Monday, December 22, 2008

"Ceteris Paribus & in Hindsight, we were right!"

Mint has an article today about an American journalist's perspective on how Indian banks avoided the global economic crisis.

The basic premise of the article is the author's 'mea culpa' reaction which Americans, the US Feds and specifically Alan Greenspan should have. The 'No regulation in the banking sector stand' which the above mentioned "culprits" had maintained, in comparison to the "prudent and timely controls" by the State (read RBI's ex-governor YV Reddy) in India, is the main reason why Indian banks are safe, while American and Eurpoean ones aren't.

The author interviews India's top bankers who are partayed as being very 'perplexed' about how the Americans could have been so 'greedy'. They compete with one another in having a 'our garbage don't stink' smugness when they gesticulate about how Indian banks are more regulated and hence - 'safe from greed'. They all seem to accept that had they been shown the carrot of deregulation, they would most probably have gone ahead and 'sinned' just like the American banks. They all seem to agree, that while they opposed RBI's stringent measures at the time they were being introduced, in hindsight they thank RBI that they did not have the 'temptation to sin'. One of them even goes on to say that the RBI governor saved them!

There you have it folks - India's top bankers agree that they are children who need to be 'shown the right way' at every step, lest they should fall prey to the evil, greedy temptations that are by the wayside!

I find this attitude revolting - but who is to blame for our apparent lack of morals and self regulation in the absence of a grand regulator? Well, the answer is simple - the regulator.

While the article gives due credit to YV Reddy's foresight of 'applying brakes too early than too late', I find the complete lack of comparing the two situations in the right context, apalling! One needs to compare oranges with oranges, after all.

The crux of the problem in the US economy is the government sponsored push towards increased home ownership. This push by the US state to over-promote homeownership has been the 'prodigal push to the stack of dominoes' which eventually lead to Fannie and Freddie becoming over aggresive mortgage lenders, to the over exposure to subprime borrowers, development of CDOs and all those other weapons of financial mass destruction. The important fact one needs to observe here is that the crux of the issue starts with government interferring in the working of the market. By artificially trying to boost homeownership, the government essentially lets loose excessive corporate risk taking - this is essentially what happened.

Robert Shiller in the book "The Subprime Solution" analyses this very problem and rightly points out that -

"Overly aggressive mortgage lenders, compliant appraisers, and complacent borrowers proliferated to feed on the housing boom. Mortgage originators, who planned to sell off the mortgage to securitizers, stopped worrying about the repayment risk. They typically made only perfunctory efforts to assess borrower's ability to repay their loans - often failing to verify borrower's income with the Internal Revenue Service, even if they possessed signed authorization forms permitting them to do so."

The reader, here would kindly note that a regulatory enviroment existed. The borrowers were essentially required to authorize the lender rights - to verify the borrower's ability to repay the loan. But in an environment where checking if a borrower can repay, would have hindered the mortage lender's chances of 'closing a deal', a lot was let slip between cup and lip. Afterall, there was the Big Brother State standing behind mortgage lenders like Fannie and Freddie waiting to write-off bad assets, you see.

Does my arguement here then mean that in India there is no government sponsored boost for home ownership? The answer is, partly yes. As one CEO-designate of one of the largest banks in India tells the author -

"Indian banks are not levered like American banks. Capital ratios are 12 and 13%, instead of 7 or 8%. All those exotic structures like CDO and securtization are a very tiny part of our banking system. So a lot of the temptations didn't exist"

Luckily, it seems that the Indian State has not got behind the 'increasing home ownership' bandwagon. While HDFC has been a private player (majority stake) in the Indian mortgage market it has not come under pressure from the government to boost home ownership and therefore no apparent need to take excessive risks by creating money out of thin air using CDOs and other weapons of mass financial destruction.

The housing real estate market in India has to a large extent grown due to growth in Indian economy, not due to subsidies given by the government. Therefore it has not been a 'government generated boom'. As Murray Rothbard elucidates - the 'bust' in the business cycle is usually causally linked to the earlier government generated 'boom'. The market economy is self correcting and will quickly eliminate the earlier government generated errors in investment, unless the process of adjustment is interfered with by government policies. (Source)
Also, one needs to evaluate the relative sizes and trend of the two economies being compared. I am currently involved in an assignment which is trying to study how Indian consumers are responding to the global recession - and the main problem I face, is ascertaining whether Indian consumers are in fact, facing a pinch like their western counterparts. The growth in the Indian economy and the new affluence which many Indians have witnessed as a result, is making the Indian consumer somewhat of a contrarian.

Considering many such differernt nuances about the nature of the Indian and American economies, I think it would incorrect to heap all the praise on the strict regulatory environment of the Indian banking regulators as the main reason why Indian banks are safe vis-a-vis American banks. That would be assuming that Ceteris Paribus all other conditions are the same between the two economies. Unfortunately, with the case of central macro economic planning, the only way to prove something would be based on what has, by luck, turned out to be a better strategy, in hindsight.

God forbid, if the same Indian bankers were asked by the government to start lending money to people wanting to increase home ownership, the same incentives which drove the 'greedy' American banker might tempt our bankers too. Would not happen in India you say? Read this.

"The government, on its part, also infused Rs 4,000 crore into the housing sector through National Housing Bank (one of the reasons for LIC Housing Finance cutting its rates) and forced PSU banks to slash home loan rates for new loans of up to Rs 20 lakh.

The steps taken by the government and the RBI were also aimed at reviving the housing sector which is struggling because of the slowing economy"

So it begins...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Three articles that are worth reading.

Here are three articles I find very interesting.

