May 12, 2019

The interest in free trade and related matters - a silent story from google trends

Google web-search is a rough indicator of the hotness/popularity of the topic.
Here's what you get for some of the words that this blog cares about, if you see the popularity trend in Google web searches across the world over last 15 years.

1. Free Trade

2. WTO
3. Free trade agreements

4. Tariff Barrier

5. Non Tariff Barrier

6. Trade war

7. International Trade

8. E Commerce 

Mar 24, 2019

MSMEs in cross border E Commerce – Challenges, Opportunities and Trade Facilitation Measures

MSME's and E Commerce

MSMEs currently contribute to around 40% of exports of India. E-Commerce is an area that has shown tremendous potential for growth, especially for MSMEs. It is so because MSMEs suffer from certain handicaps in traditional trade models, with regard to access and scale, that are ameliorated in an E-Commerce model. This post shall elaborate some of the challenges and opportunities that pertain specifically to MSMEs when it comes to E-Commerce trade across border before deliberating on the facilitation measures specific to MSMEs.


Data from Statista show that retail E commerce trade will grow to around 4.8 Trillion USD by 2021 – around two years from now. Around 30% of this is expected to be cross border trade through E-Commerce route. Data also shows that 82% of enterprises involved in such cross border trade are micro and small scale in size (definition of SMEs vary across countries/organisations). 


image of SMEs and E Commerce


Opportunities for MSMEs in Ecommerce

E commerce creates opportunities for MSMEs through 
a)     Easier Outreach potential 
b)    Easier Market Research
c)     Easier Reputation building
d)    Easier Marketing expenditures
e)    Development of ecosystems creating synergy

E Commerce brings a paradigm shift in terms of dealing in delivery time, warehousing concepts, customized production and social marketing. The traditional model of value chains are being broken up – for example, the evolution of shipping from bulk cargo to containers of last four decades is giving way to, what one may call, "parcelization" (there’s no such word as of now in the dictionary) where individual parcels - recall the amazon box parcel you got last time around – play the role of a unit of measure in transport cargo.   

Challenges for MSMEs in E-Commerce

The efficiency of logistics and cross border procedures are yet to catch up with the blazing speed with which E Commerce has grown. The volumes of E Commerce shipments are straining the existing logistics industry and associated business costs. 

E Commerce is also challenging border regulatory agencies and they have not evolved sufficiently fast to cater to the emergence of E Commerce. The customs operates with laws made decades ago with a priority on border controls and emphasis on duty collection over trade facilitation. 

Five types of trade costs associated for MSMEs in particular that challenge the faster growth of cross border E Commerce trade are: 

a)     Tariffs and duties
b)    Technical barrier to trade – standards that are rigged against SMEs
c)     Documentation requirements
d)    Border costs – fee/charges associated with border crossing
e)    Logistics costs – transport, insurance and warehousing costs 

The cost of delay at border clearances add up to the detriment of MSMEs, squeezing their competitiveness. 

Vulnerability of MSMEs in international trade

The vulnerabilities arise due to the fact that MSME's 

a)     Need more human resource to export per unit of revenue due to scale of operations 
b)  They Have limited access to financing and costlier financing when compared to bigger corporations with better access to credit. 
c)     MSMEs trades are usually categorized under high risk items under Risk Management Systems and are subject to greater border controls 
d)    MSMEs usually cannot afford high quality logistics operators to handle their shipment leading to sub-par performance on logistics front. 
e)    MSMEs usually export small volumes of low value added products leading to longer breakeven times for the firms. 

Trade Facilitation Measures for MSMEs in Ecommerce

Trade facilitation Measures should focus on MSME's needs if India wishes to grow in this area. The bigger multinational organisations have their in-house teams to manage supply chains and optimise the operations. Giant firms operate efficiently, optimise logistics, and involve themselves with policymakers to ensure that the border policies don't harass them. The bulk of these organisations ensure that Governments heed to their demands in the interest of earnings and employments that these firms bring to the country. That's not so when it comes to MSMEs. That's where forming associations for protecting interest of MSMEs become important. Without an association or representative body, it is difficult to hear the voices of MSMEs. 

Many countries approach the trade facilitation to SMEs through a system of de-minimis where customs duties are not levied for products with value less than a certain threshold. This encourages trade while sparing disproportionate efforts by customs in collecting what in the end adds up to a relatively small percentage of revenue. India has granted certain easier tax processing and compliances for small scale industries through the composition scheme. However, for inter state and export transactions, SMEs still don't enjoy sufficient freedom. While tax evasion is certainly an issue from revenue loss point of view, but if the revenue arm enjoys overbearing say in the area of taxation of SMEs, we may end up stifling growth. While the SMEs grow, it is better to let a small bit of revenue slip in the interest of higher employment and prosperity. This, alas, is an approach that appears lost in the din for maximisation of revenue in India. 

Also, schemes that are designed for greater ease of transaction at border, such as the Authorized Economic Operator (AEO) program - a program flowing from the Trade Facilitation Agreement of WTO -  are heavily skewed to help multinationals and bigger corporations. A rethink is required to make such programs suitable to MSMEs. 

