How tightly will organised Big Business be able to control economic policies this time?

The power of organised Big Business over New Delhi’s economic policies (whether Congress-led or BJP-led) was signalled by the presence in the audience at Rashtrapati Bhavan last week of several prominent lobbyists when Dr Manmohan Singh and his senior-most Cabinet colleagues were being sworn-in by the President of India. Why were such witnesses needed at such an auspicious national occasion?

Organised Big Business (both private sector and public sector) along with organised Big Labour (whose interests are represented most ably by New Delhi’s official communist parties like the CPI-M and CPI), are astutely aware of how best to advance their own economic interests; this usually gets assisted nicely enough through clever use of our comprador English-language TV, newspaper and magazine media. Shortly after the election results, lobbyists were all over commercial TV proposing things like FDI in insurance and airports etc– as if that was the meaning of the Sonia-Rahul mandate or were issues of high national priority. A typical piece of such “pretend-economics” appears in today’s business-press from a formerly Leftist Indian bureaucrat: “With its decisive victory, the new Manmohan Singh government should at last be able to implement the required second generation reforms. Their lineaments (sic) are well known and with the removal of the Left’s veto, many of those stalled in the legislature as well as those which were forestalled can now be implemented. These should be able to put India back on a 9-10 per cent per annum growth rate…”

Today’s business-press also reports that the new Government is planning to create a fresh “Disinvestment Ministry” and Dr Singh’s chief economic policy aide is “a frontrunner among the names short-listed to head the new ministry” with Cabinet rank.

Now if any enterprising doctoral student was to investigate the question, I think the evidence would show that I, and I alone – not even BR Shenoy or AD Shroff or Jagdish Bhagwati — may have been the first among Indian economists to have argued in favour of the privatisation of India’s public sector. I did so precisely 25 years ago in Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India, which was so unusual for its time that it attracted the lead editorial of The Times of London on the day it was published May 29 1984, and had its due impact on Indian economic policy then and since, as has been described elsewhere here.  In 1990-1991 while with Rajiv Gandhi, I had floated an idea of literally giving away shares of the public sector to the public that owned it (as several other countries had been doing at that time), specifically perhaps giving them to the poorest panchayats in aid of their development.  In 2004-2005, upon returning to Britain after many years, I helped create the book Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant, and Margaret Thatcher if anyone was a paragon of privatisation.

That being said, I have to say I think a new Indian policy of creating a Ministry to privatise India’s public sector is probably a very BAD idea indeed in present circumstances — mainly because it will be driven by the interests of the organised Big Business lobbies that have so profoundly and subtly been able to control the New Delhi Government’s behaviour in recent decades.

Such lobbyist control is exercised often without the Government even realising or comprehending its parameters. For example, ask yourself: Is there any record anywhere of Dr Manmohan Singh, in his long career as a Government economist and then as a Rajya Sabha MP, having ever proposed before 2004-2005 that nuclear reactors were something vitally important to India’s future? And why do you suppose the most prominent Indian business lobby spent a million dollars and registered itself as an official lobbyist in Washington DC to promote the nuclear deal among American legislators? Because Big Business was feeling generous and altruistic towards the “energy security” of the ordinary people of India? Hardly.  Indian Big Business calculates and acts in its own interests, as is only to be expected under economic assumptions; those interests are frequently camouflaged by their lobbyist and media friends into seeming to be economic policy for the country as a whole.

Now our Government every year produces paper rupees and bank deposits in  practically unlimited amounts to pay for its practically unlimited deficit financing, and it has behaved thus over decades. Why we do not hear about this at all is because the most prominent Government economists themselves remain clueless — sometimes by choice, mostly by sheer ignorance — about the nature of the macroeconomic process that they are or have been part of.  (See my  “India’s Macroeconomics”, “The Dream Team: A Critique” etc elsewhere here). As for the Opposition’s economists, the less said about the CPI-M’s economists the better while the BJP, poor thing, has absolutely no economists at all!

Briefly speaking, Indian Big Business has acquired an acute sense of this long-term nominal/paper expansion of India’s economy, and as a result acts towards converting wherever possible its own hoards of paper rupees and rupee-denominated assets into more valuable portfolios for itself of real or durable assets, most conspicuously including hard-currency denominated assets, farm-land and urban real-estate, and, now, the physical assets of the Indian public sector. Such a path of trying to transform local domestic paper assets – produced unlimitedly by Government monetary and fiscal policy and naturally destined to depreciate — into real durable assets, is a privately rational course of action to follow in an inflationary economy.  It is not rocket-science  to realise the long-term path of the Indian rupee is downwards in comparison to the hard-currencies of the world – just compare our money supply growth and inflation rates with those of the rest of the world.

