Monday, February 18, 2013

I am with you Mr. Governor

I had written a blog on issues relating to interest rates, inflation and economic growth on September 3, 2012 (, where I discussed the relationship between the three economic variables.  I concluded the same by wondering whether a marginal decrease in interest rates would have any impact on the economic growth.  I was very happy to see a recent article in The Economic Times that the RBI Governor, Dr. Subba Rao's reluctance to decrease the interest rates stems from his concerns towards the poor people who suffer due to high level of inflation.  (The link to this article is given at the bottom).  He believes that the advocates of economic growth through lower interest rates have enough platforms to make their voice heard; whereas the poor people in the country hardly have a platform to voice their concerns.

Yes, you are right Mr. Governor.  All those who are asking RBI to reduce rates belong to higher strata of the society and they have enough platforms like CII, FICCI, and even the print and electronic media to put forward their arguments.  When the inflation is high (especially, the food inflation), the higher strata of the society absorbs it quite easily; the middle ones manage somehow; but people at the lower strata find it extremely difficult to absorb the shock.  Though the inflation, that is the percentage increase in prices, is same for all, the ability to deal with it, is not the same.  Let me take a simple example.  When I came to Tumkur (near Bangalore) 14 years ago, the cost of travelling to Bangalore from Tumkur by bus (Rs.18) was almost same as that of train.  Hence the trains were not crowded much.  But today, it costs Rs.58 to travel to Bangalore by bus, whereas it costs Rs.11 by local train.  And, it is almost impossible to get space to stand in the train (let alone a seat) during the peak hours as it is over crowded.  And if one looks at the crowds that travel, they mostly belong to lower class and lower middle class.  Now, imagine what would happen when the rail fare also starts going up (which might be a reality soon).  Is there anybody to represent the lower class of the society, which suffers the most due to inflation?  Politicians meet them only during the election time!  And the argument that the decrease in rates would propel economic growth, which in turn would eradicate poverty and wipe away the tears of the poor, is a hypothesis yet to be proven.  Even if we were to accept the above argument, it definitely would take a long time.  According to the World Bank statistics of 2010, 32.70% of the population in India live below $1.25 per day; and 68.70% live below $2 per day.  A rough calculation tells me that 68.70% of Indians can not travel to Bangalore from Tumkur and back by bus on a single days as they live on less than what it would cost for the journey!

Let me quote Mahatma Gandhi, "Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the steps you contemplate are going to be of any use to him".  Dr. Subba Rao, I am happy that you chose to listen to the above words of the father of the nation.  (Perhaps, many others have not seen 'poorest and weakest people', that they are not able to understand their plight!).  When one looks at the whole issue from the perspective of the poor people, containing inflation becomes a far more important issue than economic growth.  As the Governors himself has said in the past, RBI is not the only agency responsible for managing inflation.  RBI has only limited instruments at its disposal.  It must be a collective effort from the part of government and all others concerned.  I am reminded of some classic cartoons by the legendary cartoonist R K Laxman.

Soaring prices, extortion....we must thank our stars , we are not affected by any of these

One good thing about our political system is that whichever party comes to power, we are left alone to continue our lifestyle

That's good.  This will bring down the deficit.  Now he should do something to bring down the prices.
Link to the ET Article:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

'Yogflation' - A new Concept !