1. 'Macroeconomics is Complete Bunkum' - by Bill Frezza: For a free market supporter and a strong follower of the Austrian School of Economics like me, this article rings as being very true. As the author mentions, it is only Hayek, Rothbard and other Austrian School economists like Menger who advocated the futility of the use macroeconomic statistics and its direct result - central planning. I say down with this macroeconomic, central planning nonsense! Viva Liberty!

(Hat Tip to Mr. Sadowski in the RCM comments)

2. 'Our Friends in Bombay' - by Christopher Hitchens: Staying true to my earlier call that people around the world need to be continually sensitized about the regular nature of terrorist attacks in India - the most by any standard, outside of a war zone - I find this article as a superb piece of straight talk by Mr. Hitchens.

3. 'Eye Spy' - by Priya Ganapati: Finally! Here is something I have always hoped would happen. A camera in the eye! As a photography enthusiast, one of my regular complaints is the fact that in the presence of a camera, people being photographed, stop being 'themselves' and pose. While I accept that it is a mark of a great photographer who can prevent his subject from doing this, I have hoped many times that the camera become invisible. Like an extension to ones' eye. Well, a camera in one's eye socket is the closest to this dream as can be!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

My Story...

It has been a long time now, and I have seen it all. I was born in early December in the year ninteen hundred and twenty four when the Nation I was born in, was still a hostage. It was hostage under an imperial dynasty which was weak and waning in its superiority around the world, and to make itself feel great, I was conceived. I was concieved in honour of a British King, but my favour has always been to the Grand City and the Nation I was born in. And what a Grand City it is, where my foundations are rooted - Bombay!

Ah! Bombay - the city of oppulence, the city of poverty, the city of trade, the city of love, the city of glamour, the city of an undying spirit and above all the city of dreams. The dreams of a scores and scores of my countrymen from the hinterland and scores of others from around the world. A coastal gateway to the magnificence that is India. This is the city I was born in and the city that I have seen grow to great heights, all the time being the very fuel feeding in to this vast nation's engine. And I have seen the strength which my country has gained.

I was there on the day our country gained Independence from the imperialists and I sighed a sigh of relief and of victory. I stood witness as the last regiment of the Imperial army beat a retreat past me, and sail away from the shores of Bombay, and away from the shores of India. I stood there that day with my grand elder brother - a magnanimous gentleman, who was born a few years before me, in defiance of the very imperialists who were retreating that day. And boy, did we rejoice that day - for we knew what a nation like ours could achieve in freedom.

We have stood, my brother and I, during all these years - witnessing our young nation grow. But we have also seen her suffer and cry out in pain; but we have stood steadfast in our patriotic duty to our nation - my brother as a great, grandeur host to all the leaders and businessmen of the world, with me welcoming all those who wish to enter our great city and nation. For the last sixty one years of our young nation's independence we have stood in service and have done so proudly.

During these years we have heard our city cry in pain when being subject to many atrocities against her. We have stood witness to many cruel and evil people try to undermine the very fabric of our city's gene - and also seen them fail. They have tried to demonstrate through thier impotent, evil and sinister ways that they can hold the enterprising nature of our citizens hostage. Through fear and terror they have tried to shut down our thriving businesses and disrupt the very way of our lives. They have repeatedly tried forcing us into believing that we will fail in our free enterprise and in growing up to be a thriving business market. It has always been they who have failed. Over these years I have personally seen the various atrocities they have tried to bring us on our knees. I have seen mindless riots acted out within yards of where I stand and also I have seen bombs go off in plain view. And I have seen the mindless impotence which has been thrust at our very faces, hoping that it will permanently discourage us.

But I have never seen my city succumbing to any of this. But instead I have seen my city resurgent always - I have seen it fight this terrible evil in a unique way; by proving to the evil doers that nothing they can do will perturb us from believeing in our capability to grow and be free. I have seen both the wealthy businessmen and the struggling street food vendor come back to the very places where henious crimes very committed and be guests of my brother's and my hospitality. I have seen throngs of people light candles and hold protest and also hold each other's hands in unity. I have seen young lovers looking at the vast expanse of the Arabian sea, eager to know what magnificence the future holds for them. I have seen old couples looking at the same expanse of the Arabian sea, thankful for the gifts they have earned through their long lives, gained through hard work. I have seen photographers capture the happiness of families on their vacations and of people marking the passing of their loved ones by strewing the ashes in the sea. And my brother and I have stood in the background of these memories, always happy to welcome all those who wish to come to our city and nation and partake of its greatness and for those who want to contribute to it. And all of them have looked upon our welcoming arms and thanked us for our graciousness.

But it is with a profound sense of grief that I stand this past week for I have witnessed a horrific scene. I have seen my brother's hospitality besieged and held hostage. I have seen his head set on fire by exploding grenades. I have seen evil men, dock their boats full of explosives in my dock. I have witnessed maniacs shoot weapons on the courtyard which cause loud horrific noises, where the loudest sounds usually is that of a group of cheering school girls on a vacation. I have stood witness as many of my city's guests have been brutally killed and my brother's furniture set ablaze. I have witnessed my brother's body burnt and scarred. I have witnessed my winged friends - the pigeons who rest in our courtyard, scared away by the sound of gunshot and blazing fire. I have witnessed the vile impotence of the men who perpetrated this henious crime and the sixty long hours they held my brother's hospitality hostage.

I have witnessed the worst days of my life.

