An important economic lesson for India from the East India Company

When it comes to reading non-fiction nothing excites me more than reading books on economic history. Last month, I finished reading a fabulous book Why Nations Fail—The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson.
The book has a few sections on India which make for a very interesting reading. It deals in some detail with the business model of the English East India Company.

Over the years, the English monarchy raised money in what could be called fairly innovative ways, at that point of time. One such way was by granting monopolies under the garb of developing national industry.

One such company, which was granted a monopoly, was the English East India Company that had been formed toward the last years of the rule of Queen Elizabeth I. On Decem­ber 31, 1600, the Queen granted the company the Royal Charter for a period of 15 years.

Interestingly, the English East India Company, which even had Elizabeth I as one of its shareholders, was the first limited liabil­ity company in the world. The liability of the shareholders of the company was limited to their investment in the company. If the company failed, the debts of the company would not be divided among the investors.

From its formation in 1600 and up until 1688 “the East India Company enjoyed a government-sanctioned monopoly over the trade with Asia”. As Acemoglu and Robinson write: “In 1688 some of the most significant imports into England were textiles from India, calicoes and muslins, which comprised about one-quarter of all textile imports. Also important were silks from China. Calicoes and silks were imported by the East India Company.” Calico is essentially a plain-woven textile made from unbleached and often not fully processed cotton. (Source:

India was the largest producer and exporter of textiles in the world at that point of time. “Indian calicoes and muslins flooded the European markets and were traded throughout Asia and even eastern Africa. The main agent that carried them to the British Isles was the English East India Company,” write the authors.

Things started to change in the late seventeenth century when the English textile producers started to grow bigger and became economically and politically more powerful. They wanted imports of cheap Indian textiles (calicoes) taxed or to even be banned. In fact, the wool industry managed to lobby the Parliament, which passed legislations in 1666 and 1678, making it illegal for an individual to be buried in anything other than a woollen shroud. This reduced competition that English textile producers faced from Asia in general and India in particular.

The lobbying continued and in 1701 the Parliament decreed: “All wrought silks, bengals and stuffs, mixed with silk or herba, of the manufacture of Persia, China, or East-India, all calicoes painted, dyed, printed, or stained there, which are or shall be imported into this kingdom, shall not be worn.”
This basically made it illegal in England to wear silks and calicoes produced in Asia. Nevertheless, it was still possible to import these textiles from India and other parts of Asia in order to re-export to other parts of the world.

This loophole (from the point of view of English textile manufactures) was finally plugged in. After December 25, 1722, it became unlawful “for any person or persons whatsoever to use or wear in Great Britain, in any garment or apparel whatsoever, any printed, painted, stained or dyed Calico.” This basically ensured that textile imports were no longer a competition for British manufacturers.

Further, the calicoes were the East India Company’s most profitable item of trade. It forced the company to change its business model as well. As Acemoglu and Robinson write: “In the eighteenth century, under the leadership of Robert Clive, the East India Company switched strategies and began to develop a continental empire…[It] first expanded in Bengal in the east…[It] looted local wealth.”

This had a huge impact on the Indian textile industry at that point of time. “This expansion [of East India Company] coincided with the massive contraction of the Indian textile industry, since, after all, there was no longer a market for these goods in Britain. The contraction went along with de-urbanization and increased poverty. It initiated a long-period of reversed development in India. Soon, instead of producing textiles, Indians were buying them from Britain and growing opium for the East India Company to sell in China,” write Acemoglu and Robinson.

So what is the relevance of this history in this day and age? The simple point is that it is very important for a country to make things if it wants to make economic progress or even stay at the level it currently is. Once the East India Company started getting into the empire building business, the Indian textile industry quickly collapsed. This collapse reversed economic development for a long time to come. And from making textiles for exports, we quickly moved on to producing opium.

In fact, as Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang writes in Bad Samaritans—The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & the Threat to Global Prosperity: “History has repeatedly shown that the single most important thing that distinguishes rich countries from poor ones is basically their higher capabilities in manufacturing, where productivity is generally higher, and more importantly, where productivity tends to grow faster than agriculture and services.”

If this background is taken into account it becomes very clear as to how important the idea of “Make in India” really is. In fact, India’s trade with China clearly shows that enough is not being made in India.

