Some New Lessons on Jobs from an Old Economist

hyman minsky
Many economists do not write in a language which is easily understandable. While John Maynard Keynes was a terrific writer (he is possibly the only economist who actually came up with one-liners), his magnum opus The General Theory of Money, Interest and Employment, which was published in 1936, isn’t such an easy read.

Believe you me! I have tried reading it several times over the years.

Just because the book isn’t an uneasy read, doesn’t mean that the points it is trying to make are not important. As Paul Samuelson, the first American economist to win a Nobel Prize, wrote about Keynes’ book, in a research paper titled Lord Keynes and the General Theory. As he wrote: “It is a badly written book, poorly organized; any layman who, beguiled by the author’s previous reputation, bought the book was cheated of his five shillings…It is arrogant, bad tempered, polemical and not overly generous in its acknowledgements. It abounds in mares’ nests and confusions…In short, it is a work of genius.”

Another economist whose work is not easy to read is the American economist Hyman Minsky, who died in 1996. The world discovered Minsky and his work in the aftermath of the financial crisis that started in September 2008 and so did I.

I tried reading Minsky’s magnum opus Stabilizing an Unstable Economy but could only read it half way through. I have been lucky to have since discovered other authors and economists who have tried to explain Minsky’s work in a language that I have been able to understand.

Over the last few days I have been reading L Randall Wray’s Why Minsky Matters—An Introduction to the Work of a Maverick Economist. Other than discussing Minsky’s views on banking and the financial system in great detail, Wray also discusses what Minsky thought of unemployment. Minsky’s interest in unemployment primarily came from the fact that he was brought up during The Great Depression, when the United States saw never before seen levels of unemployment and a huge contraction of the economy.

And what did Minsky think of the unemployment problem? As Wray writes: “His argument [i.e. Minsky’s] was that simply increasing the “employability” of the poor by providing training without increasing the supply of jobs would just redistribute unemployment and poverty. For every better trained worker who got a job, a worker with less training would become unemployed. Minsky was not arguing against better education and training—he was arguing that to reduce unemployment and poverty we need more jobs, too.”

Minsky also argued against the idea that “if the economy grows at a sufficiently robust pace, the jobs will automatically appear.” As Wray writes: “The notion that economic growth together with supply-side policies to upgrade workers and provide proper work incentives would be enough to eliminate poverty was recognized by Minsky at the time to be fallacious. Indeed, evidence suggests that economic growth mildly favours the “haves” over the “have-nots”—increasing inequality—and that jobs do not simply trickle down.”
How do things stack up in the Indian context? First and foremost, let’s look at the youth literacy number and how it has changed over the years. As per the Human Development Report, in 1990, the youth literacy rate (i.e. individuals in the age 15 and 24) was at 64.3% in 1990. This improved to 76.4% in 2003. In 2013, the youth literacy rate for men was at 88.4% and for women at 74.4%.

What these data points tell us clearly is that the education level of India’s youth has improved over the years. But has this led to more jobs? Answering this question is a little tricky given how bad Indian data on jobs is.

Nevertheless, as the Economic Survey released in February 2015 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, labour 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.”

Hence, even though the youth education has improved over the years, this hasn’t led to an adequate number of jobs. This is clearly visible in all the engineers and MBAs that we produce without having the right jobs for them.

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.”

This explains why many engineers and MBAs cannot find the right kind of jobs and have to settle for other jobs.

A major reason for the lack of enough jobs is the fact that Indian firms start small and continue to remain small. As Economist Pranab Bardhan writes in Globalisation, Democracy and Corruption: “Take the highly labour-intensive garments industry, for example. A combined dataset [of both the formal and informal sectors] shows that about 92 per cent of garment firms in India have fewer than eight employees.”

It’s only when small firms start to become bigger, will jobs be created. As the Economic Survey points out: “A major impediment to the pace of quality employment generation in India is the small share of manufacturing in total employment…This is significant given that the National Manufacturing Policy 2011 has set a target of creating 100 million jobs by 2022. Promoting growth of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) is critical from the perspective of job creation which has been recognized as a prime mover of the development agenda in India.”

