrictions, but ultimately allowing 100% FDI in 2004. This benefited them with foreign players bringing in new management practices along with supporting technology and investment capital. And we shouldn’t forget the complementarity for foreign retailers between sourcing from China (contributing to China’s export boom) and selling there.
Ghemawat argues that much of the fear about FDI in retail is exaggerated, because even with full liberalisation, foreign retailers would hardly come to dominate the Indian market. “Retail is a very local business, where an intimate understanding of customers, real estate markets, and so on, is essential to success.” He cites a recent estimate that 40 foreign players account for only about 20% of organised retail in China, to suggest that foreign and domestic retail could thrive side-by-side in India.
“Foreign retailers don’t always win out against domestic rivals,” he adds. “Electronics retailers Best Buy from the US and Media Markt from Germany both shut down their stores in China in the last few years. They just couldn’t compete with local rivals Gome and Suning, which had greater domestic scale and business models more attuned to the Chinese market. Home Depot also exited China in 2012. But Chinese consumers gained anyway – competition against foreign retailers spurred locals to improve customer service, one of their weak points.”
Coming back to data from the Indian market, Ghemawat notes an interesting factoid from the 2013 Economist Corporate Network Asia. The nominal GDP of India grew by 12.6% in 2012. In comparison, the sales of MNCs (mainly Western) in India grew by only 6.3%, only half as fast as the GDP. “While this could be viewed as positive regarding Indian firms, a difference of such a big magnitude is probably reflective of a lack of openness,” said Ghemawat.
There are multiple reasons for India’s poor showing on these indicators India regularly figures in the bottom tier of countries in terms of the extent to which its policies promote trade. In the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Enabling Trade Index, India figures in the bottom tier. On the market access parameters, in particular, it figures third from last in a list of 132 countries. Ghemawat also cites the OECD’s FDI restrictiveness index which he has inverted into the FDI Friendliness Index. “India again figures in the bottom 10% of 50 countries in terms of the extent to which it encourages FDI.” No amount of ministerial cajoling of potential foreign investors is likely to outweigh the impact of such protectionist policies.
These indicators, of course, translate into low productivity and lack of infrastructure required to carry out a profitable business. “The Global Competitiveness Report tells us all we need to know about India’s poor infrastructure and low productivity,” says Ghemawat. “India currently ranks 59th on the list (out of 144 countries). It has fallen 10 places since peaking at the 49th spot in 2009. Once ahead of Brazil and South Korea it is now 10 places behind them. China is 30 places ahead of India,” he adds.
When it comes to the supply of transport, energy and ICT (information, communications technology) infrastructure, India is 84th on the list. This lack of infrastructure is the single biggest hindrance to doing business in India, feels Ghemawat. And this has kept foreign investors away from the country. Also given India’s weak health and basic education infrastructure (where it is 101st on the list), India remains low on productivity, which is an important factor for any foreign investor looking to make an investment. And as if all this was not enough it is worth remembering that it is not easy to start any business in India. Every year the World Bank puts out a ranking which measures the Ease of Doing Business across countries. In the 2013 ranking, India came in at rank 132 on the list – the same as in 2012. When it comes to starting a new business In
dia is 173rd on the list. Hence, foreign investors have an option of starting their business in a much easier way in many other countries. Given this, why should they be hurrying to India?
The spate of recent scams also has not helped the way India is viewed abroad. There is significant evidence to show that corruption hampers trade. Says Ghemawat: “According to one study, an increase in corruption levels from that of Singapore to that of Mexico has the same negative effect on inward foreign investment as raising the tax rate by over 50 percentage points.” India stood at 94th position in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perception Index. “Given this, tackling corruption has to be a priority,” adds Ghemawat.
The moral of the story is that although India is much more open than it used to be 20 years ago, there is a lot that still needs to be done. And this is important because there is a clear connect between the global connectedness of a country and measures of prosperity. As Ghemawat puts it, “There is a strong positive correlation across countries between the depth of a country’s global connectedness and measures of its prosperity, such as its GDP per capita and its ranking on the UN’s Human Development Index. To be sure, correlation is not the same as causation, but statistical analysis indicates that after controlling for initial income levels, countries with deeper global connectedness have tended to grow faster than less-connected countries.”
The point is further buttressed by one look at the list of countries that are on the top of 2012 DHL Global Connectedness Index created by Ghemawat. These countries are the Netherlands, Singapore, Luxembourg, Ireland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. In the recent past some of these countries have been caught up in the aftermath of the financial crisis, but it’s important not to let recent growth rates overshadow measures of current prosperity, on which all of these countries far surpass India.
Ghemawat gives the example of the Indian information technology sector. “Ask this simple question to yourself: Would Indian IT companies have been as globally competitive if we had protected them from international competition?” The answer of course is no. But that is the case with the business services sector. There is a huge protective moat around it. This, despite the fact that the sector has a huge potential to create jobs.”
And he backs his argument with numbers. “Although some services (like haircuts) will always be delivered locally, liberalizing trade in services alone could boost global GDP by at least 1.5%.” In India’s case, opening up business services is even more important given that we don’t trade much with our neighbours due to various reasons. “For example, Indian trade with Pakistan, according to one study, is only 2 to 4% of what it might be under friendlier circumstances. The rest of India’s neighbours are relatively small and poor, presenting limited opportunities compared with, for example, the benefits China realised by tying into Japanese and Korean production networks. It is neither exaggerated nor xenophobic to say that one of India’s key structural problems is that it is located in a difficult neighbourhood,” says Ghemawat.
Countries tend to trade the most with their neighbours.  Ghemawat explains, “all else being equal, if you cut the distance between a pair of countries in half, their trade volume will go up almost 200%.  Add a common border, and trade rises another 60%.  That’s why more trade happens within world regions than across them, and the US’s top export destinations are Canada and Mexico.”
In India’s case, at least over the short-to-medium term, trading primarily with neighbours won’t be workable (though Ghemawat does urge India to take the lead on regional integration in South Asia). Hence, he feels that some business services can be outsourced over greater distances than many categories of merchandise are traded, since physical shipment of products is not required. 
One exception he notes is how, recently, China became India’s biggest trading partner, overtaking the United States. But Ghemawat feels that caution is in order. “India runs a huge trade deficit with China and exports mainly primary products there: Cotton, copper and iron ore account for nearly one-half of the total. Given the limited progress the US has made in rebalancing its trade with China, it’s hard to see what India might accomplish within any reasonable timeframe,” he says. Trade deficit is the difference between imports and exports.
Ghemawat also feels that India has a lot to gain by encouraging trade within states. “I have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get hold of data on trade between Indian states,” he says. “India has a lot to gain by encouraging and increasing trade between states. As the former Chairman of Suzuki once put it to me, what India needs is not external trade liberalisation but internal trade liberalisation. And I heard Ratan Tata say something similar about the need for more integration and fewer barriers within India. For a large country, the potential gains from internal trade are typically much larger than those from international trade,” Ghemawat concludes. 

The interview originally appeared in the Forbes India magazine in the edition dated Sep 20, 2013