‘Many managers are suckers for the guru who can provide the philosopher’s stone’


Managers like all of us are also suckers for easy answers. “Management as a discipline is in very early stages of development. The equivalent would be the subject of chemistry as it was in the fifteenth-sixteenth century when it was alchemy. For centuries people were looking for the philosopher’s stone which was some kind of catalyst which could turn base metal into gold. Management is a bit like that. So many managers are suckers for the guru who can provide the simple answer,” says Robert Grant. He is a professor of strategic management and holder of the ENI Chair of Strategic Management in the Energy Sector at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. He is currently in India teaching a course on strategy to the first batch of students at the Mumbai International School of Business, an initiative of the SDA Bocconi School of Management in India. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
You have talked about the fact that the knowledge and insight needed to make sound strategic decisions and guide the development of their organisations is best served by strategy teaching that is rooted in theory. What do you mean by that?
Some people would reject the whole notion of business education. Some would say that the best way to become a successful manager is to learn on the job i.e. there is no substitute for experience. Part of the whole notion of having a business school is to say that actually there are principles, and there are things that can be learnt from an analytical approach.
Can you explain this through an example?
You have individuals who appear to be successful managers and the question is what can we learn from them. Can we in anyway generalize about this? So you look at Apple and you say is Apple all about Steve Jobs? Then what was his leadership style? Here is a quirky individualistic, unconventional and a very autocratic management style. And you ask why has this worked? You look at a different company like IBM and its former CEO Sam Palmisano, who had a very different leadership style. You start looking at all these examples and say can we see patterns. Can we see something that we can generalize? Soresearch tries to generalise for this diversity of experience and then the teaching says that here are some principles that we can start applying.
You talked about Steve Jobs and Sam Palmisano two people with very different leadership styles. Which style works more often than not?
Palmisano fits in with a more observable trend you are seeing in large companies where leaders are becoming less the people who make the key decisions. The problem is that most organisations are so complex that the CEO knows maybe 2% of what is going on in that organisation. Also these days businesses have to respond so quickly that they can’t wait for the stuff to get to the CEO level before decisions can be made. So you have to have highly decentralized decision making. So what then is the role of the CEO? Increasingly the role of the CEO is to manage culture and manage the development of people within the organisation, rather than to take the role of the decision maker.
So where does that leave the likes of Jobs?
In many ways Jobs may well have been the one of the last of the old school. This was somebody who was very very hands on. In the early days he was the designer. At one level he was the Chairman of Apple Computers but he was also the project leader on the projects. He was very deeply involved in tiny details which he was incredibly emotionally attached to. So I think in terms of models of leadership probably companies are making some serious mistakes if they say the Jobs way is the way to go.
At some level he was also the biggest marketer of his company…
Yup. He was a great marketing guy because he was the founder of this incredibly successful company that was a major part of a social revolution that took computing, something that had been dominated by governments and large corporations, and taken it down to young people. He empowered young people.
So how do you see Apple performing now that he is not there to lead them?
The case with Apple is like all companies that have visionary powerful founders who go on to be their leaders. The key is can that intuition and vision of the founder, become embodied in the capabilities of the firm. The fact is that Jobs had from several years before his death increasingly distancing himself as the chief decision maker of the firm. This must mean that in terms of the culture of the company, the systems by which the products are designed, how they understand the market, technology, their users, and many of the intuitive level skills that Jobs had, have actually become embodied in the capabilities of the organisation. It’s the same with every entrepreneurial company. Can the company make the transition from a company which is entrepreneur led, family led, into an organisation which is professionally managed but has managed to embody those skills.
Does that happen?
It does happen. You look at Walt Disney. The values and the quest for quality entertainment orientated towards children and families is something that has become embodied in the set of capabilities at Disney. Wal-Mart has a culture where cost efficiency is almost like a religion. Avoiding all waste and looking for new solutions to keep costs down, was something that was a part of the protestant upbringing of Sam Walton. But it has been transferred into the company. So I think it does happen. And it has to happen if the company is going to make that transition.
In one of your research papers you write “I frequently observe a propensity to fall back on ideas and beliefs that amount to little more than folk wisdom.” Could you talk about that in a little detail?
Management as a discipline is in very early stages of development. The equivalent would be the subject of chemistry as it was in the fifteenth-sixteenth century when it was alchemy. For centuries people were looking for the philosopher’s stone which was some kind of catalyst which could turn base metal into gold. Management is a bit like that. So many managers are suckers for the guru who can provide the simple answer. Hence, all the time you have people coming up with the philosopher’s stone. These fads in management come and go. Go back to the late 1970s and the early 1980s market share was the in thing. If you need to get anywhere in business you need to have market share was the in thing. The way to get market share is penetration pricing. This is what the Japanese companies were doing. So that was the sort of thinking that dominated that era. It made sense but not in others. Since then we have had wave after wave of notions, typically given tremendous appeal by the fact that people espoused them are usually fantastic performers. People like Tom Peters for example.
I was about to take his name…
HaHa. To give them their credit most of them have a key value but it is all within a context. One of the ones that was most influential was CK Prahalad and his core competence of the corporation. For many business leaders this was a kind of a revelation that rather than going out there thinking about what does the customer want, it made more sense to start looking inside, what the hell do you well as a company? The article was written 22 years ago and now you look back and say, core competence, that is just one single thing. Now when you look at companies you say there is a whole network of things and the key is the way in which they all fit together. The tremendous danger is this belief that there can be a single idea that provides a universal solution.
How does folk wisdom prevalent in organisations at various points of time influences decisions made by senior executives in companies?
If you look at the lead up to the financial services crisis a phenomenon that you saw particularly among the retail banks was internationalizing. So nearly all the US banks, and major European banks said, we have to have a position in China. They bought minority stakes typically in Chinese banks. Look at Royal Bank of Scotland, which was a Scottish bank, and present only in Scotland. Then it acquired NatWest in Britain. Then they started acquiring banks elsewhere in Europe, in United States and Asia as well. Bank of Santander did the same thing. HSBC internationalized as well. Other banks like the UniCredit Bank started to say we need to get into the game. I remember having this executive seminar with one of the Italian banks and I asked them what are you doing right now? And I was told we are internationalizing. And when I asked them why? Because we are living in a global world, was the answer that came along. So what? This sort of notion of globalisation just takes hold of people and it almost becomes an excuse for not really thinking about what really makes sense.