There is a concept in Economics, which we all learn in our college, that in a developed market, no single individual or a small group of individuals can influence the demand and supply conditions.  This concept has been strongly challenged, if one goes by an article that appeared in yesterday's (6th November 2012) Economic Times.  The article says that the wholesale price of walnuts in shell increased 17-20% during the last one year and the price of walnut kernel jumped 50%.  The demand for walnut has been rising steadily during the last six months.  And the reason: Yoga guru Baba Ramdev has been prescribing consumption of walnut as a remedy for knee-joint arthritis!  This is not the first time the markets witnessed his influence.  Few years ago the prices of vegetables like 'lauki' and 'karela' went up subsequent to his recommendations! Though the modern medical science does not reject the fact that walnut is a source of carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins; there is no study to prove that walnut could cure knee-joint arthritis.  I was really fascinated by this story.  I wrote down some important lessons in Management.
  1. Lesson in Economics: In India, it is possible for a highly influential individual like Baba Ramdev to influence the prices of products.  Baba Ramdev is neither a buyer or seller of walnut in bulk quantity (as far as my knowledge goes).  So we are completely challenging the economic theory, as this is a case where the words of an individual, who is not directly linked to the demand and supply factors, is greatly influencing the demand of a product.  
  2. Lesson in Marketing: Anything with a tag of 'health consciousness', especially when promoted by a person like Baba, sells like hot cakes in India.  Forget about the scientific evidence.  The above article continues to say that the cashew growers are planning to promote cashew-nut with a 'heath' tag.  I hope they get someone like Baba to endorse cashew nuts!
  3. Lesson in Advertising: I don't think any other celebrity endorsement in India (or, for that matter, in the whole world) has ever created such a surge in demand within a small span of time for any product.  It probably happens only in India.  
  4. And finally a lesson in Finance: If one could predict with certain degree of accuracy, which commodity Baba is going to recommend during the next six months, one can make lot of money by betting on the underlying commodity derivatives.
If things go like this, the babus in Finance ministry would be very happy as they would know whom to blame for the inflation.  When you have inflation influenced by a Yoga guru, what do you call it - 'Yogflation'?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Nobel Prize in Economics - 2012

Two US Economists, Loyd Shapley and Alvin E Roth shared the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for 2012.  Though, I haven't read the works of these Economists, I started reading about their work recently and thought of sharing some interesting points with my readers.  This year's Nobel Prize represents simultaneous recognition for theory and practice.  While Shapely's research along with David Gale in game theory developed the foundation for the theory of match making, Roth applied this theory to various practical situations.

The most interesting part of their research is that it deals with a slightly different aspect of economics compared to the traditional one.  We all learn in basic economics the theory of demand and supply with price as the meeting point.  But Shapley and Gale recognised many situations, where the matching of demand and supply is not done based on price, but other considerations.  Their most influential paper of 1962 discussed the cases of college admissions and stability of marriage.  We can see that in the decisions like marriage, choosing a college etc, the demand and supply interaction (or match making) is not based on price.  They started by asking 'can we develop an algorithm where, from a group of men and women willing to get married, the matching is done in such a way that no individual would have chosen any other individual as their partner?'.  In other words a perfect match making would be possible.  We may wonder, in what way mathematics could help in this process; but that is exactly what Shapley and Gale proved.  Needless to say, in practical life, the model had its own limitations in case of marriages.  However, there were many other situations of match making, where this model proved extremely useful.  That is what Roth did by applying the the above theory to various cases like school admission, kidney transplantation, placement of medical graduates to hospitals etc.  So, Roth was actually putting into practice, what Shapley had developed two decades ago.

There is another speciality for this year's Nobel.  Till now as many as seven economists have won Nobel Prize in Economics for research based on game theory.  But all of them represented research in non-cooperative games, where the objective is to develop strategies for one party to maximize his/her gain.  But this is the first time, two researchers have been awarded the prize for research on cooperative games.  Probably it is time the world starts looking for alternatives from the 'cooperative win-win game models', as Siddharth Singh wrote in Live Mint: 'I was a little surprised by the announcement, but perhaps, the Nobel committee is worried about the consequences of unfettered capitalism of the kind that usual game theory (non-cooperative games) celebrates'. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Planning - the way to reduce Pain

A recent news item regrading the wife of an airlines employee committing suicide due to financial distress created lot of noise.  She claimed that her husband was not paid salary for 4-5 months and that created lot of financial problems.  The story of suicide by farmers has become a regular one.  But the heat of financial distress pushing the middle income families to take such drastic steps is a recent phenomenon, at least in India.

