governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for November, 2017

Exports – India’s Achilles heel

children airplane

Before the world became flat in 1990 — to borrow the title of Thomas Friedman’s 2004 book on globalisation — developing countries were locked into twin traps of low access to foreign currency and low levels of domestic savings. India’s anxiety about foreign exchange, to fund imports, goes back to those desperate times when export pessimism was rampant and import compression all the rage.

Externally strong but domestic trip-wires aplenty

India has come a long way since then. Standard and Poor’s, the international rating agency (November 24, 2017 rating action), considers India’s external position to be the strongest aspect of its aggregate credit profile. Foreign exchange reserves are more than a year’s imports; external debt levels are modest at around 20 per cent of GDP and the foreign exchange gap between earnings from exports and remittances and the outflow on imports has narrowed to less than one per cent of GDP (2016-17). This is a tribute to India’s prudent external account managers.

Export of goods key laggard

Indian goods exports (excluding services) are 12 per cent of the national income. Manufactured goods (including textiles, clothes and gems) have a share of 76 per cent; minerals and agricultural products account for around 12 per cent. Petroleum products account for the remaining 12 per cent. The dissatisfaction has been with the trend value of exports. Over the last three years, this has lagged GDP growth significantly. The Trade Policy (2015-20) target of increasing our share in world trade from 1.5 to 3.5 per cent is unlikely to be realized anytime soon.

The world in the slow lane is unhelpful


This was never an easy target. World growth is yet to recover from the slowdown. Protectionist barriers, related to the loss of domestic employment and increasing inequality, are finding favour, including in our largest trade partner: the United States. In this unsupportive ecosystem, increasing our share of world trade pie needs a calibrated strategy to target markets and product lines where Indian goods are most competitive. Five initiatives can be considered.

Focus on niche markets, South Asia & Africa

Expanding bilateral trade within South Asia and with Africa should be the first order of business. Some trade is already round tripped via the Gulf, adding intermediary margins, which are denied to both the original exporter and final importer. Trade relationships tie regions together. The Indian Ocean littoral needs targeted attention via specific product chains.

Higher agri exports protect jobs

Primary products, particularly agricultural goods, were overweight in our export basket in the 1980s. Their share has shrunk post liberalisation. Legalising commercial leasing of large tracts of land for farming can revive agricultural production for export markets and protect domestic jobs.

Regional air connectivity initiative can bring export markets closer

The recently-launched progressive policy of regional air connectivity offers an opportunity for embedding export orientation even in hitherto inland, poorly connected locations. Air connectivity adds value to the local economy by kickstarting business around newly-serviced airports which are logistic nodes, connected to hubs in metros.

Long on diversity but short on volume

The Economic Survey 2017 notes that India exports a wide range of products. We export 97 per cent of the top 100 items traded worldwide at the four-digit nomenclature level and 83 per cent at the six-digit nomenclature levels. But the volumes exported are low, at just 1.6 per cent of the total value of world exports.

Joined up policy formulation and implementation needed- Committee for Investment and Trade (CIT)

Prabhu Modi

Exports need to be supported by a trade policy developed collaboratively with state governments. The Goods and Services Tax committee provides a role model. A similar federal trade and foreign investment committee, with all state governments on board, could provide a structure for joint policy formulation and implementation. Consider that meat exports have declined as state governments failed to sanction goons extracting “rents” from the movement of cattle — other than even cows — for slaughter. This also imposed a direct loss in domestic income of $1 billion — small beer, perhaps, in the larger scheme of things. But unnecessarily disruptive for one million people employed in the leather, dairy and meat industry. Significantly larger income loss is inevitable if the 40 million rural households who keep milch animals for boosting nutrition and for profit are dissuaded from doing so.

Link devolution to export effort – 15th Finance Commission

State governments lack incentives to promote exports. The recently constituted 15th Finance Commission could help by tweaking the fiscal devolution to include export effort as a carrot for enhanced devolution. Direct incentives are more empowering for states than Union government-funded schemes. Landlocked states, which have fewer options for exports than seaboard states, could be incentivised for narrowing the gap between themselves and the exports to GDP ratio at the national level.