The Statesman of November 15 2006 had a lead editorial titled Government’s land-fraud: Cheating peasants in a hyperinflation-prone economy. It said:

“There is something fundamentally dishonourable about the way the Centre, the state of West Bengal and other state governments are treating the issue of expropriating peasants, farm-workers, petty shop-keepers etc of their small plots of land in the interests of promoters, industrialists and other businessmen. Singur may be but one example of a phenomenon being seen all over the country: Hyderabad, Karnataka, Kerala, Haryana, everywhere. So-called “Special Economic Zones” will merely exacerbate the problem many times over. India and its governments do not belong only to business and industrial lobbies, and what is good for private industrialists may or may not be good for India’s people as a whole. Economic development does not necessarily come to be defined by a few factories or high-rise housing complexes being built here or there on land that has been taken over by the Government, paying paper-money compensation to existing stakeholders, and then resold to promoters or industrialists backed by powerful political interest-groups on a promise that a few thousand new jobs will be created. One fundamental problem has to do with inadequate systems of land-description and definition, implementation and recording of property rights. An equally fundamental problem has to do with fair valuation of land owned by peasants etc. in terms of an inconvertible paper-money. Every serious economist knows that “land” is defined as that specific factor of production and real asset whose supply is fixed and does not increase in response to its price. Every serious economist also knows that paper-money is that nominal asset whose price can be made to catastrophically decline by a massive increase in its supply, i.e. by Government printing more of the paper it holds a monopoly to print. For Government to compensate people with paper-money it prints itself by valuing their land on the basis of an average of the price of the last few years, is for Government to cheat them of the fair present-value of the land. That present-value of land must be calculated in the way the present-value of any asset comes to be calculated, namely, by summing the likely discounted cash-flows of future values. And those future values should account for the likelihood of a massive future inflation causing decline in the value of paper-money in view of the fact we in India have a domestic public debt of some Rs. 30 trillion (Rs. 30 lakh crore) and counting, and money supply growth rates averaging 16-17% per annum. In fact, a responsible Government would, given the inconvertible nature of the rupee, have used foreign exchange or gold as the unit of account in calculating future-values of the land. India’s peasants are probably being cheated by their Government of real assets whose value is expected to rise, receiving nominal paper assets in compensation whose value is expected to fall.”

Mamata Banerjee started her famous protest fast-unto-death in Kolkata not long afterwards, riveting the nation’s attention in the winter of 2006-2007.

What goes for the government buying land on behalf of its businessman friends also goes, mutatis mutandis, for the public sector’s real assets being bought up by the private sector using domestic paper money in a potentially hyperinflationary economy.  If Dr Singh’s new Government wishes to see real public sector assets being sold, let the Government seek to value these assets not in inconvertible rupees which the Government itself has been producing in unlimited quantities but rather in forex or gold-units instead!

Today’s headline says “Short of cash, govt. plans to revive disinvestment ministry”. Big Business’s powerful lobbies will suggest  that real public assets must be sold  (to whom? to organised Big Business of course!) in order to solve the grave fiscal problems in an inflationary economy caused precisely by those grave  fiscal problems! What I said in 2002 at IndiaSeminar may still be found to apply: I said the BJP’s privatisation ideas “deserve to be condemned…because they have made themselves believe that the proceeds of selling the public sector should merely go into patching up the bleeding haemorrhage which is India’s fiscal and monetary situation… (w)hile…Congress were largely responsible for that haemorrhage to have occurred in the first place.”

If the new Government would like to know how to proceed more wisely, they need to read and grasp, in the book edited by myself and Professor John Clarke in 2004-2005, the chapter by Professor Patrick Minford on Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal and monetary policy (macroeconomics) before they read the chapter by Professor Martin Ricketts on Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation (microeconomics).  India’s fiscal and monetary or macroeconomic problems are far worse today than Britain’s were when Thatcher came in.

