Thursday, April 24, 2014

Middle class' phoney angst over corruption

I have long argued that corruption cannot be a central issue in the Indian polity because corruption in one form or another exists everywhere. The best one can do is minimise petty corruption of the sort that the ordinary man faces in his daily life.

And yet from time to time one hears that corruption is a major issue. The people who say this are very often from the middle class- the very class that is part of the corruption that goes on and is a major beneficiary. Shankar Sharma has an interesting take on this theme in BS. dilates on this theme and says that the middle class had no problem with corruption in UPA- I when the benefits were trickling down to them- in the form of higher salaries, appreciation in stocks, etc. It is only when the economic slowdown began that corruption became an issue.

....since the big economic boom began in 2004, the Indian middle class has partied. Salaries increased at a compounded rate of 40 to 50 per cent across most professions. Packages of Rs 50 lakh and higher became commonplace. US salaries paled in comparison.
And which industries saw the biggest salary jumps? Largely, infrastructure, real estate, telecom, finance, mining, power and so on. Now, weren't these the very sectors in which some of the biggest scams (real or concocted) since 2004 have occurred? You bet. These sectors were the ones in which the same ultra-moralistic Indians fought each other to gain employment. Was middle-class India so innocent as to be unaware that bribes are an integral part of doing business to run any regulated business such as infrastructure, power or mining (anywhere in the world, actually)? That contracts in these businesses are almost never won honestly, or that bids won honestly have little if any profits embedded in them?


...Please note that the so-called anger against corruption started to gain momentum only in 2011 - almost precisely when our growth rates started to plummet. Truth be told: Indians were happy to make money off corruption, and happily turned a blind eye to what lay beneath the boom. It is only when our salary increases dwindled that we turned to the Kejriwals and the Modis on the rebound.
 Sharma goes on to argue that Indians are willing to wink at Modi's supposed lack of respect for democratic norms or secularism or even the prospect of crony capitalism under Modi because they expect the goodies to start flowing again. (This is an argument that is made for Singapore very often).

I have difficulty in going along with this proposition. People may believe that Modi will be an effective administrator but I doubt that they will be willing to let anybody trample over democracy or secularism. The very fact that the BJP and Modi have had to change their positions on these matters suggests that Indians will not compromise on basic tenets. Indira Gandhi found out this truth the hard way. So will anybody else who tries to take liberties with basic principles. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Modinomics: an American view

A former American bureaucrat, writing in the Hindu, compares Narendra Modi with Ronald Reagan. One common element, according to him, is that both have humble backgrounds. Modi is looked down upon by the nation's elites as Reagan was in the US  because he comes across as unsophisticated.

This is certainly true. It astonishes me that the elite in the media and elsewhere are unable to respect something as phenomenal as a chief minister of a state, with no experience at the centre, being able to generate a nationwide following, something that his party itself has never enjoyed!

The writer then suggests that Modi's economic vision is somewhat similar to Reagan's and that he has the capacity to unleash the nation's entrepreneurial energies:
As one who lived through Reaganomics, I believe that Modinomics can be the perfect antidote to the kleptocratic crony socialism that has kept India from realising her vast economic potential. If India’s natural entrepreneurial dynamism is ever fully unleashed, the sky will be the limit. I am persuaded by the evidence (hotly debated in an election season, of course) that shows that economic growth in Gujarat under Mr. Modi has been a boon to all segments of society, especially the poor. I am just sharing my view as an observer, and of course respect that it is for the people of India to decide what is best for them. 
One has to be careful not to overdo the comparison. Giving a boost to entrepreneurship is not the same as embracing Reaganomics. In India, no government can afford to move very away from welfarism. Modi's recent pronouncements seem to reflect this recognition. BS has caught this point well in a recent edit:
In the past, Mr Modi has said in speeches that his definition of reform does not include the changing of poorly framed policy, but merely building infrastructure. In his most recent statements, he has outlined a slightly different agenda. He has said, among other things, that "we will not reduce subsidies". As if to underline this point, he said that his economic agenda should be described as "pro-people", and added that "the poor will continue to control the coffers of India". This seems to suggest that Mr Modi's economic vision will maintain the United Progressive Alliance's (UPA's) welfarist policies .