Realistic exchange rate for ending the incentive to import and push exports

India has, perversely, become a world leader in initiating action under anti-dumping measures. In 2016, out of a total of 145 actions by all countries, India initiated as many as 69 actions. Maybe, if we were to fix the rupee exchange rate more realistically, so many anti-dumping actions may not be needed. Domestic producers are already hurting from the turbulence, admittedly temporary, from the recent tax reforms. But they also remain handicapped by an appreciated rupee. A “strong” rupee is bad for exports. It is also bad for domestic producers, since it makes imported goods artificially cheaper.

We are not the US – capital flows to plug the trade gap is not sustainable

Prudent management of the external account has chuffed investor confidence so much that surging capital inflows (other than debt) have obscured the desperate need to enhance exports to plug the foreign exchange gap, emanating from the trade imbalance.

Watch the oil price closer than your enemy

We have benefited from the continued low prices for imported oil by around $50 billion. But our inflows, via remittances from Indians working in the Gulf and elsewhere, have suffered a collateral damage of $10 billion. The net effect is a benefit of $40 billion.

But betting on oil prices is worse that betting on the monsoon being on time. Our dependence on imported oil, to fuel growth, shall continue, till solar power becomes the primary fuel for transportation. But that future is at least a decade or more away, even in developed economies. In the near term, we must make our trade balance resilient to the possibility of an oil price increase.

agri india

Exports, economic growth and good jobs are organically linked. We are ahead on growth. But the two other legs also need to catch up.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, November 29, 2017

How Ivanka Trump can revive our exports and create jobs

Mumbai local

The future of work is uncertain. Within this global conundrum, India has a peculiar problem. The International Labor Organization estimates that less women in India are opting to work. In 1990 there two men for every woman in the workplace. Now there are three men for every woman in the workplace. Despite women becoming better educated and overweight in the honors list of colleges, two thirds of graduate women do not work.

Men “crowd out” women in a stagnant jobs market

This statistic does not align with the over-crowded “Ladies” section of the Mumbai local trains or how the workplace looks in metros, particularly InfoTech heavy Bangalore, where gender diversity is the norm.  What seems more likely, is that with low-skill jobs declining in significant numbers, women step back to allow their men to get such jobs. It helps that men are implicitly preferred by employers, despite costing more than women for similar work.

This wealth of unused woman power in India, is what Ms. Trump could tap into, at Hyderabad next week, where she will be a key note speaker at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.

Ivanka and global supply chains

Ivanka trump

Ms. Trump, now in honorary public office, as an Advisor to the President of the United States, was previously a businesswoman in the luxury goods market. She knows first-hand, the potential of global supply chains, to drive development and growth, across networked economies. India needs all the help it can get in boosting exports.

Standards and Poor’s assesses India’s external position as strong

Exports have lagged economic growth since 2014 and this trend is projected by Standard and Poor’s – the international rating agency – to continue, at least, till 2019. Curiously, S&P is simultaneously bullish about the resilience of India’s external position. This is principally due to our sound monetary management; a “liquid” rupee, trading for which constitutes around 1 percent of all forex transactions; low external debt levels at around 20 percent of GDP and our ability to finance the sizable trade deficit of 7 percent of GDP from surpluses in the export of services; our net balance of remittances from expatriate Indians and inward net flow of foreign investment.

But oil price increase can upset the finely balanced external account

But left unsaid is the fact that low oil prices over the last three years have significantly decreased the trade imbalance. Nevertheless the risk of potential external imbalance remains if the oil price strengthens. Pumping up exports is not just necessary for a healthy and sustainable external balance. Booming exports are a signal of increasing competitiveness of the domestic economy and its enhanced integration into global supply chains.

Rational pricing of currency can boost exports and price imports competitively

It is less easy to define how to boost exports selectively, without distorting incentives for domestic producers. Creating “walled” export enclaves with superior facilities means “ghettoizing” the rest of the country. China can do this, because of its repressive labor and immigration policies and its top down, centralized, party managed, authoritarian State. India is closer in values; in diversity and in political architecture to the US. Out of the options for incentivizing exports – tax breaks; cheaper finance or better infrastructure facilities, the least distorting and the most efficient is maintaining a realistic exchange rate.