During the recent Election Campaign, I contrasted Dr Singh’s flattering praise in 2005 of the CPI-M’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee with Sonia Gandhi’s pro-Mamata line in 2009 saying the CPI-M had taken land away from the poor.  This may soon signal a new fault-line in the new Cabinet too on economic policy with respect to not only land but also public sector privatisation – with Dr Singh’s pro-Big Business acolytes on one side and Mamata Banerjee’s stance in favour of small-scale unorganised business and labour on the other.  Party heavyweights like Dr Singh himself and Sharad Pawar and Pranab Mukherjee will weigh in one side or the other with Sonia being asked in due course to referee.

I personally am delighted to see the New Rahul Gandhi deciding not to be in Government and to instead reflect further on the “common man” and “common woman” about whom I had described his father talking to me on September 18 1990 at his home. Certainly the “aam admi” is not someone to be found among India’s organised Big Business or organised Big Labour nor their paid lobbyists in the big cities.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Advertisements
Posted in Academic research, AD Shroff, Asia and the West, Big Business and Big Labour, BR Shenoy, Britain, Britain in India, British history, Economic Policy, Economic quackery, Economic Theory, Economics of exchange controls, Economics of Public Finance, Economics of real estate valuation, Financial Management, Financial markets, Foreign exchange controls, Government Budget Constraint, Government of India, India's Big Business, India's Banking, India's bureaucracy, India's Capital Markets, India's corporate finance, India's corporate governance, India's corruption, India's currency history, India's Economic History, India's Economy, India's Government Budget Constraint, India's Government Expenditure, India's Industry, India's inflation, India's Macroeconomics, India's Monetary & Fiscal Policy, India's nomenclatura, India's peasants, India's political lobbyists, India's Politics, India's pork-barrel politics, India's poverty, India's Public Finance, Inflation, Land and political economy, Macroeconomics, Mamata Banerjee, Manmohan Singh, Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher's Revolution, Martin Ricketts, Mendacity in politics, Microeconomics, Monetary Theory, Money and banking, Mumbai financial world, New Delhi, Patrick Minford, Political cynicism, Political Economy, Political mendacity, Political Science, Politics, Pork-barrel politics, Power-elites and nomenclatura, Practical wisdom, Principal-agent problem, Privatisation, Public Choice/Public Finance, Public property waste fraud, Rajiv Gandhi, Rational decisions, Singur and Nandigram, Sonia Gandhi, Statesmanship, The Statesman, The Times (London), University of Buckingham. Leave a Comment »

My review of Sucheta Dalal’s biography of AD Shroff

Preface May 26 2009: Despite the harshness of this review, I should like to add  that Ms Sucheta Dalal of Mumbai is my favourite financial journalist in India.

Review of A. D. Shroff: Titan of Finance and Free Enterprise by Sucheta Dalal, with a foreword by N. A. Palkhivala, Viking 2000.

Subroto Roy

First published in Freedom First, 2001

A. D. Shroff died on October 27  1965.   But if you want to know when he was born you will not find it in this biography – it could be   deduced to be 1898, 1899, 1900 or 1901 depending on where you look in this book.      We are told Shroff got a second at Bombay University and proceeded to the LSE in the early 1920s.    That was an exciting time to be in Europe and at the LSE in particular, yet this biography tells us nothing of what Shroff may have felt or experienced there,  except that he got a job with an American and not an English bank, and attended evening classes at the LSE.   Shroff is said to return in 1924 and almost immediately becomes a partner in Batlivala & Karani, stockbrokers, where he remains until 1939 when he joins the Tatas.    Now Shroff was a Parsi, and his early education, career and professional relationships in the Bombay financial world were doubtless governed by this central fact.   Yet even this vital aspect of his life has not seemed worthy of serious development by Sucheta Dalal.

Then Ms. Dalal tells us numerous times that Shroff was “astonishingly successful” and a “financial wizard”, yet she does not offer a single concrete example which may have illustrated this definitively for us to reflect upon or learn from.    Shroff was a stock-broker who actively traded, we are told, on the international exchanges, yet we do not come to know whether he made money or lost money during the boom of the 1920s, the Great Crash of 1929 or the Great Depression of the 1930s.    Ms. Dalal tells us (p. 16) the young Shroff’s tax return for 1935 showed an income of Rs. 167,000. As a “well-known financial journalist” herself, she could have calculated this to amount to something like Rs. 20,752,707 at today’s prices.    But Ms. Dalal makes no attempt to explain how Shroff made this enormous income, nor does she delve into the further obvious question how a man like Shroff was then eventually to die with taxes unpaid, leaving his family in some financial distress or difficulty.     We may have reasonably expected some explanation of all this, but no, it is all going to be left a mystery.  That Shroff was “particularly charming to women”, was fond of throwing “lavish” parties, or that he suffered a “nervous breakdown” in 1938, only serves to deepen the mystery.     Practically the only concrete example of Shroff’s financial wizardry given by Sucheta Dalal in this biography is that he seems to have been close to the regime of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and borrowed from that source to get the Tatas out of a financial jam.

