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:

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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:

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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.

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Commodity groups showing positive growth in exports during September

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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

image of E commerce policy in India
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)

Image for Depreciation of currency and exports

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. 

image for currency of invoicing and exports

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. 

May 18, 2018

The wage factor in NAFTA negotiations - a potential deal breaker

This is new and preposterous. It could be the dealbreaker. It might be better to face a non NAFTA trade barrier of 2.5% over complying with this provision. The median wages in USA for auto workers is almost 8 times that in Mexico on an average. In addition, there would be the burden of accounting and bookkeeping to comply with the provision. 

These types of requirements are usually designed for dealing with developing countries who prove too hot to handle for the domestic sector in developed countries. Recall the child labour free certifications, carbon footprint requirements, wood certification for legality and so on. These requirements are cloaked in the guise of humanitarian concerns, eco footprint, food safety etc to give it a semblance of respect while implementing. But the wage requirement is bare knuckle tactic that punches on the face of the idea of free trade. 

A wage requirement like the one proposed would take away the very key advantage that makes trade possible between developing and developed nations. Developing countries typically have wage advantage in terms of competitive labour costs. Take that away and the developing country is handicapped in cross border trade. There is still a possibility that Mexico might negotiate. But then, Mexico might as well walk away and face the tariff if the costs outweighs benefits. At the moment, it looks like it would be the dealbreaker.

It's interesting times to watch as NAFTA renegotiations are falling behind schedule. America is slowly and steadily undermining the very system it helped build in the last fifty and more years. Its amazing how one person's paranoia about free trade can grip an entire country and shake the very foundations on which lasting ideas are built. It's sad to see the very competent US trade officials twisting themselves into knots to propagate ideas that suit the president. 

Sooner or later, these ideas would trickle down to other forums including WTO. India needs to be on guard. 

Apr 25, 2018

The forgotten caveats

The headline in the business standard reads : "India must grow at 18% to ensure jobs to growing workforce: World Bank".  The article is based on the recent world bank report titled "Jobless Growth" under the south Asia economic focus series. 

One would agree that 18% growth for a country of our size is not attainable. That being so, the headline implies that World Bank is saying that India cannot secure jobs to its growing workforce. Gloomy picture indeed. There is an element of certainty about the nice round number 18 which misleads a lay reader. 

It is not so if one reads the actual report. The actual report has pushed in enough caveats to survive any close scrutiny about the number 18. The problem is, the report presents things in a way that make newspapers pick up such headlines. That's a danger that any report writer should be wary about, and should factor in while presenting data to a lay reader. To expand the debate, the assumptions behind the models and the assumed simplifications should be made amply clear to the uninitiated audience lest they take the models on face value and start drawing conclusions for real world. The simplified models work, under set of circumstances and assumptions, to enlighten about some particular causal phenomenon under study. And it stops at that. A brief look at the calculation of the number 18 would throw some light. 

The first assumption the model makes is the roughly U shaped relation between employment rates and economic growth. It runs thus. 

image of U curve GDP per capita versus employment in percentage
GDP per capital Vs Employment rate - The U curve

Data indicates that employment and per capita income appear to exist in a U shaped relationship as shown above. When per capita income is low, the country has high employment as people start working young and remain employed due to sheer pressure of survival. If they drop out, they go hungry. As per capita income grows, children enroll in schools and stay there longer, old  people may get pensions, women may not go to work, and the abject need to work for survival decreases. This leads to decrease in employment till a certain stage is reached where the per capita income increases enough to reverse the trend. This happens as people in countries with high per capita income have higher education, they are less likely to drop out of employment, including women who now have access to better daycare and health facilities and can afford to be in the labour force. Also, better healthcare and life indicators ensure that one remains in labour force longer with less drop outs. The first set of assumptions while deriving the 18% growth is that such a curve exists, and India exists at a point on the curve where it is downward sloping, that is, more prosperity would lead to less employment with people dropping out. 

The second set of assumptions is that the employment data the model relies upon is good enough. That might not be so, even in the own words of the report: 
Economists in South Asia agree that the quality of the available employment data makes it difficult to credibly assess the labor market situation in their countries...PP34
One may recall the recent debate in the newspapers about the EPFO based employment data being used to prove the growth in employment numbers. Everyone took sides, but agreed on the point that we are far from getting reliable data on employment. So the report cleans up some sets of employment data that it has and goes ahead with whatever best it could manage. 

The report outlines the below equation to represent the approximation of the U curve mentioned above

Where Et is the employment rate, Yt is the total output, Nt is the population, Beta is the approximate slope of the U shaped curve around Yt, and negative for countries like India as mentioned above. 
Delta captures the responsiveness of employment to economic growth and is expected to be positive for India. Alpha and Gamma are short and long term constants arising while linearising the equations respectively. 