The Rupee is currently overvalued by around 20 percent. This strategy is great for limiting the public expenditure on import of defence and transport related equipment and on the subsidy for installation of imported solar panels for generating power.  It is also great for households which buy “cheaper” imported products – ranging from LED backlit plastic Gods to iPhones – from China. But it is a killer for domestic industry. It is not just the exports which suffers. Small and medium enterprises also take a direct hit if ceramic tiles from Turkey can out price domestic production.

Agriculture also suffers. If the exchange rate was realistic, government would not need to impose an additional duty to discourage the import of cheaper, imported onions. A seasonal glut of vegetables could be avoided if a realistic exchange rate made the export of agricultural produce more competitive, thereby increasing farm incomes without a subsidy.

Three takeaways

If Ms Trump is truly concerned about empowering women, the lessons from India are the following. First, women suffer more from economic downturns than men. By losing their income they slide into the traditional role of being financially dependent – not a happy position to be in, for anyone. Second, higher exports help women, particularly if production is decentralized to exploit localized skills, like high value embroidery and handicrafts. Finally, integrating domestic production into global supply chains seamlessly, is key, for empowering women sustainably.

The Pearl Price Index


One hopes Ms. Trump will ponder over these issues. Over dinner, in the lavishly ornamented Falaknuma Palace, one wishes she would nudge Prime Minister Modi into depreciating the Rupee to realistic levels, by exclaiming, she was shocked by the dollar prices quoted for the pearls, she had intended to buy, at Charminar. She would only be  furthering US interests. Robust exports, increase India’s capacity to buy American. Down-at-heel Indian exporters and the women of India will also thank her for this collaborative gesture.


Moody God of bond markets


The international bond market, with an outstanding volume of around $22 trillion, is the final arbiter of a country’s destiny. Bonds, unlike loans, can be traded, or “marked to market”. This makes trustworthy credit ratings, like Moodys’, critical to give pricing signals. Since there is a market, even discards are recycled. Discards are called “junk” bonds. Their outstanding volume is $1.3 trillion. They are traded at insanely high returns up to 12 per cent per annum as compared to AAA-rated bonds, where the yield is just four per cent. India had an investment grade rating of Baa3, which Moodys upgraded, on November 17, to Baa2 (stable outlook).

Rating the sovereign

A sovereign credit rating reflects the country risk. It serves as a “glass ceiling”. Bond issuers from any country can never have a credit rating higher than their country’s rating. India has not issued a sovereign bond overseas thus far. But government-owned companies and private entities access the international bond market. This is one reason why the rating upgrade is welcome.

It is a win-win for India. The upgrade increases the incentive to invest in India. The Reserve Bank must be vigilant to sanitize the potential of such inflows to strengthen an already-overvalued rupee, which is hurting export competitiveness. But our stock market is already inflated in the aftermath of demonetization by the surge of domestic savings, seeking refuge from a dull realty market.  This may dampen the inflow of “hot money”.

Sovereign rankings

The upgrade pulls us ahead of Italy (negative outlook) and level with Uruguay, Colombia, Spain, Bulgaria, the Philippines and Oman. We remain behind Panama, which has a positive outlook and can be upgraded to Baa1 to join Thailand, Mauritius and Slovenia. In the next level (A3) are Mexico, Malaysia, Peru, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Iceland. China floats high above at A1 — four rating segments above us.

Unpacking the Moodys rating

The Moody’s rating methodology is complex. First, a country is fitted into one, of three possible levels, for each of the 25 indicators. These are then aggregated into 11 sub-factors using assigned weights. The sub-factors in turn are aggregated into four factors using assigned weights. There is a mechanism to “fine-tune” the final rating using qualitative assessments – this is where confidence-building measures help.

Massaging the numbers

The highest weight — 50 per cent — is for the risk probability of default on interest payment or redemption of the bond. Risk is assumed to increase with higher levels of income inequality and lower scores on the World-Wide Voice and Accountability index (both reflective of political stability); higher reliance on external debt; higher borrowing need relative to revenue; weak banks; imbalance between foreign exchange receipts and expenditures and higher reliance on foreign investment.

Fiscal strength gets a weight of 25 per cent, related to lower nominal and trend line of debt to GDP levels and lower interest payments relative to revenue and to GDP.