As analyst Akhilesh Tilotia of Kotak Institutional Equities points out in a June 2015 report titled Making China make in India: “India’s trade deficit against China accounts for over a third of its trade deficit. India’s trade relationship with China is skewed significantly towards imports: 13% of all Indian imports are from China even as only 4% of Indian exports head to China.” Trade deficit is the difference between imports and exports.

In fact, as Tilotia writes this deficit would be a good starting point for ‘Make in India’. As he writes: “Of India’s imports from China over the past three years, more than half came from three categories: (1) electrical machinery and equipment, (2) nuclear reactors, boilers, machinery and mechanical appliances and (3) organic chemicals. Between these three heads, India imports more than US$30 bn of goods annually. The overall list makes for an impressive starting list for ‘Make in India’ though it is, of course, easier said than done.”

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Sep 4, 2015

Does Janet Yellen know Bahl and Bansal of Indian ecommerce?

On August 31, 2015, The Economic Times, the largest read business newspaper in the country carried an interview with Kunal Bahl, the chief executive officer of Snapdeal. In this interview Bahl claimed that: “The one thing I am very , very clear about right now is that I think we’re going to be No. 1 (in terms of sales) by March 2016….I think we’re going to beat Flipkart by then.”

Two days later on September 2, 2015 (i.e. yesterday), Mukesh Bansal, the head of commerce at Flipkart, responded in the same paper by saying: “Flipkart will sell goods worth $10 billion (Rs 65,000 crore) during fiscal 2016, and “nobody will be even half of that”…There is not a shred of doubt based on all the market numbers we have today.”

When was the last time you saw a CEO or a CXO of a brick and mortar company talk like this? Where does this confidence of Bahl and Bansal come from?
There is a basic advantage that ecommerce companies have, which the brick and mortar crowd does not. Consumers can buy many things through a single transaction. I can buy a geyser, a book case and several books, all at the same time and pay for it all at once sitting at home (or in office for that matter). I don’t have to visit different shops to buy these things.

As economist Alvin E. Roth writes in Who Gets What and Why—The Hidden World of Matchmaking and Market Design: “It looks to me like a single transaction, even though I may have bought each item from a different seller that subscribes to Amazon’s marketplace services.” Now replace the word Amazon with Flipkart or Snapdeal and the logic remains the same.

Plus, there is something called “thickness” at work here as well. As Roth writes: “The thickness of the Amazon marketplace—the ready availability of so many buyers and sellers—is self-reinforcing. More sellers will be attracted by all those potential buyers, and more buyers will come to this market place because of ever-expanding variety of sellers.”

And as I said earlier, what works in case of Amazon in the United States, also works in case of Flipkart and Snapdeal. But there is also something else that needs to be pointed out here.

Typically, the tendency is to look at India as one big market given the huge population of more than 120 crore people. But the more important question is –how many people are digitally proficient to be able to carry out ecommerce transactions on computers as well as smart phones.

And this is where things get interesting. Analyst Akhilesh Tilotia of Kotak Institutional Equities in a recent research report titled How many internet literates in India?  points out some very interesting data based on the 71st round of the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO).

As Tilotia writes: “We note that 48.9% of the youth in urban India in the age range of 14-29 can operate a computer; this proportion falls to 18.3% in rural India. We also note that digital literacy among women trails men’s by 10 percentage-points. Even more interesting, only a quarter of those in urban Indian in the age range of 30-45 years can operate a computer, this percentage is 4% in rural India.”

It needs to be pointed out that in the NSSO survey on which this data is based, “any of the devices such as desktops, laptops, notebooks, netbooks, palmtops, smartphones, etc. were considered as computers.”

In fact, digital proficiency is significantly lower than digital literacy. As Tilotia writes: “Only around one in seven Indians can do any meaningful activity with their computers/smartphones. Urban India is better off with between a fourth and a third of its populace having dexterity to work on their digital devices; less than one in 12 rural Indians have such skills. It is quite possible to be communicative on social media without having email-writing skills or Googling skills.”

This is not the kind of data which the Indian e-commerce companies would want to take a look at.

The NSSO survey on which these numbers are based was carried out between January and June 2014. While things would have definitely improved on the digital proficiency front since then, the improvement couldn’t have been very significant.

So, given this low level of digital proficiency among Indians there has to be a limit to the size of the ecommerce market in India. But individuals who run these companies clearly don’t think that way. As Bansal of Flipkart told The Economic Times: “Flipkart is aiming to sell goods worth $100 billion in 5-7 years.”