This brings to light the ignorance of 'personal financial planning' among most of the middle class families.  During the last decade or so the spurt in new-age technology related jobs, where the average salary of an individual was far above the other sectors, created a new section of middle class people.  When a young boy or a girl, in early twenties, is offered a fat salary, they tend to forget the importance of 'financial prudence' and indulge in acquiring assets like luxury apartments, high-end vehicles and develop a life style that demands lot of cash.  Most of these assets are acquired by taking loans against the fat salary.  As long as the salary keeps flowing in, the pinch of EMIs is not know.  But what they fail to realise is that these EMIs are here to stay, even if the salary moves downwards or even stops for a couple of months.  Debt is like a knife with sharpness on both sides.  When the fruit that is being cut is ripe and soft (read, good flow of income), it cuts the fruit easily; but when the fruit is hard (read, fall in income), it cuts your finger.   This is where the importance of financial planning lies.  The most important aspects of financial planning are:
(a) Investment planning
(b) Tax planning
(c) Risk Management & Insurance planning
(d) Retirement planning
(e) Estate planning

Today, there is no dearth for literature on financial planning.  There are many books, websites and even agencies offering this wisdom.  But what is more important is to take the advise from them and use one's own wisdom to plan the finances properly.  A step-by-step approach to financial planning is given below, which is taken from the book, 'Personal Finance' by Jack R Kapoor, Les R Dlabay and Robert J Hughes.

In the first look, this might appear cumbersome, but it is not so.  And moreover, it is not necessary that an individual goes through each step.  What is expected is that each individual is at least aware of these aspects and spends some quality time planning his/her finances.  This would make him/her better prepared to face financial adversities in future; and thus reduce the pain.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Markets on Fire - Boom or Bubble?

The SENSEX which stood at 17300 points about a month ago, has shown a steady rise to close above 19000 yesterday - a 15 months high.  The economic press was filled with the stories of this continued rally.  I started wondering, what is it that is pushing the markets high.  Did anything change fundamentally during the last few days to justify this rally?  But the markets have always been like this!  And this is where the greatest lesson for small-time retail investors lie.

Let us look at the stated reasons behind this rise.  A slew of announcements from the central government, like FDI in multi-brand retail, aviation etc. and increase in diesel prices and a cap on the number of LPG cylinders, which are expected to push the reforms further, is all that what we had during the last couple of days.  Keeping aside the increase in diesel prices, all other announcements are just announcements and yet to be implemented.  Yes, it is true that the Rupee has gained value against the dollar and the RBI has marginally reduced CRR.  Yet, the hardcore issues like inflation continue to haunt the policy makers.  So, what is it that drove the markets up?  The answer is simple - these announcements, or to be more precise, the news of these announcements.

What the small time retail investor should learn is that the markets do not necessarily react to events.  They react to news!  I keep giving the following example while teaching investments.  When you hear the news that your close friend is getting married, you jump out of excitement and reach out to congratulate him.  You do this immediately, though your friend is yet to get married.  And on the day of his marriage, however happy you might be, you would never experience and exhibit the same excitement that the news of his marriage brought to you when you heard it first.  If this is how individuals behave, can the market, representing a huge congregation of individuals behave differently? No.  Hence the markets almost always react to news and not events.  Barring few occasions, when an event as well as the news of the event comes together, in all other cases the news comes first and the event later.

So, the small-time retail investors have to be very cautious during this time.  Most of the times, they are the last to enter the market lured by the upward trend and after they enter, the markets start moving in the reverse direction!  While I am writing this, I can already see that the Sensex has fallen more than 100 points to close at 18939 today!  My suggestion to such investors would be to avoid speculation based on the short-term movements of the market.  I still believe that the economy is fundamentally strong and investments with medium to long term perspective (in good quality stocks) would definitely generate good returns.  All small investors should always look at equity as a long term investment.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Loss, Profit and Value - Facts or Fiction?

Thanks to the wide media coverage, today, the economic issues concerning the nation are discussed with such great interest, which was, perhaps never seen before.  The CAG's views and his loss calculations on a series of  issues like 2G, coal blocks etc. generated lot of heat.  Recently, the ex- Chief Justice of India, reportedly made a comment that 'the loss is a fact and the profit, a matter of opinion'.  The subsequent days witnessed lot of discussions around this statement.  Let us look at it from a corporate finance perspective.  The reported profit or loss of a company is not sacrosanct, as it is reported by the company itself!  One may argue that the accounts are audited by independent auditors; and hence, could be construed to be presenting a 'true and fair' picture of the state of affairs.  But the towering examples of Lehman Brothers and Satyam go against this argument.