....Mr Modi's attitude to privatisation of public sector undertakings (PSUs) was also disappointing. He said that the idea that PSUs were inefficient has "done much damage"......Most worrying, perhaps, is the one area where Mr Modi has promised a break with the UPA. He has said that a review of policies governing foreign direct investment was necessary: "We have to protect the manufacturing sector. If we are unable to protect the manufacturing sector and small-scale industries, our youth's future will be destroyed." 
This is a far cry from Reaganomics. Those who think that Mr Modi will make a clean break with past policies ignore the compulsion in the Indian context to walk on two legs: growth and welfarism. What we can expect of Mr Modi is that by improving governance, he will boost growth and he will make welfare schemes more efficient. As part of his effort to improve governance, he may tilt towards greater decentralisation. But it would be naive to suppose that Mr Modi will embrace free market economics a la Reagan. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Gujarat growth model: is it for real?

There has been an enormous amount of talk about the Gujarat growth model. Modi's admirers say it has worked, meaning it has delivered growth and better living standards. His critics say that it has worked only for corporates. Where does the truth lie?

I have scanned the literature. Let me state my conclusions upfront:
  •  Gujarat has been a leader when it comes to growth rate
  • It has lagged behind in social indicators (meaning, its indicators are not as good as those another high-growth state such as Tamil Nadu)
  • However, Gujarat has been catching up on social indicators too. Once Modi's attention was drawn to Gujarat's adverse indicators, he has been quick to address this issue.
Ok, now on to some key facts. How do we address the growth issue?
  • Comparing Gujarat's growth rate in the 2000s with that in the nineties: Not correct, because it is not just Gujarat that has improved its growth rate but the rest of India
  • Comparing Gujarat's growth rate with that of other states:Not correct because if Gujarat has always been ahead of other states, then the fact that it has done the same under Modi does not tell us whether Modi has made a difference
  • Comparing the difference in growth rate between Gujarat and the rest of India in the 2000s (post-Modi) with that in the 1990s (pre-Modi): Correct. If the differential has changed, we can come to conclusions.
An article in EPW follows the last approach.  There are some important methodological issues. Do we look at growth in state domestic product (SDP) or growth in per capita SDP?  The authors use both methods and come to the following conclusions:
  • Gujarat was at par with or ahead of the rest of India in the 1980s
  • Gujarat was ahead of the rest of India in the 1990s
  • Gujarat maintained its lead over the rest of India in the 2000s but the difference was not significantly greater than in the 1990s.
  • Gujarat is not alone in the high-growth league: it must share honours with Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Haryana
The authors conclude that Modi not deserve special credit for his performance. It is possible to differ. Growth in the 2000s was on a higher base, so if Modi was still able to maintain the difference with respect to India, that constitutes an achievement.

Surjit Bhalla, writing in IE, follows a slightly different tack.  He looks at the pre-Modi Gujarat (years between 1992 and 2001) and Modi Gujarat (2002 to 2011/12) and compares indicators with seven states whose per capita incomes were at the same level as Gujarat in 2001. His conclusions are resoundingly in favour of Modi:
  • Annual agricultural growth accelerated across India and in the similar seven states (SSS), agricultural growth accelerated by 1 per cent per annum (ppa) to 3.8 per cent; in Gujarat, the acceleration was more than three times as much
  • Manufacturing in Gujarat accelerated by 5.6 ppa compared to an acceleration of 2.9 ppa for the SSS
  • the service sector in Gujarat, from being 0.5 ppa behind the comparator states in the pre-Modi period, accelerated to 2 ppa higher with the arrival of Modi — 10.7 per cent per year versus 7.7 per cent before
What about the criticism that Gujarat's growth was not inclusive and that growth in Gujarat has been jobless? Well, Bhalla points out that when we look at growth in wages of the poor relative to those of the rich, Gujarat does better than other states; also, on unemployment.

What about social indicators? Bhalla has a piece on this aspect as well. He points out that on several indicators- inequality, education, access to sanitation and water, health and the sex ratio- the improvement in Gujarat's indicators is better than in the seven comparable states (except for female infant mortality).