Finally, the barriers to trade for MSMEs arising out of technical and non-technical barriers erected by various governments needs a look into. As world have negotiated away the tariffs, a common way to protect local industries is through erection of the so called Non Tariff Barriers (NTBs). The rise of NTBs in recent years has affected MSMEs badly. This has carried over to the E-commerce trade. 

To sum up, trade facilitation for MSMEs needs a paradigm shift in the way the border compliances and regulatory functions are designed. Unless addressed adequately, we may end up in a situation where the bigger organisations end up gaming the cross border E Commerce and leading to an unequal, non level playing field for SMEs.



Jan 31, 2019

Understanding beef-ban, prohibition and prostitution in India through repugnant market theory

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Bans are not always effective as we know. Gujarat's prohibition has lead to a thriving black market for liquor, whereas the ban on prostitution has held up relatively well in India with only a small steady state black market that has not grown bigger. Selling and consumption of beef on the other hand, where banned, has been effective to a large extent - to the determent of the health of cattle and leather industry - as was witnessed during recent ban on cow slaughter in Uttar Pradesh.

Bans are always blunt instruments. It is necessary for a public policymaker to study the effects from the prism of effectiveness of achieving policy objectives of a ban, over the negative externalities, and also lack of effectiveness arising due to administration issues. It is not that a stiffer punishment would automatically lead to desired outcome. To cite an extreme example, rape in India attracts imprisonment of 7 to 10 years. Murder attracts life term or hanging. If the punishment of rape is increased to life term or hanging, as was being mooted in media for cases of child rape, it might lead to adverse result where the rapist kills the victim as the punishment doesn't increase by the additional act of murder, whereas the killing of victim may eliminate the witness!

Such analysis may be grown rigorously. An interesting recent paper tackles such questions from a game theory point of view for market of repugnant transactions. Co-written by the noble prize winning author Alvin Roth of Stanford, it tries to measure repugnancy along two dimensions of extent and intensity and tries to predict the outcome of banned activities with certain assumptions on initial conditions and progress. In the words of the paper:

This paper proposes a simple, stylized theoretical model to help understand why some transactions can be effectively eliminated by legally banning them, while others are more resistant, to the point that they may be impossible to extinguish or even suppress to low levels, so that it might be wise to consider different goals for dealing with them.

The paper takes the example of drug market to develop the analysis. However, the results generally hold good across various examples including prostitution, banned meat trade and so on. An interesting result along the way is that the existence of a market before banning plays a role in the effectiveness of the ban subsequently. In the words of the authors: 

...Before beginning the analysis, consider how policy makers could have some control over the initial states. One example would be the regulation of synthetic drugs. When a new synthetic drug becomes available, it takes time before it can be banned. The number of users it attracts before it is banned may be an important factor for the prospects of extinguishing the market. So the speed of initial regulation may be consequential, and there may be markets that could be successfully prevented only by prompt action, and not when they have become well established...

I quote some of the analysis and results below: 


...if the market is insufficiently repugnant in extent or intensity, even substantial legal penalties “on the books” may be insufficient to deter participation if those penalties cannot gain enough social support to be reliably enforced. Note also that if the feasible punishment is not too large, and if the extent of repugnance among the population is low, then even the maximum intensity of repugnance among those who wish to ban the market may be insufficient to control the blackmarket. And as an illegal market becomes larger, it becomes more likely that those who wish to participate in it can do so without encountering those who would penalize them. Consequently, black markets that have operated successfully for a long time become increasingly hard to eliminate if the underlying social parameters and legal punishments cannot be changed.


But changing social repugnance, and even increasing legal punishments in an ef- fective way, may be difficult. Policy makers may be able to influence the extent or intensity of repugnance by education and public relations. But because legislators don’t have easy or direct access to who feels how much repugnance, this is not likely to be anywhere near as easy as passing legislation. At the very least, chang- ing widespread attitudes takes time. And increasing mandated punishments beyond what social repugnance will support can be counterproductive if it makes citizens less likely to report illegal transactions and juries less likely to convict.  So we may never be able to completely eliminate some markets, despite the fact that they cause considerable harm. Hence harm reduction should be in our portfolio of design tools for dealing with repugnant markets that we can’t extinguish despite the harm they may do.


Therein lies the lesson for a public policymaker. 

Jan 8, 2019

GVCs and the tariffs - a simple fact the free traders miss

A common argument of free trade supporters runs this way:
  1. Tariffs create barriers to movement of goods - India has high tariffs on various goods 
  2. Global Value Chains(GVCs) operate better with low barriers for movement of goods
  3. Therefore high tariffs are responsible for India's lack of integration into various GVCs
In principle the argument is correct.  For a graduate student who has completed a course on International Economics, the above argument is obvious. This belief carries over to the practising economists, and journalists who consult the economists. That's why we read a lot of criticism of the government when tariffs are raised - as they lead to breaking away from GVCs, or rather in India's case, not getting integrated into them.
A simple case where a duty of 10% is levied every time a component crosses the border in the journey through the value chain, where a value addition of 30% takes place at each step, leads to a situation where the prices build up pretty fast as can be seen in figure below. Starting with an initial value of 100, the component start showing significant difference in price by the time it crosses a dutiable border the third time, showing that a country with even a 10% duty at border becomes a drag in the value chain, and is liable to be opted out of the chain. Thus the logic holds.

image of GVC value chain tariff duty competitiveness
Effect of duty cascades with each border crossing making the duty levying participant uncompetitive in GVC

In practise the above argument is not as parsimonous. The argued tariff effect on GVC participation is exaggerated. Lest I be misunderstood, let me state here that high tariffs are always a blunt instrument to use and I am not a supporter of blanket high tariffs on goods, especially the ones that are part of GVCs.  However, the argument that tariffs at the border are sole reason for India not getting into GVCs is flawed. Here's why.