And this, as I keep saying, is easier said than done.

The column originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul Diary on January 20, 2016


1.2 crore vacant homes – This one number tells us all that is wrong with Indian real estate

Vivek Kaul

Anshuman Magazine, chairman and managing director of CBRE South Asia Pvt. Ltd., in a recent article writes that “around 1.2 crore completed houses” are “lying vacant across urban India”. This one number tells us all that is wrong with Indian real estate.
Even though there is a huge housing shortage in urban India, 1.2 crore completed homes are lying vacant. As the latest Economic Survey points out: “At present urban housing shortage is 1.88 crore units.”
So, we have this situation where 1.2 crore completed homes are lying vacant even though there is a housing shortage of 1.88 crore in urban India. What explains this discrepancy? “95.6 per cent [of housing shortage] is in economically weaker sections (EWS) / low income group (LIG) segments,” the Economic Survey points out.
What the huge number of vacant homes also tells us is that real estate companies have been building and selling homes at price points at which there are few takers. Why is that? The answer for that lies in the fact that homes are being built essentially for those who want to invest and speculate.
Hence, investors control the real estate market in India instead of those who want to buy and live in homes. These investors are more comfortable keeping the homes empty and not put them on the rental market. The rental yield (i.e. annual rent dividend by the market price of the home) currently varies between 2-4% depending on which part of the country you live in. Hence, the return is not good enough to compensate for the risks involved in letting the house out on rent. Given this, a lot of homes are bought and then stay locked.
The next question that crops up is why is there so much investment demand for homes? The simple answer is that the amount of black money that is being generated has gone up tremendously over the years. Global Financial Integrity estimates that between 2003 and 2012, the total amount of black money leaving the country jumped from $10.1 billion to $94.8 billion, a jump of more than 9 times.
No reliable estimates are available for the total amount of black money that would have been generated during the same period.
But what this tells us is that the amount of black money being generated has grown up manifold over the years. It is safe to say that a lot of this black money has found its way into real estate, where it is very easy to park black money. And this has pushed up real estate prices to levels at which most people cannot afford to buy a home to live in. The buying and selling of real estate is now a game played majorly between the black money wallahs.
As a recent study by the business lobby FICCI titled A Study On Widening Of Tax Base And Tackling Black Money published in February 2015 points out: “The Real Estate sector in India constitutes for about 11 % of the GDP15 of Indian Economy, as these transactions involve high transaction value. In the year 2012-13, Real Estate sector has been considered as the highest parking space for black money.”
And this has led to a situation where we have more than a crore homes where no one is living. AkhileshTilotia, makes a similar point in his 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.
Unless the black money menace is brought under control, homes will continue to remain locked and unaffordable for most Indians. Further, renting has to be made an attractive option for those owning homes. As Magazine of CBRE points out: “The Rent Control Act 1992 is slightly skewed towards tenant protection, and is aimed at controlling rent. It tries to protect tenants from eviction and from having to pay more than a fair/standard rent amount. The Act may need to be revisited to make rental housing attractive enough for landlords as well.”
If more homes at affordable price points do not become available in the years to come, more and more of our cities will become slums. 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.”
Now that is something worth worrying about.

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

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on Apr 30, 2015 

Economic survey: Are stalled projects at Rs 8.8 lakh crore or Rs 18 lakh crore?