Note, however, that only looks at the change from what you might call a low base for Gujarat. In absolute terms, Gujarat's indicators lag behind the best performers in the country, as Jean Dreze points out in his article in the Hindu:
Whether we look at poverty, nutrition, education, health or related indicators, the dominant pattern is one of indifferent outcomes. Gujarat is doing a little better than the all-India average in many respects, but there is nothing there that justifies it being called a “model.” Anyone who doubts this can download the latest National Family Health Survey report, or the Raghuram Rajan Committee report, and verify the facts.
Dreze makes a more interesting point. He questions the view that Gujarat's achievements are the result of private enterprise as distinct from state intervention (and,by implication, there are lessons for the rest of India). He writes:
When I visited Gujarat in the 1980s, I was quite impressed with many of the State’s social services and public facilities, certainly in comparison with the large north Indian states. For instance, Gujarat already had mid-day meals in primary schools at that time — decades later than Tamil Nadu, but decades earlier than the rest of India. It had a functional Public Distribution System — again not as effective as in Tamil Nadu, but much better than in north India. Gujarat also had the best system of drought relief works in the country, and, with Maharashtra, pioneered many of the provisions that were later included in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Gujarat’s achievements today build as much on its ability to put in place functional public services as on private enterprise and growth.
Dreze asks: if Gujarat's high growth is not matched by a commensurate improvement in social indicators, does it has to do with a slackening in public services or with gender inequality? It is interesting that, in a recent interview, Modi has said that PSUs can do as well as private firms, if given adequate autonomy and has cited Gujarat's own PSUs as cases in point.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sanjaya Baru's revelations

Sanjaya Baru's book, The Accidental Prime Minister, is making waves. I haven't read the book myself but I have read excerpts- and I can see that the book promises to be a racy read.

The media has focused on the bits about the relationship between PM Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. There are numerous other details that are eye-catching as well. Let me mention two:
  • The post of principal secretary to the PM was first offered to a Tamilian. He declined saying that he had promised his father never to take up a government post after retirement. I would love to know the identity of this ex-bureaucrat. The man is a hero! A large number of bureaucrats do everything they can to get some position after retirement and they stoop to unbelievable levels to appease their political masters. Here is a man who said 'no' to a plum position that came to him on a platter!
  • Baru quotes former NSA M K Narayanan as telling him that Narayanan kept tabs on the credit card spending habits of influential editors. If this is true, it means the intelligence agencies in India have carried snooping to heights not attained even by America's National Security Agency.The agency, one is given to understand, at least respected the privacy of US citizens. Baru's revelation is a serious one, especially given the way the UPA government has pounced on allegations of snooping done on Mr Modi's behalf- the so-called Snoopgate affair. One hopes the new government will look into what the intelligence agencies are up to when it comes on spying on citizens

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Fixing the PPP model

Private public partnerships were to be the answer to our investment problem, especially in the infrastructure  sector. Nearly half the investment in the current five-year Plan is supposed to come through PPPs. Sadly, the model is broken and this explains the slump in investment in the last couple of years. One of the biggest challenges for the next government is fixing the PPP model so that growth can revive. (Where it can't be fixed, we have to find ways for government to fund investment).

EPW has a though-provoking article on the subject, with several interesting proposals for reform. The piece is written by an office in the ministry of finance, so it is not as if the government lacks ideas.

As the author points out, the government has been a on re-negotiating binge in several PPPs. In the power sector, for instance, the regulator has revised tariffs upwards. This sort of re-negotiation makes nonsense of the bidding process- those who lost out can always protest, saying that had the more favourable terms extended later been known, they would have bid differently. Secondly, any private operator who finds a project unviable can go running to the government and ask for re-negotiation, saying he cannot proceed otherwise. Effectively, project risk is transferred to government- this is conceptually no different from government bail-outs of banks.

The author spells out three elements needed in the reform of the PPP model: upholding the sanctity of the PPP contract, creating more regulatory certainty, and increasing the value for money (to government) from PPPs:
The answer to this opportunistic behaviour (of private parties) is not renegotiations, but to cancel bad projects and re-tender them to the private sector in a transparent manner. While this would be time consuming and could also reduce the inflated premia generated for the public sector, it would incentivise more realistic bidding....

One of the frequently cited reasons for seeking renegotiations is traffic overestimation. To ameliorate traffic risk incidence on the private concessionaires in the road sector, the government may consider introducing a new bidding parameter: least present value of revenues (LPVR). Under this bidding parameter, the user fees and discount rate are predetermined and the concession is awarded to the firm that bids the least present value of toll revenue. The concession ends when the present value of actual toll revenue is equal to the winning bid.