I am in Mourning. I am the Gateway of India.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Ten suggestions to get out of this rut

How to prevent this incident in Mumbai over the past two days from being forgotten in a couple of days time; when for instance, some starlet wears a blouse which displays her cleavage. Here are my suggestions,

  1. Online Activism: Many journalists are net savvy and have large readership amongst net users. There should be blogs, twitter pages, Facebook communites which keeps the readers updated and provide opportunity to contribute to change
  2. Media Persistence: I sincerely believe that people do not forget such things, unless a more atracting carrot is dangled in front of them. There should be a regular section on every primetime news production to update, everyday on the developments on the investigation of the case
  3. Seek Foreign Interest: I saw a reporter on TV this morning saying that this will have a significant impact on the international opinion because foreigners have been targeted. Call me opportunist and biased, but we Indians have an affection when we are discussed by westerners and we should use tis opportunity to get the international community to see that there is no other place in the world, where there is a terrorist attack every week, and there is hardly a hue and cry. Apart from condolence messages and overtures about how two nations are united in their efforts to fight terror, nothing ever happens. Atleast the public does not know about it. It is time we know, because believe me when I say this, its not the government which is under trouble, its the common man.
  4. Canvas to Think Tanks: Around the world and in India, the politician always has his political party and the idealogical party. The change in attitude needs to come from the idealogues. The idealogical party is the 'school' for politicos. These breed the new generation and they need to come sensitized to these issues. Both in India and abroad
  5. Remove Economic Barriers to Trade: Terrorism is a symptom of the terrorist weighing his and his extended communities, opportunity cost. Humans are inherently self loving people. If we have an opportunity to positively influence our own lives through economic activity and trade we will choose it. It is only because of restrictive trade practices that some people don't see a profit motive and hence resort to other things. All the notions of freedom fighting is not relevant if it does not pertain to individual liberty. One man's freedom fight may be another's terrorism, but in fact it is each man's fight for individual liberty that matters in the long run
  6. Be Apathetic to certian things: When the controversy over Da Vinci Code's blow to Christianity was being discussed, the author Dan Brown made a great observation. It was only since the publication of his book that religious groups started recognizing that their beliefs were under threat. He said that it was not his book that will kill religion, but apathy towards it. We spend time being apathetic towards the terrorists until they cause a commotion. We should be apathetic to irrationality and kill it, not apathetic towards the terror attacks.
  7. Educate the Children: About the principles of Liberty. Every child should know that he can do anything he wants to; as long as he does not cause harm to another. "Your Right to Swing Ends Where My Nose Begins"
  8. Educate the Children: About responsibility. Every man is the cause of all that he experiences. Most people have issues with others, with groups, with idealogies. But in the end it is how one individually responds and reacts to things that makes the difference. Teach them to adapt a constructive approach.
  9. Educate the Children: That government is an abstraction for delegating responsibility of actions which individuals cannot influence. And it has been grossly overused. Each person can individually decide what is good for him in the market, about trade and commerce. The government should not have this responsibility, nor can it have a positive influence in the true sense. Governments should restrict themselves to their prime function - protecting its citizens from physical harm by others and protecting property rights. My actions cannot influence (in a big way, individually) when it comes to preventing terrorists from comadeering police vans and shooting at me. This I appoint a government to help me against. I can however decide how much money I need to save and how much I consume and how I price the intellectual capabilities I have, in free trade. I know what perception of value is, in an exchange.
  10. Have Active Minds: We are told from the days we are born that we should have an open mind towards everything. Objectivist thought neatly points out that an open mind to everything is an open mind to even a bad idealogy - say for instance, racism. Have an active mind. It is only man's intellect which distinguishes him from the other animate creatures and he has to make use of this mind actively and 'Reason' it out.
Viva Liberty!

"The Crown Jewel on Fire"

For Mumbaikars and anyone who has been to this historic city, a trip to the glorious site of the Gateway of India is like a pilgrimage. Not just another attraction in the area is the Taj Mahal hotel, overlooking the Gateway and the beautiful Arabian Sea. It is one of India's symbols of prosperity and enterprising nature. It is a symbol of all that is good about the wealth and eminence of Indian entrepreneurship.

Today, 27th November 2008, this 'Crown' has been set of fire. I have written before, about terrorists and the impotence which personifies their action, when my hometown of Bangalore was attacked.

And I think it makes sense to repeat that here.

"It should be very clear that the perpetrators of this heinous crime cannot hide behind any ideology since such attacks do not warrant any. It is weak cry by a few pathetic human beings whose only response to any form of competence is a blaring and violent display of their impotence. An impotence characterized by a lack of constructive capability, satiated by such pre-meditated acts of indiscriminate violence. "

I disagree with the call that Mumbaikars will keep taking things 'In their Stride'. It is a call which should be rejected outright.

People cannot be held at hostage like this.

In any case this is how I would like to remember the beautiful Taj hotel in Apollo bunder, in my favorite part of Mumbai!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

'Broken Window' theory and Mumbai's litter problem

I am guilty for I have littered. But its only because others did it too!

I use Mumbai's suburban railway network to commute to and from work everyday. I also eat the absolutely delicious chana, singg and other sinful treats which are served on platforms. I also face the problem of disposing the paper cones they come in, once I am done eating the contents . There are no dustbins in the trains. Sometimes I carry them home in my pocket and dispose of them in the dustbins there, but mostly I litter the platforms.

Like the rest of them.

I feel bad for doing it, but I say to myself - hey, there is so much litter and filth all over Mumbai that what harm could one additional little peice of paper do?

Does this sound familiar? If yes, we are all providing more evidence to strengthen the 'Broken Window' theory which a group of researchers from Netherlands have just proved.