So globalisation is the current fad…
It is one of the current fads. The question that needs to be asked is globalisation creating any value for many businesses? In the case of retail banking you acquire banks in different countries. Then you ask are there any benefits of having them under common ownership? For starters you have to put them under the same brand. But then the regulations in different countries are different. Hence banks in different countries have to be separately funded. They have to meet the reserve requirements specific to that country. The markets are very often different and so you can’t launch the same products. So you say, well hang on, does this make sense? The same is true about telecom. Vodafone is the most international company and yet in every country it has to acquire licenses, has to establish structure etc. So the question is where are the economies of scale? So they say, maybe the economies are in sourcing. And then you start sourcing phones on a global scale. But in Japan they want Japanese phones simply because those phones had higher standards than what consumers in the UK were happy with. So you start saying where is the value being added here?
Vodafone hasn’t been doing terribly well in India…
Another of the link to this globalisation is to say where do we need to be internationally? Emerging markets. Why do you need to be in emerging markets? Because that’s where the growth is. But growth doesn’t necessarily mean profitability. All those banks that went into China most of them have sold of their holdings now. The car companies are still rushing into China building plants. In China they growth of capacity in automobiles is faster than the growth of demand. So you have the same excess capacity that you have in Europe and North America and so most of these companies are not making money in China. When it comes to telecom the emerging markets are pretty much close to saturation. India has a brutally competitive market in telecom. This is not a market where France Telecom or AT&T can say hey if we move in we are going to make a lot of money. To a lot of extent there is this sort of naïve thinking that just because you are in a growth market you are going to make money.
What has been the impact of increased volatility and unpredictability of the business environment in the last few years upon the strategic planning processes of companies?
What this means that you can’t forecast. So you have to have a planning system which is based upon the notion that actually you don’t really know, what is going to happen next week, let alone next year. And that is a major challenge. Though you don’t know what the environment is going to be you still need to make investments. The oil companies are making investments in oil fields and majorly into gas fields. These fields aren’t going to come on stream for another six, seven, eight years and then they are going to last for another 20-30 years. But nobody knows what the price of gas is going to be in six month’s time, let alone in ten years.
So the companies need to function more and more like venture capitalists?
I think you are onto something here. What companies increasingly need to do is not so much as manage a portfolio of major businesses necessarily, but at least have a portfolio of options. So they are looking at the future and saying we don’t know what is going to happen. But maybe we can engage in some in alternative scenarios now and make relatively small investments, so that if the market develops in this way, we can expand on that base and really exploit that opportunity.
Can you give an example to explain that?
Some of the technology companies are quite good at this. If you look at Google and ask what is it doing, you realise that wow it’s all over the place. And yet it is doing things that make sense in an environment of uncertain change. It started Android its mobile device operating system with the realisation that even though it was dominating search within PCs, laptops and so on, the internet access was increasingly going to move to mobile devices in the days to come. So that was a threat to Google because the question was that would these mobile devices be compatible with the Google search engine? So they decided that maybe if we have our own operating system then we can ensure all our applications are going to run on it. Then of course RIM and then Apple became the dominant players in the mobile business. Apple likes its close garden. It likes to control its own applications through its own app store and so on.
So what happened?
Google exercised the Android option, which was basically an embryonic protocol operating system. It then said we are going to launch this, we are going to invest in this, we are going to talk to major handset makers and provide them with the necessary tools to support it and so on. This despite the fact that Android was free and Google wasn’t making any money out of it. But it became a way of ensuring that their Google search engine and other Google products could make their movement into the mobile sector. Then they start saying what are the threats that we face in terms of our desktop applications? We are dependant upon Microsoft because our search engine runs on the Microsoft browser, internet explorer. It also runs on the Microsoft operating system. So again they said lets introduce Chrome. It’s an option. It’s not a massive investment. But it’s their own browser. And then they came up with the Chrome operating system as well. And it becomes an alternative. In fact they haven’t had to make a massive investment in rollout because Firefox’s Mozilla has eroded Microsoft’s clout and Microsoft is no longer dominant in the browser business. That’s one way of interpreting what companies are doing.
This approach you talk about might be possible in technology because expenses are not huge. But what about other businesses?
You look at the oil business. Nobody knows what the price of oil is going to be. Nobody knows if the House of Sa’ud is going to fall. Maybe that could be next domino. Nobody knows if the Israelis are going to bomb the hell out of Iran. So there is all that uncertainty in this business. So companies are hedging their bets. They are making investments in shale gas. They are taking minority stakes. The Chinese are taking stakes in the oil sands of Canada. But most of those are just minority stakes. But it’s enough for them to say that if it looks like that we are going to lose a lot of our upstream oil reserves, if the price of oil is going to rocket, then we are in a position now to understand enough about this business either to expand it internally or acquire a majority stake. Just looking at the options approach it means that you are building flexibility. It is building your ability to adapt.
(The interview originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on August 20,2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_many-managers-are-suckers-for-the-guru-who-can-provide-the-philosophers-stone_1730122))
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

'You can shut the equity market, India would still be doing fine'


Have you ever heard someone call equity a short term investment class? Chances are no. “I have always had this notion for many years that people buy equities because they like to be excited. It’s not just about the returns they make out of it… You can build a case for equities on a three year basis. But long term investing is all rubbish, I have never believed in it,” says Shankar Sharma, vice-chairman & joint managing director, First Global. In this freewheeling
interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
Six months into the year, what’s your take on equities now?
Globally markets are looking terrible, particularly emerging markets. Just about every major country you can think of is stalling in terms of growth. And I don’t see how that can ever come back to the go-go years of 2003-2007. The excesses are going to take an incredible amount of time to work their way out. They are not even prepared to work off the excesses, so that’s the other problem.
Why do you say that?
If you look at the pattern in the European elections the incumbents lost because they were trying to push for austerity. And the more leftist parties have come to power. Now leftists are usually the more austere end of the political spectrum. But they have been voted to power, paradoxically, because they are promising less austerity. All the major nations in the world are democracies barring China. And that’s the whole problem. You can’t push through austerity that easily in a democracy, but that is what is really needed. Even China cannot push through austerity because of a powder-keg social situation. And I find it very strange when people criticise India for subsidies and all that. India is far less profligate than many nations including China.
Can you elaborate on that?
Every country has to subsidise, be it farm subsidies in the West or manufacturing subsidies in China, because ultimately whether you are a capitalist or a communist, people are people. They don’t necessarily change their views depending on which political ideology is at the centre. They ultimately want freebies and handouts. In a country like India, they don’t even want handouts they just want subsistence, given the level of poverty. The only thing that you can do with subsidies is to figure out how to control them. But a lot of it is really out of your control. If you have a global inflation in food prices or oil prices you are not increasing the quantum in volume terms of the subsidy. But because of price inflation, the number inflates. So why blame India? I find it absurd that the Financial Times or the Economist are perennially anti-India. They just isolate India and say that it has got wasteful expenditure programmes. A lot of countries hide things. India, unfortunately, is far more transparent in its reporting. It is easy to pick holes when you are transparent. China gives no transparency so people assume that whatever is inside the black box must be okay. That said, I firmly believe the UID program, when fully implemented, will make subsidies go lower by cutting out bogus recipients.