There are many ways in which a company can manipulate its accounts to exhibit a totally different picture as against the reality.  On one side, we have firms which presented rosy profit figures before raising funds from the public; and on the other side, there are firms which kept making losses (intentionally) to attract certain benefits.   Few years ago, the government was forced to introduce Minimum Alternate Tax (MAT) to tax those companies, who had intelligently found ways of avoiding tax by exploiting the loopholes in the tax laws.  A recent issue of ET Wealth (24 Sept 2012) sums up various ways in which a firm dresses up its accounts, like not reporting certain expenses, capitalisation of revenue expenses, tampering with depreciation, over/under invoicing of revenues etc.  Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyer says 'I know of no principle in economics or audit that says losses are real, but profits are not' ('Profits and Losses Are Not Facts, The Economic Times, 26, September, 2012).

Profits and losses are historical numbers, so let us look at the principles of Valuation.  Value of any asset is defined as the present value of the future benefits expected to be derived from the asset.  There are two important components that go into the valuation exercise - the expected future cash flows representing the future benefits and the required rate of return used to compute the discounted value (present value).  The first component, cash flows, as the name suggests are 'expected'; hence are subjective and a matter of opinion.  Same is the case with the discount rate, which is again, based on the expected rate of returns, and hence subjective.  So, any exercise of valuation is also subjective and not a matter of 'fact'.  As Aiyer says, the only matter of fact is the price that one pays to acquire the asset!  Market price is a fact, as this represents the actual payment made by the buyer to the seller.  But ironically, the market price keeps fluctuating almost on a real time basis!

I would like to go with Prof. V Raghunathan, who says '...CAG has not only shown his innocence of the principles of financial engineering involved, but also confused the entire issue, so that it is difficult for an average person to appreciate where the CAG may be right and where he may be wrong.' (Intent versus Fact, The Economic Times, 21 September 2012).

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

IPOs - Issues & Alternatives

In a recent blog Prof. J R Varma, quoting a research paper by Adam Pritchard, argues that it is high time we abolish IPOs!  Weird, as it may look, but when one reads Prof. Varma's blog ( as well as the paper by Pritchard (, one is forced to believe their argument.  Pritchard explains that an IPO does not add value to any stakeholder including the issuer and the investor; and those who make money from IPOs are the people who manage the issue.  These people/agencies are paid a specific percentage of the issue size, which is known as 'floatation costs'.  Pritchard suggests a two-tier market system, where the companies would be first allowed to trade in a market where the participants would be Qualified Institutional Buyers.  Once a company matures in the Tier I market, it would be allowed to move to Tier II, which would be open to retail investors.

Way back in 1997, I was involved in a project to analyse the post-issue performance of the IPOs that flooded Indian markets during 1993-94.  (Incidentally, Indian markets witnessed maximum number of IPOs during this period).  We found that majority of the issues were trading below the issue price and many companies had vanished into thin air.  Compared to 1994, today, Indian markets have matured a lot in terms of regulation, disclosures and compliance.  However, the IPO market continues to be a gambling zone.  On one side we have issues like Vaswani Industries (October 2011-Issue Price Rs.49 & Current Price Rs.4.76) and Indo Thai Securities (July 2011-Issue Price Rs.74 & Current Price Rs.9.75); and on the other side, we also have Onelife Capital (October 2011- Issue Price Rs.110 & Current Price Rs.648.10).  The story is not different in developed countries either.  Take for example the much-hyped IPO of Facebook.  The shares issued at $38 in May this year are currently trading at $18.80 in Nasdaq and the firm is embroiled with more than 40 lawsuits.  If a firm trades at huge discount or at huge premium on listing, it reflects the inefficiency of the primary market.

In the wake of the above, I pray that the Government appoints a committee headed by Prof. J R Varma (who has already been a member as well as Chairman of several committees) to restructure the IPO market; the committee comes up with revolutionary suggestions; and above all, the Government accepts and implements these suggestions.  Are the bosses at the Finance Ministry and SEBI listening....?