India, and most other countries, work under the principle that "Goods are exported, taxes and duties are not" when it comes to exports. One may call it by various names ranging from 'zero rating of exports' to 'duty nullification schemes', but the fact remains that policy practitioners all around the world understand this problem and devise means to counter this effect when it comes to goods that are re-exported with/without value addition. Such schemes also do NOT run counter to the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (ASCM) at WTO.

India has mainly three ways of handling such border crossings without penalising the imports that are meant for GVCs/re-export with/without value addition -
a) Advance authorisation scheme - a popular duty nullification scheme where duties are not collected at border with an assurance of re-export of goods with a minimum value addition of 15%
b) Duty free import authorisation scheme - same as above with a value addition of 20%
c) Dedicated duty free enclaves such as Special Economic Zones and bonded manufacturing zones such as EOUs.
I am aware of such schemes being run in many countries and there can't be any objection of these schemes at WTO. In addition, India also enters frequently into various trade agreements with partners where duty free access is provided.

I consider the non-tariff barriers (NTBs) more important than tariff measures which are countered through these schemes. In addition to NTBs, India also suffers from relatively poor infrastructure, longer distance and hence travel times, poor investment in industries, and lack of economies of scale in manufacturing sectors where GVCs are prevalent (e.g. electronics/semiconductors) and such other factors that matter more in GVCs than a simple border tax that the free trade theorists abhor.

The above needs to be kept in mind when we argue against a mere border tax effecting our chances at participating in GVCs. 


Excel workbook for the above picture is attached for reference below:

Dec 23, 2018

Ease of Doing Business and States export performance

Do business reforms lead to better export performance? Are there any other measure(s) that correlate with export performance by Indian states? We can measure merchandise export performance of states against Ease of Doing Business and also against the Logistics Ease Across Different States (LEADS) index for some preliminary understanding of the matter in Indian context.

India has a Business Reforms score that measures the individual states in terms of ease of doing business, on similar lines as that of World Bank's (WB) Ease of Doing Business (EoDB). This is to help identify the reforms required to make doing business easier. The score card - let's call it EoDB for the sake of the simplicity - is maintained for all states and union territories of India.

LEADS index is relatively new. It has been created on the lines of World Bank's logistics performance index and covers various states and union territories of India. The 2018 report prepared by Deloitte for ministry of commerce can be found here.

The below table (mostly self explanatory) of various states with their merchandise export intensity with respect to their GDPs is compared with LEADS and EoDB scores shows that there exists a stronger correlation with respect to LEADS and merchandise exports (correlation coeff. of around 0.65) and lesser with regard to EoDB (correlation coeff. of around 0.4).


Even visually, it can be seen that LEADS scores seem to better correlate with export performance over EoDB score. This may be primarily due to the inherent methodology differences. LEADS covers an important determinant of export performance - the ease of logistics.

One more figure to ponder from the LEADS report:

image of logistics leads eodb states india export performance
A better LEADS performance indicates better exports and better GDP - not necessarily causation but good correlation






Dec 15, 2018

November numbers for foreign trade - some points

The November 2018 numbers for India's foreign trade are here. The summary for April-Nov 2018 is as shown in the figure below:

image for India foreign trade statistics
Trade stats of India - Summary
At this rate, we would end up with an annual deficit of around 192 Billion USD, a significant jump from a deficit of around 162 Billion USD during last financial year.

The below are the numbers for last financial years imports listed in descending order of value of imports (excel online may take time to load).


The first item in the list, the mineral fuels and oils, is a necessary need as India doesn't produce any oil. Out of the imported crude coming under this chapter, we refine and export around 38 Billion USD refined petroleum products. Thus the net deficit is around 94 Billion USD. This is the fuel oil bill for India every year.

The second item in the list, the pearls precious stones and metal, mainly constitute of imports of diamonds and gold. India is the largest diamond polisher, and one of the biggest gold importer for domestic consumption. Under this chapter, India exports out around 42 Billion USD, bringing the net imports to around 32 Billion USD.

The third item in the list is worrisome. The import bill is around 48 Billion USD, and growing each year, and we don't have any significant exports in this chapter. The main imports under this chapter pertains to mobile phones and other consumer electronic equipments which contributes to roughly 25 Billion USD. The entire import is almost a deficit, making this chapter the second biggest net import item for India.
image of Mobile phone imports into India 21 Billion US Dollars
Split of major imports under Chapter 85 - Mobile phones contribute around 21 Billion USD

The fourth item in the list belongs to the capital goods, engineering equipment, and machinery where we have significant imports at around 38 Billion USD and exports at around 18 Billion USD. So the deficit is around 20 Billion USD.