"The idea that observing disorder can have a psychological effect on people has been around for a while...

It was this effect that his experiments, which have just been published in Science, set out to test.

His group’s first study was conducted in an alley that is frequently used to park bicycles. As in all of their experiments, the researchers created two conditions: one of order and the other of disorder. In the former, the walls of the alley were freshly painted; in the latter, they were tagged with graffiti (but not elaborately, to avoid the perception that it might be art). In both states a large sign prohibiting graffiti was put up, so that it would not be missed by anyone who came to collect a bicycle. All the bikes then had a flyer promoting a non-existent sports shop attached to their handlebars. This needed to be removed before a bicycle could be ridden.

When owners returned, their behaviour was secretly observed. There were no rubbish bins in the alley, so a cyclist had three choices. He could take the flyer with him, hang it on another bicycle (which the researchers counted as littering) or throw it to the floor. When the alley contained graffiti, 69% of the riders littered compared with 33% when the walls were clean."

Going by this theory, here is an answer to all those who think that cleaning up the streets of Mumbai is futile. If it were done, people would not see litter and would be that much more reluctant to be the ones who litter it.

It is high time. Lets keep our cities clean, then others will too.

"Government Spending to Save Businesses"

Owing to the financial meltdown many businesses are affected. Due to the fall in sales figures, many business are cutting down spending. Some are in such a bad state that they are going with a begging bowl to their governments for 'bailout' money. Automobile companies, banks, airlines - most industries have been hit badly and are pandering for major bailouts by the government.

In such a time of crisis, fearing a sharp decline in their sales and revenue streams, and fearing that they may be left out of the 'bailout money' handouts, the Mistresses and Extra-Marital Lovers Union (MEMLU) has approached the government asking for a bailout. Armed with a study by Prince and Assoc, the general secretary of MEMLU demanded that the bailout is necessary to keep the industry afloat.

Cost cutting by their consumers has been quoted as the major reason behind the industries woes. According to the survey,

"More than 80% of multimillionaires who had extra-marital lovers planned to cut back on their gifts and allowances. Still, only 12% of the multimillionaire cheaters said they plan to give up on their lovers altogether for financial reasons "

Experts from the government on the subject, however rejected MEMLU's demand citing improper estimates in the survey. "The survey has all its calculations wrong", said one government official, "We at the government are in touch with the consumers and the fall in demand is untrue; in fact my colleagues and I are confident that we can stimulate this market ourselves".

In response to a question about how the government is going to boost the souring demand in the business he said, "Government spending. Our government firmly beleives in Keynesian theories of spending by the state during a downturn and it is no different in this case." He also added that goverment officials will "personally ensure and step-in to help the industry not see the bad times".

Hat Tip to Greg Mankiw

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Valedictorian Administration

As Obama assembles his cabinet and his administration team an interesting observation has come to light. The new administration is going to be one which has a large number of very highly educated members. David Brooks, an op-ed columnist from the New York Times writes,

"Jan. 20, 2009, will be a historic day. Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) will take the oath of office as his wife, Michelle (Princeton, Harvard Law), looks on proudly. Nearby, his foreign policy advisers will stand beaming, including perhaps Hillary Clinton (Wellesley, Yale Law), Jim Steinberg (Harvard, Yale Law) and Susan Rice (Stanford, Oxford D. Phil.).

The domestic policy team will be there, too, including Jason Furman (Harvard, Harvard Ph.D.), Austan Goolsbee (Yale, M.I.T. Ph.D.), Blair Levin (Yale, Yale Law), Peter Orszag (Princeton, London School of Economics Ph.D.) and, of course, the White House Counsel Greg Craig (Harvard, Yale Law)."

For people like me who wanted Obama to lose the election, because of his left leaning, 'Socialistic' policies, this news of the centrist (atleast!) intelligentsia being at the helm of the administration is appealing. But for the sake of it, I can't resist poking fun at the new administration which looks like a reunion or alumni meet of the very best from the top Ivy League colleges in the World. In fact the same columnist also has this to say.

"If a foreign enemy attacks the United States during the Harvard-Yale game any time over the next four years, we’re screwed"

I should give more credit though to these 'Achieveatrons', after all, closer to home here in India we have some very well qualified people leading us - Dr. Manmohan Singh (Cambridge, Oxford. PH.d) and P. Chidambaram (University of Madras, Harvard MBA) - and we are not doing so bad! Right?
But, one more thing that comes to my mind is this - did you notice the number of lawyers who are there in the administration? Including the president-elect and the first lady, the count is 5 out of 9 members listed above. The actual numbers may be more. This reminds of this famous scene in the movie "The Devil's Advocate" with Al Pacino, the Devil Incarnate rants that he chose the profession of a lawyer becuase "The law puts us into everything." He goes on to say that there are more lawyers in law school than practising lawyers in the US and that "We are coming out. Guns blazing!"

Hmmm. I wonder if this is the actual second coming of you know who!

The Messiah or... ahem...

On a serious note, it is heartening to note that president elect is not veering so much to the left as many had feared/hoped he would. But still, there are some shortfalls in his selection of candidates. According to Mark Cuban, there is a lack of entreprenuers advicing Obama on his team. He writes,

"There are a lot of great minds on the list.

“Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Laura Tyson, who served as Clinton’s top economic adviser; former Fed Vice Chairman Roger Ferguson; Time Warner Inc. Chairman Richard Parsons; former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman William Donaldson and Xerox Corp. Chief Executive Officer Anne Mulcahy.

Google Inc. CEO Eric Schmidt, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and Roel Campos, an ex-SEC commissioner, and Warren Buffett are also on the advisory board.”