Institutional strength has a of weight 12.5 per cent. Countries scoring higher in the World-Wide Government Effectiveness index; the Rule of Law index and the Control of Corruption index get higher marks.

Economic strength has a weight of 12.5 per cent. Higher real growth with lower volatility of GDP; higher nominal and per person national income and a better score on the World Competitiveness Index all ensure higher scores.

Labouring through this long explanation of the methodology becomes rewarding because it points us to a prioritised pathway for improving our credit rating.

Push the right buttons

First, remember that in today’s networked world, not only is it important to do the right thing generally but one must also push the right buttons. Our credit rating depends on our score in the five independent indices, mentioned above, relating to – voice and accountability, rule of law, government effectiveness, control of corruption and competitiveness. The Niti Aayog has demonstrated how our score and rank can be improved in the Doing Business Survey. Similar effort, in these five indices, can directly improve our overall credit rating.

Fastrack four priorities

Second, consider that four initiatives — (1) reducing inequality via direct transfers and NREGA to supplement low incomes; (2) funding investments through tax revenue and domestic private savings via financial inclusion and market development; (3) strengthening the resilience of our banks by shrinking the size and functions of weak banks and recapitalising the strong banks; and (4) increasing export earnings by removing the import bias for a “strong” rupee, can together improve one half of the overall score. These four areas should have a very high priority.

Go easy on piling up debt

Third, stabilising the aggregate public debt to GDP ratio is necessary. This contributes to one-fourth of the aggregate credit score. Moody’s recognises that this ratio shall increase from 68 per cent in 2016-17 to 69 per cent in 2017-18.


It may even be higher, if real GDP growth this year is less than 6.7 per cent. State government debt has increased by Rs 2.7 trillion (1.5 per cent of GDP) due to financial engineering in acquiring 75 per cent of the stressed assets of electricity utilities through UDAY (electricity restructuring) bonds. An additional source of stress is the proposed recapitalisation bonds, particularly if financed from public funds. Financing the capital needs of strong banks through private equity would be far better, even if government equity must be diluted to 26 per cent. At the very least, the market would force adequate internal restructuring. Sharply reducing the revenue expenditure by 10 per cent can bridge the “effective revenue deficit” (0.7 per cent of GDP) and release fiscal space for virtuous allocations. Revenue expenditure — other than interest and capital grants —is budgeted at Rs 11.2 trillion this year.

Diligent nudging will show results

The Moodys’ rating methodology has evolved beyond the pure commercial intent of repaying lenders on time, to assess systemic sustainability and happy citizens.

The ball is now in the government’s court to navigate the tightrope between short-term welfare priorities and medium-term fiscal stability and growth. Political sagacity, restraint and technical wizardry in choosing the right boxes to tick will determine if the finance minister can widen our smile.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age November 21, 2017

Saintliness versus efficiency

BJP winner

The BJP can put India on auto-pilot over the next eighteen months and probably still win the next general election, principally because, things are going well and the combined opposition has still to acquire the characteristics – leadership, resolve and broad agreements – of credibility. This high probability of winning in 2019 should push the BJP to evolve strategies, rather than tactics, particularly for the economy.

The key decision – morality or results

The key decision is to choose between prioritising morality or efficiency. The former entails more public delivery, the latter more private enterprise. Going down the moral route, say “zero tolerance” for corruption, has severe consequences – continued economic dislocation over the next two years; losing out on economic growth and inhibiting the availability of jobs. In a largely informal, cash based economy, like India, putting anti-corruption first, requires the private sector to reorganise, become more efficient and profitable, other than, by just avoiding tax. Whilst this adjustment plays out, the state – despite it being more inefficient than private enterprise – would need to step in with an enhanced role. The moral choice puts us on the long route to efficiency, which could last, well into the second term of the government starting 2019.

Corruption has its uses

The “amoral” choice is to junk the fundamentalist approach to anti-corruption, fix one’s eyes on the objective of high growth and navigate the waters by feeling the stones underfoot, to avoid deep pools, where corruption and inefficiency, overlap the most. Some examples of such action are – sticking to a reasonable “real” interest rate rather than go for an artificially “low” interest rate. The latter may enhance investment. But it comes at the cost of possible future stressed assets via “gold plated” bank-financed projects. Similarly, choosing Direct Benefit Transfers rather than the physical provision of subsidised public goods of indifferent quality is another example, which reduces corruption and enhances efficiency. But, in many other cases, the choice is not so obvious.