Of the above, the urgent and important area for attention is the third item - the electronics. Despite efforts and incentive, this area is taking time to catch up. The efforts till now consisted of four noticeable steps:

- Incentives to invest in electronics through schemes such as M-SIPS
- Tariff barrier for completely assembled electronics imports
- Efforts to simplify policies for electronics sector
- General efforts towards ease of doing business

One wonder what more should be done, after missing out on the scaling up at the right time. A solution could be to think about the new technologies that would emerge in next 20 years and start investing early. The policy measures to support infant electric cars industry is bang on.

Dec 11, 2018

Dhaka Vs Ranchi - a post GST scenario analysis of apparel imports

Under the existing system of trade and indirect taxation prevailing in textile and garment sector, does it makes more sense for a Bangalore stockist of apparels to import from Dhaka in Bangladesh over buying from Ranchi? Here's the self explanatory calculation.

Assumptions: Bangladesh usually sources fabric from China while an Indian supplier sources fabric from an Indian supplier based in Gujarat/other states. I shall assume that the price at the factory gate of fabric manufacturer for both Chinese and Indian fabric is same - usually Chinese fabric is cheaper. The transportation cost from China to Bangladesh is same as that from Gujarat/other states to Ranchi - usually Chinese transport cost would be smaller. I shall also assume, for sake of simplicity that labor cost in Bangladesh is same as that in Ranchi, while a ballpark analysis tells that Bangla labor is cheaper by 40% over Indian labor.

(Excel online may take some time to load the table below - I shall be thankful and glad to correct any errors if pointed out)



From the above, it appears that Dhaka has a clear advantage over Ranchi despite adverse assumptions towards Dhaka.

Before GST, the IGST component paid at border was not refunded to the importer. That barrier was significant.

Did all this add up in the end? Did the imports really rise for apparels after introduction of GST? The below graph for pre and post GST quarters of import under ITC-HS 61 and 62 (apparels) from Bangladesh into India is self explanatory. The red tick is the point where GST was introduced.

image of apparel imports from Bangladesh into india
Apparel imports (ITC-HS chapters 61 + 62) from Bangladesh into India - Before and After GST


image of post GST rise in  imports after GST

Looks like Dhaka is indeed making sense over Ranchi and all other apparel cities of India.

Edit 1: Thanks Moin for pointing out the error in calculation. Rectified now. 




Nov 9, 2018

MSME support and outreach - The 100 districts 100 days initiative

On 2nd November 2018, the Prime Minister of India launched schemes for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) which he termed as the Diwali gift for the hard working honest entrepreneurs of India. It was termed 'Support and Outreach' initiative for MSMEs. The initiative was launched for 100 districts to be continued for 100 days. 

MSMEs are important for the growth story of India. There is no certain way to measure the number of MSMEs. The numbers given out by various agencies varies from 60 million units (CII) of operational MSMEs to 120 million units (NSSO). They are supposed to contribute around 7% to the GDP through manufacturing activities (share of manufacturing in GDP is around 26% in India), and 25% to GDP through services (share of services in GDP is around 58%).  MSMEs contribute around 40 to 45% in total exports from India based on various reports. This number too has unsure origins. Nevertheless, even with the data inaccuracies, there is no doubt that MSMEs contribute in a big way as these cover all the mom and pop businesses in the economy. The unfortunate part is that they are not adequately covered under the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and therefore we cannot expect the GST returns to cover them for raw data purposes.

The prime minister launched the so called twelve initiatives to support MSMEs in India, and termed them as his Diwali gift to the MSMEs. It is a known fact that demonetisation and GST has adversely affected this sector and given the approaching elections it was important to address this issue at the earliest. In addition, the credit squeeze the banks are facing in the light of Non Performing Assets (NPAs) hitting the balance sheets is hurting MSMEs the most. However, what came as a surprise is that none of these initiatives, barring an interest subvention and some ease of procedures, adds anything significant to the lives of MSMEs. Interest subvention is a kind of subsidy and any subsidy is a sure shot political winner at any point of time, albeit at a great cost to the taxpaying public. However, what's moot is how much these initiatives would actually help MSMEs in surviving the downturn and actually grow.

image of MSME support and outreach
MSMEs support and outreach - 12 Diwali gifts


The most celebrated of the initiatives was the 'loan under 59 minutes' scheme where MSMEs would get 'in-principle' approval for loans under 59 minutes when they apply through a dedicated web portal (www.psbloansin59minutes.com) developed for the purpose. This portal works by linking the MSMEs with the GST portal and bases its credit worthiness on GST returns, income tax returns on owners, bank statements of last six months and other KYC details. MSMEs who file regular GST returns and have good income tax return profiles of the owners constitute a small minority among the MSMEs. This minority never faced credit crunch in the first place. So one wonders which MSMEs pain is this initiative trying to ease. And the in-principle approval by the public sector bank is only 'in-principle'. One still has to visit the bank physically and submit all relevant details in paper form again to the bank for final approval which would take more than a week. The pain lies in the approval process. Given the credit squeeze the banks are facing, and the fear of enquiry the bank managers face if a loan goes bad, the banks shun lending to anything even slightly risky.