Notice anything missing ?

Not a single entrepreneur. Yes Warren Buffett started a business, but he will be the first to tell you that he “doesn’t do start ups”. Which means there isn’t a single person advising PE Obama that we know of that knows that its like to start and run a business in this or any economic climate. That’s a huge problem."

This is absolutely true. It is only thruough entreprenuerial vigor that one can see this battered economy regain its past glory and such calculated risk takers need to be fairly represented in the administration.

But then again, will entreprenuers want to get into politics and waste their time? They might be more interested in taking the 'worthwhile risks' in the Market rather than in the political arena!

Friday, November 21, 2008

SearchWiki by Google!

Google has launched a function called SearchWiki, which lets people customize their searches. Now, what it basically does is that it allows users to rate and 'rank-up' the search results based on their preferences, for personal consumption. While it does not affect the way others see the search results, it is an option to help users customize thier search results. The details of this is explained in the video below.

This is an interesting option and lets me customize what I want to see on the top of my search results, and a move towards a 'social networking' way of customizing and sharing my searches (and the comments I have about the content and relevance of the search results). But it still does not let my preference influence the overall search results others see. Nor does it help give me more targeted content. I have blogged previously about how a synergy between StumbleUpon and Google search results can help give better targeted content and advertising. You can read it here.

I agree with TechCrunch's call that this new addition, while being a move towards making it more interactive and social, will essentially be a test platform to see how to make searches better. Here is Michael Arrington saying,

But Google search wasn’t broken. It’s one of the few things on the Internet that isn’t. I love it, as does 62% of everyone on the Internet. This new stuff is a mess of arrows and troll comments and stuff moving around the page. That doesn’t make my search experience more useful. It makes it move to another search engine.

My guess is they’ve made the changes to see what kind of data they get, and how it can be used to make their overall search results better. So when Google says “The changes you make only affect your own searches,” I think they’re only being half-truthful. All this data, in aggregate, will certainly be used to improve Google search results in general.
This can also be a move towards changing the search paradigm from traffic based popularity ranking to a more content and page view friendly approach to search results. For instance, Google could use the data from SearchWiki to observe and rate websites which are 'ranked up' and based on the quality of comments make subjective, qualitative decisions about the popularity of content. While I don't forsee dramtic changes in search technology becuase of SearchWiki, it is an interesting development!

Up in smoke!

India's beedi makers are in trouble because of the smoking ban imposed by the Government. Mint reports that beedi makers have forecasted a job loss of 1 million in the industry because of the ban on smoking. The situation they find themselves in is funny.

“Things are looking quite bad. At one point, we even wanted to close down [production facilites] but that is impossible on account of the tough laws pertaining to closure. This (smoking) ban has made life quite difficult,” said [Ramesh] Patel
Thanks to the smoke and mirrors law which prevents smoking in 'public' places, the beedi industry is experiencing a fall in sales. But wait, thanks to the communists whom they pandered to before the smoking ban to help them 'compete' against the big tobacco companies, they are now not even able to cut their losses and bail out! The 'tough' laws preventing industries from retrenching its workers when experiencing the 'downturn' is a pet project of the CITU [Centre of Indian Trade Unions].

What makes their situation hilarious is that even their erstwhile supporters seem to have also ditched them. Mint reports,
"Pandhe, also the president of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (Citu), however, said the trade union will, however, not lend its support to beedimanufacturers. “People will smoke indoors if they want to and this will not impact their sales,” he noted "
There you have it. The very idealogical banner of protectionism has now come back and bit the beedi industry's behind!

I am not a smoker, but I think the ban on smoking is nonsense, simply because there is no way it can be implemented in a country such as ours. I daily see innumerable number of people 'flouting' the rule on the streets.

But, if you think this arguement is contradictory to the 'falling sales' arguement of the beedi manufacturers, think again. The market unfortunately runs on cues from the government. While the ban may not be effective because of it cannot be easily implemented, it has an impact on the industry value chain. The industry works because on various interconnected cogs. Farmers grow the tobacco, the beedi maker rolls the beedi, the distributor channels it and the retailer sells it. Due to the ban, while the consumer may not stop purchasing (the government argues that smokers will smoke at home and hence sales will not fall, although this may not be entirely true) the cost of making a beedi will rise. The farmer may not want to harvest tobacco fearing a fall in demand, the distributor may not channel it fearing fall in demand and the retailer may not stock it fearing that people may not buy it. This will eventually cause a fall in sales. Hence an entire industry value chain will fail.

I think the ban on smoking should be repealed. Instead a Pigouvian solution should be sought. It will make the industry either abandon a product which causes negative externalities, but still make it available for those who can 'afford' the negatives and pay for offsetting them. A market solution to the negative externality of smoking can be the only true solution.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What kind of person does this blog make me?

Remember Organizational Behaviour subjects from college? With all the 'profiling' of personality types and group exercises to help understand psychological motivations, it used to almost seem like one was being racially profiled! Anyway, one of the types of profiling that is famous is called Myers Briggs Type Indicator. I was classified as INTP - Introverted iNituitive Thinking Perceiving type. I mostly agree with the classification and a website which specializes in predicting personality type by analyzing one's blog has also confirmed this. Here is type of person my blog makes me..
INTP - The Thinkers

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.
I just love the bit about how difficult I am to understand. Now I know why my colleague finds me so difficult the understand!