Corruption can be functionally efficient. Consider the case of information asymmetries – shorn of jargon, this simply means that it is not easy to know how or why government acts in a certain manner – whilst awarding contracts; appointing employees or allowing its assets – like land, to be misused.

Democratising access to information

If I bribe an official to understand the politics around a pending economic decision, corruption ends up “democratising information”, which is what a perfectly “transparent” system would achieve in Norway or Sweden. Consider, that prisoners in Indian jails bribe guards, merely to get minimum sanitary and nutrition conditions. Turning a blind eye to such “corruption” is “amorally pragmatic” till prisons become more acceptably habitable. After all, prison is meant to reform not penalise prisoners through health hazards. Petty corruption is the common persons way of dealing with administrative inefficiency.

Morality tends to exclude private enterprise

So, why does morality and a “big” state go together? Consider a government, which is stuck with a poorly motivated; inadequately qualified and shoddily managed workforce. Suppose it chooses to bypass public inefficiency by outsourcing public service delivery to the private sector. How will they oversee the private provider? Poor drafting of agreements and enforcement of contractual obligations generates corruption or delays execution. This is what took the fizz out of the juggernaut of Public Private Partnerships. Why for instance, did Mr. Piyush Goyal, the minister of railways decide to call in the Army to repair the collapsed pedestrian over-bridge at Elphinstone Station, Mumbai? Could it be that, contracting private parties, on an emergency basis, inevitably has lags and creates opportunities for corruption? We saw a lot of this in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, New Delhi in 2010.

Preferring to work in-house is the obvious safe, default option for an executive which is capable and willing to work 24X7. The downside is that extensive use of state enterprises crowds out the private sector, which is hard put to better the riskless cost of finance available to the public sector. If publicly managed service delivery is sustainable, there is no harm in that. But not every public leader is an efficient “saint” and public systems, set-up by them, revert quickly to the mean, once the leadership changes.

How many Saints do we have?

Saintliness, humility and frugality make great copy and attract votes. The problem lies in scaling up a system based on virtue and otherworldliness. It is not for nothing that the competitive spirit -so important for sustainable efficiency- springs from the basic “killer” instinct to be numero uno. Saintliness is also rigid in adapting to the world. Effectiveness – getting results on the ground,  requires flexibility in implementation.

“Jhooming” can’t generate shared growth

closed market

A tax system with high nominal tax rates, which is efficiently oppressive can reduce supply because producers and service providers will shut shop, rather than risk getting their personal assets forclosed. This is worse than a tax system, which is not completely evasion proof but encourages growth in value addition. Black money, in progressively, smaller doses over time is better than a clean but scorched economy. Unlike in nature, “jhooming” may not generate shared growth.

Also available at TOI Blogs November 15, 2017

“Demonetisation” as a morality play

The politics around “demonetisation” — a misused term for what happened on November 8, 2016 — has taken centerstage in the run-up to the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh (that voted yesterday) and Gujarat (which goes to the polls in December). Finance minister Arun Jaitley has added “morality” to the cluster of objectives, that seemingly justified compulsorily replacing 86 per cent of our currency with new notes over a short period of just two months last year.

Whose morality?

Morality is a slippery slope to tread in public affairs. It’s certainly an individual virtue, but at a societal level it’s difficult to define. Consider the moral conundrums that arise while enforcing a law which doesn’t have widespread local acceptance. Rebels with a cause see themselves as morally-elevated outliers. Not so long ago, our freedom fighters were feted for disrupting the peace, assassination or damaging public property. Even today in areas like Kashmir or the Maoist belt in central India, it’s tough to apportion the balance of morality between those who violate the law and others who seek to enforce it.

Our Constitution, quite properly, is silent about “morality”. A quasi-moral concept of “socialism” was introduced in 1976 into the preamble, by former PM Indira Gandhi, as a populist measure. But it sits incongruously with the otherwise liberal slant of the document.

