Friday, November 23, 2012

Long-term growth forecasts

Making forecasts for some fifty years is a dicey business but it's useful for building possible scenarios. The OECD has come out with forecasts up to 2060. The good news is that the OECD think the world economy will regain the average growth rate of the past decade and a half over the period 2011-30. The forecasts for India don't look good. India overtakes the US in GDP in PPP terms only in 2060; China does this in the middle of this decade itself.

I found this strange. Goldman Sachs, in its BRICS report of 2007, saw India overtaking the US in GDP at the market exchange rate of 2006 in 2050 itself. This implies that catch up in PPP terms should happen sooner since India's GDP gets inflated by a factor of about 3 when you use PPP. Arvind Virmani, writing in 2006, thought India would overtake the US in GDP in PPP terms by 2037, which would broadly accord with the Goldman forecast.

How come the OECD is so pessimistic? The answer is to be found in the implied growth rate. The OECD sees India growing at just 6.7% in 2011-30. Goldman had thought the growth rate would be 8.4% in 2007-20. If you accept that the world economy will get back to its pre-crisis decadal average growth, then India should be able to bounce back to growth rate of 7-8% over the next 20 years. So, the catch up with US would happen faster than OECD thinks.

More in my ET column, Post-Crisis, Is India a loser?

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Anti-corruption crusade

Robert Vadra, Salman Khurshid, Nitin Gadkari. Who's next? That's what politicians must be wondering and it's also what ordinary people are asking. The Anna Hazare movement having run out of steam, it appeared for a while that corruption had ceased to be an issue. But Arvind Kejriwal and company had other ideas and have brought corruption back on the agenda with a bang, no doubt in the hope of creating a niche for the political party they have launched.

Is this a new dawn? Is the country about to finally cleaned up? Are we on the brink of a new phase in the life of the polity? At the risk of sounding cynical, methinks not. Kejriwal's is not the first anti-corruption movement to be launched in the country. One can easily recollect two movements that had corruption as one of their main planks: the JP movement in 1975 and the V P Singh campaign against the Bofors deal in 1989. Both movements brought down governments but the impact on corruption in public life has been zilch.

True, Kejriwal has the benefit of 24-hour TV coverage- and the TV channels are all for fighting corruption because it gets them tonnes of eyeballs. Still, it's only a matter of time before the public tires of Kejriwal's hit-and-run tactics. Their defence that they do not have the investigation machinery to probe deeper will not wash; they have recourse to the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary, and they are free to file charges before the relevant authorities. To say that the system has broken down and it's not easy approaching the relevant authorities cannot justify hurling charges against all and sundry. Then, we are reduced to mob justice, and people simply hurling allegations against each other. If you do not subscribe to the current process, you are free to contest collections and institute a new process.

There is a more fundamental problem with Kejriwal and Co are saying. They perpetuate a rather naive view of corruption, as one of taking bribes for favours, the sort of corruption one associates with traffic cops or income-tax officials. The more potent and intractable forms of corruption do not involve taking bribes. They are about deals done, very often within the framework of the law, but which involve abuse of power in one form or another. That is how big money is made. A cabinet minister's son getting contracts from large companies; a senior bureaucrat getting a lucrative independent directorship post-retirement; a regulator being hired as a consultant for a large sum after he relinquishes his post. In such cases, quid pro quo is almost impossible to establish because of the lag between a favour done and the return obtained for the same.

Then, there is corporate corruption, again not necessarily involving bribes all the time. Corruption rests on a nexus of relationships among the privileged in society. And the nexus, in turn, arises from a particular economic structure in which a privileged few corner the spoils at the expense of the vast majority. Thus, the serious corruption in society has to do with the economic structure in society and especially with the inequalities on which society rests. This form of corruption is almost next to impossible to tackle unlike petty corruption, which can be checked through simple means (such as online reservations for railway tickets).

Once this basic truth is grasped, it will also be apparent that crusades against corruption cannot achieve much. In the present situation, they have ended up paralysing the government and affecting growth, which can only hurt the under-privileged. In the long run, crusades against corruption have a way of throwing up dictatorships, which represent the worst form of corruption.

Is there no answer then? Well, the answers are the unglamorous ones: more transparency, e-governance, explicit rules for decisions. These won't make TV news and they taking time to happen but they are the ones that will produce results.

More in my ET column, Plain truths about graft.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

US is no paragon of justice or fairness

Following the sentencing of Rajat Gupta, many commentators went to town about the fairness of the US system, which does not hesitate to bring the high and mighty to book. Rubbish, says Shankar Sharma in an interesting two-part article in BS. (part 1 and part 2).

Sharma contends that Gupta was nailed precisely because he was an outsider and interloper in a system that protects its own zealously. He lists other offenders who got away: Hank Paulson, former Goldman Sachs CEO and US Treasury Secretary; Hank Greenberg; Warrent Buffett; Steve Jobs.

Sharma contends that Paulson disclosed to a group of fund managers information that the government intended to place Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae under conservatorship, a move that would wipe out the firms' equity. The fund managers proceeded to short the firms' equity if they were not already holding short positions. Sharma writes:

If this is not giving out material, non-public information, then what is? If Rajat Gupta is guilty, why isn’t Paulson? If Gupta had given Raj Rajaratnam information that Goldman Sachs was going to get an investment from Warren Buffett (and suppose, if Rajaratnam had not sold an already long position in Goldman stock based on this material, non-public information), would this have amounted to a criminal offence on Gupta’s part?
Of the many things I don’t like about this Rajat Gupta affair, one is the Indian media’s sickeningly fawning portrayal of the American justice system as one that “doesn’t spare the rich and powerful, unlike ours where the well-connected get away”, and “how justice is dispensed speedily in the US”, and so on.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The US protects its own rich and powerful better than we can ever do. Paulson got away clean. Not even an investigation. No investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into the trading by these attendee hedge funds. Nothing. Just a conspiracy of silence.
About Buffett, Sharma has this nugget:
Then, we have the strange case of David Sokol. He was Buffett’s No. 2, and was widely tipped to take over from the old man. Sokol bought shares of Lubrizol, prior to getting Buffett to buy the company outright. After the deal was done, Sokol told Buffett of this purchase. Buffett waved it aside, saying it was no problem. No problem? Sokol traded on inside knowledge of material, non-public information, and Buffett joined him in keeping this a secret.
When the problem came out, Sokol resigned, Buffett shrugged. And, that was it. The cover up had happened. Because any serious investigation would have led to Buffett himself becoming a party to any offence, since he chose not to report this to the authorities. Consideration for his old age? Well...