If increased austerity is not a solution, where does that leave us?
Increased austerity, while that is a solution, it is not achievable. If that is not possible what is the solution? You then have a continual stream of increasing debt in one form or the other, keep calling it a variety of names. But you just keep kicking the can down the road for somebody else to deal with it as long as the voter is happy. Given this, I don’t see how you can have any resurgence. Risk appetite is what drives equity markets. Otherwise you and I would be buying bonds all the time. In today’s environment and in the foreseeable future, we are overfed with risk. Where is the appetite to take more risk and go, buy equities?
So are you suggesting that people won’t be buying stocks?
Well you can get pretty good returns in fixed income. Instead of buying emerging-market stocks if you buy bonds of good companies, you can get 6-7% dollar yield, and if you leverage yourself two times or something, you are talking about annual returns of 14-15% dollar returns. You can’t beat that by buying equities, boss! Even if you did beat that by buying equities, let’s say you made 20%, it is not a predictable 20%, which has been my case for a long time against equities. Equities are a western fashion. I have always had this notion for many years that people buy equities because they like to be excited. It’s not just about the returns they make out of it: it is about the whole entertainment quotient attached to stock investing that drives investors. There is 24-hour television. Tickers. Cocktail discussions. Compared with that, bonds are so boring and uncool. Purely financially, shorn of all hype, equities have never been able to build a case for themselves on a ten-year return basis. You can build a case for equities on a three-year basis. But long-term investing is all rubbish, I have never believed in it.
So investing regularly in equities, doing SIPs, buying Ulips, doesn’t make sense?
I don’t buy the whole logic of long-term equity investing because equity investing comes with a huge volatility attached to it. People just say “equities have beaten bonds”. But even in India they have not. Also people never adjust for the volatility of equity returns. So if you make 15% in equity and let’s say, in a country like India, you make 10% in bonds – that’s about what you might have averaged over a 15-20 year period because in the 1990s we had far higher interest rates. Interest rates have now climbed back to that kind of level of 9-10%. Divide that by the standard deviation of the returns and you will never find a good case for equities over a long-term period. So equity is actually a short-term instrument. Anybody who tells you otherwise is really bluffing you. All the fancy graphs and charts are rubbish.
Are they?
Yes. They are all massaged with sort of selective use of data to present a certain picture because it’s a huge industry which feeds off it globally. So you have brokers like us. You have investment bankers. You have distributors. We all feed off this. Ultimately we are a burden on the investor, and a greater burden on society — which is also why I believe that the best days of financial services is behind us: the market simply won’t pay such high costs for such little value added. Whatever little return that the little guy gets is taken away by guys like us. How is the investor ever going to make money, adjusted for volatility, adjusted for the huge cost imposed on him to access the equity markets? It just doesn’t add up. The customer never owns a yacht. And separately, I firmly believe making money in the markets is largely a game of luck. Even the best investors, including Buffet, have a strike rate of no more than 50-60% right calls. Would you entrust your life to a surgeon with that sort of success rate?! You’d be nuts to do that. So why should we revere gurus who do just about as well as a coin-flipper. Which is why I am always mystified why so many fund managers are so arrogant. We mistake luck for competence all the time. Making money requires plain luck. But hanging onto that money is where you require skill. So the way I look at it is that I was lucky that I got 25 good years in this equity investing game thanks to Alan Greenspan who came in the eighties and pumped up the whole global appetite for risk. Those days are gone. I doubt if you are going to see a broad bull market emerging in equities for a while to come.
And this is true for both the developing and the developed world?
If anything it is truer for the developing world because as it is, emerging market investors are more risk-averse than the developed-world investors. We see too much of risk in our day to day lives and so we want security when it comes to our financial investing. Investing in equity is a mindset. That when I am secure, I have got good visibility of my future, be it employment or business or taxes, when all those things are set, then I say okay, now I can take some risk in life. But look across emerging markets, look at Brazil’s history, look at Russia’s history, look at India’s history, look at China’s history, do you think citizens of any of these countries can say I have had a great time for years now? That life has been nice and peaceful? I have a good house with a good job with two kids playing in the lawn with a picket fence? Sorry, boss, that has never happened.
And the developed world is different?
It’s exactly the opposite in the west. Rightly or wrongly, they have been given a lifestyle which was not sustainable, as we now know. But for the period it sustained, it kind of bred a certain amount of risk-taking because life was very secure. The economy was doing well. You had two cars in the garage. You had two cute little kids playing in the lawn. Good community life. Lots of eating places. You were bred to believe that life is going to be good so hence hey, take some risk with your capital.
The government also encouraged risk taking?
The government and Wall Street are in bed in the US. People were forced to invest in equities under the pretext that equities will beat bonds. They did for a while. Nevertheless, if you go back thirty years to 1982, when the last bull market in stocks started in the United States and look at returns since then, bonds have beaten equities. But who does all this math? And Americans are naturally more gullible to hype. But now western investors and individuals are now going to think like us. Last ten years have been bad for them and the next ten years look even worse. Their appetite for risk has further diminished because their picket fences, their houses all got mortgaged. Now they know that it was not an American dream, it was an American nightmare.
At the beginning of the year you said that the stock market in India will do really well…
At the beginning of the year our view was that this would be a breakaway year for India versus the emerging market pack. In terms of nominal returns India is up 13%. Brazil is down 3%. China is down, Russia is also down. The 13% return would not be that notable if everything was up 15% and we were up 25%. But right now, we are in a bear market and in that context, a 13-15% outperformance cannot be scoffed off at.
What about the rupee? Your thesis was that it will appreciate…
Let me explain why I made that argument. We were very bearish on China at the beginning of the year. Obviously when you are bearish on China, you have to be bearish on commodities. When you are bearish on commodities then Russia and Brazil also suffer. In fact, it is my view that Russia, China, Brazil are secular shorts, and so are industrial commodities: we can put multi-year shorts on them. So that’s the easy part of the analysis. The other part is that those weaknesses help India because we are consumers of commodities at the margin. The only fly in the ointment was the rupee. I still maintain that by the end of the year you are going to see a vastly stronger rupee. I believe it will be Rs 44-45 against the dollar. Or if you are going to say that is too optimistic may be Rs 47-48. But I don’t think it’s going to be Rs 60-65 or anything like that. At the beginning of the year our view that oil prices will be sharply lower. That time we were trading at around $105-110 per barrel. Our view was that this year we would see oil prices of around $65-75. So we almost got to $77 per barrel (Nymex). We have bounced back a bit. But that’s okay. Our view still remains that you will see oil prices being vastly lower this year and next year as well, which is again great news for India. Gold imports, which form a large part of the current account deficit, shorn of it, we have a current account deficit of around 1.5% of the GDP or maybe 1%. We imported around $60 billion or so of gold last year. Our call was that people would not be buying as much gold this year as they did last year. And so far the data suggests that gold imports are down sharply.
