Thursday, August 28, 2008

Raghuram Rajan Committee

The Raghuram Rajan committee on financial sector reforms, constituted by the Planning Commission, submitted its draft report sometime ago. I have a critique of the banking sector reforms proposals contained in the report in EPW (Aug 9-15, 2008).

A few things I would like to highlight:
  • The report does not recommend privatisation on all public sector banks. It is rather more cautious than, say, the Percy Mistry report. It urges experimenting with sale of a few under-performing PSBs to foreign banks.
  • On opening up to foreign banks, the committee does not favour a level playing field with domestic banks right away. It wants abolition of branch licenses for domestic banks, followed by extension of the same to foreign banks with a lag of a couple of years or so.
  • It prefers reform of PSBs through overhaul of governance. But some of its proposals, such as the government not appointing top management and leaving this to an independent board, are unlikely to fly. With good reason. 'Leave it to an independent board' sounds very lofty but it risks creating a dangerous governance vacuum where we can least afford it- the banking sector. And now is the not the time to be singing the praise of independent boards in the financial sector-see what has happened to some of the best known names worldwide in the sub-prime crisis.

Changing face of the Indian bureaucracy

I must thank Abi of Nanopolitan blog for pointing me to this article by S Narayan, former finance secretary, on how better representation for the backward castes is turning out to be a force for good in the Indian bureaucracy. I get a chance to meet several bureaucrats and I keep asking them: is there any truth to the contention that the bureaucracy is going to the dogs, thanks to reservations?

Generally, what I hear is that there is nothing wrong with the candidates selected- they may not speak immaculate English and you may fault their accents but they have competence and motivation, alright. The problem is that political interference has increased. This will happen regardless of who gets into the services.

I have every hope that reservations at IITs and IIMs will achieve the same thing that Narayan suggests it has acheived in the bureaucracy: making the corporate world more representative of and responsive to the large mass of Indian people, instead of being elitist in character. The price that critics say we pay- dilution of standards - is, even if it is true (I have never bought this), small compared to the benefits in terms of social harmony and equity.

Here is an excerpt from Narayan's article:

The character of the All India Services has changed in my lifetime, and in my view, the new entrants are far more representative of the aspirations of the “inclusive growth” view. Bright and hard-working, yet from families that know the meaning of hardship, these are the youngsters most likely to be able to administer from the heart, not just from the book. I have also seen a complete social transformation in the composition of the services, a transformation, though painful, which has brought up people much more representative of the diversities in our society. In the South, especially in Tamil Nadu, it has taken almost 70 years to get here, and I do believe that the rest of India must follow, and it may perhaps take far less time. Though one had to compete all the harder to succeed, I am a strong votary of affirmative action to provide preferential opportunities, especially education, to those who don’t have them.

I can hear sceptical readers wondering: Will the new dispensation be ethical and fair? I cannot say. When I teach these students, I see the core of goodness and fairness—what the real world of politics and bureaucracy will do to their hopes and aspirations is yet to be seen. I like the fact that the collector’s office is not a mysterious, forbidding place for citizens — that they can see their own kind sitting there. Will he be fair? As in economics, the laws of supply and demand will operate. Let’s hope the citizenry wants fair deals — I am sure that the new class will deliver.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Zardari's mental health

FT carries a story about the man who aspires to become president of Pakistan:

Asif Ali Zardari, the leading contender for the presidency of nuclear-armed Pakistan, was suffering from severe psychiatric problems as recently as last year, according to court documents filed by his doctors.

The widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was diagnosed with a range of serious illnesses including dementia, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder in a series of medical reports spanning more than two years.

......In court documents seen by the Financial Times, Philip Saltiel, a New York City-based psychiatrist, said in a March 2007 diagnosis that Mr Zardari’s imprisonment had left him suffering from “emotional instability” and memory and concentration problems. “I do not foresee any improvement in these issues for at least a year,” Mr Saltiel wrote.

.....Mr Hasan, a long-standing political ally and friend of the Zardari/Bhutto family, told the Financial Times on Monday that Mr Zardari had subsequent medical examinations and his doctors had “declared him medically fit to run for political office and free of any symptoms”.