Then there should be a requirement of value for money calculation at three stages – at the appraisal stage (to decide whether it is worth going for the PPP option), at the operation stage (because the promised benefits may not materialise as in renegotiated contracts), and finally, at the end of the contract period (to compare the actual value for money with the projected). 

To further improve PPP project performance and VfM as also transparency, the concession agreements should be in public domain. This will enable all interested parties to monitor the project, which should improve performance and VfM. The direct liabilities created by PPP projects (as in annuity projects)4 should also be reported in the budget, which would provide a level playing field to all procurement options for provisioning public services.




Mor committee report on financial inclusion

The Mor committee report on financial inclusion has not received proper attention in the popular press. I dissect the report in an EPW article.

Very briefly, the Mor committee thinks the job can be better done through a new set of specialised players for whom a different regulatory dispensation is created. I have my doubts both about the viability of these players and the potential for systemic risk they can create. The committee also advocates a stiffening of priority sector targets. The scheme it proposes is rather complex and is likely to run into measurement issues. New institutions are welcome. But we need to get more out of the vast structure we have created for inclusion- regional rural banks and cooperative banks. I outline in my article how this can be done.

A retired banker, writing in EPW, has the same reservations about the new institutions proposed but he is rather more sanguine about the committee's priority sector recommendations. 

Was the 2G scam a scam at all?

One reason for the UPA's declining fortunes is the preponderance of 'scams' under UPA-II. One big 'scam' that has proved its undoing is the 2G 'scam'. Right from the time, the CAG report came out, I had argued that not opting for the auction route for spectrum rights and adopting a first-come-first-served policy, based on a low price, did not constitute a scam.

First, the policy had been practised by the NDA as well. Secondly, the low price ushered in competition and helped boost telecom density to great heights. So the policy itself was a success. Where things may have gone wrong- and this has to be established in a court of law- was in the manner in which first-come-first-served was implemented under the then minister, A Raja. PC Chacko, who headed the JPC enquiry into the subject, mounts a vigorous defence of the 2G policy in a recent interview:

The 2G scam is no scam. The media must have celebrated the 2G scam, but it is no scam.
There was some impropriety in giving licenses irrespective of the priority of the application and that mistake was done by (former telecom minister) A Raja. He was in jail for that failure, but the government did not defend him. He is still undergoing trial.
According to the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General), the government's mistake was selling spectrum at a lower price and not by auction. This is totally unfounded. That is the basis of the allegation.So, I can repeatedly say that 2G is no scam at all.

Unfortunately, this defence and others put up by the UPA is likely to drowned in the general election din. Public perceptions are shaped by the media and the media loves a corruption scandal as much as the general public. Once the damage is done, it is hard to salvage a reputation. 


It doesn't happen only in India...

The nexus between crime and politics, which has been in the open in India in recent years, is by no means confined to India. It is a universal phenomenon. In Italy, a former senator and close business associate of ex-PM Berlusconi faces a seven-year jail term for his connection with the mafia, FT reports. He is now on the run from the law:

Mr Dell’Utri was long considered one of Mr Berlusconi’s closest advisors. Both men have accused the courts of leftwing bias and have consistently denied allegations by prosecutors and  mafia turncoats that Mr Dell’Utri had acted as a go-between for the mafia with Mr Berlusconi.
The Palermo-born businessman was placed under investigation in 1994, the year of the first of Mr Berlusconi’s three election victories, and was credited with mounting a campaign in 2001 when Forza Italia swept all 61 seats in Sicily.

Wherever there is big money, big crime is involved. Politics, business, major sports events all involve big money. So, they draw in criminal elements in a big way. Very often, big crime stays in the background and gets its job done by those in the limelight. However, it also happens that criminal elements decide that they should be running the show in politics themselves. This has happened in many democracies, including India. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Top 10 emerging market risks

The prospect of an unexpected electoral outcome in India- that is, Modi not forming a government- is one of the 10 top emerging market risks listed by the FT. The stock market has surged on the back of such an expectation; if it is not met, there could be a steep reversal.

The more interesting part of the list is that three of the 10 risks relate to China- a failure to respond to stimulus, a property bubble burst and a collapse in the shadow banking sector.

On a macro-view, there has been a 180 degree turn in the economic outlook. Post the financial crisis, advanced economies were in trouble; emerging markets looked poised to continue rapid growth. Now, it appears advanced markets will recover while emerging markets face a slew of problems related to deep-seated structural factors. For an insight into this, see the IMF's latest WEO.