The way things are currently going, the kind of valuations the ecommerce companies seem are getting, leads one to conclude that the investors who invest in these companies believe that Indian ecommerce companies will continue to grow at a rapid rate in the time to come.

There are regular news-reports on the front pages of business newspapers of millions of dollars of investment going into Indian ecommerce companies. But none of these news-reports ever seems to talk about the profitability of these companies.

As I have written in the past, almost all the Indian ecommerce companies are losing money big time. Most of these companies have been able to attract buyers by offering discounts on products that they sell. The only thing that has kept them going in spite of making massive losses, is the endless rounds funding that keep coming in, from venture capital and private equity firms, as well as hedge funds. And with every round of funding, the valuation of these firms also goes up.

All this money coming into Indian ecommerce is essentially because of extremely low interest rates that prevail through much of the Western world. In the aftermath of the financial crisis that started in September 2008, the Western central banks started to print money and drove interest rates to very low levels, in the hope of initiating an economic recovery. Leading the way was Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank. He was succeeded by Janet Yellen in 2014.

The private equity and the venture capital firms have borrowed and invested this money into Indian ecommerce companies. And it is this “easy money” from the West that has kept the loss making Indian e-commerce companies selling things on discounts, going.

The question is till when will this money keep coming in? Until very recently most economists were of the opinion that the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates from September 2015 on. Now with the massive fall in stock markets all over the world that seems unlikely.

Nevertheless, the Indian ecommerce companies are totally dependent on this “easy money” borrowed at very low interest rates. And it is this money that has kept them going. And it is this money that will keep them going. In fact, I am even tempted to ask, does Janet Yellen know Bahl and Bansal of Indian ecommerce?

The column appeared originally in The Daily Reckoning on Sep 3, 2015

Dear parents, the engineering bubble has burst

In my extended-family when a kid grows up, the parents push him towards getting an engineering degree. If I may generalise a little more this is largely true for the Kashmiri Pandit community my parents belong to.

Once a youngster gets into an engineering course, all is forgiven and it is automatically assumed that the future will now be bright. And this may have been largely true for the nineties and the noughties, when India’s information technology companies were taking off. But now we are in the teens and the story has changed.

Why? The “indifference principle” is at work. As Steven E. Landsburg writes in The Armchair Economist: “Unless you’re unusual in some way, nothing can ever make you happier than the next best alternative.”

Landsburg explains the indifference principle through an example. As he writes: “Would you rather spend a bright summer day at the shopping mall or the…Fair…If the Fair is more fun than the mall, people flock to the Fair, building up the crowd size until it’s not more fun than the mall.”

So, the Fair doesn’t remain fun anymore because way too many people turn up. Something similar has happened to the engineering degree in India. The country is producing way too many engineers. As analyst Akhilesh Tilotia of Kotak Institutional Equities writes in a recent research note titled How many graduates are required to change a light bulb?: “Engineering graduate output of Indian universities stood at 15 lakh a year in FY2015 [the period between April 1, 2014 and March 31, 2015], up from 3 lakh in FY2005 [the period between April 1, 2004 and March 31, 2005].”

Hence, over the last decade, the number of engineers being produced has gone up five times. In fact Tilotia in his book The Making of India writes: “India in 2016 will graduate more engineers annually (1.5 million) than China (1.1 million) and the United States (0.1 million) combined.” One impact of so many engineers being produced is that it has “reduced the importance of ‘capitation fees’”.

Nevertheless, the trouble is that the employment opportunities for engineers haven’t gone up at the same speed. Information technology companies which were taking in a bulk of the country’s engineering graduates, aren’t recruiting at the same pace as they were in the past. As Tilotia points out: “net hiring in the IT sector has remained stagnant at 2.5 lakh [per year] over the past five years until FY2015”.

In fact, if we leave out the individuals recruited by the BPO sector from these numbers, the number of employees recruited by the information technology companies in the financial year ending as on March 31, 2015, stood at 2.09 lakh. The number of engineers produced, as mentioned earlier, stood at 15 lakh. Hence, there is a clear disconnect between supply and demand. The engineering dream to prosperity has clearly broken down.

The fascination of Indian parents for pushing their children towards getting an engineering degree has been built on hearing too many “success stories” of Indian engineers working in information technology companies in the United States on dollar salaries and other parts of the world.