“You have got to understand that while he was in prison on charges that were never proven, there were attempts to kill him,” Mr Hasan said. “At that time, he was surrounded by fear all the time. Any human being living in such a condition will of course suffer from the effects of continuous fear. But that is all history.

Monday, August 25, 2008

'Azaadi' for Kashmir

Arundhathi Roy has created a stir by supporting Azaadi for Kashmir. Some columnists have done likewise. This seems a cute, liberal thing to do. Without pretending to be an expert on Kashmir, let me highlight a few issues:
  • Would a move to allow Kashmir to secede be without implications for the rest of India? What would it mean for the principle of secularism and for the fate of Muslims spread over India?Partition was followed by a holocaust. Will this not be seen as a partition-like move?
  • Can an independent Kashmir maintain its independence for long given the interest of every single power in the area? Pakistan would fish in troubled wars; so would Iran, Afghanistan, China, Russia. India and the US would not be able to hold aloof. Kashmiris, who detest India's presence, will find themselves sitting on a veritable tinder-box.
  • What would be the basis for the economic viability of a an independent, landlocked Kashmir?
  • <>I doubt that western opinion favours the creation of another Muslim state in a highly combustible zone of the world. Because of its location,because of the interest of every power in the area in the state, western opinion would view Kashmir as having the potentialf for becoming another Iraq or Afghanistan- perpetually on the boil thanks to warring factions serving as proxies for various competing powers.

    Autonomy and self-rule must seem preferable options once you consider the implications of 'azaadi'.

Friday, August 22, 2008

No caste please, we're Indians

Outlook magazine carries a story on how an attempt to carry out a caste census is being stonewalled by private sector companies.

When the OBC quota controversy flared up, people questioned the basis for the 27% quota, saying there was no data to back it up. At the time, it was pointed out that there has been a marked refusal on the part of successive governments to collect the data in the first place. Ok, what is past is past, but surely there is merit in trying to see whether quota policy rests on a sound basis of data? This is what the Outlook story says:

The Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes (KSCBC) is embarking on a massive caste census for the first time since Independence. Besides covering 1.18 crore households across the state, it will also look at the private sector—which is where it runs into resistance. The commission has written to 176 companies, including IT majors like Infosys, Wipro, Dell, Yahoo, MindTree, Sun Microsystems, IBM and HP, asking them to furnish "religion and caste-wise information" of employees

But the response has so far been cold. KSCBC wrote to the companies in March this year and set a May 15 deadline for submission of data. But, as a KSCBC official pointed out, "Only 11 companies have provided information, 18 letters were returned undelivered, and three companies have written back that they are unable to furnish the data." Last fortnight, the commission sent out reminders to as many as 154 companies

The report points out that opposition to the survey is not confined to the private sector- many in government would rather not have the facts coming out. Because then we will know who has benefited so far and who hasn't.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Russia sends a warning to the west

The west has rushed to condemn what it regards as Russian bullying of Georgia. I refer to the recent hostilities between Russia and Georgia over Georgia's province of Ossetia which harbours a large Russian population. Russia will not accept Georgia trying to ride roughshed over the province and thinks it has every right to protect the interests of Russians there.

The west is outraged. But, as Kishore Mahbubani points out in the FT, not the rest of the world, including India and China. Mahbubani is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, a former minister in the Singapore government and a well regarded commentator on international affairs.

Indeed, most of the world is bemused by western moralising on Georgia. America would not tolerate Russia intruding into its geopolitical sphere in Latin America. Hence Latin Americans see American double standards clearly. So do all the Muslim commentaries that note that the US invaded Iraq illegally, too. Neither India nor China is moved to protest against Russia. It shows how isolated is the western view on Georgia: that the world should support the underdog, Georgia, against Russia. In reality, most support Russia against the bullying west. The gap between the western narrative and the rest of the world could not be greater.

The lesson from the Russian intervention, Mahbubani says, is that the world is not going to watch while the west tries to lord it over. Moreover, the west must make up its mind where the primarily challenge to the west lies- is it Islamic militancy or China?