So there is less appetite for gold?
Yes. In rupee terms the price of gold has actually gone up. So there is far less appetite for gold. I was in Dubai recently which is a big gold trading centre. It has been an absolute massacre there with Indians not buying as much gold as they did last year. Oil and gold being major constituents of the current account deficit our argument was that both of those numbers are going to be better this year than last year. Based on these facts, a 55/$ exchange rate against the dollar is not sustainable in my view. The underlyings have changed. I don’t think the current situation can sustain and the rupee has to strengthen. And strengthen to Rs 44, 45 or 46, somewhere in that continuum, during the course of the year. Imagine what that does to the equity market. That has a big, big effect because then foreign investors sitting in the sidelines start to play catch-up.
Does the fiscal deficit worry you?
It is not the deficit that matters, but the resultant debt that is taken on to finance the deficit. India’s debt to GDP ratio has been superb over the last 8-9 years. Yes, we have got persistent deficits throughout but our debt to GDP ratio was 90-95% in 2003, that’s down to maybe 65% now. So explain that to me? The point is that as long as the deficit fuels growth, that growth fuels tax collections, those tax collections go and give you better revenues, the virtuous cycle of a deficit should result in a better debt to GDP situation. India’s deficit has actually contributed to the lowering of the debt burden on the national exchequer. The interest payments were 50% of the budgetary receipts 7-8 years back. Now they are about 32-33%. So you have basically freed up 17% of the inflows and this the government has diverted to social schemes. And these social schemes end up producing good revenues for a lot of Indian companies. The growth for fast-moving consumer goods, mobile telephony, two wheelers and even Maruti cars, largely comes from semi-urban, semi-rural or even rural India.
What are you trying to suggest?
This growth is coming from social schemes being run by the government. These schemes have pushed more money in the hands of people. They go out and consume more. Because remember that they are marginal people and there is a lot of pent-up desire to consume. So when they get money they don’t actually save it, they consume it. That has driven the bottomlines of all FMCG and rural serving companies. And, interestingly, rural serving companies are high-tax paying companies. Bajaj Auto, Hindustan Lever or ITC pay near-full taxes, if not full taxes. This is a great thing because you are pushing money into the hands of the rural consumer. The rural consumer consumes from companies which are full taxpayers. That boosts government revenues. So if you boost consumption it boosts your overall fiscal situation. It’s a wonderful virtuous cycle — I cannot criticise it at all. What has happened in past two years is not representative. It is only because of the higher oil prices and food prices that the fiscal deficit has gone up.
What is your take on interest rates?
I have been very critical of the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) policies in the last two years or so. We were running at 8-8.5% economic growth last year. Growth, particularly in the last two or three years, has been worth its weight in gold. In a global economic boom, an economic growth of 8%, 7% or 9% doesn’t really matter. But when the world is slowing down, in fact growth in large parts of the world has turned negative, to kill that growth by raising the interest rate is inhuman. It is almost like a sin. And they killed it under the very lofty ideal that we will tame inflation by killing growth. But if you have got a matriculation degree, you will understand that India’s inflation has got nothing to do with RBI’s policies. Your inflation is largely international commodity price driven. Your local interest rate policies have got nothing to do with that. We have seen that inflation has remained stubbornly high no matter what Mint Street has done. You should have understood this one commonsensical thing. In fact, growth is the only antidote to inflation in a country like India. When you have economic growth, average salaries and wages, kind of lead that. So if your nominal growth is 15%, you will 10-20% salary and wage hikes – we have seen that in the growth years in India. Then you have more purchasing power left in the hands of the consumer to deal with increased price of dal or milk or chicken or whatever it is. If the wage hikes don’t happen, you are leaving less purchasing power in the hands of people. And wage hikes won’t happen if you have killed economic growth. I would look at it in a completely different way. The RBI has to be pro-growth because they no control of inflation.
So they basically need to cut the repo rate?
They have to.
But will that have an impact? Because ultimately the government is the major borrower in the market right now…
Look, again, this is something that I said last year — that it is very easy to kill growth but to bring it back again is a superhuman task because life is only about momentum. The laws of physics say that you have to put in a lot of effort to get a stalled car going, yaar. But if it was going at a moderate pace, to accelerate is not a big issue. We have killed that whole momentum. And remember that 5-6%, economic growth, in my view, is a disastrous situation for a country like India. You can’t say we are still growing. 8% was good. 9% was great. But 4-5% is almost stalling speed for an economy of our kind. So in my view the car is at a standstill. Now you need to be very aggressive on a variety of fronts be it government policy or monetary policy.
What about the government borrowings?
The government’s job has been made easy by the RBI by slowing down credit growth. There are not many competing borrowers from the same pool of money that the government borrows from. So far, indications are that the government will be able to get what it wants without disturbing the overall borrowing environment substantially. Overall bond yields in India will go sharply lower given the slowdown in credit growth. So in a strange sort of way the government’s ability to borrow has been enhanced by the RBI’s policy of killing growth. I always say that India is a land of Gods. We have 33 crore Gods and Goddesses. They find a way to solve our problems.
So how long is it likely to take for the interest rates to come down?
The interest rate cycle has peaked out. I don’t think we are going to see any hikes for a long time to come. And we should see aggressive cuts in the repo rate this year. Another 150 basis points, I would not rule out. Manmohan Singh might have just put in the ears of Subbarao that it’s about time that you woke up and smelt the coffee. You have no control over inflation. But you have control over growth, at least peripherally. At least do what you can do, instead of chasing after what you can’t do.
Manmohan Singh in his role as a finance minister is being advised by C Rangarajan, Montek Singh Ahulwalia and Kaushik Basu. How do you see that going?
I find that economists don’t do basic maths or basic financial analysis of macro data. Again, to give you the example of the fiscal deficit and I am no economist. All I kept hearing was fiscal deficit, fiscal deficit, fiscal deficit. I asked my economist: screw this number and show me how the debt situation in India has panned out. And when I saw that number, I said: what are people talking about? If your debt to GDP is down by a third, why are people focused on the intermediate number? But none of these economists I ever heard them say that India’s debt to GDP ratio is down. I wrote to all of them, please, for God’s sake, start talking about it. Then I heard Kaushik Basu talk about it. If a fool like me can figure this out, you are doing this macro stuff 24×7. You should have had this as a headline all the time. But did you ever hear of this? Hence I am not really impressed who come from abroad and try to advise us. But be that as it may it is better to have them than an IAS officer doing it. I will take this.
You talked about equity being a short-term investment class. So which stocks should an Indian investor be betting his money right now?