While not entirely new, some initiatives are laudable. Various clearances such as separate water and air pollution clearances have been merged into one, and this can be now based on self-certification for a majority of MSMEs that don't fall in hazardous material zone.  Also, the bill discounting through TReDS platform, which is in place for more than a year, is also a good move.

Overall, while there was nothing new in the announcements apart from the interest subvention, the PM did a good job in enumerating the steps taken towards ameliorating the pains of MSMEs.

I was one of the officers in my area who was given the task of inviting the MSMEs to come and listen to the announcements being made for them through video conference. A union minister was also deputed along with a senior officer from Delhi to overlook the preparations. The convention hall was filled up with bank employees (banks were the main coordinators for the program) and random public who were hauled up in the last minute to ensure that the hall doesn't look empty. As the video conference began, the snacks arrived, and with it most of the public vanished. By the end of the announcements, there were only few rows of bank employees, government officials, and a few uninterested press reporters who were left. Of course, there were some MSME owners among us who wondered what's all the fuss about.




Oct 18, 2018

The mid year review of Foreign Trade Performance of India

India's financial year is counted from April to March. That makes it out of step from regular calendar year followed at most places. The September numbers for foreign trade is here. So that makes it a half year data being available for this financial year. The brief summary from the official report is as follows:

image for India's foreign trade statistics
India's foreign trade summary - April to Sept 2018

Imports over the period has grown faster than exports of merchandise and services. To that extent, the trade deficit worsens. What is noticeable is that even in services, the trend is following merchandise in terms of imports growing faster. India maintains an overall services surplus of around 70 Billion USD per annum that helps bridge the merchandise trade deficit of around 200 Billion USD (other gap-filling coming through various forms of capital flows).

Since 2013, when the exports last grew significantly, we are stuck in doldrums in the range of around 300 Billion USD exports. The government has exhausted all traditionally available means of cajoling exports to grow. The exports has simply not grown. Also, the constituents of exports have also not changed significantly. As I predicted, the weakening of rupee has not made exports grow; it takes more than a year before weak currency effects starts to show on actual trade.

I have a feeling that we squandered away the recent good three years of global export growth wave when many countries saw their export boats getting a lift. Demonetization and lack of sensitivity towards exports while launching GST were two contributing factors, apart from credit squeeze in Indian market.

Meanwhile, we are approaching headwinds in exports, or rather, international trade and growth in general due to:


  • Trade appetite wane in general, trade wars, losing significance of WTO and its appellate mechanism
  • Out of sync monetary policies in US (tight) and other countries (loose) leading to dollar appreciation and its spillover effects which will wash ashore everywhere in next 6 months to a year
  • Possible financial recession, it's been a good ten years now since the financial crisis. The trigger could be anything from Italy's budget, Saudi Arabia/Iran/Middle East, US/China tensions, Latin America, or even a botched up Brexit. 


Here are the items that grew in terms of exports and imports during September.

image for Commodity export growth India
Commodity groups showing positive growth in exports during September

image for Commodity import growth India
Commodity groups showing high growth in imports during September




Sep 12, 2018

NAFTA Rebooted - some points

How do you stop the President from tearing up a trade deal. As per Bob Woodward in his new book Fear:Trump in White House, by simply pulling out the signing paper from the desk. The President simply forgot that he had to unsign the NAFTA deal, or rather sign a NAFTA withdrawal (someone please do that for RCEP in India). While the deal break never happened (or engineered to not happen), the revised onerous negotiations on NAFTA wound their way to give the world a glimpse of what makes the US President happy when it comes to trade deals. Mexico has hammered out a deal that's acceptable to the US President. And going by the look of it, Trump loves trophies. He got his wall sponsored. Well almost. Canadians are still thinking, and bargaining. 

One can understand the Canadian negotiators' dilemma. There's noting on the table for Canadians if they sign. But if they don't, they have things to lose in trade and economic growth. US is their biggest trade partner with more than 3/4th of Canadian exports headed to USA, thanks to NAFTA and friendly border compliance procedures. They also import more than half of all their import needs from US. Of particular interest is automobile trade that makes almost one fifth of the total trade between them. This would change if NAFTA changes. 

Automobiles are interesting in NAFTA. NAFTA changed the way auto majors operated in north American market. Auto components shuttle across NAFTA borders around 7 times on an average before coming out inside a car. Many carmakers shifted assembly bases to across border Mexico where wages were cheap, almost tenth of that in US. I had blogged earlier about the preposterousness of Trump's demand to have the cars assembled by workers who earn atleast 16 USD per hour (Mexican assembly workers earn around 2 USD per hour). I thought that's a deal breaker. I was wrong! Trump has pulled it off in the first round as Mexicans have agreed to the condition of more than 40% of final assembly to be done by workers earning 16 USD per hour, and for the condition that the share of USA in car components to increase from almost 60% currently to 75% after the reboot of NAFTA. If that jacks up the car price by a thousand dollars, so be it. It's an 'America first' world after all. 