Vivek Kaul

Good decision making is also a function of access to good data. The quality of economic data in India has improved significantly over the years, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. Allow me to explain.
In the Mid Year Economic Analysis released by the ministry of finance in December 2014 it was stated: “There are stalled projects to the tune of Rs 18 lakh crore (about 13 percent of GDP) of which an estimated 60 percent are in infrastructure.”
The Economic Survey which was also released by the ministry of finance today states: “The stock of stalled projects at the end of December 2014 stood at Rs 8.8 lakh crore or 7 per cent of GDP.” The Economic Survey number is lower by Rs 9.2 lakh crore.
The question is how did the stock of stalled projects change so much in a matter of little over two months? The Mid Year Economic Analysis was released on December 19, 2014. Both these documents would have been authored by the Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian. Guess, only he can tell us why there is such a big difference in the stalled projects data between the two documents.
Nevertheless, if we were to ignore this huge difference and concentrate just on the number put out by the Economic Survey, there is some good news on the stalled projects front.
The Economic Survey defines stalling of projects as a “a term synonymous with large economic undertakings in infrastructure, manufacturing, mining, power, etc.”
The stalling rate of projects has gone up over the last few years. In 2008, the stalling rate was 4% i.e. for every Rs 100 worth of projects under implementation, Rs 4 worth of projects were stalled. For the private sector the stalling rate was 5%.
As of the end of December 2014, the overall stalling rate was 10.3%, whereas the number for the private sector stood at 16%. Hence, for every Rs 100 worth of projects under implementation, Rs 10.3 worth of projects have been stalled. For the private sector Rs 16 worth of projects out of Rs 100 worth of projects under implementation have been stalled.
Interestingly, “the data shows that manufacturing and infrastructure dominate in the private sector, and manufacturing dominates in total value of stalled projects even over infrastructure. The government’s stalled projects are predominantly in infrastructure.”
This has been the “leading reason behind the decline in gross fixed capital formation”.
As points out: “Capital formation refers to net additions of capital stock such as equipment, buildings and other intermediate goods. A nation uses capital stock in combination with labour to provide services and produce goods; an increase in this capital stock is known as capital formation…Generally, the higher the capital formation of an economy, the faster an economy can grow its aggregate income. Increasing an economy’s capital stock also increases its capacity for production, which means an economy can produce more. Producing more goods and services can lead to an increase in national income levels.”
Hence, if economic growth has to return (as per the new GDP series it already has) the stalling rate of projects needs to fall, so that it leads higher capital formation and better incomes. The Economic Survey points out that things may have already started to improve on this front. “The good news is that the rate of stalling seems to have plateaued in the last three quarters. Moreover, the stock of stalled projects has come down to about 7 per cent of the GDP at the end of the third quarter of 2014-15 from 8.3 per cent the previous year,” the survey points out. The stalling rate has fallen from around 11% in December 2013 to 10.3% in December 2014.
While this is good news, the stalling rate still needs to come down dramatically before a substantial impact is seen on economic growth. In fact during the period 2006 to 2008, the stalling rate varied between a little over 2% and 4%. It needs to be brought down to that kind of level.
Further, the question is why have so many projects been stalled? The Economic Survey provides the answer: “It is clear that private projects are held up overwhelmingly due to market conditions and non-regulatory factors whereas the government projects are stalled due to lack of required clearances.”
The government clearances can come thick and fast, if the government wants them to. As the Survey points out: “Clearing the top 100 stalled projects will address 83 per cent of the problem of stalled projects by value.”
Nevertheless, there is not much hope for the private sector. What has not helped the private sector is the fact that it is terribly over-leveraged (i.e. it has taken on a massive amount of debt in comparison to the equity that it has). “An unambiguous fact emerging from the data is that the debt to equity for Indian non-financial corporates has been rising at a fairly alarming rate,” the Survey points out. This is something that cannot be set right overnight.
The declining stalling rate of projects offers some hope on the economic front, but the larger mess still remains.