I am optimistic about India within the context of a very troubled global situation. And I do believe that it’s not just about equity markets but as a nation we are destined for greatness. You can shut down the equity markets and India would still be doing what it is supposed to do. But coming from you I find it a little strange…
I have always believed that equity markets are good for intermediaries like us. And I am not cribbing. It’s been good to me. But I have to be honest. I have made a lot of money in this business doesn’t mean all investors have made a lot of money. At least we can be honest about it. But that said, I am optimistic about Indian equities this year. We will do well in a very, very tough year. At the beginning of the year, I thought we will go to an all-time high. I still see the market going up 10-15% from the current levels.
So basically you see the Sensex at around 19,000?
At the beginning of the year, you would have taken it when the Sensex was at 15,000 levels. Again, we have to adjust our sights downwards. A drought angle has come up which I think is a very troublesome situation. And that’s very recent. In light of that I do think we will still do okay, it will definitely not be at the new high situation.
What stocks are you bullish on?
We had been bearish on infrastructure for a very long time, from the top of the market in 2007 till the bottom in December last year. We changed our view in December and January on stocks like L&T, Jaiprakash Industries and IVRCL. Even though the businesses are not, by and large, of good quality — I am not a big believer in buying quality businesses. I don’t believe that any business can remain a quality business for a very long period of time. Everything has a shelf life. Every business looks quality at a given point of time and then people come and arbitrage away the returns. So there are no permanent themes. And we continue to like these stocks. We have liked PSU banks a lot this year, because we see bond yields falling sharply this year.
Aren’t bad loans a huge concern with these banks?
There is a company in Delhi — I won’t name it. This company has been through 3-4 four corporate debt restructurings. It is going to return the loans in the next year or two. If this company can pay back, there is no problem of NPAs, boss. The loans are not bogus loans without any asset backing. There are a lot of assets. At the end of every large project there is something called real estate. All those projects were set up with Rs 5 lakh per acre kind of pricing for land. Prices are now Rs 50 lakh per acre or Rs 1 crore or Rs 1.5 crore per acre. If nothing else, dismantle the damn plant, you will get enough money from the real estate to repay the loans of the public sector banks. So I am not at all concerned on the debt part. If the promoter finds that is going to happen, he will find some money to pay the bank and keep the real estate.
On the same note, do you see Vijay Mallya surviving?
100% he will survive. And Kingfisher must survive, because you can’t only have crap airlines like Jet and British Airways. If God ever wanted to fly on earth, he would have flown Kingfisher.
So he will find the money?
Of course! At worst, if United Spirits gets sold, that’s a stock that can double or triple from here. I am very optimistic about United Spirits. Be it the business or just on the technical factor that if Mallya is unable to repay and his stake is put up for sale, you will find bidders from all over the world converging.
So you are talking about the stock and not Mallya?
Haan to Mallya will find a way to survive. Indian promoters are great survivors. We as a nation are great survivors.
How do you see gold?
I don’t have a strong view on gold. I don’t understand it well enough to make big call on gold, even though I am an Indian. One thing I do know is that our fascination with gold has very strong economic moorings. We should credit Indians for having figured out what is a multi century asset class. Indians have figured out that equities are a fashionable thing meant for the Nariman Points of the world, but for us what has worked for the last 2000 years is what is going to work for the next 2000 years.
What about the paper money system, how do you see that?
I don’t think anything very drastic where the paper money system goes out of the window and we find some other ways to do business with each. Or at least I don’t think it will happen in my life time. But it’s a nice cute notion to keep dreaming about.
At least all the gold bugs keep talking about the collapse of the paper money system…
I know. I don’t think it’s going to happen. But I don’t think that needs to happen for gold to remain fashionable. I don’t think the two things are necessarily correlated. I think just the notion of that happening is good enough to keep gold prices high.
(A slightly smaller version of the interview appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on July 31,2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_you-can-shut-the-equity-market-india-would-still-be-doing-fine_1721939)
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

Sonia’s UPA is taking us to new ‘Hindu’ rate of growth


Vivek Kaul

Raj Krishna, a professor at the Delhi School of Economics, came up with the term “Hindu rate of growth” to refer to Indian economy’s sluggish gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 3.5% per year between the 1950s and the 1980s. The phrase has been much used and abused since then.
A misinterpretation that is often made is that Krishna used the term to infer that India grew slowly because it was a nation dominated by Hindus. In fact he never meant anything like that. Krishna was a believer in free markets and wasn’t a big fan of the socialistic model of development put forward by Jawahar Lal Nehru and the Congress party.
In fact he realised over the years looking at the slow economic growth of India that the Nehruvian model of socialism wasn’t really working. This was visible in the India’s secular or long term economic growth rate which averaged around 3.5% during those days.
The word to mark here is “secular”. The word in its common every day usage refers to something that is not specifically related to a particular religion. Like our country India. One of the fundamental rights Indians have is the right to freedom of religion which allows us to practice and propagate any religion.
But the world “secular” has another meaning. It also means a long term trend. Hence when economists like Krishna talk about the secular rate of growth they are talking about the rate at which a country like India has grown year on year, over an extended period of time. And this secular rate of growth in India’s case was 3.5%. This could hardly be called a rate of growth for a country like India which was growing from a very low base and needed to grow at a much faster pace to pull its millions out of poverty.
So Krishna came up with the word “Hindu” which was the direct opposite of the word “secular” to take a dig at Jawahar Lal Nehru and his model of development. Nehru was a big believer in secularism. Hence by using the word “Hindu” Krishna was essentially taking a dig on Nehru and his brand of economic development, and not Hindus.
The policies of socialism and the license quota raj followed by Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and grandson Rajiv ensured that India grew at a very slow rate of growth. While India was growing at a sub 4% rate of growth, South Korea grew at 9%, Taiwan at 8% and Indonesia at 6%. These were countries which were more or less at a similar point where India was in the late 1940s.
The Indian economic revolution stared in late July 1991, when a certain Manmohan Singh, with the blessings of PV Narsimha Rao, initiated the economic reform process. The country since then has largely grown at the rates of 7-8% per year, even crossing 9% over the last few years.
Over the years this economic growth has largely been taken for granted by the Congress led UPA politicians, bureaucrats and others in decision making positions. Come what may, we will grow by at least 9%. When the growth slipped below 9%, the attitude was that whatever happens we will grow by 8%. When it slipped further, we can’t go below 7% was what those in decision making positions constantly said. On a recent TV show Montek Singh Ahulwalia, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, kept insisting that a 7% economic growth rate was a given. Turns out it’s not.
The latest GDP growth rate, which is a measure of economic growth, for the period of January to March 2012 has fallen to 5.3%. I wonder, what is the new number, Mr Ahulwalia and his ilk will come up with now. “Come what may we will grow at least by 4%!” is something not worth saying on a public forum.