Western thinkers must decide where the real long-term challenge is. If it is the Islamic world, the US should stop intruding into Russia’s geopolitical space and work out a long-term engagement with China. If it is China, the US must win over Russia and the Islamic world and resolve the Israel-Palestine issue. This will enable Islamic governments to work more closely with the west in the battle against al-Qaeda.

RBI proposes, Finance ministry disposes?

The RBI wants to bring down growth in banks' commercial credit in a bid to slow down growth in money supply. Money supply has been growing at over 20% against the RBI's target of 16.5-17%. The RBI has raised interest rates but commercial credit has been growing at 24-25%, against the RBI's target growth of 20%.

Many think this is because public sector banks have not been aggressive enough in raising their lending rates, thanks to interference from the finance ministry. The ministry, they say, wants to sustain growth and it wants to keep home loan borrowers happy as elections loom, so it gets PSBs to refrain from raising rates as much as they should.

I am not so sure. I examine this whole issue in my ET column, Is finmin foiling RBI? and find that there isn't a strong enough case for this view.

There are just a couple of points I would like to add. One, the finance minister asking banks not to hike rates on home loans of upto Rs 30 lakh is not such a bad thing. A rise in home loan rates, as I mention in my column, may push many borrowers into default. Also, a sharp drop in home loan demand will affect a whole range of industrial sectors to which banks are exposed. So, in trying to extract better returns on home loans, banks may end up shooting themselves in the foot where corporate borrowers are concerned.

It is in the collective interest of banks not to raise home loans. But no bank on its own has the incentive to maintain home loan rates on its own- some other bank will then try to produce better returns by raising interest rates. In other words, we have what is called a "coordination failure". For the ministry to step in and provide coordination is appropriate.

The second point is that commercial credit growth is one element in high growth of money supply. A more difficult problem is the rise in forex reserves. There isn't much the RBI is able to do about this, so we can't expect a deceleration in commercial credit alone to bring down the inflation rate.

Creating world class universities in India

Dinesh Mohan, Professor at IIT Delhi, has an excellent piece in Business Standard on where India stands in the business of creating world class universities. The Shanghai Jiao Tong University's latest academic ranking of world universities confirms what we already know: we have been left far behind in the race.

In the top 500 universities in the world, India has only two: IIT Kharagpur and IISc, both ranked in the lowly range of 303-401. China itself has 18 universities in the list. Predictably, the US tops the list with 159, all of Europe has 210. The US has 9 of the top 10 (the tenth is Oxford) and 17 of the top 20. In academics, as in defence, it is a superpower.

The methodology, Prof Mohan points out, is sufficiently sound to command respect. The motivation behind the exercise was to figure out where China stands and what it needs to catch up. Prof Mohan highlights a number of interesting findings:
  • A vast majority .... are large public universities enjoying liberal funding. Even in the USA, where many private universities exist, over 70 per cent of the universities making the list for engineering sciences are state funded. Even in the private universities, a significant proportion of research funding comes from the public sector. In the middle and low income countries, only state-funded universities are able to do any scientific research of any consequence.
  • The age of specialised institutions like IITs, IIMs and IIITs seems to be over. A great deal of modern research involves interdisciplinary work and that is why such institutions are the exceptions.
  • The kind of people who take up research and teaching jobs in any country come from middle and lower middle class family backgrounds. They are the ones who look for security in a job and work hard. Those who have spent money on education or taken loans are unlikely to take teaching jobs. We will have to reverse the trend of rising costs of education and give liberal scholarships even for living expenses.
  • Our public sector institutions like the railways, NTPC, ONGC, DRDO, municipalities, BIS, building and road departments, etc. must put in place policies to hire such people (people with Master's and Ph D degrees) and give them meaningful jobs to do.
The bottomline? Forget the notion, currently popular, that in order to create world-class universities, we need government to get out of education. Forget also the notion that private institutions, motivated by profit and charging appropriate (that is, sky-high) fees will do the trick. Think again about the notion that you need fabulous pay packages in universities in order to attract talent- no, the types who are attracted look for job security, decent pay and a supportive environment.