It's not that Canada is not warming up. Their dairy sector is thinking of opening up for US imports after years of resistance from Quebec farmers; Canadian dairy sector has protectionist tariffs that would put India's dairy product tariffs to shame. The investments in Canada are already taking a hit due to uncertainty around NAFTA and due to the revised corporate tax rates in US.  At this time, Canadians seem to focusing too much on dispute resolution mechanism, the chapter 19 of the deal, that shouldn't bother so much during normals times; but given Trump's record at WTO dispute body Canadians are right to try and play safe here. Given the overall loss Canadians stand to suffer if the deal falls apart, it won't be a surprise if Canada decides to play ball after all.

There's time till September end to strike out a deal and make the rebooted NAFTA a union of original three. Otherwise, going Trump's way it would be a bilateral US-Mexico deal, on Trump's terms. Well almost. 


Sep 3, 2018

National logistics portal of India - A step in right direction


image of National logistics portal of India
National logistics portal for logistics service providers

India is planning to setup a National Logistics Portal on an e-marketplace model. The initial idea was mooted sometime during February 2018. The idea is to have an amazon for logistics service providers that would help bring down the logistics cost in the country. In principle, this is a great idea. The rest boils down to execution. In that respect, I find the National Trade Portal of Singapore to be a good single window example to emulate. While I am not a fan of Government being in business of making e-marketplaces of anything, I believe that public sector needs to step in to create infra-superstructures if/when the private sector fails. This effort falls in the category of private sector not living up to the expectations. 

The logistics portal aims to bring onboard some 80 odd regulatory functions under one umbrella. I assume most of this boils down to providing links to the respective websites, which while dumb might still work as long as the respective websites work well. For example, the clearance at customs is done through ICEGate portal and I can visualise a link being provided to file bills of entries to ICEGate using the new logistics portal. If ICEGate works fine, all would be fine. However, there are many websites that just don't work the way they should. For example, obtaining RCMCs (one of the myriad necessary certificates that could be done away with) from various export promotion councils is a nightmare. Links to these websites might not help unless the entire request system for RCMCs is redesigned. This brings me to the topic of process redesign in e-governance. 

I believe that most initiatives to computerise government functions/services fail because they fail at process re-engineering. Computerisation is usually super-imposed on the existing manual system of doing things in government service delivery process. That doesn't work. One needs to re-design the work flow before it could be computerised. Let me cite an example related to international trade area. DGFT issues something called a duty credit scrip under various schemes. This is a manual scrip that is printed on a security paper, signed by an officer after affixing something called a security seal. Customs would accept only when the seal, signature and the security paper is intact and whole. When we computerise this process, we need to re-imagine the security paper and seals. Unless we evolve a system of NSDL kind of de-materialzation, or come up with our own blockchain based technology, the computerisation cannot be complete. The paper and the signatures would still make the process slow and inefficient. This would be a challenge for National Logistics Portal too when they think of integrating these 80-ish regulatory functions. Unless they can get many of the departments onboard for process re-engineering, they delivery efficiency would be moot. The problem is that not all these regulatory functions fall under the purview of the commerce department which is making the portal. Therein lies the risk that the integration would end up as links to the respective useless websites.

Second is the aim to bring various logistics services providers on-board. This is where the efficiency and user-friendliness of the portal comes into play. Being a user of various forced Government marketplaces such as GeM, I can vouch for their user-Unfriendliness. But for their mandatory nature, I would stay away from Government e-Marketplace. It fails on all counts of ease of navigation, placing of orders, payment, delivery and support. You just don't know where to look for when things fail. I hear that a special purpose vehicle (SPV) might be launched for logistics portal. The SPV usually is a way of saying that private sector would get involved. The unfortunate thing with the government is that the least cost bidder is picked up for execution. While the rules may be tweaked at the stage of entry to weed out smaller unproven players, yet there is no guarantee that the best developer is picked up. Even if we assume that we get a semi-decent developer, the rest boils down to proper definition of proposal and requirements. And here, I have seen that wish lists are doled out to developers without proper definition of the scope. The end product is loose if the scope is not tightly defined. 

The third challenge would be get the service providers on board. This would happen relatively easily if the portal is good and gains traction. I would hope for the best and wait for the launch of the portal. If done properly, this would indeed be a good step in right direction. The pilot launch is expected during March 2019. 




Jul 17, 2018

Urgently needed - an integrated E commerce policy for India

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E-commerce policymaking in India is a story of missed chances. As late as couple of months ago, the government was in the process of setting up a think-tank to formulate national E-commerce policy. It would take another six months for the rough contours to be formed, and for the interdepartmental heads to come to some kind of consensus, or not. A reason for not formulating a national policy was that the area of B2C E-commerce is handled by various ministries/departments ranging from India post, RBI, commerce, industries, finance and IT. Coming as late as it would, even if it comes within scheduled time, it would still make a good joke but for the fact that it is true. 