But chances are that’s where we are headed. As Ruchir Sharma writes in his recent book Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles “India is already showing some of the warning signs of failed growth stories, including early-onset of confidence.”
The history of economic growth
Sharma’s basic point is that economic growth should never be taken for granted. History has proven otherwise. Only six countries which are classified as emerging markets by the western world have grown at the rate of 5% or more over the last forty years. These countries are Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Hong Kong. Of these two, Hong Kong and Taiwan are city states with a very small area and population. Hence only four emerging market countries have grown at a rate of 5% or more over the last forty years. Only two of these countries i.e. Taiwan and South Korea have managed to grow at 5% or more for the last fifty years.
“In many ways “mortality rate” of countries is as high as that of stocks. Only four companies – Procter & gamble, General Electric, AT&T, and DuPont- have survived on the Dow Jones index of the top-thirty U.S. industrial stocks since the 1960s. Few front-runners stay in the lead for a decade, much less many decades,” writes Sharma.
The history of economic growth is filled with examples of countries which have flattered to deceive. In the 1950s and 1960s, India and China, the two biggest emerging markets now, were struggling to grow. The bet then was on Iraq, Iran and Yemen. In the 1960s, the bet was Philippines, Burma and Sri Lanka to become the next East Asian tigers. But that as we all know that never really happened.
India is going the Brazil way
Brazil was to the world what China is to it now in the 1960s and the 1970s. It was one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But in the seventies it invested in what Sharma calls a “premature construction of a welfare state”, rather than build road and other infrastructure important to create a viable and modern industrial economy. What followed was excessive government spending and regular bouts of hyperinflation, destroying economic growth.
India is in a similar situation now. Over the last five years the Congress party led United Progressive Alliance is trying to gain ground which it has lost to a score of regional parties. And for that it has been very aggressively giving out “freebies” to the population. The development of infrastructure like roads, bridges, ports, airports, education etc, has all taken a backseat.
But the distribution of “freebies” has led to a burgeoning fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
For the financial year 2007-2008 the fiscal deficit stood at Rs 1,26,912 crore against Rs 5,21,980 crore for the current financial year. In a time frame of five years the fiscal deficit has shot up by nearly 312%. During the same period the income earned by the government has gone up by only 36% to Rs 7,96,740 crore. The huge increase in fiscal deficit has primarily happened because of the subsidy on food, fertilizer and petroleum.
This has meant that the government has had to borrow more and this in turn has pushed up interest rates leading to higher EMIs. It has also led to businesses postponing expansion because higher interest rates mean that projects may not be financially viable. It has also led to people borrowing lesser to buy homes, cars and other things, leading to a further slowdown in a lot of sectors. And with the government borrowing so much there is no way the interest rate can come down.
As Sharma points out: “It was easy enough for India to increase spending in the midst of a global boom, but the spending has continued to rise in the post-crisis period…If the government continues down this path India, may meet the same fate as Brazil in the late 1970s, when excessive government spending set off hyperinflation and crowded out private investment, ending the country’s economic boom.”
Where are the big ticket reforms?
India reaped a lot of benefits because of the reforms of 1991. But it’s been 21 years since then. A new set of reforms is needed. Countries which have constantly grown over the years have shown to be very reform oriented. “In countries like South Korea, China and Taiwan, they consistently had a plan which was about how do you keep reforming. How do you keep opening up the economy? How do you keep liberalizing the economy in terms of how you grow and how you make use of every crisis as an opportunity?” says Sharma.
India has hardly seen any economic reform in the recent past. The Direct Taxes Code was initiated a few years back has still not seen the light of day, but even if it does see the light of day, it’s not going to be of much use. In its original form it was a treat to read with almost anyone with a basic understanding of English being able to read and understand it. The most recent version has gone back to being the “Greek” that the current Income Tax Act is.
It has been proven the world over that simpler tax systems lead to greater tax revenues. Then the question is why have such complicated income tax rules? The only people who benefit are CAs and the Indian Revenue Service officers.
Opening up the retail sector for foreign direct investment has not gone anywhere for a long time. This is a sector which is extremely labour intensive and can create a lot of employment.
What about opening up the aviation sector to foreigners instead of pumping more and more money into Air India? As Warren Buffett wrote in a letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, the company whose chairman he is, a few years back “The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers. Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down…The airline industry’s demand for capital ever since that first flight has been insatiable. Investors have poured money into a bottomless pit, attracted by growth when they should have been repelled by it.”
If foreigners want to burn their money running airlines in India why should we have a problem with it?
The insurance sector is bleeding and needs more foreign money, but there is a cap of 26% on foreign investment in an insurance company. Again this limit needs to go up. The sector very labour intensive and has potential to create employment. The same is true about the print media in India.
The list of pending economic reforms is endless. But in short India needs much more economic reform in the days to come if we hope to grow at the rates of growth we were growing.
To conclude
Raj Krishna was a far sighted economist. He knew that the Nehruvian brand of socialism was not working. It never has. It never did. And it never will. But somehow the Congress party’s fascination for it continues. And in continuance of that, the party is now distributing money to the citizens of India through the various so called “social-sector” schemes. If economic growth could be created by just distributing money to everyone, then India would have been a developed nation by now. But that’s not how economic growth is created. The distribution of money creates is higher inflation which leads to higher interest rates and in turn lower economic growth. Also India is hardly in a position to become a welfare state. The government just doesn’t earn enough to support the kind of money it’s been spending and plans to spend.
Its time the mandarins who run the Congress party and effectively the country realize that. Or rate of growth of India’s economy (measured by the growth in GDP) will continue to fall. And soon it will be time to welcome the new “Hindu” rate of economic growth. And how much shall that be? Let’s say around 3.5%.
(The article originally appeared at www.firstpost.com on June 1,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/politics/sonias-upa-is-taking-us-to-new-hindu-rate-of-growth-328428.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

What Bihar is to India, INDIA IS TO FOREIGN INVESTORS


Ruchir Sharma is the head of Emerging Market Equities and Global Macro at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. He generally spends one week per month in a developing country somewhere in the world. Also he has been a writer for as long as he has been an investor. Sharma has put his two areas of expertise that of having an extensive experience on emerging markets and being able to write about them, into a new book, Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracle. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul([email protected]).
Excerpts: `
How do you define a breakout nation?
Let me tell you where this idea came from. The last decade was a very exceptional decade for emerging markets in the sense that every developing economy did well. This is not consistent with the history of economic development. We have got two hundred countries in the world, and only 35 are developed, everything else is emerging. So the consistent history of economic growth is that you get bursts of growth and then it falters. Very few countries are able to sustain these bursts of growth and develop and become fully developed countries.