Even those Indian engineers who have settled in the country and started working for the information technology companies in the nineties and up to the mid noughties, have done well for themselves. And these success stories have had a lot of impact on the thinking of parents.

The trouble is that the story has changed. As Tilotia writes: “IT companies have publicly stated that they are looking to automate meaningful parts of service offerings…Automation of workflow can significantly impact the prospects of entry-level joinees – their work is more susceptible to being automated.” Nevertheless, stories take a long time to unravel.

To conclude, as Landsburg writes: “In order for one activity to make you happier than another, you must be unusual in some way.” Hence, dear parents, the engineering bubble has burst. And as far as children go— please let them be!

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

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on August 5, 2015

The Make in India lesson I learnt when I bought a television set

make in indiaVivek Kaul

Yesterday’s edition of The Times of India had a very interesting newsreport. As per the newsreport: “Data available with the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) shows that over 60% of the recently registered products are “Made in China.””
These include products like mobile phones, printers, power adapters, notebooks, tablets and so on. What this tells you clearly is that a vast majority of electronic products that we buy in India are not made in India, but in China.
Interestingly, the last time I bought a television set few years back, it came with a weird looking plug—something that I had never seen before. It wouldn’t fit into the electrical socket at home. It took a helpful neighbour to solve the problem. He told me that I would need a converter to fit the plug into the socket. The converter cost me Rs 25 and left me wondering that why did a company which sold a product worth Rs 15,000 inconvenience its customers for something worth Rs 25? Maybe marketing professionals can throw some light on that.
Last year when I bought a smart phone a similar experience awaited me. But this time around I was prepared and as soon as the smart phone was delivered at home (I had ordered it online), I went out and bought a converter, which cost Rs 20 this time around.
As you must have figured out by now, dear reader, both the products were made in China. Not just technology products which are made in China are flooding the Indian market. There are other products as well. As The Times of India newsreport referred to earlier points out: “There are a vast majority of goods — from electricity bulbs and thermometers to Ganesha and Laxmi idols — where the government is yet to have domestic standards resulting in unregulated entry of Chinese product.” Even Rakhis are now made in China. Indeed, this has been a worrying trend for sometime now.
The reason for this is fairly straightforward—no country has gone from developing to developed without the expansion and success of its manufacturing sector. As Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang writes in 
Bad Samaritans—The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & the Threat to Global Prosperity: “History has repeatedly shown that the single most important thing that distinguishes rich countries from poor ones is basically their higher capabilities in manufacturing, where productivity is generally higher, and more importantly, where productivity tends to grow faster than agriculture and services.”
And the Indian manufacturing sector cannot flourish with products being made in China. For a while there was great hope that India does not need to go through a manufacturing revolution to pull its citizens out of poverty. And that the information technology led services revolution would do that trick. But services by their very design have certain limitations.
As Chang writes: “There are certainly some services that have high productivity and considerable scope for further productivity growth—banking and other financial services, management consulting, technical consulting and IT support come to mind. But most other services have low productivity and, more importantly, have little scope for productivity growth due their very nature (how much more ‘efficient’ can a hairdresser, a nurse or a call centre telephonist become 
without diluting the quality of their services?).”
So, where does that leave us? Over the last few years the education infrastructure that has been built to feed trained individuals into the services sector has been huge. As Akhilesh Tilotia writes in The Making of India: “An analysis of the demand-supply scenario in the higher education industry shows significant capacity addition over the last few years: 2.4 million higher education seats in 2012 from 1.1 million in 2008.” In 2016, India will produce 1.5 million engineers. This is more than the United States (0.1 million) and China (1.1 million) put together.
The number of MBAs between 2012 and 2008 has also jumped to 4 lakh from the earlier 1 lakh. As Tilotia writes: “India faces a unique situation where some institutes(IITs,IIMs, etc.) are intensely contested while a large number of the recently-opened institutes struggle to fill seats…With most of the 3 million people wanting to pursue higher education now having an opportunity to do so, the big question that should…be asked…are all these trained personnel required? Our analysis seems to suggest that India may be over-educating its people relative to the current and at least the medium-term forecast requirement of the economy.”
What this means is that a large number of people going in for higher education will find it difficult to find jobs which are commiserate with the kind of money they have paid for their education, after they pass out. And they will not be the only ones having a tough time. India is adding nearly 13 million people to the workforce every year. And enough jobs are not being created.
This is something that the latest economic survey points out: “Regardless of which data source is used, it seems clear that employment growth is lagging behind growth in the labour force. For example, according to the Census, between 2001 and 2011, labor force growth was 2.23 percent (male and female combined). This is lower than most estimates of employment growth in this decade of closer to 1.4 percent. Creating more rapid employment opportunities is clearly a major policy challenge.”
And these rapid employment opportunities will be created only if more and more products are made in India and not China. For products to be made in India, major labour reforms need to happen.
A report in The Indian Express seems to suggest that the government is working on this front. It is planning to make amendments to the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. The government is also planning to: “codify the Central labour law architecture wherein the labour ministry plans to merge all 44 Central legislations into four codes on labour laws — one each on wages, industrial relations, social security and safety & welfare. Apart from industrial relations and wages, other codes are likely to be released during the course of the year.”
Let’s see how far is it able to go with this. 