The column originally appeared on on Mar 3, 2015

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

Of budget, black money and housing

India-Real-Estate-MarketVivek Kaul

Arun Jaitley’s second budget as finance minister was slightly high on the policy front. One of the things that Jaitley talked about was tackling the black money menace in the country. This was the first time anyone from the Modi government has talked comprehensively about the black money within the country. Before this, the entire focus was on getting back the black money which has left the shores of the country. Focusing on black money in the country makes more sense simply because it would be easier to recover.
Jaitley announced a spate of measures in the budget to curb domestic black money (though he announced many more to curb black money leaving the country). He said: “a new and more comprehensive Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Bill will be introduced in the current session of the Parliament…This law will enable confiscation of benami property and provide for prosecution, thus blocking a major avenue for generation and holding of black money in the form of benami property, especially in real estate.”
The finance minister also said that the Income Tax Act would amended to “prohibit acceptance or payment of an advance of Rs 20,000 or more in cash for purchase of immovable property.” How will this provision be implemented remains to be seen.
Further, quoting of the permanent account number(PAN) has been made mandatory for purchase or sale exceeding the value of Rs 1 lakh. This is a good move. In fact, it would have been an even better move if Aadhar cards were made compulsory for real estate transactions, given that it is a tad easier to fudge the PAN card in comparison to the Aadhar card.
The ministry of finance now also plans to use technology to improve tax enforcement. As Jaitley said: “To improve enforcement, Central Board of Direct Taxes(CBDT) and Central Board of Excise and Customs(CBEC) will leverage technology and have access to information in each other’s database.”
The move to leverage technology is very interesting. In the February 2013 budget speech, the then finance minister P Chidambaram had estimated that India had only 42,800 people with a taxable income of Rs 1 crore or more. Contrast this with the fact that more than 30,000 luxury cars are sold in India every year. Both Audi and Mercedes sold more than 10,000 cars in India in 2014.
What this clearly tells us is that a lot of Indians are not paying their taxes properly. And technology can help in narrowing down who these people are.
Income on which taxes are not paid ends up as black money. A lot of black money that is generated finds it’s way into real estate in
benami form. This is the major reason why real estate prices do not fall, despite sales having come to a standstill for a while now.
Further, once black money enters real estate it tends to generate more black money. Consider this—an individual buys a house for Rs 50 lakh, of which he pays 30% or Rs 15 lakh in black. The proportion could be higher or lower depending on which part of the country the individual is in. The black money portion tends to be on the higher side in the national capital territory. The same cannot be said about cities like Bangalore.
Getting back to the example. Let’s say a few years later the price has gone up to Rs 1 crore. The individual now sells the home and gets Rs 30 lakh in black, which is 100% more than what he started with. This amount then finds its way back again into real estate.
This phenomenon has led to a situation where a huge portion of the homes being built are just being built so that investors can hide their black money. This essentially ensures that those who want to buy homes to live in simply can’t afford them. As the latest Economic Survey points out: “The widening gap between demand and supply of housing units and affordable housing finance solutions is a major policy concern for India. At present urban housing shortage is 18.8 million units of which 95.6 per cent is in economically weaker sections (EWS) / low income group (LIG) segments and requires huge financial investment to overcome.” The housing shortage in rural India stands at 43.1 million homes.
A recent report by Liases Foras, a real estate research and rating company, put the weighted average price of a flat in Mumbai at Rs 1.32 crore. For the National Capital Territory the price was around Rs 75 lakh. Even in a smaller metro like Pune, the average price was around Rs 57 lakh.
Most Indians can’t afford these kind of prices. Akhilesh Tilotia in his new book
The Making of India, makes an estimate of the price range at which homes will be affordable: “A large portion of the unmet housing needs are at an economic value of Rs 5-10 lakh. Assuming that households of five members can crowd into space of between 250-400 sq ft, housing stock in the range of Rs 1,250-Rs 4,000 per sq ft will be needed.” What this clearly shows is that homes that are currently being built in cities are way beyond what most people can afford.
And this explains why “real estate and ownership of dwelling” constitute only “7.8 per cent of India’s GDP in 2013-14”. In comparison, as data from the National Housing Bank shows, China was at 20%, Malaysia at 29% and the United States at 81%. This number needs to go up in the years to come. And the only way that is possible is if affordable homes become available.
In order to ensure that the nexus between real estate and black money needs to be broken down, so that builders start making homes for people to live in. Whether Jaitley’s efforts bear some fruit remains to be seen, given that many real estate companies are essentially fronts for politicians to hide their ill-gotten wealth.
The last financial year’s Economic Survey made a very interesting point: “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 homes are not built, where will all these people live?

The column originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis dated Mar 3, 2015 

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

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