So why was the last decade different?
The 80s and 90s was a very bad period and this was a catch up happening because of that. Also there was a lot of easy money that started to flow out of the United States (US) from 2003 onwards. And there was a boom in the global consumer. It led to this myth at the end of the decade that if you were an emerging market it was all about a time as to when you would converge with the developed world. As I surveyed the world I figured out that’s not going to happen. That’s not the history of economic development and after a decade of economic success many countries were beginning to falter. Other thing that sort of stuck me was that people would ask me, listen even if India grows at 6%, no harm done, because the US is growing at 2-3%. There are two things that are wrong about that argument. One we saw last year, when the Indian equity market fell by 35% in dollar terms last year. So if you undershoot expectations it has a very negative fallout.
You are referring to the Indian GDP growth falling to less than 7%?
Exactly! One thing that people don’t take into account is expectations. Like in China today all expectations are of the country growing by 8-9% and if China grows below 8-9% it leads to instant panic in the markets, especially the commodity markets. So one of the definitions for a breakout nation is that the expectations have to be exceeded. If your expectations are already high and if you are just about meeting them, it’s not going to feel like bang for the buck for anyone.
You say one of the definitions….
The second is this per capita income argument, which is that if India grows at 4-5% that’s a real underachievement because we are only a $1500 per capita income country whereas if a country like Korea grows at 4% it’s a huge achievement because it’s a relatively rich country with a per capita income of more than $20,000. It is still classified as an emerging market but it is fairly rich. So there are three things behind which went into defining what a breakout nation is. One that not all emerging markets are going sort of emerge, so to speak, or become developed markets. Two that expectations are key in terms of how you define a breakout nation and three that you have to take into account per capita income levels. The lower the base the easier it is theoretically to grow and the more you should grow to get out of poverty.
You also say “very few nations achieve long term rapid growth”. Why is that?
This is because most countries or most emerging markets reform only when they have their back to the wall. They enjoy some success and then they stop reforming and begin to fritter away their gains. That’s what happened to Brazil. Brazil used to be the China of the 1960s. Its growth rate was nearly in double digits and then it completely lost its way. It started to fritter it away in terms of huge government spending, subsidies, and massive amount of wasteful expenditure which led to hyperinflation. If you look in the high growth list of the 1950s and 1960s, there were countries like Yemen, Iran and Iraq. The odds of long term success like it is with companies is very low. How many companies are there today which were there thirty years ago, or twenty years ago?
So which are the countries which have grown consistently over the long term?
There are only two countries which have grown over 5% for five decades in a row, South Korea and Taiwan. Only six countries were able at more than 5% for four decades in a row. The list included Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and I think there was Malta.
What is it that these countries did differently that other countries did not?
In countries like South Korea, China and Taiwan, they consistently had a plan which was about how do you keep reforming. How do you keep opening up the economy? How do you keep liberalizing the economy in terms of how you grow and how you make use of every crisis as an opportunity. Like Korea was really down in the dumps in 1997-98 crisis. They really had their back to the wall. But they capitalized on the crisis to clean up their balance sheet and to emerge again as an economic powerhouse. It is just about the fact you need to consistently keep reforming and understand that odds are against you. In India’s case what concerns me is the attitude. Listen we will grow by 7%, no matter what happens. That is a given. Now why it is a given, I don’t know. Earlier it was 8-9%. Many businessmen also like to parrot the line that 7% growth will happen, no matter what happens. To me I find that very disturbing. Maybe it is changing now, but till at least a year ago, the attitude was very clear.
You have set many doubts on China becoming a breakout nation. Why?
In fact I admire China’s success and of what they have done over the past thirty years but my point is that expectations on China have become too high. To me that is the big thing. Even though its per capita income has reached around $6000, IMF still thinks that for the next five years the growth will be 8% per annum. Every time the growth dips below 8%, it leads to panic.
Can you elaborate on this?
Surveys are carried out where fund managers are asked will China have a hard landing. I find two responses interesting. Only 10% say that China will have a hard landing. And how do they define a hard landing, a growth rate of 7% or less. The breakout nation concept is that you got to beat expectations. So what I am saying is that if China records a GDP growth rate of 6% next year, trust me it will lead to a lot of panic in many circles.
There are lots of negatives that you point out about China, which we do not tend to here in the normal scheme of things. Like you talk about salaries going up at a very fast pace i.e. wage driven inflation…
Chinese costs have been going up at the rate of 15% per year, and as I argue at the back of the book, the US in fact is now seeing some reshoring (i.e. factories are moving back to America), as we call it. After all the outsourcing and off-shoring the new trend in the US seems to be reshoring because the wage gap is narrowing. It is still there. But the wage gap is narrowing. An anecdote that I found very useful was when one of my portfolio managers went on the ground and the companies told him was that three years ago we could shout at the workers but today they can shout back at us. I think that’s natural. For the first time in China the urbanization ratio has gone to 50%. So a lot of the workers have moved from rural to urban areas, and the scope of workers left for companies to tap from is diminishing.
Why do you call the $2.5trillion foreign exchange reserves, an illusion?
If you look at the total debt of China as a share of their economy it comes to around 200% of their GDP. The Chinese know that. And therefore they are reluctant now to keep stimulating the economy with debt and they are trying their best to clean up the banking system by sort of being careful about off-balance sheet transactions. When you talk to the entire world, when it comes to debt statistics, they don’t look at the entire picture, they just look at the narrow picture that China’s central government’s debt to GDP is low. But a lot of the debt sits on the local government’s balance sheets or on company balance sheets which are owned by the government, which is all the same if you put it together.
You say that the Chinese consumer not doing well is a big myth…
This is because the Chinese consumer has been doing well. And this myth has got propagated because the Chinese consumption as a share of their GDP is low. But my entire point is that it is low not because consumption is doing badly but because investment and exports have done exceedingly well. My entire point is that the Chinese consumption growth cannot increase further. It can continue at this pace.
I was surprised when I read that the consumer spending in China has been growing in China by 9% every year over the last thirty years.
Yes. It is comparable to what Japan, China and Korea achieved.
So it’s been growing as fast as the Chinese economy…
No. Just a bit below. The Chinese economy has been growing at 10% and the consumption has been growing at 9%. Because the overall economy has grown at 10% and the consumption has grown at 9%, consumption as a share of Chinese GDP has come down, which leads many people to believe that the Chinese consumer is suppressed. Yeah, maybe suppressed relative to exports and investments but not in absolute terms.
Another thing I found quite fascinating in your book is the portion where you describe your experience of taking the maglev train in Shanghai. Can you take us through that?