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on May 6,2015

One of the best kept secrets of Indian real estate is out…


Vivek Kaul

The Economic Survey for the last financial year states: “Data shows that the first claim upon the savings of households is physical assets such as gold and real estate.”
That Indians love their ‘real estate’ would be like stating the obvious. But sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious as well. Why? That will soon become clear.
AkhileshTilotia, a thematic research analyst with the institutional equities arm of the Kotak Mahindra Group, makes a very interesting point in his new book
The Making of India—Gamechanging Transitions. As he writes: “Thanks to its love for real estate investments, India is in a curious position of having more houses than it has households.”
This becomes clear from the Census 2011 data. “India’s households increased by 60 million to 247 million from 187 million between 2001-2011. Reflecting India’s higher ‘physical’ savings, the number of houses went up by 81 million to 331 million from 250 million. The urban increases is telling: 38 million new houses for 24 million new households,” writes Tilotia.
So what is happening here? One explanation for the number of houses rising faster than the number of households may lie in the fact that houses are being bought as investment and not to be lived in.
What this means is that many Indians own more than one house and then there are many more who do not own any, because prices are way beyond what they can afford. Further, given our penchant for owning real estate, a lot of real estate is being built sheerly from the point of view of fulfilling investment demand.
The Caravan magazine in a 2011 article, when real estate investment was at its peak, quoted Gautam Bhan, a consultant with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, to make this point: “This economy is being built solely on speculation…These properties are being built solely for investment cycles. Why else would you build halfway to Agra? If you have ten businessmen who occasionally want to get rid of black money, you’ll have an apartment building. These flats will be bought and resold and bought and resold. Nobody even needs to live there.”
This is the best possible explanation for why the number of houses has gone up at a much faster pace than the number of households.
Further, those who have black money to hide, don’t bother much about the location of where houses are being built. And that explains why houses even miles away from India’s biggest cities are so expensive.
So what is the way out of this mess? How can houses be built and sold at prices so that people can buy them to live in them? As I have mentioned more than a few times in the past, the government needs to actively go after the black money hidden in physical assets like gold and real estate. There is no point in trying to actively pursue all the black money that has left the country and not do anything about all the black money lying in the country.
A crackdown on black money will lead to better tax compliance, meaning more taxes for the government. Further, it will also bring down the amount of black money that goes into black estate. This is easier said than done and will need solid political will for many years, if it has to be pursued seriously.
Further, it is high time that agricultural income be brought under the tax net. There is no reason that rich farmers should not be paying income tax. In fact, in cities like Shimla, Chandigarh and even the National Capital Region, all the untaxed agricultural income chasing real estate has also been responsible for driving up home prices, among other things.
Ensuring affordable housing becomes available at a large scale level should be a major priority for the Narendra Modi government. As the Economic Survey points out: “Nearly 30 per cent of the country’s population lives in cities and urban areas and this figure is projected to reach 50 per cent in 2030.” If affordable housing does not become the order of the day slums will become as common place in other cities, as they are currently in Mumbai. And that is not a happy thought to look forward to.
Also, as Tilotia points out in his book,
more than three-fourths of urban residents live cheek by jowl in cramped spaces.” This basically happens because of two reasons. The first reason is the low FSI ratio which has made land very expensive. The second reason is “the inability to commute cheaply and quickly, which means that people have to congregate in and around areas where they can find economic activity and public infrastructure.”
If affordable housing has to take off, all this needs to be set right.

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

The column originally appeared on on Feb 18, 2015