Image of E commerce policy in India

To put things in perspective, we are at a stage where India has been reduced to a marketplace for plunder by multinationals. On one had we have what The Economist calls the FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google/Alphabet) and on the other we have the Chinese BATs (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent). The FAANGs peddle their own products in India and the BATs enter like trojan horses through investments in our supposedly homegrown PayTMs, Snapdeals, Olas and Flipkarts. Of course, Flipkart is now sold to Walmart, a deal with the loser label hung all over. Within the spectrum, and probably all over it, hangs the Japanese SoftBank with its might of money and investments in all that's tech and glitters. Chinese have now created a tech fund to emulate SoftBank. Among all this, we have very few E-commerce players that can be called truly Indian or India funded. Reliance is making an entry as per their recent announcement but then we have to actually see how it rolls out. 

China has been as clever as ever with its E-commerce policy. They effectively banned FAANGs from China and let their domestic firms build up capacity in the area. Whenever they let someone come through the Chinese wall (e.g. Apple), they ensured that they acquired the required technology to put up a competitor (Xiaomi and others). That's as foresighted as one can get, especially when it comes to policymaking in areas that exist at the cusp of various departments. It's not only their domestic policy that has clicked, but even their exports are an E-commerce success story. That's why when China earmarks ten areas of technology that it wants to dominates through its China 2025 plan, one needs to take notice and prepare. Lest it be misunderstood, it's not that China has got everything right. The BATs are struggling outside China and the overseas markets add less than ten percent to their bottomline unlike FAANGs who get more than half of their revenues from non domestic territories. Most of the Chinese presence abroad in this area is through investments in third parties and not their own brands. This strategy might or might not work in the long run. 

image of E commerce policy in India

And this is where we need to strategise better. The current method of think tanks making reports and joint secretaries from various departments mulling over it till the report twists itself to become what they like won't work. We need an apex body staffed with experts and bureaucrats with sense and direction to sit down and hammer out a policy or strategy. Something like a Technology and E-commerce department within current PMO might not be a bad idea to start with. We have already missed the bus. We are however not yet too late to do some damage control, avoid being a bazaar for the world, and if things go well, get our footing back. If that makes an already rich Ambani richer, it's a small price to pay. 

Jul 12, 2018

Rupee value and exports in short run

(This post was originally published at the Hindu Business line here)


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A belief in weak Rupee


A common belief while the Rupee depreciates against USD is that it would help our exports. This ‘weak rupee shall help exports’ is shown as a positive over various negatives arising out of falling Rupee. There is great attractiveness in the argument supported by textbook economics. Undervalued or depreciated currency acts as a direct subsidy for exports while acting as a punitive tax on imports. China used the undervaluation of currency as an effective international trade tool for decades. The undervaluation doesn’t fall foul with the regional or multilateral agreements in the way export subsidies do. However, given India’s situation, it is doubtful if we can have a conscious control on the level of Rupee anymore in light of the central bank’s mandate getting anchored to inflation control. Till some time ago there were calls to depreciate the rupee through direct intervention to help exports. Thankfully the idea is now on the backburner as the rupee has slid on its own, mostly due to the factors originating abroad. In addition, one can never predict a correct level. Rupee at the level of 60 for one USD might be very competitive for services exports, while it may still be dear at 70 for manufacturing sector. However, a mere weakening of Rupee might not be enough to boost exports, at least not in a significant way when it comes to manufacturing sector due to three possible phenomena discussed here.

Twin mechanism of inputs and value chains


First, India is no longer an isolated market exporting local goods alone. Our exports are tightly linked to imports through twin mechanisms of input import dependence and global value chains. The inputs for two of our leading exports, Petroleum & derived products and gems &jewellery, originate abroad. Crude, rough diamonds, and gold are imported to make these export products. A significant part of our non-petroleum, non-jewelry based manufacturing exports are tightly linked to the global value chains. We import various steel products, automobile parts, engineering and electronic components that are processed and assembled before getting exported.  Except raw material, primary forms and agricultural exports, we have few items where the origin is fully Indian. Given this scenario, any depreciation of our currency works both ways. The gain would be only to the extent of value addition that happens in India. 

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The invoice currency curse


Second, there appears to exist a counter-intuitive effect of weak local currency not helping exports that arises due to the choice of invoicing currency (Gopinath, 2015).  Almost all our exports are invoiced in international currencies such as USD, Euro or Pounds. Assume a case where the price of a certain export good is agreed at 100 USD for the coming quarter. The goods are invoiced at this price in USD for all shipments for the quarter. If the Rupee weakens meanwhile, this invoicing method would lead to windfall profits for un-hedged exporter during the period (and commensurate pain if it strengthens), but it does nothing to change the underlying competitiveness. An item, which was invoiced at 100 USD earlier, continues to do so in international markets even after weakening of rupee, unless the terms are renegotiated between the exporter and buyer for the quarter. It is seen from the study that the weak exchange rate effect may take upto two years (http://www.nber.org/papers/w21646.pdf) to trickle down into the local non-invoicing currency. This time zone while prices are renegotiated is the profit zone for Indian exporters. The process of renegotiation and adjustments is a medium to long-term process and therefore we don’t see an immediate advantage in terms of trade despite a fall in value of rupee. There is no change in the level of attractiveness of sourcing from India for an international buyer. Therefore, it doesn’t boost exports in terms of quantity or exports in terms of USD.Only value of exports in terms of Rupee shoots up to the extent of depreciation while the effect lasts. The invoicing of international trade in foreign currency is therefore a disadvantage for us, as it doesn’t let our competitiveness improve automatically and immediately upon depreciation of Rupee. Unless the exporter consciously uses the windfall to mark down the prices, or uses it to boost productivity, there’s not much hope.
However, arising out of the same study, there are further two negativespossible. First, the import costs shoot up almost immediately as the invoicing is done in foreign currency which now needs more Rupees to buy. This leads to inflationary pressurearising out of inelastic imports such as crude for a country like India. Second, it adds to the cost of inputs that go into export products in the value chain, thus eroding margins. There appears to be nothing much we can do about the way the trade invoicing is done in foreign currency.