We need to strengthen the IIT-IIM model and give it wider application. At least where the IITs are concerned, fees remain reasonably low and affordable and they must remain so. Improved governance at generously funded state institutions and inclusive, affordable education are the key to creating world class universities. In short, the drift towards privatisation, higher fee and higher pay packets for faculty as the answer must be checked before it is too late.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

American prisoners in the Soviet Union

I had heard of a US invasion of the former Soviet Union in a bid to abort the communist revolution- the invasion was ineffectual. But it's news to me that the Soviet gulag harboured last numbers of Americans.

I got to know this from a review of a book on the subject in the Economist. The Americans were workers who landed in the Soviet Union during the Great Depression, desperate for jobs. At first, they were welcomed with open arms. But later the mood of the Soviet authorities changed:

Initially lauded as welcome refugees from the miseries of capitalism (and as useful specialists who might help replicate the bits of it that worked, such as factories) from 1935 onwards they became enemies of the people, infiltrators and spies. A tiny handful, such as Paul Robeson, a singer, were tolerated as propaganda trophies. The rest sank into a living Hades of torture, rape, slave labour, starvation, frostbite and death, shared with millions of others.
American diplomats in the Soviet Union and also American journalists turned a blind eye to the fate of these unfortunate workers. 'Serves them right' for having forsaken the US for the Soviet Union seems to have been the attitude:

Even before their arrest, most of the Americans were, in effect, prisoners: with their passports confiscated they were involuntary Soviet citizens. But the only people who might have helped saw no reason to do so. Diplomats in America’s newly established embassy in Moscow regarded all the migrants as communist sympathisers who had thrown in their lot with the system.

... If the diplomats look bad, so too do the Moscow-based foreign journalists, who shunned the story as liable to risk their official accreditation; the debaucheries on offer nightly at the Hotel Metropol, courtesy of the NKVD secret police, may have led them to choose their own livelihoods over the lives of others.

There was a shabby postcript to all this: American prisoners of war, freed by Soviet troops in Germany, were also packed off to the Gulag. And even this did not evoke outrage in the US!

Oil bubble burst

Excuse my giving myself a pat on the back but, as readers of this blog would know, I did say that oil prices would head towards $100. I said this at a time when oil was ruling at $140 and people thought it was headed towards $200. I based my forecast on two facts: the run-up in oil prices had been too steep; and the supply-demand imbalance was too small to warrant an increase of the order we had seen.

I did not say so at the time but we must also recognise that the world's sole superpower will not accept a situation where oil prices threaten to destabilise the US economy as well as the world economy. And it has some ability to influence oil prices. President Bush's visit to Saudi Arabia and some tough talk on his part elicited an assurance from the Saudis about an increase in output. Demand has been moderated by the passing on of some of the increase in oil prices to users. The SEC has toughened norms for speculators in oil. All this has combined to force down oil prices.

I read an excellent analysis in ET today of the issues related to the oil bubble. The author, a Chief economist with a US think-tank, addresses each one of the arguments made as to why the oil price rise was related to fundamentals and not speculation. He shows the arguments are dead wrong ( quotes from the article in italics:
  • Oil prices rose because of a weak dollar: The price of oil has risen far more than the dollar has fallen. That means that oil prices have increased in other countries, which should have reduced, not increased, demand.
  • Oil producers have held back production in anticiption of higher oil prices down the road: Nor have there been any report of unusual production cutbacks — the linchpin of the second argument. Indeed, the spike in oil prices actually gives independent producers an incentive to boost production.
  • There can't be speculation in oil because inventories have not risen: the storage argument fails to recognise different types of inventory. Thus, record-high speculative prices have likely caused bunker traders to release inventory, but those releases may have been purchased by speculators who are now active lessees of commercial storage capacity. The implication is that speculators can drive up prices and increase their inventory holdings even as total commercial inventories remain little changed.
<>The author also underlines the fundamental change in the character of oil trading in recent years: speculative trades account for 70% of all trades compared to 37% seven years ago.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

HBS's two failings

The Economist reviews a book, Ahead of the curve: two years at Harvard Business School, by a recent graduate, Philips Delves Broughton. It quotes Delves as citing two main failings of HBS:
First, it pushed the idea that its alumni would be equipped as leaders capable of solving all the world’s problems, rather than merely doing a decent job of running a company. “Business needs to relearn its limits, and if the Harvard Business School let some air out of its own balloon, business would listen,” he grumbles.