Corruption is patently immoral as it saps national wealth. Measures to fight corruption are part of public dharma. The real issue is: was demonetisation essential to end corruption?

Demonetisation to identify counterfeit money like using a hammer to kill a bug

If the objective was to weed out counterfeit money, which can fund terrorism or even legal transactions, there was no need to impose a tight timeframe of two months. This is what caused widespread panic and disruption. It would have been enough to alert the public to the menace; provide markets (banks already have them) with testing devices to weed out “compromised” notes over time. This is an ongoing activity, that all central banks do routinely, because any note (besides crypto currencies) can be counterfeited.

Better policing can identify & capture the stocks of black cash

If the objective was to capture the stocks of “black” money, held as cash, in one fell swoop, this was better done by making known “havens” of “black” cash — apparently entire warehouses — unsafe for storage through effective enforcement, coupled with strong incentives to come clean. Note that “black” money hasn’t gone away.

Black money was generated even as the notes were being replaced

Demonetisation can do very little to stop generation of black money. The government knows this. It intends to use “big data” for surveillance of potential evaders; embed governance systems with enhanced oversight and enhance transparency. Only improved technology and perpetual, intensive oversight can starve this hydra.

Was it political?

Not least the timing of the move, just before the elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which sends the largest number of members to the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP didn’t have a majority, could indicate the compulsion to play to the gallery. If this was the motive it worked very well politically — not least, because UP is a poor state with low governance indicators and high levels of inequality. Hitting the rich is a tested populist strategy, perfected by former PM Indira Gandhi, and still held dear by our antiquated Communist parties.

Would Gandhiji have approved?

But demonetisation doesn’t align with Mahatma Gandhi’s precept that “means matter as much as ends”. Hitting tangentially at corruption, at the cost of scorching even the law-abiding, is unacceptable. Anti-corruption measures which ignore the social and economic collateral cost of implementation are suspect. The State has an asymmetric, fiduciary relationship of trust with citizens. Did it live up to its dharma of insulating the honest from State-induced actions intended to harm the corrupt?

Some positives – nudged people towards digital and banked transactions

Undoubtedly, demonetisation did accelerate a shift towards banked transactions and boosted digital payments. Both outcomes are winners. But it’s also true that it put a temporary brake on economic growth by disrupting business and inducing job losses, mostly in the informal sector, where workers and the self-employed are less well paid, and less well-endowed to absorb the cost of a disruption.

Means matter as much as ends

Seemingly desirable steps to make the system honest can have grossly inequitable outcomes, which Gandhiji would have termed “immoral”. It’s possible to reduce corruption by replacing income-tax with a “head tax”. Citizens are more easily identifiable than their income, so very few would be able to escape this tax. If a “head tax” were to replace income-tax, each citizen would pay Rs 3,600 per year. But consider, for 40 per cent of the population, which is vulnerable to poverty, the head tax would be a minimum 12 per cent of even the poverty level income of $1.90 per day. Currently, even an income of Rs 10 lakhs (Rs 1 million), or 22 times the poverty level income, attracts a low effective tax rate. Protecting the weak is cumbersome. It creates tax escape routes, which need to be plugged with minimum collateral damage to the weak and the honest.

GST the first efficient, corruption buster

The good news is that the Narendra Modi government has got it bang-on with its second major corruption-busting initiative: the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Implemented from July 1, 2017, it has also disrupted business and compounded job losses, arising from the shutting down of businesses, which relied on the illegal competitive advantage of avoiding tax. GST is a potent standalone, medium-term winner. This expectation mitigates the interim economic “amorality” arising from the collateral harm to innocent workers and suppliers to such businesses. The proactivity of the GST Council in correcting mistakes and acknowledging errors has only deepened its credibility and conveyed a sense of responsible stewardship. This is welcome.

Compensate for the distress & dislocation


Demonetisation was misguided even if it had “moral” end-objectives. One-fifth of our population, which suffered the most, is in the income segment of Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakhs (0.5 million) per year, being workers and those self-employed in the informal sector. They have still not been compensated. Hopefully, the finance minister will apply some balm in his 2018-19 Budget and bring this tragic “morality play” to a happy end.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, November 10, 2017

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