It was like going to an amusement park. I had heard so much about this train which travels at 400 kilometres an hour. I never thought of taking it because typically someone is there to pick me up at the airport. In 2008, when I was driving from the airport back to my hotel, I heard this train zipping past me like zip. I was like what is this going on? It really feels like a bullet passing you by when you are going by the car. So I decided I have got to try this thing out. When we tried it out, it was a fascinating experience though you have to go out of the way to take the train. In the business class cabin there was nobody else there other than me and my colleague. And you have this fancy stewardess who comes and sort of buys the ticket for you. When you are on the train because it’s a levitation act you just feel zero friction. Outside the train zips past you, but inside you don’t feel as if anything is going on. It’s completely still.
But what is the broader point you were trying to make through this example?
The broader point is that no other country in the world will think of experimenting like this. But they have been investing at such a huge pace that they try out these experiments as well. When I asked why has this not been replicated in other parts of China, and I got all sorts of explanations. One was that now we get environmental protests because it goes through very close to some of the places. This is very new to China that you have got people who are protesting and saying we don’t what this to happen. The fact they are not extending this train to everywhere because it does not make logical sense from the economic point of view. This shows the Chinese thinking also that listen that how much can we keep spending on these things.
You call India and Brazil very high context societies. What is that?
This is a term that the anthropologist Edward Hall came up with. It would always strike me when I went to India and Brazil about the commonalities between the two countries. Someone says you come for dinner and the dinner won’t start till 9.30-10pm. And everyone sort of came late. I go to Brazil every year and in 2008 I heard about this serial called A Passage to India which was a huge hit in Brazil. People were talking about it in the party circles and I was like I want to see this serial. I figured out that it is a soap opera, and people are hooked to it at nine o clock at night. The whole thing is a love story set in Jodhpur and Agra, and the actors were all Brazilians in Indian garb, and they looked pretty much North Indian to me.
The latest item girl in Bollywood is a Brazilian…
Really? You can’t make out the difference very often. And that’s my entire point. There are many parallels. So all this was fun but what was the economic point coming out of it? I hope India does not go down the Brazil way with similar cultural habits of having a welfare state where you want to protect people. At that point of time the government spending in India was beginning to really take off and now it’s clearly sort of very high.
You even hint at India going the Brazilian way of hyperinflation…
This thing of having minimum wages and having them indexed to inflation, all these are traits through which a country like Brazil went down. The fact is that we have found inflation to be more sticky than it should be. This is happening because of all these welfare schemes being put into place. My whole thing is that you just can’t take this for granted. But just because it hasn’t mattered in the past does not mean that it won’t matter in the future.
What is your view on the S&P’s change in outlook on India?
It’s consistent with the fact that we need to obviously get these things under control before we begin to lose the plot.
You also say in the book that India has too many billionaires given its size. What is the point you are trying to make there?
Wealth needs to be celebrated. It is an integral part of a capitalistic society to have billionaires. But when I look at the number of billionaires we have in comparison to the rest of the world, it does seem a bit high. If we had new wealth being created and had new billionaires coming up, that would be a healthy sign. But if it is the same set of people holding onto their wealth, it is not a healthy sign. In the last five years the churn has gone down in comparison to what used to be. And you want high churn to take place because you know then new people are coming in. Also you want billionaires to come from industries which are celebrated because of the general entrepreneurial talent like technology, manufacturing etc, and not from places where the government is issuing licenses . If you look at other countries which have a high share of billionaires compared to the size of their economies they are all countries where cronyism is rampant. Like Russia and Malaysia. And if you look at the countries which have made economic success models in the past, the wealth of the billionaires as a share of their economy is relatively low. This is because to create up an environment conducive for the opening up of the economy, for reform and for wealth generation, you have to have this perception that it is being done in a fair manner.
Can India be a breakout nation?
I think so. I give India a 50:50 chance because expectations have now become lower to 6-7% GDP growth and that at least lowers the bar from growing at the rate of 8-9%, which is a very high bar. Most countries I have categorical stand which is I like I don’t think that Russia and Brazil are on my list of breakout nations. It is a clearly a negative take on them. There is relatively positive take on many of the South East Asian countries and Eastern European countries. But I think in India I am sort of caught in the middle. I see the positives taking place when I travel outside of Delhi, I go to the states. The whole India chapter in the book is about the fact that as the Southern States have dropped off in the growth statistics, but the Northern States which you never thought would do well, from Bihar to even Chattisgarh, are doing well.
I have lived in Bihar for almost 20 years. It is growing from a very very low base, and that’s why the high rate of growth.
Exactly. That is my point on India to you, which is that India’s biggest benefit for becoming a breakout nation is the fact that its base is so low. It is true of India. So what you say of Bihar in an Indian context is true of India in a global context, which is what gives India a 50:50 chance even though the policy makers keep messing it up at the top. As you know with Bihar the base has always been low. But obviously something has happened in the last seven years that the state has started to change.
In the last section of your book you talk about something called the commodity.com. What is that?
My whole point is that the world has developed for years and years and centuries and commodities have followed a very predictable pattern, which is that they go up for one decade and they go down for two decades because new technology, human ingenuity always come up triumph any demand burst that comes through. Yet at this stage all people think that commodities are in some sort of a super cycle that And one sort of stunning statistic that stood out for me is that in 2001 the world has twenty nine billionaires in the energy industry, seventy five in tech. By 2011, the situation had reversed, with thirty-six in tech and ninety one in energy, mostly in oil.
What is the point you are trying to make?
Why should you have so many billionaires out of commodities because all you are doing is digging dirt out of the ground? You are not doing something that is really smart and innovative. This is complete nonsense when you have so many billionaires coming out this sector. You can have a few. These are signs at the peak of any trend when it looks like that this trend is going to go on forever. But those lofty expectations have their own undoing. Along with all this comes my argument that China’s growth is about to graduate to a lower plane. And China is the 800 pound gorilla of the commodity market.
Why do you see the China-commodity connection falling apart soon?
Basically everyone says that China has to grow so it needs commodities. My point is again about expectations. If China’s growth falls to 6-7% as I think it may on a medium term basis, a lot of the investments, a lot of things will appear to be excessive. So China may grow but the demand for commodities could come of very significantly. So steel, copper etc could all face oversupply in the coming years.
One of the things you talk about in your book is that while central banks can print all the money they want, they can’t dictate where it goes…
Exactly. Even in India this whole sort of thing spread…and till date I get some of these questions that we have all this liquidity in the world, central banks are pumping it, you know it has to come here in search of opportunities where else is it going to go. And my point is that it can go into all sorts of wrong places like a lot of it has gone into oil, lot of it has gone into commodities, has gone into people buying fancy wine, luxury goods, gold etc Central banks have put all that money out there because they want growth to revive that the reason for doing it. But you can’t control it. You don’t know where it ends up.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected] A slightly different version of the interview appeared in the Daily News and Analysis, April 30, 2012)