Ms. Dalal makes much of Shroff being considered for the job of Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India in 1936, in succession to Sikander Hyat (later Premier of Punjab), a job which went to Manilal Nanavati, a senior administrator of Baroda.    Dalal says that Shroff was the preferred candidate of the RBI’s first Governor, an Australian banker by the name of Osborne Smith, and that his appointment was sabotaged by the machinations of the senior Deputy Governor,  James Taylor, and his fellow civil servant and Finance Member, James Grigg.    Now the RBI’s official history spends long pages discussing some of the roots of a conflict between Smith, Taylor and Grigg (History of the Reserve Bank of India, 1939-1951, RBI Bombay 1970, p. 222 et. seq. ).   Ms.  Dalal has done well to throw some new light on that early conflict, but she makes no comment on why the official history makes no mention at all of Shroff, then a youthful stock-broker, being a candidate for the job, only that  “about 25 people were in the run for the post” (History, p. 227).   The same official history mentions Shroff  and others being  members of the “Currency League” which agitated against parts of the original RBI Bill, but Ms. Dalal seems not to have looked up Shroff ‘s name in the index of that book and so says nothing about it.

Leave aside facts and economic history and turn to the sort of gossip, anecdote and rumour which fills many of these pages.    Ms. Dalal tells us Shroff had monumental confrontations with two senior contemporaries of his in the Bombay financial world: J. R. D. Tata and Ardeshir Dalal.    Fascinating,  the reader says, tell us more about this at least.   But again there is only disappointment, and we learn almost nothing of the depth or dynamics of these conflicts either.   Time after time, a reader is forced to decide whether the biographer has been merely lazy in dealing with her chosen subject or whether facts are being glossed over thirty five years after his death.

This is a great pity.   A. D. Shroff’s lasting legacy for India has been the Forum of Free Enterprise, run so ably by his friend and disciple M. R. Pai for so long.    Post-Independence Indian liberals, like many liberals elsewhere, are of two kinds – those who were arguing for liberalism before it became fashionable to do so, and those who are filled with newly discovered liberal ideas now that it has become fashionable to be so.    The way to fix which category one belongs to is by recalling one’s opinions before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.   Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, our nation of hundreds of millions of people, produced a sum total of perhaps a  dozen or so genuine liberals in political economy: Rajagopalachari,  Masani,  Shenoy among them.

Shroff’s Forum of Free Enterprise  was one rare beacon of hope that Indian liberals had in those dark days before 1989.   (To her credit, Ms. Dalal records Shroff’s assessment of Nehru:  “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru has indulged in a very serious self-contradiction when he wants a rapid industrialization of the country and at the same time preaches the abolition of private property”).    The Forum’s little, plain, inexpensive pamphlets, with their massive reach among unknown multitudes of Indian students,  often seemed more important than most Indian newspaper editorials at the time, because they defiantly permitted the opinions of a Milton Friedman or a Peter Bauer to be expressed to contradict the Sovietesque intelligentsia in Delhi and elsewhere.    From each of those pamphlets peered out a photograph of and a quotation from A. D. Shroff.     Many Forum readers must have wondered who this man was who had given them the chance to read these little pamphlets in the darkness.    The opportunity after all these years of even a sponsored biography was an outstanding one.    It should have been seized properly and professionally, for the production of a full and comprehensive picture of the man —  his talents as well as his faults.    This reviewer has little doubt that Shroff was a strong, hard, rambunctious kind of man, who hated all things puny and  narrow-minded, who may have had in him rare qualities of economic leadership which India did not come to properly utilize.   (Suppose Nehru had made him Finance Minister — could he have been India’s Ludwig Erhardt?)   A chance to properly write the biography of that man has been squandered.

Kharagpur, January  16 2001.