Hat Tip to Greg Mankiw for the website.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Open Source Code

I came across this wonderful statement on the ideology behind the Open Source revolution from an interview, in Mint, with Bob Young - one of the founders of Red Hat:

"Only in the software industry, the vendor had control over the way the consumers use the product. Imagine you buy a car, and the dealer who sold you the car had the key to the hood of the car. If your engine starts making a noise, he can say that it is not a bug, but a feature."

Brilliant! Read the whole article here. I particularly like the way he says that he is not a free software exponent, but a free market exponent!

Monday, October 20, 2008

What is bound to happen...

This is a simple explanation of the financial crisis and the current response towards it.

Illustration 1 shows the global financial system as it existed until very recently. The lenders deposited with retail banks which gave them back interest on the capital. The retail banks invested in the stock markets where the investment banks underwrote stock equity for the various businesses and also made loans out of the capital invested with it. The central banks and government officials had a significant say in the whole system; they dictated the interest rates (kept them low => Caused a bubble) but they also followed a misguided monetary policy based on fiat currency and fractional reserve banking. Life went on; but behind the balance sheets, the investment banks were betting on toxic assets, and the retail banks were making loans to individuals and organizations with bad credit histories.

Illustration 2 shows what has been happening in the global financial markets since early September 2008. The investment banks and retail banks are going bankrupt because of toxic assets - that they have been bundling and selling - on the stock market, not giving them any returns. The stock market has crashed. Lenders are spooked and are diminishing in confidence and are unwilling to lend money to banks hence causing a credit crunch, which is impeding the way retail banks function. Now, the government official's and central bank's role in the economy is large; they are continuing the misguided monetary policy and still 'banking' on fractional reserve banking and fiat currency systems. They are now buying assets in toxic and underperforming businessess and financial institutions, while still knowing that they are worthless assets. This is having no impact on the confidence of the retail investor who still does not trust his money with the banks, further worsening the credit crunch. His assets are also wiped out in the stock market fall denying him the ability to even lend back to the banks if they regain his confidence.

Illustration 3 shows what is expected if the increased role of the Central bank continues the way it is. The nation will become a toxic asset and this would have been caused by none other than the most toxic asset of them all, which is called 'Government Intervention'

Don't believe my prediction as depicted in illustration 3? Why not atleast listen to the scholar who knows more than any one alive about monetary history - the 92 year old Anna Schwartz! Here is an article where she has made the simple arguement,

"Everything works much better when wrong decisions are punished and good decisions make you rich."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Capitalism - Still an Unknown Ideal

While I was chatting with a friend on the phone this past weekend I was asked a question. "Has Capitalism failed? Now that everyone is questioning the lack of regulation which has led to the near collapse of the global economies, isn't it time to rethink the primacy of Capitalism?" Both of us - let me mention upfront, are laymen; salaried employees who are not experts at economics. But ,we have studied economics and its many theories as part of our MBA course. Both of us are still students of economics and are learning to appreciate the many nuances which each theory in economics poses to the interested mind. But when it comes to the debate between which solution - Free Market Capitalism, Keynesian Economics or Communism should be at the helm of the commanding heights of the economy, one of us - me, is not open for debate. The solution has to come from Laissez Faire capitalism. I may have doubts about how a free market solution can be achieved to a particular problem, even profess the need for certain degree of policy regulation, but it is irreconcilable to me that such a solution can be better than one which a free market can provide - in the long run.

The problem, I think, which leads people to end up believing that Free Market Capitalism is bound to fail, or has failed is the undue importance to human greed which people attribute to an unregulated economy. It is common to hear people say of the collapse of Lehman Brothers that "Isn't it obvious? When you let people indulge their greed unabatedly, there is bound to be such failures. We should restrict their blatant freedom!". But this is a knee jerk reaction. One which casts a doubt over a system based on the symptoms of the affliction ailing it, and not the cause. This is beautifully described in an article by Quinglian He, a chinese economist. When asked "Does The Free Markets Corrode Moral Character" she replies "No" and rightly points out -

"Ofcourse, the market economy is not a perfect system. But the market's flaws stem from the actions and motivations of its human participations rather from its design"

Free markets allow us to be what we are. It gives all of us a playing field where we compete based on merit and the rewards are directly proportional to the level of risk we are willing to take based on the merit of our judgements and capability. Free markets nurture the individual's rights and allow him to pursue his goals. It is also a test to his character and as Tyler Cowen points out,

"By placing more wealth and resources at our disposal, [free market] tends to boost and accentuate whatever character tendencies we already possess."

Ayn Rand wrote in her book "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal" about the form, nature and purpose of government as being a means to protect man's right - protecting him from physical violence. It is from the person who is bound to utilize the unregulated free market for personal corruption and greed, that the government needs to protect others from. Not regulate the system itself. Any other interference by the government in the functioning of the market is detrimental. But most people find this line of reasoning a hard pill to swallow. Today when governments around the globe are bending backwards to come up with plans to 'bail out' underperforming financial institutions, it seems a far cry for anyone to keep believing in the merits of 'unabated capitalism' and the extent of greed of people who are not regulated.

But, this is again a case of assigning blame to the symptom and not the cause. It is a mistake to point blame at the capitalist ideaology for the current financial industry meltdown, because it is not under a purely capitalist system that these financial institutions functioned. Observe the conditions of pseudo-capitalism which has been at the commanding heights of every major economy in the world today. There is always an ever present creditor of final resort which each of these countries have - a central bank. As rightly pointed out by this article,

"Additionally, the only reason why the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were able to guarantee nearly $5 trillion in home loands with merely $100 billion in net equity is that both their management and other market operators knew that the government would step in if things took a turn for the worse. Acting as lenders of last resort, the Federal Deposit Insuarance Corporation (FDIC), the treasury department, and the Federal Reserve Bank fueled the crisis by encouraging a decade of careless lending"

A classic case of a Moral Hazard where the proper functioning of a free market does not happen because the players are tempted to risk more than what their judgements and analysis lead them to believe, because a pseudo net is ever apparent to cushion their fall. Free markets punish those who make unwise decisions and reward only those who take calculated risks. Free market success stories are those which exhibit fundamental growth and true value creation as against a 'sentiment' based growth.