A weak correlation


Third, there are also doubts about correlation between a weak rupee and manufacturing exports. It was found that a fall in the value of rupee didn’t lead to an expected commensurate gain in manufacturing exports during the period 2004-2012 (http://www.nipfp.org.in/media/medialibrary/2013/04/WP_2013_115.pdf). This weakness in the correlation between a weakening rupee and increase in manufacturing exports may be an outcome of combination of factors, including the integration into global value chains which makes the exports dependent on imports. As the sensitivity to exchange movement is faster on imports, and slower on exports, the weak correlation is not a surprise. At least the Indian experience attests to it. 

In short, one cannot rely on a weak rupee alone to boost exports. We need to look beyond at structural factors and take a sectoral approach to boost competitiveness if the aim is to improve export performance. The central government has taken various steps in this direction, significant among them being the collaboration with the state governments in order to take a micro sectoral approach at the level of clusters and districts. While the steps produce results, we may discount the expectation of a weak Rupee boosting exports. 


Jul 11, 2018

Leveraging export control group memberships

India has recently become member to Wassenaar Arrangement (WA), Australia Group (AG) and Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the three leading export control regimes in the world. The memberships to these bodies reflect acceptance of India as a responsible growing power, and an acknowledgement of impeccable non-proliferation record that India has maintained over decades.  However, a mere membership doesn’t confer the desired benefits unless India walks the extra mile to harness the technological benefits these agreements confer. Lest it be misunderstood, one must state here that India has shown tremendous self resolve to develop technologically despite non-cooperation from leading technology powers over decades, especially in the area of missiles, space and computers. However, with the membership to the technology control groups, we may now look forward to develop as a partner and a leader in future if we strategize and work towards it in mission mode. 

The export control multilateral agreements seek to control the proliferation of dual-use, advanced military, space and sensitive technology from falling into the hands of rogue nations, terrorist groups and non-member states. They have their genesis during cold war era, but have continued in altered forms to the present. India has suffered for want of such technology for decades while being a non-member. The non-availability of advanced technology hampered India’s fast technological advancement in the past as she was forced to develop most of the required technology indigenously. While in few areas we did well, we suffered in various defense related technology development. It is difficult to measure the exact impact of technology denial on development; one may reasonable surmise that we must have lost decades of manpower reinventing the wheel. 

India has now set up a reliable and effective export control system for controlling the export of sensitive technology from India in line with the best practices of the member countries. The outreach with the industries has ensured that partner industries, especially in the private sector, understand the sensitivity of technology transfer to non-member states. Various arms of the government work in tandem to ensure that India adheres to the commitments in letter and spirit. The number of applications for exports under these arrangements has soared up in recent times, indicating the fact that there is a good awareness of export control requirements, and that India is integrating into the technology regime. Many of those who are exporting the technology products are private sector players, which is a positive development. 

Yet this is not enough. India needs to strategize to gain more from the memberships to these groups. The membership opens up a world of opportunities for technology up-gradation that was not available earlier to us. For effective utilization, India should move on two fronts. 

First, we should do a SWOT analysis to identify the fields in which we are lagging when compared to the member states. A team of experts should be constituted in each such area in terms of technology verticals. A collaborative R&D setup including universities, research institutions and industry should be established to get the technology at the working levels in each vertical into the country. At times, some of the technology might not have any takers in the industry. Even then, the technology should be mastered at the research institution levels. For example, in the area of some of the high temperature alloys used in turbines and missiles, we should establish research foundries that can produce these alloys and develop the knowledge base for industry transfer whenever need arises. Similar arguments can be made in the area of advanced manufacturing, 3D printing, armaments and defense equipment, software, drone technology and so on. The list is endless. 

Second, we should develop deeper linkages with friendly member nations for technology collaboration and transfer. India has developed as an important export market for the member states. The membership is an attestation to our growing potential as a market for technology products, in addition to our credentials as a non-proliferator. We need to leverage our position to collaborate and grow. While India would certainly benefit from technology transfer, our technical manpower and expertise would help the member states too. It would be a two way street in the long run. We should use the membership for developing and integrating into the technology value chains in defense and advanced technology areas. 

It is important that India strategizes and moves actively to harness the benefits arising out of these memberships as early as possible. Otherwise the membership would simply end up as a decorative feather in the cap with marginal utility for a handful of public and private sector players who fulfill defense offset requirements and elementary technology exports that fall under export controls.