His second worry was that so many of his classmates seemed destined for careers that would leave them no space for a happy personal life. He opted for more time with his family, rather than follow in the footsteps of the “Goldman Sachs executive who came to talk about leadership and values…I just remember this look of total defeat on his face when he said how he had four ex-wives.”

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Policy towards foreign banks in India

As per the RBI's roadmap for foreign banks, there is to be a review of policy towards foreign banks' entry into and expansion in the Indian market in 2009. My own assessment is that the RBI will continue to be cautious unless a government with a very different attitude comes to power next year. I don't see major sales of public sector banks to foreign banks, for instance.

Branch licensing policy may become more liberal but a level playing field between foreign banks and Indian banks is unlikely. Even the Raghuram Rajan committee on financial sector reform, which wants abolition of branch licensing, does not favour extending such a policy to foreign banks until a couple of years after it has been extended to Indian banks.

I wrote an article about the theoretical pros and cons of foreign bank entry into India for EPW recently.

More on "lessons from sub-prime crisis"

Philip Purcell, former chairman of Morgan Stanley, lists five lessons, all of which are familiar enough by now but are worth repeating:

First, profits matter more than revenues.....

Second, compensation should be based on profits, margins and return on equity over time, not current year revenues....

Third, leverage works not just on the upside but on the downside as well...

Fourth, diversified and recurring revenue streams not based on trading or principal investing have immense value in a down cycle....

Finally, risk management should become a board-level responsibility, with appropriate committees meeting regularly with management....

Perhaps, it's worth asking: how many of these were practised in Mr Purcell's own firm?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Shiller on the sub-prime crisis

Robert Shiller of Yale has come out with a book on the sub-prime crisis, The Sub-Prime Solution (Princeton). I had a chance to review it in my ET column, Can we prevent a sub-prime crisis?

Shiller's focus is on sub-prime loans. I thought the focus was somewhat misplaced. The problem may have originated in the sub-prime market but it got magnified into a financial crisis because of financial institutions' leverage exposure to sub-prime loans. It is financial regulation that needs to be revisited after the sub-prime crisis, not so much the sub-prime market and the protection of home loan borrowers.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Nuclear deal and the Hyde Act: Burns clarifies

One of the more asinine assertions in the nuclear debate has been that India is not bound by the Hyde Act because it only a "domestic legislation" in the US. This assertion has been made despite categorical statements to the contrary from US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Nicholas Burns, who was the chief negotiator on the US side, emphasises this point in a story reported in

Burns said, "When this agreement was negotiated, it was fully consistent with the provisions of the Hyde Act. So we have the right to terminate it if India tests." But he said it was highly unlikely that India would conduct a nuclear test.

He also added, "No aspect of this deal recognises India as a nuclear weapons state."
I also do not buy the argument that this only a deal about nuclear energy. I am inclined to believe the deal is more about a strategic partnership with the US. It will give us access to dual-use technologies and it makes us an ally of the US at a time when China is on the rise and there are serious threats to Indian security arising from the Pakistan- Afghanistan neighbourhood as well as unfolding developments in Nepal, Burma and Sri Lanka.

No alternative to tighter financial regulation

I wrote in my post yesterday that Greenspan's arguments in favour of competitive markets was misplaced in the context of financial institutions especially those that have a regulatory safety net.

Henry Kaufman, an erstwhile Oracle of Wall Street, echoes this viewpoint in an article in FT today that rebuts some basic premises of Greenspan:

First, we should recognise the deregulation illusion. When faced with the choice between regulated and deregulated financial markets, most nations try to sidestep. Market participants laud the virtues of unhindered competition over regulation for disciplining market behaviour. That works, by and large, for small and medium-sized companies, but not for the integrated financial giants that dominate many aspects of financial markets. These behemoths are “too big to fail”. Whenever one of these favoured institutions gets into serious trouble, some kind of formal or informal safety net is deployed.

A second and related precept is that comprehensive financial deregulation is impractical as well as politically and socially intolerable. This precept rests on the necessity that financial authorities safeguard the payments mechanism. Indeed, most large depositors are also fiduciaries (investment advisers, corporate treasurers and the like) that are compelled to shift funds out of institutions that seem to be in peril. Given these realities, the only way to abandon the “too big to fail” doctrine is to ensure that leading institutions are too strong to fail. That, in turn, requires close, ongoing official scrutiny.