Then quarterly changes in employment are correlated with quarterly GDP growth, the report mentions that Okun's law (which roughly states that employment increases in direct relation to GDP growth) doesn't hold for India. For each percentage point increase in GDP growth, India's growth seems to drop by 0.11%. Counterintuitive? Yes, but the models say so. And within south asia, the law holds in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and fails for India. Nevertheless, we plough ahead with acceptable p values. 
See images below. 

image of Jobless growth in India

image of jobless growth in India

Then the attention of report turns towards the question in hand. The one I have a problem with. How much growth is needed to create enough jobs? It takes three scenarios: 
a) Unambitious - let the Growth be whatever it is and lets see where employment would head
b) Constant - Growth needed to keep the level of employment constant
c) Catch-up or Ambitious - Growth needed to catch up in terms of employment levels and get pushed to the positive slope area of the U curve in a certain number of years. 

image of Okun's law in india

Based on T number of years to catch up, it models three equations by substituting above into the earlier two equations. Then the linear models look thus: 

image of Modeling employment unemployment GDP growth

Based on this, the model predicts the growth rates, and puts them on a neat bar chart. 

image of Unemployment and job creation problem in India
Now one may see that India needs a growth rate of around 18% to catch up with a time horizon T of 20 years. This chart doesn't contain any disclaimer. If one simply scrolls down the report and stops at it, it misleads. While the methodology is probably the best one could get in given circumstances of shaky data and inapplicable models, yet the chart doesn't mention any of those. It assumes a linear and deep reading of the text. 

If you observe, by the time you reach here in this post, you must have forgotten the first U curve assumptions I started with, unless you are econ types. Most policymakers in India are not Econ types. They are generalists who are more managers than policymakers. And that's why I have problems with data presented in this form. It has a ring of conclusiveness to it while the report embed the doubts about the U curve and Okun's law inside the text. To be fair, the report has been candid about employment data inaccuracies. 

If asked, I would present the following way. I would add up the uncertainties at each level in the modeling process as error terms. And when the final value is presented, and if forced to make a bar graph, I would include this cascaded final error term in the projection. It would be a range to reflect the uncertainties built into the model. 

Probably the headline then would read like this: 
India might need around between 7 to 25% growth rate for twenty years to ensure jobs for a growing workforce, depending on where we lie at the downward sloping U curve, and depending on the assumption that it's an U curve after all, with an inverse relation Okun's law holding tightly enough; which though counterintuitive, we shall somehow ignore, and depending on how much we believe on the employment data being generated, and given that other things remain constant in the time horizon considered. This after ignoring the inherent assumptions in data collection methods, which ignores pakora makers, and uncertainties in calculation of GDP growth. We are in bad shape. 

Probably that'll not be a click-bait headline. But then, who cares about the misleading headline too? 

Apr 17, 2018

Mainstreaming block chain technology in international commerce

This post was originally published at The Hindu Business Line newspaper here

Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), a concept of recording and sharing data across multiple data stores, or ledgers as they are popularly called, is an idea whose time has come. The concept of DLT was introduced through block chains in the famous paper by the elusive author known only as Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008.
While the initial application was limited to crypto currencies, it didn’t take much time for the world to realise that the underlying technology of using distributed ledgers has multiple applications spanning various spheres. However, it is only lately that we are seeing actual implementation of the often discussed concepts.
To cite an example of block chain application in mainstream commerce in India, we may look at the Trade Receivable Discounting System (TReDS) guidelines of the RBI, which sought to set up a system to ease the liquidity crunch for MSMEs by way of bill/invoice factoring in the financial market for the supplies made to big corporates. The simplified process under TReDS may be explained with an example. Let’s assume Mismi enterprise, which is an MSME, supplies items to Bigcor, a corporate house. Usually Bigcor takes three months to settle the payments after the delivery of goods. This holds up Mismi's working capital for three months leading to a liquidity crunch for Mismi.
Mismi’s efforts to convince Bigcor to make payments earlier doesn’t work as Bigcor has market power to dictate terms to Mismi and other such suppliers. With the advent of TReDS, Mismi uploads the digitally signed invoice on one of the three platforms currently approved by the RBI. The upload is done after the supplies are made to Bigcor.
Bigcor gets a time window (say of two days) to approve the invoice online, thus verifying the authenticity of the supply and the commitment that it would pay the sum against the invoice raised within three months (or the agreed time frame).
The approved invoice can now be factored on the platform, through auction, by the financial intermediaries like banks/NBFCs. For example, BigBank may buy the invoice at a discount and pay the money to Mismi, thus providing it with immediate liquidity. The actual payment would be realised by the BigBank after three months from Bigcor.
In an ideal competitive market place the discount should equal the interest cost for three months plus nominal service charges. Registration on TReDS has been made mandatory for public sector enterprises by the government. As the public sector is a big ticket buyer for a large number of MSMEs, it is expected that a critical mass would be easily obtained by the system to start rolling. Three platforms (RXIL, M1xchange and A.TReDS) approved by the RBI are already active.
There are two clear advantages of using blockchain technology in such a situation. First, maintaining anonymity of invoice raiser is easier. Second, cross trading across multiple platforms is possible without the fear of double invoicing (double-spend problem). It makes the entire chain secure, anonymous, and verifiable at the same time. The credibility issue also gets sorted out.
As TReDS is one of the early examples of implementation of Blockchain in real commerce, we can look at it as torch-bearer of a future era of trade facilitation.
In fact, if the technology and infrastructure are set up correctly there is no reason as to why the entire paper based international trade transactions shouldn’t be moved onto something based on DLT.
However, when it comes to international trade, two further institutional arrangements need to be put in place. They are:
(a) International arrangement to give sanctity to DLT-based transactions through common agreement or laws and
(b) Physical infrastructure for DLT including the system architecture and configurations.
The first point can be integrated with the trade facilitation efforts in the next stage at the WTO. It could be augmented through efforts at making model laws and best practices at UNCITRAL/UNCTAD. The second part is where individual governments and private sector would have a greater role to play.
We have proved with TReDS that we have the ability to push it. India could become a leader if we take the initiative at blockchaining the entire gamut of international trade transactions. It might indeed be a 21st century issue that India might like to discuss at the WTO.