What difference can a Modi government make to economy?

People have been analysing the Congress and BJP manifestos to see what the key differences are. Broadly, both are for growth and equity. Writing in BS, economist Arvind Panagariya suggests that a Modi government would put growth first, with greater emphasis on the first:

Mr Modi firmly believes in building highways, railways, cities and universities to modernise India and to create jobs that would empower people to access housing, education and health. In assessing schools for recognition, he emphasises performance outcomes instead of inputs norms. In the provision of health, he gives wellness priority over illness and hence seeks enhanced public health measures.

The difficulty with the above formulation is that the manifesto does not spell out how these ambitious programmes are to be funded. Government does not have the funds and the PPP model is broken and needs serious rectification. In general, the institutional shortcomings are so acute that a recovery in growth, as I have argued earlier, is unlikely to emanate from any domestic initiatives. It's hard to believe that any new government has a magic wand with which it can accelerate growth.

The real difference with a Modi government, as Pangariya suggests, could lie elsewhere- in greater decentralisation of economic decison-making:

In the last decade, one-size-fits-all central schemes have proliferated in the health, education, agriculture, skill development, employment, urban development and rural infrastructure sectors. These schemes require states to contribute significant proportions of expenditures and have progressively shrunk their fiscal space while absorbing the states' scarce human resources.
Having been the victim of this "tyranny" of the central government during the last decade as the chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Modi will likely help the states recover some of this lost fiscal space. He will perhaps redesign the schemes in ways that give states greater flexibility and arrest their future proliferation. In contrast, under a Gandhi administration, the "rights" will expand and so will the central schemes, further shrinking the states' fiscal space.

A Modi administration is also likely to give greater legislative flexibility to states in subject areas included in the concurrent list such as criminal and civil procedure codes, labour, bankruptcy, legal and medical professions, education, acquisition of property, factories and boilers. Under Mr Gandhi, the legal grip of the Centre on the states will continue to tighten unabated.

If Mr Modi can do this, it will indeed be a significant change. What we have had under the UPA government is an attempt at economic centralisation as a means of countering the decentralisation brought about by democratic politics. Even as non-Congress governments have assumed power in many states, the Congress has sought to wield power and influence through centrally-sponsored schemes under the aegis of the Planning Commission.

Will Mr Modi be willing to reverse this trend? It's difficult for anybody holding the reins at the centre to let go. And Mr Modi's style in Gujarat has been concentrate power in his office. At the same time, he has declared time and again his opposition to the Congress way of running the country. It could well be that he will see a decisive shift towards decentralisation as one of the hallmarks of his regime. Let us hope he does.

Friday, April 04, 2014

UPA's economic performance: it's the world economy, stupid

I wrote yesterday that it is hard to argue that the current downturn is on account of serious policy errors committed by UPA-II. I said global factors and non-policy factors are more important.

Today, Ruchir Sharma, writing in TOI, points out that India's performance on growth and inflation has not changed between the NDA and UPA governments. Any change in growth is linked to the fortunes of the world economy. The boom in UPA-I and the downturn in UPA-I are both explained largely by the ups and downs of the world economy. He corroborates my view that the significant failure of UPA-II is in respect of inflation (which, I said, was parlty because correct economic data was not available to the government on time): 
The last BJP-led government took power in 1999 and presided over a five-year period of rather standard Indian performance. India posted average annual GDP growth of 5.8% — ranking 50th in the emerging world — with inflation of 3.9% — ranking 70th in the emerging world. This record represented little change from the previous 20 years, so it is hard to see why it should provoke much criticism, or bragging....
After 2003, with international trade booming and easy money pouring out of central banks in the West, growth started to accelerate sharply across the emerging nations, and India was no exception. Its GDP growth rate accelerated to 8% over the next five years, under the Congress government, but its place in the ranks did not improve much. From 2004 to 2008, India ranked 39th in the emerging world for average GDP growth and 73rd for inflation. ....
  Over the past five years, India's average annual GDP growth rate has slowed to 6.5% on average but its global ranking is still basically unchanged at 45th as growth has faltered in many emerging nations...
India's inflation rate has risen from 6.5% in its first term to 10.5% in the second, while its inflation ranking has fallen from 73 rd in the world to a near bottom decile rank of 130th