The more free-market oriented our economy, the greater its need for official financial supervision. A truly ­market-oriented economy poses high risks of business failure and, correspondingly, high risks to institutions that lend to and invest in the private sector. Moreover we need to acknow­ledge that, while financial competition fosters innovation, it also contributes to instability

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Greenspan on the sub-prime crisis

How to deal with asset bubbles? At the policy level, Alan Greenspan's view is: not much. If central banks act to fend off bubbles, they risk derailing growth. The best they can do is manage the problems that arise when a bubble bursts.

In an article in FT, Greenspan seems to suggest that firms do not have much of a choice but to ride the bubble. Not to do is to lose market share.

A financial crisis is heralded, in fact defined, by sharp discontinuities of asset prices. The crisis must thus be unanticipated. The fact that risk was heavily underpriced for much of this decade was broadly recognised in the financial community, but the timing of the sharp price correction was nonetheless a surprise.

Recent history is replete with such underpricing persisting for years. Those market players who withdraw from “long” commitments at the first sign of an excess of exuberance, risk losing market share. They thus continue “to dance” as Chuck Prince, the former Citigroup chairman put it, but always assume they will have time to exit the markets. The vast majority invariably fail. When the current crisis emerged, it was assumed that the weak links would be unregulated hedge and private funds. The losses, however, have been predominately in the most heavily regulated institutions – banks.

We see this happening all the time . No fund manager wants to exit the stock market in a hurry; banks are reluctant to switch off the lending tap; investment banks' proprietary trading desks are reluctant to forgo long positions. This is fine as long as the institutions concerned do not pose systemic risk when they fail. That is not the case in the sub-prime crisis. As Greenspan points out, banks are the biggest losers and this is what is creating problems for the world economy. It's hard to see how we can regulate banks with a lighter hand after the recent experience.

Sting operation on cash-for-votes

Most broadcast organisations have rushed to the defence of CNN-IBN and have criticised the BJP for its handling of the sting operation in the cash-for-votes affair. Readers would know that CNN-IBN has withheld broadcast of the tape. The BJP has said it will not entertain the channel until it airs the tape.

Today's Business Standard has an edit that argues in favour of airing the tape and it also suggests that balance of evidence is tilting against Amar Singh and company:

With the BJP on Monday releasing more information on the link between a certain Sanjeev Saxena, who gave its MPs money to support the government, and Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh — the party alleged that Mr Saxena’s son’s college admission form has Amar Singh’s residence address on it — the circumstantial evidence in the cash-for-votes scandal appears to point in only one direction.

Earlier, on Sunday, the BJP had alleged that mobile phone records showed calls were made from Mr Saxena’s mobile to Amar Singh’s residence when Mr Saxena was at the house of one of the BJP MPs, handing over the cash (how the party got the phone records could well be the next controversy!). The party also said the car that Mr Saxena used was registered at an address that belonged to Amar Singh.

To establish that the two were closely linked, the party showed old SMSs sent by Mr Saxena to journalists, inviting them to Mr Singh’s press conferences. If all that the BJP says is true with regard to telephone records, car identity and college admission forms, there is strong justification for the television channel CNN-IBN to air the sting operation and let the public make up its mind.

Perils of PPP

I return to this blog after a bit of a layoff thanks to various preoccupations.

As somebody who has been somewhat sceptical about public-private partnerships (PPPs), I have watched with some interest the sly bailouts of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mac, two, private, secondary market institutions for home loans in the US. These guys operated for years on public sector and raked in enormous returns for shareholders and executives. Now, when they are in trouble, the taxpayer has to step in.

The obvious thing to do- as even the die-hard exponent of the free market economy, The Economist, has urged- is to nationalise the two institutions. One option later would be to privatise the commercial components, leaving behind a rump that can be remain in the public sector in order to meet social obligations. But, nationalisation is anathema to the neo-cons in power, so what we have is covert public ownership.

More on this and the implications for Indian banking sector in my last ET column, Private profits, public losses.