There are many opinions about the bailout plans which are unfolding around the world - most, even pro-libertarian ones are saying that maybe a bailout was inevitable. But interventionist solutions are unfortunately never better than what a free market can come up with - in the long run. It is almost uncanny to see how the 'bailouts' have started popping up across the world after the US Treasury department came up with the $700 billion plan. It is seen as the repercussion of the failure of the 'capitalist bastion' of United States of America and leads many an undecided mind to disbelieve the essential efficiency of a free market.

To such doubters, I can only say - please observe where you cast the shadows of your doubts. The world may not be facing this problem in the first place had the true ideals of Free Markets been adhered to. The question of greed and favouritism does not hold too much merit in a free market economy because, like Milton Friedman said,

"In a capitalist society, it costs money to discriminate, and it is very difficult given the impersonal nature of market transactions"

Viva Liberty!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Co-opetition, collusion and free markets

Co-opetition is when traditional competitors in a market form a pact and offer a single product, service or an experience to the consumers in order to avoid splitting the market shares. It is optimal when the market is saturated and further fragmentation is not beneficial to the players involved.

Can co-opetition be a good solution all the times?

Consider the case of the flower vendors outside Dadar railway station in Mumbai. The small lane where the sell their flowers is a key artery which all the pedestrians use to get to the railway station from workplaces in the Dadar area. Come a festival season, this street is so crowded that getting to the station for commuters is nearly impossible! Now, assume that people who regularly use this street all decide to work out a deal with the flower vendors.

Assume that deal is simple - the flower sellers will sit only on one side of the road thereby allowing the commuters to freely use the other side of the road. In return, the flower sellers who are displaced could be incentivized monetarily or sell their daily quota to other flower sellers who sit on the side of the road where they are not displaced at prices slightly higher than what they would sell to consumers. All these transactions are facilitated by a small association formed with participation from the flower sellers and commuters. There is no involvement from the law enforcement agencies or the government.

Unfortunately, although I am a firm believer of free markets and voluntary regulations (like the one mentioned above), the following concerns pop into my head immediately:

  • The above system will work when the monetary incentive which the displaced flower sellers get is more than what they can make in the free market. It won't be business sense to be party to such a scheme if the flower seller ends up making a loss. Hence, the value of the incentive would essentially need to be above the profit of the most profitable flower seller. A threshold price which will need to be borne by the commuters.
  • How would the consumers distribute the cost of bearing the incentive given? As the commuters are not a homogeneous community and there would be many who would not be willing to partake any financial cost and not mind the madness.
  • Where does co-opetition end and collusion begin? The displaced and not-displaced flower sellers can soon start forming cartels and look to make profits in the arbitrage thereby offsetting the commuter's costs.
And the problems I can forsee are many more. Some trivial and some profound. What about enforcing the framework of the law on those who default? It is when I see such situations where the market is so dense and players innumerable that I feel that regulation from the government is the only feasible way out. One overarching rule which all people have to abide by and enforced by the government. Although I hate myself for admitting this, I doubt free market mechanics to be able to handle such a situation when the market players are compelled to make a profit by any means possible, so that one can feed oneself the next day.

One mega solution would be to privatize the entire suburban railway system in Mumbai. This would force the private company to make the surroundings, entries and exits to the station commuter friendly to keep up business. This would involve costs, which eventually would have to be borne by the commuter, atleast initially - and given the fabric of current Indian society, such a plan would face severe opposition. So we are stuck in between a rock and a hard place. Bold plans like privatizing the suburban railway system in Mumbai would never get off the ground because of the opposition, and even small bottom up approaches like voluntary self imposed regulations by the people who are involved in the matter is also doomed to fail because of the immense number of variables. One would need to impose a very strict 'Police Raj' to see that all these variables are harnessed - which is defeating the very premise that it is a voluntary.

What really bugs me is, how then can a society like that of India be, even gradually moved towards a free market economy from its current socialistic bent of mind. Top down, mega projects would fail because they would never get off the ground and would have to be championed, ironically by the government itself, and bottom-up approaches which would act as shining examples of how efficiently a voluntary free market regulation can work, showcasing it so that it can be adopted in other situations, also are doomed to fail due to the sheer number of hurdles it needs to overcome!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Three Dimensions of Photography

A recent article by Christopher Hitchens for Vanity Fair, commemorating the culture magazine's 25th anniversary since its relaunch in 1983 narrates the story behind the famous photographs which have graced the magazine pages over the years. The author writes, during the course of the essay

"To have once or twice worked with photographers like James Nachtwey is to have appreciated the way in which - contrary to a once cherished belief of mine - the photographic image can possess a moral weight greater than words"

Photography to me, is an exalted art form. Never in the past four thousand years of human existence had an art form come close to the pinnacles which photography has reached in the past two centuries. Photographs as chronicles of our times are a medium par excellence. Great photographs over time have captured in mind blowing detail every aspect of our lives - from daily mundane activities to avant-garde expressions of human exisitence. But the beauty of photography also lies in the abstraction they so easily impress upon their viewers. Literature poses a level of abstraction which is presented in the tone and style of the writer's language. Painting delves into a level of abstraction which is presented through the palette of the painter, sculpture in the chisel of the sculptor. These art forms are essentially two dimensional. They are either seen from the perspective of the writer, the painter, the sculptor or through the perspective of the reader and viewer. The characters of literature are moulded by the style of the writer. The painter's brushstrokes paint the emotion of the subject and the sculptor's chisel shapes the subjects form. It is only photography which allows for three dimensions in perspective - that of the photographer, that of the viewer or audience and that of the subject which is being captured.

It is true that the influence of the photographer on the subject is critical and the photograph may be in essence what the photographer 'intends' it to be. But essentially, photographs are capsules of time and essence which necessarily include in them an additional variable - the implicit nature of the subject. Be it a 'capture' of an animate character in a portrait or a 'capture' of an inanimate object like a building, the very nature of the subject is never lost in the photograph. It remains despite all external perceptions, all superimpositions it is subject to - it remains in the texture, it remains in the film grain and it remains in the exposure.

From my collection - August 2008

The story of a photograph can be told through three distinct narrations. One is the story of the photographer, who through the camera in his hand tries to capture for posterity what his eyes see. He considers the camera to be an extension of his sight, hopefully invisible to others. He hopes the photograph to be an extension of his thought, made visible outside his mind. The second story is that of the viewer. He considers the visual stimuli of the photograph and tries to fathom the meaning of the frame of time. He considers the opinion of what has been captured by the extended sight of the photographer. He tries to understand the nature of the subject. The thrid story is that of the subject - who may never see the photograph or might not have the capability of sight itself, but nevertheless has a story to tell which is expressed in the way the subject is captured at that moment in time.

I was once asked to come up with a quotation to describe photography, to put down in words what a photograph stands for. After much deliberation and thought I came up with the following-

"Look into my eyes, you may know what I see; Look at my photograph, you may know what I think!"

I won much praise for this. But I still believe that, just like prose is two dimensional in the way it can be understood, explaining what a photograph is - in prose is two dimensional and therefore incomplete. Hence even this essay here is also incomplete.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Better Humor

Humor is a rare gift among humans. The above cartoon is hilarious. Had the comic artist storyboarded it with a minor difference it would have been excellent. Here - in text - is what I suggest.

Frame 1: Employee on his bed, waking up late, on the phone telling the employer "Good Afternoon Sir! Horrible Traffic Jam Sir. Will be coming in late for the meeting, Sir"

Frame 2: Employer actually stuck in a traffic jam as depicted in the cartoon above saying "hmmm... we are waiting for you. Make it fast!"

That would really make this hilarious!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hype Cycle of Emerging Technology and Me

Research Firm Gartner has recently identified five technologies which are about to reach the peak of the hype cycle. Hype Cycle according to Wikipedia is the

"Graphic representation of the maturity, adoption and business application of specific technologies"

I was just wondering how many of these have an impact or application on my life today.

Green IT

While I am very interested in this topic and would adopt a Green IT product if I had an option, my contribution to the 'Hype' or its impact on me (directly) is not significant. Green computing is the study and use of computing efficiently and the only exposure I have had to this are chain emails which warn us about the amount of power that can be saved by switching off the computer when it is not in use!

Cloud Computing

This is something I hear about very frequently. But despite being among those considered to be 'tech savvy' I have in the past made the mistake of thinking of Web2.0 and Cloud Computing are one and the same. Even as I write this I have not yet read Wikipedia articles about them to clarify my doubts. This according to me is a situation where innovation or 'invention' in the IT/Internet domain don't really have the same impact as 'inventions' in the classical hardware scheme of things. I recently purchased a digital transcriber which allows me to capture in digital form what I write on a paper, using this device. I am fascinated by the technology behind this and consider this to be groundbreaking in its utility. But a similar innovation in the IT/Internet domain would not be a tangible, physical product. Its utility will be manifest as an improvement in the way data is stored, retreived etc. This would result in downloading and uploading speeds to increase. Great! But the pace at which it happens has an inherent incrementality to it, which steals the shock and awe of a physical invention!

Social Networking

Now this is one emerging technology which I agree as having significant impact on my daily activity. Social networking has been pretty popular now for the past 3 years and I have been involved in various social networking sites and have actually found it to be useful in helping connect me to old friends. But if Hype Cycle peak is acheived when business application of the emerging technology becomes apparent, I fail to see this happening yet. I haven't been influenced to purchase anything yet as a result of being part of this social networking sites. Although, I can understand that information about me that the webmasters of these sites have access to, can be used to market products to me, I think I still haven't come across a such a proposition.

Video Telepresence

This is a very attractive technology, But I haven't yet been exposed to any business application which helps me use this effectively. I did see advanced prototypes of this in HP Cooltown in Singapore back in 2007, but have not had any business application of the same. But this is one technology which I can see being very prevalent, atleast in the near future - especially aided by the growth in cloud computing!


While I blog regularly in its traditional sense, I am yet to get onto this new phenomena of Microblogging. But some aspects of this seem odd to me. Earlier today I had an arguement with a colleague about the whole need to broadcast 'What I am Doing Right Now' to others, which is one of the main drivers behind the Microblogging buzz. I can see it as a superb tool at the workplace to replace old systems like sending memo. It is mainly facilitated through the mobile phone technology, using which most people Microblog. India with its already booming mobile telecom market is I think poised to get on the Microblogging bandwagan. I might just do so too!

Going by my dialog above, one can currently conclude that I am not really Tech Savvy. This I guess would be a victory for my colleague Freddie who claims I am an old relic who does not understand the impact of technology!
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